Possum Tracks: The Possum On The Prairie!

By Buddy Simmons | November 13, 2015 from Possum Tracks by Buddy Simmons

The last time in Possum Tracks I described heading off into the sunset and - well sunrise in our case - and making our way into the true Canadian prairie. Sheri's home in Pincher Creek, Alberta was our ultimate goal, but we had the entire province of Saskatchewan to traverse on the way, and a national park to visit.

The further we went, the more open the landscape became. More so than ever, I was no longer anyplace that I was even vaguely familiar with. While it wasn’t quite as flat as what I imagined, gone was the steep mountainous terrain covered with lush greenery as I am accustomed to. I was after all in the same sort of place I would expect to encounter if I had simply been headed west here from West Virginia.

In that case I'd have been traveling through the Great Plains, and the Canadian equivalent is generally referred to as The Prairie. Manitoba is part of The Prairie as well, but as I've pointed out, to my eyes I was reminded more of Ohio than any of the states to the west. So it is Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta that are classified as prairie and are analogous to our Great Plains states west of the Mississippi which extend as a swatch of land from Montana and south to Texas. I'm being very general here, there are some states that are not completely in the Great Plains, of course. But this is Possum Tracks, not a geography class, and besides, I'm sure that you all are familiar enough with the layout of the states to know what begins and ends where. I'll include a small map just the same, showing the span of the Great Plains in red extending north across the Canadian border.

There was still plenty of greenery to be seen, but the differences between the prairie and home were becoming more and more obvious to me.

I saw my first prairie addition to my critter life-list when Tanner exclaimed from the back-seat, “Look! There’s a coyote!” I craned my neck to see, and sure enough, off the road a ways near a small livestock pond was a coyote, apparently looking for refreshment. It was too distant and we were traveling too quickly to get a photo of the animal, though. A coyote was something I wanted to see, another animal which we have here in West Virginia - and they are in fact moving further and further east- but I've never really thought I'd spot one here in WV. So as usual I was excited just to have gotten to see one. Not wolf-level excited, but still a thrill for me.

Naturally, as we traveled, Sheri was telling me of areas of interest and pointing things out to me. This was very helpful because I was trying hard to drink it all in, so having somebody very familiar with the environment helped me avoid missing anything.

Traveling down one stretch of highway however, I was proud to have spotted a new critter all on my own. Sheri had her eyes on the road when I glanced to our left. Were those...yes! “Pronghorns!” I shouted with the same sort of enthusiasm that I had used when I spotted the beavers back in Ontario days before.

Sheri immediately began to slow down the car. She wasn't about to zip past my first sighting, even though she knew that there would be many future opportunities for me to see them as we travelled. But these were my first, and she was going to make darned sure I got a good look at them. After getting slowed to the point she could make a U-turn (Sheri does not let the figurative prairie grass grow under her feet while driving) she backtracked to where I had spotted the iconic antelopes.

When she slowed to a stop, the pronghorns noticed our presence, but more or less continued about their business grazing allowing me to observe them and get several photos of yet another animal whose range is also here in the U.S., but my chances of ever seeing one here in its natural habitat are approximately zero.

Pronghorn antelope are the fastest creatures in North America. In fact, they are the fastest animal on the entire western hemisphere. The fastest land animal, that is. They can travel at 55 MPH for as far as a half mile, easily out-running any conventional predator. I was surprised to learn that they are not much at jumping. I was probably under the impression that they are jumpers due to seeing African antelopes bouncing like crazy in documentaries I've watched. But I guess it's a different ballgame there. After all, Africa is the home of the cheetah, the fastest land animal in the world, so antelopes there probably have to mix it up a little more.

It should come as no surprise that the pronghorn antelope's chief danger is man. They are hunted, but another factor has been the use of the prairie for livestock. Keeping livestock means fencing in grazing land. Here in WV it is nothing to see a white-tail deer gracefully vault a fence, but remember, pronghorn are not really built for jumping, but for speed So they will go beneath the lowest strand on a fence, but sometimes not successfully. They can get stuck on the barbed-wire and entangled, leading to a slow, and I imagine agonizing death. Both in Canada and the western U. S. where pronghorn range, there has been a movement to encourage ranchers to replace the lower strand of barbed-wire for that reason.

We arrived at out destination, the small town of Val Marie. Before leaving Manitoba Sheri had called in advance to be sure there would be a vacancy at small motel in the town, The aptly-named Val Marie Hotel. It was to be our base camp for our Grasslands Park expedition. I liked the sign hung at the entrance, a rattlesnake entwined around a cocktail glass, although I am unsure if it signified the rattler population in the area or what you might start seeing if you imbibed too many of their refreshments.
As I unpacked the car at the motel, Sheri entered to register and get the room key. She returned to provide a report.

