2022-07-09,10,11 A long Drive To South Saskatchewan

Red-Eyed Vireo - Vireo olivaceus
After leaving Lesser Slave Lake in Alberta, I drove east to Lac La Biche and spent a morning at their Provincial Park. There, I met Red-Eyed Vireos.

Rain caught up with me on my drive away from Slave Lake, and I found an out-of-the-way place to park in Lac La Biche, further east in Alberta. There were times through the night when the storm’s intensity became ferocious, with thunder and lightning firing like bombs overhead.

The next morning I found a downtown cafe serving breakfast, and I enjoyed some relaxation and reflection time before hitting the road to Cold Lake, yet further east in Alberta. While recording my thoughts in my journal, I noticed a gentleman assessing my RV parked on the street out front. His curiosity got the better of him and he walked into the cafe. Calculating that I belonged to the van, he approached, and I invited him to sit. We chatted for about 20 minutes.

When I asked about his career, he told me he was a ‘range ecologist’ I believe he called it. I could tell there was pride in his story. He said his goal while so employed, was to instill stewardship in the farm and ranching community. The organization in which he is associated is “Cows and Fish” (CowsAndFish.org), and their mission is to contribute to the health of riparian systems, which in turn, adds to a healthy river system. I think that their approach makes ‌sense.

Cold Lake is near the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, about ninety miles from Lac La Biche, where I began my Friday morning. My route ended at the midtown boat harbor, in a nice parking lot without any “No Overnight Parking” signs. It was the perfect place for me to settle in and get to work spinning my yarns. It was one week, and 470 miles ago when I left Dawson Creek, and still I wasn’t finished telling that story. I used my night in Cold Lake to finish writing about Piper Pond in Dawson Creek.

I must say these Canadians know how to put on a good thunder and lightning show. I thought the storm in Lac La Biche was a good one. But Cold Lake’s show last night was another gangbuster, with plenty of hard rain to go along with the sky-fire show. 

Since leaving Dawson Creek a week ago, and Whitehorse well before that, I’ve been mostly on an east-bound trajectory. Today’s plan is to begin the south-bound portion of this expedition in earnest. The Montana border is roughly 450 miles away, and I hope to make plenty of stops as I travel, especially near Grasslands National Park in southern Saskatchewan.

Red-Winged Blackbird - Agelaius phoeniceus
I drove several hours through southern Saskatchewan’s agricultural fields, over remote gravel roads looking for bird-life. There was no shortage of Red-Winged Blackbirds in the nearby fields.

As I drove south, I found the countryside was radically different from where I began my day’s trip in Cold Lake. In the North, most of the country was Boreal Forest, while here was grassland prairie country. The landscape was about as flat as a landscape could be. I needed to train myself to start looking for bird species that were radically different from those that I’d seen in the north. A species that seemed possible here was the Bobolink. 

One advantage to driving in this country was that it’s flat enough that my fuel economy improved to 15+ miles per gallon. But, because I was now on such rural roads, I had to keep my eye out for refueling opportunities, because they might not be right on the route I was driving. I set myself a birding destination for earlier in the day, but because I was low on fuel, I had to prioritize getting fuel over stopping to look for birds. Compounding the problem, the Google guidance system I use, took me 20 miles off my course, only to lead me to an empty lot in a rural village. Perhaps there may have been a station there at one time, but just not when I needed it.

I’d been driving for several hours, and with no shoulders on the roads, the opportunities for pulling off to the side of the road were few and far between in this part of Canada. I was still a long ways away from the Visitor Center at the Grasslands National Park. I wasn’t sure I wanted to ‌drive all the way through. I could only play it by ear and hopefully find a place that I could rest for the night in between where I was, and Grasslands National Park. 

I noticed that even in this part of Canada, there were a lot of Canola fields being grown. In fact, some of these Canola fields were enormous. But I also saw other crops growing in large parcels, some of which I believed were cereal grains (oats, wheat, rye, or barley), but others were growing crops which I couldn’t identify from my view driving by. Another change I noticed between where I traveled in the north and here in the prairie, was that I saw very few raptors on the roadside in northern Canada. Here on the prairie lands I saw quite a few. I made no positive identification of the species, but I think some of them were probably Rough-Legged Hawks.

Horned Lark - Eremophila alpestris
Horned Larks showed a special fondness for roadside life.

I reached the intersection of Saskatchewan’s Highway 7 and Highway 21, where there is the small town of Kindersley. Highway hypnosis was taking a toll on my ability to drive safely, so I found an open lot to stop for a while. I started my camp at an open Elk’s Club lot that seemed vacant, and when I parked, it was. But being a Saturday night, the status changed with the approach of evening. While I was working in the van with the blinds up, without my realizing it, the lot filled with cars and nicely dressed folks. When I noticed all the activity, I reconsidered my choice of town campsites, and moved the RV. The decision to move provided an opportunity to explore the town a little. After considering several locations, I found a side road with an agricultural field on one side and a house under construction on the other. It turned out to be one of the most quiet and peaceful nights I’d had in a while.

Sunday morning I charted a course south to Grasslands National Park, with a few bird-stops included. The town I set my sights on is called Val Marie (Saskatchewan). That is where the Visitor Center for the park is located, and where I felt I’d best be able to plan my explorations. There was still over five-and-a-half hours of drive time to reach Val Marie from my starting point this morning. I wasn’t expecting to complete the trip by day’s end. It made more sense to look for a place to camp somewhere along the trail later in the day.

