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Saturday, July 28, 2012

Day 38 and 40: Writing on Stone Provincial Park

"Campground Full" said the sign leading into Writing on Stone Provincial Park. We were still ten kilometers away, making our way along route 501 which runs parallel to the US border. We had counted on staying here - this was a 'Rae magical Alberta' suggestion. We hadn't come this far to be turned away.

We went on anyway. They found a spot for us for 2 nights. Moral of the story: never believe a sign.

Driving into this campground is astounding. You're riding the plain and then suddenly, you drop into the most alluring landscape imaginable. In the distance, the sweetgrass hills of Montana rise up like gentle guardians of the sun-baked flatlands. In the foreground, a fantasy terrain. These are the hoodoos...Natural rock sculptures grafted from the wear and tear of weather and time on sandstone...Sacred to the Blackfoot...Spectacular to the first-time viewer. We felt like we had been plunked down in some other-worldly space odyssey.

A resident mule deer wandered at will through the campground. The aptly named Milk River ran at some pace by its side. We headed out on the Hoodoo trail in the scorching heat of high noon. 300 hundred year old petroglyphs and pictograms carved into the cliffs along the canyon walls caught our attention and captured our imagination. We were mesmerized by the range and scope of the rock formations surrounding us...Neither of us had ever seen anything like it.

That evening we floated down the Milk River on florescent noodles...Cooling down, chilling out, sun setting. A rumble from above alerted us to an impending thunderstorm: the sky darkened, a rainbow appeared, plate lightning dappled the starry dome above us like fireworks, the rocks lit up like amber jewels. It was, as Rae had promised, magical.

We were not to know then that our magical night sky was the aftermath of nearby Cardston's devastating "hail-the-size-of-baseballs" storm of the century. No, a whole other day of rambling round the rock formations - capturing them in water colours (Rona) and learning about them at the excellent cliffside Visitor's Centre (Linnet) - would pass before then.

We'd hear murmurs of it while attending an informative lecture at the campground amphitheatre on raptors of the prairies presented by biologist Brad Downey the next evening. And we would slowly become aware that something wasn't quite right in Cardston as we drove into the town the following day.

For the time being, though - a time where time itself just seemed to stand still - we were simply enjoying this remarkable landscape. It goes without saying that Writing on Stone will remain forever engraved in our memories.

Day 36 and 37: Howdy Medicine Hat, Alberta

Just as our arrival in Moose Jaw coincided with the annual Festival of Words, our arrival in Medicine Hat coincided with the opening of the city's 125th stampede. Isn't it great when you hit the 'highlight of the tourist season' jackpot without an inkling of a game plan? Luckily, a 2 night slot opened up for Carmella to slip into in the very busy campground. And faster than you can say giddy-up, a convenient stopover on the way to Writing on Stone Provincial Park in Southern Alberta turned into a two day hoedown in Gas City.

We had fun. Though the rodeo component didn't kick off until after we and our chuck wagon had pulled out of town, there was plenty going on in those stampede grounds perched high above the city to keep us entertained while we were there.

The Prairie Dogs were a tail-wagging hit - in particular a boxer whose prowess out on the course, and fashion sense off of it, caught Rona's eye. A troupe of fiddling foot-stomping sisters and their proud mama provided some rousing music to eat our lunchtime western sandwiches by...And Pioneer Village volunteers Kay and Judy in the one roomed school house, Bill in the tiny church initially built for just three families from Hilda, and vintage car enthusiast Lorel at ye olde gas pump, really made the experience complete.

Oh, and let's not forget the wonderful home crafts and horticultural hall, where local talent was proudly on display. And, of course, what would a stampede be without that one cow requiring a-milking and those three lovely llamas looking on intently...

All in all, it was a grand ole time - we clocked in about 40 kms on our bikes getting to and fro and up and down in this very hilly city; and we had a good meal at Twist, a new bistro that has just been opened up by two sisters from Quebec.

Coyotes howled through the night, making us feel like we were truly home home on the range. And we headed off for the Alberta badlands feeling like we'd earned our cowgirl credentials.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Day 35: Cypress Hills and Maple Creek

People say that driving across the prairies is boring. They obviously haven't driven across the prairies that we drove across. Or make that zig-zagged across...And no doubt therein lies the distinction.

For to zig-zag north then south, using the TC as but a touchstone for hitting the big towns, is to see green and yellow and beige and blue as you have never seen those colours before. It is to see skies so expansive that you lose all sense of time and space, not to mention of the place where you yourself begin and end. It is to find yourself in a landscape at once overly full, at once astoundingly empty...If that sounds like a contradiction, it is.

For the prairies are not only a rolling tapestry of flats and folds. The prairies ARE the fold...That post-structuralist folding of intensity into banality; an astonishing scenic moment rendered all the more extraordinary for its emergence out of the plain.

It's all just downright brilliant: badlands and grasslands and sand hills and fields upon fields upon fields of gold and emerald and taupe and indigo...We loved our zig-zag across the prairies. We were sad, on Day 35, to realize that our drive into the Cypress Hills would signal our last full day in Saskatchewan.

After waxing lyrical to this effect whilst traveling the B roads between Grasslands and Maple Creek, we stayed the night at the Cypress Hills centre block campground. From a lovely wild-flowered lookout above this busy RV and Tenting Mecca - a remote spot called Bald Butte - we could gaze out at the dramatic Cypress Hills west block, which rides the border between Saskatchewan and Alberta. From our campsite, we watched mule deers cavort through a dramatic daytime thunderstorm. And moving on the next day through the rancher's town of Maple Creek, we enjoyed some interesting signage.

Goodbye Saskatchewan of the Living Skies. Medicine Hat, Alberta, here we come!

Day 34: Grasslands

Anything you say about Grasslands National Park just west of the southern Saskatchewan badlands and a mere 10 kms from the US border is going to sound like superlative. Stunning in its desolate beauty, remarkable for the silence you 'hear' all around as you strike out on foot on the 70 mile Butte trail as the sun sets, astounding in its dark sky starry wonder...It is all these things, and to speak it almost robs this wild and remote terrain of its extraordinary splendour.

Let's just say that the route in from
Moose Jaw was fabulous and lyrical...Empty backroads through endless fields of rippling green and yellow and white crop; that 'The Crossing' resort and campground where we spent the night on the fringes of the park with its two serviced RV sites and its four lonely tipis was the ideal place to fully appreciate the Grasslands; that we had a dawn breakfast with the bisons (which Rona didn't fully appreciate) and turned our hand to lassoing steer (which Rona did appreciate) on our trek into the Grasslands hinterland at 6am - the better to see the rare black-tailed prairie dogs in action; and that we hit the 5000 km mark for our trip in this most gloriously haunting Canadian landscape. Enjoy the photos!