From Regina the 400km drive west across Southern Saskatchewan on Hwy-1 is monotonous, with Moose Jaw, the 1920s Prohibition hangout of American gangsters, the only really worthwhile stop. Away from Hwy-1 things get more interesting: undulating farmland is broken up by lake-dotted valleys, lakes, pockets of badlands and the odd range of wooded hills. A trio of minor attractions – a steam railway at Ogema, Big Muddy Badlands and the unusually francophone prairie town of Gravelbourg might tempt you to lengthen your journey. But the biggest attraction lies near the US border: here Grasslands National Park protects the sort of wild prairie landscape that the region’s first white settlers encountered. The town of Swift Current documents a little of these settlers’ lives in two reconstructed villages, but these are no more impressive than the beautiful landscapes in striking distance of the cowboy town of Maple Creek; among them the starkly beautiful Great Sand Hills and the forested hills and ridges of Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park with its restored Mountie outpost, Fort Walsh.
Though by the 1870s it had become illegal to supply Aboriginal peoples with booze, whisky traders had nevertheless spread out across Canada’s southwestern plains, which were aptly nicknamed Whoop-up Country. These traders were mostly from the US and brought their liquor north in the autumn, returning south in late spring laden with furs and buffalo robes. They established dozens of posts, such as that at Lethbridge, where they could trade while being protected from their disorderly customers by log stockades.
In the spring of 1873, there were two such outposts beside Battle Creek, deep in the Cypress Hills. For reasons that remain obscure, though drunkenness no doubt played a part, this was the scene of a violent confrontation between a group of white wolf-hunters, whisky traders and a band of Assiniboine. Equipped with the latest fast-action rifles, the hunters and traders riddled the Assiniboine camp with bullets, killing up to seventy before packing up and heading back across the US border. News of the incident, known as the Cypress Hills Massacre, filtered back to Ottawa and helped speed up the recruitment of the newly formed North West Mounted Police, or Mounties, who received their first posting west that autumn (see The Mounties).
The Mounties attempted to have eight of the participants in the massacre extradited from the US, but failed. Three of these men were later arrested in Canada and a trial was held in Winnipeg in 1876, but because of conflicting testimonies and a lack of evidence, all three were acquitted; no one was ever punished.
Nevertheless, First Nations people appreciated the Mounties’ efforts and were heartened by the thought that everyone was going to be seen as equal in the eyes of this new police force. The Mounties may have kept the peace, but they were also a major part of a policy of containment and control of Aboriginal peoples, spearheading a determined push that forced them onto reservations, to open the area to European settlers.
Directly west of the Big Muddy Valley, and around 250km southwest of Moose Jaw, Grasslands National Park is predominantly mixed-grass prairie, a flat, bare badlands broken up by splendid coulees, buttes and river valleys – notably the wide ravine edging the Frenchman River. Far from the moderating influence of the oceans, the area has a savage climate, with an average low in January of -22°C and temperatures that soar to 40°C in summer. Even so, this terrain is inhabited by many species adapted to cope with the shortage of water: prairie grasses, rabbit brush and different types of cacti, as well as the graceful pronghorn antelope and rattlesnakes. Prairie dogs, ferrets and bison also all thrive here as they did before white settlers arrived in the region.
The park consists of east and west “blocks” separated by private ranches and farms, which the federal government eventually intends to buy, creating a single park stretching from Hwy-4 in the west to highways 2 and 18 in the east. The western section is more scenic and accessible, its limited system of gravel tracks and roads cutting in from highways 8 and 4, south and east of the tiny community of VAL MARIE. Unlike most national parks you’re free to roam almost everywhere and there are few marked trails, though a couple of signposted suggestions are made in each block.
One of the best hikes leads to 70 Mile Butte in the west block. This massive flat-topped promontory is the highest point of land in the region, rising 100m above the valley floor with wonderful views of the waving prairie grasslands. To get there, drive south of Val Marie on Hwy-4, turn east at Butte Road and continue to the end of the road. Though barely marked, the way becomes obvious as you begin walking over the hills from the end of the road. Even just a couple of hours’ walk will take you through exceptional country.
Wherever you go remember a good supply of water, a stout pair of walking shoes and a stick to sweep in front of you in tall grass or brush as a warning to rattlesnakes. Animal activity is at its height at dawn and dusk and during spring and autumn; a pair of binoculars is always useful.
The Hutterites, the only prairie community to have maintained its communal ideal, are members of an Anabaptist sect named after its first leader, Jacob Hutter. Originating in sixteenth-century central Europe (Tyrol and Moravia), they gradually moved east, ending up in Russia, which they abandoned for South Dakota in the 1870s. It was fifty years before they felt obliged to move again, when during World War I the community’s pacifism was in direct opposition to the military fervour that gripped the US. They moved north between 1918 and 1922, and established a series of colonies where they were allowed to educate their children, speak their own language and avoid military service. In these largely self-sufficient communities tasks are still divided according to ability and skill, property is owned communally, and social life organized around a common dining room and dormitories. Economically prosperous, they continue to grow, and a new branch community is founded whenever the old one reaches a secure population of between one and two hundred. Apart from the occasional disagreement with the outside world when they buy new land, the Hutterites have been left in peace and have resisted assimilation pressures more staunchly than their kindred spirits, the Mennonites and the Doukhobors.
MOOSE JAW, 70km west of Regina, was founded as a railway depot in 1882. Its name comes from a Cree word for “warm place by the river”, although some believe it was named for the repairs done to a cartwheel by an early pioneer using a moose’s jawbone.
The city achieved notoriety during US Prohibition in the 1920s, when liquor was smuggled south by car or train to Chicago. For most locals this period of bootleggers, gangsters, gamblers and “boozoriums” (liquor warehouses) was not a happy one, and for years various schemes to attract tourists by developing the “Roaring Twenties” theme met with considerable opposition from the population who actually experienced them. Despite this, the Tunnels of Moose Jaw became the most interesting attraction in town.
Today, the city is a quiet sort of place with plenty of reminders of its 1920s heyday – or nadir, depending on your perspective – which amply reward pulling off the Trans-Canada.
A network of tunnels runs underneath River Street from the basements of some of the city’s oldest buildings. No one knows who built these passageways – or why – but what is known is that Chinese railway workers extended and used them in the early 1900s, hoping to escape the $500 “head tax”, a measure designed to force them to return to famine-stricken China after their railway work was done. Later, during Prohibition, Chicago gangsters used the tunnels to negotiate deals for Canada’s liquor supplies and to hide out in when things got too hot in Chicago.
The Tunnels of Moose Jaw tells this history in two entertaining fifty-minute theatrical tours: the Chicago Connection tour is a light-hearted look at the capers of Al Capone’s men, complete with speakeasy, police bust and slimy Chief of Police. The more serious Passage to Fortune tour tells the horrific Chinese story, with re-creations of a laundry, sweatshops, a herbalist and an opium den. Costumed guides ham it up along the way, helped by old movies and state-of-the-art animatronics.