Published: June 19th 2006June 19th 2006
Motorhome News from North America 14. 5th - 15th June 2006
Saskatchewan - Land of Living Skies
The tree-lined streets of Moose Jaw City hide a dark history of bygone days. Back in the 1920s, pool-rooms, brothels, gambling houses and Chinese opium dens greeted visitors as they stepped from the train - and Al Capone is said to have stashed much of his bootleg rum in the neighbouring caves. It’s changed a bit these days and, apart from us, just a few other people of distinction have come riding into town in more recent times.
A plaque in the park commemorates the visit of HRH Edward the Earl of Wessex in 2003 when the city celebrated its centenary. His mum, Her Majesty The Queen, came too, in 1978 on the town’s 75th birthday. Moose Jaw itself is nothing to write home about - so I won’t. What it does have is a good selection of restaurants. Hopkin’s Dining Parlour is a delightful Victorian establishment of some repute, furnished throughout in the period. Celebrating nothing in particular, we dined in the conservatory with a few of the locals, talking food, religion, politics - and British ancestors of course; all
Rather a good restaurant!
Hopkins Dining Parlour in Moose Jaw
rather educational and in good humour. Our choice from the menu came with the recommendation of our nearest neighbour, a close relative of the owner. The Caesar salad, succulent prime rib-eye steak, scrumptious strawberry cheesecake and drinks came to $41 for two - around £20! Moose Jaw sports the slogan, ‘The Friendly City.’ We certainly found it so.
Regina, a few miles along the road, is the seat of the province’s government. It’s a tidy place of wide streets, welcoming and green, with bright blue skies to the east, storm clouds to the west, white cumulus to the north and rain coming up from the south on the day of our visit. ‘Wait five minutes and the weather will change,’ they say. It’s a fact that the prairies have more precipitation in summer than in winter. I didn’t know that, did you? HRH Edward was here also last Friday, laying a wreath at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police memorial to those who have died whilst on duty. The RCMP headquarters and training college in Regina is where a Mounty’s life begins. Our arrival coincided with the Sergeant’s Parade on ‘Troop Passing Out Day’ and we were able to watch
the boys, and girls, in red, performing on the parade ground to the marching band playing a medley of English, Scottish and French tunes. There are no horses anymore. The time is surely approaching when the RCMP will become just ‘Canadian Police’.
The province of Saskatchewan has a pace of life as slow as its seasons, as slow as its meandering rivers, its snow-covered fallow fields, the first spring shoots of ripening corn and the rattling crescendo of armies of harvesters. It’s a land where dreams are made, swinging in a hammock on the veranda in the glow of a balmy evening sun watching the world go by - waiting for something, anything at all, to happen. Saskatchewan produces some 60% of all Canada’s cereal; that’s 12% of total world demand. The days of ‘summer fallow’ resting fields are now all but gone with the wide availability of agrochemicals. Names we recognised adorned the hoardings around last winter’s skating rink on flooded fields; ‘BASF and Bayer are proud to sponsor’, etc. Today’s prairie farmers operate a ‘zero tillage’ system, leaving stubble on the fields to minimise soil erosion in the strong winds of spring, and snow-drifts in winter, sewing
directly the following year without ploughing. Green shoots were visible on many fields, but it was notable that some fields had yet to be sewn. The last frosts had passed, but recent rain had hampered access to the land - and it was getting late if they were to harvest before the summer was out.
To the east lies the Qu'Appelle Valley, a fertile haven of rippling pastures surrounded by shallow wooded hills you could hold in your arms and cuddle. At our camp in Fort Qu'Appelle, a beaver showed itself on Echo Lake, pulling twigs through the water to boost its lodge before nightfall and a dozen white pelicans were busy fishing by the weir at the edge of town the following morning. The local Catholic Church is ‘Our Lady of Sorrow’. That’s a great name to pull the crowds for a happy and memorable religious experience.
There are those who might say the prairies are ‘flat and boring.’ Indeed, Tara, a lady member of staff at the Motherwell Homestead Historic Site told us, ‘You can watch your dog run away from home for three days.’ We had recently added ‘historic sites’ to our National Parks Pass
and were going to get our money’s worth. Early once again, we had the whole staff at the homestead to ourselves, savouring the lifestyle of a successful early 20th century farmer. Motherwell settled there near Abernethy when the Canadian Government offered land at $10 for 160 acres to encourage people to settle the west and this 1912 house and barns stand proudly in the midst of the prairie, fostered by the most dedicated of staff, who tend the fields and animals in the style of the period and administer the authentically furnished house and grounds. Monarch butterflies turned up again on the sweet scented lilac surrounding the cottage garden. The Monarchs that come to these parts migrate the thousands of miles from the mountains of Mexico. Janice admired the rhubarb as we walked along the gravel path through the kitchen garden. ‘Would you like some?’ Tara asked. Now, there’s a silly question! So it was that we had rhubarb for tea. The word ‘scrumping’ is now officially in the Canadian language - now that I’ve explained it.
