A Dose of Riel-ity

Sunday, August 16, 2015 Road Junkies 0 Comments


CANADA OR BUST, CHAPTER 8:  IN WHICH WE LEARN ABOUT PEOPLE OF THE PRAIRIE

Day 9:  Regina, SK, to Saskatoon, SK.  Hoping the heat spell has been broken for the remainder of this trip, we woke to a brisk 48° morning in Regina.  By the time we packed up and enjoyed a long and interesting conversation with Swapra, a restaurant server with a master's degree in social work from her native India, it was 9:00 before we departed Saskatchewan's capital city.  When we mentioned to Swapra that we were headed to Saskatoon, she marveled that we would choose to do so.  We didn't tell her we planned a stop in Moose Jaw on the way.

There goes Rover again.  He was just here yesterday.
Driving across the prairie's vast unbroken spans of level ground on roads with no hills and precious few curves, anything taller than a stalk of wheat is visible for many miles.  It is said that on the Saskatchewan prairie, you can watch your dog run away from home for three days.  Only farm buildings, an occasional planted tree or two, and the odd potash or fertilizer plant stood in the way of our seeing Moose Jaw (pop. 33,274) from Regina.

Moose Jaw's unusual name stems from a big bend in a nearby creek said to resemble a moose's jaw.  During the years when Prohibition ruled in the U.S., Moose Jaw made a name as a haven for American gangsters and their bootlegging allies, earning the town the nickname of "Little Chicago of the Prairies."  Today, Moose Jaw is better known as a tourist and retirement center with an industrial base.  It is the proud home of an acrobatic flying team called the Snowbirds.  Both the flyers and the town's inevitable mascot, Mac the (32-ft) Moose, are honored at the town visitor center.

Mac the Moose Jaw moose
When we stopped at the visitor center to search for a letterbox, the mosquitoes were as pernicious and as populous as they had been in Regina yesterday.  Vicious and blood-thirsty, the devilish whiners dart into your car through the slightest opening.  Departing Moose Jaw, with a dozen of their most persistent skeeters on board, we left TransCanada-1 for a more northerly course on Highway 2.  Twenty miles north, we transferred to Highway 11, the Louis Riel Trail.

Louis Riel
Often called the Father of Manitoba, Louis Riel (Lou-ee Ree-al) is considered the driving force behind the founding of Canada's fifth province in 1870.  Born in 1844 in the Red River Settlement (near present-day Winnipeg), Riel was the son of a Métis (may-tee) leader and a French-Canadian mother.

The Métis people and culture developed out of the North American fur trade.  When Europeans traveled into the Canadian interior to trade for furs, they were forced to rely on indigenous people to help them find food, navigate the area, make clothing, and survive in the unfamiliar environment.  They found assistance from native women, whose lives were made easier by goods, such as metal pots, brought by the traders.  Inevitably, as dependencies grew, couples became closer and married.

Neither European nor Native, their children formed distinct communities with a merging of cultural traits learned from each parent. Their name derived from the Latin word for 'mixed', the Métis people developed their own language, unique culture and traditions.  Their home was the western prairies of Canada, including what is today Manitoba and Saskatchewan.  Louis Riel, who became a leader of the Métis people, fought to preserve their rights and culture after Canada began nationalizing under its dominion status.

Don Wilkins
As we were driving on Louis Riel Trail, we began seeing the work of a Saskatchewan farmer/sculptor/history buff named Don Wilkins.  Hailing from the miniscule village of Girvin (pop. 20), Wilkins actively lobbied the Canadian government to label Highway 11 from Regina to Prince Albert the Louis Riel Trail.  That goal accomplished, Wilkins set out to commemorate the history of the Métis people with folk art sculpture installments, complete with interpretive signage, along the highway.

The first one that caught our attention was in Craik (pop. 453), a former railroad center now completely dependent on agriculture.  Billing itself as the "friendliest town by a dam site," Craik has been trying to reinvent itself with a sustainable living project.  We drove into what passes for town to learn more about the project but found no signs.  Back at Highway 11, the prominently signed Craik Flax House caught our attention.  Upon closer examination, this experiment in creative building materials—flax bales—appeared to be abandoned.  Grass was waist high around it, and the adjacent visitor center showed no signs of recent use.

Red River cart and Métis buffalo hunter by Don Wilkins in Craik
While eating our picnic lunch in the little park with the Wilkins sculpture, we learned about the Red River cart, a Métis innovation pulled by horses or oxen.  Constructed entirely of wood lashed together with leather, Red River carts were initially used to transport meat and other products from buffalo hunts.  Later they proved useful in freighting various types of cargo because they were very stable, could be pulled through mud and marsh, and even floated on the river, all while carrying loads up to 1,000 pounds.  The construction of rail lines in the Red River area marked the end of a century of domination by these carts.  Because they played such a central role in the Métis way of life, sculptor Don Wilkins incorporated a Red River cart in each of his installations.

Don Wilkins' buffalo and Red River cart near Davidson
As we continued north on Highway 11, we stopped faithfully at each of the postage stamp size parks hosting Wilkins' sculptures and at a few other roadside "treasures."  But Mother Nature was putting on the best show.  Small wonder Saskatchewan's license plates brand the province "Land of Living Skies."  Massive puffy cumulus and stratocumulus clouds had hovered overhead most of the day.  The flat land and open, treeless horizon seemed to magnify the sky, and these huge marshmallows filled the expanse, drifting lazily across the azure backdrop.

Late in the afternoon, we arrived in Saskatoon (pop. 260,600), the province's most populous city.  Straddling the South Saskatchewan River, Saskatoon was founded in the 1880s as a temperance colony.  Tomorrow we'll explore the 2015 version.




SUNDAY, 16 AUGUST 2015

Daily Stats

Miles driven:  221
Miles walked:  2.5
Weather:  48° to 64°, cloudy
Gas:  $3.729/gallon
Letterboxes found:  1
Swainson's hawks on utility poles:  47
Red River cart sculptures:  9

More Photos from Today

Craik Flax House (on the right)
Roadside Attraction Alert!  Davidson's 24-ft coffee pot
Wilkins sculpture near McCraney features Louis Riel himself.
Roadside Attraction Alert!  Kenaston's 18-ft snowman/hockey team mascot
Wilkins sculpture near Kenaston depicts Cree mother and her Métis son.
"Mount Blackstrap," an artificial elevation built for skiing.  The area excavated to create the hill became a lake.