by Robin and Arlene Karpan
July 28, 2016
What's so special about Saskatchewan for nature photography? Answering that question is the theme of our newest book, Photographer's Guide to Saskatchewan. It is intended to alert photographers to the tremendous opportunities, from special spots in well-known parks to a wealth of off-the-beaten-track hidden treasures.
This is among the top places in North America to photograph the ruggedly beautiful native prairie, with easily accessible Grasslands National Park as a centrepiece. Here we also find some of Canada's baddest badlands, the most impressive being the Killdeer Badlands in the East Block of Grasslands National Park. From the road-accessible valley rim viewpoint, you face north over the wild formations, making this a prime spot for both sunrise and sunset photography.
A highlight of the Big Muddy Badlands is Castle Butte, an imposing, free-standing flat-topped butte isolated on the valley floor. Prime time for photography is sunrise in mid-summer when the sun clears the horizon on the lowest part of the valley floor and shines up at the monolith, bathing it in a warm red glow. Not far away, surprises await in the little-known Avonlea Badlands where you can explore hoodoos galore and other eroded formations in a compact area.
Great Sand Hills
Saskatchewan is the sand dune capital of Canada, with both the country's largest dune fields (Athabasca Sand Dunes) and second largest (Great Sand Hills), plus a few others thrown in for variety, such as in Douglas Provincial Park and Good Spirit Lake Provincial Park. But it's not just size that matters. The Athabasca Sand Dunes are unique in the world. As we might expect, most major sand dunes are in deserts or arid areas. But here they are seemingly misplaced in the midst of boreal forest, lined by one of Canada's largest lakes, and sliced by three rivers. You can even explore the dunes by canoe! The interplay of sand, trees, and water is simply mesmerizing. Climb the knife-edge crest of a 30-metre-high dune for sunset, and you have to remind yourself that you're still in Saskatchewan. Adding to the photo possibilities are ghostly remnants of an exhumed forest, an unusually high number of rare and endemic plants, or aerial photography of the sand-clogged William River.
The Cypress Hills are in a class by themselves - a pleasing mix of highlands, grasslands and forest. The combination of habitats also makes it exceptionally rich in wildlife, along with Saskatchewan's best wildflower displays and more wild orchids than anywhere on the prairies. We chose an image of the Conglomerate Cliffs in the Cypress Hills for the book cover - an outstanding spot for sunrise, where the sun clears the horizon over the plains below and immediately floods the cliffs with crimson shades.
We also include some lesser-known one-of-a-kind gems that beg to be photographed, such as Lake Diefenbaker's fairytale Sandcastle where eroded castle-like spires contrast against the green hills of the lake's north shore. Then there's the other-worldly Crooked Bush that seems straight from the pages of a fantasy novel. In this small woodland, every branch and trunk of every tree is wildly twisted and contorted while surrounding bushes are perfectly normal.
We are especially drawn to northern Saskatchewan as a photo destination, a mostly pristine wilderness with 100,000 lakes and a mind-boggling array of interconnected rivers made famous during the fur trade, and now home to some of the best canoeing in the country. While you can access several great places by road, travelling by canoe gets you to some amazing spots that few people visit. There's the combination of picturesque lakes and wild rapids on the Churchill River, whimsically sculpted sandstone formations of the Fond du Lac River, imposing granite cliffs of the Porcupine River, magnificent waterfalls of the Grease River, and brilliant orange-tinged Skull Canyon on the Clearwater River. The most accessible wilderness is also the province's largest protected area - Prince Albert National Park, home to legendary Grey Owl who called the park one of Canada's greatest wilderness playgrounds.
Wildlife runs the gamut from big game such as bear, moose, elk, and deer to prairie specialties such as pronghorn and the only black-tailed prairie dogs in Canada. But where Saskatchewan really shines for wildlife photography is in its birdlife. Long famous as "North America's Duck Factory", a quarter of ducklings on the continent are raised here. We also have half of Canada's pelicans, some of the country's few remaining burrowing owls, half of Canada's sites in the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN), the world's largest concentration of breeding white-winged scoters, and a quarter of the world's endangered piping plovers. Chaplin Lake along the Trans-Canada Highway is so critical to migrating shorebirds (including half of the world's sanderlings) that WSHRN named it of Hemispheric Importance, the only spot in Canada's interior with that designation. We're also located smack on the Central North American Flyway, where we have easy access to some of nature's most breathtaking spectacles, with hundreds of thousands of geese, cranes, and other waterfowl that stage here during fall migration.
For nature photography, the quality of the light is key. Fortunately, Saskatchewan's Land of Living Skies slogan lives up to its hype, with clear air, skies of the bluest blue, some of the most dazzling sunrises and sunsets on the planet, and the thrilling drama of sudden summer storms. For night photography, it's not at all difficult to get away from light pollution. We've been fortunate to have photographed in some incredible places around the world, but when it comes to the quality of the light, we've found few places to match what we enjoy in Saskatchewan.
Tipi and Milky Way
While most of the book is about special places, we've included a few sidebars called "Getting the Shot", with details on how we went about taking specific images. Samples include an action shot of a ruffed grouse on a drumming log, a close-up of a red-necked grebe taken from a floating blind, a tipi against the Milky Way, northern lights, and aerial shots of the William River.
A big bonus of photographing in Saskatchewan is what you don't see - a lot of people. Since Saskatchewan is not well known as a nature photography destination, we almost never have to contend with crowds. Head out to a magical spot for golden hour photography, and it's not at all unusual to have the place to yourself.
The 208-page Photographer's Guide to Saskatchewan, featuring over 250 colour photos and directions to the province's many photographic hotspots, is available at bookstores and gift shops throughout Saskatchewan, and directly from www.parklandpublishing.com.
Robin and Arlene Karpan - Athabasca Sand Dunes
About the Authors
Robin and Arlene Karpan are writers, photographers, and book publishers based in Saskatoon. They are authors of several books, plus their writing and photography has appeared in over 100 publications around the world. Among the many awards for their work is a recent First Place win for the Best Action Photo of the Year in the Travel Media Association of Canada Awards (plus an Outstanding Achievement Award in the same category). See all their books at www.parklandpublishing.com. Robin and Arlene also publish a blog on travel photography (mostly nature-oriented) at www.photojourneys.ca.
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