The Prairie Provinces Travel Guide

Spreading over the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, the vast lands between Ontario in the east and the Rocky Mountains in the west are commonly called “the Prairies”. This is certainly not Canada’s glamour region, with the main cities caricatured as dull and the scenery monotonous. In truth, this image is unfair and comes mainly from the fact that most cross-country journeys follow Trans-Canada 1, through generally flat and treeless plains. Here isolated farms guard thousands of acres of swaying wheat or immense grasslands with giant cattle herds. But these landscapes only typify the region’s southernmost part, and even then they’re broken up by the occasional river valley and range of low-lying hills. The prairie’s other major cross-country route – Hwy 16 or the Yellowhead Route – lies to the north and travels through a more diverse landscape of low hills and sporadic Aspen Parkland forests.

Further north again, this transitional zone gives way to the vast and sparsely inhabited boreal forest. Here conifers, rivers and myriad lakes cover the rocky outcrops of the Canadian Shield and well over half the entire region – stretching north to the Northwest Territories and the hostile, treeless tundra around the Hudson Bay. These northerly climes are characterized by deep, cold winters that alternate with brief, bright summers, when the top few centimetres of topsoil thaw to create millions of stagnant pools of water where mosquitoes thrive. Yet the region remains captivating for its sense of desolate wilderness; a staggering number of first-rate backcountry canoe routes, and wildlife that includes caribou, polar bear, bison and many migratory birds.

The eastern gateway to the prairies is Winnipeg, which rewards a stopover, with some interesting historical sights, restaurants and nightlife. The city can also provide a base for exploring the varied lakes and plains of Southeastern Manitoba and, if you’ve got the time, Northern Manitoba, where the biggest draw is the desolate town of Churchill, on the southern shore of Hudson Bay, one of the world’s best places to see beluga whales and polar bears.

The more varied scenery makes Yellowhead Route (Hwy-16) from Winnipeg to Edmonton (1310km away), the best route west. It takes its name from a light-haired Iroquois explorer and guide nicknamed Tête Jaune (“yellow head”) by the voyageurs, French-speaking boatmen who plied the waterways transporting people, furs and supplies. The culture of original settlers is preserved today in small towns like Dauphin, but the route is most rewarding for its easy side-trips to two national parks, Riding Mountain in Manitoba and Prince Albert in Saskatchewan, both with good hiking and canoeing. The Yellowhead Route also runs through Saskatoon, Saskatchewan’s largest city, an ordinary but likeable place thanks to an attractive riverside setting and good restaurants. Nearby are important Métis and Plains Indians sites. Once in Alberta, the Yellowhead continues to Edmonton, a slightly bleak but bustling city that’s a gateway to an immense expanse of low hills and boreal forest to the north.

However, the quickest route west from Winnipeg is Trans-Canada Hwy-1, which briskly slices through 1500km of bland and productive prairie on its way to the Rockies. Once the novelty of all the hypnotically swaying wheat, oceans of dazzling yellow rapeseed and the big skies with their ever-changing clouds wears off, you can preserve your sanity with a series of diverting side-trips. These include old farmsteads, lush provincial parks, the easy-going city and Mountie-capital of Regina, the gritty little atmospheric town of Moose Jaw, with its worthwhile Tunnels of Moose Jaw attraction, and restored Fort Walsh. With more time, strike out further to the attractive coulees and buttes of the pristine and wonderfully empty Grasslands National Park. The first big town in Alberta is Medicine Hat, where Hwy-3 begins – the most direct route to Vancouver. Otherwise, continuing on Hwy-1, the ranching belt is interrupted by the intriguing and arid Badlands around Drumheller where dinosaurs left abundant traces. The region is within the catchment of Calgary, the oil town and self-styled cowboy city famous for the Calgary Stampede and as the main gateway for the Canadian Rocky Mountains.

