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

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