by Dave Yanko
Narrow Hills Provincial Park is contradiction and surprise:
- Over the last several decades approximately 70 per cent of the park
has been hit by forest fires. Yet it still boasts some of the
most beautiful and curious landscapes in all of Saskatchewan.
- Government brochures promote this natural environment park as
a "near-wilderness" experience, and there appears to be more minimal-service
and pack-out-what-you-pack-in camping areas here than in any other
provincial park I've visited. On the other hand, the main campground
at Lower Fishing Lake sports some of the most modern facilities
of any campground in the province, including sensor-activated
showers for the able-bodied and the disabled.
- Narrow Hills is situated in the northeast-central portion of
the province, well known among anglers for some of the best pike
and walleye fishing in North America. In this park, however, trout
is king. There are seven species of trout available in the well-stocked
lakes, as well as pike and walleye. You can even try for a kokanee
salmon, of all critters, if you're feeling lucky.
- The core area of the park was alive with brown bush rabbits
during my visit. It's simply high cycle for hares, I'm told. In
a couple of years it will be fox.
- You could almost throw a stone across pretty little Jade Lake,
one of five small bodies of water comprising the geologically
significant Gem Lakes area of the park. But that stone would sink
25 metres (80 feet) before hitting bottom.
- While there's an expansive network of hiking/cross-country-skiing
trails in the park, I seemed to be the only one using them during
the three days in early July when I visited Narrow Hills. I suspect
other campers had better ways of losing weight than being hauled
away in hunks by hungry hordes of horseflies.
Yes, there were good surprises and bad at Narrow Hills. But hey,
it's camping. And besides, the good outweighed the flies.
the step path down to scenic Grace Lake.
Just off the main road near the park office at Lower Fishing Lake,
for instance, Esker Road twists south towards one of the crests
that define the park. Twenty minutes up the gravel road there's
a fork offering two options: left, to the fire tower and little
museum (a ranger cabin circa 1938); or right, to the Narrow Hills
trail. I decided the tower and museum could wait, and I brought
the old sedan to bear on the rugged trail to my right.
Now, Esker Road is a misnomer. The trail I was travelling follows
the narrow, rippled back of a large push moraine, an unstratified
accumulation of till created when glaciers bulldozed their way through
the region thousands of years ago. Much of the two-lane path is
a rough aggregate of sand, stones and rocks, tough on a little car
and quite susceptible to blockage by washouts and deadfall.
The ups and downs of the otherwise straight pathway deliver a net
gain in altitude that becomes apparent only after the route nears
the western edge of the moraine, where breaks in the jack pine and
aspen forest reveal a surprisingly broad view encompassing picturesque
little lakes amid old-growth forest. In the distance, a carpet of
bright green saplings is evidence of one of the fires that ravaged,
and renewed, this portion of the provincial forest.
museum reflects the life of a forest ranger in the 1930s. Climb
the fire tower at your own risk.
Further up the Narrow Hills trail are several clearings created
as scenic picnic areas (no camping), with tables, fire pits and
outhouses. More than a half-dozen hiking/cross-country skiing trails
begin along this portion of trail, which apparently leads all the
way to the town of Love, some 40 to 50 km (30 miles) to the south.
The hiking trails range in length from a very short jaunt down to
placid, water-lily-framed Grace Lake, located about 100 metres (300
feet) below the main trail, to the 9.5-kilometre Island Lake Trail
(which connects to several other trails), where the next day I served
as food for flies.
The main trail on top of the moraine offers some of most beautiful
forest vistas in the province. But I suggest using a sturdy, high-clearance
vehicle. And if the skies turn grey, run away. You don't want to
be caught in a downpour on this trail.
Glacial dynamics also account for the unusual and beautiful geography
seen in the Gem Lakes area of the park. Jade, Opal, Sapphire,
Diamond and Pearl lakes were formed when a passing glacier deposited
large chunks of ice into the ground. The result is what geologists
refer to as a "knob and kettle" formation of tight, round hills
punctuated by small lakes that, like Jade, can be surprisingly deep.
For anglers, hikers and backwoods campers, Gem Lakes appears to
be a very attractive spot (I walked only a small portion of the
trail by Jade Lake). In fact, if you're a backwoodsy type who enjoys
trout fishing, this place was made for you. The lakes are stocked
with splake, brook, brown, rainbow and tiger trout (see Fishing Guide). And Jade, because
of its depth, supports lake trout.
