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Today we had a lazy day catching up on ourselves. We decided not to head for Thunder Bay or to go back into Sault Ste Marie but to just stay on the campsite. We did a big load of laundry, both got our diaries up to date and had another swim, this time with the pool to ourselves.

The campsite now seems to be empty apart from us. During the day they have been moving some of the big trailers around getting them ready to be stored for winter. When I was doing the laundry this morning I got chatting to a retired lady who has one of the seasonal sites here. She and her husband have been coming and spending the summer here for the last five or six years. They only live in The Soo, half an hour away, but prefer it to staying in their mobile home in the town. There are new owners at the campsite and this year this elderly couple have been helping out with running the site, getting their spot free of charge in return.

I have now worked my way through our campsite guide to check to see what our options will be as we move westwards. While many campgrounds are closing in Ontario and Manitoba once we get to Alberta and British Columbia there appear to be a lot that are open all year. We will need to check though to ensure that yesterday’s “open” experience is not repeated.

Logging truck on its way
Further along, a pulp processing plant, at Marathon, on Lake Superior

We woke this morning to cloudy skies and drizzly rain, not great as we have a long drive ahead of us round to Thunder Bay. We were up early planning to leave by 8:00am but got chatting to one of the people from the campsite so were a bit late leaving. The people who currently run the site have only had it for about two years. Originally from New Brunswick they have spent the last twenty years up in Inuvik in the North West Territories bringing electricity to the small, remote populations there.

We headed out along the route 17 around the shore of Lake Superior, a vast expanse of water spanning the border between Canada and the US. Here we started to see another change in landscape coming through. Fully wooded hillsides gave way to a more rocky and open landscape, but then back driving through national parks the trees came back again.

We made a brief detour into Wawa to top up on coffee. Being Halloween loads of houses and businesses have all been decorated for the last few days and the Wawa general store was no exception. The building itself was like something out of an old western movie and inside it was a treasure trove of useful and useless bits and pieces. The people working here were all dressed up as angels for the day, the girls did not seem to mind too much but the guy manning the petrol pump did not seem impressed.

Outside the store they had a huge statue of a Canadian goose. It was first put up when the trans Canada highway made it this far and it was designed to attract people off the road and into the village. The goose has had a bit of a potted history being moved from one location to another, vandalised as part of Halloween celebrations and having to be remade in a durable substance as the original plaster goose crumbled away. In its current location outside of the store it is too far off the road to attract people into Wawa.

At White River we stopped again and had lunch served to us by a witch and a clown, neither of whom seemed impressed they had to be dressed for Halloween. White River's most famous export though is Winnie the Pooh. A man from Winnipeg bought a bear cub here before being sent over to Europe as part of the Canadian Army in World War one. Not the most practical of things to take he donated the bear to London Zoo. As the man was from Winnipeg, the bear was called Winnie. AA Milne came to the zoo and Winnie was his inspiration for Winnie the Pooh.

From White River we continued around the north shore of Superior along flat open plains, a first taster of what is to come in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Around the lake shore we passed beautiful old houses, now long deserted and in a state of ruin, with great views out over the lake. In summer they must have been great places to go out and about enjoying the lake and the great outdoors. We could see waves lapping at the shoreline, a sign that it is not always so beautiful and calm.

On the outskirts of Thunder Bay we stopped at the Terry Fox memorial. This was as far as he made it on his trans Canada run in support of cancer awareness before his own cancer returned and forced him to stop. There is a big statue of him on a small hill overlooking Thunder Bay and with views out to Lake Superior. He really seems to have captured the soul of the Canadian people.

Thunder Bay itself is a small town and we drove around looking at options for places to stay. There are no campgrounds here so it will be a hotel. We stayed at the Prince Arthur with views down across the harbour, very pretty lit up in the dark. It was late and dark by the time we arrived. The fact that the hotel restaurant closed at 9:00pm did not bode well for late night dining. Being Halloween quite a few places had not opened but in the end we found a Chinese that was still open and, being their only customers, tucked in to a tasty meal.

