Where in Canada: Camping in the Prairie Grasslands

Naturalist Trevor Herriot and nature photographer Branimir Gjetvag join forces in Islands of Grass (Coteau Books) to paint a picture of the majestic Prairie Grasslands that while once rivalled the African savannah for wildlife are now vanishing to our footprint. Publisher John Agnew of Coteau Books recounts his memorable camping trip to the Grasslands National Park where “after dark, the sky above is an immaculate black riddled with infinite stars.”


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When I moved to Saskatchewan seven years ago, I had camping in Grasslands National Park on my Prairie bucket list. Last summer, Coteau Books published a book titled Islands of Grass, written by Trevor Herriot and illustrated with photographs taken by Branimir Gjetvaj. The book is an elegant and articulate call-to-action to preserve what remains of the quickly diminishing Prairie eco-zone known as Prairie Grasslands.At the same time, Coteau Books helped Parks Canada produce a book that acknowledged the role of local ranchers in the creation of the Park. It seemed the universe was letting me know that it was time to book a camping trip. Grasslands National Park is roughly 900 square kilometres of Prairie land in the southwest corner of Saskatchewan that has never been tilled. It is the last refuge of vanishing species such as the burrowing owl and the black-footed ferret that are threatened by the encroachment of agriculture and the search for oil and gas. Pulling into the entrance of the park, it seems the grasslands is an empty bowl edged by distant hills. However, the deeper we went into the park, the more we realized we were in a dramatic topography of rivers, canyons, rocky outcrops, and badlands. It is a modest, almost prudish landscape that only reveals its extraordinary and dramatic beauty to those who embrace its apparent monotony.There are few amenities in the park itself. Campers have to bring in their food and water. Every effort is made inside the park to keep the impact of people to a minimum. For campers the reward is unmediated exposure to the natural world of the Prairies. We stayed in one of the four tipis Park Canada erected for visitors.Nestled into the side of a hill, the entrance to the tipi looked east over Frenchman’s Valley. The first morning as the sun was rising a golden eagle was preening in a dead tree at the edge of the river that winds through the valley. Spreading her wings to warm herself, she then lifted herself to the air and began a long, slow spiral upwards. The sun was started to heat up the valley and the grasses were busy with the rustling of small animals foraging in the early morning warmth. The only other sounds were birds.After dark, the sky above is an immaculate black riddled with infinite stars. It is increasingly difficult to find places where it is possible to escape — even for just a few days — the incursions of modern life. At night in the Grasslands, the only glimpse of modernity is the pinprick pulses of light from satellites. The only sound is the rustling of nocturnal animals in the grass. A cellphone becomes a crass incursion to the flow of the natural world as it would have been experienced a thousand years ago.    An ecologist might tell you that the Grasslands is a eco-region of undisturbed dry mixed-grass/shortgrass prairie grassland. I will tell you it is Edenic.* * * Thanks so much to John at Coteau Books for sharing about his eco-visit to the Prairie Grasslands. For more Where in Canada, click here.