Friday, October 31, 2014

To Medicine Hat and beyond

The landscape from Swift Current to Medicine Hat is an example of the transformation from dryland grain farming to ranch country. Two good indicators are the appearance of sagebrush among the grass and the small herds of sheep and cattle in the distance.

Scattered throughout the fields and ranges are collections of slow-dipping oil pumps and associated storage tanks. We also passed many small reed filled lakes and the occasional alkali slough, although the latter were typically so full of water that the telltale white rings around their shoreline were thin at best.

Approaching Medicine Hat we could see the storied Cypress Hills on the southern horizon. It was here that Sitting Bull sought refuge for his people as they fled from the US cavalry. It was in these hills that Fort Walsh was established to 'tame' the region on behalf of the British crown, and it was on these plains that thousands of buffalo roamed before being decimated for agriculture and sport.

Once past Medicine Hat the rolling hills turned flat and cultivated. The occasional pumping station marks the line of pipeline buried beneath the fields to carry the petroleum and natural gas for which the region is famous. The highway takes the form of a study in perspective as the road, fenceposts, and powerlines aim for the same point directly ahead.

Just after we passed the turnoff to Hussar (one of our NRE sites) we saw the first signs of irrigation - in the form of the long lines of pipes on wheels that create the huge circles that look like flying saucer landing sites from the air.

On the road again!

Hooray! We're back on the road.

It's a sunny but windy day. Instead of gusts from around the rocks and lakes like in Northern Ontario, however, these are gusts from the horizon - across grasslands unbroken except for power lines and the occasional grove of trees surrounding a farmhouse or barn. It feels great to be underway and full to be traversing this expansive terrain.

Most of the fields are just stubble from the recent harvest, but the occasional stands of prairie grass are rippling from the wind. We passed a small herd of antelope off to our right and watch the flocks of geese cross our path on their southern journey. We feel a certain kinship with them on our own trek.

Dwayne and his brother at BOJO Moters gave us excellent treatment in the face of our dilemma. He not only diagnosed the issue with the coil but followed up the subsequent problem in a competent and effective fashion. It turned out that the fuel injectors were creating problems - with at least one of them flooding the engine with gas. Now that they are cleaned and calibrated They seem to be purring along nicely.

Waiting for the repair - and related updates - we basically hibernated in our motel. We had an opportunity to try out all the restaurants within walking distance, however. We got reasonably competent crossing 8 lanes of traffic and 3 highway ditches in the process since some of the destinations were across the 2 highway thoroughfares and their associated service roads.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A Little Family History

Hanging out in Swift Current has got me thinking about my family history. I remember my father referring to this town as the nearest "big city" to Herbert: his home town. My great grandparents and grandfather homesteaded in this region - building a dwelling out of sod until they were able to construct a wood one.

I have several photos from this time because my grandfather was an amateur photographer. He would lug the glass plates, chemicals, and camera that were part of the trade at that time. This one is of the Penner homestead near Handsome Lake in 1908. Margaretha Penner was my grandfather's first wife. She died in the flu epidemic of 1919.

I particularly like the ones of the threshing crew he worked with and the long "train" of tractor,  grader,  boxcar, and model A that he used to work and transport his family around northern Saskatchewan in the summer.

This was the region that produced his story of his trick to get to sleep in (see It was also highlighted for me by the photo of my parents out on a date - with my father pausing to clean the spark plugs along the way. I guess I shouldn't feel bad about our own pause to fix a failed ignition coil.

Looking out on the expansive fields and dried grasslands it is hard to imagine what life would have been like in those days, but most of the stories I grew up with were cheery ones.

Sojourn in Swift Current

Our imposed pause in Swift Current has its advantages. While we wait for the part to arrive from Calgary we have a chance to catch up a bit on our e-mail, visit with the motel staff, and I was even able to listen in to Tom's ongoing course on the Dynamics of Income and Wealth.

