Boomtown

 Saskatoon to Maple Creek, Saskatchewan

I know what this looks like.

It’s the second year of a pandemic, international borders are a hassle, the world’s on fire (specifically British Columbia), and I’ve visited every other province and territory of Canada. And so, Saskatchewan, right?

Even Saskatchewanians (Saskatchewaners? Saskatchewanderers? who knows) seem altogether forgiving of this explanation. When I mentioned that my friend Louise and I are on here a roadtrip, they assume we’re passing through. When I then say that we flew in and rented a car for a 10 day “Saskatchewander”, well… Even some of them were surprised. Many expressed the irony of us picking a trip here, when they would pick Vancouver for theirs.

Surface knowledge doesn’t exactly spark passion: Canada’s quadrangular province renowned for being flat, treeless fields of grain, containing the portion of the Trans Canada highway you can speed straight through on a cross-country trip without stopping. I’ve made all these jokes myself.

I will admit that this originated as an exercise in box-checking, to fill in that last gap. But the planning process alone revealed so much to see, turning what started as a joke idea into genuine enthusiasm such that I had to cut out large portions of the province (the forested northern part full of lakes!) from my plans and focus just on the southwest. This wasn’t a trip I would have done without a pandemic, but having done it, this is a trip that I would heartily do in a world without one. It’s a shame that it took a pandemic to made me realise how much I’ve been missing out.

Stereotypes be gone! Saskatoon makes an immediate first impression — and it’s not one of being flat and treeless.

Not the capital but the province’s largest city, named after the delicious and regionally prominent saskatoon berry, its prominent and meandering riverbank is a beauty, studded with bridges and a modest skyline view, with the very very long Meewasin Trail running along both sides, full of life and activity in the cooler evenings. The trail’s in the process of becoming a national park, and had we more time, I would have loved exploring further sections of it.

It’s those numerous bridges though that give it the nickname “Paris of the Prairies” — not the modest Eiffel Tower-less skyline. But the center of town’s a beautiful place, full of historic buildings including the prominent Bessborough, one of Canada’s famed grand railway hotels that bring Quebec City‘s Ch√Ęteau Frontenac to mind. There’s also the ultra-modern Remai museum, a modern art museum as simultaneously fascinating, insightful, and inscrutably infuriating as anything out of New York City. (Shoutout to their Picasso exhibit comparing his works to African and Oceanic masks, and Thelma Pepper’s amazing hand-stitched black and white panoramas of Saskatchewan life.)

Across the Broadway bridge to its namesake street, there’s a vibrant, walkable district of wide streets and murals full of restaurants, breweries, and counterculture, and we arrived just as the fringe festival was heating up. In this day and age, maybe it’s the Portland of the Prairies? I mean that in the best way. We started things off downtown with a brunch that rivalled the best I’ve had in Vancouver, and later made our way past countless bustling Broadway patios to find ourselves a hearty brew list in the evening.

It wouldn’t be the Paris of the Prairies without the prairies, of course. Just outside of town is Wanuskewin Heritage Park, a national historic site preserving the old hunting and gathering grounds of Cree, Blackfoot, Dakota, and various other Northern Plains First Nations. The trails and exhibits reimagine a past full of bison, an animal both revered culturally and used as a resource for life, with old kill sites near cliffs, old village sites of bison-hide tipis now just reduced to the rings, and a medicine wheel (a spoked formation of stones), in a beautiful prairie and river valley abundant in life. It’s a different age now — the bison have been driven to near-extinction during the settlement age, and a recently reintroduced herd that we saw from a distance roams one section of the park, in the hope of beginning to restore what was lost both environmentally and culturally for local First Nations.

And hey, traditional culture lives on — we were fortunate to see a very talented hoop dancer do a performance. Combining skill and humour, his deft switching between various animal shapes using some 30-odd hoops was made to elicit laughs, but the overarching idea of hoops representing the circle of life, forming the Earth when grouped together but falling apart if one component is removed, remains steeped in enduring tradition.

Stepping slightly forward in time to the wild west, the Saskatoon branch of the four-location Western Development Museum features an entire 1910s boomtown street lined with shops and services, complete with a train station, in addition to a whole ton of classic cars, tractors, and farming equipment that look beautiful yet well beyond my comprehension mechanically. More interesting to me was the progression of Saskatchewan’s development through adversity, from old homesteads and manual farming to the introduction of technological innovations like electricity and steam engines, and survival through multiple disasters such as drought, the Great Depression, resource reallocation during wars, polio, and the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. Now doesn’t that sound familiar…

Leaving Saskatoon for the country, it’s interesting to see what that rural development has led to this day and age. Driving five hours southwest to Maple Creek, small towns are everywhere along the highway in a way not at all familiar in my native British Columbia. (I mean, just zoom in a little on the map above.) Virtually every town has a grain elevator next to railway tracks, and railway crossings are absolutely everywhere — usually without lights and barriers, which isn’t a problem when you can see for kilometres in every direction. You can generally tell the state of a town by the state of its elevator, and it’s clear that many towns have had better times. While some are flourishing and modernized, it was those in a state of decline that interested me more — not just for photography, but questions of daily life: why do people still live there? Property’s already cheap elsewhere, especially compared to BC — you could spend $300k on a nice house in the city, and maybe $150k in a “big” town, so cost savings don’t seem like a primary motivation. There aren’t any stores or services, so where do they go?

We took the scenic route off the highways and onto the grid roads — unpaved, generally straight lines along agricultural land. (There are so many, totalling 250,000 km paved and unpaved, that Saskatchewan actually has the most roads per capita in the world!) Once in awhile, maybe a car heading the opposite direction, or a sign pointing to a church or a service with neither in eyesight despite the flat landscape. Sometimes, an abandoned structure in the middle of a field. Rarer still, a house with people living in it. What’s life like when your nearest neighbour is nowhere in sight, let alone a grocery store? There are buses that take their kids to school, but how far could that be? Logistics are crazy out here.

As a visitor though, these grid roads were my favourite! I loved the big skies, the undulating fields of wheat blowing in the wind, and the endless Windows XP backgrounds. And with no traffic and no trees, we encountered lots of wildlife just grazing or lounging around in the fields: not just the obvious cattle and horses, but pronghorn antelope, herds of deer, jackrabbits, hawks, and of course, the tiny gophers popping up everywhere. Feels like a safari with how easy it is.¬† This is the stereotypical Saskatchewan that lives in my head — and it’s beautiful.

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