Brief history

If you’re in the Prairie Provinces in the winter, when Artic winds can bring temperatures below -30°C, it’s hard to imagine how the European pioneers survived, huddled together in remote log cabins. Yet they did, and went on to cultivate, between about 1895 and 1914, the great swath of land making up the wheat belt and the Aspen Parkland, turning it into one of the world’s most productive wheat-growing areas. This development came with a high price: the nomadic culture of the Plains Indians was almost entirely destroyed and the disease-ravaged, half-starved survivors were dumped into a string of meagre reservations. Similarly, the Métis – descendants of white fur traders and Aboriginal women – who for more than two centuries had acted as intermediaries between the two cultures, found themselves overwhelmed, their desperate attempts to maintain their independence leading to a brace of futile rebellions.

With the Métis and the First Nations out of the way, thousands of European immigrants concentrated on wheat yields. But with prosperity so dependent on grain prices and railroad charges, the region’s farmers experienced alarming booms and busts throughout the twentieth century. This situation continues to affect the prairie economies, although Saskatchewan in particular has diversified, exploiting its supplies of potash (fertilizer) and some of the same vast oil and gas reserves that underpin Alberta’s economy. Even so, prairie farmers often struggle to make ends meet when wheat prices fall and so formed wheat pools, which attempt to control freight charges and sell the grain at the best possible time. The political spin-off was the evolution of a strong socialist tradition, built on the farmers’ mistrust of markets. For many years Saskatchewan was a stronghold of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the forerunner of the New Democratic Party; in 1944 the CCF formed the country’s first leftist provincial government, pushing through bills to set up provincially-run medical and social security schemes, which the rest of Canada eventually adopted.

The Alberta Badlands

Formed by the meltwaters of the last Ice Age, the Red Deer River valley cuts a deep gash through the prairie – about 240km northwest of Medicine Hat and 140km east of Calgary – creating a surreal landscape of bare, sunbaked hills and eerie lunar flats dotted with sagebrush and scrubby, tufted grass. On their own, the Alberta Badlands justify a visit, but what makes them an essential detour is the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology, one of North America’s greatest natural history museums, located 8km outside Drumheller, a dreary but obvious base. You’ll need your own transport to explore and get to Dinosaur Provincial Park, home to the Tyrrell Museum Field Station and the source of many of its fossils.

Drumheller

A downbeat town in an extraordinary setting, DRUMHELLER lies roughly ninety minutes’ drive northeast of Calgary or two hours on dirt roads from Dinosaur Provincial Park. Nestled at the bottom of a parched canyon and surrounded by the detritus and spoil heaps from its mining past, the otherworldliness of Drumheller’s immediate surroundings is heightened by the contrast to the vivid colours of the wheat and grasslands above. Its Red Deer River once exposed not only dinosaur fossils but also coal seams, which attracted the likes of Samuel Drumheller, after whom the town is named. The first mine opened in 1911, but within fifty years it was all over and today Drumheller is sustained by agriculture, oil and tourism. There’s not much to do in its tiny hardscrabble downtown, but the Royal Tyrrell Museum ensures visitors pass through in droves. The town has gone out of its way to try to tempt them in, with dino-mania at every turn. Though the museum is clearly the major local draw, the rest of the semi-arid Red Deer Valley is dotted with viewpoints and minor sights.

Royal Tyrrell Museum

A sleek building packed with high-tech displays and blended skilfully into desolate surroundings, the Royal Tyrrell Museum, 6km outside Drumheller, will appeal to anyone with even a hint of scientific or natural curiosity. Although it claims the world’s largest collection of complete dinosaur skeletons (120,000 specimens), the museum is far more than a load of old bones. As well as skilfully and entertainingly tracing the earth’s natural history, it’s also a leading research centre and you can watch scientists painstakingly scratch, blow and vacuum dirt from fossils. Hands-on activities include fossil casting or the chance to dig in a realistic quarry; book ahead for both. There’s also a gift shop and cafeteria, while outside you can spend the best part of an hour exploring a 1.4km hiking trail dotted with various information boards.

The Dinosaur Trail and Horseshoe Canyon

For a scenic drive from Drumheller take the 48km Dinosaur Trail; maps are available from the visitor centre. Highlights include the Little Church (capacity six) and Horsethief Canyon and Orkney Viewpoint, both of which offer spectacular panoramas of the wildly eroded valley and are connected by a small car ferry at Bleriot (daily 10am–8.45pm; free).

For easy badland hikes, try Horseshoe Canyon, 19km southwest of Drumheller on Hwy-9, where a multitude of good trails snake around the canyon floor.

