An exploration of the prairies wouldn't be complete without considering both the history and the future of its most iconic symbol, the bison. Once numbering in the millions beyond counting, they were reduced to only 1,000 in 1889 after more than 50 million were slaughtered in the 19th century alone by colonists. Critical to the survival of First Nations plains people, the near extinction of the bison completely upended their way of life and was the catalyst that enabled the government to move them onto reserves and begin the process of converting the prairies to farmland. Fortunately, however, through the efforts of private ranchers, conservation programs, and the establishment of various protective parks, the bison are slowly but surely making a comeback. As part of our tour of the prairie grasslands we planned to visit some of the parks and interpretive centres that are working hard to restore the bison to its former glory, and see for ourselves how the prairies have evolved.
We spent the night in Lethbridge after checking out the High Level Bridge/Lethbridge Viaduct, the largest railroad structure in Canada and the largest of its kind in the world. Built in 1909 to shorten the route to the Crowsnest Pass, it took a 100 man crew two years and 685 railway cars of steel and equipment to complete, and cost over $1 million dollars. Crossing the Oldman River (formerly known as the Belly River) it's a short distance away from the historic battle site known as the Battle of Belly River which, in 1870, was the last major battle of First Nations on Canadian soil. The battle between the Cree (Iron Confederacy) led by Big Bear, and the Blackfoot Confederacy, led by Crowfoot, over the Cypress Hills boundaries led to the death of over 300 Cree. Peace was eventually negotiated and the Cree were given access to the Cypress Hills by the Blackfoot who also adopted the Cree leader, Poundmaker.
Scotty is the largest and oldest T.Rex in the world and he was discovered by accident on August 16, 1991 when the local school principal stumbled across a piece of tail vertebrae as he was walking along a trail. Originally built to display Scotty, the T.Rex Discovery Centre not only houses an ever evolving display gallery and a theatre, but it's also a state of the art research lab now operated by the Royal Saskatchewan Museum. Here paleontologists and students work year round on fossils collected during the summer season from the Frenchman River valley and the Cypress Hills.
We stopped in at Moose Jaw to get a photo with Mac, the largest moose in the world and Canada's most photographed roadside attraction.
Regina has the pleasant Wascana waterfront park, the 4th largest urban park in Canada and more than twice the size of Vancouver's Stanley Park. Wascana is derived from the Cree word Oscana, meaning "pile of bison bones", which is what was lying around the creek at the time of settlement. It now encompasses the Saskatchewan Legislative Building, the University of Regina, the Mackenzie Art Gallery and the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in addition to an outdoor aquatic centre and miles of pedestrian and cycling paths.
Regina is also headquarters to the R.C.M.P., our tarnished national police force, which this year is celebrating its 150 year anniversary. Unfortunately, there was no acknowledgement of their past mistakes, or complicity in the mistreatment of Indigenous people at their Heritage Centre, just a glorification of their checkered history. Their continued misogynistic attitude towards their own female members, systemic racism, cover-ups of police bungling, and a complete lack of success in dealing with the over 1,000 missing and murdered Indigenous women, points to a force that is broken and in need of a complete re-set.
Strategically located at the crossroads of many historic Indigenous trader and hunter trails, this important hub in the Qu'Appelle valley became a Hudson Bay Company post in 1852. The Qu'Appelle River flows east from Lake Diefenbaker in southwest Saskatchewan for 430 km to join up with the Assiniboine River in Manitoba. In the lower Qu'Appelle Valley the river flows through 6 major lakes; Pasqua, Echo, Mission, Katepwa, Crooked, and Round Lakes. Qu'Appelle, in French, means who calls and comes from the Cree Kah-Tep-Was, that means "river that calls" and the origin of this name is from the Pauline Johnson poem "Legend of the Qu'Appelle Valley" which tells the story of a young man paddling home from a hunting trip where his betrothed is waiting. He hears a voice calling his name and replies, "Qu'Appelle?" but hears no answer, only the echo of his own voice. When he arrives at his village he discovers his fiance has died and it was her who had called out to him with her last breath.
Following the signing of the first numbered treaties, the federal government in 1871 began the Dominion Land Survey in an effort to divide up the prairies into square mile sections for mostly agricultural use. Provinces were divided into numbered townships and each township was made up of 36 square mile sections (640 acres) which, in turn, were divided into quarter sections. Homesteaders like my great grandfather and my grandfather would pay $10.00 for a quarter section which they would gain title to if, within 3 years, they had built some sort of a house on the property (usually a sod house) and cultivated at least 30 acres. As their farming efforts succeeded they would expand to the next quarter section, with the eventual goal being to accumulate a full square mile/640 acre section of land. My great grandfather got his first quarter section in 1884 and by the time he died in 1929 he and his son had accumulated 6 quarter sections.
