Although the forest service road was closed beyond kilometer 48 the drive up the Duncan was scenic as we wound our way past tumbling rushing water and dramatic vertical slopes.
On this last day of September we’d relax on the shores of Duncan Lake at Howser Creek Canyon recreation site and soak up the sun.
Laddie thought his lures needed washing. An eerie, haunting call alerted us to a foursome of loons, flapping and splashing as they dived for food.
Our appetizer would be ash-baked tubers. So sooty black on the outside, but the smoky, fluffy flesh seasoned with salt was a throwback to when Laddie roamed the mountains in Czechoslovakia building fires and baking potatoes in the ashes for a hot meal.
Parking lots, campgrounds, gas stations – wherever we stop Tulák draws attention. Laddie has always been most accommodating in answering questions and providing tours. But for some reason this trip his efforts were most highly valued.
The picnic table adjacent to the Premium Sausage store in Seven Persons, Alberta was ideal to set up the camp stove for a coffee break. Suddenly a man emerged from the shop waving a package of bacon at us. Could he take a picture? He even knew what a Unimog was. An hour later we departed with not only the bacon but a free package of ready to eat pork tenderloin.
While refueling in Pincher Creek, Alberta two bottles of Gatorade were thrust upon us by a very excited young man in exchange for a peak at the camper.
It was time for lunch. A parking lot in Fernie, BC would do just fine. Having followed us into town, the FitFix proprietor pulled up alongside to enjoy his sandwich. The questions followed as did his gracious gift of a bottle of wine.
Saskatchewan secondary roads were iffy at the best of times. Sooner or later we knew we’d pay the price. So we stopped at Cranbrook Glass & Windshield to have two rock chips repaired. Not only did ICBC cover the cost we left with a dozen farm fresh eggs.
No matter where, there’s a new road to explore, something to learn, someone to meet. And with Tulák surprises are always in store.
Cooking up a hot meal while underway was Laddie’s idea. The notion to arrive at one’s destination with supper ready to eat was enticing. Our slow ascent up Gray Creek Pass provided the opportunity to give it a try.
Who needs an oven? Ladies, gentlemen, start your engines. Muffler meals are going to be a game-changer.
Besides dust, dung, mud and the risk of rock chips backroads are most often not shortcuts to the hardtop. But backroads are our favored choice.
The Gold Creek Road from Elko to Cranbrook, British Columbia was an opportunity to get from A to B along a new route. The reward of travelling this very dusty industrial forest service road was St. Louis Camp, a historic logging camp location. We had the small open site along Gold Creek to ourselves for the night.
The shortest link between BC’s East and West Kootenays is Gray Creek Pass. From Kimberley/Marysville the road is paved to St. Mary Lake Regional Park but beyond, the east to west traverse to the summit is gravel and rough. Ascent to the summit, elevation: 2072 meters (6800 feet) was slow. Smoke veiled the view but didn’t obscure the shaggy manes alongside the road. Yum – a breakfast of scrambled eggs with mushrooms was tasty.
Just beyond the top Oliver Lake rec site is in a scenic alpine basin. Morning mist shrouded the peaks as we walked the trail around the lake.
Golden yellow was on exhibit courtesy of the larch trees.
Initially we descended into fog but slowly blue patches became visible. Overnight rain had cleared the smoke and we would arrive home under clear skies.
Every prairie town touts a claim to fame. Hodgeville, Saskatchewan brags about two – Coyote Capital of Canada and Home of the Saskatchewan Flag. We cooked al fresco on the museum’s fire pump. Coyotes didn’t bother us.
Officially the green on Saskatchewan’s flag represents the northern forests of the province and the gold symbolizes the southern grain fields. Having travelled through south Saskatchewan in June and September this year, we’ve witnessed its field’s green to gold transformation. Either interpretation, the flag’s color bars are appropriate.
Peculiar place names aroused our curiosity. Old Wives Lake, Saskatchewan and Seven Persons, Alberta both have their origin in Indian legends.
Prairie people are proud of their history. You’ll encounter museums of every genre. Just south of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan the Sukanen Ship Pioneer Village & Museum showcases the ship built in the middle of the prairie by Tom Sukanen who intended to sail it back to Europe.
We traveled the Red Coat Trail, the path taken in 1874 by the North-West Mounted Police to Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills.
Further west along the Red Coat Trail at Etzikom, Alberta antique windmills are displayed with the claim that “it wasn’t the gun that won the West – it was the windmill.” Harnessing the wind to grind grain, saw wood or churn butter had been long established in Europe and the British Isles. But on the North American prairies windmills would provide the means to pump water from underground aquifers. Windmill pumps worked 24-7 and were cheap to both build and operate.