Yes, much of Saskatchewan is indeed flat. Hedgeless, treeless fields stretch endlessly into the distance. Arrow-shaft roads parallel railway lines and power-posts,
drawn with a sharp pencil-line to a pinhead dot on the shallow horizon. Now and again, a smart lonely homestead nestles in the corner of a field. Now and again, a mile of old boots on farmyard fence-posts, a row of old hats, a car in the distance, a small herd of cattle or a smart red barn, a bend in the road or a lonely well-heeled church on the rise. And once in a while, a squashed skunk on the road, the smell of burnt tyres, a fresh painted grain elevator, a tiny town, a gathering of houses. And it’s all new to us; a fascinating kaleidoscope of moving pictures passing before us. One morning a pair of pronghorn antelope stood proudly to watch us pass, a red fox ran off across the stubble, a white-tailed deer cocked its ears in welcome surprise and a red tailed hawk swept across the road. We’re not at all bored by all this. We’re easily pleased.
On the spur of the moment we travelled to Madge Lake in Duck Mountain Provincial Park beyond Yorkton to sample the boreal forest, the mixed woodlands of the north and then on into the province
Pelicans gone fishin'
of Manitoba. As we approached the border there was more evidence of trees and sparse hedgerows, broadening the skyline by a mere millimetre or two. There were signs of Russian influence, Ukrainian onion- domed churches, Mennonite and Hutterite families; fathers with ample grey beards, and wives and daughters in summer frocks and neatly pinned black bun-caps.
Janice’s birthday was celebrated at Riding Mountain National Park. It was a good day. Despite overcast skies, we saw our first Forster’s tern, an Eastern phoebe (a fly catcher) perched on a post, a Loon rested on still waters beside our camp window, a cinnamon black bear browsed the verge, and another - a huge black hulk, lolloped ahead of us along the road - and a short-eared owl circled the motorhome in search of voles in the late afternoon! ‘Many more happy birthdays, Janice.’
In our 150 days of travel, we have seen few long-term travellers from overseas. A German motorhome - shipped over the ocean, appeared next to us on a car park recently - the second we have seen, and we chatted with some intrepid New Zealanders many moons ago back in Utah.
As we rounded a corner
Memories of Edwardian times
on the campsite by Lake Audy, we were confronted by a madman brandishing a large blood-stained knife. With thoughts of ‘Psycho’ rushing through our minds, we backed off, keeping our eyes fixed on his and trying to remember what it is you are supposed to do when a bear blocks the trail! “I’ve just been filleting the pike we caught this afternoon,” he explained hurriedly - in a good old Aussie accent. Mark and Catherine were the only other campers at our site in Riding Mountain. They were travelling the circuit anti-clockwise by motorhome with their two young boys, Yann and Lucas, having bought their RV in New Jersey in April. We swapped memories of places we’d been to and not to be missed over a glass or two of red wine until dark. They were invited for eight o’clock and arrived half an hour early whilst we were still having dinner. By morning we were starting to consider whether they were indeed early or late. As sure as eggs is eggs the radio confirmed Manitoba time as one hour ahead of Saskatchewan, they had arrived late - and we had been over the border for two days! Time is
not important to a grey-haired-nomad. The family holidayed in England one summer a few years ago. “We couldn’t stand the crowds,” Mark commented. After a couple of weeks they gave up and travelled to Switzerland, Catherine’s original home, to recover. Canada suits them fine.
A few years ago, I chanced to meet a gentleman over a business dinner in a Bury St Edmunds restaurant. We discovered we had been on the same squadron at RAF Watton in 1957. Since then we visited John and Barbara at their home in Holland and they have been over to see us in Norfolk. Now, struggling into retirement, they have returned to Barbara’s home-town of Portage la Prairie in Manitoba - on the central plains of Canada. It would have been somewhat remiss of us to pass by the door without at least sampling Barbara’s home-cooking and John’s well-read philosophy.
Portage turns progressively from a disappointing urban sprawl along the western approaches to a fine ‘down town’ with attractive buildings on a wide airy main street and beautiful parks with outstanding social and recreational facilities. There is no shortage of fun in Portage. We just missed last week’s air show (this used
Monarch on the lilac
to be a Canadian Air Force training base), the harness racing is next week, Canada Day celebrations are on the 1st July, the Potato Festival is in August, and Santa’s Parade of Lights is not until December 1st. That’s just our luck. I am particularly sad to miss the sight of ripe golden corn, autumn sunsets and banks of harvesters on the plains - all good enough reasons to return someday.
