A walk in the park: Wanuskewin Heritage Park

Part of an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks.

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SASKATOON
I watched the sun rise over an ancient Medicine Wheel, and I wept.

I had lost my way twice while stumbling toward this sacred space, first when following the predawn blush in the otherwise black western sky, and again as the horizon pinked in the east.

Later I would find patches of ice on the valley floor, but I wasn’t shivering because of the cold. Sometimes you step into a place or a time that feels like home, and it shivers through you so hard you have to just stand there, or walk the circle, and wonder whether it’s disrespectful to speak a word to the ancestors.

Blackfoot, Chipewyan, Sioux, Assiniboine, Gros Ventre, Sarcee, Cree, Saulteaux, Shoshoni, Nez Perce, Métis, and countless before them whose names we will never know gathered here, worshipped and hunted here. They had for 6,000 years — some of the archeological dig sites at Wanuskewin are older than the pyramids.

I’m not sure how long I spent at the Medicine Wheel, and even if I could remember everything I said there, in a low whisper, I would not record it here. I stayed until the sky had changed from black to orange and grey to blue and white. When geese broke the morning silence, I said a final, inadequate prayer and stepped back onto the trail that leads into the valley.

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The prairies are not as flat as people think. The plains at Wanuskewin harbour a bowl-shaped valley that dips suddenly from behind a magnificent interpretive centre. What looks like a flat expanse of land from the roadway collapses into buffalo jumps and toward the river.

Here, generations of First Nations gathered not just for the rich bounty of game and plant life but to be protected from freezing winds. It was a wintering and meeting place for nomadic tribes and continues to be an important space to bring together aboriginal peoples and their allies.

With my back to the Medicine Wheel, I walked slowly back to the interpretive centre. The birds were waking in earnest — geese again, and two brown songbirds in the long grass, a call from by the river. There was a fast knocking — a woodpecker, maybe? A beaver? The barking again.

Sound works strangely in this valley, which is marked by ancient tipi rings, an impressive buffalo pound, and a gently curving portion of Opimihaw Creeak, which branches off from the great Saskatchewan River. A bubbling brook flows under and above ground so that one can hear it just over there, but not at all right here. Imagine, a sign urges, what it was like to hear a hundred buffalo come stampeding from the land above. Think of it too hard and your throat will tighten in awe.

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A stand of trees stood out against the grey and brown because there were strips of material wrapped round them. These sacred cloths, some bright, some starting to fade, had been tied in memory of loved ones, as one might light a candle or lay a flower.

As I approached the mouth of the little valley, a herd of something — antelope, I think — went before me. They knew I was there. One kept stopping in her tracks, watching me while she stood still as the medicine boulders.

“It’s okay, lady,” I whispered. “I’m on my way out.”

She lowered her head, seemed to meet my gaze again, and bolted off over the mouth of the valley, after her family. It took a full minute for my breath to return.

four wheels

Wanuskewin Heritage Park6Wanuskewin Heritage Park gets four stroller wheels (out of a completely arbitrary five). It is awesome in the purest sense of the word.

It is one of the longest-running archaeological digs in Canada, with sites representing each important archaeological age for the past 6,000 years. Interpretive signs are useful but not intrusive, and written to engage a hiker and encourage them to imagine themselves in another time. Trails are narrow and blend in with the land, which has gentle hills and sweeps down toward the river. Wildlife are curious but keep to themselves.

I wasn’t able to spend much time in the interpretive centre because I was on my way out of town, but everyone I talked to spoke passionately about it. This space, whose name is Cree for “being at peace with oneself,” is clearly a treasure for Saskatonians.

It’s a 15-minute drive from the centre of Saskatoon, just a touch north of airport. It is open year-round and admission is just $4-$8.50. It also boasts events and education programs.

The Bessborough Hotel and the man in the grey suit

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SASKATOON — There is a man in a grey suit who smiles freely and greets guests on the banquet level some late evenings. I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting him, but there’s time yet.

