If you’re from Saskatchewan, chances are there’s a little cowboy running through your blood. Be it the whimsical nature that we seem to have when it comes to long road trips (ie “It’s only an 8 hour drive, easy as pie!), or the general love affair most prairie folk seem to have with country music. Everyone from this little prairie province loves to claim they’re a little more cowboy than the next guy or gal. You wouldn’t believe how many arguments I’ve heard where people are arguing who’s hometown is smaller. No matter how cowboy you might think you are, chances are you’re not even playing in the same league as Gord Vaadeland, owner and operator of Sturgeon River Ranch.
This past Thanksgiving was hands down one of the most memorable I’ve ever had. I convinced my old man to take some time off work and join me up north for some fall horseback riding in the boreal forest. The goal was to catch sight of the 400+ free range plains bison that roam Prince Albert National Park. Little did we know how close we’d end up getting.
These brick-walls of beasts have had a tough go, yet despite their near extinction, they seem to be thriving in Prince Albert National Park since their re-introduction in 1969. They’ve come a long way since the first 50 were brought back. That’s partly due to the preservation efforts of Gord Vaadeland, Founder and Executive Director of the Sturgeon River Plains Bison Stewards. That’s only one of his gigs, he’s also the ED of CPAWS-SK and Watershed Awareness Coordinator for Provincial Council of Agriculture Development and Diversification. Say that 3 times fast… (Can’t be done!)
I got in contact with Gord while I was still in Halifax and asked if he’d be keen on showing me around his parts. He gladly obliged, and within weeks we had a unique tour of the area setup, which included Horseback Riding the western part of Prince Albert National Park in search of the bison, and sleeping in a traditionally built tipi at Ness Creek.
A short 6 hour drive from Regina got us near Big River Saskatchewan. We pulled into Sturgeon River Ranch and were finally introduced to Gord. I soon learned that his skills extended beyond being an outfitter, a cowboy, and a bison steward. Turns out he’s also a bluegrass musician, and a bit of a TV Celebrity (What’s up Mantracker!?). We all hit it off and it wasn’t long before we had the horses in the trailer and ready to roll.
Welcome to Prince Albert National Park
We pulled up to the edge of Prince Albert National Park and saddled up. It’d been a couple years since I’d ridden horse, but I managed to shake the cobwebs after the first mile or so. Gord led us through trails that wove through birch and spruce, our horses powered through the thick. Watching Gord lead us slowpokes, I couldn’t help but think “Shoulda found a cowboy hat!”. That thought was interupted as I was forced to dodge a low hanging branch. I chuckled to myself, “Keep cool Corbin, pay attention…”
Our horses began to slow down, and suddenly became a bit nervous. You could feel the tension in the air. These horses knew something was up a ways. We all stopped in our tracks. A gentle breeze blew through the trees, the sound of rubbing leather mixed with the loud breathe of the horses made that moment feel like it lasted a lifetime. Gord whispered “They’re up there. You hear that?”. Large crunching snaps echo’d back our way.
We slowly pressed on, nobody said a word. We didn’t know if we’d get a second chance to spot the bison up ahead. As we continued through the trail, the bush got thicker. Gord lead us in the direction of the breaking trees. We slowed down again, and Gord explained “We usually recommend people keep a safe distance from the bison. If you can cover them with your thumb, you’re close enough. But since you’re with me, we’ll be using our elbows and putting that thumb a little closer to your face, which means we’ll be getting a bit closer. Hope that’s okay!” I nodded my head with a huge smile “Of course!”.
Spotting the Wild Plains Bison
The sound of snapping trees got louder, but the bush was so thick you could hardly tell how close you were. Gord offered to hang onto our horses to see if we can get a clear photo. I climbed off Applejack (a trustworthy steed if I may say so) and nervously moved toward the sound of wild bison. My old man was right behind. Creeping towards the bison soon became a game of “Oh yea? I dare you to keep going!” I’d take one step, my Dad would take two. Soon we were lookin in the eyes of at least eight free ranging plains bison (there may have been dozens more behind them). We couldn’t have been more than 30 feet away from the small herd.
