Photographing classic rural landscapes that depict links to the past can be a daunting task in terms of ferreting out locations and determining which season and time of day would make for a productive visit. Fortunately, western North America is blessed with several great areas that still house opportunities that provide a glimpse of early homestead life. Certainly scenes from the Washington Palouse or Alberta foothills come to mind. The south country of Saskatchewan is no exception. It is a remarkable region, encompassing the whole of the Wood Mountain Uplands. Here the hills and grasslands stretch from the Frenchman River Valley to the Big Muddy, housing signs of an early prairie heritage including abandoned homesteads, rusting farm machinery and decaying grain elevators that sit in contrast to the modern culture of mega farms, oil and gas extraction and the odd bit of ranching. It's an area of contradictions with a landscape that will challenge your photography skills, especially if the much vaunted prairie weather coughs up a sudden thunder storm or billowing clouds that can create dramatic sunrise and sunset perspectives.
We chose to visit in early September with the hope that the harvest would be getting underway, some classic weather would materialise and that a little serendipity might bless our travels. We began in the Cypress Hills and crept slowly east along "The Traders Route," the historic name for what today is known as the Heartland Heritage Highway 18. Our tact was to focus on what can loosely be described as "ghost towns," or small out-of-the-way bergs that were the mainstay of early Saskatchewan settlement. Here we looked for old barns, abandoned farm machinery, rusting vehicles or any setting that would depict a hint of the old west.
Starting at Maple Creek we explored the Cypress Hills area and encountered many Red-Tailed Hawks along Highway 271 as we approached the Fort Walsh National Historic site. This is a great place to capture a panorama of the fort that incorporates both the surrounding hills and the adjacent cemetery. Cypress Hills Park found us exploring the back roads looking for colourful aspen groves. If you have the time and the right conditions prevail, we recommend a sunset visit to Bald Butte.
Robsart and Ravenscrag brought our first real contact with the past, providing opportunities to compose old vehicles and abandoned houses in what turned out to be the only stormy day we encountered on our trip. Our destination that evening was the village of Val Marie where we stayed at the Convent bed-and-breakfast, a well preserved 1939 high school originally operated by The Sisters of Assumption. This is the entrance to Grasslands National Park and a good place to capture star trails on a clear night. We had fun with the Black-Tailed Prairie Dogs as we entered the west block of the park then looked for opportunities to photograph a prairie panorama. Unfortunately the Bison failed to cooperate and we were left with a cloudless sky and a vastness that defied even an interesting panorama as endless grass doesn't make for much of an subject! However, one suggestion if clouds are present is to watch for reflections in small road side ponds. Later in the day we back tracked to Orkney to look for an abandoned church, then proceeded to Masefield where we found hay bales made a great backdrop to the remnants of an old homestead. Watch roadside as you head to Val Marie for a pond on the left that creates some stunning reflections if the weather is calm.
The next day, as we headed towards the east block Killdeer Badlands, serendipity finally kicked in as we encountered owners willing to let us photograph homestead properties that still housed old barns and abandoned vehicles. The latter location is another good opportunity to get your panorama bar out! The next leg of our journey took us through the Fife Lake region and Castle Butte where the Big Muddy Valley produced not only some good landscapes but also harvesting perspectives of many working combines. As we progressed toward Regina, we visited some old stone churches in Heward and Davin. Not surprisingly, the back roads were once again littered with combine activity.
Regina was a stopover that afforded us the opportunity to take in the Mossbank area, arriving early for a sunrise image of the granary at Briercrest. Highway 716 houses old vehicles and homesteads that are great to capture in morning light. Watch for the Bay Island School just before Old Wives Lake as it is next to a wheat field that produces an interesting perspective if it hasn't been harvested yet. A must trip to the north east of Regina is the Qu'Appelle Valley, especially the Anglican church near Craven and the abandoned Bethlehem Lutheran ruins near Southey.
To wind up our visit, we traveled north west to the Great Sand Hills through a treasure of homestead heritage country beginning along Highway 720 at Neidpath. This is a must location for the old grain elevators, an abandoned church and a vehicle bone yard on the outskirts of town. If you are as lucky as we were, a sudden storm and sunset will produce some dramatic images along Highway 21 as you progress north toward Leader. The sand hills are just that, small outcroppings that are accessible south of Sceptre and best taken in early morning light. However, local advertising encourages carpet "tobogganing" down the sand slopes so you may encounter less than optimal conditions for photography. Along Grid Road 321 there are good early morning opportunities, the best at the John Heck 1913 homestead from road side.
Leaving southern Saskatchewan was tough. The landscapes are diverse and easily captured with a 24-105mm lens. A panorama bar is a must, as is a willingness to try night photography. Images from our trip can be seen in Gallery 84. If you have the time, we recommend The Birds Of Prey Nature Center at Coaldale, Alberta. It's a rare opportunity to handle and photograph indigenous raptors that are being rehabilitated in a truly great setting. Images from our cloudy afternoon visit to this location can be seen in Gallery 83.