Prairie Oasis – owned and operated by the Special Areas Board – is a recreational area sitting astride a man-made lake about half an hour south of Hanna, Alberta. Easy access to it was definitely a plus for us when we moved to Hanna this past summer. It has a fantastic beach, lots of space for day use, and the wildlife is plentiful. The park is highly ranked by RVers, with a large number of powered sites. There are also plenty of spots for those who like to rough it in a tent. Boating nuts will enjoy the small, well-maintained marina.
This is probably the cleanest campground in Alberta, bar none. It’s very rare to see litter, the beach is practically cigarette butt and beer can free, and the washroom facilities are immaculate. A very pleasant change from what I’m used to encountering.
One of the nice features for photographers is that the main access road cuts through a portion of the lake and gives you an opportunity to shoot sunrises to the east and also sunsets to the west later in the day.
You’ll find a fair amount of wildlife out during the early hours of the morning, deer in particular. I’ve also spotted muskrats and the odd coyote sneaking around the periphery of the oasis. The birdsong is almost deafening.
If you’re a birder, there is a very nicely maintained 10 km trail that runs around the lake. One point on the trail features a wooden footbridge that looks over a large reflecting pond. There is no shortage of species on display. They’re a bit skittish around humans, so you may need a long lens and a short wait at some points to get the shot you’re after. The mosquitoes are surprisingly tolerable – nothing a bit of bug spray can’t cope with.
Simply put, Prairie Oasis is one of the nicer parks in Alberta. And it is the complete opposite of what I expected when I was first told about it.
You see, the “lake” at Prairie Oasis park is actually the cooling pond for Sheerness Generating Station (it operates on a closed loop system). Sheerness is a coal-fired thermal generating station that went into service in 1984. I had always been under the impression that coal is a dirty energy source. I’ve seen pictures of soot-stained buildings in Europe, smokestacks spewing black crud, etc., etc. When you’re raised by a hippie single mother who voted NDP, this is all you know. Everything I learned in public schools reinforced this knowledge. Everyone knows how dirty coal is, right? Right?
It was a real shock for me to see how clean this park was. The Alberta park that I expected to be the dirtiest and most polluted was anything but. When you do as much landscape photography as I have, you know what pollution and industrial blight look like. There’s none to be seen at the park that shares a coal plant’s cooling pond as a recreational space.
My shock was doubled when I learned that right across the highway from the Sheerness station sits a coal strip mine operated by the Westmoreland Coal Company. After all, we all know how dirty coal mining is too. We’ve seen it in how many movies?
I was thinking of all of these things this morning while on a photography outing at the park. My personal photography output has been lacklustre as of late, so I figured some sunrise photos at a pristine location should be just the thing to get the creative juices flowing. All the while I was shooting I was examining the contrast of the obviously healthy environment around me with everything I had been taught about coal generated power in my youth.
This topic is of particular concern to Albertans because a significant portion of our energy comes from coal-fired thermal plants like Sheerness Generating Station. Generating stations that our new NDP government in the province wants to shut down. While I realize that is due in part to misconceptions about CO2 and the part it plays in “global warming” (that only seems to happen in computer models), opponents of coal consistently vilify it as being unclean. Not this particular generating station, anyhow. After a year of living in Hanna I’ve come to know many people who work at the plant, and all of them are proud of how the plant’s emissions are significantly below what is mandated by the government.
I would challenge any Alberta MLA who thinks that coal has no place as an energy source in our future to do one thing: Camp for a week at Prairie Oasis this summer. It’ll change your mind. After all, it changed mine.
Here are my pictures from this morning’s outing. I hope they will inspire those who live outside of our area to come see firsthand how private enterprise and local government can leverage an energy generating plant, turning it into not only a tourism opportunity and wildlife refuge, but also a boon to local employment. It’s worth seeing firsthand.