Saskatchewan Undiscovered

Story by Ian & Christine Fleming// Photos by Ian & Christine Fleming
May 1 2013

What is your preconception of Saskatchewan? Do you think of flat fields, no trees and a really big sky? After all, the only rectangular province must be pretty boring, right? Preconceptions, like stereotypes, can give you the wrong impression.

Christine and I left our home in Saskatoon mid-afternoon on Friday of the August long weekend, and headed for Whitesand Regional Park, near Yorkton in eastern Saskatchewan, to visit relatives. Playing hide-and-seek with large, thunderstorm-laden clouds, we got to our destination dry enough, just in time to set up camp, and not forgetting to put a tarp over the kitchen area.

This part of the province is a bit out of the way, but the Whitesand Reservoir certainly is a picturesque spot. While I was trying to figure out how to pack a canoe and fishing gear onto the back of our KTM 640 Adventure, the locals were busy catching nice, fat pickerel. The KTM, nicknamed BOB (Big Orange Beast) is (almost) the perfect bike for a two-up camping trip like this; it’s excellent on bad gravel or dirt roads (or no roads), with a huge fuel tank and a large payload – more than any other bike we might actually consider owning. On the other hand, the big thumper vibrates, and the seat – well, let’s just point out that it’s a stock KTM seat and leave it at that. A comfy, aftermarket seat is planned.

We spent a great weekend at Whitesand and then headed west again, taking a detour up a dirt road through a narrow neck of land separating the Quill Lakes, two large, saline lakes that are a haven for waterfowl, including pelicans in numbers we couldn’t begin to count. It may surprise many to learn that this majestic white bird with a three-metre wingspan, known as the American white pelican, nests largely in the Canadian Prairies. I had travelled through Louisiana a few years back, and learned that the state flag proudly bears the image of a white pelican. Like so many Canadians, these birds pass the winter in warm climes, so the bird on Louisiana’s state flag is almost certainly from Saskatchewan or Manitoba.

Our next destination was the Cypress Hills region in the far southwest corner of the province, just north of Montana and east of Alberta. From Saskatoon, we took newly paved Highway 219 south through the Whitecap Dakota First Nation, past a big new casino . . . and then the beautiful pavement promptly ended. The Ministry of Transportation is certainly working hard on this next stretch – construction had left a 60-kilometre mess of deep, loose, rutted sand and gravel. And mud, once the rain started. “No worries,” I told my wife, “that’s why we’re on this uncomfortable, vibrating, orange contraption, rather than the comfortable, civilized, red Italian bike sitting in the garage.”

We traversed the Gardiner Dam, which has tamed the South Saskatchewan River to create Lake Diefenbaker, 225 kilometres long. From the dam, we continued south to the Riverhurst Ferry, a free service that crosses the lake and returns every hour. This cable ferry carries up to 18 cars and is essentially a larger version of the small cable ferries that still cross the North Saskatchewan, South Saskatchewan and Missouri rivers in parts of Saskatchewan, Alberta and Montana. South of the lake, dirt roads take us through the Vermillion Hills. This wild, scenic and rugged country is part of the Missouri Coteau, an escarpment that stretches for hundreds of kilometres.

The Cypress Hills, at 1500 metres, boast the highest elevation in Canada between the Rocky Mountains and the Torngat Mountains of Labrador. In the Hills, one has the sense of being in the mountains – accentuated by the tall, straight lodgepole pines, and the fauna, which includes bison, elk and cougar, as well as the more typical prairie scenes of huge herds of pronghorn antelope.

Of course, on our way to our near-mountain getaway, we had to visit the Cypress Hills Winery. Yes, a winery, in Saskatchewan. The sun-filled gardens, wine-tasting bar and attractive patio with tables set for lunch combined to present a tableau entirely reminiscent of the wineries of the Okanagan Valley. I limited the wine tasting to a small sip of each sample, while my lovely co-pilot enjoyed the rest. Various local fruits are grown as well as grapes, and the winery’s wares thus include offerings such as Saskatoon berry, chokecherry and rhubarb wine. These probably sound exotic to our modern urban ears, but our great-grandparents surely were more familiar with such fruit of the local harvest than with the expensive grape offerings of faraway France or Italy.

Leaving the winery, we ascended paved switchbacks southwest into the high elevations of the Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, which straddles the Alberta-Saskatchewan border. Thirty kilometres to the east, in the Centre Block of the hills, the more developed (and crowded) Cypress Hills Provincial Park is one of Saskatchewan’s most popular parks, with restaurants, mini-golf, swimming pool, canoe and paddle-boat rental, a resort inn and many, many camping sites for RVs. The Alberta portion of the West Block is similarly developed, leaving the Saskatchewan portion of the West Block pristine, the only camping being in rustic tent spots in the woods, by a swift-flowing stream.

The Cypress Hills themselves also have an east block, and the whole area is a geological remnant of sedimentary deposits laid down long ago, and subsequently sculpted by erosion from water, wind and glaciers. Not all of the history is geological, however. At Fort Walsh National Historic Site, one can go back in time almost 150 years to the early days of the Northwest Mounted Police (as the RCMP was originally known). In that era, the Mounties were tasked with maintaining the Queen’s peace in the vast northwest against marauding American bounty hunters and whisky traders, whose massacre of local native people in the Cypress Hills spurred the formation of the NWMP. The drama was heightened when Sitting Bull and his people fled across the “medicine line” after their encounter with Lt. Col. Custer, to seek the Crown’s protection against the “long knives” of the United States Cavalry. We pitched our tent in our idyllic campsite, and the afternoon being hot, I decided to go for a swim in the pleasant gurgling creek. Well, I waded out a bit before the cold water drove me back to shore. I should have brought a fly rod; there were trout in that frigid water! Practical Christine decided that we would use the cold water to chill our perishable supplies, and the lovely bottle of Cypress Hills wine that we had brought along. The Cypress Hills region is fabulous for hiking and mountain biking, as well as a great place to come with a dual-sport bike, for there are fine trails through the woods and across the prairie. Must-see locations include a point of interest at the Conglomerate Cliffs.