Water and irrigation made prosperity possible in the arid Palliser Triangle thanks to the hard work of Mormon Church members. Without water, early settlers weren’t interested in farming a virtual desert. Irrigation canals would be the solution and no one knew more about irrigation than the Latter-Day Saints who had already transformed the landscape in Utah. Gravity would pull water from the St. Mary’s River to the Mormon settlement at Stirling, Alberta.
Just as settlers needed water, soapweed needs the yucca moth. “Neither species can survive on a long-term basis without the other. Moth larvae feed only on soapweed seeds and soapweed can only produce seeds if pollinated by yucca moths.”
Free-living soapweed is known to occur in only two populations in southeastern Alberta. A horticultural display at the Etzikom Museum brought this Native American medicinal plant to our attention.
“Walk through life as if you have something new to learn and you will.”
Abruptly, grain fields and rangeland yield to forested terra firma. From the surrounding plains the land rises to the highest point in mainland Canada between the Rocky Mountains and Labrador. Cypress Hills is a unique geographical region and an oasis in the midst of the prairie. It’s also an interprovincial park on the Saskatchewan/Alberta border.
Road signs that read “Impassable When Wet” gave us no concern as the land was bone dry with no rain in the forecast. The twists and turns up a steep climb to the rustic campground in the West Block were a surprise. Mid-week late in the season, plenty of grassy sites alongside Battle Creek were available.
After a restful night we continued westward dodging cow dung and the free-roaming cattle around every bend in the road.
On a grassy plateau is “The Survival Tree” a lone lodgepole pine that has been growing for more than 150 years.
The plaque reads: “Living things do their best to stay alive. This lodgepole pine has bent with the wind, been frozen under heavy snows and has been parched in the summer drought. It has also endured mauling by cattle. In 1900, it was even cut down! But today it is still growing, its three branches reaching upward toward light and life.”
It’s a fitting message in this time of pandemic. The sight of Cypress Hills dressed in fall colors soothes the soul.
Once again we find ourselves heading east. Family matters beckon. Harvesting is well underway – a bounty of sugar beets, corn, sunflower seeds and potatoes in southern Alberta. Further east in the grain belt some crops have had their clipper cut. Billowing dust in the distance signal that combines are still busy.
A mellow yellow carpets the land. Bales of every size and shape lay in wait.
Canola and grain crops contrast distinctly as does the sky from day to day when smoke arrives from afar.
Abandoned homesteads and boarded-up shops are common sights.
Much less frequent are wooden grain elevators on the prairie landscape. These landmarks continue to disappear across the horizon. Those still standing pull at our heartstrings.
Within minutes from home, choices for exploration abound. As clear weather was indicated, a trip up Mount Buchanan to view the final full moon of summer was called for. Driving up the 12 kilometer gravel forestry road, it is obvious summer is coming to an end. Fireweed is no longer adorned in fuchsia. Mountain Ash is aflame with colorful berries.
From Buchanan Lookout – Elevation: 1,912 metres (6275 feet) there’s a dream dining room view. As Honey Mustard Chicken simmered we had time to soak up the scenery.
Was cloud moving in or heading east?
As the day progressed, a veil of color masked the peaks.
A dramatic scene appeared in the afterglow of sunset.
Initially obscured by wispy whorls the Corn Moon appeared to join Saturn and Jupiter. Hours later, Kootenay Lake was awash in a silvery glow. Memories have been captured.
No sooner home, friends suggested overnight stealth camping up Rossiter Creek. Christened “The Three Bears” the vehicles made their way 5 kilometers up the forestry road to a somewhat level site with a view and a stream.
Food just tastes better outdoors and storytelling is irresistible around a campfire. Peals of laughter broke the silence under the big starry night sky. Camaraderie was found among this rag-tag troupe.
Venture north of Kaslo and drive Highway 31, one of the few numbered routes in British Columbia that is not fully paved. From Lardeau to Gerrard a former railway grade is followed. The Kootenay & Arrowhead Railway and Sternwheelers on Arrow, Trout and Kootenay Lakes were the lifeline for settlers in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Indeed a motorized vehicle was used on this route until the 1950’s.
Today we have the privilege to simply admire the scenery.
And everywhere, mountains and water.
Rocks and trees and water. At the turn of the century these were all obstacles for those in search of gold. It’s a forgotten gold rush and many communities no longer exist. Where Nature hasn’t laid claim, the deeded land has been purchased for seasonal dwellings.
Today we delight in the lakefront campsites that can be found.
As you poke around this region of ghost towns one is reminded how temporary our presence is.