Since we don't have transportation, we are not able to explore Swift Current a great deal (an indication itself of prairie life) but we were still able to get some of the local news from the server at supper last night, the woman who served breakfast this morning, and the staff of the hotel. The server at supper was a recent addition to the community (8 months). He was invited to help rejuvenate the hotel and restaurant business. He was complaining about the lack of collaboration among the hotels along the strip - they didn't want to make deals about coupons or other arrangements for sharing breakfast facilities, for example.

There are many hotels along this strip of the road - and a casino across the highway. If our hotel is any indication, however, most of the clientele are railway or highway workers. We see many people coming and going in their orange safety jackets and working coveralls. It recalls for me the discussions I have had with my research colleagues about the importance of utility and transportation workers to the sustainability of rural areas. I expect that these hotels depend a great deal on such clients - with some travelers (like us) and perhaps some of the casino-goers.

Swift Current is located at the eastern edge of the Palliser Triangle - a huge area of southern Saskatchewan and Alberta that includes a variety of landscapes: from deserts to vast farms and grasslands. The buffalo no longer roam the grasslands of the region since farms have taken over much of the arable land, but even the farmers have experienced years of drought mixed in with the years of plenty. Much of the farming in this region is "dryland farming": farming without the benefit of irrigation, so the weather conditions (particularly the moisture) drive their fate. If we can get our van going, this will be the land we traverse on our way to Calgary.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Westfalia Woes

We got up this morning, did our picnic breakfast in the room routine, loaded the car, and fired it up - but only for a moment. As I was backing out, the engine died - and wouldn't start in spite of my various attempts. Eventually we called CAA and an attempt at a boost led to the same result. The tow truck driver got on the phone with the one guy in town who was up to dealing with VWs and hoisted the car for the trip to the garage.

We hung out at the garage waiting for the mechanic to turn up from his lunch and watched him go through the diagnosis routine. I was pleased to see his approach to the problem - methodical and appropriate for VWs. In his search he discovered that the pin in the ignition coil to which the distributor cable was attached had corroded so badly that there was no solid connection to the cable. It was no wonder that the engine couldn't start: no spark!

After checking with his supplier the mechanic announced that the nearest replacement was in Calgary and that it would likely arrive by courier tomorrow noon.

So we are now set up in a Comfort Inn with a selection of key items from the van and a new plan for our trip. If the replacement arrives as anticipated and the problem is fixed early enough we will aim to reach Calgary tomorrow night. This sets back our plans for Calgary, Kelowna, Penticton, and Vancouver. Instead of holding my webinar for Grad-Pro skills in Calgary, it will be in Swift Current tomorrow. Hopefully the car will be ready by the time my webinar is completed.

As we have discovered on our previous trips, traveling by Westfalia is always an adventure. It's also a lesson in small towns - the major delays are most often related to retrieving parts from across the country. It means that our travel plans must always include a buffer for recovery time in a motel somewhere along the route.

Monday, October 27, 2014

McLean to Swift Current

After our lunch at the McLean cafe we went out to a van that was heavy with wet snow. The roads were wet, but the snow melted quickly and was washed by the rain so we could manage the driving without more care than would be required for driving on a wet surface.

The rain made it difficult to get a good idea of the landscape, but just after Pilot Butte it was clear we had descended the eastern moraine of glacial Lake Regina - the largest of the prairie legacy lakes from the glacial age. This vast area of fertile land has been almost totally converted from natural grasslands to cultivated crops. The periodic grain storage facilities are a testament to the abundance of the crops from this region.

Belle Plaine marked the western edge of Lake Regina with the re-emergence of the elevation rise and rocky soil of the moraine. This part of the plains provides mineral resources as well. Potash mines are noticeable by the numerous igloo-shaped storage sheds visible from the road. Farther along, near Chaplin we also passed by the accumulations of sodium sulfate being gathered from settling ponds.

