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How to Summer in Saskatchewan

Getting his feet wet in the lakes and rivers of Saskatchewan, our writer discovers the province’s liquid assets.

Paddleboard on Waskesiu Lake

Located in Prince Albert National Park, in central Saskatchewan, Waskesiu Lake will float your boat – or your paddleboard.

“Always be paddling. It will make you a lot more comfortable.” Marcus Storey is giving my daughters and me our first stand-up paddleboarding lesson, on the blue-green glide of the South Saskatchewan River. As we stroke past the tree-lined banks of downtown Saskatoon on a warm and quiet weekday morning, the suggestions of our dreadlocked and shaggy-bearded teacher sound more like life lessons than advice on remaining upright. The twins quickly find their river legs, rekindle a sibling grievance and launch into a game of bumper boards; Storey and I power ahead to avoid getting side-swiped by the 10-year-olds and settle into the silky current. “I love this view,” he says as we paddle by the new River Landing spray park – where a wetland marsh filters surface runoff – and the rectangular protrusion of the Remai Modern Art Gallery, scheduled to open next year. “You get such a unique look at the water because you’re basically walking on it. You see the city – and yourself – in a whole new way.”

The girls and I are spending a week travelling around Saskatchewan, looking for places to stay cool under the scorching summer sun. The southern part of the province, known for its endless wheat fields, presents as flat and dry. But wherever the land drops, there’s water, such as this fissure, channelling meltwater from the Rockies before snaking through Saskatoon on its way toward Lake Winnipeg. And, as we soon find out, prairie people treasure their oases, infusing the usual rituals – like heading to the river on a nice day – with a laid-back surf vibe.

Paddleboard on the South Saskatchewan River

Going with the flow on the South Saskatchewan River, Saskatoon rethinks urban transportation.

For a more traditional look at the South Saskatchewan, we drive 20 minutes outside of the city with veteran outfitter Cliff Speer, who owns the CanoeSki Discovery Company. We help carry his 18-foot canoe down a mud-slick path to the semi-wilderness of the waterway. Hemmed in by cut banks, the river looks greener and clearer here; shifting sandbars keep outboard motors at bay. A hawk circles overhead, and cottonwood leaves, trembling in the breeze, mimic the sound of flowing water. Maggie and Daisy sit on dry bags in the middle of the canoe and grab short paddles, ready to throw some muscle into our run back to Saskatoon because that would mean more time in the hotel pool. Speer is in no rush. “When you cross the province on the Trans-Canada, you see flat prairie, but that’s a narrow slice. There’s actually a lot of relief in the topography,” he says from the stern. “Slow down and look closer.”

Breakfast crepes at Saskatoon’s Drift Café

Waking up to smell the breakfast crepes at Saskatoon’s Drift Café.

Following Speer’s advice, we come to a full stop the next morning at Drift Café. The hammock-chair-sprinkled spot, just west of downtown Saskatoon, is run by Storey and his family next to their niche Escape Sports shop. (Think unicycles, slack lines, disc golf – and paddleboards.) We sit down beneath a potted palm, surrounded by pineapples, and I order a breakfast crepe drizzled with charred jalapeño avocado crème fraîche. Listening to Bob Marley encouraging us to stir it up, it feels like we’re in a tropical clubhouse. Upstairs in the Vista Lounge, where the bar and fixtures are handmade from teak and bamboo and the Mediterranean-themed menu features eggplants and peppers from the rooftop garden, garage doors roll open to a wraparound balcony with a glimpse of the river a couple of blocks away. I could spend the whole week here drinking watermelon cocktails, wasting away in Saskaritaville.

Beyond the big sky, late and long northern sunsets and an affability that arises when people have plenty of space to share, summer in Saskatchewan is a trip back in time. After calling in at a friend’s family farm, where lunch under an elm consists of pickled eggs, borscht and homemade perogies with berry preserve, we barrel along two-lane highways through yellow canola fields and billowing poplar fluff toward an imperceptible cleft in the horizon. The road turns, and we descend steeply into a glacial valley where, like a mirage, a lake and a village appear.

Sailing on Little Manitou Lake

It’s smooth sailing on Little Manitou Lake near Watrous.

Manitou Beach, on the shore of Little Manitou Lake, in the middle of southern Saskatchewan, has been a magnet for tourists since the early 1900s, when its curative waters rivalled Banff’s hot springs in popularity. In 1837, we’re told, three Cree braves, feverish with smallpox, supposedly drank from and bathed in the mineral-rich water and awoke in the morning restored. The spring-fed lake is rich in sodium, magnesium and potassium salts – it’s a veritable little Dead Sea on the prairie. You float. By the 1920s, there were a pair of bathing pools, a cluster of hotels and restaurants and rail service from four cities. We take a stroll along the main strip; there’s a burger joint/ice cream parlour beside the beach, a tavern and curio shop down the block and a spa resort across the street. It appears that nothing has changed (except the trains, which no longer come and go).

Maggie, Daisy and I check into the Manitou Springs Hotel, drop our bags and dash across the property to the therapeutic baths, a gymnasium-size indoor pool where piped-in lake water is warmed to 38°C. The hot salts sting the scrapes the girls got picking raspberries on my friend’s farm, while the pale aquamarine light reflected off the surface does nothing to flatter my pale white skin, so we beeline back to the beach and swim in the cool lake to a floating dock. A mysterious rope disappears into the water. We pull it. Tied to the end, a stiff-bristled broom emerges: DIY dock cleaning, par for the course in farm country. On shore, a kaleidoscopic crowd of tattooed bikers, wide-hatted Hutterites and Japanese bus tourists dip toes and pose for pictures. The girls splash in the shallows as I lay back, spread my arms until my body forms a cross, close my eyes and nearly fall asleep bobbing in the swell.