“They don't have any double rooms available. So I asked them if they'd provide some blankets for one of us to bunk on the floor.” It seemed that when she had called ahead, she had forgotten to ask of a double was available.Naturally, I was ready and willing to be the floor guy, so there was no problem there. Adventuring on a budget requires sacrifice once in a while and my taking floor duty while Sheri and Tanner bunked together was was the only practical solution.

We deposited our belongings in our room and off we went to experience the prairie ecosystem.
As we entered the park, Sheri began telling me what we might see. Prairie dogs were a shoe-in, the park has the most northern black-tailed prairie dog towns in North America and the only colonies in all of Canada. Besides them we could encounter Crotalus viridis, the Western rattlesnake (one of our main goals of course) bison, mule deer, and other typical prairie mammals. She also said that black-footed ferrets inhabited the area, but said that we would be unlikely to see one, they are endangered - as they are here in the states - and the existing ones in Grasslands had been reintroduced and their numbers were not that high. Besides that they are a bit secretive. She also said that another rather uncommon creature found in the park was the burrowing owl, and since they are classified as an endangered species in Canada not often seen, not to count on adding those to my life list either.

The plan was to spend the daylight hours seeing what we might see, but then continue to road cruise through the night, much as we did when we visited Ontario. I was delighted with the prospect.

We had not driven far into the park before we came upon the first of the prairie dog towns. As we slowed to get my first look, we were distracted by a large sandstone rock not far from the road. We had of course seen plenty of sandstone rocks, but, perched upon this particular one was...a burrowing owl! Yup, I was going to be able to add an endangered Canadian species to my life-list after all. We were very excited, this boded well for our success rate.

What we did not immediately notice was the vehicle a short distance ahead of us. Or more to the point, we failed to notice the fellow photographing the owl. And he wasn't using a camera phone or some point-and-shoot. This guy had a huge telephoto lens on a camera mounted on a tripod, the sort you see professionals use with the lens alone being more valuable than the car in which we had driven to visit the park. That may be an exaggeration, but those lenses are not cheap.

The owl, apparently deciding that the tourist population was getting too high, flapped away.
Immediately I began imagining the headlines “Tourist and Companions Beaten to Death with Camera Tripod”.

Sheri approached the fellow and apologized, explaining that we had not noticed that he was photographing the bird. He said that it was fine, he had gotten all the shots he needed. Of course he may have been inwardly seething, maybe he had waited decades for the opportunity, but really what could he have said? We had not even gotten out of the car and were quietly observing the owl as I took pictures of my own. The owl had just decided that enough was enough and flew the coop. And chances were that had we just driven by, the passage of our car would have had a similar effect. However, as yet another car approached the town I did here the photographer murmur to his companion “Time to go, getting a bit crowded here.” In our defense, he DID choose to set up next to a prairie dog town, a place that guaranteed that nearly anybody touring the park was going to stop, I guess.

The owl gone, we turned out attention to the prairie dogs. This was just one of several large communities of the critters in the part of the park we were visiting. They were very amusing as they stood on their haunches on the mounds around their burrows, the better to see if we were just goofy tourists or something to cause them to sound the alarm and disappear into their burrows. You could hear them make a kind of chirp as they alerted their fellow colonists that they had visitors. There were information signs posted that offered interesting tidbits about the natural history of the cute inhabitants, along with a warning not to approach them. Not that you could, they'd dive into their burrows as soon as you got too close, but prairie dogs have fleas. Fleas that can carry the dreaded plague.

You know, that bubonic plague nuisance that killed a few people in Europe in the 1300's. Well, maybe more than just a few. The death toll has been estimated to have been between 75-200 million people. It still breaks out on occasion but advances in medicine has made it a bit less of a threat. Still, I wouldn't have approached one of the animals. I didn't want to return home and distribute t-shirts emblazoned with “My Friend went to Canada And all I Got Was This Lousy Shirt and the Plague” to my friends.
After observing the substantial number of the critters, we departed to see what else we might encounter.

The folks that oversee the park left some old homesteads standing, and we stopped and looked at one of those. More in the hopes of running across rattlesnakes than anything else, but we found the old shanty interesting nonetheless. And the parks people left a couple long-horn steers for visitors to practice lassoing. I opted out of lassoing and decided to just bronco-bust one rodeo style, I'm more of a hands-on sort of guy when it comes to livestock, I guess. Don't worry, I wasn't in any danger because they were steers made for greenhorns. As such they were fashioned from bales of straw, with a plastic head.

