Story by Jenn Smith Nelson
PRINCE ALBERT NATIONAL PARK, SASKATCHEWAN — This is it, me and the bison. Things are getting intense. I hear them — grunts to the left, right and in front of me. In the not-too-far-off distance a large herd of bison are definitely taking notice of the intrusion. How the heck did I get myself into a situation where I am this close to a herd of free-roaming bison?
Horseback riding through the scenic boreal forest in Prince Albert National Park (PANP) had been on my mind for a while. When I met Gord Vaadeland, owner of Sturgeon River Ranch he told me, “Chances for wildlife viewing within the park are good but seeing bison is highly likely.”
Vaadeland, who also works in bison conservation, shares that seeing them in PANP is truly special as it is the last remaining native Plains bison range where they still roam free in Canada.
While I love all animals, I am still a bit biased. What really drew me into the Saskatchewan adventure wasn’t the bison. It was the chance to ride horses and spot black bears, wolves or new birds to add to my life list.
We start our adventure on a widely marked park trail and soon enter the dense forest. Navigating down a small path nestled between endless pines I scour the brush for signs of life. Dane, a sweet-natured, bay-coloured, Arabian cross is my ride for the day. Riding along beside us is her super-cute three-month-old foal, Hazel.
No Bull — Seeing Bison in Saskatchewan is “Highly Likely”
We are only 10 or so minutes in and Vaadeland’s horse Jackson hears something and reacts by bucking back on two legs. He is “sensitive to other animals.” Dane and Hazel are also spooked. Hazel is trying her best to hide behind Dane. I want to hide behind Dane. Just ahead, no more than 50 metres, is a massive bull. I’m suddenly aware of just how alone we are in the middle of the forest.
We calm down and try to remain inconspicuous as we watch the young male from behind the confines of a fence. He’s more enormous than any other (2,000 pounds or so) bison I’ve seen. Sensing us, he swiftly takes off, crossing the path up ahead.
Thankfully, Vaadeland waits until the bison leaves to tell me they can be aggressive in the wild — especially if startled. But I’m also assured that generally they want nothing to do with people. Phew. We move on and I think about how seeing the lone bison was neat — from a good, safe distance. I jokingly ask Vaadeland if bison are indeed herbivores.
It’s mid-August — marking the bison mating season and peak activity time where they are most restless. While we ride I begin to feel weary of their unpredictable temperaments as I know now they could be anywhere.
We make our way back to a patch of open prairie when the “magic,” as Vaadeland calls it, happens. A herd of 70 or so bison is ostensibly waiting for us and blocking the path.
The sight urges me to get off my horse and capture some photographs. Meanwhile, Vaadeland remains with the horses. I peer back to see him motioning me to keep moving ahead. The excitement turns into anxiety.
Fifteen yards from my group I am suddenly hyper aware of my surroundings, and noisy bison gruffs are seemingly streaming in from every angle. I look down to notice a bison jaw at my foot.
Why Am I Freaked Out by Bison?
When I glance up, I take in the beautiful scene — bison gathered and grazing, munching on the yellow prairie grasses. It’s almost surreal.
So why am I so freaked out? My heart, rapidly beating has moved into my throat. Fear paralyzes me. I wonder if a rogue male is in the bush about to charge. Even though I’ve been around a lot of wild animals, this instance sends me into a nervous state.
After I make it back to Dane, the bison gallop away, clearing the path for us to forge ahead. I breathe again and laugh as I realize at that moment I was as spastic as Vaadeland’s “sensitive horse,” Jackson.
Driving home I couldn’t stop thinking of the bison. How loud they were. How close they were. How large they were. How small we are. I think about the conservation effort to protect them and their native grounds. I call my guide.
“The bison’s presence on the plains really moved me, Gord,” I say. “Even though I was unexpectedly anxious around them, it was really special. I want to come back.”
He kindly responds that the invitation will always remain open. While there, I didn’t see anything beyond bison but that was ok. Next time, I will return with the hope of running smack dab into a herd.
MORE ABOUT STURGEON RIVER RANCH
Location: Sturgeon River Ranch is on the west of Prince Albert National Park in northern Saskatchewan.
Dates of Operation: The ranch is open year round.
Reservations: Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call the ranch at 1-306-69-2356 or 1-306-469-7876 (cell phone).
Packages: A variety of packages from three-hour rides to multi-day trips on the west side of Prince Albert National Park can be arranged. Offerings and prices are listed below or a custom itinerary can be developed upon request.
- Three-hour rides – $100/rider, includes trail lunch.
- Five-hour rides – $125/rider, includes trail lunch.
- Five-hour horse-drawn wagon ride – $300 flat rate for up to five guests, $60/each additional passenger.
- Overnight trips – $250/day per person, includes tipi accommodations (www.sturgeonriverranch.com/accomodations), breakfast, trail lunch, supper and a bunch of other fun things. Rates for three- and four-day trips are listed on the website.
Accommodations/Tipi Camping: You can extend your stay with an exciting outback trip. Stay in a comfortable tipi, fully equipped with cots, toasty sleeping bags, and even a little wood stove, should you need to keep the chill off. These tipis are the perfect end to a day of riding.
Prince Albert National Park: Waskesiu Lake ranked fifth among the Vacay.ca 2013 Top 20 Places to Travel in Canada. It is among the top attractions in the park. Others include Wild West Side and Paspiwin Cultural Heritage Site. Prince Albert National Park offers four seasons of great activity for visitors.