“What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower”
Simple pleasures are your reward when you get off the beaten path. Huckleberries and wild strawberries, the aroma of fresh cut hay and an Eagle Air Show teased our senses. And, there are always new landscapes to savor.
At a fork in the Deadman Vidette Road, we had to satisfy our curiosity. Some 27 years ago, desperate to get out of Toronto, an ad in Harrowsmith had caught our eye. The Vidette Gold Mine Resort was for sale and advertised to be a great opportunity. What had we missed?
We had no idea that private pasture trails from Vidette and a dusty road would lead us to The Painted Chasm.
Raindrops on the roof were the only disturbance at our night stop on the Big Bar Forest Service Road (FSR). But come morning, the road was muddy.
We pulled over for lunch. Within minutes, the rancher who leased the land and paid for water rights was on the spot. Cattle rustling is alive and well in the Canadian West.
Ranching has been the mainstay for a long time evidenced by old homesteads.
Yes, you’ll see landscapes ravaged by fire but Sagebrush vistas delight the eye as you drive the Jesmond Road.
At Pavilion on Ts’kw’aylaxw First Nation Reserve a historic Church built in 1898 stands.
As we rejoin the highway, the mighty Fraser River appears below.
Although there are no major commercial Jade mines near Lillooet today the color of BC’s official gemstone abounds in this area.
Traffic on the Bridge River Road to Moha was nerve-wracking. Only upon our return home did we learn of the advisory issued by BC Hydro.
We spent a quiet night along the Yalakom River at a posted active placer mine.
At the Terzaghi our route took us across the dam and through the tunnel.
The prize for your traverse up and over Mission Pass is views of jewel-toned Seton Lake below.
At Seton Portage you see industry on a different scale. The generating stations and penstocks, part of the Bridge River electricity system operated by BC Hydro are a massive installation.
Disappointed that the Highland Road was closed it was up and over Mission Pass for the second time in one day. Down the washboard road Tulák shook and rattled. But now what’s amiss? The RPM gauge has died and dashboard warnings have lit up. Confident we still had brakes we carried on to Gold Bridge and Bralorne.
From Bralorne we connected with the East Hurley River FSR. At the junction with the West spur we spent the night.
It was music to our ears when Tulák started in the morning. On the descent from Railroad Pass sometimes referred to as Hurley Pass (Elevation: 1385 m – 4544 feet) the scenery was outstanding.
The expanse of Pemberton Meadows below is welcoming.
After re-stocking and a coffee break in Pemberton we were looking forward to a slow backroad journey eastward. But Tulák wouldn’t start. Equipped with “house” batteries and booster cables we were able to jump-start the mog but knew we would have to make tracks for home.
If you have to rely on jump-starting your vehicle you most likely will be denied ferry boarding. A change in route was necessary.
Glimpses of the tailings pond at the Highland Valley Copper Mine near Logan Lake were jolting.
The Coalmont Road to Tulameen was a welcome respite from primary road traffic.
We were back on a familiar route when we connected with Highway 3 from the Old Hedley Road.
Gnarly roads were the order of the day on this trip of 1,760 kilometers and were encountered both on and off the pavement – hair pin curves, switchbacks, blind corners, a single lane for 2-way traffic. With grades from 6 to 14% we were grateful for a reliable engine exhaust brake.
Now it’s time to sort some gremlins in the electrics.
With open arms, the Prairies soothe the soul. Their vast expanse of horizon and big sky calm the nerves. One tends to slow down. But when you reach the mountains, the urge to know what’s on the other side hastens you to accelerate. Although we were on our way home, a side trip was in order.
Following a quiet night in the Frank Slide Interpretive Center parking lot we made our way to Fernie. After consulting a local and securing a Backroads map book we drove to Morrissey at which point we departed the asphalt and took to Forest Service Roads (FSR).
Without a radio we wouldn’t be able to follow FSR radio protocol. We’d have to confine ourselves to areas without active logging. A small, partially treed site on the Wigwam River was our destination. The route took us through the Elk Valley Conservation Area and provided great views of Mount Broadwood and the Wigwam, a world-class fly-fishing river deep in the backcountry.
The Ram-Wigwam Creek rec site was exclusively ours for the night. The next decision? Do we buy a two-way radio?
Abandoned in Saskatchewan for over a year, it was necessary and time to retrieve Tulák. Departing “The Hazy” we were thankful for family and grateful to be back on the road.
