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Starting in Saskatchewan

by Laura Gelder | 04 January 2017

Having never been to Canada, Saskatchewan was perhaps not the obvious place for me to start. Few people could place it on a map of Canada and even most Canadians know it for just two things: farming and being flat.

That ‘flat’ is the Canadian prairies, which stretch into southern Alberta and Manitoba too. I flew into Saskatoon from Calgary, across a vast patchwork-quilt of beige and teal dotted with the odd toy farmhouse, marooned in a grassy ocean.

Its hard to believe now but its largest city, which rises suddenly from the flat, sitting on the South Saskatchewan river, was once a wild west town for prairie settlers. But to really understand the history we went further back. The First Nations site of Wanuskewin is now a heritage park, located in a valley that’s been populated for 6,000 years, since mammoth stomped the earth. It’s famous for its bison jumps, places where tribes of Northern Plains Indians drove herds of the beasts over a cliff to their death.

Brutal, maybe, but nothing went to waste. The skin and fur was used for tipis; the ribs were shaped into sleighs; the sinew was made taut for bow strings – even the tail was turned into a fly swatter.

But when ‘the white man’ arrived, living on the plains changed forever. In the 1890s the government painted a glowing picture of the prosperous lands of Saskatchewan, naming it the ‘Last Best West’ and fuelling an immigration drive which swelled the population from 91,000 to 492,000 in 10 years.

Saskatoon’s Western Development Museum recreates the boom time of 1910, when people from across Europe arrived daily to receive the co-ordinates of a plot which would become their ‘homestead’.

With every boom comes a decline and in Saskatchewan the 1930s depression catastrophically coincided with a 10-year drought. Without rain, the prairies were reduced to a virtual desert. Weeds and thistles blew across the plains, replacing the crops which were unable to seed in the barren earth. Harsh winds drove drifts of dust which piled at people’s doors like dirty snow, seeping through the cracks to cover their belongings in a filthy film.

Many of those who came through this have descendants still working the land today, and the museum concludes with a snapshot of today’s world: 500-horsepower combine harvesters, 90-feet wide GPS precision seed drills and environmentally-controlled barns.

Hitting the road, I got insight into this Saskatchewan from our hosts and a book I discovered in a petrol station called You Know You’re From Saskatchewan When... For instance, ‘You know you’re from Saskatchewan when your bumper sticker reads ‘My other vehicle is a John Deere’. This, I learnt from our host Janelle, is a brand of tractor – and one she was able to recognise a mile away across the endless haze of wheat.

The land is undeniably flat in Saskatchewan, but it’s not without features. The wild prairie is slightly undulating and we passed royal-blue lakes where flocks of white birds perched to feed, vast salt lakes and distant, monstrous potash mines. At regular intervals were red Dutch barns, metal grain silos glinting in the sun and combine harvesters throwing up clouds of chaff like modern-day smoke signals.

Working cattle ranch La Reata, however, is nestled in a beautiful valley, with the rustic guest rooms housed in round-roofed wooden shacks that look out over the hills and lake. Owner George Gaber is like a German Marlborough Man, permanently dressed in denim and leather and with a chiseled Disney-hero jaw shaded under his cowboy hat. There is no wifi, TV or other modern distractions at his ranch. Meals – hearty home-cooked fare like chili – are eaten communally at long wooden tables. The entertainment here is riding, swimming in the lake and a tin shack saloon with tractor seats for bar stools.

We dressed in chaps and wide-brimmed hats and rode our horses Western-style, holding the reins in one hand and fancying ourselves true cowgirls and boys as we stood on a promontory surveying George’s rugged land.

Further west, on the Alberta border, were more hills and a pleasant surprise in the form of Cypress Hills Winery. Marty and Marie Bohnet planted the vineyards as an alternative to cattle ranching when the BSE crisis struck, and guests can sample their vintage – Saskatoon berry or rhubarb wine for instance – with a plate of local cheese.

After the largely featureless plains, the landscape in Cypress Hills is striking for its trees. Cypress Hills Eco Adventures offers a thrilling canopy tour via a series of wooden platforms 40 feet above the forest floor, connected by zip wires. Here I learnt another new word as I was looking at the merchandise: t-shirts, caps and… bunny hugs? Apparently, ‘You know you’re from Saskatchewan when you call it a bunny hug and not a hoodie’.

In the little city of Moosejaw I discovered a Chicago connection. In the days of Prohibition it hosted Al Capone and under the city is a labyrinth of tunnels which were used to smuggle alcohol and hide those flouting America’s puritanical laws. We took the entertaining Tunnels of Moosejaw tour, following period-dressed actors with faux gangster accents through a series of re-created rooms before we were chased into the gift shop with gun shots on our tail!

I ended my journey in the leafy capital of Regina, home to historic buildings, a lively bar scene and the fascinating Depot, where every Canadian Mountie does their training. But looking at a map it’s obvious that I’ve barely scratched the surface of this sprawling province which yields boreal forest, sand dunes and lakes further north and badlands to the south. You could spend a lifetime in Saskatchewan, let alone Canada.

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