Around Town

Thursday, August 12, 2010

It's not everyday I have visitors much less ones from outside Saskatoon. So after taking my friend, Yann, and his son, Frederic, on a 4-day 2500km loop of Southwestern Saskatchewan we set out to do a few activities here in Saskatoon. At first I admit I was not sure there would be much to show, but with a 9-year old boy in particular, those fears were unfounded. We had arrived around midnight the night before and the loop had been grueling so after allowing for a well-deserved sleep-in, we set our sights on Wanuskewin. For those not from here, Wanuskewin is a collection of pre-Colombian native camps as well as cliffs for buffalo jumps and the northernmost medicine wheel anywhere. It is on the north side of Saskatoon and sits right along the riverbank and is lined with trails that pass some of the sites and offer views of teepee villages, ancient sites, cliff, and of course the river. And I'd never been there. I was pleasantly surprised at how nice the area was and how well the information is presented. And in any case, it ate up a few hours and settled our collective need for a good old Saskatchewan bison burger. From there we retreated to the city but stayed on the river, driving down Spadina Crescent until we reached another Saskatoon landmark: the weir.

The weir has a special significance today amid all the anti-depression stimulus spending: it was built in 1930 as a make-work project with the intention of regulating water levels in Saskatoon for drought prevention, covering intakes of the powerplant upstream, and so on. Since then, Gardiner dam does all these same functions leaving the weir to serve as eye-candy and pelican feeding trough. There's talk of removing half of the weir to install a hydro-generation plant (at a cost that I doubt is recoverable) and a whitewater facility. I'd like to see the whitewater facility happen with a longer run than proposed but at the moment nothing is certain. In any case we watched the pelicans for awhile and then headed upstream to cross the CP Rail bridge for a look south along the river and into downtown. As a rail buff, I think Yann enjoyed the opportunity to walk along an active railroad bridge - too bad we didn't have a train on there as we crossed.

The next stop was downtown: we parked on 2nd Ave and 19th St near the River Landing where Frederic eschewed the scale replica waterpark that mimics that Saskatchewan river basin to play with stones in the water near a leaking hose. I'd hoped to walk them up the bridge to Broadway Avenue, loop around to Victoria and get some good icecream at Homestead before coming back downtown but Fred was already pretty tired so we walked along the riverbank to the Besborough and had some Saskatoon Berry frozen yogurt at the Bus Stop instead. From there, we walked along 21st St. which still has a bit of that 50s charm back to 2nd Ave and then retreated to the car. I drove them up Victoria Bridge realizing too late that narrow roads are pretty common in France but not realizing that the bridge was soon to be closed (most likely forever) a few days hence for safety reasons. Then we looped down Broadway and parked on Saskatchewan Crescent for a look at downtown from across the river. In our time together Fred had learned to say "Stop pleeeease!" when he saw something he liked and so we did while he crooned "ooh la la". It really is a nice view and Yann was as impressed with the houses - so different from each other but neighbours - as the skyline.

We were driving right past the university so I thought we had to take a detour along Campus Drive. Fred was feeling pretty tired but I remembered that our Geology Building would be of interest so we parked on campus and walked along the bowl (is there ever a summer that it ISN'T all dug up??) to the historic Thorvaldson building and back to geology from there. A full-sized T-Rex, triceratops, and stegosaurus awaited not to mention rodents, snakes, fish, and other creatures and I'm sure we spent at least half an hour as Fred ran from exhibit to exhibit. The best things in life ARE free, I guess. I didn't know if they'd be interested so I took them up 8th Street to Ruckers Mini Golf and Frederic's fatigue remained forgotten for the first 10 or 11 holes anyway. They got to meet Dimitri, a friend of mine that worked there and bought their round, and then at last it was time for dinner: and where else but Athena? I brought Yann a few pints of our local brew, and we all had dinner then Megan - who was hosting them in her spare room but had never met them - showed up and we all sat for some time visiting and so on until they went home and to sleep.

The next day, they would be leaving for Jasper by train and with it being Thursday, I was reserved for the afternoon to help John get some wedding preparation done. So we got up early and headed to the Berry Barn for breakfast: Waffles with Saskatoon Berry syrup. This is another Saskatoon tradition that I've never done. Sure, I've had waffles/pancakes with Saskatoon Berry syrup many times but I'd never been to the Berry Barn for breakfast. To be honest, it was decent but not all that special - but the setting was really nice, right on the riverbank. After breakfast I dropped Yann and Fred back at Megan's to pack and went home to meet up with John. We headed to the west side to do our final fitting and pick up our tuxes, I saw his new condo (which looks pretty nice), and then we headed up to Handyman to pick up decorations, plates, and all sorts of rental gear for the reception. We drove down to the hall where I was surprised to see that John drove pretty conservatively these days considering that we had little time left to get the truck unloaded and get back to the store before it closed. I'm not suggesting I expected him to break all sorts of traffic laws, but we sat behind a long line of traffic waiting to turn on Warman Rd while traffic moved freely in the neighbouring lane.

