I used to think the Prairie Provinces were the armpit of Canada.
I’m not quite sure where this bias came from. Perhaps it was one bred subconsciously into more self-proclaimed civilized, worldly Canadians. Maybe the idea bled over from my years spent south of our border. Or perhaps it developed from the images of farmers tending to endlessly flat corn fields and ghost town-like villages that I recall from childhood road trips our family would take when we lived out in Calgary for a few years.
Whatever the reason for the bias, I’m now ashamed of it. I’ve now been to the Prairies, and I’ve been proven wrong.
Things started out much as I expected in Saskatchewan’s Grasslands National Park. Bruno and I had driven past those endless fields of farmland to get to the park, and once we were inside, there didn’t appear to be a lot to see. In the campground, we were surrounded by gently rolling green grassy hills without a single tree – or geographical landmark – in sight.
I dove into the literature provided by the park to try to gleam any insight that would illuminate its value for me. I learned that the entirety of Grasslands National Park has been purchased over time from retiring farmers (I’m assuming that farming in Saskatchewan is a dying trade, as it is in much the rest of North America) and slowly rehabilitated to its native grassland ecosystem. Because of its historical desirability as farmland, there exists almost no native grassland in North America – all but a fraction of 1% of tall grass prairies remain, for example. Yet it’s an important ecosystem because they are natural carbon sinks, an integral part of the Carbon Cycle.
As I read and reflected on the rarity of this ecosystem, I began to notice that I wasn’t alone. The ground around me appeared to be moving. Little heads popped up out of holes in the earth. Our campsite was in the middle of a giant prairie dog colony! In twos and three, the prairie dogs emerged, as curious about us as we were of them. We were surrounded!
It didn’t take long for the prairie dogs to become our form of entertainment at Grasslands National Park. We heard them chirp – they sound more like birds than dogs to me – as they argued with family members or called attention to one another from a distance. We saw them chase one another, and fight, and alert one another to dangers in the sky – and of course, we watched them stretch their bodies upright on their two hind legs. These creatures of the prairies are addictively adorable.
I think the prairie dogs helped me get into the rhythm of the grasslands. Over the next few days, I slowed down and took in the quiet, subtle beauty of my environment. I listened to the birds and stared at the clear night sky. I basked in the already-hot late-spring sun and soaked in the sheer peace of the place. Bruno and I went for a hike and ended up, for a good while, on parallel paths with two coyotes. We visited the small group of resident bison that had once been so plentiful on these plains. It may have taken longer than in other places, but we definitely left appreciating the value and beauty of Grasslands National Park.
We traveled toward Regina, Saskatchewan’s capital and one of the few of my country I had not yet visited. Again, I wasn’t expecting much from our transit – more flat, monotonous agricultural land dotted with more dull agricultural towns.
Indeed, the one town we did make a point of visiting on the way to Regina – Gravelbourg – was underwhelming. We stopped here because Gravelbourg is a small francophone town in an otherwise heavily Anglophone province. We wandered up the single main street, past a very Canadian-looking Le Café Paris and a pleasant old post office. Bookending the street were the cathedral on one end and a grain elevator on the other. Yet, we didn’t hear a single word of French, even though we popped into almost every open business – which amounted to the bank, the grocery store, and the hardware store. There was a francophone school on the outskirts of town, but there are plenty of those in even the most Anglophone cities. It appeared the Frenchness of Gravelbourg has been swallowed up by the dominant English.
Regina, too, was rather uninspiring. It had a nice enough park along a man-made lake and a significant aboriginal population which made for a diverse cultural melange, but it was mostly difficult to believe this was a provincial capital. Its downtown was insignificant, its supposedly-hip warehouse district a single string of country-music bars.
Rather, it was in unexpected places in Saskatchewan that I found the pleasant surprises. It was in the friendly lady working at the post office who chatted with me for twenty minutes when I asked where I could drop off my recycling. Something about being able to have a lovely conversation with a stranger who should have been busy working gave me an appreciation for the slower, people-oriented rhythm of the Prairies.
It was the farm fresh produce for sale on the side of the road. We pulled into a farm where a Dutch couple and their elderly mother were enjoying a late-morning tea with bread and cheese on the veranda in the sun. They sold me the eggs from the hens that were plucking away at the open grass not ten feet away, surrounded by a handful of happy-looking goats and sheep. Undoubtedly the cheese they were munching on came from those animals, too.
And it was the wildlife we sighted while driving along the bumpy country roads – and I’m not talking about cows, though we saw those, too. We saw a fox with a cute bushy tail, and as many pronghorn sheep as we’d seen in Yellowstone National Park! I didn’t know that pronghorns lived this far north, or that these plains could make for such wildlife-watching!
I was beginning to understand that, even though the images I may have had in my head about the Prairies were accurate, there was something about this place that offered more than may meet the eye.
Then we entered Manitoba, and even my mental images of the Prairies no longer corresponded with the reality before me. The landscape became hillier. There were lakes and marshlands, and trees – forests, even. When we camped by two tree-covered lakes in Riding Mountain National Park, I was forced to concede that the landscape of the Prairies was far more diverse than I’d believed. The beauty here was more obvious, but just as quick to miss if you didn’t look carefully.
It was perhaps Winnipeg, Manitoba’s provincial capital, which was the most surprising of all. It had everything one could ever need in a city – history, natural beauty, interesting architecture, and diverse culture. In the middle of scattered towns and farms lies a truly cosmopolitan place.
Manitoba is Canada’s “gateway to the west”. Its heart lies at the fork of two major rivers, the Assiniboine and the Red River. These waterways were the highways of old – it is where the First Nations people traveled, hunted and traded, and where early Europeans set up forts and trading posts (including the infamous Hudson’s Bay Company) after canoeing all the way from Montreal.
Nowadays, The Forks is a mostly-pedestrian green space showcasing markets, festival grounds, and the imposing new Canadian Museum for Human Rights. The morning we visited there was a very cute kids’ highland dance competition in the courtyard outside the Forks Market.
Bruno and I spend a solid day wandering around Winnipeg. We took the pedestrian bridge over the river to St. Boniface, Winnipeg’s French quarter. Here, we actually heard French spoken everywhere, and we saw the tombstone of Louis Riel, the Métis resistance leader who eventually founded the province of Manitoba while advocating for the rights of the Métis.
We wandered around the Exchange District, an area of old brick warehouses with old painted façade signs built prior to WWI, during Winnipeg’s boom, which now house trendy art galleries and restaurants. We sat in the sun on the grounds of the impressive Legislative Building before passing through the hip, young, student-oriented Osbourne Village for a bite to eat.
A day in Winnipeg gave me an overview of the history of the entire region – the aboriginal origins, the arrival of the Europeans, the westward settlement, the effects of the war, and the incorporation of the province into the new country of Canada. I wasn’t expecting any of that from a humble Prairie city.
There was much that was surprising and unexpected during our time in the Prairies. It may not be the most obvious destination for a traveler, and admittedly, you do have to dig a bit harder here to find the beauty. But patience and hard work are rewarded with its endless blue sunny skies, its refreshing gusts of wind, its barely-rolling plains, its peaceful, wide-open spaces. Here, in the Canadian Prairies, there may be no flash or pomp, but the slow, simply, friendly rhythm of the region unfolds itself to the willing observer.
If I’ve only recently learned that the Prairie Provinces aren’t the armpit of anything, I can’t wait to see what else I learn as I continue traveling through my own country.