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The grasslands at NCC's Old Man on His Back site stretch across the horizon. (Photo by Mark Taylor)

The grasslands at NCC's Old Man on His Back site stretch across the horizon. (Photo by Mark Taylor)

How I learned to embrace the grass: Exploring OMB with students, artists and community

Matthew with USask research assistant studying grassland bird habitat (Photo by NCC/Matthew Braun)

Matthew with USask research assistant studying grassland bird habitat (Photo by NCC/Matthew Braun)

By Matthew Braun - Program Director for the Nature Conservancy of Canada in Saskatchewan

In June 2023, I was with a group of students from Mistawasis Nêhiyawak school, exploring Old Man on His Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation Area (OMB), one of the Nature Conservancy of Canada's (NCC’s) flagship projects. OMB, nestled in southwest Saskatchewan, is a ranch and has fences, grass, cows, and horses, but it’s quirky too because it also has a herd of bison, a tourist centre, university research plots, and the house of renowned author Sharon Butala, who lived on the ranch with her husband, Peter Butala.   

Viewing the bison at OMB (Photo by NCC/Matthew Braun)

Viewing the bison at OMB (Photo by NCC/Matthew Braun)

The bison herd, a shared dream of Sharon and Peter when they initiated the conservation project with NCC, is around 70 bison adults with roughly 50 bison calves born every year. The bison roam and graze about two thirds of the 13,008-acre ranch while the remaining fields serve like a small community pasture where neighbours bring their cows to graze for the summer.

Ranchers have a rich history of hosting and helping people experience country life and I was excited to be part of that tradition when OMB hosted a group of students from the Mistawasis school’s outdoor education program. They live about 1.5 hours northwest of Saskatoon where the fields and grasslands our province is known for start giving way to its lesser-known forests. One of the objectives of their program is to bring the students to places their ancestors lived to see more of their home territory. Compared to the forest around Mistawasis, OMB’s vast expanses of grassland, stretching into the horizon, are a little different.

Walking along OMB with students from Mistawasis Nêhiyawak School (Photo by NCC/Matthew Braun)

Walking along OMB with students from Mistawasis Nêhiyawak School (Photo by NCC/Matthew Braun)

During the visit, the students explored nearby attractions such as the T-Rex Centre in Eastend (where the world’s largest T.rex was found. Take that, Royal Tyrell Museum!), and the conglomerate cliffs of Cypress Hills (it’s the highest point of land in Canada between Labrador and the Rocky Mountains, and it’s in Saskatchewan). They also saw teepee rings at Lemsford and watched the bison roaming the wide-open grasslands at OMB.   

While helping host the school group I met a steady flow of tourists, ranchers checking on their livestock, researchers collecting information and filmmakers working on a documentary. Everyone has a unique connection to the area, whether through personal relationships, literary interests, or professional pursuits and it was amazing to see the school kids rekindling their connection.    

Matthew with the documentary film crew capturing the story of prairie grasslands at OMB (Photo by NCC/Matthew Braun)

Matthew with the documentary film crew capturing the story of prairie grasslands at OMB (Photo by NCC/Matthew Braun)

Over the course of the couple of days I spent down at OMB, I saw Allan, our interpreter at OMB, hard at work introducing visitors to the region. I watched him explain that the old man on his back is a ridge that resembles (with a lot of generous squinting) a man lying on his back. He led people around the interpretive centre that describes a history of the land and the people who lived here. And, of course, some visitors came to see the house where Sharon wrote many of her books.    

It is embarrassing to admit, but one of my favourite moments from my time there was helping Allan mow the lawn. Mowing is almost meditative for me. The roar of the engine drowns everything else out, leaving me free to think and imagine. I thought about how much has changed at that spot over time. Back when it was the Butala Ranch, most of the grass would have been chewed short by horses kept for ranch work. The roads, in good enough shape now that OMB’s visitors don’t need four-wheel drive or horses to get around, used to be trails travelled by generations of the Metis, Cree, Blackfoot, Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people. While the landscape, people and culture have shifted, the importance of community and sharing stories remains unchanged. Sharon has written about feeling connected with nature on OMB, and you can expect to feel the same. Visit the Interpretive Centre and stick around at night, as OMB is a designated nocturnal preserve and offers incredible views of the Milky Way. To learn more, visit naturedestinations.ca.

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