It was 10:30 AM by the time I pulled into Coronach, with my gas tank getting low after 320 km of driving and me getting hungry since my breakfast of an orange with a yoghurt four and half hours earlier. This little community was actually one of the reasons I decided to explore this part of Saskatchewan, for reasons that will be explained in the next tip - it turned out to be a lot smaller than I had expected. According to Wikipedia, it was founded by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1926 and was named after that year's winner of England's Epsom Derby horse race in England. The population of Coronach remained at about 300 persons up until 1974 when major construction projects of a power plant and a coal mine raised it to about 900 people.
I succeeded in filling the car and had a quick look at the town's one main street that runs south off Highway 18 - it had a real 'old-west' feel to it with it's width, and especially the small and box-like white hotel in the 2nd photo. The gasoline attendent said there were only two restaurants in town, so I picked one for my early lunch and it turned out to be excellent. I was back on the road again by 11:30 AM and the temperature had risen to 28 C by then.
The main tourist attractions in Coronach are guided tours of one or both the nearby power plant and coal strip-mine.
I still say if he was not wearing his elevator shoes I could probably take him! Actually, the reason I visited the museum in Willow Bunch was to have a closer look at their local giant - who I had never even heard of until I drove into town. Room #4 of the museum is dedicated to Edouard Beaupré, a local boy who grew to the amazing height of 8-ft 3-in and weighed 374 lbs at the time of his death.
Edouard was born in Willow Bunch on January 9, 1881 - the son of Gaspard Beaupré from Quebec and Florestine Piche, a Metis who arrived with the original group of settlers in 1870. At birth, he weighed a normal 9 lbs but started to grow at a very fast rate from age 3 onward. He was already 6-ft tall by age 9 and reached 7-ft 1-inch by the time he was 17 years old.
Edouard had always wanted to be a cowboy, so quit school at the age of 15 and gave it a try. However, his fast rate of growth quickly made him too big for the horses to handle and financial pressures at home led him to eventually join the Barnum and Bailey Circus at the age of 17 as one of their 'freak show' acts demonstrating feats of strength. Beaupré was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1902 but continued with the Circus until he died two years later at the age of 23 in St. Louis, Missouri while still working for them.
Beaupré's poor parents did not have enough money to bring his body home to Willow Bunch and the Circus refused to pay for the transportation. One thing led to another with Edouard's remains being embalmed for display before eventually ending up at a museum in Montreal, then another circus before the University of Montreal acquired his remains for research. It was there that they discovered his unusual height was due to excessive secretions caused by a tumor in his pituatary gland. It took some time for Edouard's family to find out what had happened to his body but, after a long legal battle, they finally had his ashes laid to rest at Willow Bunch in 1990.
After wrapping up in the Coronach area, I continued west and then north on highway 36 to the small community of Willow Bunch, established as one of Saskatchewan's oldest settlements in the 1870s by a group of seventy-five Metis (French-speaking) families from Manitoba. They were fleeing from the increasing domination of English-speaking settlers as Canada continued to expand westward (a bit like the Dutch-speaking Boers of South Africa and their 'Great Trek' following the arrival of the English in the original Dutch colony at Cape Town). The Metis are mixed descendants of the French fur traders and trappers who lived and explored all over North America with numerous tribes of native Americans from the 1600s onward. After moving to what eventually became Saskatchewan, the Metis made their stand a bit further north in 1885, during the Riel Rebellion when it took a British army sent west on the new Canadian Pacific Railway to subdue them. Once again, a bit like the Boers who eventully fought and lost to the British in the 1899-1902 Boer War as the English continued to encroach on their territory.
As the community of Willow Bunch grew, eighty acres of land was donated by one of the residents for the building of a church, rectory, convent and cemetery. During this period of time, it was common for Catholic religious orders to play a major role in local social service systems, and Willow Bunch was no exception, with the Sisters of the Cross arriving from LaPuye, France in 1905 to 'do their thing'. With changing times and customs, their former convent and school (built in 1914) was closed in 1983 and now houses the Willow Bunch Museum with its eclectic collection of local artifacts. I spotted the building as I pulled into town just past noon and decided that it might be interesting to see what it had to offer!
It is open from May 15 to September 15 during the hours of 10:00 am to 5:00 pm with a $5 price of admission.
The main attraction of this part of Saskatchewan are its badlands, especially 'Big Muddy Badlands' that I could see looming ahead as I continued west. This first valley leading into the Big Muddy valley was just a bit east of Big Beaver and I enjoyed dropping down into the valley and taking a closer look at the eroded formations along its walls (2nd photo).