By the time we did get there, Kirk was already there and while John met with the facilities manager of the hall we hurriedly unloaded everything and I jumped in the truck alone to grab the rest. Most of the staff was just leaving but I caught them before they closed the gates and we loaded the rest in John's truck before I headed back to the Curling Club in record time. The plan had been to work on getting some of the set up done and then meet Yann, Fred, and Megan for a late dinner but by the time dinner rolled around John and I were on top of a three-level scaffolding with a ladder and a bunch of rolls of plastic trying to make a nice decorative radial chandelier. So I didn't really get to say farewell to them or a proper thanks to Megan but they would be back next week anyway. We were up there decorating until 1 AM or so then John drove me home and I finally had a proper sleep.

Saskatoon Photos

Running Back to Saskatoon

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

I woke up in Alberta a little before Yann and Frederic, my French friend and his son, started stirring. We were in "The Hat" or Medicine Hat which has the unfortunate slogan, "The Gas City". Hopefully not related to bean consumption. After breakfast at the Perkin's down the street we made our first stop: the tallest teepee in the world. I don't think it should count, really - it's made of steel has crossbeam supports and everything - but nobody seems to be contesting their claim so we'll let them have it for the moment. The highlight here for my visitors wasn't the teepee nor even the nice valley it overlooked but instead the gophers running rampant in the grasses. The gophers were even brave enough to sneak food from the entrance of their holes which Fred squatted beside them. Soon, though, the gophers and the hat were in the rearview mirror and we headed southeast towards the Alberta side of Cypress Hills. There's not much to stop and see in the Alberta park but it is a pretty nice drive and certainly a good introduction to the park. And to be fair, there were some beautiful lakes rimmed with wildflowers that we drove past on the way. But soon we were off the pavement and trucking along gravel roads and one texas gate and a small brown sign later and we were back in Saskatchewan again.

On the Saskatchewan side, our first stop was Fort Walsh, an old Northwest Mounted Police (later to become the RCMP) fort established after the Cypress Hills Massacre sounded alarm bells in the east. The massacre, incidentally, occurred when some of the American wolfers whom had been sneaking over the border to hunt lost some horses and decided it was the Nakota Indians. Canada, of course, was intent on peaceful coexistence with the natives rather than all-out war as plagued the wild western US, and a bunch of massacring Americans coming up north was a real threat to the peace - not to mention sovereignty. So our first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, formed the NWMP and sent them marching west to bring peace and order. History lesson finished, the fort looked pretty cool from above and apparently is not only restored but furnished with actors in period costumes living out daily life. But our final day was too packed with sights and we were left no recourse but to admire from afar and travel north. We were going to stop by Harris Lake so Fred could frolic and I assumed it would be on the same road as the conglomerate cliffs which overlook the lake, but was wrong. The cliffs turned out to be scenic and entertaining enough for him anyway, and then we rode off to our lunch destination: The Cypress Hills Winery.

Yes, that's right. There's a vineyard in Saskatchewan and in fact it is the only one between BC and Ontario. They don't have a lot of success with the locally grown grapes but they're trying and what they can't grow the import and make into a nice wine anyway. As well, there are some pretty surprisingly good fruit wines (from someone who doesn't much care for fruit wines) and most importantly at the moment, a place for Fred to run and us to eat. By the time we left, bottles in hand (thanks Yann!), we were reenergized for the many miles still ahead. I wish I could tell you it was a short trip to our next stop but in truth we would do about 700 km that day plus stops all over. So we bee-lined it straight up the 21 highway to Leader and when we got there we didn't immediately turn right to the Sandhills. I, in my unfailing overambition, decided to check out a landmark on my map called Checkerboard Hill. I knew nothing about it and we almost abandoned it as yet another failed attempt to get off the beaten path but we found it at last and the views were well worth it. We also saw the beginnings of yet another thunderstorm forming along the prairie and didn't stay too long. There was a sign for the largest barn in North America just down the road - apparently it had taken 40-something railcars of lumber to construct - but we drove and looked and looked before coming to the realization that it was the old SITE of the largest barn in North America. Fascinating. Then we drove back through Leader and on towards Sceptre where my other plan was foiled due to flooding and road construction: I thought that after visiting the Great Sandhills it would be nice to cross the Saskatchewan River on a small ferry but there was neither time nor certainty on that road and it was abandoned.

