Surprising Saskatchewan

Spring 2011 CSANews Issue 78  |  Posted date : May 06, 2011.Back to list

"Yawn." That was the response we got from family and friends when we told them we were vacationing in Saskatchewan. "Really?" That was their response when we told them about the discoveries that we made there.

Surprise! The prairie province is much more than wheat fields. To find many of these treasures, you have to exit the Trans-Canada and Yellowhead Highways and explore the back roads.

Surprise #1: Older than the Pyramids

Where would you expect to find archeological sites older than the pyramids and King Tut's tomb? Egypt? Israel? China?

Try five kilometres north of Saskatoon. Surprised? So are most visitors when they visit Wanuskewin Heritage Park. Northern Plains Peoples gathered here 6,000 years ago. Today, 19 sites remain, accessible by four trails that take 30 to 60 minutes to walk. Besides buffalo jump hunting sites and stone circle tipi rings, we saw a 1,500-year-old medicine wheel, which was a sacred ceremonial place. Films, tool and artefact exhibits, a First Nations art gallery and dance demonstrations drew us into the interpretive centre. The restaurant serves bison stew, wild rice salad, freshly baked bannock (biscuit-like quick bread) and Saskatoon berry tea.

Surprise #2: Dinosaurs and Badlands

Eons earlier, dinosaurs traversed the province. Between 1994 and 2003, paleontologists unearthed Scotty, a Tyrannosaurus rex (Canada's most complete T. rex skeleton) in southwestern Saskatchewan. At Eastend's T. rex Discovery Centre, we viewed a film about the discovery and excavation of Scotty, learned about fossils and dinosaur extinction and examined models of prehistoric animals, such as the Borealosuchus, a northern relative of crocodiles. The highlight is Scotty's skull. Most of his large bones are also on display, behind glass, in the lab where Royal Saskatchewan Museum paleotechnicians work on fossils.

Leaving Eastend, we drove along the Frenchman River Valley. From Jones' Peak, we enjoyed sweeping views of the locally named "Valley of Hidden Secrets" in which Scotty roamed 65 million years ago.

Surprise #3: Dark Sky Preserves

Frenchman River Valley extends into Grasslands National Park, near the Montana border. The East and West Blocks of the world's only national prairie park had more surprises for us. More than 150 plains bison graze on prairie grasses in the West Block. During interpretive programs, we viewed some of Grassland National Park's 12,000 ancient tipi rings and examined fossils from its badlands.

The park is the only place in Canada where you can see rare black-tailed prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets in their native habitats. The cat-sized carnivorous ferrets were reintroduced from captive-bred ferrets in the Toronto Zoo. Threatened burrowing owls nest in the prairie dog colonies.

Grasslands National Park is the largest Dark Sky Preserve in the world and one of 11 in Canada. In this sanctuary from artificial light, you can experience star-filled skies and nocturnal wildlife. Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park is another Dark Sky Preserve. During its annual August Summer Star Party, astrological society members set up telescopes for visitors to stargaze in the pollution-free sky.


Left virtually untouched by glaciers during the last Ice Age, Saskatchewan's Cypress Hills reach an altitude of 1,392 metres. The highest part of Canada, between the Rocky Mountains and Labrador, the Cypress Hills are even higher than Banff, Alberta.

In spite of its name, the park has no cypress trees. Instead, there are tall lodgepole pines, erroneously identified by early French fur traders as cypress trees. Separating the Centre Block (in which most services are found) and the West Block which is a primitive wilderness area extending into Alberta) is The Gap, a valley with rolling hills.

We hiked the park's trails, climbed to lookout points and observed wildlife ranging from beavers to white-tailed deer. Leaving the park, on Highway 271, we discovered another surprise - Cypress Hills Vineyard & Winery, known for its delectable black currant-and-honey wine.

North of the Cypress Hills, and accessible from the village of Sceptre on Highway 32, is the Great Sandhills Area. Its rippled sand dunes, reaching 35 metres high, are straight out of the Sahara.

Not all Saskatchewan surprises are in the south. In the northwest corner, Athabasca Sand Dunes stretch for 100 kilometres along the south shore of Lake Athabasca. Accessible only by float plane or boat, the dunes range up to 30 metres high and 1,500 metres long. Athabasca Sand Dunes Provincial Park protects more than 50 rare plant species. Ten are found nowhere else on earth.

Surprise #5: Mineral Spas and Horsehair Dance Floor

If Athabasca's dunes resemble desert, then the piles of white fluff lining Little Manitou Lake, halfway between Saskatoon and Regina in Manitou Beach, look like snow. The white crystals are actually mineral salt deposits.

Inside Manitou Springs Resort and Mineral Spa, three pools contain filtered and heated lake water. Because it's nearly three times the density of the ocean, bathers bob like corks. We floated effortlessly in bronze-tinged waters, while enjoying the sensation of weightlessness. And yes, we could even read a newspaper while floating comfortably - just like in the Dead Sea.

