Saskatchewan: Maybe not a drive-through province
When people think Cross-Canada road trip, their minds often go to the mountains of British Columbia and Alberta, to lobster festivals in the Maritimes while searching for Anne of Green Gables, or even to the rocky terrain of Newfoundland and Labrador where travellers can be confused by the accents and the 30-minute time zone. Cross-Canada road trip does not often bring excitement for the plains of Saskatchewan. Because you can drive across Saskatchewan along the Trans-Canada Highway in under 6.5 hours, most people consider it a gas and lunch stop, with maybe a quick overnighter. It can be considered a nuisance for those wanting to get to what they consider the more exciting parts of Canada. For Janel and I, however, we wanted to get to know the plains. We wanted to experience the seas of green fields that go on into the far horizon. What we didn’t expect was an exceptional adventure in this often-overlooked region of our home country.
“DUSTIN!” Janel shouted as the pot-holed littered pavement suddenly turned to dirt.
I hadn’t even really noticed the change. The lack of corners and other vehicles along with the high stalks of corn surrounding this backroad in central Saskatchewan allowed my mind to wander a bit. For Janel, however, the sudden change in road condition had her slow down, which of course had her front tire try to take her where it wanted to go, rather than where she wanted to go. Unlike in British Columbia however, after shouting my name for what type of support she expected I can only imagine, she easily took control of the bike and kept herself upright and headed straight down the narrow road.
We had been in Saskatchewan for a couple hours on our way to Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park where we were going to spend some time hiking and enjoying a few days off the bikes. Staying true to our goal of avoiding the Trans-Canada as much as possible, we were riding some backroads that could likely have used a bit more upkeep. We rode past old decrepit farmhouses, through small dusty towns of fewer than 80 residents and enjoyed having the roads almost entirely to ourselves. As the day progressed and the sun started to set in the distant sky, we could see hundreds of pronghorns jumping through the fields at speeds we could only imagine. We only hoped the beautiful animals would stay on their side of the fences as we stayed on ours. The sky continued to darken and narrow treed forests began to trade places with the long running plains. We had begun our final approach into Cypress Hills and the start of our adventure through Saskatchewan.
After a couple of days hiking in Cypress Hills, we headed out to the capital of Regina. If you ask anyone from Saskatchewan who doesn’t live in Regina what they think about Regina, they will likely not have anything pleasant to say. One would get the feeling that it is almost in fashion to dislike Regina. However, our experience there was fantastic.
Our first stop in Regina was Platinum Recreation and Powersports where I wanted the mechanics there to give Janel’s bike a once over after her crash in British Columbia to make sure there were no additional issues I might have overlooked.
After getting the OK on Janel’s bike, we spent a couple to days exploring the city of Regina. Janel got excited every time we saw rabbits hopping around the beautiful 930-hectare Wascana Park. While there, I fattened myself up at Avenue, one of the best restaurants of our whole journey. We could not get over just how friendly everyone was–even an elderly woman we met on the sidewalk invited us into her home to ask us about our journey. Our last highlight in Regina came when we went to ride out of town and we noticed that most drivers there recognized the importance of paying attention for motorcycles. We didn’t have a single near-death experience as we rode north out of town. It was a stress-free drive, other than the fact we were headed straight into some very ominous clouds that looked to be foreshadowing a coming storm.
We knew a rainstorm was in the forecast for our ride to Manitou Beach (180 km, 112 miles), so we left early in the day hoping to beat the rain and to soak in the natural hot springs the area is famous for. About 100 kms (62 miles) outside of the town, the dark cloudy sky made the landscapes around us look like the time was 9 p.m. and not 9 a.m. Janel started to voice her annoyance that this was the summer of rain in Canada. I knew she was tired of being wet and cold, so I got her to push hard to beat the rain to Manitou beach. As we arrived on the dirt roads that lead into town, the rain started to drizzle. In the five minutes it took us to find the Manitou Springs Resort, the rain went from a light drizzle to a torrential downpour.
The sky opened and started to flood the town of Manitou Beach. Lighting streaked across the sky, followed quickly by thunder that would shake the table in our hotel room. We watched the storm from the safety of our room, grateful we didn’t leave Regina as little as 10 minutes later that morning and were stuck riding in the sheets of rain coming down (not just due to being soggy, but also for safety concerns).
With the storm raging outside, we took our tired bodies for a soak in the indoor hot springs. The slightly tinted green water is loaded with magnesium, sulphate, carbonate and potassium; these minerals are suggested to help relax the body, specifically joint and muscle pain. After two weeks on the road, and one crash under our belt, a body relaxing day was what the doctor called for. Wrapped in a noodle, we floated around in different temperature pools for the entirety of the afternoon and then enjoyed a nice dinner at the resort with a large slice of key lime pie for dessert–the best key lime pie we ever had.
The following morning, we saw the damage the storm had caused with pavement torn up by the rushing water, houses in the lowest part of town completely flooded and many of the dirt roads in town a mess of ruts and runoff. We made the decision to really put ourselves out as we waited for the road repairs and spent two additional days in the mineral baths and gorging ourselves on key lime pie before continuing our journey further north into the heart of Saskatchewan.
Our ride north to Candle Lake (275 km, 170 miles) was uneventful other than the fact it was not raining. The further north we got, the fewer and fewer cars we saw. Without the threat of rain on the horizon—and with the lack of traffic we were able to enjoy the road in peace and quiet. We were warm, too! The final kilometer into the Candle Lake Golf resort was a dirt road. The heavy rains had done some damage to the road here as well, and as I pulled into the parking lot I realized Janel was about 500 metres behind me, slowly bouncing through the holes. I thought to myself, “We are really going to need some practice before we hit the dirt highway Route 389 in Quebec…”
Once Janel finally made it to the resort, we checked in and the owners gave us a golf cart to go explore. I won’t lie, the mosquitos where the size of small birds, but as long as we kept moving in the cart, they stayed away. As we aren’t golfers, we spent the next day exploring the area around the lake with our trusted steed (the golf cart) and again, eating lots of good food. Ride and eat, what more could we ask for?
