by Dave Yanko
We just about ended up with steak on our bumper.
We were so taken with the mammoth sand dune that suddenly materialized
200 metres off to our right that we failed to notice the half-dozen
cows blocking the road ahead. I jumped for the brake pedal and brought
the car to a tense halt. The cows, meanwhile, glanced casually in
our direction and continued chewing their cud with relentless indifference.
Then a path evolved on our right and it happened to slice directly
toward the object of our distraction: A great big sand dune in the
middle of southwest Saskatchewan. It was 10 to 12 metres high (35-40
feet) and 150 metres long (160 yards).
dunes seems to burst out of the ground.
The two tracks comprising our new trail didn't see eye to eye on
matters of altitude, yet Andrew was making the most uncharacteristic
and loud pleas for us to hurry. My wife caught my eyes in the rear-view
mirror, and when I chanced a peek over my shoulder her beaming face
confirmed my notion Andrew had never been so excited in his (at that time) 10 years
on the planet. Not that we'd seen, anyway.
We lurched and rolled through the desert-like scrub brush until
we found ourselves at the base of the dune. As our squealing son
flung open the back door of the car, we reminded him what the woman
at the Sceptre museum told us 30 minutes earlier: "Take your shoes
off and have fun." He shed his sneakers and socks in a blink, and
if he stepped on any of the thorns at the foot of the sand dune
he didn't complain. He simply disappeared over the top, his 12-year-old
sister not far behind.
was in his element.
After removing the irritant from the sole of my foot, my wife and
I started slip-sliding up the sloping face of the dune. We marvelled
at how soft and fine the sand was, and how pleasantly cool it felt
between our recently-liberated toes. When we arrived at the top
we were greeted by blowing sand and beckoning kids who were anxious
to share their excitement. We ambled over firmer sand to the highest
point on the dune, and we surveyed the surrounding landscape.
I'd read a bit about The Great Sand Hills. I'd seen a few photographs,
all of them close-ups. Neither had prepared me what lay before us,
or underfoot, for that matter. The sand dunes were much larger than
I imagined them to be, yet far more widely dispersed than I expected.
From our perch on a dune in the northwest corner of the 1,900-square-kilometre
region (740 square miles), we could see only two other dunes, each
perhaps a kilometre distant. It was as though some colossal toddler
with a titanic Tonka dumped a few loads of sand here and went home.
The intervening landscape is rolling to hilly, covered with low,
patchy vegetation interrupted by a lonesome cottonwood or willow.
It was more like Morocco than Saskatchewan.
What we were viewing is a piece of a fragile ecosystem that's unique
within the larger environment of the Great Plains. The hills are
actually sand dunes, stabilized by vegetation but quite susceptible
to erosion, especially from trails. I later learned the active dunes,
like the one we were standing on, account for less than 1 per cent
of the land in the region. The stabilized areas support a wide range
of vegetation including native prairie grasses, cacti and creeping
juniper, as well as an assortment of small shrubs like rose, saskatoon,
chokecherry and silver sagebrush.
The hills have a more varied character than what's apparent. Elsewhere
in the region are far leafier areas, a couple of small lakes, and
saline flats. And as is so often the case with beautiful, wild and
fragile areas, The Great Sand Hills harbors a valuable resource: natural
gas. A recent decision to allow increased exploration has generated
outrage from those whose priority is to preserve the integrity of
this delicate place.
(Note: Since time of writing, the provincial government of Saskatchewan announced a major review of land use in the Sand Hills. A report is due in summer 2003.)
The hills are a treasure-trove of wildlife. Sharp-tailed grouse
are more abundant here than anywhere else in Canada, and the mule
deer population is the densest in the province. Antelope, white
pelican, merlin, peregrine falcon, coyote, white-tailed deer, golden
eagle, badger, weasel, burrowing owl, mourning dove, porcupine,
sand hill crane and fox are just a few of the walking and winged
creatures who make the hills their home. The desert-adapted Ord's
Kangaroo Rat is found nowhere else in the province.