Another surprise, just four blocks away, is Danceland. A relic of the resort's glory days, it dates back to 1928, when visitors flocked to Manitou Springs for its mineral water swimming pools, massage rooms, medical clinics, dancehalls, brothels and boot-legged whisky. Year-round, on Friday and Saturday nights, big band music entices dancers to foxtrot and polka. Fifteen centimetres of braided horsehair between the joists and the maple hardwood boards cushion the 5,000-square-foot dance floor and give it a lively bounce.

While Canada's largest indoor mineral spa is in Manitou Beach, Canada's largest therapeutic geothermal mineral water indoor/outdoor rooftop pool is at Temple Gardens Mineral Spa Resort in Moose Jaw, 70 kilometres west of Regina.

Surprise #6: Gangsters and Outlaws

Under downtown Moose Jaw's streets is another surprise - tunnels in which boot-leggers, rum-runners and gangsters (some say even Al Capone) hid during the 1920s Prohibition era. From the 1880s to 1923, Chinese immigrants also escaped persecution, as well as hefty head taxes, in Moose Jaw's tunnels. 

Nowadays, guides dressed as characters from both eras lead The Chicago Connection and Passage to Fortune tours beneath Main Street. Highlights include a gangster's living quarters, a gambling den, a boot-legging operation and a Chinese laundry.

The Big Muddy Badlands, about two hours south of Regina near the Montana border, were known as Station No. 1 on Butch Cassidy's Outlaw Trail. Cassidy's sidekick, the Sundance Kid, was a frequent visitor. Their escape route stretched from Canada to Mexico, with way stations every 24 kilometres for providing fresh horses and supplies.

We joined a driving tour that departed from the town of Coronach. With our guide, we climbed Castle Butte - an outlook once used by cattle rustlers - and explored caves in which outlaw Sam Kelly hid his horses in the early 1900s. In Big Beaver, we stopped at Aust's Store. For 53 years, owners have told customers: "If we don't have it, you don't need it!" The in-the-middle-of-nowhere general store stocks an amazing inventory, ranging from food and hardware to seeds, toys and cowboy hats. Other Big Muddy surprises? Stone circles and bison effigies created by early First Nations. Roaming coyotes. And beautiful yellow prickly pear cactus flowers.

Surprise #7: Genuine Cowboys and Working Ranches

Ranching is still a way of life in Saskatchewan. Rodeos pepper the province's calendar of events. The oldest rodeo in Canada, continuously operating since 1890, is the Wood Mountain Stampede, held on the second weekend in July just east of Coronach. From a packed grandstand, we watched competitors rope calves, ride bulls with dagger-like horns and bounce on bucking horses that burst out of chutes like coiled springs.

A good way to capture the flavour of the Old West is by staying, as we did, at a guest ranch. We rode gentle horses over pristine countryside, little changed since pioneer days. As the sun set, we satiated our ravenous appetites with sizzling steaks and sat around a blazing fire, singing sentimental cowboy songs under the stars. Some guests brought children and grandchildren, who took great delight in feeding the farm animals, riding in covered wagons and playing cowboy on horseback.

If you visit Historic Reesor Ranch, in the Cypress Hills, during their annual August cattle roundup and branding, you'll find prairie oysters (a local delicacy) on the menu. "They're delicious," explained one rancher. "After removing the membranes, you slice them, roll them in flour and fry them in butter." Because it wasn't branding day, we never did try fried calves' testicles and, quite frankly, we weren't too disappointed.

Surprise #8: Reliving the Past

In Saskatchewan's historic parks, costumed guides encourage visitors to time-travel to the past. We walked back into the 1880s at Fort Walsh National Historic Site, in Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park. The predecessors of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) - the North West Mounted Police -built the fort in 1875 to control illegal whisky trading and to keep peace after Chief Sitting Bull and 5,000 followers sought refuge in Canada. Inside the palisade, we watched costumed interpreters re-enact a flag-lowering ceremony. 

Our biggest surprise? Learning that the black horses, which perform so admirably in the RCMP Musical Ride, were bred at Fort Walsh from 1942 to 1968.

In the 1930s, Prince Albert National Park, located near the geographic centre of Saskatchewan, was home to Grey Owl. Born as Archibald Belaney in England, he adopted an Indian persona and way of life. His lectures and writing promoted conservation long before it became a buzzword. We followed a trail to the cabin he shared with his adopted beavers, Rawhide and Jellyroll, while writing his famous books.

The oldest building still standing in Saskatchewan was built between 1854 and 1860, from lumber hand-sawn by First Nations people. The stained glass and hardware were imported from England. Stanley Mission's Holy Trinity Anglican Church and its cemetery are now a provincial historic site. We arrived there by float plane, on our way to a fishing lodge on the Churchill River, north of La Ronge.

