Since there’s still a pandemic, it’s been hard to execute plans. I had planned to go to the Edmonton International judo tournament to fight or referee. In fact, the tickets were super cheap: $282 round trip in a 100%-mileage-earning fare (Flex), plus a 100% Aeroplan status points promotion. Unfortunately, the tournament got postponed, as so many things have this year. It was definitely worth it to earn the points. So I figured, when else am I going to visit Saskatchewan? It’s long been on my radar that Lloydminster is only 2.5 hours from the Edmonton airport.
(I’ve been on the train as it rolled through the province—maybe for 8 hours—and I probably even stepped off the train in Saskatoon, but there’s no pics, so obviously it didn’t happen.)
This time, I figured I’d have enough time to drive to Saskatchewan, stay overnight, and get back to Edmonton for my return flight. I did some research to find the best things for me to do in my brief time in Saskatchewan. Here’s how that went. In the end, I got some pretty scenic views of Saskatchewan and some good outdoor time. Similar to the pictures I had in 2011, but better when not on a train. Trains are great, but they really aren’t as good for experiencing scenery as not being on the train. But as a way of not having to drive, yes please!
Seen in Saskatchewan
- Surprisingly scenic and non-flat
- Ads for tradies (tradespeople) on the radio
- Billboards for Swift-net rural internet on the highway (not great Google-fu)
- Inland grain terminals
- Alberta radio: country & rock; Saskatchewan had Radio-Canada as well
- “Important intersection” highway signs
- Same chains in Lloydminster as in Ontario: Sobey’s, Home Hardware (though with a different retail mix inside the store)
- Almost no masks in Home Hardware
- “Maverick Party”, a “Western-based national party”
Day 0: to Lloydminster
I’ve been told that Lloydminster, “Canada’s Border City”, is especially dull on the Saskatchewan side. In any case, it seemed like a good place to sleep on Friday night, though perhaps on the Alberta side.
To get there, I taught from 8:30-10AM (I hate 8:30 but at least I can leave early) and then did a committee meeting call until 11:00, leaving me enough time to drive to Pearson, park my car at the terminal (book ahead of time!), and take a moderate amount of risk grabbing some food at the Maple Leaf Lounge. Maybe I also took food for the flight and waited for us to be in the air (with the high-quality filtration running) before eating it.
Looking at the route from Edmonton to Lloydminster, I noticed the Beaverhill Bird Observatory on the way. Seemed like a good place for a 1-hour stop just around sunset. It had recently snowed a decent amount, so I got my first experience of driving in powder on this trip. Which worked fine in the involuntarily upgraded Qashqai. (Have you seen the price of gas? Do I really want an upgrade? No, definitely not!) I parked the car at the end of the road and walked in the ankle-deep snow for a while. I saw something that looked floofy in the tree but people tell me it’s a porcupine. I’ve seen porcupines in the ground but never in trees. It was floofy! The only other bird I saw was a black-billed magpie at the Edmonton airport.
The airbnb was in the Lloydminster suburbs. I guess it’s the Canadian dream to own a nice house in the suburbs and the hosts Salma and Ilkin were friendly and had the place set up very well indeed. One of my best airbnb experiences, really. They had this book full of stock photography O Canada: Discover Your Land which had thorough coverage of well-known and remote places in Canada worth visiting. Ilkin pointed out that Elk Island was good for cross-country skiing—a good tip for Sunday.
Lloydminster is at 53°N latitude, so decent for aurora, but it was cloudy when I went to bed. It was clear in the morning, so maybe something early in the morning would have worked. Aurora hunting is a decidedly nocturnal activity.
Day 1 part 1: Blue Mountain
I looked up the best place to get breakfast on Saturday morning, and decided on the Timber Café, which is located inside the Lloydminster Home Hardware. Sure, why not. And they have kiwi burgers too somehow. Licensed café at a Home Hardware. Who would’ve thought.
I did not love the high number of maskless people inside, and I ate my breakfast sandwich in the car, keeping my lunch for lunchtime.
Another two hours of driving and a time zone shift later, I got to the Blue Mountain Adventure Park, which is much more homey than Blue Mountain: Ontario’s Summer & Winter Destination. Along the way there was a freedom protest in North Battleford (and “Thanks convoy” signs) and then another 30 minutes of driving to the Adventure Park.
I’ve complained about Blue Mountain ON previously but apparently not on this blog. It’s like Mont Saint-Sauveur but, like, the biggest resort in Ontario, mostly by virtue of being wide not high. Looking at the topo, Blue Mountain SK may have up to 100m of elevation gain in its hills, which is half as much as Blue Mountain ON. In terms of vertical activities, there is tubing at Blue Mountain SK, as well as many activities for kids during the “green season”.
But, well, I’m not going to Saskatchewan for the vertical. I reserved skate skis. I’d never skate skiied before. But the powder was ungroomed and they gave me classic skis, on which I did 6km of various loops.
Then, after they had groomed some of the loops, I went back and tried out the skate skis. More aerobic and faster. Did another 6km.
It was nice to be outside on a bluebird day. Worthy activity. Got pictures of the outdoor cats and the dogs Duke and Mia.
It was a bit hard to understand the trail system and there weren’t maps that I could take with me. Once I got on a trail it was pretty well indicated with big arrows. They said there was AllTrails, but that’s not that easy to navigate either. Anyway, I managed to get around, though not always on the trails that I really wanted. I was looking for the 9km Boundary Trail but totally failed to find it. I did climb up a switchback which was quite a bit of elevation gain to do on skate skis.
