Living Skies, Endless Prairies

Saskatchewan. It’s not called Land of Living Skies for nothing. But maybe it should be called Land of Endless Prairies too. Not to be misunderstood, we loved driving the Trans Canada Highway and other minor highways and roadways through this land of undulating rolling hills of electric lemon canola and green, green grass. We were completely smitten by the Yin and Yang of fields of golden wheat and green grass. While overhead the cloud formations were evolving, changing, giving way to rays of golden sunshine or deep, stormy skies. And always a grain elevator bearing the name of the town in which it stood. The ever-present procession of rail cars on tracks leading in and out of small rural towns many bearing either the Canada logo or the Province of Saskatchewan logo. Transporting grain or potash. Many of the rail cars bear the artistic markings of graffiti artists. A favourite read, ‘Welcome to Big Sky Country.’ We welcomed the view offered as we passed so many dirt side roads that seemed as they they went forever. And in the distance you could see a huge plume of dust as a pick up truck sped towards the end of the earth. Of course we saw many combine harvesters that had us humming the Wurtzel’s tune, you know the one:

Caus’ I’ve got a brand new combine harvester and I‘ll give you the key

Come on now let’s get together in perfect harmony

Oh I got 20 acres and you got 43

Now I’ve got a brand new combine harvester and I‘ll give you the key

At the suggestion of our friend Michael, we made sure to stop in Manitou Springs. Except, he told us the town was called Carlsbad, which as a place does not exist in Saskatchewan. Every person we asked about Carlsbad had no idea what we were talking about. It was only as we were driving into the town that we read the byline which is the part that stuck in Michael’s memory: Manitou Springs, The Carlsbad of Canada. So glad we perservered in finding this special little town and so glad he recommended it. According to longtime residents this town was the destination of wealthy Winnipeggers long before there was train access to Banff. Back in it’s heyday it had more than one dance hall. Today one of the original dance halls, Danceland, not only still stands but is in active service with dinner dances, concerts, tours and special events. It still has the original horse hair floor. We were fortunate to meet the owner and her sister, Millie and Merna, who shared with us their oral history of Manitou Springs. The highlight of this town is the hot spring. Full of natural, therapeutic minerals and boasting a salt content that it is rumoured, makes it impossible for one to drown. We spent a leisurely afternoon luxuriating in these healing waters that many claim heal ailments ranging from skin conditions (tried not to think about this while we were in the water!) to arthritis. No complaints though from this peanut gallery. We camped at the Municipal Campground which we excitedly noticed had an old-fashioned drive-in theatre next to it. Sadly, it only operated on weekends and we were there on a Monday. We would have definitely paid to see Back to the Future at this iconic drive-in!

Saskatoon Shines. This is a motto that appeared in a number of places. We only spent a day here but enjoyed it immensely. We walked, drove, ate, shopped (for food, of course) our way through the city referred to as the Paris of the Prairies. Our next stop and bed for the night was the rural town of Asquith, known as the Centre of the British Empire. Population 603. You can make this claim when you have larger than life personalities like Moe and Reola Mathieu as two of its residents! And with generous spirits that match! We had a wildly fun evening with these two. Chef Moe prepared a tasty dinner that included ingredients from his First Nations inspired garden. We were fortunate also to meet their awesome son Ethan.

The next day we made our way to the town of Gull Lake. In an earlier post we talked about our stop in Regina to research a bit of Julie’s family history. That visit lead to questions about where the Yakovlev Family Farm might have been in Saskatchewan. Julie’s uncle seemed to remember his parents talking about the town of Shaunavon. Shaunavon is incidentally the town from which Canadian hockey legend, Hailey Wickenheiser, hails. Since then we found out that the Yakovlev Family Farm was north of Shaunavon and about three miles from Gull Lake. The family lived on this farm for three or four years and grew barley, rye, and wheat which they traded for everything they needed. They traded their grain for milled flour which Julie’s great grandmother used to bake bread. They in turn traded Grandma’s homemade bread with all of their neighbours including local First Nations people. And then the Dust Bowl. It’s weird and wonderful to have spent time in a place so close to where our family initially settled when they first arrived in Canada and imagining their life back in the early 1900s. We wandered around the town of Gull Lake. We wonder if Great Grandma and Grandpa Yakovlev and their children, one of which is Julie’s grandmother wandered these same streets. Quintessentially wide western streets with angled parking that scream, ‘we can make our streets this wide because we have so much space!’

We loved Saskatchewan. We could easily have spent more time in this beautiful province but the next day we were heading to Brooks, Alberta to meet up with our cousins!