What started as four Winnipeg friends with a passion for guiding local and rural Manitoba walks has since – nearly two decades later – become a full-fledged walking group with hundreds of members and an unquenchable thirst for seeking out new trails.
In August, Prairie Pathfinders are organizing a journey of discovery to the beautiful rolling prairie of southwestern Saskatchewan, a land of scenic beauty and rich human history.
The wonderful thing about a Prairie Pathfinders’ trip is that they delight in finding ways to show you things you’ve never seen before, revealing secrets in the landscape through the eyes of those who know it best – the folks who inhabit the place.
“Do you know what you’re looking at?”
We had followed our guide some distance into the Grasslands National Park, and had now gathered around him in a circle.
Wes Olson is the classic retired park ranger, tall and handsome with the kind of gaze that you know can see for miles across a rolling prairie landscape. He also loves this land deeply and on a beautiful sunny afternoon in southwest Saskatchewan, we were immersing ourselves into this spectacular landscape.
Olson directed our gaze downwards to an ancient boulder partly submerged in the ground.
We discovered that we were standing on the edge of a tipi ring, the large circles of stone that First Nation peoples used to hold down their tipis. For thousands of years, that strategy kept them warm and dry against the elements and along with their construction, Olson pointed out how their careful placement avoided drifting snow and piercing winter winds, while remaining close to water, fuel, and good hunting grounds.
This was day three of a five-day Prairie Pathfinders ‘Wild West Hiking Tour’ and it was more than delivering on its promise of “a journey of discovery,” a perfect merging of rich history with the incredible natural beauty unique to this corner of the province.
The massive park we were exploring is a showcase of undisturbed prairie grasslands, a critical habitat for rare and endangered fauna like the greater sage grouse, burrowing owl, and ferruginous hawk, and the only place in Canada where you will encounter black-tailed prairie dog colonies. It’s also stunningly beautiful.
Our group of fifty had set out a few days earlier from The Forks in downtown Winnipeg, queuing early in the morning for our seats on a very comfortable chartered Beaver Bus, soon ferrying us westward to what would become our home base in Swift Current, Saskatchewan.
That charming prairie city proved to be an ideal stepping off point for our subsequent excursions, including hikes in the fabled Cypress Hills, visiting historic Fort Walsh, and touring the boyhood home of writer Wallace Stegner in the tiny town of Eastend.
The Prairie Pathfinders had somehow arranged for (now retired) high school principal Robert Gebhardt to be our Eastend walking guide. Robert had the good fortune to be walking along the Frenchman River Valley in 1991 when he discovered a large dinosaur vertebra. What he found turned out to be Canada’s most complete Tyrannosaurus rex, and ‘Scotty’ is now resident in the town’s amazing T.Rex Discovery Centre.
This striking and modern building is constructed into the side of a hill overlooking the town and its lovely river valley. It features both the working science of paleontology and offers insight into the area’s rich fossil record. Robert Gebhardt met us outside after our tour and what followed was a beautiful walk back to town while he shared stories about the land and people, how water, wind, and time have shaped the landscape, and how it shelters both the living and the long extinct.
Nearby historic Fort Walsh was constructed for the North-West Mounted Police who were tasked with protecting Canada’s nearby border with the United States, stifling the illegal whisky trade, and negotiating with the First Nations. It played a short but critical role as the location where a number of treaties were signed, and was also where the Cypress Hills Massacre took place.
Nestled in a picturesque valley amongst the rolling hills, it is now a National Historic Site of Canada administered by Parks Canada, and forms part of Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park.
Our group of adventurers explored the fort’s many buildings and later participated in a reenactment of some of the day-to-day activities of the fort during its 1880’s heyday, including firing a cannon in response to a rumoured threat of attack from beyond the high wooden walls. We stood captivated by the crisp scarlet of the NWMP’s uniforms and the dramatic reminder of why Fort Walsh so quickly became the most important, largest and most heavily armed fort the North West Mounted Police garrisoned during their early years in the West.
The benefit of local insight even extended into our tour bus, where long-time Saskatchewan residents and ranchers Gail and Elwin Hermanson acted as official on-board ambassadors for their home province, narrating some fascinating sections of the passing landscape and pointing out scenic and historic landmarks that we may well have overlooked.
Our final day was spent in Moose Jaw, with a chance to sample its wonderful downtown, underground tunnel tours, and have a leisurely soak in the mineral springs and pool at the world-class Temple Gardens – a perfect end to our wild west adventure. Along with the fabulous food and scenic hikes, a lovely conclusion to an all-inclusive vacation with nothing more pressing to do than enjoy our surroundings and the camaraderie of our fellow adventurers.
To find out more about this and other ‘Bus Off and Take a Hike’ adventures with the Prairie Pathfinders, come to the travelogue presentation on Saturday April 19 at 10:30 AM at the Fort Garry Public Library, 1360 Pembina Highway.
For more information, check out the Prairie Pathfinders at http://www.prairiepathfinders.mb.ca/