Thunder Bay, sunrise over Lake Superior
Canadian geese
Never-ending wheat trains

We used today as a planning day working out how we would spend our last few weeks in Canada. There is so much to see and do here but with the seasons turning it is now getting cold and a lot of places are closed for the winter. We have toyed with going to see polar bears, the northern lights and the far north of the North West Territories but more research has ruled them out due to cost and/or wrong time of year. They are added to the list of places to come back to for future trips.

In the afternoon we went for a bit of an amble along the lake. The shore in this part of town has been landscaped so there is a small yacht harbour for summer boaters set in a small park. It is quite beautiful but marred by big industrial plants on either side of town that are belching out smoke and steam. Out in the bay there is a large breakwater, protecting Thunder Bay from the waves that blow in across the lake.

Beyond the breakwater is an island which in profile looks like a sleeping Indian. Lonely Planet recounts an Ojibway legend which says that Nana-bijou, the spirit of the Deep Sea Water showed the Ojibway where a silver mine could be found as a reward for their peaceful and spiritual way of life. But, if anyone ever told the white man about the mine they would be turned to stone. The Sioux tried to get the secret from the Ojibway who would not tell, so the Sioux sent a spy to find out. On his way back the spy stopped at a white man’s encampment and seeing the silver they got him drunk and made the Sioux spy take them by canoe to the mine. A storm blew up and all were lost but when the storm cleared the bay had been partly locked by a huge rock and the Ojibway knew that Nana-bijou’s warning had come true.

The main cross country rail line runs along the side of the lake here and as we turned to go back to our hotel the bells started to ring warning of an approaching train. Thunder Bay is one of Canada's largest ports and the most westerly on the Canadian St Lawrence seaway. It is mainly used to transport wheat. The railway connects the port to the farms and grain seems to be pretty much the only thing being transported. AS the train went by I counted the grain containers. It was a relatively short train with two engines only pulling seventy seven grain containers. We worked out that it must have been about two kilometres long.

Back at the hotel we went for a dip in the supposedly heated pool. It had been cleaned out yesterday and the water was still being heated up so it was a bit of a chilly dip. The hot tub was a much better option and we sat for a while in the warmth of its bubbles chatting to a local couple who had Finnish roots. This area had a lot of immigrants from Finland and the Ukraine, apparently the landscape is similar to "back home".

In the evening we went to try our luck at the local casino. This one was smaller than the ones we have been to before but it was still full of elderly people throwing their pension into slot machines. We had a go at roulette and lost. Stef then also lost at poker. We thought a bite to eat in the casino restaurant might restore our fortunes but to no avail. My short winning streak was soon turned over and we left having both lost the amount we were prepared to. For the first time, neither of us made any money. It was still early when we left and although there were noticeably more people in the casino than when we had arrived I sensed that it was due to get much busier before the night was over.

What amazed me here though was the amount of money that people were losing. At the roulette table there was a very tall first nation guy. He would cash in a $100 bill and bet the full amount on one spin. Each time he bet he would walk away from the table only returning when the croupier was raking in his profit. He usually lost and would disappear for a few minutes before returning with yet another $100 bill. He must have lost over $1,000 and he was just one of several people playing like that.

Passing the Arctic watershed
The national passion
A "wow" moment

Today we were up and out early set for another long driving day, this time heading to Winnipeg. We followed the route 17 through land dotted with lakes and trees passing through Dryden and Kenora along the way. There are small towns and villages along the way, some so small that we went through them without really noticing.

The distances are so long that we simply eat the kilometres up as we go. We both found our minds wandering to silly things. We crossed over from the Eastern to the Central time zone and this made me wonder whether the changes in time in the southern hemisphere worked to their advantage too as their seasons are the other way round to ours.

As we got closer to the border with Manitoba the landscape started to change. Gone were the trees and hills that have kept us company for the last few months. Now we are into the open prairies, flat open fields that stretch away as far as the eye can see. The road ahead of us is long and straight, and I mean long and straight. Signs come up for a town six or seven kilometres away but you can already see it up ahead. There is no variation, just long, straight roads.

