The Quietest Place in Canada

In search of silence in Saskatchewan’s Grasslands National Park.

First appeared in the June 2018 issue of Air Canada enRoute.

We are welcomed by a cacophony. It starts with just one small head poking above ground, but soon we’re surrounded. Their holes are spread out like craters on a moonscape, and as the prairie dogs pop up and then dive to safety, they call out, their chirps a tuneless chorus in the setting sun.

Normally, I’d be thrilled to encounter wildlife, but there’s just one problem – we drove the 350 kilometres from Regina looking for silence.

This is my first real vacation (that is, one that doesn’t involve responding to work e–mails) in more than a year. Desperate for a break, my partner Jules and I chose Grasslands National Park as the ideal place to switch to airplane mode. We’re on a quest for literal silence, too: As part of his PhD research, Jules is recording the resonance of natural spaces for a contemporary art and music project. It’s an absurd mission, no doubt, but the park is reportedly one of the quietest places in the world.

In the 1870s, a geologist described this area of southern Saskatchewan as forbidding and desolate. Some 150 years later, not much has changed. Only 12,000 tourists visit Grasslands annually, compared to Banff’s 3.9 million. Unlike Banff’s superlatives, the beauty here is in the subtleties – wind rippling through the grass and coulees carved out against an endless sky.

Finally, calm settles over the park. Jules sets up his microphone and I perch on a nearby rock. In the interest of true silence, I can’t move. When was the last time I did this? I wonder. I usually pass idle time looking at my phone. Instead, I watch the sun’s final sorbet glow melt into the horizon.

We’ve found serenity, but no silence: At the bottom of the coulee, a bison grunts. Off in the distance, coyotes howl. And on my rock, to–do lists buzz through my brain.

April 7, 2020
Illustration of a person sitting in a field with a bird and wild cat

I hear the rain before I see it – the kind of deafening prairie downpour that soaks through everything. Recording will be impossible.

We’re staying at the Convent Inn in Val Marie, just west of the park. At breakfast, some of our fellow guests lament that in what is reportedly the sunniest part of Canada, we’re rained in. I consider visiting the convent’s chapel to pray for divine intervention. While there, I could make good use of the confessional. My sin: craving a rainy–day Netflix marathon.

Instead, we drive to 70 Mile Butte, where on a good day, the five–kilometre trail rewards hikers with sweeping views of the park. Today, the whipping rain makes Grasslands’ self–guided driving tour a better plan.

Although the territory has been inhabited for 10,000 years – first by Assiniboine, Blackfoot and Sioux, and later by Métis, ranchers and homesteaders – Grasslands is now one of the only places on the planet where mixed–grass prairie exists in its natural state. Rare species of animals live here, including burrowing owls, pronghorns, ferruginous hawks and, of course, those black–tailed prairie dogs. But calling it “forbidding” isn’t far off the mark: the semi–arid landscape also boasts rattlesnakes, black widow spiders, and even quicksand.

“It is country that people do not want to cross, much less visit,” wrote Wallace Stegner in Wolf Willow, his memoir of life on a southern Saskatchewan homestead in the 1910s.

An illustration of an owl on a post and grazing bison

When was the last time I did this? I wonder. I usually pass idle time looking at my phone. Instead, I watch the sun’s final sorbet glow melt into the horizon.

Down toward the Frenchman Valley, the park is empty, save for a passing bison. Unaffected by our presence, it doesn’t break stride, its hoofs cutting a path into the soft road.

Suddenly, the rain slows. It’s an unexpected opportunity to get what we came for. While Jules records, I wander around the remains of ranching pioneer Walt Larson’s homestead, evidence of a time in the early 20th century when seclusion wasn’t just a choice, but a circumstance. Passing the site where a barn was once cut into the riverbank, I think of Stegner’s appraisal of the rolling, windswept terrain.

“Desolate? Forbidding? There was never a country that in its good moments was more beautiful,” he wrote. “You don’t get out of the wind, but learn to lean and squint against it. You don’t escape sky and sun, but wear them in your eyeballs and on your back. You become acutely aware of yourself.”

Beside me, the river rushes with the morning’s rain. Yellow–breasted meadowlarks fly up from their hiding spots and the wind gathers all around me.

We may never find true silence, but in that moment, I am quiet.

Shhh! Three more places to peace out

  • Hoh Rainforest, Washington Deep in Olympic National Park, a small red stone represents “one square inch of silence.” Acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton convinced airlines to reroute flights, preserving quiet within the virgin temperate rainforest.

  • Uluru–Kata Tjuta National Park, Australia With a dedicated airport, Australia’s red centre isn’t without noise pollution. Move away from the main roads and the throngs at the base of the monolith to discover a nearly soundless environment.

  • Haleakalā National Park, Hawaii The subject of 2015 PBS documentary The Quietest Place on Earth, Haleakalā is both geologically and spiritually significant in Maui. Within its dormant volcano’s crater, noise levels reach only 10 decibels – roughly that created by breathing.