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by Gordon McIntyre
Writer Gordon McIntyre canoeing on Lac La Ronge in northern Saskatchewan.
- all photos courtesy the writer
Writer Gordon McIntyre canoeing on Lac La Ronge in northern Saskatchewan.

VANCOUVER -- I'm sitting by the beach in one of the most beautifully located cities on the planet, tapping my laptop under a warm sun, cloudless sky and a gentle breeze. And I'm dreaming of Saskatchewan.

I left Saskatchewan a decade ago, after spending my first 28 years living in four of its cities and spending summers at two of its lakes. I now live within a couple of hours of numerous ski hills, mountain ranges, fishing paradises and various islands, bays, hiking trails and bike paths. It's a five-minute walk to the ocean beach.

But each August, my family packs up and spends the month in Saskatchewan, a province roughly the size of Great Britain but with only a million people. In little, out-of-the-way places, we run into a vice-president of a Manhattan brokerage firm, a General Motors Corp. vice-president in charge of 80,000 employees, an NHL coach, a former Playmate of the year and her boyfriend from the band KISS, all "back home" for a visit.

We don't make the annual pilgrimage just because it's the "old country." My wife Lynn, raised an army brat in Germany, England, Quebec, Ontario and B.C., is as enthusiastic or more than I am as summer approaches and we begin planning what we'll bring. And my son Blake, who's three years old as I write this, and who loves the freedom and space, is safer or as safe as he'd be anywhere in the world.

Main Street in the little resort community of Manitou Beach.
Main Street in the little resort community of Manitou Beach.

I left Saskatchewan for several reasons, none of which had anything to do with the people or the land. And it's the people and the land that lure us back every August, going on seven years now. I grew up in Saskatoon, a pleasant city of 200,000 on the banks of the South Saskatchewan River. I spent my childhood summers at Manitou Lake, a salt-water body 14 miles (23 kms) long and a mile wide, located 75 miles(120 kms) east of Saskatoon. Manitou is so dense with minerals you can lay on your back on a calm day and read a paperback. It's impossible to sink, and no one has ever drowned on the lake or in the salt-water, indoor pool.

Many travel hundreds of kilometres to soak in its supposedly healing waters. Before them -- before the Great Depression and Dust Bowl of the 1930s -- Manitou was a who's-who playland with rows of Model Ts outside its dance halls, indoor pools, restaurants and brothels. And before that, the Sioux rested their wounded, aged and sick on the shores of the lake, which they believed was spiritually as well as physically healing.

In 1978, my dad and I acquired one of a thousand islands that dot Lac La Ronge, a 2,400-square-kilometre lake in the Saskatchewan portion of the Canadian Shield. La Ronge is smack dab in the middle of the province, 800 kms north of the border Saskatchewan shares with Montana and North Dakota, and about 700 kms south of the boundary shared with the Northwest Territories. People not well familiar with the province are surprised to discover northern Saskatchewan's 100,000 lakes, rivers and streams, and its seemingly-endless evergreen forest. Nearly two thirds of the province is in the Canadian Shield, the great rock foundation to which the country is anchored.

There's simply no place on earth like it. At La Ronge, we drink the lake water. We catch our breakfast. If you visit in June or July, the sun sinks behind the horizon at 11:30 p.m. and dawn arrives at 2:30 a.m. As with most of Saskatchewan, the north is a land of extremes. On calm days, the lake is a mirror. In heavy storms, the waves can reach two metres. Summer temperatures can reach 35C.

But it's not the weather that draws you to the north. There are hundreds of miles of virgin forest and lakes teeming with trophy trout, pickerel and northern pike (jack fish). When we built our cabin on Loehr, we had to cut down a tree that was leaning against the building. A count of the rings showed it to be 265 years old. Not ancient for a tree, but it was a sapling at least 130 years before any European set foot in the area. Most of the land is still as untouched as it was before the explorers arrived.

The dock at Loehr Ish, the McIntyres' island on Lac La Ronge.
The dock at Loehr Ish, the McIntyres' island on Lac La Ronge.