A final tree snap stopped me dead in my tracks. I looked at my old man and made eye contact, implying “If they move, I’m so out!” Several grunts and loud thumps on the ground forced me to take a step back. Then two. I looked up and blue skies and birch trees surrounded us, making a fast escape nearly impossible. Their noises progressively got louder, and I decided I had enough of playing chicken with thousand pound bisons. Another grunt & crack, and I was out! “Only gotta be faster than the guy behind you” I remember hearing. We laughed as we got back to our horses, blown away with what we’d just done. Needless to say my Dad gave me a hard time for backing out before him.
I was completely speechless as I tried to thank Gord. “Awesome. Wow!”. He laughed and said “I didn’t realize how close you guys were!”. He laughed as he handed us back our reins. Had that been anyone else I’m sure he would have Clint Eastwood stared us so bad for getting that close. But Gord seemed to trust us. Nothing like having a cowboy on your side!
Long Meadow – Prince Albert National Park, Saskatchewan
We pushed forward, following a few rough trails. Gord warmly told us about the history of the bison and shared some of the incredible preservation work being done with bison. This man is clearly passionate about his work. Who else but a Saskatchewan Patriot would come out on Thanksgiving Day to show a couple outta-towners around. As the conversation died down, the scenery opened up. A natural clearing called “Long Meadow” greeted us.
It was a breathe of fresh air to see the flatlands again and to set my eyes on the big blue sky. As we entered the meadow a White-tail deer skipped back into the cover of the trees. We followed Gord and picked up our pace. Just a few prairie boys wandering the land by horse. We stopped a mile or two up the meadow as Gord pointed out some moose antlers. A mile up and he stops to point out another sign of wildlife. The remains of a bison.
He explained what makes Prince Albert National Park so different from all the rest with one word. “Predation.” There’s a couple wolf packs in the area that hunt the weak, injured, and the old. It’s a common sight in the park. It’s pretty wild to think that something could actually take a bison out.
We stopped for lunch in the middle of Long Meadow and Gord continued to share stories. The mans got a bunch, but you’ll have to book him yourself to hear them all. The horses fueled up on wild grass while we gorged on sandwiches and some of the best home made cookies I’ve ever had. Then it was back in the saddle.
Another herd of Bison
A few miles up we had our second encounter with another small herd of bison. Once again they were hidden in the trees. If my camera had a fist, it would have been shaking it vigorously at them. I wanted to see them in the wide open, but I suppose it wasn’t meant to be! More the reason to come back again!
It was coming on the 5th hour of riding, and the sun was just beginning to set. We had one last leg of trails to hit before calling it a day. We found our way onto a rough dirt road. Gord explained that a lot of these roads were actually started by the Bison. When people started showing up in the area, they picked up where the bison left off and turned the rough trails into drive-able roads.
Stoney Plain Meadow – Prince Albert National Park, Saskatchewan
Our fearless leader wandered into rougher terrain. Steep hills and fast slopes was the name of the game. Rocks, trees, and the odd patch of mud reminded our horses not to stumble. The horses pulled through with ease, and we soon found ourselves on top of a hill, overlooking Stoney Plain Meadow. Gord pointed out where his family’s land was and we enjoyed the start of sunset. Good company, great ride, and one helluva view. The definition of a great way to end the day!
Back at Sturgeon River Ranch
We loaded up the horses and dropped them off at Sturgeon River Ranch. I bid farewell to my new four legged friend Applejack and thanked Gord for sharing his wealth of expertise. He gave us directions to Ness Creek and said he’d meet up with us shortly. We drove 20 minutes on gravel roads and eventually found the right road.
Ness Creek Awaits
As we pulled into the Ness Creek grounds, you could see that it was a place for artists, free thinkers, and eco-friendly community leaders. The craftsmanship in everything from the signs, to the cabins, to the pieces of outdoor art located throughout the grounds make you stop and think “I wish I did more stuff like this!”
We turned the bend and saw our accommodations for the night. Standing in the middle of a field was a traditionally built dakota tipi. The wooden poles pierced the orange sky, a light breeze blew the doorway gently. I stopped in my tracks to stand and take it all in before snapping a photo. Wild bison, a full day of riding in the boreal forest, and now a night under the stars. I thought to myself “I have this moment to be thankful for.”
Big thanks goes out to Gord & the Gang at Ness Creek for showing me around their little slice of heaven. If you want to see more wildlife photos be sure to check out the Bison Stewards Facebook Page. Same goes with the Sturgeon River Ranch Facebook page! Stay tuned for an upcoming post on Ness Creek, in the mean time, check out Gord Vaadeland’s appearance in Mantracker.