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“Hills Ablaze with Colour” photo N. Jacquin © 2012

“Cross my heart and hope to die.”  ♪ ♫  ♪  sings Adam Levine with Maroon 5 in their newest hit “One More Night.” As my cell broadcasts a streaming radio station. I repeat the line with them, “ Cross my heart and hope to die.” ♪ ♫ ♪  then stop suddenly thinking this is not the kind of reassurance I am needing at this point in my journey.  You see I have finally taken the plunge and gone deep into the Cypress Hills on my own taking the Trans Canada Trail East from the Centre Block and then back via highway 221 to the north end of Loch Levin where I left my car. The total trek is listed as difficult in the park trail guides and is a total of 26 km.

Trail Head by Highway 221 photo by N. Jacquin © 2012

Cypress Hills, Saskatchewan has always held a special place in my family’s heart. We camped there several times as my family of four children were growing, even staying for 3 weeks early one June. It provides some of the most beautiful hiking trails in our province and a chance to see plant life quite unlike any found elsewhere in Saskatchewan as the altitude is on par with Banff.  Throughout the year, but especially in early June and July you will see an amazing array of wildflowers in every colour imaginable carpeting the park. Even now as my children are grown and two are married, we make our yearly pilgrimage to this special Saskatchewan jewel for our yearly family reunion. It is the perfect midway location for those who have now been transplanted to Calgary and those coming from our home in Regina.

“Red Paintbrush” watercolour by N. Jacquin © 2012 This is one of 4 cards depicting Cypress wildflowers that Nikki will be producing in conjunction with the Friends of Cypress as a fundraiser for park improvements.

When I was offered the guest artist residency there this year I jumped at the opportunity to get more intimate with the park I loved. In 2011 during our family camping trip we were informed that there were new residents in the park; cougars.  Prior to this we loved our hikes because it was a bear free zone unlike other parks in the province. During that summer we made a few attempts to hike in groups of at least two but the sizable museum specimen at the park’s Information Centre (at close to 200 lbs.) caused us to be a little more leery during our hikes.  So when I had two weeks in July and two weeks in mid Sept. to explore the park as a part of The Arts in the Parks residency program funded by The Saskatchewan Arts Board and Sask. Lotteries, I knew I would have to tackle this fear if I was to get the maximum benefit from my stay.  As Guest Artist in Residence I was paid to provide programming to visitors to the park, operate open studio times, work on my own art practice, hike, sketch, and photograph the park.  This was such a huge opportunity for me and allowed paid time to create a new body of work. I had been experimenting with painting on copper allowing the exposed copper to shine through in key places and wanted to create the necessary 10 -12 pieces to approach a gallery for a solo show. Usually I am painting commissioned portraits of childhood and family settings, my full-time business for the past 16 years. www.nikkisportraits.com This is the bread and butter of my career and finding time to prepare the necessary works in this new vein  was fairly difficult. This time was going to allow me that paid time to focus on this goal, but to do so I needed to be able to go into the forest on my own.

“Trans Canada Trail E. In Cypress Hills, SK” oil on copper 8” x 10” N. Jacquin © 2012

Image Form Kitty Play a class I presented in conjunction with a park interpreter on cougar behaviour, safety and on how to sculpt a cougar with air drying clay. Photo by N. Jacquin © 2012

During my July stay I tried to arrange various treks with friends who would come up for a weekend but I was not getting the time to really explore as I had hoped. Park interpreters assured me that cougars were shy creatures and only needed me to sing and they would run away.  Don’t know how they knew, they hadn’t even heard me sing yet! During open studio times I would hear from local folks stories of carcass eating wildcats living under cabin decks in winter and other harrowing tales! Many folks had abandoned their walks along the trails they had loved in favour of walks around Loch Levin a 2.5 km route. It took me until my Sept. stay to pluck up the nerve to go out on my own. I chose as my first attempt the Trans Canada Trail East from the Centre Block. As a novice jogger I could be sure to outrun others if we were approached by a bear in other parks but like most cats running is a form of invitation to play for cougars. My cardio ability was no asset to me here aside from a few rather steep inclines I encountered.  So I walked carrying a big stick and bellowed to my internet cell radio overcoming 2 fears at once, the cougars and public singing. And I am so glad I did! The photos I captured will keep me inspired through our long winter and the next day a fire ban in the park caused this particular trail to be closed for the remainder of my stay.  I always thought that travelling stretches of the Trans Canada Trail through our country by bike would be fun; but let me tell you, if you plan on taking your bike on this portion be prepared to carry it on your back in spots! But the views are well worth the effort especially when filled with all the fall colours.

“In a Valley by a Meandering Brook” photo N. Jacquin © 2012

“Lacy Forest Floor” photo N. Jacquin © 2012

After this initial outing I went on several more solo treks, even on the trail where one mother cougar had been shot a few years back. I saw no cougars, nor signs of cougars. Given there are estimated to be 12 – 15 adult cougars within the park this year I am sure they saw me and gave me a wide birth covering their ears as I passed. Nature has always been one of my main pathways to connecting deeper in my faith and this residency challenged me to expand not only artistically and personally but also in my faith. I hope to return as Guest Artist to the park I love next summer and have plotted another adventurous route for May 2013 when I will lead a group of 11 brave artists as we eat our way along the paths of the Impressionists in France. I invite you to join us! If you would like more information about this painting excursion please email me at artist@nikkisportraits.com or call toll-free 1-877-335-7655.

About Nikki Jacquin:  This year Guest Blogger Nikki Jacquin spent a portion of her summer as a Guest Artist in Residence, at the Cypress Hills getting to know this family-favourite park intimately.  When not hiking, writing or teaching art classes, Nikki works full-time as an artist with a specialty in children’s portraits, and is currently organizing an artist’s tour of Paris & Gascony May 22nd-June 1st.   You can find Nikki on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/Nikkis.Portraits.of.Childhood or at her website:  http://www.nikkisportraits.com

France Painting Excursion Newsletter Mast N. Jacquin © 2012

How to GoHere:  Despite detailed instructions on how to reach the trailhead listed above by Nikki, you may still need to know how to get to the Cypress Hills themselves.  Travelling on the Trans Canada, turn south and drive through Maple Creek, to Hwy 21.  Follow it all the way till you see the signs for the Park or follow the map here.

Gotta Go?:  If you gotta go – you gotta go as Mother Nature intended – so be sure to bring along some wipes and hand sanitzer when you head out on this hike.

Good to Know:

  • If you’re worried about the Cougar situation in the Cypress Hills – you can follow the research being done by a group of U of A researchers (including news of sightings and photos of captures). See their work here: http://www.ualberta.ca/~mmbacon/cypresscougars_files/Page354.htm
  • If you’re looking for information on all of the Trails available for hiking, biking, and cross country skiing on in the Cypress Hills in Saskatchewan – then check out this link:  http://www.cypresshills.com/index.php?id=275
  • Cougars aren’t the only thing you have the potential to “run into” in the Cypress Hills, in addition to deer, fox, beavers, muskrats and wild turkeys (and a whole lot more), you’ll also find Moose in abundance.  Head to this website to download checklists of all the birds and mammals found in the area (it also has a brochure on how to react if you actually run into a cougar): http://www.cypresshills.com/index.php?id=27
  • Another great area to visit while you’re in the Cypress Hills is Fort Walsh – but be fair warned – it’s no where near the actual camping and RV section of the Park and you have to drive a fair distance to visit it.  Give yourself a full day to do it.  More info on Fort Walsh can be found here: http://www.cypresshills.com/index.php?id=228