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Geese take off en masse, great sight
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Saskatchewan's "wheat castles"
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Making hay

It was cold when we left Yorkton but it was a crisp and bright morning with clear blue skies. We made a quick stop to get maps for Saskatchewan and Alberta and then set off. On the outskirts of town was a large pond, partly frozen over, with a large flock of geese on the shore. Stef, becoming again a budding naturalist, decided he needed more bird photos to add to his collection so we spent about twenty minutes waiting for them to do something interesting (i.e. fly away en masse).

The roads were again long and straight stretching for miles ahead of us. In the sunshine we had a different perspective of the landscape as everything always looks different in the sun. We stopped at Foam Lake for lunch. It is a tiny place but there is a diner on the main road which seems to be the hub of activity. There was a steady flow of people coming in and out, including the local priest.

Back on the road we stopped to take photos of the grain silos we passed along the way. The farmers seem to work on a collective co-operative basis and all bring their crop to a central store. Here big silos are set up alongside the train tracks. They tower above the flat, empty landscape and, if you were able to climb to the top of them would give fantastic views of the area.

Ukrainian influences were still visible along the way with very small local churches. They looked as if they would probably only hold twenty or so people at a time but all seem very well maintained. Further on we passed Big Quill Lake, the largest lake we have passed since leaving Lake Superior. You could just make out the other side in the distance. A slight breeze was blowing giving the impression that the lake was really a sea.

We turned off the main road down onto the 365, a smaller road heading down to Manitou Beach. A popular tourist resort in the 1930’s, its popularity seems to be building again. It is famous for the waters in the local lake which have a mineral content higher than that of the Dead Sea. Not only is it good for floating but it also has healing properties. These were first discovered by the local Indian tribe when they were hit with a smallpox epidemic.

Moving west to try and avoid further illness they had to leave three of their party at Manitou because they were too ill to continue. One of the Indians, with a burning fever and raging thirst, managed to make it down to the lake and drank the waters there. Next morning he woke, cured of the smallpox and took his two companions down to the lake to drink. Their tribe were surprised to see them alive and well. Since then, the lake has been a site where both Indians and settlers have come to bathe and drink the waters, and this is why the area became a popular tourist resort.

We booked into a small motel just opposite the local spa. The guy at reception seemed not really with it. He made little eye contact and seemed to have trouble actually opening his mouth and speaking. They have been fully booked over the weekend but tonight I think we are the only guests. With the sun still shining on the lake we went for a short walk along the shore. It is busy here in the summer and at weekends throughout the year when bands come to play at the local dancehall. Dating back to the 1920’s it still has its original horse hair floor.

Today though, the only other people we saw were a father and son, playing on the swings. With the light fading and sunset coming, the hills on the other side of the lake took on an almost pre-historic feel. I was waiting for a dinosaur to appear on the barren slopes looking for the last signs of grass to eat. We stopped at the café, the Village Perk, opposite the spa for a coffee and a very tasty piece of chocolate carrot cake. It opened in the summer this year and then only at weekends when trade is high. They had a gift shop at the front and a small café at the back overlooking the lake. Here we got chatting to a couple of local girls. They told us that they have had strange weather this year which resulted in a late harvest, hence the hay bales still in the fields. Normally it is all well and truly over by now.

As we left the café the owners parting words, knowing we were going to the spa were “don’t be put off by the colour of the water, it is meant to be that colour”. Lonely Planet also says that it is a brown colour but I do not think that either of us expected it to be the shade it was. It was a very sludgy sort of brown but any reservations we had soon disappeared as we floated away. A sign on the wall lists all the minerals in the water and there are lots from magnesium to different types of salts. We both have picked up a couple of grazes and we could feel them stinging in the water for a while.

The lake was formed by unusual glacial activity in the river valley. An underground stream resulted in silt deposits building up at the end of the valley creating a natural dam. When the glacial waters started to melt there was no way for them to leave the valley so all the mineral rich water stayed within the lake. The water in the lake was icy cool but here at the spa they heat it.

There is one big pool which is split into three separate areas. You first get into a part that is nicely warm, from here you can work round to the hot pool and then cool off in a third area. It was a strange sensation floating in the water. It is incredibly buoyant and whilst I could swim on my back I could not swim on my front. In the cool pool there is a part that is nine feet deep. You can hang vertically in the water but you do not sink, your shoulders always stay above the water.

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Stunning skies at Manitou Beach
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Bobbing in the water (so dense you can freely “walk” in it!)

The local population all seem to have season tickets for the spa and pretty much everyone there seemed to know each other. One man got chatting to us, well to Stef really as he ignored me. He lives twenty five miles away but still comes here regularly. He told us that the water now is not as buoyant as it used to be. A while back a dam was built at the end of the lake and fresh water was added to it, diluting the mineral effects.

We had gone to the spa planning to soak for half an hour or so but the waters were so warm and relaxing we just stayed and stayed and stayed. Unlike most pools where your fingers go all crinkly after a while ours had not and we were in there for just under two hours in the end. It was only when we were out and dressed again that I realised how much I had warmed up during the soak.

For dinner we went to the local diner, recommended by the man at the motel, rather than driving to Watrous, the nearest town. Its sign outside promised home cooked food and Mennonite and Ukrainian meals. Rather than going for something we knew we would like we tried the Mennonite and Ukrainian. I had a smoked sausage which was good but it came with perokies. They were like ravioli stuffed with mashed potato and would have been totally bland if they had not come with a good dose of fried onions. Stef had a different sausage, also good, but then a plate of pasta with a creamy sauce. We were both glad we had tried this food but would probably not repeat the experience.

The diner was pretty quiet but we somehow managed to end up talking to the other two customers who turned out to be the mayor and his wife. Originally from Regina, the provincial capital, they have now retired to Manitou. Ear-wigging their conversation they were talking about a big competition coming up which seems to be a local curling competition. They said there was always something going on here and that it helps to attract people at the weekends. The owner and his wife (who is the Mennonite connection) also came to chat. He was pretty chatty but his wife was hard work. Stef has come to describe some of the more rural people we have met as having “slack-jawed bovine expressions” on their face and she fell into that category. She was very friendly but it was hard striking up conversation. The waitress eclipsed them all though, she was so shy we could hardly hear her talk.