Editor’s note: Cheers to Calgary-based writer Deidre Horn for this home-province take on Saskatchewan during winter. We hope you enjoy her prairie tales where it seems some things — acid-wash jeans and Prairie hospitality — never change.
It’s minus 25. My nostrils freeze shut and I’m forced to mouth-breathe as I leave the warmth of the airport.
Even though the cold grips me like a fist, I’m grinning so hard my cheeks ache. I’m home. Saskatoon. Here, I can drop my big-city armour and just be.
I’ve brought a friend from Alberta, a true-blue mountain girl with roots in Switzerland and the Canadian Rockies.
This is her first visit to my homeland and I can’t wait to introduce her to the things I love in Saskatchewan: the cities and the towns, the bands and the beers, the forests and the flat.
Prairie Food, Drink and Lucky Bastards
First stop? Lunch at Prairie Harvest Cafe — a local eatery tucked into a residential neighbourhood not far from where I bought my first pair of acid-wash jeans.
The cafe’s house-made borscht perogies are the stuff of food dreams. My travel mate’s trout salad seems at home out of water, a point emphasized by the towering painting of a grain elevator that hangs above us.
In a strange but apt twist, our waitress is wearing acid-wash jeans. Kids today, everything that’s old is new again. I choose to interpret this coincidence as prairie kismet.
Hunger and ‘80s nostalgia sated, we embark upon an afternoon of liquid tastings (yes, it was that kind of hometown tour) — starting with the Paddockwood Brewery.
Owner Steve Cavan, a former professor with a clear passion for beer, mashes his knowledge of classics, biology, chemistry, geology and agricultural science into a one-hour tour.
As we taste the results of 20 years of brewing excellence, we ponder our newfound knowledge and confirm our theory that beer makes us smarter.
Onward to The Lucky Bastard Distillery, named for its start as the result of a huge lottery win. Former physician Michael Goldney and his team produce small-batch, high-quality vodka, gin, rum and whiskey, and have added bitters and berry liqueurs to their repertoire.
Goldney’s contagious joie de vivre makes for a giggly, fun tasting experience, and we get ready to leave feeling as massively groovy as the space they’ve designed for this successful venture.
When the winter-heavy weather dashes any hope of flagging a cab, Goldney offers to drive us back to our hotel, the 1935-era Delta Bessborough (shown above) and every bit the grand dame of Saskatoon.
My travel buddy’s raised eyebrows suggest mild shock at our new friend’s generosity, but I’m not surprised. It’s precisely what a good prairie boy would do.
Playing the Name Game
There’s a favourite Saskatchewanian icebreaker — a game that always starts with “Where are you from?” which leads promptly into “Oh, do you know so and so?”
The answer is usually some small town followed by an emphatic “Yes!”
At the very least, we know the person’s brother, mother or uncle. I estimate there is only one or two degrees of separation between Saskatchewanians.
My Québécois husband, who is constantly amazed by this phenomenon, puts it at point five.
At one point, I’m walking through the Delta Bessborough hallway and I recognize a man who is walking towards me.
Eager to show my friend the name game in action, I prepare an enthusiastic greeting while waiting for my brain to process the genesis of our acquaintance.
High school? University? Band camp?
I adjust for 20 years of aging and, just as I prepare to hug him, I realize that in fact I don’t know him personally but he is Canadian TV icon and comedian Brent Butt. Oops.
He recoils politely, pulls down his ball cap, and gently dekes around this over-affectionate fan. Poor guy.
I stubbornly tell my friend: “I bet I know someone he knows.”
Touring the Town
Slightly shamed by our Butt encounter, we scurry through frozen streets to Ayden Kitchen & Bar for dinner.
Owned by the original Top Chef Canada winner, Dale MacKay, it boasts an industrial-chic decor and some serious swagger. We leave impressed that Saskatoon has got its food game on.
Later, Amigos Cantina proves a great venue for a sold-out, foot-stomping show with a house-party feel featuring The Wilderness of Manitoba and Elliot Brood. After a mosh-pit incident gone wrong at the ’95 Grey Cup in Regina, I’ve learned to hang back but this small venue begs us to get out front.
