By Alyssa Kimber, member of HPL Cycling (Regina, SK)
I first learned to ride a mountain bike in the small town of Fernie, British Columbia. I spent three years working my way up from green, to blue, to black-rated trails, taking my skills from timid beginner to seasoned expert. I could jump, drop, ride over roots and rocks, roll through tight switchbacks, ascend steep pitches, and hold on for dear life on loose descents. I had conquered all but a handful of local trails by the time I moved back to my home province of Saskatchewan, a mere 850 km from the town I had grown to love. I knew it was the mountain biking I would miss the most.
Although I had grown up in Saskatchewan, I had never stepped foot on any of the bike trails here. When I moved back with my mountain bike in tow, I immediately started scouring the online communities for local clubs and information on the trails around my new home. That’s when I found Buffalo Pound Provincial Park. Touted on Trailforks as “one of mountain biking’s best kept secrets” I was immediately intrigued; even more so when I learned of the “Terminator” trail, a black-rated figure-8 style trail that would challenge even the best riders. Even after reading that description my naivety got the best of me and I thought “how hard could it really be, this is Saskatchewan, after all; it’s known for its flat landscapes!”. Oh, how wrong I was.
With my mountain bike strapped to the roof of my car, I drove to Buffalo Pound, about an hour west of Regina. As I entered the park I saw the landscape suddenly change from the typical flat, golden farm fields to a wide valley bordered by green, rolling hills. A dark blue lake, choppy in the wind, covered the length of the valley floor. This is the Qu’Appelle River Valley, formed during the melting of the last glaciers, and is beautiful to say the least.
I continued through the park to the designated parking area and unloaded my bike. Geared up, I took off first to the east side of the trail network for a warm-up lap. I was enjoying the winding, cross-country style trail and the view of the lake to the north, when I suddenly came upon a short, very steep pitch that seemed to rise up out of nowhere to slap me in the face. While I am used to steep climbs, they are usually long, steady and full of switchbacks. Buffalo Pound offers a totally different style of climbing. The landscape is marred by many small gullies through which the trails have been constructed. I soon learned these short, steep pitches of anywhere from 20-60% grade are characteristic of the landscape and impossible to avoid. Now I was beginning to understand why even the strongest riders are challenged here.
I made it to the top of the trail in short order and found my way down a fun, fast and flowy black trail and back to the parking area. Because most of the trails in Buffalo Pound are relatively short, most riders loop several trails together to get a solid ride in; this also has the advantage of giving the rider excellent variety. I had my sights set on the “Terminator” trail and decided next on a green and blue climb that would get me to the starting point on the west side of the trail network. I started up the aptly named “Beaver Loop” trail and was delighted to see a beaver working on a dam in the creek alongside the trail. I watched it meander through the creek, as I myself continued meandering my way higher through the hills. This section was not difficult, but I enjoyed the quiet break to take in the stunning landscape surrounding me.
At the top of the “Terminator” trail, I veered off to a sight-seeing point and spent a few minutes catching my breath and admiring the valley below. So far, I was pleasantly surprised by my experience and was really looking forward to what was coming next. I took the trail in a counter-clockwise (reverse) direction, and had one of the most fun descents in my recent memory. Water had carved small and snaking channels through the already narrow gully which, with the fallen trees and the occasional rock, forced me to pick a careful line through which to descend. The technical maze was occasionally disrupted by smooth and punchy descents to maintain speed. Eventually I made it to valley bottom and started climbing again. My adrenaline from the descent carried me through the remainder of the cross-country style trail, punctuated again by the short, sharp ascents characteristic of the park. At ridgetop, I stopped to admire the view of the rolling hills in front of me, and carried on to the end of the trail. On my way back to the parking lot, I chose a blue trail to descend at random and had a ton of fun whooping down “Pick Up Sticks”, another fast trail with a steep descent I wasn’t expecting but was thrilled to ride.
Back at the car I took stock of the day. My legs were satisfyingly aching and my bare skin was beat up by the scratchy brush, but underlying everything was a deep satisfaction that this mountain bike oasis existed in Saskatchewan. It may not be the rugged, unrelenting landscape of the Rocky Mountains, but Buffalo Pound is a superb challenge in its own right, and one which should not be underestimated or missed by any mountain biker. I know next time I get the mountain bike itch, I can skip the 850 km trek back to Fernie and simply drive to my neighboring provincial park: the hidden gem that is Buffalo Pound.