Our Summer Vacation or...
How I Love Saskatchewan, Sometimes

Edmonton - Wednesday, August 6, 2003 - by: Ron Thornton


Five days. That was the plan. Amy, along with our eight-year old sons Ronald and John, were bound for the Cypress Hill of southern Saskatchewan and a visit to historic Fort Walsh. However, as we departed Edmonton in our van at 10am one Monday morning in July, first on our dance card was a visit to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump south of Calgary. The sun was shining brightly as we dropped by our favorite fast food joint in the Cowtown. Our eight year old sons must be growing, as with their help we managed for to first time to finish up the massive order of fries that came with our Alberta beef filled burger and drinks. We continued the journey, arriving at our destination at 4:00 pm, with two hours to spare before the place closed for the night. We toured the information complex located where our native people once drove the buffalo over the bluffs to their demise below. This was a time before horses, before the bow and arrow, and before animal rights advocates charged onto the plains. We toured the ancient buffalo jump for about an hour and, even though I proudly carry my card from the Alberta Métis Association, I didn't mention to those operating the centre that they were on my land. I thought most of them had a much better claim than I. The boys thought a walk above the jump, after traversing many flights of stairs within the facility, should be followed by a trek along the path at the foot of the jump. The path was neither short nor flat. Personally, I think someone has told our sons about our life insurance policies and they wanted to test our hearts.




Amy and I managed to survive as we checked out the possible camping sites available to us. The one near the jump seemed to offer little shade or much else, so we went the few short miles into Ft. Macleod to continue our accommodation search. Things did not look promising, as a couple of sites proved to be little more than gravel pits with minimal ambience. Meanwhile, we dropped by the planned site of our Tuesday exploration, the North West Mounted Police fort. I made the mistake of having an ice cream cone at a booth beside the fort, which pretty well melted in my hand. Did I mention that it was hot? We went into the fort's info building, where the boys and I were allowed to wash up in the washroom. Unfortunately, from what little we saw, the fort did not seem to offer much by way of $17 worth of family entertainment. Then again, maybe we were just suffering the affects of an as of yet unsuccessful search for a campsite, having just been covered in melting ice cream, while roasting our tails and other parts under a broiling sun. Anyway, we were heading to Fort Walsh, or at least we would be if we ever found a place to pitch our tent for the night.

New Zealand

Shortly after, we discovered a rural location a surprisingly short distance from downtown, one that actually resembled a campsite, so we checked in. With help from the lads, the tent went up in record time. We visited the pool, which unfortunately had just closed and would not reopen until after check-out, so that wasn't great. Our son Ronald had seen a miniature golf course, which had sold him on the place immediately, so that was added to the next day's itinerary. At the site next door was a family that was heading back to New Zealand. The husband was a doctor who had spent a year or two working in Toronto, after two tours of Australian hospitals. In fact, their eldest, who turned three in late July, was born in Australia while the younger was born in Canada. Rather than pick up and fly back immediately, they were on a month long camping tour west to Vancouver, from where they were to fly back to New Zealand. They were very friendly folks. They remarked how huge our cars first appeared to them, but thought the ones back home might appear pretty darn small on their return. We convinced them to take in the Frank Slide, which was located just an hour's drive to the west, before turning north through British Columbia to cut back and visit Banff and Jasper. I hope we didn't manage to get them lost. As we exchanged e-mail addresses, we could be hearing from them soon, or whenever they are finally discovered by the search party.




Our first night in our rather cramped tent saw us get about seven hours sleep. Funny, it seemed so much larger when we bought the thing before the boys entered kindergarten. Shortly after 5:00 am, with nature providing its own alarm clock, the lads and I had our morning constitutional to the campground's modern facilities. We got back in bed and stared up at the roof until 6:00 am. You know, the sleeping bag just didn't seem to have the same welcoming qualities for sleep as it had when we went to bed. So, rather than wake up my wife for the fourth time, the lads and I toured the campground, walked along the Oldman River that bordered it, then hit the arcade for an antiquated pinball version of baseball. I sucked at playing it, the boys didn't, so it at least allowed them a way to make time pass by quickly. Thankfully, the time for breakfast finally arrived, after which the boys played three games of miniature golf on a layout that has nothing in common with Augusta National. The 7th hole didn't even have sideboards, so the first shot always bounded out of the playing area and there wasn't a flat spot where one could place their ball without it rolling off back into the dirt. Still, our sons were satisfied. In dealing with eight year olds while out on the road, that is no small feat.