Time is important in Manitoba. The distance between towns is not measured in miles or even kilometres, but in hours and minutes. There is so little traffic and such wide-open roads, that any delay would be quite exceptional. There is not a single bend in the first 21 miles of Highway 1 from Portage to Winnipeg!
“How far is it to Winnepeg, John?” I enquired as we drove the dualled highway at a steady 100Kmph.
“About an hour,” he told me, with no further comment required.
Were I to ask the same question in the UK we would have a lengthy conversation about road-works, traffic lights, the rush hour - the weather. The weather. Now, there’s another kettle of fish. On the 13th June the big,
big skies were blue, the sun a scorching ball of fire set in a sea of fluffy cumulus waves on the distant horizon. Within days, the lush green grass and cereal fields of Manitoba’s short spring will turn to white and gold in the sweltering heat, awaiting harvest and the first fall of winter snow. Those who live there know there are two Portages; a white one in summer and another white one in winter. Temperatures will plummet from +20 to -30, and snow will blanket the world as Manitoban’s know it - that world from just here to the distant horizon. Under those huge skies there is a special welcome. The welcome of ‘Friendly Manitoba’ in big letters on every license plate.
It was indeed about an hour down the road by car to Winnipeg Zoo, where, with a nod and a wink, it’s possible to sneak through the gift-shop for free to see the statue of Winnie, the little black bear who left Winnipeg for London in the arms of an English Army Officer to later live out his life in London Zoo. Winnie-the-Pooh was to become the centrepiece of A A Milne’s unforgettable stories with Christopher
Robin. We just had to see it and we’re sorry you couldn’t be there too!
John and Barbara invited us to meet their good friend and birding guru Bob Jones, and over dinner he delighted us with his knowledge and good humour. The following day they drove us out to Delta Marsh where Bob had been responsible for much of the development, for a spot of good birding. They could well get hooked with the twitcher's twitch. Their lives may never be the same again!
On Bob’s recommendation we also visited Oak Hammock Marsh bird reserve on our way east. The reserve lies on the shores of Lake Winnipeg; a vast marshland habitat with an impressive interpretive centre far beyond the comprehension of the RSPB or the Wildfowl Trust. It’s interesting that, in general, there seems to be less interest in birding here in Canada than in the United States, but perhaps things are on the change. Four school groups were on the rampage close to the centre, but away from the hubbub the birding was better than good! The highlights were a night heron and FIVE American bittern - more than we have ever seen anywhere in our
Winnie in Winnipeg
Winnie with Janice, Barbara and John
short lives. The lowlight was discovering a flat tyre when we returned to the car park!
Randy turned up with his tow-truck in response to our call to the insurers and inside the hour he had sorted the problem with a few grunts and a lot of spanners. The Goodyear Tyre Depot in nearby Selkirk repaired the puncture whilst we did a quick self-guided tour of Lower Fort Garry - a walled Hudson’s Bay trading post rather than a military fort, built to distribute goods from England and to further the fur trade. Randy told us that many of the Hudson’s Bay employees were brought from Scotland, particularly Orkney, taken aboard on the last port of call before leaving the mainland to cross the Atlantic. From the smile on his face I have a sneaking suspicion he might well have some Jock in him from days of olde.
The transition from the Manitoba plains to the treescapes, winding roads, hills and rocky outcrops of Ontario was eased by a long bumpy ride through the dense woodland and waterways of Whiteshell Provincial Park on the old Trans Canada Highway. Many before us will have travelled the same route riding
Oak Hammock Marsh
With thanks to Bob
an ox propelled red-river cart, so why are we complaining? To give you some idea of scale, the park and its extensions to the north, stretch for more than 180miles. Everything is big in Canada.
Ontario at last! The first town of any size across the border is Kenora, disappointingly motorhome unfriendly, extremely busy and overflowing with parking meters - and fuel was a touch more expensive than it had been in Manitoba. Up near the top of Kenora’s sightseeing list is a cemetery tour. Perhaps it was the heat and humidity, but we were not feeling over enamoured with our first few hours in Ontario!
We chose the scenic route towards Thunder Bay, going south on the 71 to Sioux Narrows on the shores of Lake of the Woods, deep into fishing country amongst the thousands of lakes and trillions of ticks and huge horse-flies - bulldogs as they’re known here. This is boy’s heaven. They’ll fly you to your favourite lake by float-plane and leave you there for as long as it takes to catch the fish of your life! Every other car totes a boat and every other one has a canoe or two on
the roof. If you don’t fish, you don’t belong here. I’ve not fished since I was a lad, but, as of today, I’m the proud owner of a new rod and line seeking advice on what to catch, where to catch it, what to catch it with and how to cook it if it’s worth eating.
Wish me luck!
David and Janice. The grey-haired nomads.
There are more photos below