To return home, we would travel just over 1,900 kilometers. Our solitary routewould be off the beaten path but we would not be alone. Each day brought wildlife sightings – pronghorn, deer (both Mule and White-tailed), coyote, fox, badger, hawk, eagle and dare-devil gophers. We would travel through waterfowl habitat where ducks and geese cruise the sloughs while a heron stands sentry. The silence would only be disturbed by crickets and songbirds.
Uniquely odd roadside attractions and curiosities abound in Saskatchewan. We had to stop to see the world’s largest Paper Clip, Eiffel Tower and Mastodon.
Unimpeded we explored thePoplar River Mine just outside of Coronach, Saskatchewan. The dragline is used to remove the overburden and expose the coal seam. This was heavy duty machinery.
Over the crest of a hill just beyond Coronach, for as far as the eye can see, a ribbon of shiny new, black railcars comes into view. The dramatic drop in global oil demand has the industry scrambling to find ways to store product until demand returns. As the western provinces have little in the way of excess storage capacity they’ve resorted to using oil railcars. At a dollar a day per car in storage fees, how can this be economically viable?
As we zigzagged our way across Southern Saskatchewan and Alberta we were to follow routes used by First Nations, the North West Mounted Police (NWMP), outlaws and settlers. These secondary roads that hug the 49th parallel are lined with abandoned rails beds and reclaimed ghost towns the sight of which triggers thoughts on pioneers and dashed dreams.
History lessons are to be experienced. Del Bonita “of the pretty”is situated in an area once claimed as Spanish territory. It was considered a most desirable area for homesteading. Indeed, it was here in 1912 that the last great land rush in Alberta took place.
Thousands of years ago as the glaciers that once covered Canada retreated, a ridge was formed. A gap in the Milk River Ridge was to become a notorious smuggler’s rendezvous point.
Straddling the Milk River, Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park contains the greatest concentration of rock art on the North American Great Plains. Battle Scene , a significant petroglyph site is the gem. The park also showcases a NWMP outpost reconstructed on its original site.
Until you have travelled the Prairies in June, you don’t know the color of life. Fields have a green hue, at times leaning toward blue dependent on their crop – wheat, pulses (lentils, dry peas, beans and chickpeas), barley or oats.
A canola field startles the eye as does a yellow-ringed slough.
Caragana bushes are profuse on the prairie landscape. After the Great Depression, these bushes were introduced to the west to be used as windbreaks. Although new soil management techniques like no-till farming have made shelterbelts seem obsolete there are still many to be seen.
Nature is the artist and her palette runs the gamut. Sage and Prairie Rose set the scene.
Swaths of color bathe the rangeland. Sometimes fragile and diminutive, these blooms often require you to sprawl on the ground.
At times the land is blanketed in color.
But it is Cacti that takes the prize this trip. Both the Plains Prickly Pear and Pincushion were in bloom.
When driving the Trans Canada across the Prairies you could be convinced to join the Flat Earth Society. But traverse the road less travelled and a host of landscapes will dispel the myth that the Prairies are boring. Just past The Dirt Hills and over a rise you enter the Big Muddy Valley.Castle Butte looms ahead.
Haunted by our 2019 memories of the West Block – Grasslands National Park we were lured to visit the East Block, a Badlands landscape.
We were in rattlesnake territory when we spent the night at the 70 Mile and Eagle Butte trailhead in the West Block.
Captivated by the wide-open plain we explored Old Man on His Back . Alone on this vast property the opportunity to commune with Nature was ours. An encounter with Plains Bison was our reward.
From Old Man on His Back in the Milk River Basin we drove west in search of the river. Sweeping views of the Sweet Grass Hills to the south are seen for miles.
At a Milk River canoe access point we made camp.
Further west, abruptly the Great Plains meet the peaks of the Rocky Mountains. Majestic Chief Mountain is most prominent. Although our sojourn on the Prairies was over its images are imprinted forever. The Prairies, where morning and evening sun bathes the horizon in vivid flaming color. The Prairies, where a rippling sea of grasses is mesmerizing. The Prairies, where in its good moments one is tempted to return.
“With open eyes, beauty resides in the scrubbiest of places, in the thickest of overgrown weeds, in the way the warm embrace of glowing sunlight softens long-gone blooms and coddles the ones arising new.” Miriam Halliday
First it was an electrical issue. Following the heart attack Laddie needed a pacemaker. Then a leaky valve cancelled our trip to retrieve Tulák in Saskatchewan. Further tests revealed a triple bypass was in order. Needless to say Laddie’s open-heart surgery has stalled our travels.
Laddie is on the mend. Tulák is in storage. And we’re hoping to be back on the road in 2020.