Wayne and the Hoodoos

A couple of sights are an easy drive southwest of town. First is the near-ghost town (population 27) of Wayne, 14km from Drumheller, with its atmospheric Wild West-style Last Chance Saloon. Another 9km southeast on Hwy-10 a series of Hoodoos – slender columns of wind-sculpted sandstone topped with mushroom-like caps – makes for a good photo.

Around Saskatoon

North of Saskatoon, Hwy-11 cuts through a narrow slice of prairie between the final stretches of the North and South Saskatchewan rivers, before they flow together in the northeast. There’s nothing to see on the road itself, but a brief detour will take you to the atmospheric Plains Indian site of Wanuskewin and the informative Batoche National Historic Site, where the Métis rebellion of 1885 reached its disastrous climax. Setting out early and with your own transport you can combine these with visits to a museum at Duck Lake and the reconstructed Fort Carlton where you can camp. With longer to spare, consider heading to the healing waters of Little Manitou Lake or up into the wilds of Prince Albert National Park.

Prince Albert National Park

The only settlement in the wilds of Prince Albert National Park is the tourist village of WASKESIU, which is approached from the south by Hwy-263 and from the east by highways 2 and 264. Spread out along the southern shore of Waskesiu Lake, it has all the usual facilities, plus a narrow sandy beach that gets ridiculously overcrowded in summer.

Several of the park’s easier hiking trails begin in or near Waskesiu, most notably the 13km Kingfisher Trail, which loops through the forest just to the west. The best trails and canoe routes begin roughly 15km further north at Kingsmere Lake, accessible by boat or car from Waskesiu. They include a delightful week-long canoe trip along the western shore of Kingsmere Lake before heading through a series of remote lakes amid dense boreal forest. There’s also a 20km hike or canoe (a good overnight trip) to the idyllic Grey Owl’s Cabin (May–Sept), beside tiny Ajawaan Lake, near the northern shore of Kingsmere. Grey Owl lived here from 1931 until 1937, the year before his death, writing one of his better books, Pilgrims of the Wild; this is also where he, his wife and daughter are buried. Whatever you do in the park, remember insect repellent.

The Métis and the Northwest Rebellion

As the offspring of Aboriginal women and white fur traders, the Métis were for centuries Canada’s most marginalized group. Recognized neither as Canadians nor Aboriginals, they were denied rights and often forced to wander the country in poverty with nowhere to settle. The 1869–70 Red River rebellion in Manitoba, led by Louis Riel, won significant concessions from the Canadian government but failed to protect the Métis’ way of life against the effects of increasing white settlement. Consequently, many Métis moved west to farm the banks of the South Saskatchewan River, where the men acted as intermediaries between aboriginals and the whites. Yet when government surveyors arrived in 1878 the Métis realized – as they had on the Red River twenty years before – their claim to the land they farmed was far from secure.

Beginning with the Métis, a general sense of instability spread across the region in the early 1880s, fuelled by the increasingly restless and hungry Cree peoples, as well as by the discontent of white settlers angry at the high freight charges levied on their produce. The leaders of the Métis decided to act and in June 1884 they sent a delegation to Montana, where Riel was in exile. Convinced the Métis were chosen by God to purify the human race – and he their Messiah – Riel was easily persuaded to return.

In March 1885, Riel declared a provisional government at Batoche and demanded the surrender of Fort Carlton, the nearest Mountie outpost, 35km to their west on the North Saskatchewan River. The police superintendent refused and the force he dispatched to re-establish order was badly mauled at Duck Lake. When news of the uprising reached the Cree, some 300km away, they attacked the local Hudson’s Bay Company store, killing its nine occupants in the so-called Frog Lake Massacre. Within two weeks, three columns of militia were converging on Big Bear’s Cree and the meagre Métis forces at Batoche. The total number of casualties – about fifty – does not indicate the full significance of the engagement, which marked the end of brief Métis independence. Riel’s execution in Regina on November 16, 1885, was bitterly denounced in Québec and remains a symbol of the divide between English- and French-speaking Canada.

For more information on the events and sights relating to 1885, look at the excellent website w trailsof1885.com.

