Photographing Grasslands National Park Saskatchewan -
Village of Val Marie and the Crossing Resort
by Dr. Robert Berdan
July 31, 2011
Photographer, Ian Neilson points his 100-400 mm lens over the prairie at sunset. Exposed - 1 EV, 300 mm F4 lens.
Journey to Grasslands National Park
Photographing the prairies is not as difficult as I thought it might be and there is a lot more to see than I expected. On Tuesday, July 26, 2011, 6:00 am I joined Ian Neilson and David Lilly in Calgary and headed east to Grasslands National Park to take pictures for a couple of days. It is about a six and half hour drive from Calgary through flat prairie landscape. Generally photographers from Calgary drive to the Mountain Parks or Badlands in Alberta to take landscape and wildlife photos. Banff National Park boasts more than four million visitors a year and at most scenic vistas you can expect crowds during the summer months, so I try to avoid them. In contrast, Grasslands National Park has about 6 to 10 thousand visitors per year. You might think that is because there isn't much to see and photograph - not so. I was pleasantly surprised at just how much there is to see in Grasslands National Park and the surrounding area . This short article points out some of the highlights, places to visit and stay and some of the wildlife we encountered on our trip. If Grasslands National Park is a place you might be considering in the future then check out the links and additional references below.
Road south heading to Val Marie took us through some rolling hills.
Val Marie is a quiet village just outside Grasslands National park. It has a population of about 150 and serves as the gateway to the park. Folks in town are friendly and they offer essentials such as food , fuel and even an Internet cafe. About 50% of the folks are employed in agriculture, the rest by federal government (parks staff), natural gas industry or tourism. The town has a library, art gallery, post office and hockey arena. The Val Marie Hotel is open year round and offers rooms starting at $35\night for a single and $55 for a double and includes high speed Internet (306-298-4888). Another place to stay in town is at the Convent Inn where you can get a room starting at $64\night – see web their site. The Rosefield Church and Guesthouse B&B offers rooms for $115\night double occupancy for 2011 (see website for details). There is also village campground with rates starting at $15\night. There is a grocery store\liquor store where we made several visits to pick up food. There is also an Esso station that supplies unleaded gas and diesel fuel (accepts credit cards only) and is open from 8 am to 5 pm on weekdays and from 1-5 pm on weekends. On the edge of town is photogenic grain elevator. The town is surrounded by grain fields and the Frenchman river runs through the town.
The Internet café seems to be the social gathering spot in town with art work, books, museum, lattes and other treats. The cafe is open from 10 am to 6 pm, 7 days a week, May to October (see their web site). You can read more about the history of Val Marie on their web site. While at the Internet café we were fortunate to meet Laura, a student working on her Master’s Thesis for the University of Regina on rattle snakes. After getting approval by her supervisor we joined her and her assistant for a walk to find rattlesnakes. We also met another professional photographer Robert Postma who showed some us of his amazing photographs of prairie storms (visit his web site Distant Horizons to see more of his work). If visiting Val Marie be sure to stop in to the Internet Cafe you never know who you might meet.
Inside the Internet Cafe -they sell books, Field notes, coffee, lattes, and snacks.
Hotel Val Marie with rates starting at $35\night and includes a restaurant
Val Marie Grain Elevator -and a passing thunder storm. The Grain elevator is being repaired.
Field beside the grain elevator - in the foreground small white and pink flowers are Baby's Breath (Gypsophita paniculata)
The Crossing Resort
The Crossing resort is located about 5 Km south of Val Marie on the edge of Grasslands National Park and is run by Ken Jensen and his wife Johana. Rooms at the Inn have a kitchenette, living room, bedroom with 3/4 bath and spectacular views of the park. All utensils, towels and bedding are supplied. One suite has two single beds; the other has a double bed. Both have satellite television and laptop/telephone access. Each suite can accommodate up to two portable beds. We paid $106\night after taxes which we split between the three of us. There is a campground, tipis, and small pond on their property. From our balcony we looked east and south over the park. We photographed Loggerhead Shrikes, barn swallows, mallards, sage grouse, robins, and night hawks on his property. In the evening I photographed the night sky including the milky way. On this trip we enjoyed gourmet meals cooked for us by Ian Neilson a retired award winning chef. Dave and I haven’t won any awards for dish washing yet, but we believe we did a pretty good job. When I return to Grasslands National Park I would like to stay at the Crossing Resort again, its proximity to the park and beautiful views make it my first choice of places to stay. Being outside of town it also serves as an excellent location for dark sky observation.