Eating at Burger Buoy after a day at Manitou Beach

Buoy oh buoy, do burgers and milkshakes taste good after a long day testing the waters in Manitou Beach.

The throwback charm of Manitou Beach stretches past the waterfront. Just up the hill, in Watrous, the highwayside town that acts as a gateway to the resort, 150 gleaming hot rods and antique cars are angle-parked on Main Street for the largest annual automobile show in rural Saskatchewan. Maggie and Daisy pick their favourites – a cherry-red Mustang convertible and a pink Cadillac – devour hot dogs and doughnuts and sit in the cockpit of a souped-up ’62 Nova that’s got a God Speed Ministry decal slapped on it. “We take God out of the church,” explains chaplain Irena Broadfoot, who owns the old Chevy with her husband, Andy, “and we put him on the racetrack.”

I get a spiritual top-up a half-hour drive south, hiking in the grasslands of Last Mountain Lake, North America’s oldest bird sanctuary and a migratory stop for more than 280 species. The girls inspect rocks and chase butterflies as I wade into green and golden waves of grass, awash in birdsong. We climb an observation tower and spot a flock of American white pelicans soaring in formation above a patchwork of sloughs. Among the heaviest flying birds in the world, they have been known to work as a team, herding fish into the shallows to feed. We marvel at their tremendous prehistoric wingspan and steady flight. But the temperature is well into the 30s, and the dry clover-scented wind sucks moisture from our skin, so we take shelter on a granite boulder in the shade of a lone aspen. We soak up a chorus of crickets, then retreat for another swim in Little Manitou Lake.

Couple dancing at Danceland, in Manitou Beach

With a horsehair-cushioned dance floor, Danceland, in Manitou Beach, will put a spring in your step.

“I was a tadpole in that water,” Millie Strueby, the septuagenarian owner of Danceland, a barnlike 1928 dance hall on the lakeshore, tells me after we venture out of our hotel and into the golden 9 p.m. twilight. Pumpkin-size paper lanterns hang from Douglas fir rafters above a stage where, a few old-timers insist, Elvis and Hank Snow once performed. Tonight’s band is versatile – polka, country, swing but “no head-banging music,” as Strueby says – to keep the springy dance floor shaking. An array of burlap-wrapped horsehair coils beneath the maple floorboards soften the landing for five dozen pairs of aging knees and for the toddlers who careen around in between. (Horsetail hair was a plentiful resource back in the early 1900s; knee surgeons were not.) It’s one of a handful of these halls built throughout Western Canada and one of the last still open. A blond girl in a pretty dress starts talking to my daughters, who are swept into a rollicking game of tag with a pack of kids. “The water relaxes you,” Strueby tells me. “But then we get you going again.”

Kapasiwin Bungalows in Waskesiu

Find a room of your own at Kapasiwin Bungalows in Waskesiu.

In the rolling boreal woodlands of Prince Albert National Park, two and a half hours north of Saskatoon, the rift in time deepens. In Waskesiu, a small townsite on the large lake of the same name, the sprawling sandy beach is framed by vital amenities – a bustling bakery with the best prices I’ve seen in decades, a multigenerational sundae institution, a well-stocked government liquor store – and Parks Canada’s familiar, comforting brown-and-yellow signage. Children walk, run and bike around barefoot and unaccompanied, like their grandparents did in the 1950s. Our cozy studio cabin at Kapasiwin Bungalows dates back to that era, its frame and furniture hewn from logs felled on site. Sitting on the deck with a beer after the girls run off to a playground circled by pines, I could be in any northern thicket – except in this one nobody spoils your peace and quiet. Which is why regulars book vacations here two years in advance.

“Remember that old adage?” Bryn Wendelborg, the owner at the time of our visit, asks me the following morning. “Happy kids make happy parents.” Children eventually crave uptempo excitement. Even a see-saw can become a weapon when twins spend too much time together. At an attraction just outside the park boundary, we cinch harnesses and don helmets, and climb a ship’s ladder to a wooden platform nestled in the treetops. Clipped to an overhead wire, we zip through a canyon of tamarack and birch, our pulleys whizzing like a fishing line getting played out hard. From 12 metres above the forest floor, at speeds topping 40 kilometres an hour, even bogs and beaver ponds look exotic. “It’s not only about getting your adrenalin pumping,” says Jori Kirk from Elk Ridge Eco-Adventures. “Ziplining changes your perspective on this forest. There are some serious layers here.”

Sitting at a picnic table at Manitou Beach

Taking the slow road in Manitou Beach will have you on a fast track to relaxation.

The girls and I get another adrenalin rush that afternoon. We rent paddleboards and, to avoid Waskesiu Lake’s choppy open water, track a blue heron down a shallow lily-pad-blanketed stream. By the time we turn around, threatening grey clouds have amassed into a thunderstorm. Our boards buck in the breakers, but Marcus Storey’s advice keeps us steady as we strain back toward the dock. Always be paddling.

RELATED: 6 Things to Do in Saskatoon and Manitou Beach



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