Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Cypress Hills for the Prairie Pitch

I just got back from 6 days in the Cypress Hills, checking it out as a possible location for a future Prairie Pitch Adventure Race.

On the way down I stopped in Swift Current to gas up and asked if there was a coffee shop in town with espresso and lattes. The attendant said there was but he couldn't remember the name or where it was exactly. He gave me general directions and I headed downtown. When I got there I realized this was the same place where I'd been told the best they had was Tim Hortons (when I was on my way back from Colorado). Which was correct? I was just about to give up when I saw the Urban Ground Coffeehouse, which turned out to be quite a classy place with hardwood floors and black leather couches. I'm not the only one excited! In case you're looking for it, it's at 167 Central Avenue North. It was busy when I stopped there about 3pm - I grabbed the only remaining chair (a single spot in the window). Several people turned away when they found it was full. Obviously there is sufficient demand at the moment. I was annoyed that I hadn't found the place on my way back from Colorado, but it turned out they have only been open for a few weeks. I stopped here a second time and they had sushi for their lunch special (they don't serve much food otherwise). I had the veggie rolls and they were tasty. My only complaint was that they were closed on Sunday when I was heading back to Saskatoon. Too bad, but it appeared the whole of downtown was shut down, not just them. (It was also Remembrance Day, which may have had something to do with it.)

I also discovered a very nice little restaurant in Maple Creek of all places. Nothing against Maple Creek but it's pretty small and not where you'd expect to find a classy restaurant. When I drove by I noticed the white table cloths and wine glasses and figured it was worth checking out. It's called The Star Cafe and Grill (not sure how long this link will be valid). The chef has recently moved here from Rome (yes, Italy). You have to wonder why anyone would move from Rome to Maple Creek, but I'm not complaining. It's in an old turn of the century building and they have done a great job of the interior. I liked the huge abstract landscape painting that one of the partners painted. They didn't have a lot of vegetarian choices but the pasta I had was very tasty. We even tried a bottle of wine from the nearby Cypress Hills Winery (the only winery in Saskatchewan). If you're looking for a nice meal in the Maple Creek area I'd definitely recommend it.

Lots of people had told me how great the Cypress Hills are but I'd never been there. I wasn't disappointed, but I wasn't overwhelmed either. I guess I imagined a bunch of "hills" and instead there's really just one big "hill" or plateau that's been eroded into several pieces and into big gullies. It is a pretty big hill for Saskatchewan - about 200 m (600 ft) high, but not exactly mountainous. The lodgepole pines are a contrast to the usual prairie vegetation, but not all that different from up north.

One issue for the Prairie Pitch is that the area is pretty spread out. Most of the facilities (camping, lodging, etc.) on the Saskatchewan side are in the Center block. But the more interesting terrain seems to be in the West block (and in the adjacent Fort Walsh). And the only decent sized lake is outside the park entirely. So a race here will probably require a fair bit of cycling to get between the areas, although on the positive side, there are fairly interesting off-road routes to use.

So the resort is in the Center block and the West block straddles the Alberta/Saskatchewan border. But where is the "east" block? According to Wikipedia: "The "east block" of the Cypress Hills, situated near Eastend, Saskatchewan, is not part of the park." Strange.

I covered quite a lot of the area and I came up with a reasonable plan for a race. But ... then it turned out that the resort is all booked up for the weekends in September. That's bad news since I'm not sure if there's anywhere else out there with a hall for roughly 200 people.

I was a little disappointed to find that the park is used for grazing cattle. I'm afraid a bunch of dumb cows is not my idea of the great outdoors. (I was going to say "wilderness" but that would be a stretch!) According to the signs the reason for the cattle is to take the place of the buffalo. If you ask me, I'd rather re-introduce buffalo. No doubt there are a million reasons why that's "impossible". (Although they've done it at Old Man on His Back)

I was also disappointed to find "Designated Hunting Trail" signs everywhere. It always seems strange to me that hunting is allowed in provincial parks. I have been told that they "have to" because hunting isn't allowed on much private land. As you can imagine, I don't find that a very convincing argument. There were also signs up for the "Elk Management Hunt". Maybe we could leave the "excess" elk and let them do the grazing instead of cattle. Why do people think they have to "manage" nature? Things worked for a very long time without people "managing" them. A common justification is that we've screwed things up so badly that we have to work to "fix" them. But our track record at "managing" such things is pretty dismal; I suspect in most cases things would have been better off without our meddling. (Along these lines, I just finished The World Without Us - quite an interested read.)

On a more positive note, there were signs for a "Reptile Conservatory". Another somewhat incongruous thing to find in Maple Creek. I didn't have time to check it out and I wasn't even sure they were open but being a reptile fan, I'll have to stop in next time I'm in the area.


  1. I seem to recall reading once that the Cypress Hills (or "Hill" as you point out) are the highest point of land in Canada between the Laurentians in Quebec, and Banff. You would probably know how to verify if that's true.

  2. Wikipedia agrees: "Canada's highest point between the Canadian Rockies and the Labrador peninsula and also the highest point in Saskatchewan"