Where land
meets sky

The wide, vast prairies of Old Man on His Back offer the perfect opportunities for inspiration and connection

T he sky was clear over the vast, windy prairie. In the distance, plains bison could be seen grazing on the native grass that covers the entirety of the Old Man on His Back (OMB) Prairie and Heritage Conservation area, located in southern Saskatchewan.

Saskatchewan is no stranger to gusty days. And for Jennifer McKillop and her son, Jud, today was an opportunity to become acquainted with the sometimes-unforgiving weather of Canada’s prairies.

A great place for kite flying

Each time the wind picked up, Jud would squeeze his mother’s hand tightly, as if she was the only thing keeping him grounded. It was a windy day for a walk, as Jennifer came to realize with each growing gust, and it was a great day for kite flying.

“In the back of my incredibly messy soccer-mom minivan, under a pile of camping gear, was a kite that had been partially destroyed during a previous visit to our local park,” says Jennifer. “We needed to fly a kite, so I patched it up with a beer box and some duct tape.”

The kite took off without hesitation, and began to dance in the sky, flipping around madly while Jud held onto wobbling spool of string. Jennifer rushed over to her son and clasped her hands over his fists to hold the kite steady. After a few minutes, the wind quieted and the kite was drifting peacefully high up above the two of them.

A place where memories are made

A sense of tranquility rushed over Jennifer. Looking around, she took in the all-encompassing grasslands of OMB and understood why this land should be conserved for future generations.

“I distinctly remember walking out of the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s (NCC’s) interpretive centre, standing on the rail fence with my son, watching barn swallows dip and weave, and wondering, ‘How does someone get a gig like this?'” she says.

It was on that day that Jennifer realized her passion for grassland conservation and her need to pursue a job in this field. Before her trip out to the site, she had read Sharon Butala’s book The Perfection of the Morning, about the author’s move from the city to the grasslands Jennifer was standing on. Sharon’s husband, Peter, took over the ranch from his father, who tended to it since moving to Saskatchewan in 1913. Reading about Sharon’s connection with her home had led Jennifer to visit OMB.

“Sharon’s journey to discover the deep meaning of the landscape inspired me to visit OMB; a place that in turn inspired me to work for NCC,” says Jennifer.

Sharon and Peter donated the land to NCC in 1996. In the winter of 2003, a small herd of plains bison from Elk Island National Park in Alberta were driven back to their historic grazing grounds at OMB by NCC staff. Peter’s dream of conserving the land for future generations of bison to live on and people to explore was understood, met and pursued by NCC staff.

Ten years later, as regional vice-president for NCC’s Saskatchewan Region, Jennifer visits OMB regularly. And each time, she treks out to the bison rubbing stone on the prairie to leave some tobacco to honour the land, the bison and the original Indigenous caretakers of these lands.

“I realize this is not a custom of my own people,” she admits. “But it is what our Indigenous partners have taught me to do when I am grateful, and when I am honouring the land. It feels like the right thing to do in this place. I can’t help but think that if everyone could visit these grasslands – smell the sage, hear the prairie birds, fly a kite in an enormous sky – they would be inspired too.”

A sky full of stars

Imagine plains so vast and wide that the night sky is flooded with stars and the Milky Way as far as the eye can see. Old Man on His Back was designated nocturnal preserve status by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada in 2015; the first of its kind on an NCC property. The property has attracted both novice and seasoned stargazers and naturalists, who visit the ranch to experience the vast natural prairie and dark night skies.

“Looking around, she took in the all-encompassing grasslands of OMB and knew that this land, and all Canadian landscapes, should be conserved so that her son could one day share a moment like this one with his child.”

Species to Spot

– burrowing owl
– ferruginous hawk
– mule deer
– plains bison
– pronghorn
– swift fox
– white-tailed deer

“I can’t help but think that if everyone could visit these grasslands – smell the sage, hear the prairie birds, fly a kite in an enormous sky – they would be inspired too.”

Photo Credits (Top to bottom): Mark Taylor; Mark Taylor; Alan Dyer; Don & Karol Dabbs; Mark Taylor; Mark Taylor.

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