Closer to Winnipeg we passed a sign declaring that this point was the watershed that changed the direction of water flow. Up to this point, all water flows south into the Atlantic Ocean. From here on and for the rest of Canada it flows north to the Arctic. We also passed the point that geographically says we are half way across Canada. Hard to believe but true.

We arrived in Winnipeg smack in the middle of rush hour. It is quite a big city and with the potential for a campsite we decided to drive through it rather than around the outskirts so we could judge how far away from the city centre it was. We found the trailer park but there was no sign of a campsite or of a camp office. We looked around a bit and then I saw a lady looking out through the blinds of her house. It is mainly a mobile home park but they have space and facilities for RVs round the back.

With no food on board we hopped down to Sobeys and got some stuff in for dinner. It was cooling down outside so we stuck the heating on in the van had dinner and watched a film before getting cosy under our sleeping bags hoping we would not get too cold overnight.

What could the bear be whispering in Ness's ear? ("gissa hug!")
St. Boniface, the French bit of Winnipeg

Yesterday's long drive had taken its toll and despite waking up at six we both fell asleep again and it was about 9 before we really woke up. We were warm inside the van but it looked cold outside so we spent a couple of hours catching up on ourselves and waiting for the day to warm up before heading into downtown Winnipeg.

The city is a sprawling, low level prairie town. Only in the centre are there the usual tower blocks of offices but these are small and muted compared to those in the cities we have seen so far. We parked up in the exchange district, an area of turn of the (last) century commercial buildings still with advertisements painted on their sides. From here we went for a bit of an amble taking in the corner of Portage and Main, allegedly the windiest spot in the Province. Last night driving through I would have believed it as all the flags in the office courtyard here were snapping and twisting in the wind. Today though, it seemed no worse than any other corner.

In Montreal and Toronto the main city buildings are connected by underground passageways so that people can move around freely in the cold winter months. Here they have the Skywalk, the same principle but all the walkways are above ground. There is also a free shuttle bus that you can catch to take you around town which only runs in the cold winter months.

We hooked into the Skywalk network to start to explore. First impressions of Winnipeg were not great. It seemed to have more than an average share of people down on their luck and several corners had shady people hanging around with not much to do. Even the shopping centres were pretty unremarkable with many lots still empty.

In parts of the main downtown there were large old buildings which left me with the impression that Winnipeg’s past prosperity was perhaps better than it is today. Here, like most of the other cities we have passed through, there is evidence of building work which will result in yet more city centre office blocks. Neither of us warmed to the centre so we decided to head across the river to the old French part of town.

This area was designated and set aside for French speaking people. The site of an old convent has now been turned into a museum, which was closed by the time we got there. It is housed in the oldest building in Winnipeg and the largest oak building in the country, all white except the doors and window frames which were green. Just along the river is the basilica. The original burned down in the 1960's and the new has been built within the old basilica ruins. From the river it creates an impressive view and the old basilica must have been quite a sight to see. The St Boniface area of Winnipeg was the birthplace of Louis Riel, who led the Métis (French-Indian half-breeds, but for obvious reasons the moniker "Métis" is preferred) in two revolts during the 19th century, key events in Manitoba becoming a member of the Canadian Confederation. He is buried in the basilica courtyard, along with other great and good people from Winnipeg’s past.

We divided and conquered on chores before we left Winnipeg. I headed for the laundry while Stef "winterised" Morty. Because we will be headed into freezing temperatures, we run the risk of our water tanks freezing up and bursting pipes and the water heater which we want to avoid. All water needs to be emptied out and antifreeze run through the system which means we will no longer have a water supply on board.

In the laundry I got chatting to one of the people who lives here for a few months each year. She was a Dutch farmer who had moved to Canada about twenty years ago with her husband. They have now retired and split their time between here and Mexico. In the space of about ten minutes I got a potted history of her life as well as recommendations of things to go and see in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. She also told me that Winnipeg was the murder capital of the country. Her view was that the First Nations people are the main cause and that the violence is fuelled by drink, drugs and lack of work.

