A Prairie Road Trip
Saskatchewan offers some terrific opportunities for a Road Trip. The Prairies are not my normal beat, I will admit, but in these Covidry Times, needs must.
Canada’s patchwork regulations allow travel to and from a bewildering combination of Provinces without quarantine. At the moment, Manitobans are only permitted to return from the four Western Provinces without two-weeks of self-isolation.
Given the vast distances, and the almost Newtonian Law that every mile driven away from home must be retraced, Vancouver, while tempting, is a long way away.
And let’s be honest. The Prairies while dramatic, are best travelled sparingly.
Having said that, for Manitobans, the two Saskatchewan cities of Regina and Saskatoon make a terrific one-week trip.
Each has a wonderful, old (by Canadian standards) “Railway Hotel”, the Hotel Saskatchewan in Regina and the Bessborough in Saskatoon, fascinating museums, fine restaurants, and all manner of peculiar places to visit along the way.
First Stop Brandon
And so, with escape on my mind, the Open Road ahead and Winnipeg receding in the background, I headed west, to the first stop in Brandon. The Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum.
I had long wanted to stop by and have a look. I like country museums and their eccentricities, but I am rarely in Brandon, and have never bothered to visit this delightful spot.
It commemorates one of the most exceptional training programs ever devised.
In 1939 the Canadian Prime Minister, MacKenzie King, launched an air training program that took advantage of Canada’s isolation from the theatres of war and its most suitable climate, and established an air training scheme that was to eventually train over 130,000 air crews.
Working from bases throughout Canada, this operation instructed all of the requirements for an air force. From the glamour of flying to the black arts of bombing, men from all over the Commonwealth came to Canada for training before being sent to join one of the various active air forces.
The memories for this lie in Brandon. The museum is compact and bursting with mementos and information. From tales of daring to reminding visitors how slide rules, not computers provided the mathematical background for astonishing feats of aviation and engineering.
On display is a fine collection of aircraft and a suitably bewildering selection of parts being used for reconstruction. One can only hope that there are sufficient volunteers and mechanics who are under 60 years old who can keep this place alive.
It is worth a couple of hours of anyone’s time. To my complete astonishment, with a little pre-planning one can fly in one of their WWII vintage aircraft. $100 is all it takes to fly in the Stinson-105 Voyager, or for $350 a trip aloft in a Harvard Mark II. Truly one of the day’s great bargains.
On to Saskatchewan
But we could not tarry; Saskatchewan (easy to draw, hard to spell), lay in front of us.
Ahead lay the Trans Canada Highway. Undulating at best, straight and horizontal at its most tedious, it is the offerings of small towns that make the trip fascinating. Each village and hamlet has a sign offering its particular inducements, and it must be said that Saskatchewan does this very well indeed.
Grenfell: “The Millennium Murals” and the “Adair House Museum”
Wapella: “Everything you could want in a town”
Indian Head: “Sports Hall of Fame” and the “Indian Head Museum”
Rarely were these sufficiently interesting to draw one specifically, but taken together, the 600 km journey from Winnipeg to Regina can be drawn out to a fascinating day. Turning a sandwich into a banquet.
The Qu’Appelle Valley
The Qu’Appelle Valley is a place that I had heard about for years, but as with many other local phenomena had yet to experience. So, diverting off the highway for a hundred kilometres or so at Whitewood, we went to have a look.
The first odd thing about the valley is that is lies below the elevation of the Great Plains. The endless expanse of the Prairies comes to an abrupt end as the road winds down and drops about 150 metres to the Qu’Appelle River.
Turning left to drive along the river, the escarpments on each side form the valley. I was not really expecting to drop into gorge, but drop we did. The drive along the river road was delightful; the river opened into Round Lake and small towns (West End, pop: 37, Bird’s Point, pop: 112) lay along the shore.
The spread of magnificent lake properties, these small isolated hamlets lying at the bottom of the gorge brought to mind a witness protection program, and more specifically, the terrific Steve Martin movie, “My Blue Heaven”.
Possibly unfair, but the idyll of the Qu’Appelle Valley, the beautiful lake and the clean isolation of the valley were quite captivating, and suitable for personal secretion.
Last Stop: Wolseley
We rejoined the Highway at Grenfell, and continued west until the last stop at Wolseley. Proof of the power of roadside signage, perhaps, as one month earlier on a similar Covid-escape-trip I had noticed that the community offered visitors an Opera House and a Swinging Bridge among their enticements.
I didn’t know (at that time) that the village had been lauded by Harrowsmith Country Life Magazine as one of “Canada’s ten prettiest communities” in 2000. Twenty years on, one can still see the attraction, although as with us all, time will leave its marks. The village is pretty, well kept and the obviously energetic historical society most involved.
Settled as a result of a dam in 1902 built to use the water from the Adair Creek to service the steam engines, the community has grown. Now visitors have a wide variety of well-curated sights: the opera house, a beautifully restored courthouse, the preserved turn-of-the-century Downtown and a village of uncommon charm.
Simply, Wolseley is delightful.
However, Regina beckoned, and the comfort of the Hotel Saskatchewan. I love this property. Built in 1927 by the Canadian Pacific Railroad, it is a timeless and beautifully maintained property.
Sadly, even with the ability of Manitobans to travel West, its occupancy today is running at about 10%. Only 27 rooms were occupied; so many lie empty waiting for the Covid Coma to lift.
It is a fine journey from Winnipeg, and now spending some time in the Saskatchewan capital to visit the RCMP museum, the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, the Science Centre and Wascana Park will be a delightful antidote to sitting at home these past five months.
It may not be Paraguay or The Pyrenees, but travelling along the Trans Canada through southern Saskatchewan has been an eye-opener for me, and this journey long overdue.