So we drove south and found our way - aided a little by my iPhone's GPS - to the Great Sandhills which were again unmarked and again owned by ranchers generous enough to let strangers visit. The thunderstorm was coming in pretty quickly and time wasn't on our side but we did spend a good 45 minutes there climbing up sand dunes and looking out at the prairie and the thin layer of grass that - as one website put it - is all that is keeping this place from being the Sahara. The Great Sandhills were not what I expected but were beautiful in their own way and I think deserved more time than we had to offer them. Large dunes suddenly burst out of the prairies like bubbles of earth and mesh inexplicably into the landscape of grasslands around them. It's hard to believe this is only a two hour drive from home and I've never been here but it is the nature of all things we hold close to be taken for granted. We eventually wound back down the dunes and into my car and drove a bit before parking to watch the thunderstorm rolling in with what looked like some dangerous potential-tornado clouds. I was waiting and waiting to catch some lightning and finally did get a good bolt before we bolted back into the car and away from the deadly mosquitoes. It had just started to rain whereupon a bit too much door slamming had jammed my passenger side window open. So I sped once more as the storm was at our heels until the water on the highway forced me to slow significantly or risk hydroplaning, but soon we were able to speed again and the rain turned to a drizzle and not too much water got in the car. Eventually, Yann tried the window again and we mercifully managed to get it closed before arriving in Kindersley around 9:00 for dinner.

It was already dark and dinner was overdue and pretty good for a small restaurant on the TransCanada (I think it was the Eastside Cafe?). We were not going to get to Saskatoon before midnight and I felt bad - poor Frederic had been a really good sport and hardly complained a word for how hard I pushed both him and Yann and now we had a late night entry into Saskatoon happening. Both he and Yann slept in the car (which made me feel a bit better) right until we pulled into Saskatoon at 11:30. Megan, a friend and fellow traveller/couchsurfer, had graciously offered them the place to sleep that I didn't have and though she would not be awake to meet them we had arranged a way to get into her house and she gave me directions on where to show them not having even spoken a word with either. It is for people like her that I am proud to be from Saskatchewan. The welcome to Saskatoon at night was a little anticlimactic given all they had heard and what little there was to see at that time of day but we were winding up the road trip portion of the adventure. Perhaps the climax was watching what could have been a funnel cloud near Leader, or climbing to the top of a Great Sandhill. Maybe it was the incredible sunset on the Alberta border or the sudden vistas of Cypress Hills. Or maybe it was just simply being in the car, with Frank Black (or Edward Maya) playing and driving along the empty roller-coaster roads of Saskatchewan with a good friend and his awesome son. In any case, the reality is that this wasn't the end of the French Connection for the next morning I would be picking them up to begin our tour of Saskatoon, the Paris of the Prairies. Maybe it's still to come...

Cypress/Great Sandhills Photos

West to Eastend

Monday, August 09, 2010

We woke up from our Assiniboia hotel rested; for the first time since arriving in Canada, Frederic even slept in. I took that as a good sign that the jet lag was wearing off for my French visitors, Yann and his son Fred. By the time we found somewhere open for breakfast on a Monday and finished, it was almost lunchtime (10:30) but we we didn't race out of Assiniboia in spite of what we had ahead of us that day. We stopped instead in their tourist information office to view a safari exhibit. As a memorial, William Prentice's various hunting prizes were on display and although I don't care for even the thought of trophy hunting, it seemed like a small-town North American sort of thing to do so we stopped anyway. I have to admit it was an impressive collection of animals from all over Africa complete with some descriptions and maps explaining how they live. Or lived. Then it was time to lay down some rubber and beeline for Eastend. There, we would encounter one of the richest dinosaur finds in the world championed by Scotty the T-Rex whom Fred was very excited to meet. But it was a long haul for a 9 year old and we stopped about an hour down the old Red Coat Trail (Hwy. 13 which retraced the march west of the RCMP back in 1874) at a railroad crossing. It sounds an odd place to start but the rail line rounded the corner and crossed under an abandoned bridge, over a wooden bridge, and along/over a pond. We actually spent about half an hour there walking, photographing, climbing to the old bridge, and much to Fred's delight, we even spotted some antelope on the tracks although I didn't manage to get a photo of it.

