Travel

The Crooked Bush: Saskatchewan’s botanical phenomenon 

How a mutant grove of trees is adding mystery to the prairies

  • Oct 27, 2022
  • 875 words
  • 4 minutes
The Crooked Bush is made up of a twisted grove of aspen trees, bending in ways that are unusual for this type of tree. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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My rental car bullets north down a straight prairie road in the biting October chill leaving Saskatoon in the dust. The dull overcast sky is suitably ominous for the mission ahead:  search for a mysterious forest of dubious origin. It’s also the afternoon of Halloween, an apt occasion to explore a stand of trees sprouting like a botanical nightmare.

“Y’all ain’t the first driving these parts lookin’ for trees.” A teenager at a gas station in Hafford, Sask., hands me a leaflet with information about my unusual destination. It reads: “The Crooked Bush is a group of wild aspen trees that twist, loop and bend into the eeriest of forests.” Then, for dramatic effect, it adds: “Courage of stone is necessary to visit at night.”  With the supply chain crunch, I guess nobody can source steel balls anymore.   

In a sprawling landscape ruled by gravel roads, Crooked Bush is a challenging place to find. The GPS coordinates I picked up online are pinging me all over the prairies, hence the gas station detour. Maybe there’s a Bermuda Triangle causing havoc in the endless wheat fields. Eventually, I follow another car which leads me down a dirt road to a parking lot with a pockmarked sign helpfully signalling I’ve arrived in the right place.  “Welcome to the Crooked Bush,” it reads, followed by “botanical mystery” and “natural treasure.” A cracked boardwalk that has seen better days leads into the small aspen forest, which is immediately distinguishable from other small aspen forests because aspen forests typically resemble giant upright pencils poked into the earth. Here, the trees are warped like the arthritic hands of an evil witch, knotted in confusion and about as straight as cooked spaghetti. Silver bark is cracked and peeling, battered by the elements and scarred by the imagination. The piercing breeze picks up to add a warm layer of goosebumps.

Local legends attribute the misshapenness of the trees to phenomena like UFO landings and lighting strikes while scientists believe it was caused by a genetic mutation. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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These misshapen trees are about 70 years old but only about 15 to 20 feet tall, five times shorter than a typical 70-year-old aspen. Anything but ordinary, they’re growing in pretzels as if confused by the concept of gravity. Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan have attributed their weird formations to a rare genetic mutation. Instead of growing skyward, the branches are growing downward. The fact that aspen forests all grow from the same genetic clone has created this rare, mutant forest. 

This is the boring and likely logical explanation. I prefer the more colourful local legends, like locals who claim to have seen UFOs flitting about, landing where the grove is. Theories also abound of a meteorite hitting the land where the forest first sprouted, contaminating the soil to result in a strange mutation. This sounds like a great arboreal superhero origin story.  

There are also stories of giant sap-slurping rabbits causing the deformations (I did not make that up) and tales of cows refusing to go anywhere near the bush. One farmer claims to have seen aliens urinating in the trees, which is obviously the real reason behind this mystery. When an alien has to go, it has to go. Do these twisty trees better suit the anatomy of an extra-terrestrial looking for cover? It remains a mystery wrapped in an enigma and covered in bark. 

A cracked boardwalk leads visitors through the grove of crooked aspen trees. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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Located on private property, the grove’s owner Rick Simmonds jokes that a lawyer was buried here, hence the crooked bush. Surely it was a politician? The jury is out.  Regardless, when local lore of the Crooked Bush began to spread, more and more visitors started showing up. Crooked Bush got featured in the news, written up in a couple of travel books (mine included), and today it’s a genuine oddball landmark amid the flat prairie farmland. 

There’s nothing intrinsically spooky about any destination other than the history and stories that are told about them. I toured a legendary haunted house in Savannah, Georgia, the creepy cells of the Old Melbourne Gaol, and a bizarre human bone church in the central Czech Republic. Far more disturbing were sites of human atrocities in Cambodia and Poland. Crooked Bush sits on an entirely different branch of the Spooky Destination tree.  

This is not to say the place doesn’t radiate its own particular creepiness. As I strolled along the creaking boardwalks, the area’s energy just didn’t sit right. It was Halloween, after all, and the grove somehow felt preternaturally still in the bone-chilling breeze. Eventually, a yolk of sunset broke beneath the grey horizon, but the golden light seemed to skirt the grove altogether. My wife looked at me, and I looked and her, and we both decided our time would be better spent driving back to Saskatoon before our imaginations – and that overwhelming prairie sky –  got too dark. 

Crooked Bush is located about a 75-minute drive north from Saskatoon. Here are the official directions: ​14.5 km W of Hafford on Hwy 40 (pass Speers to Flint Rd), 16 km N, then 2.5 km E. Watch for signs at Flint Rd and 16 km mark. Latitude: 52.86948° N, Longitude: -107.5336° W.

This explains why you might also find yourself asking a gas station attendant for directions.

Happy Halloween.

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