The Crossing Resort looking towards Val Marie in the distance.
Sunrise from the porch in front of our room at about 5:40 am
Short 30 sec time lapse movie of the sunrise over Grasslands National Park from The Crossing
Grass mixed with blue sage brush - the sage brush was used by natives who rubbed it on their skin to ward off
mosquito bites. Rattles snakes also like to hide in the sage brush so be careful if you sit next to a shrub.
Pond at the Crossing - there was a family of mallards residing on the pond.
Grasslands National Park
Having only two full days to explore the region we were determined to make the most of our time. This year the region experienced much more rainfall then usual resulting in lush green fields and prairie sloughs filled with water. We took two hiking trips into the park. The first was with a rattle snake researcher, Laura and her assistant. Using a GPS and radio device they located three rattle snakes, one in a hole in the ground, another two under a sage brush. We searched an area near their hibernacula, but were not able to find any more. The researchers wear special boots to protect them from bites (see picture below). Rattle snakes are not aggressive and will try to avoid contact with people, the main danger is stepping on one or reaching into a crevice or under a bush where they might be resting. The snakes are well camouflaged so it is possible to walk by one without seeing it – so beware. If bitten, Call 911 and seek medical attention, stay calm and do not run, keep the bitten area below the heart. If hiking in rattle snake country wear protective, over the ankle footwear, tall boots and or gaters and long pants. If you see a rattle snake count yourself lucky - there are not that many left.
Along the dirt road into the park from highway 18 we spotted Bison, several colonies of black-tailed prairie dogs which are only found in Grasslands National Park. We also photographed several pronghorns and a young fox (red or swift?), swift foxes are an endangered species. A white tailed deer and fawn posed for us along the road and at one stop we photographed a pair of Western Kingbirds. On the next day we took a guided tour into the park down to the Frenchman river and hiked along an old wagon trail. Later in the day we visited an old cabin by Will James built in 1910 who became an author and illustrator of 24 books. The park is divided into two sections, a West end and an East End. We only had time to sample the West End of the Park on this trip.
Hilly terrain in Grasslands National park photographed at sunset. Canon 5D Mark II, 300 mm F4 lens.
Grasses comprise the most important plants on the prairie and there are many different species some native and some introduced. Top Left: Crested Wheatgrass, Top Right: unknown grass species iMiddle Left: June grass Middle Right: Crested wheat grass Bottom Left: Prairie Coneflower Bottom Right: Common Goat's-Beard.
Close-up of a single coneflower (Ratibida columnifera) some natives used this flower to make a tea - 100 mm Macro lens
Top left - Western Kingbird photographed outside of the Canada Parks office, Top right, young Loggerhead Shrike also called Butcher birds because they impale insects and small rodents on the barb wire fences. Bottom left: Western Meadowlark their beautiful song is often heard before they are seen. Bottom right: A common night hawk, they are often heard in the evening around dusk and early mornings. They have a distinct nasal sound and feed on flying insects.
Swainson Hawk on a nest. We found this hawk about 6 feet off the ground in a small tree while driving into Val Marie.
Top left: Dragon flies were numerous and feed on those pesky mosquitos. Top Right: We found clusters of Yellow sulphur butterflies in the park drinking from mud pools beside the road. A Cricket on the drive way at the Crossing Resort. Bottom left: A mosquito about to suck blood from its human host.
Scanning electron micrograph of a mosquito proboscis (Magnification 2000X) with mosquitos on top of the print (DM). I took the scanning electron micrograph years ago. The photo shows you what a mosquito sticks into your skin to suck out blood.
To protect yourself from mosquitos be sure to bring insect repellent with you, wear long sleeve shirts, long pants that are light in colour. My tripod legs are black and were covered with mosquitoes - so avoid wearing dark colours. A mosquito or bug shirt may be essential if you are hiking in areas near the French river. The mosquitos seemed more abundant in the early morning and evening hours. Animals and humans often prefer to walk on the top of hilly ridges when there is a strong wind to avoid mosquitos. The mosquitos are an annoyance and can carry West Nile Disease (see below).
Close-up of a Sulphur Butterfly - 300 mm F4 telephoto lens. Male sulphurs often congregate on damp mud banks in
order to extract salt from the mineral rich mud.