We also stopped at a few oilrigs pumping the precious black stuff from beneath southern Saskatchewan. Frederic had never seen one and I was amazed at how many there were down here in the relatively recent Bakken oil field discovery. I even found a rig owned by a company I have invested in which was a nice touch of reality in an entirely ungrounded stock market. And finally we stopped for construction along the highway near Dollard, one town shy of Eastend. I told Yann the old joke that Saskatchewan has only two seasons: winter, and construction after he commented that most of the province seemed to be under construction. He laughingly agreed and soon we were underway and pulling into Eastend. We'd been told by our Regina friends to stop by Jack's cafe and he would point out the best places to find moose and bison in the area but sadly the somewhat famous and Greek-owned cafe was closed. So we ended up having lunch at a restaurant across the street where, once again, Yann and Fred partook of Canadian-beef cheeseburgers and Iced Teas. Then it was time for our destination here, the T-Rex Discovery Centre just outside of town.

I don't know if Frederic was excited to finally see Scotty or not because he was too busy running from exhibit to exhibit and shouting in French to ask. In the summers they have a paleontology camp in addition to the mini interactive kids' area in the museum and coupled with the surprisingly beautiful badland scenery of Eastend, Yann was considering cancelling his trip to the much more expensive and touristed Jasper. Eastend was a charming town and I would have liked to spend a bit more time exploring it myself but we had a lot to do in far too little time so we packed up and kept on moving, leaving Yann to ponder his plans for the next few days. As much as I wanted them to see and love Saskatchewan, being so close to the Rockies and not visiting would be a shame for any tourist visiting the country and I had to advice against missing that. Our next stop was the eastern block of Cypress Hills but we actually went in the other direction on a tip that there was a bison farm near Dollard which would be a major check on the French checklist. So we doubled back, waited again in the construction zone, and then covered any number of grid roads searching for the farm in vain. Add this to a growing list of failures in my guiding down here. We gave up and drove back through Eastend - missing the gravel road turnoff I'd wanted to take - towards Cypress Hills East.

Cypress Hills shares a spot with the Athabasca Sand Dunes up north as one of those few destinations in Saskatchewan that everybody has heard of and nobody - despite a desire to do so - has visited. I was among that number and it took a few visitors from off-continent to finally get me down here. I have to admit that I was both impressed and shocked. I had a mental image of sort of stretched out undulating prairie reaching for the sky but instead encountered a wall of forest like you might see on the edge of the Rockies. In fact, here in Saskatchewan is the highest point between the Rockies and Labrador. So take that all you "dog run away for two weeks" hipsters. Cypress Hills looks like I expect the north of Saskatchewan (of which I am painfully unknowledgable) to look with pine trees and sparkling lakes and so on. If you could travel back in time it would be an oasis of life surrounded by massive fields of solid ice flattening what would become the Saskatchewan we know, love, and are ridiculed for living in. We stopped at Loch Leven for some stone skipping, walking, and frog catching and of course to give Frederic a chance to dismantle and reposition the rocks in the stream.

From there we drove up and up to Bald Butte which, on a clear day, offers mind-blowing vistas of 120 miles of prairie in every direction. It was pretty clear, but I couldn't make out the distant sand dunes that allegedly can be spotted from our vantage point. There was a second viewpoint that looked over prairie that must serve as drainage for the hills or something as it was filled with old scars of ravines smoothed over and healed by time into bumpy plateaus and little valleys everywhere. The plan had been to cut across to the western block of Cypress Hills directly but due to the flooding that year, the road was totally washed out. As well, it was already 6:30 and there was little time left for exploring the larger section of park anyway. So we improvised a new plan: we would drive over to Irvine, Alberta and spend the night there before taking the road south into the Albertan section of Cypress Hills and backtracking east into Saskatchewan again. That way, we would see the entire park, they could check Alberta off their lists (in case they decided against Jasper), and we would cover more miles that day in the hopes of shortening what would already be a huge day tomorrow.

