© Janet Davis
You sense it the moment you step out of your car at Wanuskewin Heritage Park, a National Historic Site just 5 kilometers north of Saskatoon. It’s the sound of the prairie, mythical and magical, and yet it’s not really sound at all. Just the hot, fragrant breath of summer wind moving like a rippling tide over an endless sea of tawny grass and brilliant wildflowers here on this remarkable stretch of virgin Canadian prairie.
Wanuskewin (pronounced Wah-nus-KAY-win) is a Cree word meaning “seeking peace of mind”. It was the name given to the 100-hectare park on its opening in 1992. It celebrates the spiritual and cultural significance of the Opimihaw Valley in the heritage of south Saskatchewan’s First Nations – the Cree, Dakota, Nakota, Dene and Salteaux.
For more than 6,000 years, these Northern Plains Indians came here to this place where Opimihaw Creek flows into the South Saskatchewan River. They came to hunt bison, to gather food and herbs, to escape winter winds, and to meet others in worship and celebration. Behind Wanuskewin’s handsome Visitors’ Center, a trail system linked to 21 archaeological dig sites, operated by the University of Saskatchewan, invites visitors to explore the prairie, the river valley and the buffalo jump. The archaeological digs are significant, in that 19 pre-contact sites were discovered during investigations there in the 1980s, some dating back 8,000 years and pre-dating the Egyptian pyramids.
Dryland Prairie Diversity
But for those interested in native flora, ecological restoration, or designing a prairie garden, the park offers a time-capsule look at the rich diversity of plants that thrived in this harsh Zone 2 environment – dry and hot in summer, cold and windswept in winter – thousands of years before the arrival of European settlers and their transformation of the prairies into wheat fields.
Wanuskewin’s dryland prairie is a tapestry of hundreds of species of grasses, rushes and sedges (there are 28 species of Carex alone) interspersed with small drifts of colorful wildflowers, shrubs and small trees.
The grasses, of course, are what brought the buffalo here to feed and the Indians to hunt them. The wildflowers include yarrow, Canada anemone, prairie pasqueflower, milkweed, bunchberry, prairie coneflower, erigeron, monarda, gentians, sunflowers and numerous species of aster, liatris, penstemon, potentilla and goldenrod. Shrubs and trees include Saskatoon berry (whose fruit is served in several delicious dishes at Wanuskewin’s restaurant), honeysuckle, wild cherry, bearberry, wild rose, silverberry, buffaloberry and, in the cool river valley, paper birch, trembling aspen and willows.
It is a remarkable place, and all the more unique because of its close proximity to one of Canada’s large cities.
Wanuskewin Heritage Park is located on Highway #11, 5 km. north of Saskatoon. Follow the signs or take Warman Road north. Open year-round, hours are 9 to 9 from Victoria Day to Labour Day, 9 to 5 during fall and winter. There is an admission fee. For more information visit their website or call 306-931-6767.
Adapted from an article that appeared originally in Canadian Gardening magazine