Animals of Grasslands National Park
Bison - photographed from the road. It is recommended that you keep a safe distance of at least 100 meters.
Also bring along a pair of binoculars if hiking so you can spot them off in the distance.
Black-tailed Prairie dog photographed from the road in the park . These prairie dogs are only found in Grasslands
National park and are an endangered species. They are quite vocal.
Female Pronghorns, Grasslands National Park taken with 300 mm F4 lens and 1.4x Teleconverter from the road. Pronghorns
are the fastest land mamals in North Amercia and both sexes have antlers though males have larger ones.
Red Fox (Kit) was seen along highway 18 outside of the Park - he kept to the bushes which made him difficult to focus on with the tall grass in front of him. He disappeared down a hole within a minute after we spotted him. There is now a self sustaning population of swif foxes in and around the East and West Blocks of Grasslands National Park. Swift foxes are still designated as an endangered species. Foxes are bred in Calgary and at the Cochrane ecological reserve for release and export into the US.
Swift Fox Vulpes velox (CS) 300 mm F2.8 lens, Nkon Camera (CS)
Swift Fox - Vulpes Velox (CS) 300 mm F2.8 lens, Nikon Camera (CS)
White-tailed fawn - Mom was close by taking a dump beside the road.
Left: Laura - rattle snake researcher with antenna used to locate rattle snakes embedded with microchips. Right: Laura sporting the latest fashion in rattle snake boot wear. Most of us wore over the ankle boots and gaters.
Group including David Lilly , Robert Postma, Laura, Mike and Ian Neilson hiking in the park searching for rattlesnakes.
Prairie Rattle snake - Photo taken at Red rock Coulee. The snakes we found on our hike were hiding in shallow holes or under sage brush and though we could see them clearly we could not get a clear photograph of them. For more pictures of ratlesnakes see my article on Red Rock Coulee.
What you should beware of in Grasslands National Park?
Mosquitos are annoying in the early morning and evening hours. To protect yourself wear long sleeve shirts, long pants and bring along insect repellent. A mosquito hat or shirt is also recommended. The main danger associated with mosquitos is that some of them may carry West Nile disease. West Nile disease is caused by a virus that although asymptomatic in about 90% of individuals it can cause flu like symptoms in others (about 10%) and even death in about 1% of individuals. West Nile disease is relatively rare in Canada, though it is something you should be aware of. For information on West Nile Disease see links below.
Bison are the most dangerous animals in the park so its best to give them a wide berth (100 meters). In most cases you should be able to view them a long way off or from you car. There are several hundred Bison in the park and the plan is to manage their numbers so they do not exceed about 350 animals. The bison in the park were imported from Elk Island National park near Edmonton.
Chances are you won’t see a rattle snake, but you should consult the park maps for regions they are known to be common. They like to hide in Sage brushes, holes in the ground and under rocks during the day. In fact rattle snakes are rare, endangered and you chances of seeing one is low – if you do see one be thankful and take it’s picture from a safe distance using your telephoto lens.
Another concern if photographing the Black-tailed prairie dogs is that these animals can carry a flea born disease called the Plague. In some instances park staff may dust the holes with insecticides to prevent this. If you visit and get close to the prairie dog holes for photographic purposes, check that you don’t attract any fleas and under no circumstances make contact with the prairie dogs. Chances for infection are very low. The disease is caused by a bacterium Yerinia pestis and is spread from rodent to rodent through fleas. If a colony is infected it is usually wiped out in a very short time. If people are infected the disease can be treated with antibiotics, but if untreated is nearly 100% fatal. Also watch out for Black widow spiders that sometimes nest in the entrance of the prairie dog holes.
Wood Ticks can carry Lyme disease so if you have been hiking check yourself for any evidence of ticks at the end of the day. They are most likely to hitch a ride in your hair where you don’t notice them and then they will bite you while you sleep. They can also attach to your camera bag or backpack and crawl up into your hair when you put your back on after it was sitting on the ground. If bitten seek out a doctor who may give you antibiotics for 10 days (not pleasant). You won’t feel the bite though having a fat tick full of blood resting on your body can be a frightening experience. If bitten by a Tick infected with Lyme disease and you are left untreated it can cause neurological symptoms months or years later. Lyme disease can be difficult to diagnose be sure to inform you doctor if you have travelled through Tick county.