We headed west on the main route 1 highway following the Yellowhead Trail, named after the fur trader who first pushed out along this way, who had blond hair. Just out of town we stopped at an RV centre to buy the antifreeze we needed. Just as well. Although Stef had almost winterised Morty there was another bit we still needed to do - drain the hot water tank - and the screw to do this was hidden away behind a panel we do not look at. A very friendly chap helped us out with the last bits of winterising and sold us the antifreeze we needed.

He also let us have a look inside another motor home. Home and Park, the company that make Morty, have started to use the Dodge Sprinter van as the base of their model. The one we looked at was also a Sprinter van but had been changed by a different company. Longer than Morty it seemed really spacious with a better washroom. The key attraction though was the sofa that stretched across the back of the van. It converts down into a king size bed - luxury!!

Wheat train chugging into the distance on the flat-flat-flat prairies

Our plan for today was to make it to a village called Wasagaming on the edge of the Riding Mountain National Park. The route took us through the prairie with more wide open fields. Our map creates the impression that this area is heavily populated with lots of roads and villages. In practice, the roads are the boundaries to the farms and the villages are often no more than a collection of a few houses. In the summer we would be driving through a sea of wheat but now the fields have been harvested and just a few have bales of hay waiting to be taken into store.

The skies overhead were very grey and dense looking as if they were ready and waiting to release a snow storm but none came. We stopped along the way at a town called Gladstone which reminded me of the Fernheim town we had been to in Northern Paraguay. It had the air of a functional supply centre, where people would come to get their provisions, do their banking, see the doctor before heading off back into the depths of the countryside. The local hotel looked uninviting and down at heel from the outside but it was one of those places that got our curiosity going. If it was later in the day and we were looking for an overnight stop we would have stayed there just to see what it was like.

Following the route 16 we drove through more wide open land with long straight roads stretching ahead of us (the Roman’s would be proud of Canadian road building). With a train coming our way we stopped to have a look. My plans to count the carriages were thwarted firstly by a truck and then by Stef (looking for the perfect photo angle) who both blocked my line of sight. It was a pretty long one and we think it must have been pulling close to two hundred carriages.

We headed up on route 10 towards Wasagaming, a lakeside resort recommended to us by Tourist Information at Winnipeg. The National Park campsite was closed up for the season (as expected) and as we drove through the town itself it looked deserted. It was like one of those old Hollywood films where a fatal bacteria has escaped and towns have that lived in look but no people around to substantiate the view. There were a few trucks around but despite the claims in Lonely Planet that at least one place should be open to stay everything looked shut.

By this time it was starting to get dark and there were the first signs of the snow threatened earlier. We knew we needed to find somewhere to stay pretty quickly and, as the temperature was now below zero we also knew that it would not be a campsite. Back on the main road we passed the Elkhorn Lodge and checked in, conscious that this would be the first of many hotel/motel stays until we are well into British Columbia where the weather will be warmer. It will push our budget but we do not have much option.

It was a night of comfort and luxury. We had a swim in the heated indoor pool (hard life eh!) and then relaxed in the hot tub, first inside and then outside. It is a strange feeling sitting in hot bubbling water looking at the night sky. The only other time I have done this was at the Explorer Lodge in Torres Del Paine in Argentinean Patagonia. It was not long though before I could feel my head getting cold and we retreated back into the warmth.

Can't see the wood for the trees
Everything runs in long straight lines here
"All this used to be fields"

As we expected it had snowed over night but there was really only a light dusting on the ground. It felt cold though and the temperature was just above zero by the time we left. Rather than heading straight for Yorkton we decided to take a detour through the Riding Mountain National Park and up around Duck Mountain Provincial Park so that we could get a taster for the interior of Manitoba. We both want to explore more around here but the weather and time of year are against us so we will just have to come back another time.

The park was covered in a crisp layer of snow and all the trees were white where the snow had frozen onto their branches. It was a beautiful sight and no doubt was the first of many snowy scenes to come. Before long though we were through the park and descending to lower altitudes and warmer temperatures and we soon left the snow behind us.

