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

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