What a difference between these Prairie Province roads than those I followed up north. Up there, I could count on roadside pullouts to take a break from the grind of the drive. This was especially true while I drove the Alaska Highway. But even as I traveled east across northern Alberta from Dawson Creek to Cold Lake, I could find them. They were spaced out further from each other in that region, but they were there. Once I turned south and followed the roads through the vast agricultural fields, these roadside stops were conspicuous in their absence. I thought I might have to count on open spaces in the townships for my camping needs.

Red-Winged Blackbird - Agelaius phoeniceus
There was no shortage of Red-Winged Blackbirds in the nearby fields.

Another missing piece of infrastructure in this region were the refueling options. Up north, I could count on rural gas stations away from the towns, and I didn’t worry about running low on fuel. My drive yesterday proved it unwise to assume I’d have the same options. 

I couldn’t be sure if my adventures finding fuel the rest of my trip would differ, but rather than the half-tank refueling guideline I’ve been trying to honor, I thought I should consider a three quarter-tank criteria for the rest of my visit to Canada. I still had the 4.5 gallons in a can stored on the back of the rig to count on in a real pinch.

For the last four or five days, the weather delivered me rain, mostly at night. Most of my drive-time had been on dry roads, though I occasionally had to employ my wipers. The sky was clear in Kindersley as I began my day, and I enjoyed my breakfast at Humpty’s. Humpty’s is a chain of restaurants here in Canada that merge their service with gas stations and truck-stops. There is a “Denny’s” vibe to them. In many of the places through which I passed, they have been the only sit-down breakfast game in town. In so many small towns through which I’ve traveled on this expedition, fast-food and pizza joints were the only options available for dining.

Driving south from Kindersley I passed through large agricultural fields and saw sparrow sized birds flying away from the roadside, but trying to get an identification was difficult. I pulled off the road at the first wide spot that offered itself, and a hawk, which had just killed a dabbling duck, flew off, leaving its prey. When I left the scene of the crime, I watched the raptor circle back from its power pole perch and reclaim its prize. In retrospect, I now believe those ‘sparrow-sized’ birds were Horned Larks.

Western Kingbird - Tyrannus verticalis
Western Kingbirds seemed to make a good living there.

I tried to get views of the sparrows in the area without success, but the conditions for stopping on the roadside were very limited because of almost no shoulder to park on. I only saw a few locations where the ditches were filled in with dirt so farmers could cross over to reach their fields. This made for sketchy stopping opportunities. Just because I saw the bird, did not mean that I could get a good picture, or even a reliable identification photo.

I had an interesting detour on the day’s drive. I took a series of long gravel roads, mostly through agricultural fields, as I followed instructions to find eBird hotspots. It was an extremely lonely set of roads with no traffic, and that allowed me to park willy-nilly anywhere and attempt pictures of the birds that I met. There were a ton of Horned Larks that hugged the roadway, along with Western Meadowlarks, Eastern Kingbirds, Western Kingbirds, Red-Winged Blackbirds, Brewer’s Blackbirds, Common Grackles, Loggerhead Shrikes, and a Swainson’s Hawk soaring high overhead.

Especially fun was a ferry crossing (Lemsford Ferry) that was dictated by one of the roads I followed. It crossed the South Saskatchewan River. At the river crossing, before boarding the one-car-at-a-time ferry, I got frustrated by an elusive Black-Billed Cuckoo. I got to see and hear the bird clearly, but the picture taking was not so successful.

One thing I wasn’t happy about was the hit to the fuel economy I suffered by driving dirt roads on this long day. When I started out on these roads, my highway mileage was 16.9 miles per gallon. But mileage dropped to 14.8 mpg by the time I reached pavement again.

Common Grackle - Quiscalus quiscula
Common Grackles were one species I met.

I traveled on some very rough roads after getting off the ferry. The early going was a continuation of the gravel roads I’d been on all morning, but they were relatively smooth and I was able to sustain pretty good momentum. The paved roads I found were in such bad shape I wished I was back on the gravel. I spent two treacherous hours driving, while dodging potholes, bumps, and uneven ground. I felt like I was riding a rodeo bronc. Added to these hazards, the road was very narrow, making it a challenge on those rare occasions when approaching oncoming traffic. These road conditions remind me of roads I’ve driven in some third world countries. Saskatchewan clearly does not invest heavily in their rural roads.

The navigation route that I’d been following got me back on gravel, and sure enough, the ride was better than the pavement I’d been suffering on the past few hours. The gravel road I found myself on was called Railroad Avenue, but the railroad tracks it followed were rusted and covered under dirt at every crossing. It was obvious there hadn’t been a rail car over these tracks for many decades. When I reached the town of Kyle and refueled, the worst of the roads were behind me. I headed south on Highway #4 until just south of Saskatchewan Landing, and I found a pull out that suited my needs for the night. It was about 2:30 in the afternoon and I had been driving on some rough, miserable roads all day, and I needed a break.

When morning rolled around, I continued south and found breakfast and groceries in the town of Swift Current before resuming my way to Val Marie and the Grasslands National Park Visitor Center. I gathered some information from the staff about what lay ahead in the park. I decided to book three nights at the Frenchman Valley Campground. With my time in Canada drawing near the end, I needed to spend down my Canadian cash, so this was a good opportunity to do so.

After these three days on the road, I spent almost a week at Grasslands National Park. I look forward to sharing that story later.

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