Travels Through Yesteryear
Yesterday afternoon, I returned from a six-day motorcycle camping trip. Before my departure, people asked which interesting places I planned on visiting. Their reactions varied upon hearing I would visit the ghost towns of south east Alberta and south west Saskatchewan. After purchasing a book about the history of this area several years ago, I vowed to one day spend time there.
After strapping camping gear on my motorcycle, I left Calgary last Saturday with the goal of spending the night in Foremost, Alberta. Foremost is town of about five hundred people and it is east of there that the deserted and near deserted villages are found.
At the junction of highway 889 and rural road 501, pavement ended, and one hundred kilometres of gravel began. Over the years, I have gotten myself into some jams on the road but by careful planning, this time was different. Google Earth showed the road was hard packed gravel and quite smooth. The adage stating that bringing gear which can save your bacon, means you will not need it, proved correct. Just the same, I was glad to have brought a complete tire repair kit. In the three hours it took to traverse this stretch of gravel, I only met one other vehicle which was headed west.
Including myself, tools, camping gear plus a full tank of gas, my sport touring BMW motorcycle weighed in at nine hundred fifty pounds. Not exactly a lightweight dirt bike but the road surface was smooth enough to allow a cruising speed of around seventy kilometres and hour.
Highway 501, which becomes highway 13 in Saskatchewan, is home to large cattle herds which enjoy free reign and numerous times, I slowed to a near crawl for cattle standing on the road. The yearlings were skittish and would bolt in any direction, but the two-year olds were content to just continue grazing.
On several occasions, I shut off my motorcycle simply to listen to the sounds of exactly nothing. In our modern society, it seems there is no longer any quiet and we have become acclimated to that circumstance. The silence was deafening and realized, that at first, I was straining to hear anything at all. After a few minutes, I relaxed in the calm and reluctantly donning my helmet, started the engine again.
A common denominator along this route are the overgrown railbeds that once tied these communities together. When drought forced people off these arid plains, town populations likewise declined and eventually, the rail company tore out the tracks. That in turn further isolated the towns and accelerated their decline into becoming uninhabited.
Govenlock is the first former town one arrives at in Saskatchewan and the community hall, built in 1948, is the only surviving building. Poking around in the prairie grass reveals foundations of long-gone homes, stores and grain elevators. I imagined the sounds of fiddles and laughter from the Saturday night dances that were once held in the community hall.
Further east in Robsart, I parked my motorcycle on main street and spent several hours photographing abandoned buildings, old cars and farm machinery. While the rail tracks and grain elevator are long gone, three or four houses remain inhabited. On one building can still be read the painted letters advertising it was once Beaver Lumber.
I had hoped to be explore historic Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills but was thwarted by closure brought about by the corona virus. The interpretive centre was locked, along with most of the walking trails. I was free to hike down into the valley to the fort in thirty-degree heat but decided there was little point in standing before the gates to read the closure notice.
Carrying on, I passed signs advertising the T-Rex dinosaur interpretive centre in Eastend, Saskatchewan. Again, another attraction was closed due to the virus. At the town hotel, I enjoyed a great lunch and met several colorful town residents. Or should I refer to them as characters?
My other destination was Grasslands National Park and I camped in the nearby hamlet of Val Marie, population one hundred thirty. While the rail line has been removed, Val Marie is bucking the trend of falling into the oblivion of so many other Saskatchewan towns. Most of the homes are well cared for and people are proud of their town.
I spent several hours in the near deserted park, but my visit was cut short due to tornado warnings. An hour after returning to the village campground, the most violent storm I can remember howled in with driving rains. Parking my motorcycle under an awning of the shower building, the storm hit before I could rescue the tent. To my total amazement, it stayed in place and surprisingly, was dry inside.
On my journey, I purposely avoided the news and social media hoopla and found that very refreshing. I highly recommend dropping out of the mainstream for at least a few days.
Excuse my computer ‘skills’, could not quite manage to get the pictures in proper sequence.
1. Old delivery truck will take a while to get your order to you.
2. The gravel road begins, only one hundred kilometres to pavement.
3. Main street Robsart.
4. Not much in stock these days.
5. Prairie dogs in Grassland National Park.
6. Building foundation in Govenlock.
7. On Alberta Hwy 889, in the distance are the Sweetgrass Hills in Montana.
I could not figure out how to upload more than three pictures, after much muttering, gave in to the technology fiends. Sorry.