Evening was approaching, so moving on we saw a few head of buffalo. They were at a distance, but the park had thoughtfully placed a pair of those big binoculars on a pedestal you often find at places with scenic views in order to enable to allow visitors to get a better look at an area. There was also some prairie dogs nearby, so as a bonus the binoculars afforded a really good look at them. Nearby, we noticed a bunch of live-catch traps. There were probably dozens of them in a line. Sheri opined that they were like placed there by biologists to capture prairie dogs in order to do studies to see if they were carrying plague or some other disorder. But I had a different idea. I declared that it was probably a conspiracy. The park, knowing what an attraction prairie dogs are, bring them in when morning arrives and then recapture them, ensuring that nothing happens to the critters. I decided they probably shipped them back and forth from Montana each day.

Later we saw a holding pen and a livestock trailer nearby. I told Sheri that the conspiracy was even broader than I had imagined. They must be doing the same thing with buffalo as they were with the prairie dogs! Sheri rolled her eyes a lot while I was visiting, I think.

We also spotted a couple jackrabbits before sunset, another species to add to my ever-lengthening life-list. We made one last stop before nightfall. There was a small rest-area with a restroom. Well, it was more of an outhouse than a restroom, but it was very well maintained. And a short distance away from that was the most interesting tire-swing I've ever seen. The tires had been cut to represent a small horse. I'd be lying if I said I was not tempted to give it a try, but another imaginary headline popped into my head “Tourist Trapped in Child’s Plaything-Jaws of Life Required to Extricate Him”. So I abandoned the idea recycled bronco-busting. I snapped my first attempt at the obligatory sun setting over the prairie picture, and we then were off to explore the night.

We saw a lot of eyes shining in our headlights, often mule and whitetail deer, the mule deer being another addition to my list. But to our consternation, no snakes were warming themselves on the road. Sheri did several checks on the gravel road surface and announced that the temperature was probably dropping too rapidly and it did not bode well for our chances of scoring any rattlesnakes on this attempt. But she was still game, and we circuited the vast area many times. But as she predicted, no snakes were about. Though we did encounter a frog, who had probably heard it through the grapevine that the snakes were hunkered down for the night.

However, we did see one more special (to me) creature. As we drove along scanning the road ahead, just off the road we spotted movement just a bit out of the field of our headlights.. Sheri slowed down, and we made out a shape the size of a small dog. But it was waddling. It decided to cut across the road,where it revealed its true identity. A porcupine. Again, my excitement level red-lined! It was a funny critter to watch try to make a hasty retreat. They are not quick critters, but then given their arsenal of defense, they don't need to be. Another lifer added to the list. I jokingly warned Sheri to not get the car too close, as the porcupine might throw its quills and puncture our tires. She quickly exclaimed “They don't do that!” Sometimes I play stupid a bit too convincingly, I'm afraid.

We saw another further down the road, possibly the same one, but we doubted it. It wasn't that far from where we had the first encounter, but as I mentioned, that one didn't seem capable of beating any track records.

Tanner was becoming tired and it was very late, so we decided it was time to head back to base-camp. Before we left, I had one request. The sky was clear. I wanted to stop the car turn out the lights and get my first real look at a sky that was not polluted with light. Sheri knew that it was one of the things I had looked forward to even before I had arrived in Canada, and so gladly allowed me the experience. It took ten or fifteen minutes for my eyes to adjust, but when they did, the sky became a blanket of stars. It took me a while to spot a constellation that I recognized, given that I was seeing many more stars than I am used to seeing here.

There are many good places in West Virginia with dark skies, in fact, the Spruce Knob area is rated by amateur astronomers to be one of the best viewing places east of the Mississippi. But I’ve never seemed to be able to be someplace like that at night here at home. Anyway, I made out the constellation of Sagittarius. An unmistakable one when you know what to look for. Here, in the summer, try looking to the south. If you use your imagination -and it doesn't take much in the case of Sagittarius – you may notice a giant teapot on the sky. That's Sagittarius. It was the first time since my arrival at the park that I had any idea of what general direction I faced, apart from sunset.

That pretty much closed the day and night at Grasslands National Park. We saw more deer and a couple skunks, but out goal was now to reach home base. We did, and I'll wind this up with the final pleasant surprise.

When we arrived, I was again gathering some belongings as Sheri carried some to the room we were to stay in for the night. When I entered, she approached holding a slip of paper. She showed it to me, on it was hand-written instructions for me to take one of the nearby vacant rooms instead of sleeping on the floor. There was no charge for the additional room at all. Now that's hospitality! So it was off to bed to be rested up for my next step into the Looking Glass, hiking in the badlands.


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