Sleepless Nights in Cypress Hills — The Saskatchewan Border
“The hot spot in the province this evening is Maple Creek, sitting at—degrees…”These scratchy words have beamed over the AM radio nearly every morning leading up to Easter weekend. While most of the province is hit with the predictable, and somehow always “unexpected” springtime snowfall, it’s hard not to dream of casting a fishing line under the sunny skies of south-western Saskatchewan.
About Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park
The park lies in the south-west corner of Saskatchewan, extending past the Alberta boundary. It is separated into two areas roughly 30 kilometres apart, the West Block wilderness area, and Centre Block – the main resort destination for campers. Cypress is a significant departure from the northern forest and parkland we usually visit. The hills are the highest point between the Rockies and the Laurentian mountains. The surrounding area is arid and dry, but the elevation of the Cypress Upland and increased moisture allows the proper conditions for forests to thrive. It is an anomaly in Saskatchewan and the only place where lodgepole pine grow – a tree that is more familiar in the montane regions of Alberta and Montana. To find out more about the area’s ecology, visit The Saskatchewan Conservation Data Centre.
Part One: Bye-bye Battle Creek RoadMarch 25, 2016 –
“Can you pass me the wrench?” Sean asks, kneeling down to an empty wheel well. A brake pad had fallen out and now there’s fluid spewing all over the ground too. It’s been a rough morning, but at least we haven’t left Regina yet.”Will it be okay if we take your car?” he asks me with a defeated squint in his eyes. I don’t think my four-door sedan can handle much more abuse. But it’s not our style to give up on a trip.I reluctantly volunteer my car for the mission, and solidarity I suppose. Our friends, Matt, Nate and Gill, along with the two pups, Jean-Paul and Oaty, have just arrived – all crammed into one car and ready for another four-hour drive. After hobbling his vehicle into its final resting place, we load up my car and make one last stop at the drive through before leaving town. I’m amused by Sean’s order: a double Big Mac, two double cheeseburgers, fries and a coke. Watching him crush the greasy meal in under seven minutes is only more impressive.We finally merge into Good Friday highway traffic. With nothing but the endless plains on the horizon, we venture further away from our familiar forest. Only after passing through Moose Jaw does the landscape give way to the barren, rolling hills that characterize much of Saskatchewan’s south-west.
The lifeless landscape reminds me that we haven’t left winter far behind. With over two hours of seeing nothing but fences, trucks and the odd pumpjack, I have plenty of time to question how well we have thought through our camping plans.”Your friend said we shouldn’t have any problem getting into the West Block, right?” I ask Sean. “Oh yeah, he says it’s been warm and dry for weeks. We’ll be fine,” he replies. “Besides, it’s just car-camping.” The city of Swift Current comes into view. “It’s going to be great. The site is right by a trout stream, there’ll be lots of trees and some of the darkest skies we’ll ever see,” I say. We drive down the final stretch of highway for one more eternity before turning in to Maple Creek and onto a backroad that should lead us into the north side of the West Block wilderness area. While the Centre Block is arguably the more popular side of Cypress, we find the West Block more intriguing. It is home to the beautiful Conglomerate Cliffs and Battle Creek— a stream that offers anglers the chance for a hat-trick: brook trout, brown trout and rainbow trout. A few sources have informed me that access will be easy, as long as it hasn’t rained in a while. We ride through the pastures on narrow rocky roads. I wince at the clunk of each tiny boulder, chipping off one more piece of my car’s undercarriage. Just hold on for one last trip. “Why on Earth do you not have CAA,” Sean says.
Finally seeing trees after miles of empty pasture land.There is a light frost on the trees, but after hours of driving through open space, the forest is a warm and welcome invitation. Sean is leaning outside of the passenger window, snapping photos of the scenery every eight seconds. We’ve finally made it! The road leads us around a steep curve and into the forest. Then, the excitement is wiped from our faces.”…What the f…” I mutter. “I think we might have made a mistake.” Our cars pull up to a dead-end as the gravel road tapers into grass… and through private property. It’s already 7 p.m. and we don’t have time to be lost.A quick look at the topographic map reveals that we’ve been following a cart trail. We have to go all the way back to Maple Creek and try getting into the West Block from the main entrance near Fort Walsh National Historic Site.Another half-hour later, we find ourselves back on the highway heading south. We waste no time getting back to the hills – racing against the falling sun. A quick right turn and zigzag up the steep asphalt slopes brings us all the way to the elevated plateau.
At the peak we find our last rays of daylight fading away, along with our last chance of getting to our destination.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Sean says. “Just drive around it.” We park the car and step outside to consult with the rest of the group. What are our options?
“No. There’s no way in hell my car is making it around that,” Nate says, quite bluntly. But Sean and I remain focused on the gate with contempt.
“What do you think is going to happen if someone finds us down there? We’ll end up in the drunk tank with a five-hundred dollar tow charge,” Nate says. He’s entirely right, but I don’t want to give up. In the background, Matt sings in a low voice: “You gotta know when to hold ’em…know when to fold ’em…”
It’s dark by the time we finish arguing. We decide to take a drive and find some public pasture land near the park boundary. We quickly set up our tent in a discreet location and warm our hands around a small fire – using our own firewood and doing our absolute best not to leave a significant footprint.
The skies of Cypress provide our midnight entertainment. The landscape appears dipped in black until a bright light shines over the horizon. Like a distant mushroom cloud, the full moon makes its grand reveal – rising faster than I’ve ever seen before.
To read more of their adventures – head to Part II Reclaiming the Trip