After breaking camp, we headed into town for the promised visit to the souvenir shop, where the lads each picked up a bow and arrow set. The trinkets certainly fit the theme of our odyssey, as we embarked upon the next leg of our trek to the Cypress Hills. We dropped by Lethbridge, decided that Ft. Whoop-up didn't interest us as we had bigger game afoot, and continued towards Fort Walsh. As we headed towards Manyberries, we traveled across country that looked a lot like parts of Saskatchewan in that there was wide expanses of land and you felt you were pretty much in the middle of nowhere. To the south of us, there was a rather short mountain range all by its lonesome, fifty or more miles east of the Rockies, rising in the distance over the prairie. What I've gleamed since returning home is that these were the Sweet Grass Hills of Montana. We stopped for lunch in the town of Foremost, which had its charms but that wasn't what immediately struck us. The picnic site on the western side of the community featured the rather pungent odor of its toilet facilities, so we didn't even come to a stop as we sought out a more suitable location within the town. We found a spot near their recreation park. While Amy put lunch together, the lads and I took a tour that included a rodeo grounds. We checked out the gates for the calf roping, the bucking chutes, and the lads climbed over those to climb up into the announcer's booth. As you can tell, this turned out to be not only a resting spot for us, but also a cultural opportunity.

rally driving
hot and

We continued the trek east, and rather than continue south and east to Manyberries on the paved road, we decided on the more direct approach, continuing east but now upon a loose gravel road. As our dusty plume rose magnificently behind us, the surrounding countryside gave us the feel of traveling through the foothills, while Amy's driving skills reminded me of riding along with a rally driver in Baja. By the way, did I mention it was hot? It was well over 30 C, even hotter than Monday had been. Hot and dusty. Sounds like the makings of a cold beer commercial. Again, great scenery could be seen from three directions, with the view out of the back window somewhat obscured.

Up, up to

Upon reaching the road that took us the final jog north into the Cypress Hills, we were again upon pavement and quickly became surrounded by a forest of trees. Turning into the actual park, we once more bid adieu to pavement and heading east toward Saskatchewan we got to see some interesting country, including some high points that showed the plains sweeping out to the horizon below us. Like the Sweet Grass Hills, the Cypress Hills were islands of plateau surrounded by glaciers during the last Ice Age. Also, it was home to lots of free roaming cows. Amy got so excited she took a couple of photos of the wandering bovines as she drove (with me holding the wheel...the closest I had gotten to driving to this point). The road got rougher and narrower as we continued east, dwindling to a narrow gravel road by the time we hit a Texas gate that welcomed us into Saskatchewan. A deer was also on the road to welcome us, about 20 feet over the boundary. It saw Amy driving and ran for its life. We continued along on our trek to Ft. Walsh, which we planned to visit the next day. At one point we took three successive hill climbs that would challenge any highway you would find yourself on in the mountains. The van sure loved it. We could hear the rocks pounding its undercarriage. Oh, if you try this road, I recommend using a rental. Did I mention how hot and dusty it was?


Well, we finally found the Ft. Walsh Interpretive Centre, and dropped by to check it out for our visit the next day. $17 seemed a good family price for an experience that included a bus ride to the trading post where actors dressed in period garb would introduce us to the frontier way of life, then a further trip to the fort itself where performers portraying North West Mounted Police troopers would give us an idea what life was like for them in the 1880's. It was, we thought, a good two hour tour and worthy of being the highlight of our trip. To whet our appetites for the adventure to come, we watched a short film at the centre, then departed to find our campsite shortly after 5:00 pm. This was, I'm afraid, the high point of our trip.