Day 1 part 2: Auroras
The second part of my day in Saskatchewan was aurora hunting. The forecast looked good; solar flare strength was up to Kp4 early in the evening. I’d read the SK aurora hunters FB group and they pointed out that one should scout out the location first and certainly not stop in the middle of the road. The forecast temperature was about -11C.
So, I went and looked for a good place to photograph and maybe see aurora. (Cameras are sensitive and can see aurora even if human eyes can’t). I went down several secondary roads but didn’t really find anything. Beaverhill would have been really good, actually, but it was now 3 hours away, and it’s not in Saskatchewan, so I wouldn’t be able to meet my self-imposed rule of staying overnight in the province. I thought I’d try near a grain terminal. Got some sunset pictures of the terminal too.
I went and got a donair and waited a bit before heading back out after dark. Unfortunately, the grain terminal was not optimal early in the evening because it was next to the highway and there were too many cars. So I tried a park 15 minutes away. Unfortunately it was a village park with all sorts of lights. No good. I drove around more secondary roads. It’s hard to find a good spot, especially with fresh powder.
Remember what I said about powder and about not stopping on the road? I learned that the road was sometimes surrounded by a ditch, even if there were snowmobile tracks just off the road. The front right tire was quite stuck in the ditch. I got kind of worried about being stuck in the ditch in the middle of nowhere though. I spent an hour trying to get the Qashqai out of the ditch, digging with the snow brush and using AWD mode. Digging just caused the car to sink deeper, and pressing on the gas had no obvious effect. Fortunately, I had ample clothing. I’m unlikely to be underdressed in situations where it matters.
Unlike my experience in New Zealand, the passerby car didn’t stop to see what was going on.
Fortunately, there was cellphone service, and I managed to call a towtruck. Technology’s great in sharing a location with the driver. He warned me about the potential cost, but I was, “well, what else am I going to do?” OK, the other option was to wait for the melt. Not compatible with my flight.
After all that excitement, I was waiting in the car, and finally clued in that maybe I should try to take some aurora pictures. It’s pretty challenging to take pictures in -10C weather with a tripod I’m not super familiar with. At least I knew my camera well enough.
An hour and a half later, he winched me out for a modest fee ($230). That was about 1:30AM. I drove back to the grain terminal, where there was much less highway traffic now, and got another aurora & stars picture there.
Well, at least I got a couple of newbie aurora pictures, and some excitement.
Day 2 part 1: Vegreville
The staff at the Canadian Motel North Battleford had told me that the included breakfast was grab-and-go, and so I grabbed it. I was quite impressed with the breakfast, which was enough for lunch as well. (OK, so the breakfast sandwich wasn’t the best, but the other sandwich was great).
Getting out of Saskatchewan (just about 24 hours after entering), I stopped at a gas station with a commanding view of the prairie, and then right on to Vegreville. Near the gas station I saw a creature running quite fast in the snow. Coyote, perhaps? I had read that Vegreville had a huge Ukrainian pysanka (easter egg). Good to visit in these times. The other thing Vegreville is known for among immigrants is the place where immigration documentation goes, I’m told. I didn’t see any of that.
(Side note: I aim to respect expertise, but the credentialled experts on Radio-Canada who were talking about the Russian invasion have been proven to be way off with their predictions about the war; Ukrainian troops are still managing to hold off the Russian troops, and it’s felt to me like the narrative about Russian inevitability has been shifting in the past few days).
I also tried to visit the Ukrainian Heritage Village, but it’s not open in March.
Anyway, the pysanka was giant, computer-designed (pre-Gehry; B-splines!), and somehow has a very 1970s colour scheme. There are other things nearby which are closed in March too, like the visitor information centre and campground. I stopped by the (food & gas) Co-op and asked if there was anywhere to buy pysanka. Not in March, at least. Though the airbnb I’m staying at in Yellowknife is owned by an artist who makes pysanka, strangely enough.
Day 2 part 2: Whirlwind tour of Elk Island
I was constantly updating my time estimates in my head, and convinced myself that I would have enough time to quickly visit Elk Island National Park. The webpage says 250 bird species, but I definitely did not see that many. Barely any? I did see some bison, and I jogged the Amisk Wuche trail (2.7km, 2-3 hours, ha) in 31 minutes. Another nice stroll in the woods, which is quite popular (30 minutes from the close end of Edmonton). Didn’t have skis, so didn’t do that. Trail was quite packed out. Some people were snowshoeing, but that gear was really not necessary. Staff do seem to speak French.
I got to the airport at 15:45, which was 2 hours before my 17:45 flight, so all good. Smooth flight back to Toronto, car battery was fine, got back home at 00:18.
That was a lot of driving! I counted 1100km of driving, which was not cheap in an SUV with $1.50/L gas. I had done a lot of research about the most viable Saskatchewan destinations. I could have stayed closer to Lloydminster, but that would have been less interesting than seeing a bit of North Battleford.
|YYZ-YEG roundtrip Flex||$262|
|Thrifty rental car||$124|
|Blue Mountain Adventure Park ski rental & day pass||$33|
|Canadian Motel North Battleford||$95|
|Gas (1101km, 99L)||$156|
I didn’t talk to a lot of Saskatchewans, but, well, there is a pandemic. Normally I might make a bit more of an effort to talk to locals. There was also the Allen Sapp Gallery, named after an indigenous artist, that I’d noticed, but skiing took all the time that I might have had for that.
Would I go again? Well, there are more things I could do there, in all seasons: taking pictures, hikes. People fish. It might not be my first choice of destinations but I’m glad I went.