I've just finished an organic, fair-trade espresso, browsed through expensive boutiques, toured a photo gallery, picked up a bottle of wine, inquired about tee times and nearly booked a hair appointment, and now I'm listening to a young woman belt out the pop heartache of Adele's Rolling in the Deep. This is a national park?
If I wasn't in a canoe, if I wasn't listening to the crackle of a campfire floating nearby, if I wasn't watching Parks Canada staff balance (with guitars, amps and props) on a makeshift stage straddling two canoes in Waskesiu Lake as they entertain a crowd that is gathered on a dock, in canoes, kayaks and ski boats - I could have been in any big city.
But my brother and I had left the big city, and our families, behind - trading Toronto's smog and streetcars for north-central Saskatchewan's sweet-smelling air and abundant wildlife. Arriving in time for Prince Albert National Park's first floating campfire of the season - an event not held since the park officially opened in 1928 - was a bonus.
Party in the park
Unless you enter by the park's south gate and take an 85-kilometre detour on gravel roads to the park's southwestern grasslands (and not many do), you really can't miss Waskesiu - one of the busiest towns inside any of Canada's national parks. According to a visitor survey from 2007, Waskesiu (pronounced WASS-keh-soo) is where more than 90 per cent of park visitors go, and never leave. Why would they? The year-round townsite has everything, including a liquor store, post office, movie theatre, library, rec centre, seven restaurants, hotels, motels, an 18-hole Stanley Thompson-designed golf course and six tennis courts. It has even had a royal visit: In 1958, Princess Margaret landed in a helicopter on the golf course and spent the night in a local cottage. Deer and elk are also frequent visitors.
No wonder more than 80 per cent of park visitors are from the province; there are 569 privately leased cabins here and many more to rent: They don't call this "Saskatchewan's playground" for nothing.
Ben and I had two ideas about how to spend our first day: Explore Waskesiu by bike or go fishing. Since we had landed in Saskatoon, we had heard at every stop on our 2½-hour drive north that the walleye fishing was fantastic. Ben was keen to get out on the water and try his luck. "No one will rent you fishing gear, but you can probably buy some in town," the visitor centre staff told us. How odd. The town that had everything didn't rent fishing rods? The marina suggested that he find a long stick in the woods, then buy twine and bait to fish off the dock: not exactly what he had in mind. This was our first hint that beneath the genuine warmth of the locals is an independent, DIY spirit: Guests should come prepared.
We head back into town and find Grey Owl Center. Bentley Crozier - the most laid-back man in Saskatchewan - runs this rental joint; he's got mountain bikes, quadracycles, DVDs and Wi-Fi and you can buy time in his gym. But fishing rods? "You're the second person to ask me that this week. I'm gonna have to start doing that."
Across the street at the Waskesiu Trading Company, we pick up a picnic lunch - fruit and pasta salads and cinnamon buns - and start exploring. We admire the many gorgeous log and stone buildings - the Nature Centre, the Friends of the Park Bookstore, golf clubhouse, the community hall - built by relief workers during the Depression and conscientious objectors during the Second World War. Then we pedal up to Prospect Point for grand views of Waskesiu Lake and even grander summer homes, including one built as a gift to prime minister Mackenzie King for creating Prince Albert National Park. He spent one night in it.
Before heading back to our hotel, we jump in our car and drive south on Highway 263 to the Height of Land Tower near Shady Lake. It's less than 15 minutes from town, but this place is deserted. We climb up 15 metres for an incredible view of the lake and the boreal forest treetops. The quiet is astounding; all we hear is wind rustling the aspen leaves.
It's not so quiet in town. All day we've been noticing Roughriders jerseys - it's the season opener and Ben, an Argos fan, wants to catch some of that Western Canadian Football League spirit. So we head back to our hotel, the Elk Ridge Golf Resort and Spa, just five minutes outside the park's main east gate, to join the pub tailgate party.
There's a sea of bright green and the party is in full swing at Walleye's. Here, finally, we get a taste of the local delicacy (walleye is the province's official fish, and the fish and chips are outstanding) as our table mates get Ben caught up on the game. Between plays, Bill Johnson tells us why he loves the park so much - he has been coming for 45 years, and now drives nine hours from Calgary to reach the family cabin. "There are two experiences here," he explains. "You can stay in Waskesiu and hang out on the beach. And when you get tired of all the people, you head out to the remote lakes and there's no one there. There's nothing like it."