The camp area, according to our info, was to be found a few miles down the road, with a turnoff shortly after arriving on the highway to Maple Creek taking us to our oasis. We drove down a series of switch backs that were rather interesting, to say the least. At the bottom, there was a spot where folks could dump their trailers before attempting the road from the other direction, as few would have made it up what we had just come down. Anyway, we got to the highway, and headed north. There were no signs along the highway to show us the way for a few miles, though I noticed a sign off to my right, some distance off the road we were on, mentioning something about a road you couldn't travel on when it was wet. Shortly after, there we passed a sign that indicated that the place we wanted was still ahead. So, we drove on. We drove and drove. Did I mention it was hot? As we were now on pavement, it wasn't so dusty. About 30 miles down the road, I rechecked the map and said that I was afraid that one road we noticed, the one with the sign the heck and gone off the highway, might have been the road we needed to go on. Trouble was, it was about 25 miles behind us. Hey, no problem, as we came across another of those signs showing that the place we wanted to go to was still ahead. Yes sir, it showed that in order to get there we needed to turn right as we entered Maple Creek and drive another 30 miles or more back south. The signs took you on an inverted "V" course of about 60 miles or more, rather than spotlighting that little road that would have given us a direct route of no more than 10 miles to our fabled campground. "No problem", we thought, for we would visit Maple Creek's tourist info centre and come up with a plan of action. It was just too bad for us that it had shut down at 5:30pm and it was shortly before six pm when we got there.




It was at this time that we noticed that John's right ear was rather different. The poor fellow was having a reaction to a mosquito bite, causing his ear to swell to dimensions that only Camilla Parker Bowles could love. Amy got into her traveling medical chest to give him some relief, as we stewed over having ended up in Maple Creek rather than our dreamed about campsite near Ft. Walsh. Ronald suggested that maybe a motel might be a thought as we stopped to get some gas. Did I mention that it was hot? The sign at the Credit Union said things had cooled down to a lovely 89º F, or 32º C. The fellow at the gas station said it was 37º C just a few days prior. I asked about the local inns. He said he hadn't spent the night in one, but didn't think he would want to, either. That was not exactly promising. We checked one motel, discovering no vacancy. We stopped at another, with the same negative result. In fact, there was nothing available anywhere. A trip through a local campsite, which seemed to resemble a junk yard than a place to raise a tent, quickly quashed our plans to stay in the area.


At this point, Ft. Walsh was dropped from our "to-do" list for the next day. We hit the road for Medicine Hat, while making some disparaging remarks about Saskatchewan, and especially Maple Creek. Now, I should say that my father was born in Eston, and I lived a number of years in Rosetown and Lloydminster. As a sportscaster I broadcast hockey games of the Rosetown Red Wings, Kindersley Klippers, Asquith Canadians, along with the Lloydminster Border Kings and Lancers. I covered the exploits of baseball's Eston Ramblers and broadcast games from the big tournament in Unity. One day, I'll tell my sons of such wonderful people as Dennis Ogg, John Howard, Jim Dirk, Wade Willey, Joe Belyea, Ernie Ford, Mike Lamb, and Bob Jack, Senior and Junior. I'll tell them how such people made my time in Saskatchewan a great one. I'll need to, combined with a much more successful return to Ft. Walsh, just to change their current perceptions of that fine province. However, on this day, this very hot day, we found ourselves scanning the horizon for that big sign with the word "Alberta" written upon it as we headed west on the Trans Canada.


We found it, alright, but to be honest we had not exactly found sanctuary just yet. We stopped for lunch at a large but barren roadside rest area right across the boundary in Alberta. Amy broke out the camp stove and it cooked up our meal in no time, no doubt assisted by the blazing sun and the hot pavement. Did I mention it was hot? Anyway, making sure the lads were having fun on their vacation was my priority, so we spent the time before supper taking out the ball gloves and playing catch while after supper we played with the frisbee on the hot asphalt under that relentless sun. Some people dream of a sandy beach, with a cool breeze blowing in across a blue sea when they think of their vacation. At that moment, so was I.