Churchill

Sitting on the east bank of the Churchill River where it empties into Hudson Bay, CHURCHILL has the neglected look of many remote northern settlements, its unkempt open spaces dotted with the houses of its mixed Inuit, Cree and white population. These grim buildings are fortified against the biting cold of winter and the voracious insects of summer. Like York Factory, Churchill began life as a fur trading post, with the Hudson’s Bay Company building its first fort here in 1717 and using it for shipments to Britain until the 1870s when better trade routes through the USA took over. The development of agriculture on the prairies then brought a reprieve and in 1929 the Canadian National Railway completed a line. Unfortunately, the port has never been very successful, largely because the bay is ice-free for only about three months a year. So, with its grain-handling facilities underused, the visitors who flock here for the wildlife (particularly the polar bears) – or the aurora borealis (Northern Lights) common in the skies between late August and April – have thrown the town a real lifeline.

Brief history

In 1682, the Hudson’s Bay Company established a fur-trading post at York Factory, a marshy peninsula some 240km southeast of today’s Churchill. From here the direct sea route from England was roughly 1500km shorter than the old route via the St Lawrence River, while the Hayes and Nelson rivers gave access to the region’s greatest waterways. Within a few years, a regular cycle of trade had been established, with the company’s Cree and Assiniboine go-betweens heading south in the autumn to hunt and trade for skins and returning in the spring laden with pelts to exchange for the company’s manufactured goods. The company was always keen to increase its trade, and it soon expanded its operations to Churchill, building its first fort here in 1717.

In the nineteenth century the development of faster trade routes through Minneapolis brought decline, and by the 1870s both York Factory and Churchill had become unimportant. The subsequent development of agriculture on the prairies brought a reprieve. Many of the politicians and grain farmers of this new west were determined to break the trading monopoly of Sault Ste Marie in northern Ontario and campaigned for the construction of a new port facility on Hudson Bay, connected by rail to the south through Winnipeg. In the 1920s the Canadian National Railway agreed to build the line, and it finally reached Churchill in 1929. Unfortunately, despite the efforts of the railway workers in the teeth of the ferocious climate, the port has never been very successful, largely because the bay is ice-free for only about three months a year.

Churchill’s natural attractions

Churchill occupies a transitional zone where the stunted taiga trees (subarctic coniferous forest) meet the tundra mosses. Blanketed with snow in the winter and covered by thousands of bogs and lakes in the summer, this terrain is completely flat until it reaches the sloping Churchill River banks and the ridge around Hudson Bay, whose grey-quartzite boulders have been rubbed smooth by the action of the ice, wind and water.

This environment harbours splendid wildlife, including polar bears, which start to come ashore when the bay’s ice melts in late June. They must then wait for the ice to form again to support their weight before they can start their seal hunt; a polar bear can detect a scent from 32km away and can pick up the presence of seals under a metre of snow and ice. The best months to spot bears are September, October and early November, just before the ice re-forms completely.

In mid-June, as the ice breaks on the Churchill River, the spreading patch of open water attracts schools of white beluga whales. As many as three thousand of these intelligent, inquisitive and vocal mammals spend July and August around the mouth of the river, joining the seals, who arrive in late March for five months. The area around the town is also a major migration route for birds heading north between April and June and returning south in August or early September. Nesting and hatching take place from early June until early July. A couple of hundred species are involved, including gulls, terns, loons, Lapland longspurs, ducks and geese. The star visitor is the rare Ross’s Gull, a native of Siberia, which has nested in Churchill for some years. The Birder’s Guide to Churchill by Bonnie Chartier lists them all and is sold at the Eskimo Museum.

Churchill is also a great place to see the aurora borealis (Northern Lights), whose swirling curtains of blue, green and white are common in the skies between late August and April; occasionally it’s seen year-round but is at its best from January to March. Finally, in spring and autumn the tundra is a colourful sheet of moss, lichens, flowers and miniature shrubs and trees, including dwarf birch, spruce and cranberry.

Edmonton

Alberta’s provincial capital, EDMONTON, is among Canada’s most northerly cities and at times – particularly in the teeth of its bitter winters – can seem a little too far north for comfort. It straddles the North Saskatchewan River, whose leafy banks contrast strikingly with the high-rises of downtown, and is a proud and bustling city that tries hard with its restaurants, urban-renewal projects and festivals – which include August’s world-class Folk Music Festival.