The Dominion Land Survey is the world's largest survey grid laid down in a single integrated system and encompasses over 310,000 square miles. While homesteads were still available in the 1950's most of the land had been settled by 1914. If you were to drive down the highway in the 1970's-1990's you would see a farmhouse just about every mile. But now, with increased mechanization and the consolidation of family run farms in order to be profitable, you would be lucky to see a farm house every 10 miles. Instead of 640 acre farms they are now averaging 4,000 acres and all you see are clusters of large storage bins and equipment sheds.
As part of our continuing search for where the bison roam, we decided to visit Riding Mountain National Park which has a special area called the Lake Audy Bison Enclosure. Here another small herd of 40 plains bison have developed from an original herd of 10 bison from Elk Island. The Park sits atop the Manitoba Escarpment and is a forested area that stands in sharp contrast to the surrounding prairie farmland. Three different ecosystems converge in the area; grasslands, upland boreal, and eastern deciduous forests, and the park is a popular location for camping, swimming and hiking. Animals of all kinds roam throughout the park including; wolves, elk, beaver, moose, white tailed deer, and cougar. Wasagaming is the commercial centre.
As we left this part of Manitoba it was interesting to see that, in spite of the changing geography with its forests, small lakes, and a more undulating terrain, the farms were still able to raise the same crops of wheat, hay, and of course canola. The prairie landscape never looked prettier.
Back in Saskatchewan we got a chance to check out another section of the beautiful Qu'Appelle Valley and go for a swim in Crooked Lake.
After a long day of driving to Saskatoon we were in need of a little refreshment before starting our exploration. Our hotel was located right on the South Saskatchewan River and steps away from the Meewasin Valley Trail which was a lovely walkway alongside the river.
The campus of the University of Saskatchewan was a beautiful collection of faculty buildings and, not surprising, it's a world leader in water and food security, vaccine development and infectious diseases, and human, animal and environmental health. Nothing brings humans and animals closer together than farming.
The road continues to Prince Albert and beyond, to Prince Albert National Park, and yet another bison refuge known as the Sturgeon River herd. Started once again from 50 Elk Island bison in 1969, the herd reached 450 animals until they were infected with anthrax and all but 120 died. Today the herd is recovering but, because they are the only free ranging herd in Canada, they frequently roam outside the protected area which allows them to be harvested by hunters, so their recovery is slow. In addition to the bison, the park is home to white-tailed deer, bears, wolves, and moose amongst other creatures. It also contains a number of lakes including Waskesiu Lake, a popular place for campers, swimmers, and hikers.
Saskatoon is also home to the Wanuskewin Heritage Park, an archeological site and cultural and historical centre of Northern Plains First Nations including; Cree, Assiniboine, Saulteaux, Atsina, Dakota, and Blackfoot. Wanuskewin in Cree means "being at peace with oneself" and the award winning Interpretive Centre is a beautifully designed facility with a series of galleries, exhibits, and presentation spaces showcasing Plains culture. In the park itself, on the shore of the South Saskatchewan River, is a 7 km series of trails that invite visitors to enjoy the views and explore, amongst 19 points of interest, the ancient bison jump, a stone medicine wheel, and the bison pound. In partnership with Parks Canada, bison were introduced in 2019 as part of an effort to restore the plains bison and the native grass habitat. The animals came from the Grasslands National Park and Yellowstone National Park.
No road trip worth its salt would be complete without a little drama, and sure enough we had a mechanical breakdown just as we were getting ready to leave Saskatoon. But between the towing company and the car dealers in Saskatoon and Edmonton we got it all sorted out and a crisis was averted. Nothing money and a cold beer couldn't fix.
Now it was off to Edmonton where we were lucky to be staying right downtown just off the North Saskatchewan River which offered a nice walkway to stretch our legs. It was Junie's birthday so we made sure to find a nice restaurant to celebrate, and could also take in a little of the buskers festival.
We also took in the funky area known as Old Strathcona which was filled with shops, pubs, restaurants, theatres, and a tattoo parlour for Junie.
It was time to say goodbye to all the bison, dinosaurs, and canola and start heading home in spite of all the wildfires raging throughout the Province and the smoke ruining the mountain views. Stopped in at Golden to check out the Skybridge facility, Canada's two longest and highest suspension bridges 426 feet above the canyon, plus ziplines, a roller coaster, climbing walls, a treetop village, and a canyon swing. Plenty to make you swoon but a lot of fun for everyone as well.
On our journey through the prairies we saw how a landscape had been completely transformed but, in spite of that, has developed a new kind of beauty particularly with its fields of canola. As a country we have a long way to go in addressing how this change affected the First Nations and Metis who lived here and how their lives were completely changed in the process. We should have been more gracious in how we treated them and shown a little more understanding in what they were experiencing. We certainly didn't have to be so cruel. Slowly, and at considerable expense, efforts are finally being made to rectify some of these wrongs and bring about reconciliation and at the same time the bison are beginning to make a comeback. Perhaps it's a coincidence these two paths are occuring at the same time or perhaps it isn't, but the Indigenous plains culture was always inextricably tied to the bison and it's certainly fitting both are on the rise together.