Canada: Saskatoon, a Prairie Boomtown

The visitor center at the Wanuskewin Heritage Park. Photos by Stephen Hartshorne.
The visitor center at the Wanuskewin Heritage Park. Photos by Stephen Hartshorne.

Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: A Popular Family Travel Destination for 6,000 Years

By Stephen Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Associate Editor

Tipis near the "buffalo jump" at the Wanuskewin Heritage Park.
Tipis near the “buffalo jump” at the Wanuskewin Heritage Park.

If travel blogs had existed two thousand years ago, the headline about Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, would have read, “Come for the barbeque, stay for the berries.”

People from many First Nations tribes have been gathering here for more than six thousand years to hunt buffalo and gather the violet Saskatoon berries that abound here.

For modern-day Saskatoon, the headline might read, “Come for the culture, stay for the cuisine.”

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The Remai Modern Art Gallery, opening in 2016, is expected to draw more than 200,000 visitors annually.
The Remai Modern Art Gallery, opening in 2016, is expected to draw more than 200,000 visitors annually.

Burgeoning Economy

With a burgeoning economy from the rich farmland and mineral wealth that surrounds this prairie city, Saskatoon is seeing dramatic population growth and new construction, most notably the hundred-million-dollar Remai Modern Art Gallery scheduled to open in 2016.

The city is also seeing a renaissance of cafes, restaurants, boutiques, and nighspots, and with 65 annual festivals and cultural events, it’s a truly happening town.

They have a great riverside Shakespeare Festival, a Fringe Festival modeled on the one in Edinburgh, the Nuit Blanche night-time arts festival, the YXE Beer Festival, street fairs, folk fests, and reggae, jazz and blues festivals.

Family Fun

There are all kinds of opportunities for family fun: a great zoo, the Children’s Discovery Museum, the Western Development Museum, the Ukranian Museum of Canada, and the Wanuskewin Heritage Park, a First Nations interpretive center where visitors can learn about the culture of the Plains.

Kids enjoy the new water park by the South Saskatchewan River.
Kids enjoy the new water park by the South Saskatchewan River.

Sparked by the restoration of the historic Roxy Theatre, the creation of the new farmer’s market, a new riverside water park, and many new businesses, the once-tired Riversdale District has blossomed into one of the city’s most vibrant neighborhoods, and with the the Remai Modern set to open in 2016 right nearby, it will be even more popular.

Experiencing Saskatoon

I had the opportunity to camp in a tipi at Wanuskewin Heritage Park, and then stay at the historic Hotel Bessborough, the last of the great Canadian Railway hotels.

We took a canoe trip on the South Sasketchewan and took a riverboat cruise up and down the river that runs through the center of the city.

We watched a performance of Much Ado About Nothing at Shakepeare on the Saskatchewan, and dined like royalty at some of the many first-rate restaurants.

We also had a chance to meet the “mayor” of Riversdale who told us about the efforts to save the Roxy Theatre and revitalize the neighborhood.

Prairie Boomtown

This auto powered by straw gas proved impractical.
This auto powered by straw gas proved impractical.

Our first stop was the Western Development Museum, a full-scale replica of the prairie boomtown that was Saskatoon at the turn of the last century, complete with dozens of dioramas and educational exhibits about pioneer life.

Visitors can tour the blacksmith’s shop, the schoolhouse, the telegraph office, the butcher shop, the pharmacy, and the office of the Canadian Mounted Police — the iconic “Mounties.”

There’s a huge collection of historic farm machinery, and a rare straw-gas powered automobile. The idea proved impractical since the 300-cubic-foot balloon could only provide the power of one gallon of gasoline.

Buffalo Jump

Just north of Saskatoon, where the valley of Opimihaw Creek meets the South Saskatchewan River, was the site of a “buffalo jump” where the giant beasts — some weighing more than a ton — were stampeded off a cliff and dispatched with spears and arrows.

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In this valley, part of the Wanuskewin Heritage Park, archaeologists have found layer upon layer of buffalo bones, as well as spear and arrow points, in the processing area on the valley floor where the beasts were skinned and butchered.

A view of Opimihaw Creek where it meets the South Saskatchewan River.
A view of Opimihaw Creek where it meets the South Saskatchewan River.

Wanuskewin was also a ceremonial center where first peoples gathered for dances and ceremonies, for consultations with healers, and for gathering and drying berries.

Near the buffalo jump at the edge of the valley is an ancient medicine wheel, one of seventy that have been found on the Great Plains. These wheels vary in size and shape, but all are aligned to the position of the heavens at different times of the year.

Tipi Sleepover

I had the opportunity to camp overnight in the Opimihaw Valley as part of the Wanuskewin Tipi Sleepover, an event that includes several interpretive programs about the life, the culture, and the spirituality of the tribes that have gathered here for more than 6,000 years.

As the sun was coming up, I took an early morning walk on the pathways that wander through the valley and I got a real sense of the peace and beauty of the place.