For years the downtown core on the north side of the river had a somewhat bleak feel to it, but with vast construction projects going on – a new Royal Albert Museum; a giant stadium for the Edmonton Oilers ice hockey team; and scores of associated developments – things should be better very soon. Meanwhile, the core district on the southern side of the river is Old Strathcona, a rejuvenated, late nineteenth-century area, whose main strip is filled with heritage buildings, low-key museums and a booming restaurant, bar and nightlife scene – all fuelled by a huge recent injection of oil money (and young workers) into the city. Several other attractions dot the outskirts, including the impressive TELUS World of Science museum, but none is more famous than the West Edmonton Mall, a gigantic shopping centre, which for long was the main attraction for visitors and is still an essential outlet in the dead of winter even if it feels a little dated. Attractions that are an easy day-trip from town – if you have your own transport – include Elk Island National Park and the Ukrainian Cultural Village.

Brief history

Edmonton began life in 1795 as Fort Edmonton, the burly log stockade of the Hudson’s Bay Company, in some of Canada’s richest fur country. A century later the town became a staging point for those heading north, particularly during the 1897 Yukon Gold Rush. Then in 1947, things boomed again when an oil strike caused some three thousand wells to sprout within 100km of the city in a decade. Oil money flooded in again in recent decades as rising prices made difficult-to-extract oil in Alberta’s north economically viable, helping keep Edmonton’s population around a million.

Edmonton festivals

International Jazz City Festival End June w edmontonjazz.com. Runs for ten days at three different venues and offers a great value $99 ticket which gives access to all shows.

K-Days Ten days in late July w k-days.com. The more contrived and commercial Capital Ex is a giant funfair, which tries to steal some of Calgary’s Stampede thunder.

Edmonton Folk Music Festival Early Aug w edmontonfolkfest.org. Easily Edmonton’s finest event, held over four days at Gallagher Park near the Muttart Conservatory, where six stages draw artists from all around the world.

International Street Performers Festival Early July w edmontonstreetfest.com. Well-regarded festival, which attracts over one thousand street performers.

Fringe Theatre Festival Mid-Aug w fringetheatreadventures.ca. Increasingly popular ten-day theatrical jamboree that’s turned into one of the largest festivals of its kind in North America.

The Mounties

The heroes of a hundred adventure stories and eccentric, epic films, including such classics as Canadian Mounties versus the Atomic Invaders, the Mounties have been the continent’s most charismatic good guys since the mid-1870s. The North West Mounted Police, as they were originally called, were established in Ottawa in 1873 and given the task of restoring law and order in Saskatchewan and Alberta’s “Whoop-up Country” in the aftermath of the Cypress Hills Massacre. But there was no long-term strategy: the force’s areas of responsibility were undecided and even their uniforms had been slung together from a surplus supply of British army tunics. Yet they did a brilliant job, controlling whiskey traders who had created pandemonium by selling liquor to the Plains Indians. The force’s future was secured after they successfully defused a very delicate situation in 1876. Fearing reprisals after his victory over General Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Chief Sitting Bull and five thousand Sioux moved north, establishing a camp at Wood Mountain, 350km east of Fort Walsh. Aware of the danger, Inspector James Walsh rode into the camp with just four other constables to insist the Sioux obey Canadian law. Walsh’s bravery helped establish a rough rapport with Sitting Bull and greatly enhanced the force’s reputation.

The Mounties became vital in administering the West, acting as law enforcement officers and justices of the peace. From the 1880s onwards their patrols crisscrossed the territory, their influence reinforced by their knowledge of local conditions accumulated in the exercise of a great range of duties – including delivering the mail and providing crop reports. Despite this level of autonomy, the Mounties saw themselves as an integral, if remote, part of the British Empire, their actions and decisions sanctioned by the weight of its authority. They despised the individualism of the US sheriff and marshal; Mounties expected obedience because of the dignity of their office, not their speed with a firearm. Officers became respected for an even-handedness that extended, remarkably for the period, to dealings with the Plains Indians. Yet the force’s conservative class prejudice was less positive in their approach to policing the “lower orders”.

After 1920, when the force became the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, this conservative undertow became more problematic. The RCMP consistently supported politicians – Prime Minister Richard Bennet among them – who used them to break strikes. They have also often been accused of bias in their dealings with the Québécois. In recent years their reputation has taken a further hit: accusations of widespread corruption, making errors that led to the rendition of Canadian citizen Maher Arar to Syria and the Taser-related death of a man at Vancouver airport in 2007. As evidenced by the coverage these incidents received, the Mounties remain a potent – and important – symbol of nationality.

Northern Saskatchewan

Some 230km north of Saskatoon the aspen parkland of the south meets the boreal forest of the north and is protected Prince Albert National Park. This great tract of wilderness is a landscape of rivers and creeks, deep lakes, tiny meadows and spruce bogs. The shift in vegetation is mirrored by the wildlife, with prairie species such as coyote and wild bison giving way to black bear, moose, wolf, caribou, osprey and eagle further north.

Prince Albert National Park is about as far north as most casual visitors go, but travel another 150km north to Lac La Ronge Provincial Park or even another 430km further to Clearwater River Provincial Park and you’ll find an even greater wilderness with some of Canada’s premier canoeing routes (see Canoeing in northern Saskatchewan). Both are also a big draw for the hook-and-bullet brigade, but the province’s greatest lure for backcountry enthusiasts of all stripes is the Athabasca Sand Dunes Provincial Wilderness Park in the extreme northwest corner of the province.

Canoeing in Northern Saskatchewan

A seemingly endless web of canoe routes connects Northern Saskatchewan’s thousands of lakes, but the key places for extended adventures are the turbulent white waters of the Clearwater River in Clearwater River Provincial Park and on the Churchill River in Lac La Ronge Provincial Park. The Churchill was once part of the main route into the northwest for the voyageurs: the river swerves across the width of the province, from west to east, before heading into Manitoba.

For most canoeists the best bet is a guided trip but independent and experienced wilderness travellers should start at the provincial parks’ dedicated webpage: w saskparks.net/canoeing.

Provincial parks

While the National Parks of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta probably contain the finest landscapes, all these provinces also have worthwhile Provincial Parks, with thousands of acres of wilderness, lakes, rivers and forests, great hikes and hundreds of kilometres of canoe routes. Many draw local campers in droves on summer weekends and each province has its own park regulations.

Manitoba

Entry to Manitoba’s provincial parks (w manitobaparks.com) costs $5/vehicle/day (multi-day passes available), while entry by boat, foot or bike is free. Park campsites ($11.55–28.35) can be reserved from April to September online or by calling the Parks Reservation Service (t 204 948 3333 or t 1 888 482 2267; $10/reservation).

Saskatchewan

Entry to Saskatchewan’s provincial parks (w saskparks.net) is $7/vehicle/day, $17 for three days, $25 weekly and $50 annually. Information is on t 306 787 8676, t 1 800 205 7070. Between mid-May and August you can reserve all park campsites ($13–26; t 855 737 7275, wsaskparks.goingtocamp.com) online for a $10 fee; which is a better bet than simply turning up – particularly at weekends.

Alberta

Entry to Alberta’s provincial parks is free, but camping costs $5–26. At peak times the most popular campsites are largely reservation-only ($12/reservation); many can be reserved at w albertaparks.ca, where you’ll also find the individual phone numbers for others that need to be called direct.

Regina

REGINA, 575km west of Winnipeg, is Saskatchewan’s capital, as well as a commercial and administrative centre that anchors a vast network of agricultural towns and villages. Yet despite its status, brash shopping malls and 193,000 citizens, Regina feels like a small and unremarkable prairie town. Still, it’s a comfortable place to spend a couple of days (it gets more sunshine than any other major Canadian city) and is an essential stop if you’re keen on learning more about the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), or Mounties.

