Cypress Hills

It was a very cold and windy morning. Blistering gusts woke us up throughout the night as the car rocked back and forth in the parking lot. By the time the sun was up (we couldn’t see it), not much had changed. Under our blankets was a safe haven of warmth. Grudgingly, we woke and appeared. Our hands froze as we disassembled our curtains and sleeping quarters for the full day ahead. I ran into the washrooms and let my fingers throb under the hot water for a few moments, appreciating the heat. “It’s going to be an interesting hiking and camping day”, I thought to myself. As I finally felt the burn of the water, I pulled my hand away and reached for a paper towel. Empty. I hoped that this wasn’t an indicator of how the day would unfold. I’m so glad it wasn’t.

Unbeknownst to us on departure from Swift Current, Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park would end up being a highlight of the trip thus far. Our plans were to drive to the Centre Block and stay there overnight, hiking the park before heading off to Medicine Hat the next day. We knew little of the good fortune that would embrace us as our schedule changed numerous times and we were treated to experience a very special place at an incredibly special time.

As always, the day began with photos along the drive there.

Entering Maple Creek, we found signs for Cypress Hills Centre Block easily. We were working off of our iPhones because I had unknowingly misspelled the name of the park and the GPS came up blank. Amateur mistake. As we got closer to the park and stopped to admire more scenery, it started to lightly snow. I took it as a good omen, but the camper within me shivered.

We ended up finding the Centre Block quite easily, another sign that I was worrying too much. The third came quite soon afterwards when on the main drive into the park, we passed a moose nibbling flora on the side of the road. She let us pass, turn around, and come up beside her about 20 feet away and watch. It was a calming scene; just what I had needed to settle my nerves. The quiet was endless, the wind had slowed down, snowflakes slowly drifted by as we watched her enjoy her meal. The scene was only broken by another car approaching from the opposite direction. We waved and drove on, letting them enjoy everything we just had.

In better spirits, we drove and explored the Centre Block. It was a ghost town – for good reason. None of the facilities seemed to be operational, not even the bathrooms. Discovering this fact and realizing how cold and uninviting a hike would be, we decided to push to the West Block to see if camping would be a better bet there. Throughout our stops around the grounds we snapped a few photos. The tall trunks of the trees and the snow covering the grounds made for a particularly cool iPhone photo. It was interesting being one of the only ones there, but also a little eerie.

To get to the West Block of Cypress Hills we had two options. The first was to backtrack to the highway. The other was to follow a “Gap Road” that extended from the Centre Block all the way through to the West Block. This Gap Road didn’t show on any maps but by this time I had realized my mistake with the GPS and with “Cypress” spelled correctly, the Gap Road seemed our most efficient option. It was barely 20 kilometres. The decision was made.

As we approached the Gap Road numerous signs held warnings. This road was dirt and gravel and wasn’t to be trusted when wet. Since Jasmine had cell signal in the case of us getting stuck we pushed on. Around the first corner we were treated to three deer ambling along the roadside brush. At the sight of us they moved into the birch forest fairly quickly, blending into their surroundings superbly.

Well, now this was starting to feel like a real adventure. The road began opening up into magnificent views. Rolling hills had Jasmine thinking of Scotland and I drove in awe. On the southern horizon you could see where it flattened out once again. It was endless. A new face of the prairies had presented itself to us. This Gap Road seemed to wind between fields and fields of these rolling hills. We bounced over numerous Texas Gates to keep the herds of cattle we passed inside each pasture. We even saw two coyotes as we went (remaining ever elusive to photograph), both of us not believing three different animal sightings on essentially the same road.

We completed the Gap Road and only met one other vehicle: a white pickup with an ATV in the bed. He looked confused when he waved to us in passing. We both laughed and tried to imagine just how many Ontario license plates he must come across on that road in the offseason, if any at all. The West Block Entrance was only about a kilometre away down Highway 271 from the Gap Road exit and we eagerly headed towards it.

The hill that you see in the background of the last photo is the one you climb as you enter the West Block from the East side. It was a winding, fun drive. We came upon these signs about halfway up.

At the top we were greeted with prairie flatlands. At least it seemed like that. We quickly approached a fork in the road. Pavement heading south to Fort Walsh and a dead end, or gravel and dirt heading West further into the park. Fuelled by our early success we took the gravel into the park to explore. Passing two heavily outfitted pickups with no occupants, we pressed on. Almost immediately the ground sloped and this time we were looking down and across a steep valley, the snow just adding to the beauty.

By this time, Jasmine had lost cell service and my phone was long out of commission (thanks Rogers). We also did not have a map as the Park Information Centre was on the Alberta side. I quickly came to the realization that perhaps not a lot of people came through this area on the way into the park. However, the “road” was still holding up relatively well and there were some marked signs so we continued down the hill and into the valley. Of course the instant we descended it deteriorated almost instantly. Under tree cover the temperature climbed and what was once firm dirt became wet mud. I could feel the tires losing small traces of traction as we gingerly continued. Our minds were somewhat eased when we passed an occupied Ranger Station a few kilometres in. There was also no signage to say the road was impassable. All of these factors led us to decide to try it; to cross the Alberta border inside the park and reach the Park Information Centre safely. What could possibly go wrong?

Eventually we were bested. The one road we were travelling that we assumed was the right one (markings all but disappeared after entering the valley) soon became too treacherous. We had previously been making agreements on how far we’d go and at what point we would stop to turn around if it got rough. After a relatively close “getting stuck” call in which I was able to pull the CR-V out (thank you 4-wheel drive), we decided our luck was not worth testing any longer. Disappointed but nonetheless a little relieved, we turned around and headed back for Highway 271 and the long way around. We weren’t going to camp here, the weather had taken a turn for the worse. Although we had not actually gotten in a hike, the drive felt like a safari and was more than enough adventure for us in that cold.

So we were bound for Medicine Hat, but not before turning down that other fork and heading to Fort Walsh on the way out! We laughed as even that pavement eventually turned to dirt beneath our tires. Luckily it wasn’t even a 10 kilometre detour.

Finally finding our way into a new province, we stopped at the crossing for a break and a photo. It was one hell of a day.
Alberta welcomed us mightily well.

This day just proves to me what people that travel have been saying for ages: the unexpected moments are often the best. I never would have thought I would be treated to “Northern Ontario in Winter” meets “Prairie Grasslands” meets “Rolling Hills and Wildlife”. I will always remember the adventure of this day, of conquering my unease of entering a relatively unknown place with the contingency involving a muddy hike out to a Ranger Station. While we could have stopped at the station for advice, I do not feel like we were in any immediate danger if things took a wrong turn. We were well stocked and equipped to get help if need be. Our decisions to continue and then turn around were well-thought out and assessed. I am actually quite proud of how we handled everything.

Also, while friends had expressed their shock at the snow, I was thankful for it. Not only did the temperatures freeze up the gravel and mud enough that we could get through as far as we did, it also accentuated every colour in the park. The shades of green were just amazing. Plus, on return it would likely be in the summer, not winter, so this was a rare sight (for us anyways).

Regardless, I wrote a book here but goddamn was this one of my favourite days so far.

Adios for now,
– Aaron

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6 replies »

    • Emory! Thank you so much for the wonderful comments as of late. We both definitely recommend the park – it was beautiful.

      Jasmine actually had the chance to check out your blog when she had some cell service and showed me pictures! Looks awesome. You were really able to capture the prairie feel in your photos of Joanna and Jason.

      Thanks again for checking us out 🙂

      – Aaron

  1. I am flooded with so many things I want to say, which is to say how moved I am by this post.

    Your narrative and pictures articulate beautifully why this incredibly remarkable day will be a “stand alone”.

    In the stroke of time to have the absolute pleasure of those wildlife encounters, and to witness a frosty landscape breathtakingly transformed by a dusting of snow, is, well, akin to magical.

    A day of many decisions and revisions. . . you are brave souls and true adventurers!

  2. My favourite post this far. It is amazing the different landscapes you have visited on this journey. Your pictures remind me how BIG this place really is.

    • It was one of my favourite days and I think my writing reflected it. It truly is a wonder just how large our country is ..while it would take less than 4000km to get to Vancouver from Toronto we have put over 9500km on the car on our journey across and we’ve missed a ton plus haven’t even touched BC or the territories yet!

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