Unplug at Saskatchewan's Newest Provincial Park
For 37 years my husband’s family has been going to a very special place in Saskatchewan. Known affectionately in our family as “Up North”, the Little Swan Subdivision and the nearby Parr Hill Lake Recreation Site holds a very special place in our hearts. Located nearly 70km southeast of the Town of Hudson Bay in East Central Saskatchewan, it’s our rustic getaway; a forced vacation from screen time and work calls.
No cellphone coverage means we turn our phones off somewhere near Norquay and don’t touch them again until we get coverage on the way back home. It’s a trip back in time, when a weekend in the woods meant that you actually had to pull out that bird and plant book instead of opening an app.
No power or running water means we bring our own drinking water and we prepare ourselves for a weekend of chopping wood, cozy fires and time playing board games or hiking in the forest. If we are in need of a bath, we simply go for a dip in the Little Swan River.
It’s a four-hour drive from our home in Regina via Yorkton into the beautiful Porcupine Provincial forest.
This part of the province is an outdoors enthusiast’s paradise. Many of the people who visit this area are avid hunters and anglers. It’s common to see people exploring the trails by quad or snowmobile during the winter months.
Until recently, few people I knew in Regina had ever heard of Little Swan or the Parr Hill Lake Recreation Site. But the secret is out; In 2018 this area became part of the Porcupine Hills Provincial Park.
This designation doesn’t change much for people who use this land. Hunting boundaries remain unchanged in the area and the park continues to be a place where local Indigenous groups can hunt, trap, gather medicines and perform ceremony. But this designation hopefully means this beautiful natural space will be protected for years to come.
With the exception of the provincially-run campground at Townsend Lake, you likely won’t even know you are in a park. There are no gates set up at most of the lakes and recreation sites remain very rustic. The only services you are likely to encounter are outhouses/boat docks/picnic tables/firepits and fish filleting shack. You don’t even have to pay for camping at Parr Hill Recreation Site, and nightly camping fees remain affordable ($18 a night) at Townsend Lake and the privately operated McBride Lake.
The lack of cell coverage keeps some people away but being able to literally get away from it all is a downright dreamy draw for others.
How to Prepare
- You need a good old-fashioned map (remember cell coverage is non-existent or spotty at best).
- Make sure to fill up your gas tank and always carry a spare tire.
- Bring your own drinking water.
- Plan to take home any garbage you create.
- If you are visiting during the summer, make sure to pack bug spray (the good stuff). In early summer the mosquitoes, black flies and no-see-ums can be a nuisance, but the good news is that this park is far enough North that ticks aren’t a big problem!
- There are black bears, moose etc. in the area, so bring bear spray/bells when you are out hiking.
- The nearest hospital with an emergency department is Hudson Bay.
Parr Hill Lake Recreation Site is a small non-electrified campground with fire pits and a few outhouses. There is great fishing (my son caught his first northern pike right off the dock). The water is pretty shallow, ideal for fishing boats and canoes/kayaks. There isn’t an established swimming area, although that doesn’t stop some folks from jumping in.
My absolutely favourite part of Parr Hill Recreation Site is a magical little spring fed creek that runs through the campground into the lake. For many years, locals got their drinking water right from this creek. Mossy logs form bridges over the shallow water, creating the perfect playground for an adventurous child. It’s ridiculously picturesque and my favourite place to take photos year-round.
Some people might be nervous going to a campground without reserving a site, but I’ve also seen people just pulling up a trailer or pitching a tent in the nearby woods. Conservation Officers frequently patrol the area, checking to make sure people are properly licensed for hunting/fishing, Remember, there is no sewer dump station or garbage collection, so be prepared to take your garbage home with you.
Ten lakes make up the newly formed Porcupine Hills Provincial Park and it’s divided into two areas. The Woody River Area (which includes Townsend, Woody, Spirit, Elbow, Smallish and Isbister lakes) and the McBride Area (which includes McBride, Parr Hill, Saginas and Pepaw Lakes).
If you are looking for a few more amenities, the Woody River area is home to the provincial campsite and Townsend Lake is also home to the Moose Range Lodge where you can rent a room and they even have a restaurant and little store where you can buy groceries, tackle, gas or rent a boat or canoe.
This summer my family spent a week canoeing around the less developed side. We put our canoe in Pepaw Lake (on highway 982, AKA Little Swan Road) and explored the whole thing in a couple of hours. The marshy water contained lots of lily pads and the kids were excited about getting to see a bald eagle hunting for its next meal.
Saginas Lake has outhouses and a lovely little picnic area beside the public docks/boat ramp. It’s here, my 6-year-old pulled out his metal detector in search of treasure. He was delighted to find some bullet casings and an old lure. Even at its busiest, it’s not that busy and you’ll often meet folks from Norquay or Hudson Bay who have just come for a day trip.
McBride Lake is slightly busier because it’s home to cabins and a little campground with 10 overnight sites and 51 seasonal sites. Plus, hot tip — if you are in need of cell coverage, there is actually a hilltop on the McBride Lake road, just West of McBride Lake, where you can make a call.
As a non-hunter, May and September/October are my favourite months to visit. I have been able to observe Tundra swans during migration (imagine the haunting trumpet sound echoing over the water) we have seen moose (from a safe distance), otters, lots of deer and even the occasional beaver. Plus, I’ve never seen more tiger lilies in my life than along the Little Swan Road ditch.
The Porcupine Pine Hills Provincial Park is the perfect place to unplug and reconnect with nature. You’ll want to tell all your friends, but you’ll just have to wait until you get back into cell coverage.
Author and Photographer: Nichole Huck
Nichole Huck lives in Regina with her husband and three children. They love getting out and exploring the natural spaces across Saskatchewan.