Dundurn, Saskatchewan July 21 through 24, 2022
Life on the road is beginning to grow on me, again.
Before this trip the last time I slept outdoors in Saskatchewan was forty-seven years ago while hitch-hiking between Calgary, Prince Albert and Toronto. Back then I lacked food, a sleeping bag, fresh water and a change of clothes, so even though my adventures today might seem sparse to some, they are a luxury safari to me.
This trip was devoted to seeing my Son Brynn who is training at Camp Dundurn, a WW2 era facility about 30 Km south of Saskatoon that appears to specialize in brutally sparse architecture and weapons training; Brynn is undergoing Sniper course at that location for almost three months this summer.
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After some searching of satellite views of the area I found what appeared to be a rare, well treed location at the north end of Blackstrap Lake, a fresh water reservoir that supplies drinking water to the area plus water to irrigation canals.
If you have spent any time travelling through the province you will know that a copse of trees large enough to block wind and preserve moisture can be hard to find outside of river valleys and landscaped properties.
I took the scenic route from Edmonton to Saskatoon; secondary highway 13 out of Alberta which becomes secondary highway 14 in Saskatchewan and meets up with the Yellow Head highway 16 in Saskatoon which then took me south to Camp Dundurn. Perhaps one of the most surprising and pleasing things I found during the trip was just how verdant eastern Alberta and western Saskatchewan are this year.
I've spent years travelling the roads just described as part of my job and I was familiar with an arid, scrubby landscape with exposed rock on the hillsides and salt-caked lake beds. This time the lakes are full, the planted fields lush and the hillsides thick with prairie flowers, grasses and shrubs. This year looks to be a good one for western farmers and ranchers.
Arriving at the top of Blackstrap Lake with a couple of hours daylight remaining I found that my satellite search had worked out well and a secluded, well treed bit of shoreline appeared as I bumped down an unkempt trail that would scare off most people not driving a 4x4.
After a quick splash in surprisingly warm, shallow water I set up a tarp in the trees against the incoming wind and rain, started a fire and had dinner. That night the wind and rain raged up the lake and forced me out of my tent and into the van. My tarps did not hold against the onslaught and when the sun came out Friday morning I had to rethink my shelter arrangements, both from the wind and from prying eyes.
What I had not taken into consideration was the popularity of the Lake with fishermen and apparently the spot I had chosen was liked by many people judging by the trucks which stopped on the road above, eyed my setup through the trees and then kicked up gravel as they sped off to find a different place to drop a line.
Friday evening Brynn arrived and we spent the night around a small fire talking, eating and having a beer. Lots to catch up on and learn about his training which involves many hours crawling around in the hot sun dressed in several layers of camouflage. Not my idea of a good time but when he has completed the course he will have achieved a personal goal and opened doors to different avenues of employment. I mean, who doesn't need a good sniper on their staff?
Saturday morning we packed up camp under blue skies because Brynn had brought his paddle-board and he wanted a nice beach from which to launch it.
Although the spot we occupied did offer a small sand/gravel beach, he wanted what had been publicized by the Provincial Parks service as an 'Ideal Beach and Campground' at a location south and east of us by half an hour along the Lake. So, after a couple of hours spent in the south end of the city of Saskatoon grabbing a breakfast and picking up a few supplies we drove our vehicles down, around the lake and into a beautifully treed provincial park. Well, at least the entry to the park was treed.
Forty dollars and a two hour wait (apparently there are check-in and check-out times) got us into the Kevin Misfeldt Campground; a treeless, grassy field overlooking, but not 'on' the Lake. Brynn and I have been fortunate to have spent countless days and nights in the mountains of Alberta and British Columbia, on the lakes of Ontario and even the gravel pits of Newfoundland, but none of that prepared us for the Kevin Misfeldt Campground.
Packed into the open field of well trodden grass were an assortment of cars, trucks, motorcycles and tents placed haphazardly around rusted steel fire boxes sitting atop rusted steel posts. Although the camp sites were numbered it did not seem to matter to most people and the site we had been allotted was already filling up with other peoples tents.
