Entering the Grasslands (TCA #5)

After our second night staying near Waterton, we woke early to hit the road for a long day of driving. Melanie researched coffee shops en route to the nearby city of Lethbridge where we planned to have breakfast, and we indulged ourselves with mochas and a cinnamon bun at a quirky cafe. I had seen on Google that the city had an interesting-looking train bridge which crossed a valley in the otherwise flat surroundings, and we stopped at a picnic area here to enjoy the coffees and have our breakfast. In person, the bridge was immense, and the picnic area allowed us to be right underneath it. Impressively, it is actually the longest trestle bridge in the world – a neat sight to see for a mostly random stop on our drive.

We were surprised to come across a 200-strong herd of goats and their shepherd while stopping by the bridge. As a local contractor to the city, the shepherd and his dog were moving the goats through the grasslands around the base of the bridge to reduce invasive weeds. We had a short conversation with the shepherd and learned that the goats actually preferred the weed species over native plants, but they could also be used to trim down the grass in an area depending on how long the shepherd held them there. It was fascinating to see his control over his dog, and how responsive the dog was to his voice commands at moving or maintaining the position of the goat herd.

Our drive to the western side of Grasslands National Park became increasingly bumpy as we travelled over gradually deteriorating roads. Mel drove after our short lunch break at Medicine Hat, and we transitioned from the main highway through Alberta to the back roads in Saskatchewan. Our camping spot for the night was at the trailhead of the 70-Mile Butte track. Both the spot and our arrival time was perfect – we arrived just before golden hour and so light on the short four kilometre hike was spectacular.

On the hike we encountered a white-tailed jackrabbit and, with a big jump of surprise, a rattlesnake. We took some time looking at and photographing the rabbit, but not so much of the snake! The golden light from the setting sun really added a lot to the hike, and we spent a while savouring the view over different areas of the surrounding grasslands. Although the land appears to be flat all the way to the horizon, it actually has many small local elevation changes and can hide interesting features. One such feature we came across was a small grove of aspens, with their leaves making up a full palette of autumn colours. The contrast of the bright aspens with the golden grasses made the impact of these colours even greater. Perhaps a lingering effect of the wildfire smoke, the sun once again set above the horizon, fading to a dull red before disappearing altogether.

The namesake of 70-Mile Butte (pronounced as “beaut”, not “butt”, in case you were mistaken like me…) came from the location being 70 miles between two mounted police bases. I found it interesting to learn just how special the environment we hiked in actually is. From a distance, and to my untrained eye, the landscape seems virtually the same inside and outside the park boundaries. However, the land in the park is actually markedly different, in that it supports native grass and wildlife species that have otherwise been displaced by the huge agricultural lots that make up most of the rest of the province. The prairie grasslands can support a surprising amount of life, but there aren’t many places left where you can see them in their untainted state.

We quickly made a meal and ate as the sun set, and brought out our headlamps to clean up. Mel went to bed while I stayed outside a little longer to practice some night photography. It turned out to be probably the clearest night on our whole trip, and the new moon meant lots of stars were visible. One of my favourite shots was with the archway and gate in the park fence, and it was a great evening to finish off a busy day.

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