The Plains Aren’t Really That Plain! A Few Things You May Not Know About The Canadian Prairies.
If you mention to someone that you will be riding across Canada, their will be a brief few moments of confusion, bewilderment and wonder that then leads into a comment somewhere along the lines of “Oh, you will enjoy crossing the Prairies” in a sarcastic tone. They go on and on, are flat with and with nothing to see! The winds will do your head in and drive you crazy! The ‘Prairies’ are the flat, central western regions of Canada that comprise Saskatchewan, Manitoba and a small portion of Alberta. Known for their uninterrupted fields of wheat and changeable weather that can feature high temperatures and strong winds, this section would prove to be challenging on the bike.
Prior to crossing the prairies these sentiments played on my mind and my thoughts drifted to a familiar place back home, Outback Australia. On first impression, Australia’s interior gives a feeling of a vast nothingness stretching from north to south and east to west with not much in the middle but desert. Having lived in Alice Springs I have learnt that these assumptions are commonly misguided and I was curious to discover what the Prairies had to offer. Here are a few observations I made during our two weeks of riding between Calgary and Regina.
The prairies aren’t flat.
The GPS elevation profiles from our tour manual gave the impression of long flat riding days. It didn’t take us long to realize that the climbs in the prairies don’t have the gentle gradients experienced in British Columbia and generally have more of a bite to them. The roads themselves are much rougher and sometimes it is necessary to climb a few vertical metres out of a depression or “pothole” in the road, an exercise that saps energy over the course of a long day. Saskatchewan points these particularly bad sections out with a sign that reads “Loose stones” that we have learnt may mean the road condition deteriorates immediately or anytime in the next 200km! Australian rider Jane Lodge reflects on her time in Saskatchewan: “Saskatchewan is a prairie province with fields of wheat and canola running alongside terrible, patched, lumpy roads. Saskatchewan has hills. Long, rolling hills that have false summits. Saskatchewan hills go up but never come down. Saskatchewan should be the highest province in Canada, or the world for that matter. It should be higher than Everest. It’s not. There’s something odd going on in Saskatchewan.”
It’s not all about wheat.
Not long after leaving Calgary the crops spanned as far as the horizon on both sides of the road, and it comes as no surprise that approximately 80% of Canada’s farmland is located in the prairie provinces. Yes, wheat occupies a significant portion of the crops and generates 11 billion dollars of annual revenue to the Canadian economy each year, but it isn’t the only crop! The most eye catching were the fields of Canola, a sea of yellow stretching as far as the eye can see creating a beautiful contrast to the mostly blue skies we encountered! Lyn a friendly local from the small town of Dinsmore, stated that lentils and other crops were becoming more prominent in recent years and I later discovered that over 90% of Canada’s lentil crops come from Saskatchewan and 70% of all Canada’s mustard! I am yet to confirm if the mustard we are spreading on our daily sandwiches does in fact come from Saskatchewan.
Prairie folks are extremely friendly!
This became apparent shortly after crossing into Saskatchewan. Almost all of the local drivers waved to us as they passed when heading in the opposite direction or while overtaking us safely and giving us the entire lane! If only cyclists received the same reception everywhere! The friendliness went beyond the road. Local farmers frequently stopped to chat at lunch, curious to learn about our journey and wish us well. Erin, a local from the small town of Eston was kind enough to bring us some fresh organic vegetables to restock our supplies and in true Canadian spirit we were gifted with enough organic home made french fries to feed the whole group from a generous couple on Canada Day!
Drumheller may be the ‘Dinosaur Capital of the World’
Dinosaur’s once roamed the Prairies in large numbers. On descending into the Red Deer to the town of Drumheller it was immediately obvious that dinosaurs give this place meaning. Everywhere you look there was a dinosaur or something dinosaur themed with ‘the largest dinosaur in the world’, a large T-Rex in the centre of town getting most attention. Founded on coal mining, the region now thrives on tourism generated from the rich supply of dinosaur fossils discovered throughout the region that some riders had the chance to learn about at the The Royal Tyrell Museum, Canada’s leading palaeontology museum. The nearby dinosaur provincial park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has the highest concentration of dinosaur remains in the world.
The Prairies have rich First Nations Heritage
The Wheat Kings section of the Oh, Canada Tour passed through the traditional territories of many First Nations bands. These include the Cree, Assiniboine, Blackfoot, Ktunaxa and the Metis peoples. Following European colonisation various treaties were made between the Europeans and the First Nations. Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan, a historic town that we passed through en route to Round Lake, was where Treaty 4 between the Cree & Salteaux First Nations bands and the British occurred in 1874. Treaty 4 is significant because it is the only indigenous treaty in Canada that had a corresponding indigenous interpretation. A pictograph made by one of the Cree Chiefs, Chief Paskwa, was on display at the The Regina Museum along with many other displays in the First Nations Gallery that described the lifestyles of the first Nations before and after the arrival of Europeans
Saskatchewan has more roads than any other province
Saskatchewan has more roads than any other province in Canada, about 160,000km of road surface according to the Government of Saskatchewan. We discovered that more roads do not mean better roads and it came as a surprise that only two of the roads on our Saskatchewan provincial map were marked as ‘gravel.’ Staying true to our TDA roots we felt obliged to include one of these roads in our route and the 28km gravel stretch from Dinsmore to Macrorie turned out to be a favourite for most of the riders. A quiet, narrow, flowing road of hard pack gravel was a welcome break from the uneven, potholed Saskatchewan pavement and unreliable shoulder on the bigger roads.
Crossing the unique Canadian prairies by bicycle is something I will not forget anytime soon and as we begin the Great Lakes section I’ll finish with the following quote from Australian Rider Stirling Lee.
“I didn’t know why they called this section Wheat Kings. It’s not like the prairies in the USA with their GM corn and wheat browning in identical multi acre squares. Veer off the road and you would get lost and die of thirst in these identical lots, only to be discovered in the harvest when your decomposing body would add to the protein content of our daily bread. No, the Canadian prairie is green and lush, speckled with lakes and undulating hills. Go back in time as you cycle in the gravel. See the thousands of bison that once grazed the grass and hills. The First Nation Aboriginals who followed the great bison hunt and held pow-wows in places like Waywayseecappo and Neepawa. Followed by the French trappers at Fort Qu’Appelle and Portage La Prairie. Then the wagon trains of European migrants who settled in places like Lemberg, Stokholm & Esterhazy. And finally the English, with the RCMP and railway tracks and the Kings I suppose.”