Badlands are the result of the soil formations formed in this part of North America millions of years ago due to various geological cycles, eventually resulting of thick layers of soft shale rock combined with intervening layers of harder sandstone rock. When you combine this geology with a climate that supports little vegetation, is quite arid and also suffers from sudden downpours, the result is gradual erosion of the surface layers. Over millions of years, in some places the harder sandstone has resisted the effects of the wind and water erosion and forms a cap over the softer shale beneath it, such as seen in the 3rd photo. Big Muddy Badlands valley is actually a riverbed that has numerous formations along its length as water on the higher ground found ways to flow downward toward it, such as the small valley I found in the 4th photo. These later views of the Badlands were taken from Highway 34 as I drove north a short distance for a second descent into the valley. The name 'badlands' was given by early French explorers in this area, because the formations made for tough climbing up and down the slopes, especially due to the slippery nature of the soil when made wet by rain.
I never go on a trip without my binoculars and books on the birds and trees of eastern North America so, as soon as I had taken care of my little chore at the USA border, I began exploring this south-central part of Saskatchewan. I had no sooner turned off highway 6 to begin exploring just north of the border on highway 18 when I spotted a colourful male Ring-Necked Pheasant standing in the tall grass beside the road. By the time I managed to get stopped for a closer look, it had trotted out into a field as shown here, but my Peterson's "Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies" gives a better view of what I actually first saw! These 3-ft long birds range all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to the Rockies.
I had only driven a few more kilometers when my next sighting was a grey male Northern Harrier standing at the side of the highway with his yellow eyes glaring at me (3rd photo from Peterson's). As he lifted off I could see that he held breakfast in his claws - one of the millions of squirrel-sized Praire Dogs that run wild in western Canada. These 2-ft sized Harriers are quite common as they regularly glide at low altitude over the fields looking for targets.
Finally, as I finished exploring the outskirts of Coronach in early afternoon, I came across a bird species I had never seen before - a clump of about seven large black birds standing on a side road. My arrival spooked them but, by the time I managed to get stopped for a closer look one of them had returned. All I managed was a poor shot (4th photo) but my binoculars clearly told me that these birds were Turkey Vultures, complete with their 6-ft wing-spans (5th photo Peterson's). It too quickly departed and I then walked over to see what the attraction was - a road-kill female Mallard duck that had already been partially devoured. In Canada, these vultures are only found in southern Ontario and in the western provinces.
The museum only uses the rooms on the first floor of the old convent and Room #3 specializes in 'House & Home', with a variety of old contraptions and everyday items needed to make the world go round - it reminded me of my younger days visiting grandmothers who lived on farms in New Brunswick in eastern Canada, especially since one of the houses was built in ~1860 and also contained many strange looking devices!
The large wooden barrel in the foreground is a butter churn where milk from the cows can be converted to butter in front of your very eyes. Next to it is a tin 'separator' used to make the cream rise to the top of the milk taken fresh from the dairy cattle. In the background is an old wood-fired stove, just like one I remember from the farmhouse kitchen in the days before central heating. One of the smaller devices in the 2nd photo is an old-fashioned "ice-cream maker". I remember being astounded as I watched my grandmother pour the fresh cream and wild strawberries into her "maker" which had an outside lining of crushed ice mixed with salt. All you had to do then was to turn the handle to rotate the mixture and eventually out came the best ice-cream I ever tasted - so strange to a city boy who thought all food came from boxes! The final photo shows a glass display case full of dated magazines and everyday odds and ends.
As I headed north out of Willow Bunch to complete my circular drive back to Regina, I had not gone far after climbing out of Big Muddy valley before the long and narrow Willow Bunch Lake came into view beside Highway 36. It is another of the strange lakes in this part of North America - due to the fact that they are located in a small geological zone that has no access to oceans. Usually various mountain ranges force the flows of inland rivers toward either the Pacific, Arctic or Atlantic Oceans one way or another. However, the landscape in this part of Saskatchewan (with an elevation of between 1875-3000 ft above sea level) is in a 'bowl' such that all streams flow into the lakes located there. During the summer months when there is little rainfall, these lakes tend to dry up or disappear altogether depending on how deep they are. Due to salts and chemicals leached from the land and deposited in the lakes, evaporation of the water concentrates the salts and the lakes usually end up looking like white salt-pans in the summer months.
