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Secret Sands

by Dave Yanko

It's not difficult to find the Nipekamew Sand Cliffs, located 45 minutes southeast of the Town of La Ronge. But you must know precisely where to look if you want to see this intriguing but fragile bit of Saskatchewan's natural heritage.

Nothing from the gravel road hints at the exciting view awaiting hikers just a kilometre into the woods. And the unmarked path veering off from the gravel road looks like any one of a dozen abandoned logging trails in the area.

The low profile is no oversight. In fact, it's a good bet most people find out about them just as we did, by word of mouth. Then they go and get directions from a photocopied brochure that's no longer being produced.

"Until we can protect the cliffs, I'm not willing to advertise or promote them," says Holly Hobbs, a parks manager in Prince Albert whose jurisdiction extends to the protected area of the sand cliffs. "There's too much damage happening."

Looking south. The river can be seen coming from the west (right).
Looking south. The river can be seen coming from the west (right).
People scaling and rappelling the cliffs, or carving their initials into them, have taken a toll on this beautiful area. And even those who treat the cliffs with respect are a concern for Hobbs.

"I don't know how stable some of (the cliffs) are," she says. "And people go out quite a ways."

Warnings considered, anyone with common sense and respect for the environment should consider taking the easy hike to the Nipekamew Sand Cliffs when visiting the La Ronge area. There are not too many places like this in Saskatchewan.

My teenage daughter Kira and I did the 1.3-kms hike on a pleasant but breezy day in late August. We knew we were approaching the cliffs when the trees got thinner and the wind grew stronger.
'Awwwesommme' was Kira's reaction when the trail opened dramatically onto the top of the cliff.

We breathed in the panoramic view of the forest and river below and then acquainted ourselves with the immediate area. Once we felt comfortable, we approached the precipice and peered down between two extraordinary sand pillars to the Nipekamew River some 23 metres (75 feet) below.

It's an exhilarating view. And I'm pleased to report we didn't see any damage until we climbed down a treed embankment and approached the cliff at its base. From this perspective we could see initials carved into a cliff face whose texture is best described as 'sandstone'.

It's made of layers of compacted sand, pebble and clay deposited here 120 million years ago during the lower Cretaceous period.
The cliff we explored is the most impressive of three located within several hundred metres of each other. These cliffs and the curiously sculpted pillars projecting from them are the work of a river that once flowed higher and mightier than the Nipekamew does today.

The sand of this hard but brittle cliff face bears little resemblance to the powdery-white silica sand we encountered on our hike to the cliffs; high quality silica is used to make glass and sand traps for golf courses.

I later learned the silica may be present in quantity and quality sufficient for commercial exploitation. Three quarry leases have been issued by the province for properties located just east of the cliffs.

There's also gem-quality diamonds, of all things, in the vicinity. No one's yet discovered a commercially-viable quantity of the precious stones and we certainly didn't wade through any during our hike. In any event, a quarrying or mining operation would pose no threat to the cliffs because they're situated on protected land.

Damage from visitors, on the other hand, is occurring now. Maybe the best thing that could happen to the Nipekamew Sand Cliffs would be for someone to discover diamonds right beside them.

If you wish to visit the cliffs, drop in to Mistasinihk Place in downtown La Ronge at any time of year. If you're in the area between mid May and the September long weekend, stop at the visitor information trailer in Air Ronge.

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