Christopher Standing shows how traditional tipis are constructed at the Wanuskewin Heritage Park.
Christopher Standing shows how traditional tipis are constructed at the Wanuskewin Heritage Park.

We had a hands-on workshop on constructing a tipi in the traditional manner and a hike through the valley to the site of the medicine wheel.

The Wanuskewin Heritage Park has 360 acres of scenic trails, ongoing archaeological digs, and many interpretive programs about the lifestyles and cultures of the Northern Plains tribes.

The Bessborough

Much as I enjoyed sleeping in a tipi and communing with ancient buffalo hunters, it was a pleasure to check into more sumptuous quarters at the iconic Hotel Bessborough.

Built in the 1930s by the Canadian National Railroad, the Bessborough is probably Saskatoon’s most famous landmarks. With 225 guest rooms, five-acres of riverfront gardens and 15,000 square feet of meeting space, the hotel combines historic grandeur with modern amenities.

Neighborhood Revitalization

Our next stop was a tour of Riversdale, a neighborhood that used to be on “the wrong side of the tracks,” that has seen dramatic revitalization in recent years with a new riverside park, a farmers’ market, and lots of new businesses, cafes, and restaurants.

Randy Pshebylo, the "mayor" of Riverdale talks about neighborhood revitalization at the Roxy Theatre.
Randy Pshebylo, the “mayor” of Riverdale talks about neighborhood revitalization at the Roxy Theatre.

But the “crown jewel” of the revitalization is the million-dollar restoration of the historic Roxy Theatre by Magic Lantern Theatres.

We met with Randy Pshebylo, the head of the Riversdale Business Improvement District since 1990, who is known as the “mayor” of Riversdale, Who talked with us about community efforts to promote revitalization.

The Roxy Theatre

The Roxy was built in 1930 in the Spanish Colonial style, the first commercial building in Saskatoon to be air conditioned. It had a dark blue ceiling with twinkling lights and two cloud machine to suggest the night sky.

The building was unused from 1999 to 2005, Pshebylo explained, and nearly collapsed. The basement had flooded, the roof leaked, and the ceiling was falling down.

The newly-restored Roxy is a real centerpiece for the neighborhood, showing movies and hosting community events — even weddings and birthday parties. One of the most popular is their “Silence is Golden” series where they show silent films, accompanied by the Saskatoon Symphony.

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A mural at the newly-restored Roxy Theatre in Riversdale.
A mural at the newly-restored Roxy Theatre in Riversdale.

The $100-million Remai Modern Art Gallery scheduled to open in the Fall of 2016 adjacemt to Riversdale, Pshebylo says, will further transform the neighborhood.

Big Things

“We’re on the cusp of some really big things happening in our district,” he says, “and the Remai Modern is truly bringing back the neighborhood to what it was.”

Our group donned hard hats and steel-toed boots and toured the Remai, now under construction, and it’s really something. It’s expected to be 2016’s largest new tourism destination, drawing more than 200,000 visitors. In addition, 90,000 students will participate in educational programs.

Besides five galleries with more than 7,700 works of art, including the world’s largest collection of Picasso linocuts, the Remai Modern will have a theatre, classrooms, an atrium for conferences and community events, riverside terraces and a sculpture garden.

Boarding the Prairie Lily for a riverboat cruise on the South Saskatchewan River.
Boarding the Prairie Lily for a riverboat cruise on the South Saskatchewan River.

The Remai Modern will replace the Mendel Art Gallery, which has closed and will be converted into a Children’s Discovery Museum to open in 2017.

River Cruises

Other highlight of our visit to Saskatoon included a canoe trip down the South Saskatchewan River with Cliff Speers of the Canoeski Discovery Company and a wonderful riverboat cruise aboard the Prairie Lily through the heart of the city.

We visited the Ukrainian Museum of Canada, where we got a look at the life and heritage of the many Ukrainian immigrants who were invited to come farm in Canada around the turn of the last century.

And we saw a great performance of “Much Ado About Nothing” on the tent-stage of the Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan. The play was presented in a 1940s setting with some truly extraordinary choreography, as Benedick, Beatrice, Hero, Claudio and even Don Pedro all did the Lindy Hop.

Watermelon gazpacho with ling cod at Calories on Broadway Avenue.
Watermelon gazpacho with ling cod at Calories on Broadway Avenue.

And Then the Food…And we dined at one really first-rate restaurant after another. The Nosh Eatery and Tap on Broadway Avenue has a vegetarian-focused menu, but they also serve locally sourced meat and fish dishes. I especially recommend the lentil burger and the smoked mushrooms, which come in a little jar.

We learned that Chef Justin O’Reilly uses a portable hand smoker to prepare them, and the results are delightful. I want one!

At Calories, also on Broadway Avenue, Chef Remi Cousyn has been preparing simple, fresh meals for nearly 30 years. Don’t miss the watermelon gazpacho.

We also had a great meal at Ayden Kitchen and Bar on Third Avenue, which specializes in “modern Canadian comfort food” — house-made charcuterie, custom butchery, fresh cheeses and handmade gourmet cocktails.