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Magnetic North

by Dave Yanko

Northern Saskatchewan never fails to surprise and delight me. Our summer 2006 visit to Lac la Ronge Provincial Park offers fresh examples.

Otter Rapids
Northern Saskatchewan's Otter Rapids, in Lac la Ronge Provincial Park.

With outdoor activities limited due to rain, we drove for an hour from our northerly campground to watch a Saskatchewan Roughriders football game on television, in the Town of La Ronge.

We gambled that one of the bars or restaurants would be showing the game and, sure enough, we found a sports lounge in a popular motel that was tuned in to the tussle.

So there we were, half a dozen of us, sitting up at the bar and watching the game while nursing beers and exchanging quips with a personable barkeep named "Bill''. The contest pitted the Riders against the Edmonton Eskimos, in Edmonton. It was an exciting game, the atmosphere in the lounge was jovial and our fellow patrons couldn't have been friendlier.

Some time into the second quarter we decided we'd better get something to eat. We asked Bill for suggestions, but he was sorry to tell us the kitchen was closed. Darn it. We were hoping to grab a bite while watching the game. It would be nearing 10:30 p.m. were we to wait until the game was over. And while we were sipping our suds carefully because some of us had to drive, most of us hadn't eaten since lunch.

"Can we order in some pizzas from Eddies?'', I blurted out, half jokingly. Eddies is a family restaurant down the street. I remembered it from a previous visit. To my surprise, Bill replied: "Sure!''

From a pay phone at the front door I ordered two large pies from a man who sounded perfectly at ease taking a delivery order from a guy in a bar. Nothing should surprise me about Eddies. On a visit to the restaurant a few years ago, our server invited the kids to enjoy some free bowling while our pizza baked. Eddies just happened to have a couple of bowling lanes on the other side of a door.

The Riders eventually lost the football game 24 to 18. But they were in it until the end and so were we, watching the battle unfold while munching on some fine pizza. Northern Saskatchewan's charms extend beyond her topographical beauty and captivating history.

Nonetheless, it's the combination of rocks, trees and moving waters—and the fishing, canoeing and boating they provoke—that are the most famous attractions in this pre-Cambrian wonderland.
Otter Lake
A natural rock garden.
And no matter what draws us southerners north, the wildlife we encounter there always exhilarates.

We saw eight bald eagles and one osprey during a six-hour, guided boat trip around Otter Lake. I suspect that for some people, that may not sound like a lot. I suppose it depends on how much time you've spent in the North. But that's a hundred per cent more eagles and ospreys than I'd see in Saskatoon in six years.

In one episode, our adept guide drew us to within 15 metres of an immature bald eagle who was perched at our level on a shoreline rock. I had a camera with me, but I expected the surprisingly large bird to take flight at any moment—I didn't want to miss one second of the spectacular view. I switched back and forth between naked-eye viewing and binoculars.

Churchill River
The Churchill River.

Our perpendicular approach to the shoreline was slow and as silent as we could make it. In addition to the size of this guy—bald eagles can take five years to acquire their adult plumage, so immature ones can be pretty big—I was taken by the iconic profile he displayed as he studied our advance with one sharp eye. He supported his large, mottled grey body with two bright orange legs, creating an almost comical contrast between top and bottom. When he at last chose to take wing rather than let us get any closer, he was in no great hurry. He unfurled his expansive wings quite deliberately and then bounced gracefully into flight. There was nothing urgent about any of it. He simply decided to leave.

Not all of our surprises were good ones. The Nipekamew Sand Cliffs, located about three-quarters of an hour southeast of La Ronge, have a new access and viewing area. The new trail leads visitors to a view of the cliffs from the side opposite the Nipekamew River they border. And frankly, the view is not as impressive as the one from the old trail.

I recall being curious during my first visit to the cliffs by a breeze that seemed to come out of nowhere as my daughter Kira and I walked along the old forest trail. "Awesome!" was her reaction when we realized the breeze was a harbinger to the gusts we felt when we emerged from the forest at the top of the cliffs. It was a stunning view from 23 metres (75 feet) above the river.

Nipekamew Sand Cliffs
Nipekamew Sand Cliffs.

But alas, too many people used this great access to clamber over these fragile formations or carve initials into the sand-and-pebble cliff face. The province is protecting this unique site by routing visitors to a viewing area across the river and out of view of the original site. I understand the concern and the action. But now there's less to admire.

A friend recently sent me a link to a New York Times piece announcing a quaint, off-the-beaten-path Greek Island I knew many years ago has become an "open secret'' that has taken over from Mykonos as "party central'' for the Cyclades chain of islands. Here as there, too many people can spoil a good thing. It's tourism's sad irony.

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