As we passed my father’s birthplace of Herbert ( with Samantha) we were surprised by the size of Reed Lake – another remnant of glacial formations – this time of Lake Herbert. We turned in to get gas at a small station in the area – and to check whether this was an unusual year for the size of the lake or whether it was at its normal levels. The East Indian staff assured me that this was the normal size for the lake – valuable for ducks and geese, but too shallow for fishing or swimming. Our exchange also reinforced my questions about the changing character of the ownership and operation of enterprises in many of these small towns.

We reached our destination of the day (Swift Current) and pulled in to the Rainbow Motel – tired from the drive. We made good use of the microwave to prepare our pea soup supper before settling in to update our blogs and check our e-mail. We were delighted to receive a Skype call from Samantha as she was working out her education plans for next year.

Brandon to McLean

We headed west of Brandon with grey skies and a chilly wind. The forecast was for rain showers mixed with wet snow.

The terrain was a continuation of the moraine with a mix of low-rolling hills, clumps of trees, and scrub brush until around Alexander – where the land dropped slightly then flattened out in another section of rich flat soil. It is the bottom of the ancient Lake Souris – another glacial lake we will cross on our way across the prairies.

Scattered along our route were more signs of the agricultural basis of the region. This time in the form of the modern grain storage and elevators with their truck and rail accompaniment.

Around Virden we saw the large bobbing bird-like pumps scattered across the prairie – an indication of the oil found beneath the plains. Apparently the oil in many of these wells is mixed with salt-water: a legacy of the fact that about 136 million years ago this was an ocean (according to the ecotours).

From Virden we began climbing again (by prairie standards) – marking the shoreline of the ancient lake Souris and the poor soils of the moraine. White aspen groves replaced the grasslands and the farms became smaller and, in some cases, showed the signs of stress – like abandoned buildings. This was the region in which my mother grew up – on a farm near Rocanville, just a short distance from the highway. We were in a rush, so didn’t take the side trip to visit her house this time – like we did when travelling from Victoria with our granddaughter (

The groves of aspen continued until around Grenfell – the bank of the third glacial lake bottom we will cross: Lake Indian Head.

Once again the land flattened out, the farms grew larger, and the soils became rich and dark – all the way to Indian Head where the western shore of the ancient lake formed another moraine. Aspen and scrub brush reappeared and many of the farms looked hard pressed to survive. The appearance of a large wind farm in the region hinted at one way in which new technology is being used to overcome the limitations of the soil. It was soon after we passed this farm that we pulled in to one of the small towns: McLean SK.

McLean is a very small settlement that has lost most of its services (including a gas station). There is still a café and bar in the town so we stopped in just as the snow began to accumulate on our windshield.

The café is a study of prairie town transformations. We walked in to the bar to the sounds of a TV tuned to an East Indian movie. A woman was watching the show while a man was busy with a customer at the bar. Once we placed our order, the TV channel was switched to a sports channel (presumably in deference to what they assumed were our interests).

During our lunch several men came in to the bar – some of them stopping in behind the plywood barricade to play a few rounds on the gambling machines and some of them sitting at the bar for a quick beer. They were welcomed like old friends.
Our arrival at Bill Ashton's in Brandon was perfectly timed. Dinner was prepared and after half an hour Hans and Heidi,  the other guests, arrived.  Hans Bakker is the Stanley Knowles Distinguished Visiting Professor at Brandon University so Bill had the foresight to invite him and his wife to our gathering. It was a delightful choice since we had much in common from rural studies to raising kids and interest in religious matters. 

Bill had prepared a tasty meal of bok choy, barbecued pork, and fried rice. Dessert was banana cranberry loaf with chocolate butter icing. We spent a wonderful evening visiting before climbing in to warm flannel sheets for the night. Thanks Bill, Hans, and Heidi. 

Winnipeg to Brandon

We set off on Highway 1 - crossing the flat land created by the ancient Glacial Lake Agassiz. This is the lake bed left over when the lake created by melting glaciers eventually emptied to what are now the waters of Lake Winnipeg and Hudson's Bay.

