by Linda Aksomitis
As a traveler, it’s easy to miss the treasures we have right at home, looking over the fence at the “greener grass” on the other side. So, this year at holiday time, I set off with my parents and my grandson to explore a little of the southwest part of the province we call home — Saskatchewan.
Gold Bricks & Saskatoon Pie
The Claybank Brick Plant is a National Historic Site — one which is nearly undiscovered! Situated less than an hour’s drive from either Regina (Saskatchewan’s capital city) or Moose Jaw (of the Tunnels of Moose Jaw fame), Claybank is home to North America’s best preserved brick making site.
The plant opened nearly a hundred years ago, in 1914, and operated until 1989 when it was closed after nearly seventy-five years of continuous operation. Over the years the bricks from Claybank were in huge demand due to the refractory or heat resistant clay, which was first mined by Tom McWilliams after getting a permit from the government back in 1886. After Tom, there were various owners.
During July and August, the brick plant is open 7 days a week for tours — we arrived in time for the 1 p.m. one. I’d planned our arrival to take advantage of the Bunkhouse Cafe home-cooked lunch, which was a choice of soups, sandwiches, and of course, saskatoon pie. My tomato hamburger soup, along with egg salad on brown bread was tasty, but of course, the pie was tastier! Saskatoons are one of the Saskatchewan’s unique food products as this superfruit is only grown on the prairies.
After lunch, we took the hour long tour. Since the factory had been closed abruptly, I had the feel that someone might just punch the time clock and pick up some of the tools at any time as we walked through the once-busy working areas of the factory. Everything was ready to go, from bricks ready for shipping, to mechanic’s tools on the workbench.
Our guide, a young local teen, Shawn, had lots of stories to share about “back in the day,” from how the manager insisted on having his own locked outhouse for himself and his family, to how it took a full month for the mud coming into the plant to exit as a clay brick.
Rhubarb Wine & Saskatoon Pie
Our next stop was a prairie surprise in southwest Saskatchewan — a well developed, classy winery!
Cypress Hills Vineyard & Winery offered a self-guided tour of the vineyard and a window view of staff bottling the wine in addition to wine tasting. While non-prairie folk might not recognize many of the wine types, they were all familiar to me! Currently the list includes eight wines, all available when I was there (except the Mead) for tasting (listed in order from driest to sweetest):
- Chinook 2008 – Carnellion and Barberry grapes
- Sour Cherry – Organically grown Saskatchewan cherries (Carmine Jewel)
- Rhubarb Blend – Rhubarb and grapes
- Saskatoon – Saskatchewan grown saskatoon berries
- Chokecherry – Saskatchewan grown chokecherries
- Spring – Late harvest sour cherries with honey
- Black Currant & Honey (also known as Christmas wine) – Black currants and honey
- Mead – Traditional honey wine
My favorite — the Black Currant & Honey — had a rich berry flavor with just a hint of honeyed sweetness.
Lunch at the Cypress Hills Vineyard & Winery was an elegant affair, even though the sunshine filled patio was miles away from any of the other vestiges of civilization. The pasta salad was full of delicious tiny tomatoes, black olives, and cucumber all tossed in a mildly seasoned house dressing, while the ham sandwich was served on delicious hearth bread. And of course, the dessert was saskatoon pie with a scoop of ice cream.
Lodgepole Pines, Lookout Point, & the Redcoats
Southwest Saskatchewan has more than a few surprises tucked into its geography, with the Cypress Hill Interprovincial Park being one of the most intriguing. Until you make the drive, it’s hard to imagine a lodgepole pine forest just popping up in the middle of an otherwise barren landscape of prairie grass, grazing cattle and hay bales, but it does.
The park is the gift of the last ice age, when this part of the province poked up out of the ice, preserving an entirely different ecosystem.
Fort Walsh, a national historic site inside the park, has a long history, beginning with the Cypress Hills Massacre that occurred prior to the arrival of the North West Mounted Police and its construction on the townsite in 1875. Although the fort was the headquarters of Canada’s “Mounties” until 1883, the buildings we see today inside the Fort were put up by the RCMP in 1942 as a remount ranch to breed and raise horses.
The park is cut into blocks, with Fort Walsh in the West Block, and Lookout Point and Lone Butte in the Centre Block. At an elevation of up to 4200 feet on the Saskatchewan side, and 4800 feet on the Alberta side, the park is the highest point in Canada from the Rocky Mountains to Labrador and the Appalachians.
Even with the short time we had to explore the park, it was amazing!
Birds, Birds, and More Birds!
A visit to the Chaplin Tourism and Nature Centre shows just how important Saskatchewan is to birds across North America. Central to the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network sites, the Chaplin Centre does an exceptional job of providing information about the more than 350 species of birds that fly through Saskatchewan — Land of the Living Skies — annually.
While we were a little early to see the up to 100,000 birds that may land during migration, we did see some of the shorebirds that make bird watching a popular activity here!
A wide, panoramic display complete with mounted birds in their natural habitat allowed us to see many species never found in our end of the province: Avocet, snipe, plovers, sandpipers and more.
Article & photos copyright Linda Aksomitis 2010
Photos taken August 10-12, 2010.