There was a damp, animalistic odour in the tipi outside the Saskatchewan Visitor Centre at Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park.
It mixed with the fragrant smoke of smudging.
Stretched across a big wooden frame resembling an off-white, jagged-edged canvas was the hide of a 1,200lb bull buffalo.
It had been shot by members of Peepeekisis Cree Nation, near Balcarres, Saskatchewan.
Reddish markings showed where the bullet or bullets must have entered, near the heart.
Using knives, Metis hide tanner Brett Paik, from Turtle Mountain, and Danielle Mosquito, from Maple Creek’s Nekaneet First Nation, scraped one side of the hide, removing gristle and cartilage; on the other side, untouched, was plush, soft brown fur.
It was a huge job, which would be followed by brain tanning – the ancient art of preserving animal hides with the emulsifying agents in brain matter.
“We are creating a robe for ceremonies,” said Danielle.
Once complete, the robe could be worth about $5,000. It would certainly be thick enough to keep anyone warm through the coldest of winters.
This demonstration of traditional bison robe tanning was a highlight of Saturday’s “Cypress at Sundown”.
It was a gloriously sunny day for the last event in what has been a busy summer at the park. The temperature clock near the park entrance showed nearly 22 degrees.
Campers and day visitors came out in droves to enjoy a packed program of events at four locations.
Afternoon activities were focused on the Visitor Centre lawn, with the glistening surface of Loch Leven in the background. The “Planet Hunt” tent drew plenty of geocaching enthusiasts keen to search for planets on GPS coordinates.
There was also a lot of interest in glow-in-the-dark shirt designing. People sprawled across the lawn, or sat on benches, putting designs on provided T-shirts, using bioluminescent paint.
Among them was Alana Hansen, who decorated her shirt with a dragonfly, reflecting her love and awareness of the environment.
For many centuries, dragonflies have been symbols of happiness, new beginnings, and change.
Of course, the effects of the designs could only be appreciated in the dark.
Later, “sunset crafts” provided another creative outlet; the challenge was to create your own sunset by squishing paint in a plastic bag. The results were often surprising, and very colourful.
Meanwhile, the nearby surface of Loch Leven was broken by dozens of canoeists, who couldn’t resist a late-afternoon paddle in scenic surroundings.
Two of the evening activities centred on the amphitheatre: magician and puppeteer Danny Kazam kept a 200-strong crowd enthralled with his tricks. Several times children were invited on stage to join in the fun; he was followed by an “Unlight the Night” light pollution presentation.
The Observatory then became a popular destination, offering “stars and stories”, a constellation cube craft, and “Rings of Saturn Tour”.
Another happy, happening place was the Cypress Hills Pool Area, where there was a moonlight swim and glow-in-the-dark games, including a ring tosses and lawn bowling.
A visible presence throughout the day was Royce Pettyjohn, park manager for Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park Saskatchewan, a position he accepted in 2019.
“Cypress at Sundown” was the culmination of a very successful summer, he said, with visitor numbers surpassing expectations.
“It has been extremely busy,” he said. “We couldn’t be more pleased with the level of visitation and all the people that have been around, and the fact that people are choosing to spend their summer with us.
“We have been operating out of overflow pretty much since the middle of June, so it’s only now, towards the end of August, that we are getting back down to normal levels.”
Pettyjohn acknowledged that COVID-19, and the easing of restrictions, had probably played a role in visitation levels.
“We noticed that last year when things started to open up a little bit, we started to see spikes in visitation. I think a lot of people were experiencing cabin fever and wanted to get out into nature and out into parks and certainly in the parks we have got wonderful fresh air and wide open spaces so there are opportunities for people to physically distance here and given how busy it was last year towards the end of the summer we anticipated it was going to be busy this year, but this year surpassed our expectations of what that level of business was going to be.”
Pettyjohn said visitors came from a range of different places and provinces.
“Most certainly, the park draws visitation from right across Saskatchewan, from Alberta, and then people that are travelling Trans-Canada stop in here as well.”
He added: “It is great to see that the weather is cooperating today, which is nice.”
Statistics on visitor numbers won’t be available any time soon, said Pettyjohn.
“Usually, it takes a few months after the end of the season for Regina to crunch the numbers and do the estimate of what our visitation was. Our visitation pre-pandemic was in the 330,000 individual visits a year. So one of the highest visited provincial parks in the province. I am anticipating that this year our numbers are going to be not much different than they have been in the past, and possibly even higher.”