Southwest Saskatchewan Not What You Think

This summer, I went cycle touring for three weeks in southwest Saskatchewan. I was lured by “Saskatchewan is flat.” Sure, it would be easy riding. It was also part of the plan to travel somewhere at the opposite end of the landscape spectrum I was used to in the Yukon. In the deserted southwest, cactuses and Pronghorn antelope are not mirages but are very much alive. Boundless prairies and wheat fields are kings and queens. And it is flat, right?

After many months of careful planning, I hit the road on August 27 at the border of Alberta and Saskatchewan on the Trans-Canada Highway. The first major stop was Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park on Highway 21. I didn’t pay too much attention to the word hills, but I should have. Reaching 1,468 metres, at its highest elevation, the Cypress Hills plateau is the highest point above sea level between the Rockies and Labrador. It does rise gradually above the prairie, so as not to look out of place. Still, the climb makes you notice and work harder than you wished. You curse whoever told you the prairies are flat. The Frenchman River Valley was another feature along Highway 21. At the valley bottom, a tiny stream of water flows eastward and is flanked by rock cliffs ranging from 30 to 100 metres high. Dinosaur bones are often found in the eroding cliffs.

Next was a long and bumpy stretch of road moving south of the Frenchman River Valley. Robsart, once a thriving little town (now a ghost town), provided an overnight stop for what would have been an extra-long day into the next campground. Perfect! I thought. I will camp at the ghost town and maybe see a ghost or two. Once in Robsart, I learnt quickly, by the sound of roaring trucks, that flesh-and-bones humans are still calling this place home. Nonetheless, I picked an abandoned house at the outskirts of town and called the front deck my home for the night. Getting a mattress and sleeping bag on the wooden structure, a strong feeling of excitement filled my heart. What a joy it was to sleep in the open air, falling asleep as shooting stars and satellites criss-crossed the night sky.

Under a punishing sun and a grasshopper invasion, I reached the town of Eastend the following day. The mighty insects were in the hundreds, hitchhiking on the bike panniers or getting cozy in my sandals. They proved to be constant companions for the whole trip. I was back in the Frenchman River Valley, the river itself flowing through town. I felt too incapacitated by the heat to make a trip to the T.rex Discovery Centre, built to house bone remains of one of the most complete T.rex skeleton ever discovered. In 1991, Scotty the T.rex was found in a nearby hill, by a local high-school teacher who had joined paleontologists on a field trip.

For the next two weeks, the gruelling heat didn’t leave. Low to mid 30s was the new normal. A change of plan was needed to bike, every day, without suffering from heatstroke. The new strategy: morning riding, when the heat was not strong enough yet to melt all of your chocolate bars. From now on I carefully watched the weather forecast, and each morning I planned departure time accordingly. Quite a feat for a morning slacker like me. And it worked. Until a high of 37℃ appeared on the forecast in Val Marie. I could not believe it; we were in September, after all. By now we could get snow back home in the Yukon. No strategy could work under these conditions, so I proclaimed a non-biking day and indulged in ice cream.

The landscape between Val Marie and Rockglen, along Highway 18, was particularly scenic and ecologically unique. You had to watch your step for cactuses. Antelope and badgers could be seen anytime. No wonder the Canadian government established Grasslands National Park to preserve this one-of-a-kind habitat. The park is home to many rare and endangered prairie species, both flora and fauna, that can only be seen in this part of the country.

Sunday, September 4, 2022

After an especially long and hilly day on the road, and only after reaching the campground in the Village of Mankota, did I open my smartphone to check the weather forecast. Little did I know, messages after messages were waiting for me. Two men were actively wanted after committing strings of awful stabbings in northern Saskatchewan. They were believed to be in or around Regina, but nothing could be confirmed. Sheltering in place was advised. Fuck! I was by myself, sleeping in a deserted campground and on a schedule to reach Regina. Cycling on remote and seldom-travelled roads didn’t help. What to do … Given the campground location, kitty-corner with the RCMP detachment, it was a safe place to stay put, for now. I left two days later, nervous to hit the road again, my head full of bleak scenarios. Relief came after learning the whole chase was over a few days later.

Reaching Rockglen was a happier time. In addition to celebrating my birthday, I was pleasantly surprised to find the local campground on the site of an old train station. The building was eclectic, plus there was a free shower and laundry facility. Great! Now was the time to wash my dirty shorts and socks, after days of relentless sweating. Still short of seeing flat prairie land, I took a day off in Rockglen to hike around the surrounding hills.

Now, cycling northward, en route to Regina, the roads were becoming flatter, sort of. One notable exception was the infamous Big Muddy Badlands, between Big Beaver and Bengough, on Highway 34. There, the road took a deep, deep dive at the bottom of the Big Muddy plains, to emerge on the other side, but not before offering an expanded view of the surrounding badlands. Every single kick of the pedal was worth it.

I made it into Regina, via Highway 6, on Saturday morning, September 17. This was not random timing. While studying the road map, I came to the brutal realization that in order to reach the big city, I needed to cross two highways: the Trans-Canada Highway and the Regina Bypass. These are no small roads for cycle tourers to cross. Saturday morning would surely be quieter, making riding on the overpasses safer, I thought. Terrified but determined, I made it over the overpasses, waiting for a break in the traffic so I could cross exits and entries. With great relief and a modicum of pride, I finished my Saskatchewan bike tour in Regina—a grasshopper or two by my side.

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