So we drove through Maple Creek and west to the border where we would witness something unplanned but worth the detour for sure: one of the most beautiful sunsets I've ever seen. There was a thunderstorm rolling across the prairie and the sun coloured the pouring rain in shades of gold not to mention the thunderclouds. The sun was just high enough that the cloud shaded the other cloud and produced a vivid line of orange and dark-blue right along the TransCanada Highway and we were just far enough away to be out of the rain. I set up the tripod on my car and we shot it for half an hour as I was trying to capture a bolt of lightning in the orange skies thinking that would be out-of-this-world. Sadly, I never succeeded but I did come away with some very nice photos of it. Irvine, meanwhile, had no place to stay that looked decent nor restaurant where a minor could eat. So we pressed on the last 30km or so and took residence in Medicine Hat where, after a Houston Pizza (which Fred refused to try to our mutual amusement) we finally slept off a busy third day. The fourth and final one back to Saskatoon would be the busiest of all, with another trip through Cypress Hills, a stop at the only vineyard on the prairies, a visit to the Great Sandhills, and finally a stop in the Paris of the Prairie: Saskatoon.

Southwest Saskatchewan Photos

Southern Saskatchewan Circuit

Sunday, August 08, 2010

As you may or may not know, I run a website (which has been woefully neglected on my travels) about one of the greatest contemporary musicians out there, Mr. Frank Black Francis. Here's a link to the website and the podcast I host with a friend. That weekend, a friend and fellow fan (and one of the French founders of Frank Black site Blackolero) would be coming to see Saskatchewan and Jasper and I was going to take a couple days to explore the south and southwest with him. And I cannot fail to mention his hospitality when I was in Strasbourg/Ribeauville, France and stayed with him and his family. My first problem was that my car had no battery left whatsoever. According to my dad, a drive around town didn't help matters which meant that the battery no longer held charge. So I picked up a new one and put it in only to discover that I had no radiator fluid at all and thus a radiator leak and thus needed a new one of those, too. Of course there were other things that week. One of our regular customers, an old family friend, and all around great guy, Doug Mitchell, passed away the past weekend and his funeral was on Tuesday. I had lunches and drinks with some more friends I hadn't seen in some time, a BBQ at Steve's, helped lay sod at my sister's house, cut the grass in our yard, and all sorts of things like that. Plus I tried to do a bit more research so I could hit all the interesting spots in our tour of the southwest. I think by the time the weekend came I was more excited than they were.

The ironic thing is that for all my travel around the world, I have done very little in Saskatchewan or, for that matter, Canada. This is a common syndrome in travelers and I guess it stems from the fact that you want to see places exotic to you and also from an attitude that home can be traveled more easily in short bursts or in old age. The last trip I took to Australasia was completed like this one with an oath to see more of the country I live in although I still feel like I can see it when I'm older more easily than the places I've gone. So it was that I did the Canadian Expedition through BC and Alberta with Alabama Dan last year and so it was that I was taking a few days to do the Southern Saskatchewan Circuit this year with Yann. They arrived in Regina Friday, August 6, late in the evening and I drove down early Saturday morning to pick them up from their hotel. I was a bit late as I was trying to get the tire on Larissa's car repaired that morning (the tire picked up a screw and had a slow leak) and wound up taking my car with some extra antifreeze instead. I made it there in time for lunch and took Yann and Frederic for a quick look at the Parliament building (from the outside - it wasn't on their list to have a look) before going for lunch at my cousins' restaurant, The Cottage. My cousins weren't there but Mike, my cousin's wife (effectively my cousin)'s brother was and we visited with him and his father as well over lunch and got all sorts of tips on places to see in the southern corners of the province. They also insisted on buying lunch which is the way it goes but I did try and hope to exact vengeance on their future visit to Saskatoon.

With some calculating it became apparent that our plans to see Moose Jaw for the day were not practical so instead, I took Yann and Fred to the RCMP Heritage Centre where they train every mountie in Canada. I haven't been there since I was Frederic's age. Well, he's 9 and I was 12 and it was a sixth grade field trip to Regina for the weekend but you get the idea. It would've been nice to have more time to take them to the Science Centre and ... well, I don't know where else but I have to admit that for all the ribbing I give Regina as our rival it really grew on me in our short visit. We stayed the night at Mike's house (again, thanks for showing my French friends Saskatchewan hospitality) and while Yann and Fred recovered from their jetlag, I went out with Mike and a friend of his to a few places in town. The first was Earl's which, well, it's a chain so enough said. We argued over the bill - drinks were the least I could do after dinner and a bed - and when it seemed there would be no clear winner we instead agreed to place each of our visas in the billfold and let the waitress decide. I was sure she'd choose mine as I placed it strategically but instead she chose Mike's and I was indebted yet more. Then we went to a street whose name I can't remember that was lined with bars and clubs and Regina's stock rose a little bit more. It was a great night and I'm very happy we wound up in Regina instead of rushing to Moose Jaw.