Just outside the park is the town of Dauphin, home to some of the Ukrainian settlers who moved into a belt of land from here to Edmonton. This is a fairly large town with pretty leafy lanes but again in common with most places we have seen it feels soul-less, lacking the central hub that we are so used to in Europe. The Ukrainian influence is evident in the street names and local architecture (mainly the churches) but we failed to find a little shop selling Ukrainian delicacies, much to Stef’s disappointment.

We followed the route 10 north, driving through more open farming land. This area will be busy in summer with people coming for walking and canoeing and backwater camping but now it is deserted. The volume of traffic dropped off until for the most part we were the only people on the road. While it was great to “have” these vast open expanses to ourselves, the further north we got the colder it became and snow returned and my mind switched to what would happen if we got a puncture or if something went wrong with the van. There was usually someone who came by every ten to fifteen minutes or so but nevertheless….

Along the way we passed old farm buildings that looked deserted. Sometimes there was a new(er) house a little further on but most looked like victims of farm amalgamations in years gone by. One field we passed looked like it was a museum to old, broken farm equipment and cars. It was an unusual mechanical blot on an otherwise neat and tidy landscape. By the time we had reached Cowan the snow had gone again and we stopped here so Stef could grab a coffee. He came back not just with a coffee but some new additional to his CD collection – local Ukrainian fiddle music and what he hoped was music from the First Nations people. The former sounded like Irish and Scottish country music, the latter was too dire to even talk about!

At Swan River we looped back round and headed south along the other side of the Duck Mountain Park, running into snow as soon as the altitude crept up slightly. Crossing over into Saskatchewan we headed to Veregin, a small village where the Doukhobours (according to Lonely Planet “an extraordinary religious sect from Russia”) settled, but moved on as there were no signs that their “model” village was open at this time of year. Instead, we drove on to Yorkton, our chosen stop for the night.

Yorkton was a typical town with a main strip of shops all a glaze in neon lighting. On the edge of town by the highway was a cluster of hotels and we opted for the Comfort Inn. Their pool was shut (shame) but we had a comfortable room with all important very effective heating. It had been close to zero all day and was very cold when we braved the elements to go out for a meal. We avoided the chains and went for a local diner, Tracey James, which was OK and then retreated back to the warmth of our hotel, both feeling that we should be giving it a go in Morty but both knowing it would be too cold to do so.

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

Stunning skies at Manitou Beach
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.

When we woke it was pretty foggy outside and the fog seemed to get denser and lower while we got dressed. We could not see the lake shore outside the hotel let alone the other side of the lake. We went down to breakfast to find no signs of life at all. Having paid last night we decided to just head on a get breakfast on the way.

Outside it was freezing cold and Morty was pretty caked in ice. We turned on the engine to start to get it warm and the thermometer inside told us it was -4C, our coldest morning yet. With foresight Stef had bought and ice scraper and it took us a good fifteen to twenty minutes to scrape the windows clear. By that time there were signs of life inside so we went back for breakfast. There were a couple of tables in the corridor under the stairs and that constituted the breakfast room. How they cope when the motel is full is beyond me. As it was just us we were left to our own devices in the kitchen – a bit bizarre!

We left Manitou Beach following the road through Watrous to join up with the route 16 to Saskatoon. It was foggy for most of the way so we could not really see far around us. When we could see though it was just flat farmland stretching for miles with the odd tree looking crisp and white with frozen snow. It was around noon by the time we got to Saskatoon and we checked into a Comfort Inn. They have a special deal that if you are a member of their reward programme you stay for two nights and get the third one free. It sounds too good to be true so we will wait to see what happens when we try to claim our free night.

Woo-woo-woo-woo-woo, Injuns

In the afternoon we went to Wanuskewin Heritage Park (see Wanuskewin comes from the Cree word for “seeking peace of mind” and the park tells the history of Indian occupation of the Opamihaw Valley. Archaeologists have been at work here for many years and have found evidence of occupation dating back almost six thousand years. At the visitors centre they reinforced the mindset that underpins the Indian’s traditional way of life. They see themselves as guardians of the land and that it is important to live in harmony with nature. They take from the land only what they need to live and no more.

