Northern Sandscapes, Parkland Publishing, $29.95

by Verne Clemence

Is a photograph really worth 1,000 words? A recent coffee table style book by Saskatoon travel writers Arlene and Robin Karpan suggest that the old adage may well be true. Northern Sandscapes: Exploring Saskatchewan's Athabasca Sand Dunes, is a visual banquet, but it also offers authoritative discourse on a little known ecological wonderland most of us have never even heard of.

The Karpans are a husband and wife team who have made a name for themselves over 15 years of travel writing and photojournalism on an international scale. Frequent visitors to the sand dunes of Athabasca over the years, they finally wrote and illustrated a book about the unusual area, and then set up their own publishing company to get it to market.

Parkland Publishing is the new firm. The Karpans believe there are too few good quality travel books available on Saskatchewan's tourist attractions and they hope to fill the gap.

Northern Sandscapes is a fine beginning. I'm sure I wasn't the only resident of this province who knew next to nothing about the Athabasca sand dune country. I did know that a wilderness provincial park was created there. But until I read this book I had no real appreciation of the other-worldly qualities of this part of what we normally think of as a flatland province.

I know the Karpans intend this as a travel book, but I'll use it as a way to travel from home. The 115 or so colour photographs on the book's pages provide a safe and comfortable form of transport. With little need for imagination, the images depict the wonders of a rugged region that looks like the French Foreign Legion should be coming over the next sand dune any minute.

Sand dune country is like prairie weather; if you don't like the formation you see, wait a few minutes and it'll change. The ever-shifting sands create all kinds of strange sights, such as trees with yards of bare roots showing where the wind has eroded the base.

Because the Karpans have travelled and photographed the dunes regularly for several years, they were able to demonstrate in the book the ways in which change characterizes so much of the area. One series of photos shows a tree with scraggly roots on display on one visit, and on another, two or three years later, the same tree with roots almost covered again.

Whole dead forests have emerged from the sand, doubtless to be covered with sand again, and then to re-emerge at the vagaries of the non-stop winds. Small rocks have been sandblasted into a surface resembling asphalt in places.

Most astounding is the array of plants that grow in what seems to be a totally hostile environment. More than 300 species have been identified in the park, 52 of which are listed as rare in Saskatchewan, and two of which are rare in all of Canada.