Surprise #9: 100,000 Lakes, Trophy Fish and Rare Birds

From the air, the Churchill River resembles a series of lakes and rapids surrounded by spruce and poplar, so dense that they bristle like green fur on an animal's back. Saskatchewan has almost 100,000 lakes, so you could fish a different one every day for 270 years and still have plenty left. Combined, they would cover an area larger than the Czech Republic. The cold, clear waters of the Churchill have a reputation for some of the best walleye (pickerel) fishing in North America, as well as trophy-sized northern pike.

About half of Saskatchewan's 200 fishing camps are drive-in, while the remainder, such as Twin Falls Lodge and Sportsman's Lodge (where we stayed) are fly-in. Packages include everything from home-cooked meals to the boat and the guide, who fillets and freezes your catch. Besides the incredible fishing and scenery, the highlight for us was a shore lunch of freshly caught fish cooked over a crackling fire.

We were surprised to see 440 bird species on Nature Saskatchewan's checklist. While we didn't spot any bald eagles or endangered whooping cranes and burrowing owls, we did see dozens of other species. During spring and fall migrations, hundreds of thousands of waterfowl and 40,000 sandhill cranes congregate at Last Mountain Lake National Wildlife Area, north of Regina. 

Established in 1887, it's North America's oldest bird sanctuary. Massive autumn waterfowl migrations also take place at Redberry Lake and its islands, Saskatchewan's first UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. More than a million migrating geese, sandhill cranes and Arctic-nesting shorebirds stop at the Quill Lakes area, east of Saskatoon. Prince Albert National Park has the only fully protected white pelican nesting colony in Canada.

Surprise #10: Saskatchewan-style CSI and Shakespeare

Not all of Saskatchewan's surprises are in the country. Regina's diverse attractions range from Wascana Centre, one of North America's largest urban parks, to Megamunch, a half-sized robotic T. rex that attracts children to the Royal Saskatchewan Museum. If you like the CSI TV series, you'll love the RCMP Heritage Centre's Cracking the Case exhibits. They explain how the Royal Canadian Mounted Police fight crime with high-tech forensic techniques, including DNA, tire-track and shoe-wear analysis.

Beating drums and military music accompany the moving and colourful Sunset Retreat Ceremony on summer Tuesdays. Troops clad in red serge jackets march across Parade Square to lower the Canadian flag. You can also see cadets, at different stages of training, line up for inspection and dismounted cavalry drills at the RCMP Sergeant Major's Parade. It is held on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, year-round, in Parade Square (or in the Drill Hall during inclement weather).

A completely different type of performance takes place in Saskatoon every summer at the Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan Festival. Local actors present a Saskatchewan interpretation of the Bard's works in circus tents beside the South Saskatchewan River. In previous years, the Trans-Canada Highway was the setting for Romeo and Juliet. Performers arrived in pickup trucks. A Midsummer Night's Dream took place on a golf course, while punk rockers acted in Hamlet. Although the setting and costumes are unique to Saskatchewan, the dialogue remains Shakespearean.

Surprise #11: Made in Saskatchewan

Does the idea of shopping in Saskatchewan makes you shake your head in disbelief? Consider unique souvenirs such as snacks made from wild rice and local grains or mouth-watering wild Saskatoon berry, buffalo berry, chokecherry, pincherry and highbush cranberry jams and jellies. The Ukrainian Museum of Canada, in Saskatoon, sells beautiful Baltic amber jewellery, pysanky (Ukrainian Easter eggs), weavings and embroidery. At the gift shop in the Manitou Springs Resort, we found Manitou Lake mineral salts for therapeutic baths at home. Handmade moccasins, beaded bags, porcupine quill baskets and other First Nations arts and crafts fill the Wanuskewin Heritage 
Park gift shop.

What was our favourite Saskatchewan souvenir? It was a sepia-toned photo of ourselves dressed in period costume, taken by the photo studio on a recreated 1910 Boomtown Street. The longest indoor museum street in North America surprised us when we entered the Saskatoon Western Development Museum. Besides the photo studio, vintage cars, a general store, school and 30 other buildings brought the early 20th-century prairie town to life.

Surprise #12: More Surprises!

In a province nearly the size of Texas, there is lots of room for surprises. Did you know, for example, that the Southeast Saskatchewan town of Estevan is the sunshine capital of Canada, with 2,540 hours of sunshine annually? Or that Saskatchewan is the only province in which you can play golf in two countries? 

The Gateway Cities Golf Club in North Portal straddles the U.S. border. Eight holes are in Canada and one hole is in Portal, North Dakota. Because they are in different time zones, it takes more than one hour to complete the ninth hole! (Saskatchewan is the only Canadian province that does not observe daylight savings time.)

We've barely scratched the surface of Saskatchewan's many surprises. The rest are for you to discover.


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Resources

Tourism Saskatchewan: 1-877-237-2273

Barb & Ron Kroll publish the trip-planning website: