The Prairies: Big sky-and more

“Fly to Calgary or Edmonton, then take the train to Vancouver.” This is the enduring myth about how to best see the Canadian West. But for anyone with an ounce of imagination, an eye for nature or just a simple sense of history, it’s pretty poor counsel.

No one can deny the grandeur of the Rockies or the splendour of the rough-flowing Thompson River viewed from a train moving along a mountain ledge hundreds of feet above.

But neither can one fail to be moved by the badlands of southern Saskatchewan, the eerie rock formations of Alberta’s dinosaur valleys, the unique Cypress Hills that straddle Alberta and Saskatchewan. There are also memories of Métis and Indian wars, of red-coated North West Mounted Police venturing into an empty land to establish the law for settlers coming to break ground between today’s Winnipeg and Calgary. The most spectacular offering of all is a sky without end.

Great lone land
Captain William F. Butler was a British officer who crossed the Prairies during the 1870 Métis uprising. He put it best in his late-19th-century volume, The Great Lone Land, when he spoke of 16th-century navigators who viewethe interior of North America as one vast sea through which lay the much-coveted passage to the long-sought treasures of the old realms of Cathay.

One can feel the spirit that moved Butler to such prose a mere 30 kilometres west of Winnipeg. But before hitting the open prairie, spend a day or two in the Manitoba capital. Although no longer the Montreal of the West, a role that ended for the city after the First World War, Winnipeg still is home to Canada’s largest mutual fund company, its largest insurance firm, largest print media empire, second-largest television network and, until a few years ago, the country’s largest retailer.

Vestiges of the city’s former power days, however, can still be seen near Portage and Main in a collection of banks which, with their stone architecture, still look like banks, or in the nearby warehouse district which, for decades around the turn of the century, served every western community beyond the limited reach of Vancouver. Now the area is being converted to a downtown college campus.

Famous Canadians
Across the Red River on the grounds of St. Boniface Basilica lie the remains of Louis Riel, who staged two 19th-century Prairie rebellions only to be convicted of treason in 1885 and hanged.

Ironically, in the cemetery of St. John’s Anglican Cathedral in the north end of town are the graves of Sir John A. Macdonald’s only surviving son – Sir Hugh John Macdonald (for a short period, premier of Manitoba) – and Sir John A.’s only two grandsons.

And 32 kilometres north of town is Lower Fort Garry National Park, site of the oldest stone fur-trading centre still intact in North America.

Pumpjacks dot the landscape around Virden to tell you you’re at the centre of Manitoba’s main oilfield. A good time to stretch your legs and seek out the site of the homestead south of town that was the birthplace of Lila (Acheson) Wallace, co-founder of Reader’s Digest magazine during the early 1920s.

Cannington Manor
The first stop in Saskatchewan should be at Cannington Manor. Now part of a provincial park, the site is symbolic of a time in the late 1800s when the neighbouring Moose Mountain countryside swarmed with Englishmen building great stone houses more appropriate, the late author Edward McCourt said, to an English park than to a clump of Canadian bush.

Cannington Manor itself, built after 1880 by Capt. Edward Mitchell Pierce as an agricultural college for the sons of wealthy Englishmen, contained a 26-room structure complete with ballroom, billiard room, servants’ quarters and mahogany-lined stable.

Moving west along Hwy. 18, the farmland begins to peter out and the Prairie drifts into the ragged but awesome loneliness of the Missouri Coteau, or the badlands, where you can visit Grasslands National Park, home to plants and wildlife rarely found elsewhere in Canada.

Wood Mountain
Essentially ranch country, two of the area’s main centres are Wood Mountain and Assiniboia. For such a small place, Wood Mountain is almost overloaded with attractions. Its stampede, held every July since 1890, is the oldest continuous rodeo in Canada.

Wood Mountain Post Provincial Park is a reconstruction of the first Mountie post in southwest Saskatchewan in 1874. The small detachment faced and survived a moment of truth in 1877 when Sitting Bull and 5,000 Sioux warriors arrived in the area after wiping out Colonel George Custer and his Seventh U.S. Cavalry in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Prehistoric country
Another treasure – Petroglyphs Provincial Park – lies within the tiny settlement of St. Victor, just south of Assiniboia, settled by French Canadians in 1908. Wooden steps up the hillside lead to a boardwalk over the rock that allows a clear view of carvings chiselled into the sandstone cliff by prehistoric man.

You may choose to overnight in Assiniboia, a town of about 3,000 at the juncture of Hwy. 2 and Hwy. 13, or in Gravelbourg, 65 kilometres to the west.

From Gravelbourg, you can travel across the top of the Missouri Coteau to Eastend. The actor Frances Hyland comes from Eastend, but the town is best known for its badlands and being a stomping ground for dinosaurs in ages past. Indeed, in 1994 it gave up one of only 12 known T. Rex skeletons.

Cypress Hills 
Nearby Hwy. 21 to the north takes you into one of the most glorious places in this country-Cypress Hills, the highest point of land between the Rockies and Labrador. Because of their height, (they rise to nearly 5,000 feet in places), they formed an island in the last ice age and thus, today, harbour flora and fauna seen nowhere else in Canada.

Plan to spend a night in a provincial cabin in the park (book well in advance.) And in the morning, take a look at old Fort Walsh in the valley of the hills. For a while, this was the main base of the North West Mounted Police.

If you still don’t believe that Canada has a real desert, continue north on Saskatchewan Hwy. 21 for a 106-kilometre round trip to Fox Valley past the Great Sand Hills to the east before returning to the Trans-Canada Highway.

Blackfoot country
If you’re in the mood to visit a true urban centre or attend the Calgary Stampede (which usually runs for 10 days from the first Friday in July – see details on their website), you can stay on the Trans-Canada to Calgary and connect later to No. 2 to visit Edmonton and the West Edmonton Mall. With 800 stores and services, this is the largest shopping complex in the world.

But if the unusual and romantic appeals to you, continue on No. 1 only until you are 85 kilometres west of Medicine Hat. Drive south to the village of Cluny, where you’ll discover two worthwhile reasons to stop.
1. Check out the burial site of the most remarkable Indian leader of them all-the sagacious Crowfoot, chief of the all-powerful Blackfoot Confederacy of southern Alberta.
2. Visit the magnificent Blackfoot Crossing in the Bow River Valley. It’s the site of one of the most spectacular gatherings Canada has ever seen.

On September 22, 1877, 4,000 Blackfoot Indians in full dress, David Laird, lieutenant-governor of the North-West Territories, and 100 North West Mounted Police convened to sign Treaty No. 7.

The Blackfoot handed over the land of their ancestors in return for a minor annual stipend. All this after Crowfoot had rejected Sitting Bull’s invitation to take on the white man in one last desperate battle. (‘No point,’ Crowfoot told his Sioux relative. ‘The battle is lost, the buffalo are gone, my people are starving.’) 

Dinosaur country
From there, it’s just a short hop to Drumheller with its vast and eerie badlands and dinosaur remains. Little is left to be said about this treasure house of the past except to note that the Royal Tyrell Museum, which showcases more than 35 skeletons and life-like models of the dinosaurs that once roamed the area, is the finest of its sort in the world.

If time allows once you reach Edmonton, the return trip to Winnipeg is worth considering. Just east of Edmonton on Hwy. 16 is Elk Island National Park, where the main attraction is its stock of wildlife, including elk, moose and 450 bison that often roam onto the highway-the second largest such herd in Canada-along with 200 species of birds.

French connection
Another 412 kilometres east is Batoche National Historic Park, which commemorates the capture of Louis Riel on May 15, 1885, thus ending the famous two-month Métis-Indian uprising which led to Riel’s hanging.

Saskatoon is Saskatchewan’s largest city and Regina the provincial capital — home of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police museum. From there, it’s a 575-kilometre haul back to Winnipeg, with two stops recommended:
· Whitewood, Saskatchewan, where, in the late 1880s and early 1890s, no fewer than four authentic French counts tried to carve out a new life for themselves, raising chicory and breeding horses for the French cavalry.

They lasted the better part of a decade but market economics, their inexperience and time spent throwing white-gloved band concerts, which they were fond of doing, defeated them. 
· A more successful story developed, however, in Wapella, a short hop to the east. There, Ekiel Bronfman brought his young family from Bessarabia to the new lands of the Canadian Northwest.

The family didn’t stay long, but it wasted no time charting its destiny. And what a destiny the famed Montreal and New York Bronfman family carved for itself out of the marriage of Ontario’s Seagram distillery and its own Quebec-based Distillers Corporation Ltd. in the late 1920s. 

Once back in Winnipeg, you can then take that plane to Edmonton and a train through to Vancouver and be able to say you truly did see all – or most – of Western Canada. And you needn’t have any qualms making the statement.