To stand on Loehr and look toward the southern shore is to see nothing but lake and sky. For a place almost at the geographic heart of North America, it sure feels a lot like looking out at the ocean from the west shore of Vancouver Island.

The only sounds one hears are the odd float plane passing overhead, the beavers at work, fish or otters breaking the lake's surface and, at dusk, the loons giving their haunting calls.

The north can take the breath away. But so can the south, whether it be the rolling parklands just below the Shield, the horizon-to-horizon fields of golden wheat in the mid and southeast parts of the province, or the badlands, grasslands and desert of the southwest.

We former Saskatchewanians living in British Columbia have a saying: The mountains are nice, but they block the view. I came to understand what that meant on my first trip back to Saskatchewan after two years of backpacking around California, Australia, southeast Asia, India, Nepal and Eastern Europe (in the last days of the Iron Curtain), and a year of living in Vancouver.

Blake, wheat and sky, near Watrous.
Blake, wheat and sky, near Watrous.

I was going home for my mom's funeral. I drove through Alberta at night and crossed into Saskatchewan south of the Great Sand Hills just as the day broke. I felt my soul soar as the light unfolded to reveal the big sky and unbroken horizon in every direction, the barren beauty of the Prairie spring under the cloudless blue.

Smaller places are generally friendlier than large cities. And in Saskatchewan, even the two large centres -- the university town and cultural centre of Saskatoon and Regina, the capital -- have populations of only 200,000. But it's not just the smallness of Saskatchewan centres that make them friendly.

Life was, and still is, a little harder in Saskatchewan than in its Prairie sisters Alberta and Manitoba. Where individualism and personal rights hold dominance in neighboring provinces, cooperation and a sense of public duty built Saskatchewan. When the sod-busters arrived from Europe after the province was incorporated in 1905, the nearest neighbor might have been 10 kms away through a howling blizzard and -30C temperatures. Most people today are as friendly and helpful as they were 80 years ago when a neighbor showed up for help or a visit.

My wife's always amazed that people stop me on the streets in Saskatoon to say "Hi", usually because they know my dad and have heard I'm back in town for awhile. My Grade 3 (1968-69) teacher, Mrs. Hunter, showed up at my mom's funeral in 1991. She not only remembered my younger sister and I, she knew all the names of all funeral attendees she'd taught, even though she was into her late 70s. That kind of thing is typical in Saskatchewan.

Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The writer's hometown.
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The writer's hometown.

Saskatchewan is not the land of communal bliss. There's racism directed at native Indians and Metis, who make up 10 per cent of the province's population and 85 per cent of the prison population. A trip to a northern reserve, in La Ronge say, shows people living in a squalor equal to anything in Mexico, India or East L.A. Only on the reserve, there's -30C winter weather to deal with, as well spirit-crushing poverty.

But even on the reserve, where homes have smashed windows and doors have been removed for firewood, strangers are generally safe, unlike visitors to parts of Los Angeles, Leipzig or London.

Hire a fishing or hunting guide in the north and chances are he'll be native. Talk to him about more than fish or game. He'll likely be able to recite his people's oral history and myths. He's probably been in a sweat lodge recently. He can get you sweet grass and make bannock. While some of their cousins in the south are running casinos or living on welfare in the city, many northern natives still hunt, fish, and run trap lines for sustenance and trade. The north is dotted with campsites, trails, rivers to canoe, and lakes to fish. Many are accessible by road, but many others can only be reached by float plane.

Some of my best travel memories came from taking roads less travelled, veering off the well-beaten paths and tourist designations in places like Australia, Malaysia, India and Hungary. I suggest doing that in Saskatchewan. Take to the secondary highways, or "grid roads" -- because of its reliance on farming, Saskatchewan has the most highway miles per capita of any region in North America. If you get a chance, stay on a working farm or a bed & breakfast, and get to know the local people. They might wonder what brings you their way, but they'll be friendly and thrilled to talk to you about their part of the planet, and yours.

It's late April, as I write. It's beautiful in Vancouver and the summer weather has been here only three weeks. But I'm already thinking of August.

Gordon McIntyre is a journalist who works for the Vancouver Province. He's travelled extensively throughout the world. He knows where the friendly people live.

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