Biologists call the region an "important genetic reservoir" for
many Saskatchewan species. On a less lofty note, it's also a huge
community pasture owned largely by the Crown (government) and used
by local ranchers. As we left our lookout point to explore the rest
of the dune, a single cow painted a perfectly surreal scene for
us as she stood in the sand, against the blue sky, on the northern
edge of the dune.
With no spoken consensus, we wandered apart to pursue whatever
piqued our interest, kinetic or passive. I was intrigued by the
complex patterns, waves and miniature hoodoos on the top of the
dune -- the wind's work-in-progress. Over the course of a year, these
active "morphing" dunes can creep as much as four metres (13 feet),
and they even leave "dune tracks" that can be measured. The overall
shape of active dunes appears arbitrary to the untrained eye, but
each falls into a category based on its features. One geologist
found examples of 19 "dune types" in The Great Sand Hills, including
"compound blowout dunes", "composite windrift dunes" and "twin parabolic
wind's work-in- progress.
Judging by all the rills, dales and blustery activity on the top
of the dune, the active ones are dynamic in ways more complex than
sand simply blowing from the windward to the leeward side. Time-lapse
photography, perhaps over the course of years rather than hours,
would illustrate a surprising degree of animation in these dunes,
which occasionally recede as well as advance.
I was clicking some time-frozen photographs when my daughter Kira
hollered at me to come over to the area she was exploring at the
back of the dune. In a trough on the leeward side of a large wave
of sand she'd discovered a number of small bones and a few indiscernible
objects. One of these objects grabbed her attention and stomach
with equal vigor.
"Pick it up, dad," she said.
"Why don't you?" I asked.
"It's too icky," she replied.
It's true. It did look "icky". But being my daughter's dad, and
thereby installed by acclamation as the resident brave guy, I was
obliged to pick the thing up for closer inspection (I avoided contact
by scooping it up in a handful of sand). It was an old and dirty
ring of indeterminate metal, about the diameter of a quarter and
resembling a hoop earring. The ickiness came from what was attached
to it; a much-decomposed segment of brackish, densely woven and
rough fabric about half the size of a postage stamp.
We mused about its origins: Perhaps it's old an Indian earring
that once sported a colorful, intricately-designed flash of hand-woven
fabric; or maybe it was once part of an elaborate Indian headdress
belonging to a chief of great renown. Or, maybe it was a key chain
from a '69 Buick.
Icky discoveries aside, The Great Sand Hills have long been a favorite
spot for artifact collectors. Once rich in buffalo as well as mule
deer and antelope, the area attracted Indian hunters 11,000 years
ago. Archaeological "habitation sites" are much more common in the
hills than on the surrounding plains because the hills provided
all the necessities for life, and one important convenience, as
well. Game could be trapped in "killing grounds" instead of stalked
and chased on the open plains. It was a shorter commute to work.
We spent about two hours on the dune. And if Andrew stopped tearing
around, or launching himself from the top of hills into the sand
below, I didn't notice it. An acquaintance who grew up in the area
asked whether we took our "magic carpets" with us -- the smooth,
vinyl mats used for snow sledding apparently work very well on the
dunes. It's just as well we didn't. We'd have never dragged Andrew
from the sand, and we had to move on to Cypress Hills to grab a
camping spot before nightfall.
more mouthful and the creeping dune will have consumed this
As we turned off the two-track path onto the cow road, Andrew announced
The Great Sand Hills "is the best place I've ever been to in my
"Better than northern Saskatchewan, or Pacific Rim National Park
in British Columbia?" I asked, tossing out a couple of his previous
"Ya," he replied with exasperation, as though I'd just arrived on
We vowed to return with more time. And magic carpets.
Check in at the excellent rural museum at Sceptre for directions
to The Great Sand Hills. There are no campgrounds in hills, but
there are bed-and-breakfasts and guest ranches in the area, and
there's a campsite at nearby Leader, SK.
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