Fires are permitted only at the primitive campsites along the seven-kilometre
(four-mile) hiking trail that weaves around the lakes, and campers
are expected to haul out everything they haul in. Autumn, I'm told,
is the best season to visit Gem Lakes. By then, the trees are splashed
with color, the wolf howls carry further on cool air, and overnight
frosts have dispatched most of the winged insects.
Speaking of insects. . . . The horseflies (big guys that deliver
a sharp bite) were particularly bad in the backwoods. In the jack
pine campground on Lower Fishing Lake, they were much less bothersome.
And in spite of the amount of exposed flesh available at the campground
beach, I saw only the odd one there. The elevated, breezy, minimal-service
campsite at McDougal Creek, where I camped the first night, was
free of the flies.
kids' beach - the water's shallow for 100 metres.
The rule of thumb for avoiding horseflies, whose numbers and "pestiness"
vary from year to year and even week to week, is "stay in the breeze".
Repellent, which works fine for mosquitoes, is just gravy to horseflies.
Of course, winter sports aficionados need not worry about such
irritants. Much of the same trail system used in the summertime
by hikers and all-terrain vehicles serves cross-country
skiers in the winter. The hilly, wooded terrain throughout much
of the park seems made to order for cross-country skiers who enjoy
a challenging outing.
At 53,610 hectares in area (250 square miles), Narrow Hills Provincial
Park is among the larger parks in the province. Established in the
1930s and known as Nipawin Provincial Park for many years,
Narrow Hills is a natural environment park. Development in such
parks is limited to fixed-roof accommodation and some man-made attractions.
But the focus is to preserve the land in its natural setting while
accommodating recreational use. Wilderness parks, like the adjacent
Clarence-Steepbank Lakes, remain virtually undeveloped.
However, Saskatchewan's natural environment parks vary considerably
in the amount of development and commercial enterprise they exhibit.
Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, in the southwest corner of the
province, has a far more developed "core area" than the one at Lower
Fishing Lake campground at Narrow Hills. There's no mini-golf, paved
bicycle paths or riding stables at Narrow Hills, although park officials
report efforts are underway to create the latter. The general feel
of Narrow Hills is rugged wilderness (unless you're standing under
a sensor-activated shower at Lower Fishing Lake). There are few
paved roads. And the dry climate is reflected both in the large
tracts of stunted jack pine eking an existence out of sandy soil,
and the occasional charred branch visible at the foot of a young
beauty waiting to be explored.
Narrow Hills park provides for – it doesn't just offer – two very
different summer experiences. Lower Fishing Lake is a handsome,
no-frills, family campground with a nice beach and grocery store
situated no more than a block way from the approximately 80 campsites. There's boat and canoe rental at the campground, as well
as good water and wood supplies. One hundred or so privately-owned
cabins in a nearby subdivision contribute to the activity level
on the lake and shoreline, as well as to the playmate pool for camping
And for those seeking a higher level of creature comfort, a lodge located
on Upper Fishing Lake, just five-kilometres north of the lower one,
offers cabins and motel rooms for rent. The lodge, open year-around, includes a grocery store, automobile
garage with a licensed mechanic, as well as a restaurant featuring
home-cooked meals and fast food.
Outside the main campground, however, the park accommodates the adult adventurer,
eco-tourist and sports person. Right now, it's primarily anglers
taking advantage of this area.
"There's no better area in the province for trout," a Narrow Hills conservations officer told me. "I don't care what anybody
says. Shannon Lake is one of the best brown trout areas of the province,
and they pull 30-pound lakers (lake trout) out of Little Bear (Lake)."
Regarding the kokanee salmon, however, the officer said they're scarce.
"If you catch a kokanee, buy a lottery ticket."
Given its extensive trail system, unusual terrain, many lakes and
streams, and the primitive campsites established throughout the
park, Narrow Hills seems poised to benefit from an increasing interest
in backpacking and eco-tourism. Meantime, it's anglers' heaven.
Click here for more information about Narrow Hills Provincial Park or to use the online campsite reservation system. And check out our story on Gem Lakes, located at the west edge of the park, as well as our article on nearby Clarence-Steepbank Lakes Provincial Wilderness Park.
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