As soon as I cross into Saskatchewan, the woman working at the Visitor Centre invites me to dinner. Unfortunately, I’ll be far away by dinner time, but I know I’m in a friendly province! I pass through many tiny towns along the trans Canada, and though the land isn’t as flat as it appears from a car, I can spot a thunderstorm ages before it hits. I head for beautiful Regina, where I visit a museum and gallery (both free!) and the farmer’s market for some Saskatoon jam. On the way out of the city my hubs are rattling so I stop for some grease and repack them by the side of the road. The setback means Faez and I arrive in Moose Jaw after dark as the temperature threatens to drop below zero, but a very kind woman named Ev pulls over and invites us to her BnB for the night, free of charge. After saying a grateful goodbye to her in the morning, we have a fun brunch at the Senior’s Centre and then point our bikes south through the frigid, windy Cactus Hills and beyond. This part of Saskatchewan doesn’t see many visitors, and we’re greeted with warm curiosity wherever we find people. One friendly farmer named Wayne even has us over for coffee.
After a few days we arrive in Mankota, which looks like it’s straight out of a film about the wild wild West. It’s also our last chance to resupply for a few days as we’ll be heading into Grasslands National Park. When we mentioned our plans to visit this area at the provincial Visitor Centre, we were warned there were no supply stores and no drinking water inside the large park. That’s ok, I said, I have a water filter. “Let me rephrase that. There’s no water to put in your filter inside the park,” I was told. We were also warned about the rattlesnakes and black widow spiders we might encounter, and to prepare to be without cell phone service. Outside the single store in Mankota, I strap seven litres of water to my bicycle. I’m ready.
The park is incredible, surpassing my wildest dreams. The first night we arrive late and camp just inside the park gate to avoid disturbing the bison we can hear in the distance. The next morning we’re treated to a beautiful clear day and panoramic views unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I walk through prarie dog colonies (the only ones in Canada!), and spy many of the park’s famous bison, as well as a burrowing owl. The riding is difficult on the single coarse gravel road but we take our time. There are very few cars or other people. The second night we camp halfway up a coulee and the full moon is so bright I can read by it. Coyotes howl. There’s not a speck of man-made light, not one glimpse of human habitation for as far as I can see. From the tent the next morning I watch prarie dogs, mule deer and even more bison before heading to the west end of the park to hike the spectacular Eagle Butte and 70 Mile Butte.
Finishing the hike, we notice a black widow nest, and meet some folks from the nearby town of Val Marie, who invite us to the annual rodeo that evening – good timing! The rodeo is quite an experience, with steer wrestlers, barrel racers and bull riders in hockey helmets. Afterward we camp in the middle of town.
This far south, the rest of the province is mostly ghost towns, and after battling severe headwinds, we spend one night in the baseball dugout of an otherwise empty town, to avoid the hail coming down. I have probably my worst crash of the trip on a hilly, narrow dirt road made for tractors, but luckily despite being thrown several feet from my bike, I’m mostly unscathed. We meet some friendly faces in the 100-person town of Consul, where Ev’s sister lives, and where someone calls up the campground owner and gets them to give us a free night. After that, it’s a long, hilly, windy ride on another dirt road without services, until a tiny road sign tells me I’ve made it to the Alberta border.