The centre is set in one hundred hectares of land of the Opamihaw valley. Along the valley floor is the Opamihaw Creek which flows into the South Saskatchewan River. There are short walking trails around the valley which explain more about the Indian way of life. In summer they have guides and actors in traditional costume giving information and demonstrations and you can even camp here in a tipi. Today though it was far too cold for any of that but undeterred we went to follow the trails.

As an actively inhabited site they have been able to explain how some of the local land features were used. The southern edge of the valley has a steep edge leading from the plains above. Working as a team, the men of the village would herd buffalo along the plain often for many kilometres towards the valley edge. Buffalo are short sighted and by the time they would see that they were running out of land it was too late to stop, especially with the rest of the herd stampeding behind them. They had no choice but to run over the edge, falling to the valley below.

There the women were waiting to kill any buffalo who did not die in the fall and then to start to process the carcasses. Every part of the animal was used. Their hides were used for clothes and coverings for tipis. The meat was dried and stored to see them through the winter months. The bladder and intestines were used to store fats and liquids. Even the brains and bones were used.

On the valley floor remains have been found of an Indian encampment with evidence that it had been used for many years and by different generations. Different types of spear heads have been found which chart the changes over the years. On the north side of the valley is another flat plain where buffalo and bison would come to graze. From here there are fabulous views up and down the river. There is something quite magical and mystical about the site and I can appreciate why the tribes would come here time after time.

Tribal traditions, legends and values are passed down through the generations through story telling and day to day activities. Even erecting a tipi is used to teach the younger generations about Indian ways of life. Tipi’s evolved from dome shaped dwellings that were made by bending willows into an arch shape. Tipi’s grew in size and became more elaborate as horses became used by the Indians. They were practical homes for the buffalo hunters who had a nomadic lifestyle.

Tipis are made from fifteen wooden poles covered by buffalo hides and sewn together with sinew. The hides are attached to the poles so when erected the pole frame is already covered. Each pole represents a different value in the cycle of life and the tribal elders use the process of erecting the tipi to reinforce these to the younger generation. The cycle of life is important and consists of four key phases. The values are linked to each phase. Childhood values are obedience, respect and humility. In Adolescence the key values are happiness, love and faith. Adults have the values of kinship, cleanliness and thankfulness while the Elders values are sharing, strength and good child rearing. The remaining values of hope, ultimate protection and control flaps apply to all parts of the cycle.

After getting a little cold walking around the park outside we stopped at their café for a quick snack of buffalo soup and bannock. Bannock is a typical bread and to me was a cross between scones and foccacia bread. It was very tasty. We watched a short film about the site before heading back into town.

It was too early to eat and neither of us felt like going back to our anonymous hotel so we went to see what was on at the pictures. The films did not start for an hour or so, so we used the time to write diaries. It was worth the wait though. We saw the new Zorro film and it was really great fun. For us the show was stolen by the little boy who plays Zorro’s son – he was just brilliant.

Before leaving Saskatoon we went into the downtown to the Ukrainian Museum. It is a small museum run by the Ukrainian Women’s organisation. In the first room they had a display of kylymy, rugs and wall hangings, simple patterns but still highly decorative. There was also a collection of paintings commissioned by the Ukrainian women’s association. They made a fabulous tableau showing the hardships that the immigrants faced when they first arrived. While the men were out hunting, the women cleared the land, built the houses, raised children and fed and watered everyone. It was tough. As time progressed and the communities established themselves more they developed the range of activities they supported. They grew more crops, added livestock, started schools and built churches and community centres.

The main gallery tells how Canada attracted the immigrants because they needed to people to populate Saskatchewan and Alberta. For the Ukrainians, most of who came from the Austro/Hungarian Empire, it brought the promise of a new way of life. At home they had no political or religious freedom and with the aristocracy not allowing them to be educated they were destined for a life of poverty as peasants. For $300 dollars, a family of four could emigrate. This sum would cover the cost of a train to Antwerp or Hamburg, the boat across the Atlantic and the costs of travelling across Canada to their destination. The latter part of their journey was made in locked rail cars.

