In last week’s column, I shared the story of Will James. As a young man, he came to Saskatchewan in the early 1900s to become a cowboy. After spending time in the Cypress Hills, he moved to Val Marie and would go on to write and illustrate a number of books about the Old West. If you’re interested in cowboy culture and the history of ranching in Saskatchewan, I have little doubt you’d find a trip to Val Marie rewarding and memorable. As an added attraction, there’s abundant wildlife to see, too.
Val Marie and the nearby Frenchman River Valley have been home to a variety of people over thousands of years. The valley funneled bison through the area thereby attracting First Nations. In the later part of the 1800s, many Metis families called this part of the expansive northern plains home. In fact, the Frenchman River gets its’ name from the Metis who lived along the shallow waters.
In 1885, the last buffalo hunt in Canada took place near Val Marie. Once the buffalo were hunted out, the area attracted ranchers who homesteaded in the region. They raised cattle and protected the native grass from the plough.
If you go to Val Marie and want to learn about the area’s past, be sure to visit Prairie Winds and Silver Sage museum. It showcases Prairie cultural exhibits ranging from Aboriginal artifacts to a display about local ranchers who helped conserve cowboy culture and the native grasslands. The museum is situated in a restored one-room school house. The red brick provincial heritage building sits on Centre Street. Inside you’ll find a boutique with locally-made gifts, an art gallery with seasonal exhibits, the Prairie Ground Coffee Bar, a tourist information centre and an extensive selection of field guides and maps.
The museum is also a good place to get information about Grasslands National Park located a few kilometres outside of Val Marie. Grasslands preserves a remnant of the once-vast prairie ecosystem. Straddling the Montana border, the park offers living skies, cowboys, open spaces and a unique experience completely different from major Canadian tourist destinations such as Banff or Niagara Falls.
The park is made up of two sections, the West Block and the East Block. The West Block preserves an area that is home to the last colonies of prairie dogs in Canada. In recent years, a herd of 72 genetically-pure bison from Elk Island National Park near Edmonton was reintroduced to the region after more than a century of absence. Some of the buffalo are fitted with radio collars to make them easier for tourist to find. It’s possible to determine their location by speaking to the staff at the park office in Val Marie.
The East Block is comprised of badlands. The arid terrain houses reptiles such as the horned lizard and rattlesnake. Both blocks provide habitat to many endangered species and over 40 species of grass. Flowers of note include the gumbo evening primrose and prairie crocus. Prickly pear and pincushion cacti grow in the park as well.
Don’t let the park’s name fool you, the coulees and river bottoms are lined with trees like cottonwoods, Manitoba maples and aspens.
You might want to take the Ecotour, which a self-guided driving tour that winds through the coulees and goes past a prairie dog colony. Along the way, there’s a good chance you’ll observe mule deer and antelope. In the winter, small bands of antelope group together into large herds numbering in the hundreds.
If you’re into birdwatching, you’ll hear the meadowlark serenade the prairie or the Sprague’s pipit imitate the sound of a UFO landing. View endangered peregrine falcons diving for prey and burrowing owls living in abandoned badger holes. Marvel at the massive sage grouse strutting on a lek.
Located 124 km south of Swift Current on Highway #4, Val Marie and Grasslands aren’t far from Maple Creek and they make excellent day-trip destinations. Whether you’re into cowboy culture, history or wildlife, you’re sure to find a treasure trove of natural and cultural heritage.