Riding the range: Alan Wooding lives out a boyhood dream on a Canadian ranch
Mention Canada and most people immediately think of a trip through the Rockies from Calgary to Vancouver '“ but In the first of two features about one of the Commonwealth country's lesser known provinces, travel writer Alan Wooding enjoys all that the prairie state of Saskatchewan has to offer.
“It’s been a joke for years that if your dog runs away in Saskatchewan, you can still see him three day later,” said Shane Owen, one of our two Canadian hosts for the trip.
But we were soon about to learn that this vast province known as Canada’s ‘bread basket’ is far from being flat or indeed entirely covered in flowing wheat and barley fields.
As guest of Tourism Saskatchewan on what was deemed a ‘Man Up’ trip, I made the seven-and-a-half hour flight from London’s Heathrow Airport to Toronto’s Lester B Pearson International aboard an Air Canada Boeing 777, the time difference being five hours.
However I had to wait another four hours until an Air Canada Embraer 190 made the onward journey to Saskatoon’s John G Diefenbaker Airport where we were met by Tourism Saskatchewan media specialists Shane Owen and Jodi Holliday, the time difference now seven hours behind the UK.
Saskatchewan – which incidentally never changes its clocks as those around it does – is located in central Canada and is one of ten provinces in what is the second biggest country in the world.
It is bordered in the south along the 49th parallel by the US states of Montana and North Dakota while its neighbouring provinces are Manitoba to the east and Alberta to the west while to the north is the vast Northwest Territories which stretch way up into the Arctic Circle.
With a total population of just 1.2 million compared to the UK’s 65,000,000, Saskatchewan covers an area totalling 651,900 square kilometres leaving the UK at barely a third of its size. And while the province is made up of vast prairies, it also has more than 100,000 lakes, many linked by huge river systems, endless pine forests plus miles of sand dunes that would not be out of place in the Sahara Desert.
It’s capital city is Saskatoon – which rises up from the prairie and takes its name from the sweet berries that grow wild in the region while its second city is Regina which is somewhat larger.
Leaving Saskatoon’s John G Diefenbaker Municipal Airport we transferred to the 225-room grand railway-style Delta Bessborough Hotel, known locally as ‘The Castle by the River’. It’s an imposing turreted building set in its own grounds with all the facilities you would expect from a top class establishment: spa, sauna, steam room, indoor pool, gym, etc.
Saskatoon boasts many various cultural festivals and massive open air concerts, two of which were taking place the day we arrived along the banks of South Saskatchewan River. First there was the four-day Saskatoon food festival in the large park right next door to our hotel while Canadian rock star Bryan Adams was also due to play a sellout concert close by the following evening.
The South Saskatchewan River has seven bridges linking the east and west but we had little time exploring as we were whisked off to the nearby Ayden Kitchen & Bar Restaurant operated by Canada’s original Masterchef winner, Dale MacKay who gave us a tour of his establishment which features all the best gourmet food from the province.
With its own butchery department, Dale certainly produced the best sausage platter and rib-eye steaks that I have ever tasted, all from an open kitchen that was kept busy all night by a full house.
The following morning we were back at Saskatoon airport to catch the Transwest flight to the northern town of La Ronge aboard a 31-seat Saab 340 aircraft.
With just six passengers onboard (two locals plus us four travel journalists), we were kept royally entertained by Laurie, an air hostess who would not have been out of place on a comedy club stage doing a stand-up routine. Despite it only being 7.30am, she announced that it was “Free Beer Friday” … and amazingly she immediately had two takers while the rest of us had coffee!
The Transwest flight was more like a bus as it dropped into Prince Albert to collect a seventh First Nation passenger before it arrive at La Ronge where Jodi Holliday met us with an eight-seater Dodge Grand Caravan SUV.
The first thing we noticed coming out of the tiny La Ronge airport were the millions of fish flies which seemed to get into everything. We were then driven the onward 78 kilometres to the Otter Lake Resort run by Simon and Wendy Parsons on behalf of Thompson’s Camps. Incidentally Jodi had driven up to meet us from Saskatoon, having set off at the unearthly hour of 4am!
It was at Otter Lake that I had my first ever flight in a 1952 six-seater De Havilland Beaver float plane expertly piloted by Dan Striker. Soaring in an endless blue sky above what seemed to be hundreds of lakes, numerous river systems and waterfalls, we gained a true bird’s eye view of the whole area before landing gently back on the lake an hour later.
After lunch we boarded a pontoon fishing boat with local guide Dylan and made our way across the vast expanse of water to what he regarded as the best fishing grounds that day.
The fish flies were still in abundance as were some large biting horse flies while a massive new hatch of May and caddis flies meant that the lake’s surface often had a covering of spent larvae husks from which the nymphs had emerged as adults.
Despite this, amazingly we were all soon catching 3lb walleye (they’re known as zander in the UK) and Northern pike to around 5lb, all of which were skilfully gutted and cooked as the sun went down, thus enabling us to enjoy a fabulous lake shore dinner of fried fish (Dylan used a special mix of pancake flour and spices), potatoes and onions, all expertly cooked over a blazing camp fire.
With red squirrels in abundance, flying above us were bald eagles and pelicans while we heard the sound of loons calling across the vast lake as we bunked down for the night in the Otter Resorts’ comfortable lakeside lodges.
The resort can actually accommodate up to 169 people in 37 various chalets and cabins while a big black bear was spotted wandering around the encampment ... although none of us really wanted to have a face-to-face experience with it after dark!
The following morning we set off by road to Prince Albert National Park, the 192 kilometres trip taking around two and a half hours on mainly long and straight dirt and cinder roads which seemed to go on for ever.
