16-Sep-2004 -- We drove northwest on Highway 32 to the town of Portreeve where we turned onto a gravel road and drove directly north until we were about 940 meters from the confluence. We parked beside a cattle coral and headed out across the hills. Cow paths helped us make our way along the sides of fairly steep hills covered with rocks, prairie grasses, wild flowers, scrub brush and cactus. Trees grew in the coulee along a creek bed we followed. It was from this cool shady area that three startled antelope ran off up the hill. Parts of the creek were dry so it was easy for us to cross to the other side where we found the confluence on a steep embankment just below an old rutted roadbed. A cactus grew at the confluence.
The views north and west were close-ups of the side of a hill so one of the views north is from the embankment 6 meters above the spot. It shows a more distant vista that includes the "cowboy shack" mentioned in the first visit. We took a different route back which turned out to be much more challenging as we seemed to have more hills and taller hills to cross over. However, we found a big antler from a mule deer buck in the grass near the trees along the creek - a souvenir of our 60th confluence visit.
We took photos of the terrain 2 km north of the confluence, showing cliffs along the South Saskatchewan River Valley, then of Lemsford Ferry which crosses the South Saskatchewan
River. The ferry operator said it can be a very boring job with an average of only 42 vehicles crossing each week. When the river freezes over in winter, vehicles cross to the other side by driving over the thick ice.
We drove south to Sceptre, home of the Great Sand Hills Museum. The proprietor of "Scavengers" made us up delicious sandwiches accompanied by her own homemade dill pickles and we headed south from Sceptre to explore the sand dunes that make up part of the Great Sand Hills. There is a parking lot at the "Great Sand Hills Viewing Area" with walking trails for viewing wildlife or exploring the dunes.
The Great Sand Hills contains one of the largest concentration of sand dunes in Canada.
It is the largest remaining native prairie area in Saskatchewan, covering about 1,900 square kilometers of sand dunes, rolling grasslands, saline lakes, cotton wood groves and aspen bluffs. The sand dunes rise more than 15 meters above the surrounding prairie. They are believed to have been formed between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago during the last ice age when most of the province was under a massive glacial cover. As the ice began to retreat to the north, the melting ice water carried with it sand, gravel and loam which was deposited in a huge terminal moraine, now known as The Great Sand Hills. Strong winds from the west and northwest cause the large mass of sand and dunes to move east at the rate of about four meters per year.
The Great Sand Hills are home to a number of rare animal species including Ferruginous hawks, burrowing owls, prairie long-tailed weasels, Ord's kangaroo rats, piping plovers, and loggerhead shrikes. Rare plants found in the hills are Downingia, yucca, annual skeleton weed, prickly milk-vetch, small lupine, and Schweinitz cyperus.
This area is coveted by oil and gas companies that believe there is a wealth of fuel below the soil. Much of the Great Sand Hills is zoned as environmentally sensitive and closed to oil and gas activity. However, oil and gas companies, the Government of Saskatchewan, and a local Rural Municipality want to open these protected areas to drilling. Area residents are concerned that the lure of lucrative oil royalties will be difficult for the province to resist and that gas wells will start popping up everywhere. The provincial government has recently announced the results of a two year study on how best to balance the needs of nature and natural gas. The report contains recommendations in nine areas including expanding the area of protected lands, zoning outside protected areas, environmental assessment and ecological monitoring.
We climbed the dunes and took photos. Back at our van we shook the sand out of our shoes and headed towards home after another good day in the great outdoors exploring our province.