We were going to rush instead to Moose Jaw the next morning - out the door by 8, breakfast from McDonald's in the car, and in time for the first tunnel tour at 9. I learned quickly it doesn't work this way with the French. In addition to leaving 45 minutes late after Yann replied to some work-related emails, when we got to McDonalds and I was already trying to make up for lost time, they ordered pancakes which required parking and sitting and eating. Lesson 2: The French find it disgusting that we eat savory foods in the morning. Egg McMuffins were out of the question. And then Yann needed his after-breakfast smoke. Lesson 3. So we left Regina at about 9:30 and got in to Moose Jaw shortly after 10. I have family here but I have only been once and we didn't look around the town, just drove to a small cabin nearby to spend Christmas. So I was surprised to find that it was actually a very picturesque little city with a historic and well-preserved downtown. Most Canadians probably know that this is where Al Capone ran his bootlegging ring during prohibition in the US but the seediness goes beyond that. Local heroes and heroines include other outlaws like Butch Cassidy and madam Rosie Dale. It used to serve as the red light district for Regina and did so admirably. Today it's a lot more peaceful, at least if you don't get too mixed up with the local ladies at night where I'm told it can still be like the Wild West, and is more known as home to the Snowbirds, for its dozens of murals, and for its iconic name whose origins are still undetermined. And, of course, for its bright future.

From Moose Jaw, we took the 39 southwest until we hit highway 6 which makes a beeline from Regina to the US border. We came perilously close to running out of gas on a Sunday when most service stations were closed but in Pangman we stopped to have a burger and the restaurant owner was kind enough to trade some of the credit on his Co-op gaslock for cash down the street. Loaded up again we held off on our intended destination, Big Muddy, to cross into Montana. This was one of those "so we can say we did it" stops and I think that we almost spent as much time in US customs and in Montana. Yann didn't have paperwork filled out for traveling with a child but they let us continue thankfully and we headed down to Plentywood which was a charming small town before cutting west and into the Montana badlands. It was really nice scenery and Yann has dozens of photos out the car window of the white mud hills over the plains. We passed a gravel road called Chalk Butte Rd and I decided to turn off and see if we could get some nice views of the interior badlands. We had to hop a barbed wire fence but it was quite worth the detour off the highway and, in fact, across the border. Back on the highway we continued to the relic elevators in Flaxville which sounds like a euphemism for having the runs and stopped in a little pub there where the owner told me her grandfather was buried in a beautiful mountie cemetery in Big Muddy. Rehydrated, we crossed back into Canada with much less difficulty and after passing the road for Big Beaver, we opted instead for Big Muddy. That these two places are so close together is probably no surprise to many out there.

Big Muddy itself doesn't appear to be a town but just an area below Big Muddy lake. There were some great heights, cliffs, and plateaus and at times the road felt like a rollercoaster complete with Frederic's "Whoas" and "Whooos" from the backseat. We were looking for Castle Butte and the big turtle I'd heard something about but wound up at a rancher's home instead. We left there with woefully inaccurate directions and had to give up on the turtle, the castle, and the cemetery. I know a lot of this land is private but I think that at least some of it could be marked or even bought by the province for parkland. Thankfully most of the ranchers are okay with the occasional tourist traipsing through their property in search of badland bliss but if tourism were ever to catch hold in Saskatchewan, something would seriously need to be done and this was not the last time on this trip I would feel that way. We headed back to Big Beaver and then up where we passed through Big Muddy valley which, as you might expect, was pretty and a welcome diversion. One thing about driving through Saskatchewan, you learn to appreciate the smallest things. So when a bigger thing like Big Muddy Valley (which would be nice anywhere but was especially nice now) or Qu'Appelle comes along, it seems especially grand. It was well past dinner time and we stopped in the town of Bengough for dinner whereupon I learned that Castle Butte was actually in the valley we had just driven past 15 minutes ago. I took a look at the sun which was close to setting and decided to get my food packed to go then tore off to capture Castle Butte at sunset.