Willow Bunch Lake was no exception as I climbed a small knoll beside the highway for a better look. It is a long and narrow lake with a crook in it, but out toward the east I could see that it still had some water in it, although most of the lake had the white salty look. The grass on the high ground surrounding the lake was looking lush, and I saw a group of six Pronghorn antelope that were enjoying the grazing (3rd photo). These second-fasted land animal in the world kept a close eye on me and kept moving further away as I showed some interest in them. Throughout the day's trip I kept spotting Pronghorns, Deer and Coyotes at regular intervals as I drove along.
It was 1 PM and 31 C by the time I was set to leave Willow Bunch, but first I had to stop for a photo of this amazing restored old relic that looks like it was right out of the gangster era of the 1920s. I had a closer look at it, but it had been restored such that there were no markings as to what type of car it started out as.
Seeing the car reminded me that Willow Bunch's nearest large community is the city of Moose Jaw, located directly north and which is noted for its connection with the infamous American mobster, Al Capone. According to Wikipedia:
"In the early 1900s, most of the larger buildings in Moose Jaw were heated by steam. The engineers who maintained the coal-fired boilers in the basements arranged for the creation of an elaborate network of tunnels linking them so that they could move themselves and their equipment from building to building without facing the harsh winter weather.
At about the same time, numerous Chinese immigrants who arrived in Moose Jaw to work for what were, by Canadian standards, very low wages, adopted the tunnel system as living quarters and workplaces which were both inexpensive and sheltered from a sometimes hostile populace.
During Prohibition (from 1919-1933 when the American government placed severe restrictions on the sale and use of alcohol) Moose Jaw became a center for distribution of bootleg liquor, both domestically and to the United States via the Soo Line Railroad to Chicago, earning the town the nickname “Little Chicago”. Illegal enterprises such as speakeasies, casinos, and brothels sprang up within the concealment and shelter of the tunnels. Moose Jaw folklore states that Al Capone himself was resident for some time, to oversee operations and/or to hide out from law enforcement.
Over time, the tunnels fell into disuse and many were filled in or blocked off by new construction. However, an elaborate tourist attraction featuring live actors and animatronics has been created within what remains of the system, featuring tours illustrating the stories of the Chinese immigrants and bootlegging, and attracting over 100,000 visitors per year." It looks like I may have to make a trip to Moose Jaw too!
The Poplar River power station was developed as a result of the Arab oil embargo of 1974 following the latest Middle East war with Israel, combined with the fact that the extent of the huge coal deposits at Coronach were finally recognized. Following the embargo, Canadian and other utilities began switching from oil-fired to coal-fired plants to better ensure the availability of fuel for generation of electricity (in Canada it is not good to be without power when the temperatures are -20 C for three or four months of the year!). Operated for many years by Luscar Mining, it has now been taken over by another Canadian compnay - Sherritt International.
Since I was in the area, I drove up to the mine for a short look - you cannot really get too close without going on a guided tour organized in Coronach, and my trip was before even the Tourist Bureau was open. The first thing a person could not help noticing was the huge Bucyrus-Erie 2570 dragline with its massive booms sticking above the horizon as a smaller crane worked on maintaining it. Normally, there are two of these machines tearing away at the earth above the actual coal seams with their large buckets, with the first being erected between Spring, 1977 and Autumn, 1978.
Once the overburden has been removed, smaller shovels dig away at the actual coal to fill up a stream of 150-ton capacity Caterpillar coal haulers, as seen in the 2nd photo as one of them trundled by on its way to the private railway that delivers coal to the nearby power plant. While leaving the area to continue my exploratory drive elsewhere, I also happened to notice the coal train returning empty (3rd photo) from the Poplar River power plant.
With almost 700 Megawatts of power from it's two generators, the Poplar River power station is one of the largest run by the provincial utility, SaskPower.
My reason for wanting to visit this part of Saskatchewan is linked to this plant and also stretches back 35 years to when I was working in Luanshya, Zambia. While there, I met a British worker (Barry) who also played on the town's fast-pitch softball team. After my 3-years in Luanshya finished, I returned to Canada and spent 28-years working for a provincial utility - New Brunswick Power. One of my first jobs was to commission (1976) one of three 350 MW oil-fired units at their Coleson Cove power station. It was only a couple of years later that Barry also left Zambia and took up a position with Babcock & Wilcox, a world-wide boiler company. In the late 1970s Barry was assigned to commission the boilers at the new Poplar River plant - which was identical to the design used at Coleson Cove. Barry married a British lady who had been brought up in Zambia (I did the same thing earlier when I married Sue in Zambia) so we have remained in touch over the decades with a few visits thrown in as well. After having spent years living in Canada and Indonesia, they now live in Australia.
