Six weeks in Saskatchewan, Alberta and BC where English tourists don’t get to
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My mother grew up on the Saskatchewan Prairies during the 1920s, so part of the visit was to meet relatives, discover my roots and find out what life was like for the early settlers. We wanted to visit places not on the usual tourist beat.
We planned and arranged the trip ourselves as we were unable to find a Travel Agent who covered the areas we wanted to visit. Accommodation was chosen using the Accommodation Guide from Tourism Saskatchewan and also from this website.
We found some marvellous places – much more fun than the big tourist hotels.
We booked a car through Enterprise as this was the only company that would cover use on gravel roads. There are a lot of these in Saskatchewan once away from the main settlements. Those in the south can turn to “gumbo” (thick, sticky clay) after rain.
We decided that if we were going to travel that far it made sense to extend the trip into Alberta and BC to see something of the Rockies. We would fly into Edmonton, spend three weeks in Saskatchewan before heading to Waterton Lakes National Park, the Kootenays, Jasper, Slave Lake and back to Edmonton.
This is the first report and covers Saskatchewan. I have written separate reports for Alberta and British Columbia.
From Edmonton we did a loop to Meadow Lake, the Battlefords, Saskatoon, Moose Jaw and Grasslands National Park before heading back into Alberta.
The classic text book picture of the prairies is of huge flat fields for as far as the eye can see. This is true for areas around Moose Jaw and the US border but further north there is more relief with gentle rolling hills with trees and lakes.
Flying across Saskatchewan or looking at google satellite pictures the first thing that strikes you is the regimented landscape pattern which is very different to settlement patterns seen in Europe.
The Prairies were surveyed in the early 1900s and were divided up into one square mile plots with roads along the four sides giving access to the land. This means roads are dead straight and can be seen going in a straight line for mile after mile after mile across the landscape. You can drive for an hour and the scenery hardly changes.
The square mile plots were divided into 4 smaller squares and early settlers were given one quarter plot each. From the air the square mile plots and in many cases the quarter plots are still clearly seen. Farm buildings were usually in the middle of the quarter plot.
All settlements are built off the roads going down the sides of the square mile plots. This means that (large towns excepted) roads skirt the edge of settlements and don’t go through them. Settlements are built on a rigid grid pattern too. Roads rarely have names – just numbers and are either Street or Avenue depending on which way the road runs. Houses are numbered by the block so you can work out from the number where the house is on a street. House numbers can be 4 figures.
Houses are detached and surrounded by a largish plot of land as there are strict regulations about how close they can be to the next house. This is important as nearly all houses are built from wood and fire was (and is) a serious problem. Roads are always wide and usually tree lined.
As part of the settlement agreement the early homesteaders had to spend at least six months a year living on their plot. They had to build a wooden house within a set time and break a set amount of land each year. If they didn’t meet these targets they would lose the land. The land could then be bought by wealthier homesteaders.
Modern farms are now several thousand acres. There are few fences of hedges although straight lines of trees were planted as shelter belts, especially around buildings. Many of the smaller farms have given up and the buildings are gently collapsing and the more isolated settlements are gradually becoming ghost towns. This is particularly true in the south of the province along the US border.
To prevent the occurrence of the 1930s dust storms, land is no longer ploughed. The stubble is left and seed planted into the stubble in spring. These were horrific and the wind would blow for days. There are pictures of buildings and cars half buried in sand. There were also plagues of grasshoppers at the time which would strip a field in minutes. Conditions were dire. Petrol was too expensive so many cars were pulled by the farm horse.
Over large areas of the prairies wheat is still the main crop although canola (rape) is becoming increasingly important and in early summer the fields are a patchwork of yellows and greens. No-one keeps sheep any longer and there is little dairy farming. The bottom is falling out of the beef market as there are problems with BSE.
Wasmuth, southwest of the Battlefords is one of the few homesteads offering accommodation on the Prairies. The land has been in the family for 100 years. The original homestead building and blacksmith shop have been restored as a small family museum.
One of the original 1906 iron survey pegs is still in place on their land as well as the ruts from a pre-survey wagon trail and a ‘cord’ of stones which has been carefully repaired. Stones were cleared from the land by First Nations or labourers who were paid by the ‘cord’ of stones (a pile of stones one yard square).
Just down the road from the homestead is a typical one room school, which closed 40 years ago. The kid’s desks – assorted sizes and shapes – are lined up in the school room facing the teacher’s desk (with strap still in the drawer) with blackboard behind and cupboards round the edges of the room. Down in the basement is the cast iron stove still with coal in the coal hole and all the broken desks. The toilets are still there. The girls had flush toilets but the boys were a hole in the floor of the basement. Outside is the remains of the baseball pitch. Visit late in the evening and the ghosts are still present.
Canadians are very proud of their heritage and nearly every settlement has a small museum often run by enthusiastic and knowledgeable volunteers.
The Canadian Development Museum has four museums in Saskatchewan covering different aspects of its history.
We were disappointed by these. Admittedly it was out of season and there were few staff around to ask questions. The amount of information in each was variable and the shops were poor concentrating on children’s pocket money style toys.
Moose Jaw which covers transport history was probably the best. North Battleford covers rural history but the buildings looked unkempt and unloved and there was little information. Saskatoon covers urban history and has a reconstructed 1920s street. This is inside a large shed with artificial light and looked and felt like a film set. The new ‘Winning the Prairie Gamble’ exhibition at Saskatoon was much better and we felt we learnt something here. We highly recommend the cafe at Saskatoon.
Fort Battleford National Historic Site, run by Parks Canada, is excellent. It is beautifully maintained with a good shop and knowledgeable costumed interpreters. It was a North West Mounted Police Post which was responsible for maintaining law and order in the area and good relations with First Nations people.
The railway was the main means of opening up the Prairies (and Canada generally) and roads were only for local use. Even now there is still an extensive rail network although it is nearly all for freight with few passenger services.
Every settlement had a railway line and its own grain elevator with the name proudly displayed on it. Many of the old, wooden elevators have been pulled down to be replaced by huge metal structures which can be seen for miles across the landscape. Freight trains are huge – many are one to two miles long pulled by three plus giant diesel powered locos which growl as they go past. The sound of their strident horn as they approach a level crossing is very characteristic. In towns the use of the horn is banned and replaced by a more friendly bell. There are no tunnels so there is no limit on size of wagons. To make maximum use of trucks many have two containers one on top of the other.
Stations were large important buildings and many still survive serving other purposes. The Post Office was the next most important building, and even small settlements have retained a post office. The counter area is tiny and it’s sole purpose is to sell stamps and deal with mail.
In larger towns post may be delivered to the house but elsewhere it is collected from a lockable box. In the smaller settlements most of the post office building is taken up with banks of small, lockable boxes and everyone calls in to pick up their mail from the box. In larger settlements there are huge banks of boxes in a central place. Out in the country there are banks of mail boxes at the end of a road where mail is left for collection. This explains why most addresses are just a box number followed by the name of the town.
We enjoyed the Prairies – much more than we expected. One great advantage is that they don’t have the blanket woodland cover of Alberta or BC, so you can actually see the scenery. We enjoyed the area around Meadow Lake and the Battlefords. The area round Moose Jaw was flat. This is one of the few places burrowing owls can still be found. Further south into the grasslands and along the US border there was more relief again.
English visitors are few and far apart. The Canadians were intrigued by and English woman going to Canada to look up her roots it is usually the other way round.
A more detailed report for the trip can be read here
All the pictures from our trip can be seen here
109 people found this review helpful
This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.
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