The main reason I rented the car was so I could make the short 30-mile drive to the small town of Souris, specifically to see its famous 'Swinging Bridge'. Souris was born out of an 1872 decision by the Canadian government to grant 160-acres of land to anyone over the age of 21 who settled on the land for three years and made the required improvements to it. This eventually spurred a 49-year old Ontario businessman, William Henry Sowden, to buy up several parcels of land in Manitoba and then recruit prospective settlers for the journey west. The group successfully made the trip in April, 1881 and immediately began building the present-day town of Souris. 'Squire' Sowden became an important figure in the town and bought several parcels of land on the east side of the Souris River which he hoped to sell to new settlers. However, since the heart of the town was across the river on the west bank, he decided in 1904 that he would build a pedestrian bridge to attract more potential buyers to his lots.
This was no small feat, but Sowden was successful in immediately constructing a 3-ft wide and 582-ft long 'catwalk style' foot-bridge made of boards nailed to 4x4-inch beams which in turn were supported by two wire cables - then and still the longest swinging bridge in Canada. A few strutural defects were sorted out by the later installation of guide wires along each side of the platform as well as anchoring cables attached to buried cement blocks. Squire Sowden died in 1907 but his bridge lasted a long time, until it was washed away by a huge 1976 flood. The version you see today was built as its replacement in 1977.
My driving companion and I had a bit of trouble locating the bridge, but eventually found the end of it anchored to Sowden's original lots, with the 2nd photo showing the view from there across to the main part of Souris as a couple of pedestrians are headed our way. We started out as well and, with our footsteps not in-step with theirs, the bridge swayed up and down with a lively rhythm that kept one concentrating on what you were doing! The 3rd photo was taken from an amazing residence (next tip) built by Sowden's son on the town side of the bridge.
You never know what will crop up in small towns but I was still surprised when, next to the Swinging Bridge and on a hill overlooking the river, we came upon this castle-like structure, presently known as Hillcrest Museum. It turns out that construction of Squire Hall (as it was known in those days) was completed in 1910 by Fred Sowden, son of the Squire who had built the bridge. Because Fred's wife had been raised in England and India, he spared no expense in trying to re-create a permanent looking structure to bring back fond memories for her. Because of its unique size and style for this part of Canada, the building is now listed as one of great importance.
A few of the features incorporated in its construction are the undulating brick facades dominated by solid looking crenellated towers, parapet railings of simply carved wood, numerous applications of decorative brickwork, including heavy corbelling as well as a series of horizontal bands of brick stringcourse at ground level. This fortress like appearance is complimented by large, multiple openings in its walls, including both the round-arched main entrance and the many stained glass arched windows. The grounds are well landscaped and include numerous spacious curved planters located amongst the various walkways. The interior is equally impressive with its fine furniture, spacious and well-lit rooms (including a large billiard room with French doors) and a central grand oak staircase leading up to bedrooms with access to exterior balconies.
In its present role as a museum, patrons are able to view many of the original pieces of furniture used by the builders as well as a collection of thousands of butterflies. We were content to just marvel at the structure before heading back across the Swinging Bridge, with its large 'memorial' boulder (3rd photo).
Hours of operation are:
May 'Victoria Day' weekend to June 30 on Sundays only – 2:00pm – 5:00pm.
July 1 to September 'Labour Day' weekend daily from 10:00am-6:00pm
Located just a mile or so outside the city, on the perimeter of the Brandon airport, is a museum dedicated to preserving the history and artifacts of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan that was born as a result of the outbreak of World War II. Shortly after the start of the war in September, 1939 it was realized that British air defenses needed a major buildup of trained personnel and that the country itself was too small and unsafe for such a venture.
As a result, because of its wide open and safe skies as well as abundant fuel supplies, Canada was chosen in late-1939 as the site for advanced training of air crews from all across the British Empire - after they had received basic training in their home countries. In the end, of the 131,000 air crew who graduated from the 220 Canadian training fields between May 1940 and March 1945, there were 73,000 Canadians. The remainder of the graduates were a mix of British, Australian, New Zealand, Polish, Rhodesian and South African pilots and aircrew.
Located in an old aircraft hanger, one of the other guys who accompanied me on the working trip to Brandon came with me as we made the rounds of the displays, historical artifacts and models in the entrance area of the Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum. That was followed by stepping out into 'Hanger 1' itself where various aircraft, engines and vehicles of the period were on display. It was quite a nice little self-guided tour ($5 entry fee per person) as we closely checked out the various items.
When considering that the province of Manitoba has an area of 648,000 sq km (slightly smaller than Texas or about twice the size of Norway), the fact that Brandon and its population of 42,000 people is the second largest city in the province gives you some idea of how sparsely settled western Canada really is! Mind you, there is quite a significant population surrounding the city in smaller towns and villages, with Brandon serving as the commerical and business hub for this part of Manitoba.
The city started as a major junction of the Canadian Pacific Railway with the Assiniboine River running through it and was subsequently incorporated in 1882 as more settlers began to arrive. I found it to be quite enjoyable and small - typically you can drive from one side to the other in about 15-20 minutes depending on the time of day. Like most western cities, there is not much sprawl - one minute in the countryside and the next minute in the town itself!
Typical of many cities, many of the new businesses and malls are located along both sides of one main street (18th Avenue) but not too far away are very nice residential streets such as this one. The natural result was that the older business section fell on hard times, but efforts have been made to revitalize it and spruce it up with trees such as seen in the 2nd photo, taken during my limited amount of free time on this trip.