On our last evening at the resort, I started looking up our route to Manitoba. We had two choices, we could head further north to the town of Flin Flon, which would allow us to drive south to The Pas (yes, these are all real names) through tons of lakes that northern Manitoba is famous for, or we could take a straight shot east to The Pas. The weather was looking good again so, I suggested to Janel we take the northern route and she seemed open to it. I dug further into what highways we would be taking and when I typed in “Highway 120,” Google told me it was a paved road, however, an image suggested otherwise. I investigated further, but all I could find was information saying the road was paved. I made the assumption the image was old and wrapped up planning our route into northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
On the morning of our departure, we packed up the bikes in the rising sun. It was a pleasant experience: our backs were warm, our bellies were full and we were off on another adventure. I had given Janel some advice for the one-kilometer dirt road out of the resort and she seemed to be doing really well at keeping up with me. We made a turn onto Highway 120 and were off to Manitoba! At least I thought we were…
After about 30 minutes of driving, the road turned to dirt. It wasn’t a horrible dirt road, as the rain had moistened the road enough to keep the dust down, but it was well rutted and full of tracks. We pulled over after about 500 meters realizing this was going to go on for a while.
“Did you know it was going to be like this!?” Janel asked.
“No, it said it was paved,” I responded.
At that point, trying to decide if we should turn back or not, a car came trudging down the road. I got the driver to stop and asked how long the road was dirt: “Ahh, about 65 kilometers,” he said. I thought to myself, “well that is it, I better grab Janel and tell her we should turn around.” I pulled up beside her and told her the news. I suggested we just go back and take the southern route, however, she wanted to keep going.
“I need to learn to do this for Quebec and Labrador, let’s keep going,” she said.
I was shocked, excited and proud of her. With that, we set off down the 65-kilometer (40 mile) dirt highway. As we rode, I gave Janel advice about following my track, staying out of ruts, keeping her eyes forward and trusting the bike to go straight. At one point she suggested to me that I was aware the road was dirt prior to our arrival, but in all honestly, I really believed it was paved. Did I think there was a chance it was dirt? In a simple answer, yes. I might have held back the on informing her of that.
The first half of the road was decent: the ruts were avoidable, there wasn’t any traffic and Janel was doing well at keeping a pace of about 60 km/hr. The trees hugged the road tightly and as it was still early morning the sun was just cresting over the trees, creating a surreal light that made us feel like we were adventurers. The second half, however, was very different. The trees opened up into a barren landscape and the road turned ugly. It looked as though large trucks had driven over this section during the rainstorm when the road was flooded. The ruts were deep and bumpy, resulting in the bikes getting pulled all over the road. For safety, I got Janel to slow down (which wasn’t all that difficult), we started being very selective on which tracks we picked, and we kept our eyes peeled for animals and other vehicles. Only one truck passed us, and they stayed far to the left to leave us lots of room. I am sure Janel was white knuckling it a bit, but in the end, she did just fine.
After a little over an hour, we reached pavement. I haven’t been that proud of Janel in a long time. I don’t think she had been that proud of herself in a long time. She really had this idea in her head what dirt riding would be and was very afraid of it. I kept trying to get her to try some dirt roads before the trip, but she was so nervous, so it just never happened. But once she was forced to ride off-road for an extended period, she killed it. Confident, careful and calm. A long way from screaming “DUSTIN!” on her previous dirt ride.
Where to stay, what to do and where to visit in Saskatchewan
Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park
The first interprovincial park in Canada, the Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park is a lush forest in southern Saskatchewan. There are dozens of hikes you can do in the area and on the two we did, we didn’t run into another person. It was a perfect couple of days of relaxation. The park offers several campgrounds, but also has The Resort at Cypress which is where we stayed. We had a townhouse for our visit that had a great view of the park. The restaurant is delicious and inexpensive as well.
As mentioned, Regina is worth the visit. There are several great things to see and do. The largest T-Rex ever found (Scotty) is located in the Royal Saskatchewan Museum right by Entrance by donation.
Wascana Park has a beautiful man-made lake, and it makes for a great walk past the provincial parliament. Do not miss out on a meal at Avenue Restaurant. Easily one of the best meals we had the whole trip. We ordered some martinis—the bartender brings a cart to your table to make them in front of you. A great experience and delicious meal.
The best place to stay in town is Hotel Saskatchewan. It is a beautiful, centrally located hotel built in 1927. There is a lot of history here and the views from the higher floors are fantastic. They also have patrolled parking for the important things.
Really, you come here either for the beach (in a rainstorm, maybe not…) and for the spa. Your best option is to stay at the Manitou Springs Resort, as the hot springs are located inside and you gain unlimited free access if you stay here. Ask for a corner room so you can enjoy the views over the lake. Lastly, try the desserts in the restaurant, I promise you will not be disappointed.
If you like to golf, the Candle Lake Golf Resort is a great place to stay. Even if you don’t golf, the resort is right off the main highway and has water access and rooms ranging from full cottages to newly renovated hotel rooms. It is a very popular place for weddings, so be sure to book ahead. We really enjoyed cruising around the area in a golf cart and checking out the areas around the lake. The owner even let me take my motorcycle around the golf cart track which was a riot.