Brief history

Regina’s origins stem from the 1881 decision of Edward Dewdney, lieutenant-governor of the Northwest Territories (which then spread west from Ontario to the Arctic and Pacific oceans) to move his capital south from Battleford to Pile o’Bones – an inconsequential place named for the heaps of bleached buffalo bones left along its creek by generations of Aboriginal hunters – after the Canadian Pacific Railway was routed across the southern plains. The city was renamed Regina (Latin for “queen”), after Queen Victoria, but the site was far from being fit for royalty, let alone anyone else: the sluggish creek provided a poor water supply, the clay soil was muddy in wet weather and dusty in summer and there was no timber for building. Accordingly, the railway board refused to oblige and the end result was farcical: Government House and the Mounted Police barracks were built where Dewdney wanted them, but the train station was a three-kilometre trek south.

Regina became the capital of the newly created province of Saskatchewan in 1905 and settlers flocked here from the US and Central Europe. The city soon overcame its natural disadvantages by extensive tree-planting, which provided shade and controlled the dust, and by damming the creek to provide a better water source. Yet Regina’s success was based on the fragile prosperity of a one-crop (wheat) economy and throughout the twentieth century boom alternated with bust. Today, Regina’s prosperity looks solid, thanks to sizeable oil reserves, uranium mines and its administrative role.

Regina festivals

First Nations Pow Wow Mid-April w fnuniv.ca/powwow. For something a little different, attend this First Nations gathering featuring crafts, music and dancing.

Craven Country Jamboree Mid-July w cravencountryjamboree.com. A good live music event, this four-day country music festival is held in Craven, a twenty-minute drive north of town.

Queen City Ex Late Jul w thequeencityex.com. Regina’s biggest bash, a week-long festival with a lot of livestock exhibitions, plus rides and music shows, which all ends in a massive fireworks display.

Regina Folk Festival Early Aug w reginafolkfestival.com. Held in Victoria Park, this is another big musical deal.

Saskatoon

Set on the wide South Saskatchewan River at the heart of a vast wheat-growing area, SASKATOON is a commercial centre with a population of around 260,000 – making it Saskatchewan’s largest city. All the same it’s an easy-going place, with pleasant riverside paths and a nice-enough stop on any prairie itinerary. Most of the worthwhile sites, such as the Plains Indian Wanuskewin complex, are outside town.

Brief history

Ontario Methodists founded Saskatoon as a temperance colony in 1883 and named it after a local berry, but in spite of their enthusiasm the new settlement made an extremely slow start, partly because the semi-arid farming conditions were unfamiliar and partly because the 1885 Northwest Rebellion raised fears of Aboriginal hostility. Although the railroad reached Saskatoon in 1890, there were still only 113 inhabitants at the start of the twentieth century. But the next decade saw a sudden influx of European and American settlers and, as the regional agricultural economy expanded, a group of entrepreneurs, nicknamed boomers, dominated and made Saskatoon the provincial economic hub. This success was underpinned by particularly sharp municipal loyalty: people who dared criticize any aspect of the city – from poor water quality to tyrannical labour practices – were dubbed knockers, and their opinions rubbished by the press. Even so the boomers established a pleasant, well-groomed city where solidarity overwhelmed differences in income and occupation.

Saskatoon berry pie

The thing to try while in town is Saskatoon berry pie, made with berries grown on the outskirts of the city. One popular place is the Berry Barn, 830 Valley Rd (April to mid-Dec Mon–Fri 11am–8pm, Sat & Sun 9am–8pm; t 306 978 9797, wberrybarn.ca), a good restaurant serving hearty home-made food, 11km southwest of town off Hwy-11. It’s one of a number of places along this road that allow you to pick your own fruit.

Saskatoon’s festivals

Saskatchewan Jazz Festival Late June or early July w saskjazz.com. Saskatoon’s biggest and best shindig with over five hundred musicians performing jazz, gospel and blues across the city, mostly for free.

Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan Festival July & Aug w thesaskatchewan.com. Sees plays performed in tents on the river bank by the Mendel Art Gallery.

Potash Corp Fringe Festival Early Aug w 25thstreettheatre.org. A week of alternative performances featuring comedy and theatre from all over the world.

Folkfest Mid-Aug w saskatoonfolkfest.ca. Large three-day festival that celebrates the town’s multiethnic roots in a number of nationally or regionally themed pavilions, with cultural performances, cuisines and crafts.

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Rough Guides Editors
8/29/2020
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