The Hat
a motel

Amy and I had canned spaghetti with some hamburger added (Amy thinks of everything) while the lads had some kind of kid's related pasta from a tin. Ronald put his supper down on the back of the van, where it promptly flipped off and landed face down on the ground. John ate his pasta while Ronald shared in Mom and Dad's supper. There was enough and anyway, did I mention that it was darned hot outside? We got to Medicine Hat, about two hours away from Ft. Walsh, turned into a Comfort Inn, took our $110 room, headed down to the swimming pool before turning in at about 10pm. It was the best $110 I have ever spent.

hell is

We thought of going to Dinosaur Provincial Park the following day, but there was also a thought of maybe just driving to a place where we knew we would be surrounded by the comforts of home. We call that place, ironically enough, home. We dropped by a mall in Medicine Hat Wednesday morning for additional medical supplies for our Prince Charles, while he and his brother (Edward or Andrew, we are not sure) bought themselves a chocolate and candy covered apple from a chocolate shop. They had taken their wallets and $25 each for souvenirs. Apparently, an apple covered in chocolate and smarties is considered a souvenir. Who knew? At one point, Ronald pointed out a post card he saw on display, saying that it showed where hell was. It featured a map of Canada that highlighted Saskatchewan. Yes, I really need to have a talk with my boys. Of course, Timothy Shire would probably say that we got what we deserved for heading south instead of visiting Tisdale.


We were driving north on our third day out, stopping in Brooks to view the old concrete aqueduct, which was rather interesting and impressive to see. It was used for 65-years to transport water over a couple of miles until 1979, when it was replaced by a larger and more efficient earthen system. We had lunch there and debated our next move. Okay, how bad did we want to drive to the Dinosaur Provincial Park? Not very, it turned out, though from what we've heard it is a definite future destination. We had promised the boys we would stop by Drumheller and check out the large dinosaur they had seen being constructed two or three years ago. If we did that, then the lads were more than satisfied to sleep in their own beds that night. We now had a firm plan. We saw the dinosaur, we climbed up into his 'waving in the breeze' head and looked out, took pictures, and the lads hit the souvenir stand. Then Amy allowed me to finally drive. Okay, she had offered before, but the story sounds so much better the way I tell it, without any regard as to facts. We were off to the Dairy Queen in Stettler for supper and then over to Highway 2 for the final leg up to Edmonton.

in 60 hours

As we drove west to Lacombe, we watched the clouds and the very broad, very black rain streaks that were heading our way. We managed to avoid the storm until we got just north of Bear Hills, when the skies just opened up. I noticed the dirt we had picked up from the Cypress Hills didn't wash off. It just turned to mud on the back window. Well, at least we weren't complaining of it being hot nor dusty. We got home just before 8:30pm, amazingly refreshed and thankful to be back home. There are not too many vacations that last less than 60 hours that can accomplish that.


Ron Thornton

Links and Further Reading:
  Cypress Hills <http://www.cypresshills.com/sask.html>
  Fort Walsh <http://www.cypresshills.com/fortwalsh.html>
  Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump <http://www.head-smashed-in.com/>
  Fort Macleod <http://www.fortmacleod.com/visiting/>
  Frank Slide <http://www.frankslide.com/faq.html>
  Fort Whoop-up <http://www.fortwhoopup.com/exhibits.html>
  Foremost <http://www.foremostalberta.com/recleisure.htm>
  Sweet Grass Hills <http://comus.msun.edu/Hon290/Geology.html>
  Maple Creek <http://www.town.maple-creek.sk.ca/homeinfo.html>
  Medicine Hat <http://www.city.medicine-hat.ab.ca/>
  Brooks Aquaduct <http://www.eidnet.org/local/aqueduct/photo.htm>
  Dinosaur Provincial Park <http://www.cd.gov.ab.ca/enjoying_alberta/parks/featured/dinosaur/gallery.asp>
  Drumheller's Giant T-Rex <http://www.alittlehistory.com/Drumheller/Dr-T-Rex.htm>



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