Camp Wolf Willow: Catch the Sandhill Crane Migration at this Glampsite Near Outlook, SK

It’s September, just one month since my last visit to Camp Wolf Willow and a dramatic transformation of the landscape has occurred. Tall cattails have shrunken and wildflowers are no longer blooming, but it’s every bit as unspoiled and beautiful with the colourful leaves turned from green to yellow and orange.

Named for the native brush generously found around camp, Camp Wolf Willow, in southern Saskatchewan, is a family-run camping and glamping resort managed by Nicollette and Joel Vanderschaff, who focus on sharing and educating others on the beauty of the land and conservation.

image Jenn Smith Nelson

Set on hills overlooking the South Saskatchewan River, the camp is bordered by a coulee, native prairie and wooded valley, and features a mix of wooden and luxury tents and tenting sites, each boasting views. With over 130 different species, the camp’s local flora is particularly noteworthy.

nice tent Jenn Smith Nelson

Wolf Willow Winery, also onsite, shares a symbiotic relationship with the campground. “Our goal in 2017 was to help bring business to the winery and it’s obviously great for a campground to have a winery on it,” says Vanderschaff.

However, I haven’t returned for flora or wine. I’ve come back for Sandhill cranes.

On my last visit, I chatted with Nicolette Vanderschaff about a goal we share, encouraging the curiosity of nature in children. “The biggest passion I have is exposing kids to nature and helping them get excited. I love the idea of making sure that there are kids growing up willing to help; they are the ones that are going to take care of it,” said Vanderschaff.

We also bonded over birds.

Vanderschaff’s love for birds is evident, naming each campsite after native species such as plover and pipit, bobolink, curlew, and more. “It’s the perfect spot for bird enthusiasts,” said Vanderschaff. “We also have Franklin, Richardson and thirteen-lined ground squirrels, coyotes, foxes, deer, badgers and porcupines.”

Nicolette Nicolette Vanderschaff. Credit: Jenn Smith Nelson

No arm-twisting was necessary for her to convince me to return. A true marvel of migration, the annual staging of Sandhill cranes occurs mid-late September when the massive wading birds flood farmers’ fields, fill the skies with loud, rattling calls and settle at night on the riverbed.

I arrive an hour before sunset hoping to catch sight of cranes. After plunking down my things in my adorable wooden tent, I set out toward the river noting the air’s sage-like scent. After an unusually dry August, there’s considerably more water.

cranes valley Jenn Smith Nelson

I hear cranes in the distance as I amble down the valley trail, but don’t see them yet. At the riverbed, I’m met with a myriad of hoof and shorebirds prints, and normally submerged plants. I reach an impasse where the water seems too high to cross and resign that I may have to settle for a morning venture.

As I turn my back to head up the hill, I hear them again. They sound closer. Scattered throughout the sky, I spy several flocks gliding, looking for places to land.

Their sound is peculiar, reminding me of a cross between a purr and a gurgle. I stop in my tracks, head cranked upward, watching in amazement.

CRANES Jenn Smith Nelson

As I head back to my site again, excited for the morning, the witchety-witchety-witchety song of a common yellowthroat and faint meow of a catbird squeak through the cranes purring gurgles. I find myself pausing again as the cranes are getting louder and I start to sense I’m surrounded. I peer back at the riverbed and momentarily reconsider my course of action. I’m losing light quickly.

Once I’m atop the trail, I see sedges of cranes crossing in front of the valley backdrop, numbers increasing with each passing minute. The sky is alive as they flit in all directions.

cranes flying overheard Jenn Smith Nelson

Immediately, I realize my mistake and run for the river, this time ditching my shoes and crossing the water where I’m submerged up to my knees. The sun’s pinkish hue spans the panorama as cranes gather across another patch of water. It’s loud but glorious as the sky teems with their silhouettes mimicking waves.

It’s almost dark when I hesitantly pull myself away from the magic to realize I’m completely full of sand and my shoes are soaked. Back at my site, I have a bird’s eye view of the cranes nestled in the area I just left. Soon, the dim glow of a neighboring tipi is the only light.

view from the tent Jenn Smith Nelson

The sound filling the campground, however, only gets louder, confirming I’m in the middle of crane-a-gedden. There’s no break from bugling; the cranes pump their tunes well into the night, finally quieting around 10 pm as a prairie storm rolls in. Lightning flashes across the river and I drift to sleep comforted by a rain and crane lullaby.

Morning light and bugling wake me early. Peering from my deck, the cranes are still visible below. I hurry to meet Nicolette at the riverbed, where a sudden, thick wall of fog has descended.

Nicolette Jenn Smith Nelson

The cranes are still all around us, but we can only see their outlines. “They’re so big,” says Vaderschaff. She’s right. As we inch closer, I realize how tall the slender birds are, reaching upwards of one metre (four feet). We tiptoe towards a threesome, but they sense us and take off skittishly.

By the time the fog lifts, most of the cranes are in the sky or have made their way into their daytime spots. We wander and head for a camp trail, feet wet once again. Along the way, we spot cliff swallows, a red-tailed hawk and a great blue heron, and discuss an upcoming conservation camp for kids.

trail Jenn Smith Nelson

After, I take a country drive and have no trouble finding cranes on both sides of the road peppering the golden vista of farmer’s fields. I’m even treated to a dance, an elegant courtship ritual between a pair of cranes.

Back at camp, I opt for a hike on the south trail to view the cranes from above and not scare them away. En route, I play peekaboo with a white-tailed deer and step over pincushion cactus as I climb and descend rolling hills. I see a few cranes at a good distance on the riverbank’s edge—however most are in flight above me.

cranes above Jenn Smith Nelson

I give in trying to walk to a vantage point, pick a high point on top of a hill and lay down to enjoy the show. Instantly rewarded, I take in a grand spectacle above me as cranes hover almost effortlessly from every direction, spoiling me with endless opportunities to witness their grandeur. I’m humbled by the sight, my grin feeling as wide as a crane’s wingspan.

When You Go

more birds Jenn Smith Nelson

Camp Wolf Willow is located next to the Wolf Willow Winery, 45 minutes south of Saskatoon/15 kilometres north of Outlook, Saskatchewan.

Camping season runs May long weekend until the third weekend in September.

Campers can choose from: 3 regular wooden tents, 2 large wooden tents, 7 luxury tents and 10 tenting sites.

Prices vary between $45 for tenting sites up to $129 for wooden tents.

Onsite amenities include: winery, fully functioning bathrooms, coin-operated and solar showers.

Other activities include: wildlife watching, kayaking, paddle boarding, biking, hiking, berry picking, seasonal lilac and corn mazes.

Disclaimer: The writer had her stay hosted as a media guest.