The flat and fertile sediments have been exploited by the farmers of the region since they are perfect for growing the grains that feed the world. The vast fields of the region are only broken by clusters of farm houses and barns and the infrastructure of commodity trade: grain elevators and train tracks.

Once we reached the the settlement of Sidney we climbed the rise that marks the ancient lakeshore, and entered the sand dunes of the old Assiniboine flood plain.

Finally, about Douglas Station we entered the Uplands region - consisting of mixed outwash from the ancient lakes and rivers, ground moraine from the edges of the glaciers, and water deposits. In the middle of this region stands Brandon - the regional service centre and our destination for the night.

Once again I am thankful for the ecotour series produced by the Canadian Forest Service many years ago. This is a series of small booklets that describe the geology, flora, fauna, and social history of sections along the transcanada highway. It is designed for car travel - describing what we see out the car window every kilometer along the road.

It was the ecotour series that transformed my travel across the prairies - teaching me what to look for along with its significance. This series taught me, for example, that there are many different regions on the prairie - each with their own special characteristics and importance.  They are essential reading for any cross - country traveler or Canadian enthusiast.  You can download them from

Lunch at Stella's

We had a lovely lunch at Stella's Cafe. It was Sunday noon, so the place was very crowded - requiring us to wait in line, but there was a great variety of food with a nice emphasis on local products. Our conversation began in the lineup so by the time that Matt arrived we had a good catchup with Zoe and even covered some of the business of the Rural Policy Learning Commons (

It was wonderful to catch up with both of them. They seemed to be enjoying the people and activities in Winnipeg and finding engaging challenges of both a professional and personal nature. Since Fran spent some of her youth in Winnipeg (her father was a United Church Minister here - there was plenty of opportunity to compare notes on the city as well.

After saying goodbye we considered a visit to the new Museum of Human Rights, but were pressed for our next appointment - in Brandon.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Kenora to Winnipeg

Got up to a cool crisp autumn morning, made breakfast in our motel room, gassed up, and headed west. Once we were past the resorts, lakes, cabins, and storage centres with their rows of plastic-covered boats we found ourselves back among spruce, bog, and rock.

The cool temperature of the night left frost on the reeds that were shaded by the rocks and trees but the morning sun would soon change their white to brown.

It was a nostalgic part of the trip since we knew the familiar signs of Shield country were almost behind us for the next six months. We were moving from one major geological formation to another. I expect that the early European settlers coming this way were anything but nostalgic as they traded bog and rock for grass and gumbo!

Within an hour the subtle changes were underway. The ratio of spruce to birch and poplar was changing to favour the latter and the rock was flattening - requiring fewer cuts in the road. It didn't take long before the sky expanded to dominate the landscape.

The first farms appeared at the McMunn turnoff. They were clearly struggling at best but by the time we reached the road to Steinbeck the well-maintained buildings outnumbered the dilapidated and the soil had become rich and black. We were now on the Eastern plains.

Winnipeg re-introduced to city driving as we followed our GPS instructions to Stella's for our lunch with Zoe. After finding our way to the wrong one we redirected ourselves to Portage Avenue and found Zoe patiently waiting our arrival.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Bucking the wind to Kenora

The weather challenge for the day was the wind. The 50 kph gusts play havoc with the VW. The non-aerodynamic shape acts like a sail - requiring both hands on the wheel and full attention to the road. We each welcomed the ring of the timer when our hour at the wheel came to an end.

Once out of the Thunder Bay region we were back in the land of telephone poles with skirts. The bogland is so wet, the topsoil so thin, and the Shield rock so close to the surface that digging holes for poles is out of the question. As a result, they must be braced with extra supports along the way.

Once out of the bogs, the road rises over the hills and through channels cut through solid rock. Gradually, the bogs and rocks are outnumbered by lakes and the wildness of the terrain appears gradually tamed by the roadsigns, resorts, and commercial establishments of the region. By the time we entered the outskirts of Kenora we were quite clearly in recreation territory. Our motel was a welcome respite from the stress of the windy road.