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes,
Our journey through the Badlands, Sandhills and Grasslands to Esterhazy, Saskatchewan had been relaxing and gratifying. Settled in to care for his mom Laddie passed the time with Tulák. The small water leak below the sink was easily repaired. Quick connect fittings for the air lines were installed. He was making progress until he came down with what he thought was a stomach flu.
Three days later Laddie had his brother-in-law take him to the hospital. What Laddie assumed to be stomach flu had been a heart attack. Laddie is in good hands at the Regina General Hospital. Tulák has been moved to our niece’s farm for safe-keeping.
A redirection, but …………….…
“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.”
Although there’s no traffic on these back roads you’re not alone. And you’re being watched.
It is the red-winged blackbird that guards the Red Coat Trail these days.
Eastend, Saskatchewan began as the most eastern North West Mounted Police (NWMP) detachment from Fort Walsh and was the east end of their patrol. Today it is home to the fossil remains of the Tyrannosaurus Rex nicknamed “Scotty” which was found nearby.
As we approach the West Block of Grasslands National Park 70 Mile Butte looms in the distance. A four kilometre hike takes you to a 100-metre-tall hilltop and a lookout over the French River Valley.
The views at the summit are not the only reward along this front-country hike.
Prairie dogs would be visible until you motioned to take a photo of their colony. Gophers weren’t as shy.
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To view bison graze at dusk was a spiritual experience but was captured only in our memory.
East of Dinosaur Provincial Park, the land transitions. Dressed for the occasion, coyote are well camouflaged.
Tumbleweed congregates in the ditch along the fence line. Rolling prairie leads us to a peaceful campsite alongside the Red Deer River.
A bump in the road signals you’ve crossed the border from Alberta into Saskatchewan. Gravel replaces pavement. Now, there’s one more river to cross.
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The seasonal Estuary ferry transports us across the South Saskatchewan River.
Pronghorn, known informally in North America as antelope and mule deer roam the fields.
Signage to the Great Sandhills was lacking so we turned into a farm yard. The owner is accustomed to providing directions and sent us on our way after showing us his wolves. He has a breeding pair with ten pups in a licensed, inspected pen littered with cattle carcasses in various states of decomposition.
Active sand dunes cover a relatively small portion of the Sandhills which have a long history in ranching. Cattle continue to graze on the stabilized sand. The vastness of this landscape astonishes and its fragile beauty delights.
Travelling east, dandelions carpeted the slopes along the all too familiar Crowsnest Highway #3. Anxious to leave the familiar, just past Fort MacLeod, Alberta we headed north. The smell of cow manure permeated the air. We had entered feedlot country.
In Brooks, Alberta we were in for a surprise. Today, it is jobs at one of Canada’s largest meatpacking plants that bring migrants from all corners of the globe. One hundred years ago it was the promise of water that lured immigrants to the land.
The Brooks Aqueduct was built between 1912 and 1914 as part of an irrigation system to provide water to the arid farmlands of southeastern Alberta. It is an enormous engineered concrete structure, 20 meters high.
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What did the pioneers think when they arrived given the spareness of this land?
To the northeast Dinosaur Provincial Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site protects the largest section of badlands in Canada.
It was here we came to understand the word ‘coulee’ – a derivative from the French verb ‘couler’ which means ‘to flow.’ Often dry, coulees are the products of intense erosion by water. These Badlands continue to be sculpted by wind and water revealing color, texture, form and fossils.
We had crossed the Oldman and Bow rivers over the course of this day. It would be to the banks of the Red Deer River that we would now travel.
There’s more than one good reason to stop at a scenic pull-out along the Oregon Coast. During a walk-around to visually check the truck, Laddie noticed some oil. He kept the news from Anne until the next morning when he announced “Anne, we have a problem.”
A leak from the front differential is suspected. Not knowing neither the severity of the problem nor the availability of parts and service during the holiday season, the decision was made to return home. Disappointed? You bet. Lessons learned? Yes sir.
The trip did give us the opportunity to observe what works and what needs tweaking. Over the 6 days travelling 2,675 kilometers we saw some incredibly diverse landscapes.
Desolate volcanic rock & dry sagebrush country
Yakima Canyon where eagles soar
White Pass snow and ski belt
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Oregon Coast sand dunes
A dark forest where lichen-laden tree limbs look like reindeer antlers
Hawks stand watch in a broad and green “Valley of grasses”
Hillside orchards and vineyards for as far as the eye can see
Columbia River gorge where nature has chiseled and sculpted the route
We also learned a new word – “dalles” – the rapids of a river running between the walls of a canyon or gorge. This land that Lewis & Clarke and David Thompson travelled 200 years ago is awe inspiring country.
“It is good to have an end to journey towards, but it is the journey that matters in the end.”