Saskatchewan: Canada's Sunshine Province

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The Canadian prairies would make any scientist believe the Earth really is flat, and of all Canada's provinces, Saskatchewan out on the prairies gets the most sunshine.

Photography by the authors

The Canadian prairies would make any scientist believe the Earth really is flat.

“It’s so flat,” a woman tells us on the VIA Rail train, “If your dog or your husband runs away you can see him for 12 miles!”

Of all Canada’s provinces, Saskatchewan gets the most sunshine. That’s understandable; there are no mountains to block the sun — and it’s a lot farther south than, say, Yukon.

But what we remember from driving around Saskatchewan is not its sun but its remarkable clouds that look like the background for a stage show. In Southern California we seldom see clouds and Saskatchewan’s sky was surely spectacular.

Saskatoon, the largest city lies on the VIA Rail tract. The train stops for 25 minutes late at night and if you want to explore the province you have to bite the bullet and stay for a couple of days until the train comes through 48 hours later. The city is spread out so you’ll end up renting a car. You’ll need it anyway if you’re going to visit the capital, Regina, which lies 160 miles to the south because the powers that be have chosen not to put Regina on the route of the Canadian, the famous train from Toronto to Vancouver.

We drive to Regina on Sunday, the day after we arrived without noticing that although we would be boarding the train Monday the museums in Saskatoon were closed on Mondays! It was a Saskatchewan sky, of course, when we leave Saskatoon but we soon realize why everything is so green; the sky darkens and finally way off on the edge of our horizon and approaching fast, the rain sheets out of the cumulonimbus like spray from a bathroom shower.

And just as happens in all those places that get a lot of rain and sun, the sky turns pink, the windshield wipers go off and the sunglasses have to go on.

Ask an elderly grandmother what she knows about the Mounties and she’ll tell you about Rose Marie, the love story movie about the Mountie and the opera singer. Grandma probably is thinking of the 1936 one starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in their second movie together — they made eight, at times unhappy, movies together but in this movie they sang the corny but delightful Indian Love Song to each other and to Grandmother.

That was Canada’s yesterday. The red serge jackets were based on British military dress and the Mounties were, er, mounted. Today it’s a different world. They sold their horses except for ceremonial occasions and at last count had more than 8,000 cars or trucks and “481 small snowmobiles.”

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have moved into the modern world, a more complicated one than when the Royal Northwest Mounted Police with its paramilitary history and frontier mystique merged with the Dominion Police in 1920. The stories from the past make a visitor feel the Mounties really did come down from the heights of Mount Olympus, heroes truly guarding Canada from evil but the challenge today must be more superhuman.

The press at the time of our visit in mid-June 2013 had headlined its reports with Enrolment decline at RCMP academy called “shocking.” Reporter Douglas Quan wrote that although 1,783 cadets were enrolled in the fiscal year 2008-2009 only 395 were in 2012-2013. Liberal Sen. Colin Kenny raised the issue but a spokesperson for the force explained the drop in numbers was due to administrative changes and internal restructuring. Some appointments were now filled with civilians and fewer recruits were needed.

There is almost too much to take in. It’s a relief to see individual objects like the revolver in service in the late 1880s and the compass used by James Walker in 1873, one of the original — and famous — pioneer officers of the North West Mounted Police.

We are going to visit one more place before we drive back to Saskatoon: The Royal Saskatchewan Museum. The history of the museum is almost as interesting as its exhibits; the subjects vary from paleontology and life sciences to aboriginal First Nation studies and earth sciences.

Next day we sail the Saskatoon River on the river boat that has been the talk of the town since 2012: the 63-foot, 107-ton Prairie Lily. It is named after the provincial flower. The boat cruises every day all summer long.

The Cree word Saskatoon means “fast flowing river” and indeed its speed was useful for the First Nations and the European explorers who came later. Larger riverboats followed and were important in the fur trade and for moving livestock, provisions and people until the railways replaced the boats in the 1890s.

The cruise takes an hour. Outside are kayakers, canoers and athletes in skiffs reminding us Saskatoon is a university town. Inside are members of the Red Hat Society with a lot to say about their province.

“We have four seasons here,” one says. “In spring everything comes to life again. In summer we have the lakes and the golf courses and the sunsets; in fall the harvest and the colors along the river banks. And in winter, yes the snow breaks it up but we are not far enough north for ‘the darkness’! People here are friendlier than farther south. If you’ve never spent a winter here you don’t know what that means. If you have a car breakdown in winter those people can save your life.

“Who would not love it here!”

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.