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

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