Conglomerate is a sedimentary rock made from natural cementation of rounded pebbles and small boulders, just as sandstone is formed from sand. The following day, we wandered through the hills, stopping for a visit in the Centre Block, where Christine and I had become engaged after she found that the stock toolkit of our Moto Guzzi Breva V1100 appeared to come complete with an engagement ring – but that’s another story. Leaving the park and the Cypress Hills, we followed the Frenchman River eastward toward Grasslands National Park. Most people travelling across Canada by road stay on Highway 1 from Winnipeg, through Regina and on to Medicine Hat, traversing Saskatchewan across a vast, flat plain formed from ancient lakebed sediments. Farther north, past Saskatoon, the province shows a lot more topography, and the transition zone from prairie to boreal forest is full of lakes, hills and stunning scenery.

The area south of the Trans-Canada, toward the U.S. border, is also scenic and historic, and includes many worthwhile stops. At the T.rex Discovery Centre in Eastend, in the Frenchman Valley, dinosaur fossils are dug from Mesozoic rock formations, just as they are around the better-known Royal Tyrell Museum in Alberta. Near Saint Victor, native rock art is painted on cliffs overlooking a spectacular, deep, wooded valley. The Big Muddy Badlands, farther east along the border, were reputedly a refuge for Jesse James and other outlaws of the Wild West era. Wood Mountain Post is another historic site from the early days of the Mounted Police, and plains bison roam the Old Man On His Back wildlife refuge. But overall, Grasslands National Park best captures the soul of the southern prairie.

The main access to the Grasslands Park is at the village of Val Marie. Camping within the park is permitted; however, it is more convenient at a few established campsites. The dirt roads and jeep tracks are fine on the sort of bike we were on, and I suppose with care and low speed, you could get almost any bike in there, though preferably with dual-sport rubber. Texas gates, however, pose a minor challenge. They are curiously called cattle guards in Texas, as I recall from my wanderings there. Of course, smooth, rounded steel bars provide somewhat less than optimal traction, especially when wet. The trick is to avoid any change in direction, acceleration or braking when crossing these obstacles, and to just roll right over them. Knowing this, we had a low-speed topple anyway. Another quirk about Grasslands is that you have to bring your own water, as the tent sites have none. While our MSR filter pump in the luggage certainly could have rendered the muddy Frenchman River potable, we thought it prudent to bring as much water as we could carry. Fortunately, the KTM luggage (re-branded Hepco-Becker Gobi side cases) comes with two-litre water compartments between the inner and outer walls, and uses the same petcocks to drain the cases as the KTM 640A’s gigantic 26-litre, 2-sided fuel tank.

There is certainly wildlife in the Grasslands. About 500 metres away, a large bull bison stood looking at us. He didn’t come into our campsite, though, unlike the ubiquitous prairie dogs that abound in the park. And who knew prairie dogs like Cheezies? Just make sure they’re Old Dutch brand. Although prairie dogs look something like regular gophers, these are a bit bigger and are protected in the park. That evening, we were treated to a classic scene: the prairie sunset sky. There is a reason Saskatchewan licence plates proudly proclaim “Land of Living Skies.” Photographs don’t do it justice; you have to go out and stand on the open prairie. After Grasslands, we wended our way east, through the St. Victor Petroglyphs Provincial Historic site. Highway 36 runs north through the Dirt Hills, passing by the Claybank Brick Plant National Historic Site, which more than a century ago produced all the yellow brick for the old buildings that give downtown Moose Jaw its quaint ambience. As a treat after several nights in a tent, we spent our last night in the Anniversary Suite at the fancy Temple Gardens Mineral Spa and Hotel in picturesque, historic Moose Jaw, and enjoyed very good Thai food at Nits. Travelling through the prairies, if you have the right kind of motorcycle, you can enjoy some empty, winding dirt roads – just watch out for all the cattle.

The immensity of the sky and the landscape offers the unique experience of watching storm clouds move across the sky. You can try to predict the path of the rain; will you get wet, or will the rain pass you by? We can watch these storms for hours. Just outside Moose Jaw, we came upon the strangest sight. It appeared to be a boat of sorts, sitting in a field, thousands of kilometres from the nearest ocean. Apparently there’s a story about a Finnish homesteader who was a little bit . . . eccentric, I think the word is . . . and who really, really wanted to get home to Finland. A little while later, at Elbow Harbour on Lake Diefenbaker, we saw boats that looked somewhat more seaworthy. The harbour is a protected bay of the large, windy lake – a former coulee flooded when they built the dam and now a snug harbour for fishermen and sailors.

All good things must come to an end, and as we headed toward home, we reflected on how lucky we are to live in such a beautiful, varied part of the world, and to be able to see it up close and personal. Despite the obvious compromises in comfort that one makes when choosing a camping road trip, two-up on two wheels, and on this particular bike, the midsize, dual-sport adventure bike was the right one for this job, allowing us to explore beyond the blacktop. So for all you riders who live in characterless parts of the world, where the terrain and roads aren’t perhaps so thrilling for the latest 200 hp Italian sportbike, there is an alternative to buying a cruiser and shopping for riding gear among the pirate costumes at the Hallowe’en store. Go get yourself an Adventure, a Tiger, a Stelvio, a Super Ténéré, a GS, or whatever adventure or dual-sport bike you like. Then pack your camping gear and head to someplace a day’s ride away – which you’ve never seen. And bring Cheezies.


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