Gravel Roads

The second installment in the Roadtrip Summer 2015 series.

After driving for almost seven hours and spending an inordinate amount of time listening to chunks of rock hitting our aged vehicle, we made it to Val Marie. The gateway to the western block of Grasslands National Park.

We stopped at the ‘Visitor Centre’, which consisted of a desk and some brochures in a room of a former bungalow to pick up the ‘comfort package’ for our night’s accommodations: a tipi.

Yes, in addition to filling my time doing completely random things under the umbrella of ‘preparation to leave for a month’ I also make spur of the moment decisions in the name of ‘surprising’ my family. ‘The boys will love this,’ I gasped upon discovering the park had a campground where people could sleep in a tipi.

It even required a phone call, booking the tipi, which proves just how fun I thought the experience would be: I willingly picked up a phone and called someone.

‘Guess what, we’re staying in a tipi tomorrow night,’ I broke the news to all four boys, bracing myself for the squeals of excitement and delight that were about to come my way. A couple of seconds passed while they digested the information. A couple of long, silent seconds. ‘I don’t want to sleep in a tipi,’ one boy despaired, or was it two. While the other two were decidedly neutral (read: unexcited) about the prospect.

But I’ve been a parent for over a decade. And in that time, I’ve had a few encounters with the ‘I thought you would love this and then you acted like it was the worst thing ever’ scenario. So I decided to let the negativity slide, certain they would come around eventually. Also, I was not going to make a second phone call and cancel the stinking tipi.

Fast forward to Thursday, 4:40pm, Val Marie Saskatchewan. Standing in the dimly lit brochure-room, I took temporary ownership of 3 therma-rests and two cots. ‘How do I get these back to you?’ I asked the park employee. ‘We open at 9,’ she replied. Which didn’t quite match my hoped-for, leave-with-the-sun departure time. ‘I figured sleeping in a tipi would be kind of miserable and then we’d just be ready to leave, first thing,’ I’d explained my accommodation decision to the professor, who’d assumed we’d be staying in a hotel somewhere. But 9am wasn’t really ‘first thing’. At all. ‘Or you could just leave them at the back door,’ the park employee offered.

With a dubious ‘map’ at my disposal, we headed west to the park entrance. Roughly 20 kilometers away, I was somewhat surprised to learn.

More gravel roads.

We found the park entrance, which was a minor miracle on account of the unmarked roads. Within minutes we saw cows. And bison. And over the next few hours we’d add owls, deer, sheep, birds, skunks and prairie dogs to the list. Though we hoped not to cross paths with the rattle snakes also mentioned in the brochures.

Given the late hour, we skipped the west block’s six points of interest and drove directly to the tipi site to begin the unloading process. We carried sleeping bags and cots and therma-rests and a cooler full of semi-chilled food. On our second or third trip to the tipi, a red-faced man unloading his red Dodge Caravan passed me the communal luggage cart he’d been using. ‘This might make things slightly easier,’ he said.

The professor set up the beds and we sat down to consume a dinner of cold sausage, potatoes and vegetables. All prepared the previous night along with the pesto.

After a dessert of cut nectarine in cardboard bowls, we did the unthinkable and climbed back in the car to drive to a hike suggested by the park employee, roughly 40km away.

More unmarked gravel roads.


Some members of our traveling party were pleased to go on a hike. And some were not. ‘What kind of parents drag their kids out on a hike at 7:30 at night,’ the Gort despaired. As if it was the kind of information Child Protective Services needed to hear.

At 70-Mile Butte, the hike recommended to us, we crawled out of the car, grabbed some water bottles and ventured out into the pleasant evening; a chorus of complaint trailing behind. A little over an hour later, we were back at the car, our departure hastened by young Percy’s need for a bathroom and the Gort’s imminent dissolution.


While the put upon brothers bonded over an ipad in the car, the professor and I walked over – with eyes peeled to the ground for signs of a rattlesnake – to a barbed wire fence where a host of sheep were grazing. We stood for several minutes, staring at the animals and listening. For the sound of a bunch of sheep gnawing on grass is strangely loud, not unlike the beginning of a rainstorm, when fat raindrops fall intermittently on concrete signalling the torrent about to be unleashed from the heavens.

Full from nature and the satisfaction of a decent hike, we climbed back into the car and drove to the tipi. With the sun beginning its descent, I was grateful we were heading back to the campsite, because I couldn’t imagine trying to find one’s way within this veritable labyrinth of similar roads with similar landmarks.

This road with the piece of farm equipment and the dilapidated barn? Or that road with the piece of farm equipment and the dilapidated barn?

Ahead of us an ambulance was racing with flashing lights into the darkening sky. It reminded me of the park’s cautionary information about rattlesnakes: ‘If bitten by a rattlesnake, call 9-1-1- immediately,’ followed by the very helpful ‘phone service limited’ and subsequent suggestions to ‘keep limb below heart level ‘ and ‘don’t drink fluids.’

Enjoy your visit!

Finally, after nearly getting on the wrong road a time or two, we found a sign for the park entrance. In front of it was the ambulance with the flashing lights. And stopped in front of the ambulance was a red Dodge Caravan and the same red-faced owner who’d given us the luggage cart earlier.

Their visit to the parked had ended abruptly.


Many minutes later, having marvelled at deer frolicking in a field, it occurred to us we hadn’t seen any park signs for a very long time. Beyond the entrance where we’d been distracted by the ambulance and the red Dodge Caravan, we hadn’t come across the six points of interest, or the sign pointing us to our tipi. Just gravel. And grass.

And more gravel and more grass.

I had visions of five people sleeping in an unfashionable minivan on the side of the road and the highly anticipated tipi standing empty except for the rattlesnakes that had almost certainly slithered into the bottom of my sleeping bag in our absence.

Just as I uttered the words ‘I really don’t know where we are,’ nearly an hour and a half after we’d left 70 Mile Butte, we came across a park sign and made our way back to the tipi and drifted off to sleep shortly thereafter.

Around 4:30am, I woke up, freezing. The tipi was deceptively light on the inside, suggesting the sun had already risen or was about to do so imminently. I climbed-stumbled through the opening, fully expecting to see the sun, but the sky was still dark. As I contemplated waking everyone for an especially early exit, it occurred to me the border crossing in this very remote area likely didn’t open until 8 or maybe even 9.


Shivering somewhat violently, I crawled back inside and grabbed the Gort’s discarded green sports jacket, stuffing my frozen arms into its slightly short sleeves. I crawled back into my sleeping bag, vaguely poking the bottom of the bag with my foot to see if it held any creatures.

Satisfied that it was, in all likelihood empty, I settled back, waiting for morning.


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