He and I are at the Bessborough in Saskatoon, one of the last of Canada’s grand railway hotels.

The nation’s tradition of rail hotels began in Montreal, the home of Canadian Pacific Railway president William Cornelius Van Horne. The Windsor went up in 1878 and the CPR and other companies followed with the Hotel Vancouver, the Banff Springs Hotel, Quebec City’s extraordinary Château Frontenac, and other beasts of brick and stone along thousands of kilometres of rail. Fourteen hotels later, Regina saw the rise of the Hotel Saskatchewan in 1927.

It’s not like Regina didn’t deserve a grand hotel. It was a vibrant, growing city that had been built by the railway. But so was Saskatoon, and this city wanted one, too.

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The CPR went through Saskatoon, 300 kilometres north of Regina, and had since 1908. The city boasted an elegantly long and tall rail bridge with a pedestrian walkway as well as a sleek little railway station.

The earl and countess of Bessborough.Called the Hub City, Saskatoon also hosted track for Canadian National Railway and the Grand Truck Railway. All it was missing was a grand hotel, and CNR stepped in to make that happen. 

So within a year, ground was broken for the 10-storey Bavarian castle-inspired building that overlooks Saskatchewan River. Designed by Montreal architects, it integrated turrets, heraldry, gargoyles and other stonemasonry under a copper roof. Sir Vere Ponsonby, the ninth earl of Bessborough and 14th governor-general of Canada, consented to have it named in his honour.

It was 1932 when building was completed, and the Depression was hitting the Prairies hard. The doors of The Bez wouldn’t officially open for another three years.

It has aged elegantly. The gardens with their ironwork gates and heart-shaped flower gardens lure lovers and the river just beyond keeps the castle separate from the rest of the world and dampens the noise of traffic and passersby.

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Bellmen rush to open doors before a guest has the chance to reach out their chilled hands. In the wide hallways, carpets muffle the sound of dress shoes and high heels. Chambermaids stop what they’re doing to say hello and ask after one’s day.

The high-ceilinged banquet area features palatial windows with luxurious curtains, dark wood accents and chandeliers. It was once a quiet space for gentlemen to sit and sip coffee, read their newspapers and gossip, as men do.

bessborough stairsHere is where one might see the man in the grey suit. He is an older gentleman, and he is wearing a fedora.

His countenance is so still and friendly that people who meet him often don’t realize till after they’ve returned his greeting that he isn’t there at all.

No one knows who he is or when he was.

A legend that sticks is that of a hotel employee who was tasked with asking a group of guests to settle down one evening. Two men at the party did not take kindly to the admonishment and threw the employee over a railing. He fell several storeys to his death.

That tragedy is marked by a crack in the ballroom floor. And perhaps by a man in a grey suit and fedora.

Wolverine’s long stroll along the Saskatchewan River

wolverine saskatoon 11wolverine saskatoon 21SASKATOON — Despite what Hugh Jackman might have you believe, Wolverine is not Australian, or American or whatever that accent has become. He’s Canadian. He’s ours.

So when I saw my favourite pint-sized superhero (he’s 5’3, not counting his hair) from my taxi the night after Halloween, I wasn’t that surprised. There’s no reason he wouldn’t be in Saskatoon.

I thought maybe I’d just being seeing things, what with all the turbulence and time changes I’d just been through, so I went for a walk along the Saskatchewan River the next morning to see whether he was still hanging out.

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Not only was he there, looking for all the world like he was out for a blustery stroll, but since it was just after dawn and there was no one around, I got a peek under the mask.

The man wearing the Wolverine costume wasn’t, as you might imagine, James (Logan) Howlett, but rather Denny Carr, a celebrated Saskatonian who made a name for himself by founding the Salvation Army’s Secret Santa program. He looked pretty good in the makeshift superhero outfit.

Wolvie would have approved.