With a slight diversion in Prince Albert itself, we popped into the famous Robertson Trading Post where you can still buy beaver and wolf pelts plus all the equipment you might need for a fishing, shooting or trapping expedition. It really does seem like you’ve turned the clock back a century or more!
Reaching the nearby Waskesiu township inside the park, we lunched at the Hawood Inn, the wooden building situated close to a sandy beach where several people were taking advantage of the hot summer sunshine (it was around 27 degrees) and swimming in the lake’s warm shallow waters.
It was then back to Saskatoon – another 224 kilometres on better roads – to check back into the Delta Bessborough Hotel for the another night. With the food festival still going on next to the hotel, it was certainly worth a visit just to taste those Saskatoon berries cooked in all sorts of cakes and dishes while I watched the jet-ski races along the South Saskatchewan River.
However, typical of what was a packed week-long programme, we then set off to enjoy an evening of a different kind of motor sport at Saskatoon’s Autoclearing Motor Speedway.
Just three days earlier, those good ol’ NASCAR boys from all over Canada and the USA had been in town for a round of their popular championship series, the Saskatoon event better known as the Velocity Prairie Thunder.
The track is a huge concrete oval which attracts thousands of race fans for the bigger events. Unusual for me was the fact that they run their races in an anti-clockwise direction – it’s usually clockwise in all European events – but we really enjoyed the action featuring the powerful Sportsmans tin-top class along with Mini Stocks, Sasks Legends and the little Bandeleros in which junior drivers as young as eight-years-old start to learn their race craft.
Naturally food plays a big part in any north American sporting event and this was no exception as we tucked into giant cheese burgers, battered onion rings and poutine (skinny chips covered in a cheesy gravy), all of which were washed down with a local ‘Original 16’ beer or two.
The following morning we set off with country music playing on the car’s radio to get us into the mood and, having hardly had time for breakfast, another early start took us south to the La Reata Ranch. Located close to the small town of Kyle, a woolly mammoth’s skeleton had recently been found there while this particular day quickly became an experience that I’ll certainly never forget.
En route to the ranch, if ever there was a township straight out of the movies, then Rosetown was it. You could imagine tumbleweed rolling down a street that was lined with bars, cheap motels and a few hitching rails on which to tie up the horses. It was a real gem!
As a country lad in the 1950 and 1960s, the wild west together with cowboys and indians played a huge part in my life. I would often dream of riding a horse out on the range alongside the Lone Rangers and Tonto or the likes of Gene Autry, Buffalo Bill and the Cisco Kid.
Well the La Reata certainly gave me that chance as we headed up into the hills high above the ranch buildings with its traditional saloon bar on the back of the pretty piebald mount called ‘Gus’, a quiet, sure-footed steed which responded to my every touch.
I’m certainly no riding expert but German-born ranch owner George Gaber certainly is. His knowledge of the two- and four-legged kind coming together to make it a thoroughly enjoyable three-hour afternoon experience.
Within the first 60 minutes or so in the saddle, my confidence rose enough to help round up some of George’s 200-plus long-horn cattle while I even entered a tougher competition in which I had to separate a cow and its calf from the rest of the herd.
George left Dusseldorf for Canada in 1996 where he purchased a huge swathe of hilly land (around 2,000 hectare) adjacent to the damned-up Lake Diefenbaker while his property now stretches around nine miles along its banks.
With 23 horses of varying temperament in his stock yard, he specialises in showing city slickers how to become cowpokes in one easy lesson and with his riding and roping skills, he himself has become a true 21st Century cowboy.
Learning to saddle up and get acquainted with your horse by brushing and leading him certainly worked, while a huge lunch of Texan chilli plus a fabulous beef dinner – yes, it came from George’s herd! – gave not only us travel writers, but fellow visitors from Sweden, Switzerland and the USA, a real taste of the cowboy’s lifestyle.
The La Reata saloon bar is as authentic as it can be with all manner of cowboy paraphernalia including guns, cowboy hats, boots and gloves littering the shelves. There was an endless supply of beer in the saloon’s big refrigerator plus plenty of shorts including a local strange vodka called ‘Lucky Bastard’.
Out in the hills you might come across cougars, porcupines and little prairie gophers while George says that there is also a big herd of around 100 wild antelope which runs free.
Saskatchewan province is known as ‘The Land of Living Skies’ and we certainly saw plenty of them. A big thunder storm passed through one evening while the temperature remained in the mid-20s … but it’s a different story in the winter which is a fact of life in Canada.
After heavy snowfall, getting around can be a real problem yet clearing crews will often work 24 hours a day, seven days a week to plow, grit and sand the roads to ensure that everyone keeps on the move.
And unlike the British, who are always worried that someone might take court action against them if they slip on a newly swept path, Saskatchewan citizens are expected to clear all the sidewalks following a major snow event and they certainly ‘snow’ what to do to keep you safe.
On the brighter side, Saskatchewan is also one of the sunniest places in Canada as it shines on over 300 days a year with its most enduring image being the endless fields of golden wheat waving in the breeze while dotted around are the big grain elevators and huge storage hoppers.
While it has already rained far more than usual this year, not all of last season’s grain has been distributed yet, such is the volume that the farmers grow. Saskatchewan is also the world’s biggest producer of potash and mustard and its claim to ‘flavour the world’ is not so far from the truth.
Next week I explore the town of Moose Jaw and its secretive tunnels made famous by gangster Al ‘Scarface’ Capone during prohibition times in the United States before I spend time with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on a Boot Camp at their national headquarters in Regina.