I once again was shocked that what is essentially the landmark of Big Muddy was more or less unsigned. We had been looking carefully as we crossed the valley for signs and there wasn't one - not if you were heading northbound. Southbound there was only a small handmade sign 10m into a farmer's field that would be easy to miss. Considering the government spends $11.5 million not to mention another $4 million or so in revenue and other grants, you'd think somebody could find the money for a few nice signs off the highway. How are we going to show people driving across the province how beautiful it is if we don't hype up what we have? Anyway, I digress. The sun was making everything glow and I knew time was limited so I had raced and finally turned off and then had to guess which butte might be the famous one. I guessed, it turns out, wrong. Still, aside from more mosquitoes than I've seen in the Amazon it was a beautiful scene as the clouds glowed pink and the rock of the butte, normally whitish, hummed with red. It was worth the drive, racing, and mosquito bites. Then back to Bengough in the last glimpses of light for my dinner which, it turned out, I was able to eat in the restaurant before we drove off to Assiniboia to spend the night. It surprised me quite a bit that these small town hotels still charge in the $80 range per night, but we got in and got to sleep 900km later, because tomorrow was going to be an even bigger day. Cypress Hills, Eastend, and possibly even Grasslands National Park.

South Central Sask Photos

A Farewell to Johns

Monday, August 02, 2010

I was home in Saskatoon on Sunday night after saying goodbye to Fort St. John and my cousins there. After visiting with all of my family that night except Larissa, who is currently working at a resort in Mexico, I hit the old familiar bed too hard to notice how comfortable it was or for that matter that it was a whole new mattress. The first week back was a hubbub of activity, unpacking, sorting, and getting things in order not to mention the big event of the coming weekend that had brought me so many tears on the road: John's Bachelor Party. It was the following weekend and there was still a lot to do before like sorting out meals, getting groceries, sorting out a total price,and so on. I won't bore you with all the details of that or my return to "Dynamite Dean and the Formidable Pylons" avec yellow card. We lost by the way, because the ref let the other team score on a handball, not that I'm too worried about such things. Our team regularly celebrates defeats as victories. I didn't call anybody up or plan a big welcome back for myself, instead I'd just go and visit whoever called me. We had dinner with my family and grandparents and John (who is basically counted as family at this point), I met up with Megan and some of her friends one evening, I fell asleep at 9:30 one evening and that's pretty much the week right there. Then, at last, it was time for the weekend and John's bachelor party where I and his other friends and family could bid adieu to single John.

John was running a bit late from work and I had to pick him up from his family's house outside of town. I was running a bit late myself, having forgotten the hamburgers in the freezer at home, needing to gas up, and so on. I should mention before I forget that I wouldn't have gotten it all done that day if it wasn't for Steve helping get snacks, organize the golf tournament rules, prizes, and just being a sounding board for good advice. And while I'm thanking people, I should say that Darren I owe a huge thanks for finding us a cabin - his uncle's - that we could use, booking golf, and helping with things while I was on the opposite side of the world. Now, all that lateness and running around and I still managed to get to John's not long after he did and moreover managed to have him at Athena for the rendezvous drinks at the specified time: 5:30. There we were met by Steve and Kirk, his cousins, as well as my cousin Jonathan. Probably the biggest surprise for the weekend walked in the door about 10 minutes later in the form of his cousin from Edmonton, Mark Mielke. It was pretty impressive for him to get all the way here for the weekend and John was very excited as he'd been assured that none of his family from out of province would be there. Then we hit the road to our destination, 3 XL Athena Pizzas in the back and arrived at Mistusinne on the shores of Lake Diefenbaker around 7 PM that night to find Darren waiting for us. After settling in, getting ice (thanks guys and fictionally attractive ice girl!) and unloading everything we cracked the pizza boxes and the alcohol and warmed up for the arrival of the last guest for the weekend, John's cousin Lee, from Regina.

The night was a lot of fun though we didn't do anything especially wild or nutty. Or at least I didn't think so until I saw the photos. We essentially sat around the living room with our respective drinks in hand visiting and getting to know each other and telling stories that would never come up had a female been present. And apparently dancing on ottomans? We were up and visiting until about 3 AM. I was up again at 5 AM as John shook me awake - something in the cabin was reacting badly with him and he was having trouble breathing and so it was that after a busy week getting caught up, de-jet-lagged, and planning this party we were up after only 2 hours of sleep and racing for the hospital in Saskatoon about 140 km away. I don't think it took us very long to get there but by the time we did he was breathing quite a bit better than when we left (which wasn't saying much). The doctors had him breathe through a device with a ball to see what sort of pressure he could generate and he only got to 300 when a normal person can hit 650 or so. I tried too and for some reason could only hit 450. Hmm. After inhaling the ultimate hangover cure: pure oxygen and steroids, John was breathing at about 420 and we left the hospital picked him up some pills for the weekend (no reaction with alcohol? Great!) and headed back to the cabin.