Next thing we know it’s 2 a.m. and our gorgeous Bessborough beds beckon.
We awake the following day to brilliant sunshine, crisp air and miles of blue sky. We are Nordic girls, here for winter and Saskatoon delivers with a windchill of minus 40.
Eggs Benny at downtown’s Truffles Bistro fortify us for the day. We walk to the Riversdale District, once a no-go zone plagued by social problems and crime that’s been gentrified with trendy businesses, restos and coffeehouses.
A little later for lunch, at The Grazing Goat Good Eats and over at Nokomis Craft Ales, our server — after discovering our plans to visit Waskesiu in Prince Albert National Park the following day — insists upon noting what we should do and to whom we should say hello.
Later, we want to visit the Mendel Art Gallery, but we discover this mid-century gem set on the banks of the Saskatchewan River is now closed and its collection will move to the new Remai Modern Art Gallery of Saskatchewan, set to open in 2017.
Shopping beckons and halfway across Broadway Bridge on foot, I pause and smile, remembering a sweet exchange that took place here with a boy from long ago.
For me, Saskatoon is full of these moments, and they catch me by surprise.
Dinner prompts another nudge from the past. The Hollows is set in the wholly untouched ‘70s décor of the former Golden Dragon restaurant (there is macramé!), ironically serving fresh, modern food.
I wonder if Grandma ever sat in the very seat I’m in.
The day dawns clear and bright and minus 31, perfect for a bracing road trip north. As we make the three-hour drive to Prince Albert National Park for a dose of outdoor adventure, the prairie landscape gives way to the southern edge of the Northern Boreal forest.
We soon explore that forest on a sled-dog excursion with Sundogs owner Brad Muir. Sled dogs are the marathon runners of the canine world and it’s apparent they love their jobs. They bark and jump with excitement as we hop into the sled, but once they’re off and running they work silently.
It’s amazing how softly Brad speaks as he directs them left or right or reprimands one less-than-focused pooch.
Thoroughly rosy-cheeked, we arrive at Elk Ridge Resort, our digs for the night, and thaw out in front of a roaring fireplace. Afterwards, we can’t resist grabbing a few pairs of free rental skates and lapping the resort’s pond.
Overnight, the temperature rises to a toasty minus 8. We consider snowshoeing that morning, but settle on cross-country skis. The trails surrounding the resort are lovely. Trees provide protection from the wind, and we enjoy getting lost in the rhythmic swishing of our skis as they move over the snow.
At one point, I spot a wolf track and am so distracted by excitement (read: blind terror) that I fall over.
My more winter-sporty travel companion points out it’s not a wolf track but a mark left by ski poles, which also explains what I privately posited to be elk, deer and cougar tracks.
Perhaps I need to get out of the city more.
A Last Hurrah
Heading back to Saskatoon, I realize again how much I love this drive. I have pondered some of my toughest dilemmas, solved most of the world’s problems and healed heartaches big and small on prairie road trips.
On our last night, we stay at The James Hotel, a beautiful addition to the Saskatoon scene. We score a top-floor suite with a river view and we almost don’t want to leave it, but we have one more event in this jam-packed adventure.
Hey Rosetta and Stars are playing O-Brian’s and we have tickets. A quick snack and cocktail in the lounge at The James and we’re off. Hey Rosetta draws a robust fan base and much dancing ensues with Stars and their mix of sophisticated get-up-and-shake-your-booty pop. A surprisingly awesome evening considering it’s a cold and wintry Monday night in Saskatoon.
The next day we make our way back to the airport which launched me into adulthood.
My first trip out of Saskatoon was to Europe, the day after university convocation. Not long after that I settled permanently in Alberta and built a happy life. Even so, my friends and neighbours think I’m more than mildly obsessed with my home province.
I don’t mind. There’s a lot to love in the fun and friendly prairies. Not that I’m coming back for the Saskatchewan Jazz Festival this June or anything. Nope, not me.
*Our writer was hosted by Tourism Saskatchewan and Tourism Saskatoon. They did not review or edit this post before publication.