Once in Canada, they bought the right to earn ownership of a plot of land. They were allocated a plot and had to cultivate a certain proportion within a year to qualify for ownership. Often the immigrants knew little about farming and would take the first land offered ending up with poor quality plots. Nationalisation as British citizens of Canada would come a few years late.

They were tough times as these people came into a country with no ability to speak the local language. In the early 1900’s a school was established to train teachers so that they could teach their children in both English and Ukrainian. With wars brewing in Europe though many of the immigrants were deemed to be potentially dangerous and restrictions were placed on them teaching children in Ukrainian in schools.

The museum also had displays of traditional dress, musical instruments and some fantastic wooden boxes. But for me one of the best parts was the pysanka’s, decorated eggs. They came in all colours and patterns and they had one display with a series of eggs showing the process they go through to decorate them. Firstly the egg is marked into sections and then the pattern is drawn on. Next comes a series of waxings and paintings until the final result is obtained. Some were very simply, others complex patterns and mixes of colours, but they were all mini works of art in their own right.

Leaving Saskatoon behind we headed on towards Edmonton through more vast open fields. About an hour down the road we were back into snowy landscapes and white/grey skies that looked heavily laden with snow. Crossing the border into Alberta there was an initial change in landscape with trees along the route. It is almost as if the border, and the one on the other side of Saskatchewan, have been set by changes in landscape.

We reached Edmonton in the early evening. Our first option hotel, the Comfort Inn for our free night, is closed for refurbishment. A few others were also fully booked. Town is busy as the Canadian Finals Rodeo start tomorrow and runs to the end of the weekend. We tried the Inn on 7th and not only did they have a room but Stef worked his magic and we got one for the rate they charge the Government, their lowest rate. It was a large, comfy room with a big, thick duvet on the bed. Rather than going out we opted to eat in the hotel and having booked tickets for the rodeo we went to bed.

Agricultural machinery in Edmonton

We woke to a cold morning but no snow on the ground. The hotel pointed us in the direction of the public transport network and we made our way to Tourist Information. Here we were loaded up with yet another small tree of information, most of which we know we will not have time to read through. With the rodeo in town the whole city has gone country mad and there are bales of straw, cowboy outfits and paintings on windows all around town to celebrate.

From Tourist Info we walked up towards the City Hall passing Sir Winston Churchill Square on the way. Here they had display of farm machinery which captivated both of us in the same way as a display in an art gallery. There were tractors of all sizes, a combine harvester, a bale wrapper and all sorts of other machines. Unfortunately, most had no information to tell you what they were or how they work. I am now fascinated to know how a combine harvester works. Some of them were huge with their own in built set of stairs to access the drivers cab. They are complex too, able to adjust how they work based on the yield and moisture of the crops they are processing.

In City Hall there were the opening ceremonies for the rodeo. The building itself is a big open space with a main hall designed as an auditorium. Here a small stage had been set up for the organisers to do their stuff. They paraded the “Miss Rodeo” of each province, some of whom no doubt won the title due to their horse-based skills rather than for their looks. They also had a competition for young boys to lasso a dummy bull. These kids are really skilled, especially the under fives group, and were pretty competitive with it. I had never realised before that a lasso is made of a really stiff rope – explains why we have never managed to lasso anything when we have tried on one of those silly sunny evenings back home!

One of the leaflets they gave us at Tourist Information was for historical walking tours of the downtown area. Today, the downtown is full of high rise blocks and shopping malls so even though you can spot the old buildings you do not really get a feel for them. The booklet had old black and white photos taken at the time the buildings were finished so you get to see them in their original setting. It was more interesting to take the tour by reading the booklet than actually walking around.

From the main downtown we took the bus towards Old Strathcona, according to Lonely Planet a “charming and vibrant area …… rich in historical buildings”. Rather than waiting for the bus we had been told to get, Stef opted for the first one crossing the river so we ended up having a little bit of a detour and a change of bus to get where we wanted to. Looking down 82 (Whyte) Avenue, the main street of Old Strathcona from the bus we decided not to get off. Neither of us found the place charming or vibrant. In fact it really concreted for us the views we have been building of Canadian cities. Although they have some old buildings they all seem a little soulless and this area was no different.