The interior or bust
Talking with Bill confirmed a visit to Saskatchewan's most popular national park (about 220,000 come each year) offers completely different experiences: cottage country and backcountry.
There are hundreds of lakes throughout the park's 3,875 square kilometres - it's like someone splattered the map in blue paint. The bigger smears - Kingsmere and Crean lakes - promised a true wilderness experience. One of the most popular destinations is a pilgrimage to Grey Owl's cabin just north of Kingsmere, on Ajawaan Lake; it's a 40-km round-trip hike from the northern end of Waskesiu Lake or an overnight paddle and portage to see where the parks system's first naturalist (Englishman Archibald Stansfeld Belaney, who had lived among the Ojibwa) was inspired by his work with beavers.
But we only had one day.
For visitors like us, the Waskesiu Marina and Adventure Centre (about 10 minutes up Highway 264) offers a catered excursion: They'll provide the water taxi and lunch, you bring your camera (and as we discovered, you'll need a little muscle, a lot of bug spray and a raincoat - even on sunny days).
"This shuttle makes it doable in one day," Nathalie Matheson, our guide and the marina manager, explains as we piled into her Jeep the next morning. We head north along Kingsmere Road for 30 kilometres pulling a 40-horsepower motorboat. "I saw 13 bears on this road last year," Natalie tell us (on our return trip, we get to see two).
At the boat launch, we're joined by parks employees Marcia Klein and Shannon Bond. Marcia speaks reverently of Grey Owl's work and tells us more about his wife, Anahareo (Gertrude Bernard), a Mohawk woman who encouraged his writing and lived with him at Ajawaan.
Once we reach the trailhead, I see this is no ordinary portage - railway tracks stretch into trees, and we have to push our boat on a rail cart the size of a child's school desk. Ben turns the winch as we all yank and pull this 500-pound boat up over a ramp with rubber rollers. Phew! Now that we're sweaty, the mosquitoes - and they are epic - cover us like a blanket. (It's worrying when even parks staff bring bug jackets.) At the other end of the portage, dragon flies the size of hummingbirds fly over us like a rescue squadron ready to feast on the mosquitoes.
More pulling and shoving gets the boat back in the water and when we pull ashore, soaked from the waves, I'm struck by the tranquillity. The sun is warm, the water laps hypnotically on the beach, and the saskatoon berry plants are ripening along the shoreline. I could stay here for days. But there's one more portage to go - it's rocky and uphill, thank goodness we're carrying just a canoe this time. Finally we see Grey Owl's cabin across the bay. We paddle quietly past its neighbouring beaver lodge, but we don't see any of the industrious creatures today. Marcia tells us that almost all the beavers in the park are related to Jellyroll and Rawhide, the two Grey Owl lived with and studied. There's still much of their old lodge inside the cabin and visitors can read copies of the naturalist's handwritten notes about his life in the bush.
As we explore, checking out Anahareo's cabin (she got sick of living with beavers) and the gravesites of the couple and their daughter (buried here upon her death at the age of 52), Natalie readies our simple lunch. We sit quietly and eat our sandwiches on Grey Owl's front porch and Marcia, inspired by the moment, begins quoting him: "Remember you belong to nature, not it to you."
It's a lesson best learned at Prince Albert once you arrive in the backcountry - just make sure you bring your own fishing rod and raincoat.
IF YOU GO
- Prince Albert National Park is a two-and-a-half hour drive north of Saskatoon. pc.gc.ca/princealbert
- If you want to explore the park's waterways, Waskesiu Marina and Adventure Centre will help you do it with boat and canoe rentals, catered pontoon tours of Hanging Heart Lakes, guided excursions to Grey Owl's cabin (from $500), a water shuttle to Grey Owl's cabin (from $90 a person), and more. 306-663-1999; waskesiumarina.com.
Where to stay
Elk Ridge Golf Resort and Spa: It's less than a five-minute drive from the park's main gate, and is the only luxury option. Surrounded by boreal forest, you'll see elk and deer from your balcony - even if you're facing the parking lot. There are three nine-hole golf courses, a full-service spa and indoor saltwater pool with a corkscrew water slide. Copper Ridge fine dining restaurant will not disappoint but do try the fish and chips at Walleye's pub. Rooms from $219. 800-510-1824; elkridgeresort.com.
For more ideas about cabins and hotels inside Prince Albert National Park visit waskesiulake.ca.
(Editor's note: The spelling of Shannon Bond's name has been corrected.)