BECAUSE we live in such a big country and mostly in cities, a lot of Canada is as unfamiliar to us as somewhere on the other side of the world. But if you look closely into out-of-the-way corners, there's so much to see.
Manitoba and Saskatchewan are two big, flat empties as far as many easterners are concerned. But not so. Follow this route between Winnipeg and Saskatoon, and little-known pieces of our culture and history come into view at every turn.
It might be called the Ukrainian heritage trail. It cuts through the central part of a much broader area, extending from southern Manitoba to northwestern Alberta that became home to tens of thousands of Ukrainian and other eastern European immigrants at the turn of the 20th century.
Now, after a little more than 100 years of solitude, the "borscht belt", as it is affectionately known by the locals, is fading away. That's yet another reason to see it while you can.
The journey begins by driving westward from Winnipeg on the Trans-Canada Highway. You are crossing the bed of ancient Lake Agassiz, a stretch of real estate that has given the Prairies its reputation for being flat. Here, it's intensely flat.
The landscape begins to change after you turn north, 10 kilometres west of Portage la Prairie, onto Highway 16, called the Yellowhead route. You might stop at Gladstone long enough to say hello to the Happy Rock, the village mascot, a boulder decked out in a top hat. It's not as famous as Vegreville's Easter egg but for delightful silliness it deserves to be. It's also an indication that people in this part of the world don't take themselves too seriously.
Onward to Neepawa, a pleasant little town built on the side of a hill. It's worth a pit stop, if for no other reason than to see the Margaret Laurence Home. Neepawa, doubling as the fictional Manawaka, was the author's hometown and setting for five of her novels. At Minnedosa, turn north on Highway 10, which takes the traveller through Riding Mountain National Park. Mountain is a relative designation or another example of Prairie humour; the park makes the Laurentians look like the Andes.
Still, this densely forested upland is a good place to spend a day or two hiking, swimming and checking out the herd of wood buffalo. If a tent is more roughing it than you like, you can reserve a furnished yurt at the park's main settlement, in Wasagaming -- a big step up from sleeping on the ground.
The park is a gateway to the Ukrainian heritage area. To the west, along Highway 45, villages feature fine examples of homegrown church architecture. Tiny Sandy Lake, for example, has two magnificent churches, one Orthodox and the other Ukrainian Catholic.
In Quebec, typically one large Catholic church spire will dominate a community's profile. In this part of the Prairies in almost every village, there are two sets of cupolas, recalling an intense rivalry between the Orthodox and Ukrainian Catholic churches for adherents that began in the 1920s.
The surrounding back roads are also peppered with churches large and small, a reminder of the time before automobiles when the places of worship had to be within bell-ringing and walking distance of their congregations.
Now, many have disappeared. When their congregations are entirely gone, the churches are closed. Some have been burned or razed by the church, a tradition among Orthodox Ukrainians. Others are destroyed in acts of vandalism, while still others crumble into ruin.
Yet the memories of the families who built them and their hardships persist. Proof is found near Patterson Lake, at the end of Highway 577, a lonely country road that runs north from Oakburn. A monument and small park recall the death of dozens of children buried there in a mass grave.
In 1899, a group of Ukrainian immigrants, having trekked to the spot in ox carts and on foot, were forced to camp in the open while their homesteads were allocated. Struck by scarlet fever, their children died en masse. There was no church and no time for a proper burial.
Today the names of the children and their families are poignantly recorded on a marker erected by the descendants of their parents.
On the other side of Riding Mountain is Dauphin, home of the annual Ukrainian Festival, this year taking place July 29-31. The event attracts thousands of people from across the country who come for the perogies, singing, dancing and storytelling. If you want to be a part of it, look for a room early or plan to stay in the nearby national park.
Passing through Dauphin, it's worth making a side trip to Trembowla, a lovely spot for a picnic. Here a Ukrainian settlement has been re-created with original buildings -- including an 1896 church -- gathered from nearby. Along a remote country road, Trembowla feels far away but is easy to find. It's about 20 kilometres northwest of Dauphin, and signs along Highway 362 and Highway 20 will direct you there.
Westward from Dauphin, Highway 5 passes through scenic parts of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Around the appropriately named Grandview, the land slopes away to a faraway horizon.
A bit farther on, as you enter Saskatchewan, it dips steeply into a valley as it crosses the Lake of Prairies, a part of the Assiniboine River that has been dammed to create a recreation area.
Manitoba Highway 5 ends at the border but a Saskatchewan No. 5 resumes a few kilometres north at Togo. It's worth going this way, as the winding road follows the Assiniboine Valley. It belies the idea that the province is flat and featureless.
The road also takes you near Duck Mountain Provincial Park and Madge Lake, another good place to spend the night. The park has condo and hotel accommodation next to the beach.
Another bit of history is on view at the village of Verigin a few kilometres west. It's named for Peter Verigin who led the Doukhobor sect out of Russia at the end of the 19th century with the help of Leo Tolstoy. The author of War and Peace championed the Doukhobors' pacifist and communal lifestyle. Verigin built a mansion in the village. It is now a museum.
This part of Saskatchewan is known as the parkland and it's easy to see why. With its boundless fields and copses, sloughs and meadows, the land indeed sometimes seems to be one vast park.
Highway 5 continues through a series of towns and villages as it rushes on to Saskatoon. By now you will have noticed the unusual names of some of these places: Togo, Mikado, Kuroki. All derive from names in the news during the Russo-Japanese war of 1905-6. Townsites were being created so rapidly at the time that surveyors turned to newspaper headlines for inspiration, favouring Japanese admirals and generals because Japan was an ally of Britain. There's also a Kandahar a few kilometres off the highway, near Big Quill Lake, recalling Britain's involvement in Afghanistan.
Where Highway 5 makes a T with Highway 2, it's worth diverting north to visit the Batoche National Historic Site. The countryside nearby, dotted with villages and Ukrainian churches, has a bucolic aspect now, but in 1885, Batoche was the scene of Louis Riel's last stand during the Northwest Rebellion. Bullet holes from the battle can still be seen in the church where the Metis rebels held out against 800 government troops.
From Batoche, Saskatoon is less than an hour away. This pleasant university town on the banks of the South Saskatchewan River is worthy place to rest up after the long drive.
-- Postmedia News
IF YOU GO
Riding Mountain: http://www.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/mb/riding/visit.aspx
Dauphin Ukrainian Festival: http://www.cnuf.ca/
Duck Mountain Provincial Park: http://www.tpcs.gov.sk.ca/DuckMountain
Batoche National Historic Site: http://www.pc.gc.ca/lhn-nhs/sk/batoche/index.aspx
Manitoba Tourism: http://www.travelmanitoba.com/
Saskatchewan Tourism: http://www.sasktourism.com/