Other dangers in the park include sink holes, quick sand, flooded areas or mud after rainfall, grass fires, spines from prickly cactus and dehydration during hot weather. Bring lots of water with you if you plan to hike several km or more. If you are hiking and encounter a thunderstorm seek shelter or get low to the ground to avoid being hit by lightening.
No place in the world is completely safe, but if you are prepared and know what you might encounter your chances of falling prey are very low - be knowledgeable and prepared. At least you don't have to worry about cougars or Grizzlies in the park, though they once roamed these areas, but because of nearby livestock will not be re-introduced to the park.
Thunderstorm in the early morning moving over the Grasslands photographed from the The Crossing Resort
Funnel cloud over the Grasslands from the Crossing Resort
During the day we spotted localized storms with a wide variety of cloud formations. I believe the prairie sky with its ever changing weather and cloud formations is one of the most interesting subjects to photograph and they can be even more interesting at night if you bring along some binoculars or a telescope.
Dark Skies for Astronomy
Milky way over Grasslands National park, photographed from the Crossing. Canon 5D Mark II, 24 mm F1.4 lens,
30 second exposure at ISO 1600. The Milky way, a pale band of light formed by stars in the galactic plane is difficult to see in the city due to light pollution.
Dark Sky Observation
On October 2, 2009 Grasslands National Park was declared a Dark Sky Preserve. Light pollution around cities and through most of the developed world prevents us from seeing faint stars and the milky way – the edge of our galaxy. Astronomy enthusiasts seek out dark skies in remote areas and bring their telescopes to view the night sky. While staying at the park they were hosting a Star party – this is where science geeks bring their telescopes, computers and other fancy gadgets to look at the Universe and wonder if we are really alone. I am one of those science geeks. To photograph the night sky, however all you need is a camera, tripod and fast lens – i.e. one with F2.8 or F1.4. I used a 24 mm F1.4 lens which is also use to take photographs of the Northern Lights (see my article on Aurora photography). I set the ISO setting to 1600 and take exposures between 15 to 30 seconds at F1.4. The exposure times may vary depending on how clear night sky is. The best nights are those with a new moon i.e. no visible moon. On Thursday evening the RASC club of Saskatchewan had a training session just south of the Crossing on the Two Trees interpretive trail and set up several tele-scopes. The only problem with night sky observations in the summer are those pesky mosquitos and condensation which can occur on the telescope or camera lens when the air cools and becomes moist.
Night Sky over The Crossing Resort, the Andromeda galaxy is seen as a smudge, it is about 2.5 million years from our planet and the galaxy's shape is similar to our own. There was also a faint green aurora glow over the resort. View high power view of the Andromeda galaxy here.
Amateur astronomers check out the night sky and milky way from Two Trees Trail - 15 second exposure, F1.4, ISO 1600
Star party with several telescopes set up. David Lilly and Ian Neilson on the right talking with astronomer. Exposure
15 seconds, 24 mm F1.4 lens on a tripod.
Viewing the night sky is always more fun in a group as most amateur astronomers are keen to share their experiences with others. However, if you approach a Star Party turn your bright car lights off and don’t shine a bright flash light around randomly. Most astronomers use a red light and even cover their computer monitors with red mylar sheets so they don’t lose their night adaptation while observing. The only other thing I recommend you bring along is a thermos full of coffee to stay awake in the wee hours of the morning.
Dusty road at sunset looking west from the Crossing drive way.
Recommended Photographic Gear to Bring along
What camera gear you bring along depends on whether you plan to travel through the park in a car, hike or camp overnight. If traveling by car I bring all my camera gear. When hiking I carry about 40 pounds of gear and a bottle of water. A wide angle lens for landscapes and a telephoto lens for wildlife is recommended. A walking pole or tripod is useful and don’t forget your insect repellent and bug hat. I would always bring a hat to protect my head and neck from the sun in summer and if available I apply sun screen. If you want to minimize weight bring along a compact camera or an SLR with an 18-200 mm zoom lens. For flower and close-up photography of insects and lichens a macro lens comes in handy. What ever you do let someone know where you are going and drive a well maintained vehicle. There is much to see and photograph on the prairies and I plan to return again soon. Bring your binoculars, camera and a few guide books and you won't be disappointed. RB
How to Get to Val Marie and Grasslands National Park
Map showing the location of Val Marie, The Crossing Resort and Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan
Thanks to James Page for identifying the Baby's Breath and Foxtail Barely grass.