Thunder Bay

The city of Thunder Bay always stirs my Canadian sensibilities - as a key location in our country's growth. Fort William and Port Arthur (the original settlements) were established as important transfer points for western trade goods as they made their way through the St Lawrence system. This is currently reflected in the massive array of grain elevators that line the shore - with ocean-going ships on one side and long rows of railway cars on the other. It was through these ports that western furs were collected and prepared for the trip to Eastern Canada and European markets. It is now the location where the grain from our prairie farmers is transferred from train to ship.

It is a transportation town but it has also become a pulp mill town, service centre,  and education hub.

At this point our road more consistently follows the path of the railroad - for the most part all the way to the west coast. I find it exciting to think of the history of this infrastructure - both the good and the bad. It's no wonder that it's still a thrill to receive a whistle or wave from the engineer at the controls of a passing freight.

We woke up to the sounds of preparation for a Saturday open house on the farm. Each weekend in fall the farm is opened to the public for a variety of activities - from pumpkin and farm produce shopping to hay rides, animal petting,  and a cornfield maze. 

Claire was off to Sweet Adelide and Don was on breakfast duty before helping with the farm setup and getting Fin to hockey practice. Jody was on management and general go-fer duty. Lily has been backup on most aspects of the business. It's a real family affair (

Kevin was off at a marketing conference so missed out on the day's events. He and Jody have been very innovative in the face of changing markets. Their exploration of new crops is complemented by online marketing to the region. The "Superior Seasons Food Market" specializes in sustainably grown and hand crafted items from local vendors. Orders can be made online and the products are delivered to businesses or to a central location for individual pickup (http://www.marketstore.locallygrown net).

We wandered over to watch the setup in the greenhouse for the anticipated guests, got a guided tour from Don, and explored the crafts, products, and food setup. Lily was busy in the barn setting up the pumpkin toss and other games for the kids.

By 11:00 the first guests had arrived for a birthday celebration and the kids headed off to check out the giant pumpkins and farm animals. We headed to the snack bar for potato clam chowder, chili, and cinnamon bun to fortify ourselves for the next leg of our journey. 
By the time we arrived at Thunder Bay we had to put on sunglasses again so we pulled into the driveway of Belluz farms in great spirits. Don Belluz is one of Fran's shirt-tail cousins who farmed here for 40 years before turning it over to his son - as his father had done before him.

The Belluz farm was one of the earliest farms in the region - and one that has successfully managed to survive the challenges of a relatively cold climate and small market. When Fran visited here as a child in the 50s this was primarily a potato farm. When we visited in the 90s they had diversified into strawberries and corn, and today they grow strawberries and several types of vegetables. They have done a great job developing the local market  through both commercial and community clients.

We were greeted in country style to a delicious meal of chicken lasagne spaghetti-squash, stuffed green peppers, and tomato sauce. Topped off with the choice of pumpkin or apple pie it was a perfect setup for an evening of catchup and reminiscences.

Friday, October 24, 2014

We knew we were back by the lakeshore when we reached Marathon since we entered the fog for which the North Shore is well known. It was thick enough to mean that we almost missed Schreiber where we planned to stop for lunch.

Schreiber is well known to us because we were stuck here in 2012 on our Victoria to Montréal trip with our Granddaughter ( We got towed into town by Joe who dropped us off at his garage. A quick look on the hoist made it clear to him that a VW was beyond his capacity so he recommended we check it with the other garage in the morning. He recommended a local motel which (we discovered the next day) belonged to his sister-in-law. 

When the mechanic finished his inspection the next morning he climbed out to announce that the repair was "going to be very expensive! " After he gave time for my worst fears of the previous night to sink in, he added "It's going to be at least $10!" 

A hose clip had come loose - spilling oil on the hot engine. A quick retightening was enough to get us on our way.

The experience gave us time to explore the town, however, and we learned about its interesting history. It was settled as a railroad town at the convergence of two main lines. Most of the residents were Italian workers. This is clear even today by the dominance of the Catholic church and the Italian names on the stores, garages, and parks. They maintain a lovely little museum in the town - celebrating their history and passing on the local stories.

