A while ago, I was lucky enough to spend some time crop-touring the back roads around Elbow, Saskatchewan.
Crop touring, for those lacking the benefit of a rural upbringing, could be easily defined as the fine art of driving around aimlessly while appreciating the beauty of finely ploughed fields and solving the problems of the world with a good friend.
This used to involve a case of beer on occasion and a pick-up that could be tuned down to achieve a max speed of six miles an hour on idle in first gear, but that has since become unacceptable so now it just involves driving around.
Let’s face it — southern Saskatchewan ain’t a place where you’ll bump into Pamela Anderson or Christopher Plummer. Even Brent Butt quit shooting there. But there is a magic in those wheat fields that goes beyond pop culture and for most of us it’s not represented by a voice whispering “build it and they will come” or even “kill the neighbours”.
It’s simply a lovely space of rolling grasslands and wheat fields stretching to the edge of the horizon in every direction, and that horizon is so broad it dips like Khayyam’s inverted bowl at the edges.
Being in the middle of the Prairies is like being far out to sea. You are free to head in whatever direction strikes your fancy. You can also stand in one spot and see so far that when you turn 360° your view encompasses ten different weather patterns — from brilliant sunshine, to thunderstorms, to rain showers, to rainbows, to pink-painted thunderheads, to crimson sunsets.
Prairie geography isn’t drab either. Drive through them when the canola crop is in blossom. It’s like stepping into a Van Gough painting. If that’s not enough, check out the scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles or any one of a hundred other bird species that use the Great Plains as their migration route.
In the spillway below the Gardiner Dam, the five kilometre-long earthwork that created Lake Diefenbaker forty years ago, American white pelicans and sandhill cranes gather in the hundreds, making enough noise to muffle the sound of anyone who approaches.
If anything, the area west of Regina and east of Calgary is reminiscent of the great savannahs of the Masai Mara/Serengeti plain that run up through Tanzania and Kenya. It has the same rolling geography graced by grassy swales and deep coulees.
Sure, the wildlife is a little different. Africa has lions and elephants and giraffes, yadda, yadda. We have white-tailed deer, pronghorn antelope, bison and the occasional black bear.
Once you get there, there is plenty to see. On my first drive through the region, back in the 1970s, the herds of pronghorns grazing right alongside the TransCanada blew me away.
Some of the towns, like Elbow, are pretty cute — in a Dog River sort of way. Then there are the greying sentinels of the prairies — grain elevators.
Every time someone tears down one of these lovely structures, they should immediately be sent to prison without even the faintest hope of the faint hope clause.
There’s no reason to tear them down. It’s not like downtown Vancouver and NYC where land is at a premium. To pass one lit by a late summer harvest moon is to connect with days that we all wish could be our past.
Water is about as frequent around Regina as it is around Dar es Salaam.
Except for Lake Diefenbaker, spare water is relegated to the sloughs hidden at the edge of every field.
Saskawegians do have a that lovely big lake right there and you can still afford a small building lot for a cottage in towns like Riverhurst and Saskatchewan Landing.
When Lake Diefenbaker is topped up — it is controlled by three dams — it stretches over 225 kilometres and reaches depths of up to 58 metres. The surface area covers a not inconsiderable 43,000 hectares and in total Diefenbaker contains 9.4 billion cubic metres of the North Saskatchewan River.
What we don’t have, and it is something the East Africans are ahead of us with, is a transnational park with our neighbour to the south. It would be nice to see a buffalo migration the size of the wildebeest herd grazing its way northward once again. It could run right through South and North Dakota then on up through the centre of the province as far north as the NWT border.
As any school kid knows, we did have millions of the animals until the American government made it a policy to starve the Sioux, Cheyenne and Blackfeet into submission. They authorized the extermination of the buffalo by the army (although I seem to remember during my school days this was totally blamed on irresponsible hunters and not the American government).
It’s too late to undo the damage done to the Plains People, but at least we could return the centre of the continent to something approaching a state of grace and by doing so, a lot more of us would have a great reason to go crop-touring on the continent’s Greatest Plain where the mountains don’t block the view.
“Grain elevator under a harvest moon” © Bruce Kemp
“Pronghorn antelope taking off along the road” © Bruce Kemp
“Graceful rolling plains” © Bruce Kemp
“Birds” © Bruce Kemp
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