The timing was really good as we got back at around 9:30 and just in time for me to start on breakfast for everybody. They all had just gotten up and thought we went for a drive to get ice or something but John had the wristband to prove it: he'd promised Leona no "The Hangover" stunts and I had broken that before dawn on the second day. Breakfast that morning was grilled tomatoes with oregano, BBQ sausage, eggs, toast, and hashbrowns. It proved to be a little much to handle all at once cooking for eight on no sleep and Mark saved the day by volunteering to take over the hashbrowns while the others watched Major Leagues on VHS and John napped. We managed to get everybody fed and get ourselves out the door and to Harbour Golf Course with two minutes to spare before our tee-time. Steve's rules were specifically designed for the course and really made the golf fun though I was a bit too tired by the end to swing much less get too crazy with them. Still, the best rule by far was the taunting hole where everything from funny one-liners to run-over golf balls to plastic bottles thrown midswing and chipping while the golf carts were buzzing in reverse stretched the creative mischief muscles. The course itself, aside from being in need of new groundskeepers, was beautiful and I felt like we were in BC or somewhere else as sail boats bobbed by on Lake Diefenbaker. That is, until you round the corner and there's the Elbow grain elevator standing on the horizon.

After golf and a lot of sun - did I mention the weather was perfect for this weekend? - we headed back to the cabin whereupon the boys put on the rest of Major League and I got started on dinner. Getting off the course and out of the sun I felt a lot more awake again so I didn't bother napping. We were missing one crucial ingredient from my plans that day and that was oil to make homefries. So plan B was to dice up the potatoes (with help from Darren and Mark) and spice them with whatever we could find and wrap them in aluminum foil. There were three foils, one was spiced with salt and oregano with lemon to be added later, the other with salt, basil, and tequila with lime to be added later, and the third was spiced rum and a mix of spices which proved to be everybody's favourite. I also made up my controversial Greek salad with cinnamon and then BBQ'd some beautiful steaks my dad had cut up for us. And I cut up some more limes and got the tequila shots going. If I may say so it was a really nice dinner although I forgot to cook the bacon-wrapped scallops that were meant to go with the steaks and I couldn't have done it without the help the boys gave me.

That evening after dinner, Lee had brought Beer darts and we went outside and played that until the mosquitoes won and drove us back inside. Here, we all put in $5 and had a pretty good round of Texas Hold'Em. Any time you went head-to-head with John you had to take a shot of tequila (and so did he, of course). Unfortunately, he was out pretty early but I made it to the final three and fatigue finally got the better of me. I don't remember this at all but apparently I passed out on the couch for a little while or at least long enough to be photographed. Then I got back up and we continued the party though I was not up much longer before John passed out and I was close behind. Jonathan left at some point in the night as he had a busy Sunday with work ahead of him and after breakfast, which was a much more simple pancakes, 'maple' syrup, and bacon, Lee had to leave too. Then we went to the beach and swam a bit in the lake (which I know was warm but felt very cold) and returned to the cabin and a Risk tournament after some dishes. I don't remember the order everybody went out but I think Darren was first and he also had to leave to go home that afternoon so he said goodbye there and then. I believe Kirk was next followed by Steve and then Mark, and so it came down a head-to-head between John and I. What would any good best man do in this situation, a showdown with the groom-to-be? He'd let him have the game of course! But I could not shake low numbers to save my life or John's and so I marched triumphantly to victory happy at least that he is used to losing to my invincible armies.

Then it was dinner time and tonight's helpers were Steve and John. On the menu were angus beef burgers with carmelized onions, fresh tomatoes and lettuce, the usual condiments, hashbrowns, and bacon-wrapped scallops. Not long after eating Kirk collapsed in a heap on the couch and a black-dressed John proceeded to flash him repeatedly. The black dress proved a little too tight, however, and John moved to a more wedding-traditional white one claiming that Leona couldn't have that colour to herself. It was probably appropriate given his magnificent defeats in the board game we would bust out that final night: Settlers of Catan. Mark had brought this (and I played it once upon a time in Malaysia) and once we started we were hopelessly addicted. We also had a mission to finish off all the alcohol we could which included my bottle of New Zealand Waimea which long time readers will remember me hunting for over three years, more tequila, beer, and so on. We played until 5:30 AM and after a breakfast of cinnamon buns and cream cheese we played one last game, cleaned the cabin, and started the caravan back to Saskatoon. It had been a great weekend and though not a traditional bachelor party, was a great weekend hanging out with the guys and enjoying the good life.

John's Stag Photos