Turning around from our dead-end road at the weir, we had not gone far back along the narrow road through the forest before we suddenly spotted a White-Tailed Deer and her young fawn, its coat still speckled with white spots. They both noticed us too and seemed a bit nervous as they twitched and quickly brought their heads up to eye us. However, we had stopped the car quite some distance from them and they both calmed down. After watching them for a while, we began to slowly drive forward, our only way out. The fawn was quite jumpy and kept making lunges as if to run away - but its mother did not seem to be in any hurry to make a break for cover. Finally, as we got closer, the fawn disappeared into the forest while the mother continued to hold her ground. I thought it was a bit unusual for a doe to let us get that close but, as she turned sideways, I could see (2nd photo) her ribs showing and also noticed that she only had one rear leg! I guess, in her partially crippled state, she tries to conserve as much of her energy as possible, avoiding needless dashes if she judges the situation not to be too dangerous. We slowly continued onward, leaving her still munching away on the grass.
The 700-km (435-mi) long Souris River rises just south of Regina, Saskatchewan and meanders southeast into North Dakota before looping north again into Manitoba, where it comes to an end just outside Brandon when it meets the larger Assiniboine River. The Assiniboine continues eastward as a tributary of the Red River (flowing north out of USA) and eventually all these waters empty into Hudson Bay. After finishing our exploration of the Swinging Bridge, we continued down the street on the southeast bank of the Souris River as we headed for home. Unfortunately, we did not look at our map and the road soon turned into a treed country road that ended up as a dead-end where an impressive concrete weir (built 1952) was located (2nd photo). As we got out for a closer look, we noticed a gentleman and his dog fishing below the weir on the far shore as well as a sign in the foreground warning that this weir is 'a drowning machine' because of the strong undertows on its downriver side as the falling water takes on a circular pattern that is difficult to break free from.
Weirs like this are typically built to raise the upstream water level to a height which makes river transportation easier. Looking upstream, we spotted a red and white buoy line (3rd photo) designed to halt any boaters coming around the bend before they go over the weir. Unfortunately, in August 2005 a four-year old girl was drowned here after a Ski-Doo type personal water craft carrying her mother, mother's boyfriend and two sisters ran into difficulty.
This was it - my one afternoon off work to allow some exploring, so one of the other guys came with me as I hired a car and we took off to see what the area around Brandon had to offer. We were targeting the small town of Souris and its 'Swinging Bridge', so headed south on the quite pleasant Highway 10 - until we hit a stretch of major reconstruction. Luckily, that was about where we turned west onto Highway 2 which turned out to be just as nice and not as busy. There were some great scenes of both yellow canola fields (such as this one) as well bluish flax fields stretching off into the distance, bordered by lush stands of green leafed trees and old buildings. The sun had been shining to help bring out all the colours but it disappeared behind some clouds just as I took this shot! The countryside in this part of Manitoba is more rolling than in Saskatchewan and a bit more heavily treed - so it was a nice change for me. However, we only had the afternoon to play with, so did not really slow down to properly enjoy the countryside because we were on a mission to reach Souris.
Brandon is a city that thinks like a small town but there is not that much to do here if you’re not into hockey or agriculture. However visitors to the wheat city can keep themselves busy by taking in what the city has to offer.
The Commonwealth Air Museum located at Brandon Airport offers tours, You can tour Brandon University and Assiniboine Community College. Brandon’s Keystone Centre hosts a variety of concerts, conventions, trade shows, fairs, carnivals and sporting events. As Brandon is the Regional Centre for South Western Manitoba, it is surrounded by many small and friendly communities that are quite refreshing to visit and tour, such as Souris, Manitoba home of the Canada’s Longest Swinging Bridge and one of the few communities in Canada that can boast having a castle.
Brandon Airport occasionally opens itself up as a CSPA certified drop zone for skydiving buffs. Definitely something to consider for the more brave and fearless traveler.
Brandon is also a very child friendly city and is littered with enough Paddle Pools and playgrounds to keep your children entertained for the duration of your visit.
If you’re camping, Curran Park is Brandon’s main campground located just inside city limits right along side the Assiniboine River. Fully serviced and located close enough to town to be a convenient place to stay. If you’re going to stay in a hotel, I’d recommend the Colonial Inn on Queen Street. It’s a quiet and cozy Motel with a family feel located in a residential area. It offers decent rates and is within 3-5 minutes walking distance of Brandon’s main shopping centre, Brandon Shopper’s Mall and close to many restaurants and the famed Keystone Centre.
My favourite spot in Brandon is Mort’s Mini Golf located on 1st St. North. This place has the best soft Ice cream on the planet. I’ve been to a few different countries and I have yet to find any ice cream that even comes close to the Ice Cream from Mort’s.
You should enjoy your visit to this safe and friendly, family orientated community.
If you are in Brandon on the first week of April in any year, go see the winter fair. It is a fair featuring rural life. You will get to see farm animals - cows, pigs, horses, chickens, etc. a ton of agricultural exhibits in a fair-type environment.
We went once, and I consider going again - even though we have less to do with farm life now.
From anywhere in Brandon, you may see a beautiful red-brick, mansionlike building up on the hill across the river.
This, at one time, was Brandon's Mental Health Centre, and for a time, there was also a museum, the BMCH Museum, next door, which is now abandoned.
In any case, this is one of the more interesting things in Brandon to check out!