Snowmobiles (or ski-doos) in the winter are almost as common in Canada as snorkelers in the Caribbean. The large fields, the winding frozen river, the sloping river bluffs and the vast expansive plains atop the valley all combine to give a great terrain for snowmobiling.
Lots of locals both from Lumsden, Craven, Regina and other smaller communities all come here to enjoy the landscape.
Only a few minutes after I crossed the Qu'Appelle River, I entered the small village of Craven, located on the northern valley wall overlooking the river. With a population of just 274 souls (they gained an extra 10 citizens between 2001 and 2006 according to the census) there is not much to this small totally English-speaking community.
These photos do not show the place in its best light, because most Canadian communities look very 'beat-up' after going through 5-6 months of winter weather. There are piles of sand here and there that had been spread on the ice but not yet cleaned up, the vegetation has not sprouted to provide some colour, debris thrown out by thoughtless people begins to emerge from the snow, the roads are potholed from the constant freeze/thaw cycles, an so on! Craven was no different than many small communities, with its streets sometimes having mud sections instead of pavement and a pickup truck with only one headlight in it parked on the street . It happened to be lunch time while I was there and I did manage to find a nice little restaurant and had an enjoyable meal before I started my real exploration of the river valley.
Craven's only claim to fame is its annual 'Craven Country Jamboree', to be held on July 10-13 in 2008. It is reputed to be one of Saskatchewan's largest musical events featuring a weekend of music, camping and fun events for all. Big names like Randy Travis, Alan Jackson and the Bellamy Brothers have performed in previous Jamborees.
This view of the Qu'Appelle was actually taken about 2 weeks later when I was flying over it on a return trip from Fredericton, New Brunswick to Regina - it gives a really good view of the ox-bow characteristics of the river. Because the Qu'Appelle flows slowly down its broad valley floor, it has a relatively gentle current that takes meandering paths on its long transit toward the sea. Due to the dynamics of water flow, water on the inside of a turn is flowing more slowly than the water around the more lengthy outer bank of the turn. This results in silt being deposited on the inner radius while the distant bank is eroded away. Over long periods of time, the erosion can result in two eroding banks bumping into each other such that the river has created a new more direct path, leaving parts of the river now just stagnant bodies of water.
Through this process, the Qu'Appelle has formed many picturesque channels over the thousands of years of its existance. The farmers make use of the fertile soil here by growing very high quality hay during the summer months before cutting it to make giant bales for winter feed.
There were a few houses built along the river, but all were part way up into the moraine hills along the edge of the valley walls, just in case the river decided to have a flood. It looks like these people have made use of a few of those glacial rocks to decorate the driveway, along with two 'apartment-sized' bird houses on poles! I also passed a group of ruminants of some sort having a relaxing day (until I stopped for a photo!) in their enclosure . A sign simply said "Wild Game Farm - no Hunting", so I don't have any idea what kind of creatures these were (I forgot to bring my binoculars along for the ride).
Later on, a few tiny prairie dogs of some sort ran across the road as I approached. Once they made it into the grass, they would stop and sit on their hind legs to have a look at me
Just as I reached the outskirts of Craven while leaving town on Highway 99, I ran across these two structures streching across the river. There was a big sign next to the deserted facilities so I stopped for a closer look. On reading that these 'Control Structures' were run by the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration, I thought that sounds like a name right out of Great Depression era when federal governments in both USA and Canada developed various 'make-work' projects.
I wasn't far wrong, because PFRA was formed during the 1920s to deal with the dust bowl conditions that were destroying the western farmlands in both countries. Its mandate was to promote better agricultural techniques and implement schemes to stabilize and restore the health of the land.
The Qu'Appelle water flow includes infeed from Gardiner Dam (water is diverted as required from the South Saskatchewan River) as well as Last Mountain Lake - one of the largest natural lakes in the southern part of the province. In 1943, just below where the outlet from the lake joins the river, the PFRA built the closest dam in the photo with its several water control gates that could be raised/lowered as necessary to maintain good water levels for irrigation purposes on the upstream river. However, the gates became unsafe and inoperable over the decades, resulting in the newer dam with electrically controlled gates being constructed behind it in 2003. At that time they also removed the bridge deck across the old dam and four of its concrete piers, leaving three behind to serve as 'ice breakers' for the new dam.
The second photo shows where the outflow from Last Mountain Lake flows (from the right) into the Qu'Appelle River and you can almost see the marks on the ice where snowmobilers have left traces of their winter excursions.
Unlike the other river valleys I had seen in Saskatchewan and Alberta, the Qu'Appelle River has cut itself a very wide valley with flat and fertile soil between its two valley walls. The others seem to have cut into the earth like a knife and are much more rugged looking places. These views show the wide vista that opens up as one drives down off the Prairies, descending up to 450-ft (137-m) at its deepest parts. The dark blob at the top of the distant hills in the third photo was actually a couple of horses grazing up there!
The first European to reach Saskatchewan was Henry Kelsey, an English fur-trader working for the Hudson Bay Company, who travelled up the Saskatchewan River in 1690. However, the Qu'Appelle River was named almost a century later, some time after 1787, when competing French fur-traders working out of the Montreal-based North West Company spent a great deal of time with the natives in this part of the province. As the traders travelled with their Cree aboriginal guides, they were told of a local legend that said a Cree spirit wandered up and down this particular valley and could be heard to be saying 'who is calling?' in the local dialect. Since the French expression for this is 'Qui appelle?', the valley ended up being named Qu'Appelle.
The landscape of the valley walls is a constant jumble of gently rolling hills and valleys, created when the Qu'Appelle River cut its way down through the hundreds of feet of glacial till deposited across the Prairies about 12,000-years ago. When the last Ice Age melted away, it dropped millions of tons of material that it had eroded off various mountains that got in its way over the previous thousands of years. With the deeper drifts of winter snows still hanging on in some of the shaded valleys, the 'white' bits of snow make an interesting pattern on the valley walls.
The 2nd and 3rd photos provide a view of the same features on the side of the valley that I was driving along and you can actually see some of the dropped boulders that still litter the land. The 4th photo gives a close-up look at one of the snowdrifts as well as a few more boulders lying atop the background hill.
Something the valley is famous for is its suitability for first class hang-gliding, thanks to the strong upward winds generated by the combination of the wide valley and the sloping shape of its walls. Whether being uplifted or gliding down, the terrain provides plenty of safe landing spots.
After driving across the flat or gently rolling Prairies for miles and miles, it is always a pleasure to come across a river valley. However, because of its 1-mile wide valley floor, the Qu'Appelle is an especially welcoming sight! It flows for about 270-miles (430-km) from central Saskatchewan to just over the Manitoba border, where it joins the Assiniboine River. These waters continue their eastward flow into Lake Winnipeg and then the Nelson River before emptying into Hudson Bay.
Here, winter is just starting to release its grip, with the odd patch of open water visible in the ice covering the river. Frozen waterways like this make for great snowmobile and All-Terrain-Vehicle highways in the depths of winter!
Open in the summer months, the Lumsden Museum has a series of old buildings, some of which are from the colonial day eras. There is also a display of farming machinery.