Photo: Grey Owl's cabin on Ajawaan Lake in Prince Albert National Park. (Photo: Fremte/Wikimedia Commons)
“It’s quite an experience when you’ve ridden for part of a day and all of a sudden there’s a huge bull bison staring you down,” says Gord Vaadeland, Sturgeon River Ranch owner. “Unlike tame bison, though, the plains bison [in Prince Albert National Park] respect you. They’re hunted by wolves and outside of the park by aboriginal hunters, so they are elusive and vigilant.”
Vaadeland and his trail guides lead you deep into this green outback in central Saskatchewan, where for four days in the saddle you’ll watch and listen for plains bison — North America’s heftiest land animal — not to mention moose, elk, wolves, black bears and even cougars. You’ll also eat hearty, well-earned meals cooked on the trail and sleep in a teepee under huge Prairie skies famous for their brilliant stars and northern lights. “This is for people with real adventurous spirits,” says Vaadeland. “There’s always something out there that surprises us — even those of us who are in the park all the time.”
When to go
Trail rides into Prince Albert National Park are up-and-running from mid-May to October, weather dependent.
What to bring
Sturgeon River Ranch offers two-, three-, four-, and five-day horse pack trips ($500 to $1,050). Remember that while you’ll be on horseback and sleeping in the wilderness for a few days, your guides will provide all riding tack, shelter and meals cooked on the trail. Summers are warm, here, but nights can be significantly cooler than days, and like anywhere on the Prairies storm clouds can blow in with little warning. Roll practical layers into your backpack: a few short- and long-sleeved shirts and a sweater or two, as well as a water-resistant windbreaker. Sturdy, comfortable outdoor shoes (no slip-ons) are a must and jeans are recommended.
Where to stay
On multi-day trail riding trips with Sturgeon River Ranch, you’ll split your nights between teepees, yurts on Nesslin Lake or cosy boreal cabins on Nesslin Creek. Those who prefer to keep their feet on the trails and see Prince Albert unguided can pitch their tents at any of the park’s 14 backcountry campgrounds, including the southern Fish Lake, Camp Lake and Hunters Lake camping areas. The latter is less than 10 kilometres east of the bison herd’s range.
The plains bison herd in Prince Albert started off as a small herd of between 10 and 22, part of larger group of 50 imported from Alberta’s Elk Island National Park in 1969 to provide sustenance for First Nations in the area. When the animals were dropped off in the Thunder Hills north of Prince Albert, they roamed south. The herd’s numbers peaked between 2006 and 2008 at more than 400, but have since dropped to around 200.
Read before you go
Grey Owl’s Pilgrims of the Wild (1935) was the first of three bestsellers published by the conservationist and would-be aboriginal while he lived in “Beaver Lodge” on Ajawaan Lake in Prince Albert National Park. It tells of his transformation from trapper to environmentalist and the healing powers of “the great Northland” in which he communed with nature.