We decided to head back across the river to visit the Legislature building. Again, public transport let us down. The driver of the first bus we hopped on said he did not go where we wanted to but that he would show us where to change. He kept his word and told us the number of the next bus we needed but, when that bus arrived, they also said they did not go our way! In the end we gave up and walked.

The Legislature Building is set in large landscaped grounds on a hill overlooking the North Saskatchewan River. At the Interpretive Centre they told us how they try to get the local community to use the grounds. There is a green bowling area and in the winter they have a skating rink. In the run up to winter, local choirs sing carols in the main hall of the legislature so people come with their families to skate, listen to the carols and get a warming cup of hot chocolate, all free of charge.

We missed the last tour of the day into the building itself but the Interpretive Centre had a display explaining the founding of the building and its development and use over the years. Although it looks similar to many other beaux-arts buildings, the first architect was booted out because his designs were not different enough. I am not sure how the second one got away with it! It was a massive construction project and the building was finished in 1912. At that time, it was an isolated building with clear expanses of land all around. Now it is the middle of high rise office blocks and hotels.

Underneath the gardens there are walkways and tunnels leading to the Centre and to the transport network. Skylights help to keep some daylight in this underground warren. Some time in the 1990’s they renovated the gardens and added a new sculpture, in the form of a periscope. It is three tall pillars each placed over a skylight and with a mirror at the top. It enables people walking in the underground tunnels to look up and see the gardens outside.

We went back to the hotel to warm up and chill out for an hour or so before heading off to the rodeo. We caught the LRT (Light Rail Transit) from Corona to Coliseum. The LRT is Edmonton’s tube system and it has all of ten stops. For a fair chunk of the week travelling between five of the ten stations is free of charge. I would say that about ninety percent of the people on the LRT were going to the rodeo, the volume of Stetson hats was a dead give away!

The rodeo was a real spectacle. We were sat up in the high stands next to a couple from British Columbia who have come for all five days. Unlike the football match we had seen in Toronto, here the rodeo was the main activity. They had a raffle and a couple of sponsor based freebie give aways but they usually took place as they were changing from one event to another.

We were both amazed at the skills that these people developed and the bravery, or stupidity, that they displayed. Most events could have resulted in pretty nasty injuries and there were a few very close shaves but the cowboy “lifeguards” worked well and kept all of the cowboys safe. The cowboys each seemed to specialise in a different type of event. The first event was bare back riding of bucking horses. Straps are tied tightly around the horse’s nether regions and this, combined with the spurring from the cowboy is what seems to cause them to buck.

The rules are pretty strict and any slight infringement leads to penalty points or disqualification. Extra points are given based on how good the technique is. The challenge is to stay on for eight seconds – sounds easy? These guys only hold on with one hand and seeing it close up it looks pretty difficult. Another event was similar but this time the cowboys sat in saddles rather than bare back.

A couple of events were based on wrestling steers to the ground and getting them tied up and, in effect, disabled. Again strict rules apply and these are technical events. The riders have to get their horses to cover one hundred and fifty feet in about four seconds from standing start. Whilst doing this they have to judge the speed of the steer, accurately lasso them then man handle them to the ground. There is a team event where one cowboy lasso’s the head then the other has to try and get both rear legs – pretty tricky stuff!

A token event is thrown in for the ladies. About speed and accuracy they have to race around a short course in a clover leaf shape trying not to knock over barrels standing at each “point” of the clover. They shoot out of the starting area and whiz around the course almost skidding around the corners. It was incredibly fast and requires a close balance of speed and proximity to the barrels.

The final and most dangerous event is the climax of the rodeo – bull riding. The principles are really the same as the bucking horses but the bulls have the capacity to do a lot more damage and the “lifeguards” are also not on hand. I think only one rider managed to last the full eight seconds. We both really enjoyed the rodeo and I am glad we went. I do not think my interest would last to watching the same people doing the same events another six times though but then I am not a hardened fan!