With the realization of the effects of climate change in recent years, utilities are now struggling with how to reduce the effects of power plant emissions, especially from coal-fired units. Saskachewan is the world's largest producer of uranium and is considering a nuclear generator (I also helped commission one of those while in New Brunswick) for base-load power along with more wind turbines. Many people don't want to hear about emission-free nuclear power but, to my logical engineering brain, why worry about the dangers of storing the spent fuel rods over the next several hundred years if climate change is going to wreck everything within ~30 years if we don't do something now to stop the smoke!
The 3rd photo shows Barry and I on our ABCZ alphabet team that won the Zambian fast pitch championships for three straight years, made up of American (2), British (2), Canadian (4) and Zambian (2) players.
I had put 250-km on the car by the time I reached the Big Muddy valley and had not seen a single gasoline station, so decided to turn around and head southwest for Coronach to fill up. As I was leaving the valley I saw a 'Point of Interest' marker at the side of the road, so stopped to have a look at its words:
"The Willow Bunch-Big Muddy Trail. This trail traversed the region between Willow Bunch and Big Muddy, providing a route for local transportaion as well as a link with the Wood Mountain-Fort Qu'Appelle Trail. By 1874, at Willow Bunch, a number of Buffalo hunters and their families had settled. Another settlement established itself at Big Muddy. This trail was used by the N.W.M.P. (North West Mounted Police), Indians, Outlaws and settlers. Sitting Bull and his followers also used the trail. This cairn is dedicated to all those who used the trail."
This part of Saskatchewan first came to prominance in 1873 due to stragglers from the American Civil War who had made their way north to hunt bison and wolves in this remote part of Canada. They built themselves forts in which to live and these became distilleries for rot-gut whisky which they sold to the local Indian tribes. Accusations of horse-thieving and too much drink led to a massacre of a number of Indians in 1873, triggering the Canadian government to dispatch a force of 30 North West Mounted Police (now called Mounties) to evict the illegal American squatters and destroy their forts. Their new police post of Fort Walsh (1875-1883) still stands as a tourist attraction in the Cypress Hills to the west of Big Muddy.
Following the massacre of General Custer and his 7th US Cavalry in 1876, it was not long before Chief Sitting Bull and 5000 of his Sioux followers also arrived in this part of Canada, seeking sanctuary from pursuing American forces. He met with the Mounties and agreed to settle peaceably in the area, keeping his word until 1881 when lack of available food due to the slaughter of the huge herds of bison in the west finally drove he and his remaining followers back south, after accepting an American amnesty. During this period, about 500 of the Sioux had settled in nearby Willow Bunch.
The final batch of American visitors to this wild and remote area were horse thieves associated with Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch in the late 1890s. Butch was raised south of this area, in Wyoming and eventually established a wide array of hide-outs throughout the west. The Big Muddy was the northern end of his trail network and was used to take the stolen horses out of reach of American authorities so they could be re-branded before being returned south for a quick sale.
As I neared the first community located just off the highway, a small hamlet with a population of 15 people called Big Beaver, I noticed it's cemetery located a short distance up a side-road and made a detour to check it out more closely. I was surprised to see a couple of tombstones with 'Brown' inscribed on them, located close to a fragrant Lilac bush in full bloom.
There was also another marker with the name 'Andersen' (2nd photo), so it appears that Danish settlers must have also made it this far west at some stage. Obviously, the area has always had quite a small population because there still seemed to be lots of available room left for burial sites despite the one hundred or so years since the area had been settled. There really was not much to see, but it was nice to stretch my legs!
I always enjoy seeing new places so, while keeping my eyes peeled for bird and animal life, I was also taking in the scenes as I explored this new part of Saskatchewan. Even on my 1.5 hour early morning drive down from the city of Regina, I rarely encountered another vehicle and they were even rarer once on the narrow 'back-roads'. By 8 AM, the temperature had already risen to 19C and the sun was shining as I rolled along at a comfortable pace with my arm resting on the open window frame. In the course of my trip I noticed that large stands of trees were commonly used as both wind-breaks for buildings (2nd photo) and as snow-fences to break up the wind patterns and thus preventing winter drifts from blocking certain exposed parts of the highway. Those winds could be strong as evidenced by the slant on the old barn shown in the 3rd photo!
Most of this part of the province is used for grazing cattle, so it was no surprise when I came across the Circle Y Ranch nestled in its valley (4th photo) to escape the worst of the winds sweeping unopposed across the Prairies for hundreds of miles.