“Landscapes have the power to teach, if you query them carefully. And remote landscapes teach the rarest, quietest lessons.” -David Quammen
Having spent more than a decade doing fieldwork all over North America, you might think I would have learned by now how to see beauty anywhere – how to look past the surface of a place to the awe-inspiring intricate connections beneath. But last week’s guest post about the beauty of the tallgrass prairie got me thinking about my own experience in the prairies last fall.
In October, I took a trip out west with my father, who is a big fan of Canada’s national park system and wanted to see some of the western parks and historic sites. We originally planned the trip as my ‘thesis submission celebration’. (Of course, as any grad student knows, thesis submission dates are slippery things, very prone to change. So when the time came to leave, my thesis was decidedly unsubmitted – but lucky for me, we decided to go anyway.)
When we sat down to finalize our itinerary, we discovered that we disagreed fairly substantially. My father’s top priority was to visit Grasslands National Park, in southern Saskatchewan. But to be honest, I just wasn’t that excited by the thought of an endless flat plain. No, if I was going out west, my top priority was to see some mountains.
I’ve been fascinated by mountains since my first trip to Alberta with my family, when I was only six. Even now, I find the dramatic landscape of the Rocky Mountains enthralling and iconic. Despite growing up in Ontario, when I think of the Canadian wilderness, I picture the snowy peaks, mysterious green valleys, and jewel-bright lakes of the Rockies.
My dad was considerably less enchanted by the mountains than I was, but eventually agreed to add Waterton Lakes National Park to our schedule. Waterton Lakes, in southwestern Alberta, lies at the point where “the prairies of Alberta meet the peaks of the Rocky Mountains”.
If you look the park up on Google Images, the pictures that pop up are so perfectly gorgeous that they seem almost unreal. But as amazing as those pictures are, they don’t begin to the do park justice. We visited on a sunny, crisp fall day. The wind was so strong it almost felt like an assault, and the sheer majesty of the sun reflecting off the snow-covered peaks took my breath away.
We spent three wonderful days in the shadow of the mountains before starting our long drive east to Grasslands. Not feeling all that inspired by the second part of our trip, I was reluctant to leave, and the seemingly endless drive across the flattest part of Canada didn’t increase my enthusiasm at all.
Rumpled, tired, and cranky in the way that can only result from spending a day in the car, we arrived at our accommodation, right on the edge of the park, just as the sun was going down. As I stepped gratefully out into the fresh air and gazed over the sea of grass stretching from right in front of us all the way to the horizon, I felt the first faint stirrings of interest in this park.
First thing the next morning, we set off to explore. My dad was single-minded in pursuit of his main goal: to see a buffalo. I had visions of us roaming for hours, searching fruitlessly. But within a few minutes of entering the park, we spotted one of the massive animals standing not far from the road, gazing haughtily into the distance. As my dad pulled out his camera, I noticed a flash of movement from the corner of my eye. I turned to investigate – and realized that on the other side of the road was a busy prairie dog colony. Hundreds of the chubby rodents bustled around their burrows, often coming within a few feet of me.
It was slowly dawning on me that, although this park lacked the obvious, dramatic majesty of Waterton Lakes and the other mountain parks, it had a quiet splendour all its own. We’d been in the park only a few minutes, and already we’d had two up close and personal encounters with wildlife. That night, as I stared up at one of the most phenomenal night skies I’ve ever seen, I realized that Grasslands was something special.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the experience was that we had the park essentially to ourselves. During the three days we spent there, I don’t think we saw more than ten other visitors. When I got home, I looked up the stats. Between April 1st, 2016 and March 31st, 2017, Grasslands had just over 13,000 visitors. In comparison, Waterton Lakes recorded more than 500,000 visitors over the same time period, and Banff recorded more than 4 million. Apparently I am not the only person who prefers the mountains to the plains.
I can’t deny that having an entire national park to ourselves was mind-blowing, and part of what made our time in Grasslands so special. There’s something about being the only car on the road – the only people within sight – that allows you to become truly immersed in the landscape.
But I also can’t help but think the vast difference in visitor numbers between Grasslands and Waterton Lakes may be indicative of a larger problem. Many people – whether consciously or unconsciously – equate ‘nature’ with those grand, awe-inspiring mountain vistas that we are all so fond of. And I can’t deny that those vistas are amazing, certainly well worth a visit.
However, a single-minded focus on majestic and dramatic landscapes can cause us to miss the more subtle beauty found in less obvious places – whether it be the muddy edges of a marsh, the vast grasslands of the North American plains, or even our own backyards.
And so the main thing I learned from my trip was to put a bit more time and effort into making those ‘careful queries’ that David Quammen advocates. Less obvious landscapes may demand a bit more of us, but they have so much to teach.