Today, our stay was much shorter as we made our lunch in the van - parked in the fog by the little church on main street.

October 24
Woke up to foggy weather in Wawa. After packup we stopped in at Canadian Tire to pick up an ice scraper in response to our experience yesterday.  We then headed to Tim Hortons to join the trades people,  4x4 enthusiasts,  canoeists,  and seniors for their breakfasts and coffees. The parking lot and drive-through tell the story of the clientele. 

The section of the highway from Wawa to Marathon takes us away from the Lake Superior shore and into the heart of Shield country. I used to think of it as uninteresting but have changed my mind as I began to pay more attention to its riches and history. This is a region that was once mountainous but has been scoured by the weight and motion of huge sheets of ice. The rocks are left smooth, the lakes are shallow, and the bogs are rich with hardy vegetation. It is impressive to see the evidence of animals that have made it home - especially the dams and stick houses of the beaver.

Even the birch trees have lost their leaves on this stretch of road although the tamaracks remain as a contrast to the predominant green of the spruce. We are also enjoying the emergence of mauve as a winter colours - a contribution of the clumps of leaf-less brush that serve as a skirt to the trees. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

We're staying at Wawa tonight. With the late arrival we decided to motel-it again. We dumped our overnight stuff in the room then headed back to the van. Fran cooked a lovely "golden risotto" from our Sierra Club camping cookbook, asparagus, and tomato salad and we enjoyed a lovely meal in the parking lot of the Bristol motel.

We're about 60 km from Wawa so Fran will take us in to town. The drive over Lake Superior has been spectacular - as usual - but travelling through on a clear autumn day beats them all so far. The ocean-style waves breaking on the crags, islands, and sandy beaches on the left side of the van are complemented by the mirror-smooth pocket lakes, sheer cliffs, accents of yellow and orange in green and mauve, and waterfalls and rapids of iced-tea brown on the left hand side.

Once we were away from the Sault population,  it was no longer the flashing lights of school buses that slowed us down but the many climbs that the road took up and over each of the granite outcroppings into the lake. Even the dynamite of the road crews couldn't level the remnants of the ancient mountain. Travelling in our '84 van meant that we were forced to take time to enjoy each one of them.

It wasn't a biologist we needed - it was an agricultural economist! Peter Apedaile sent an email suggesting that the yellow conifers were Tamaracks (Hackmatacks). They shed their needles. This makes it much easier to enjoy the lovely yellows we see on the hills and by the rivers along our way: knowing they will be back in the spring to begin another round of delight.

We enjoyed a quick lunch with the construction crew at a picnic site by Blind River before winding our way through the farm, river, and hill country over the North Channel of Lake Huron. The photo shows Fran opening the remnants of a 2006 fruit cake that she and Daegan made in Victoria - a favorite camping snack: fruit cake and cheese.

It must be difficult to farm in this region. There are pockets of flat land and some examples of varied crops, but for the most part they seem to rely on grass for hay to support small herds of cattle. Most of the barns need a coat of paint so when we pass the few that are well maintained they stand out.

We are now on our final leg to Wawa - the hitchhiker's nemesis - at least in the days when hitchhiking was a normal way to explore our country. Wawa is half way between "the Saut" and Thunder Bay with a separate entrance and exit road to the town. This meant that if a driver tired of the hitchhiker, they would explain how they had to go in to town for gas or something, that they would leave the rider at the entrance and pick them up again if noone else had done so by the time they were leaving. Meanwhile they would just slip out the other road back to the highway.

When Fran and I hitchhiked through there in 1965 on our way to Fort William, we got stuck at Wawa - along with many others. We were all strung out along the highway for a mile or so. After walking past the 7th or 8th hitchhiker (the protocol was to take your place at the end of the string) we decided to give up and flagged down the Greyhound bus as it came by. Grandma Hamlet appreciated our use of public transportation.