We got out of our vehicles and looked around in awe. I've seen news footage of the 'homeless camps' springing up in Canadian and American cities and what we were surveying could have been just that.
Loud music blared from a handful of stereos and boom-boxes owned by people who love heavy metal. Drunken laughter and shouting filled in any quiet moment between the different songs. There were few trees and nothing that would constitute a camp site and certainly not a site we would be willing to fight the encroaching neighbours for. Ours were the only Alberta plates in the place, so any altercation would have been messy.
We decided to head back up to the top of the lake and see what might be available close to where I'd spent the first two nights. As we had been making our way out of our first camp spot that morning we were being watched from the road above by a family in a truck with boat in tow. In our rear-view mirrors we watched them disappear into that quiet little copse of trees and its sandy beach, so we knew we wouldn't be going back there.
Across the lake from our first spot and against the shore sat more trees. To get there one must cross the levy at the top of the lake, cross over/through a narrow, automated sluice gate supplying water to the irrigation canals and then bump along a field with waist-high grass for several hundred yards. It was worth the attempt and we found ourselves in a Saskatchewan paradise.
No sooner had we secured an enclosure against the wind and cracked open our first beer, the conservation police appeared, their large Ford truck bouncing through the tall grass towards us. Normally that would not be a problem but we did not know who owned the land we were camped on, we had open liquor, we were from out of province and I had carted in many pounds of firewood split/gathered in Alberta and British Columbia, an ecological hazard judging by the many signs posted along Saskatchewan highways.
Yet once the lead officer learned of Brynn's rank and of his current training regime, all my fears dissolved as the two of them carried on like long lost pals.
Apparently the land and the route we used for access are owned by the provincial water authority, who allow camping. Since we had a tarp up, stove and supplies out, our campsite was considered a home-away-from-home so the open beer was fine. Although the firewood was already visible piled beside our rough stone fire pit and obviously not cut from the surrounding trees, its presence was not discussed.
All day Saturday and Sunday the sunny, warm weather held. Brynn set out on his paddle board while I wandered along the sandy beach and splashed about to cool off. With the lack of dead wood or other suitable firewood to collect and cut, I set about picking up trash along the beach and its upper bank before making lunch and cracking a beer for the both of us in the shade of our tarp.
Soon we had enough empty cans to set up a shooting range in the trees along the shore. Brynn brought with him a very accurate, quite powerful air rifle and several hundred .177 pellets and BB's which we worked our way through over the course of two days. Brynn is a very good shot.
Earlier I referred to this location as a 'Saskatchewan paradise' because in my limited travels it is the best location that I have found in this part of the province. Should one go north of Saskatoon and towards Prince Albert the lakes and trees become larger, more numerous and the land generally more amenable to outdoor living but south and central Saskatchewan can be Gobi Desert-like some years.
Leaving is always sad but Brynn had to be back on course by 19:00 Hrs Sunday and I had a minimum six hour drive ahead of me if I were to sleep under a roof that night.
That afternoon we packed up dry and headed back out across the sluice gate and levy.
There is no doubt in Brynn's mind that he will be back there every free weekend while stationed at Dundurn and I would gladly return there with him, yet for both of us the outdoor living is better in the mountains.
To offer an example of what I mean by that, I've spent the first two weeks of July in the mountains without undue insect stress but after only three days in Saskatchewan my arms, legs and neck are poxxed and swollen from bites despite using military-grade DDT repellent, I pulled a tenacious tick out of my hair and we had to burn a leech out from between Brynn's toes. Yet I complain too much because at least we didn't have to stay in the Provincial park.
Where to next?
As many places as I can afford to go this summer because the phrases 'new wave' and 'lock-downs' are appearing in the media again and I fear that the restrictions imposed upon the population this fall will be more severe and far-reaching than seen these past two years.