From the Prairies to the Lakes: A road trip across the heart of Canada
A long straight road disappears into the horizon ahead of you. Vast fields of vivid yellow canola flowers stretch as far as the eye can see on either side. And above you endless blue skies are dotted with an ever-changing map of fluffy white clouds. Welcome to the Canadian Prairies.
The Prairies are the area of central Canada sandwiched between the Rocky Mountains to the west and Ontario to the east. They’re nicknamed the ‘Land of Living Skies’ and have a reputation for being rural, flat and a little bit unexciting. But there’s more to the heart of Canada than meets the eye. Our RV road trip route took us along the central section of the Trans-Canada Highway, all the way from Calgary to Toronto. The highway runs for almost 5000 miles in total, right across the country. It takes you from one coast of Canada to the other through ten provinces, each one revealing a different chapter in Canada's history and culture.
Out in the heart of Canada the remoteness was like nothing I’d ever seen. One moment you’re sharing the road with fellow RV travellers and trucks hauling goods across the country. The next it’s just you, and the rest of the world seems a very long way away. The landscape has a special beauty, with broad strokes of colour that looked almost like an Impressionist painting. But the roads aren't the only link to the rest of the country – the original Trans-Canada route was by rail. The railway tracks run alongside the highway much of the time, so you often find yourself joined by a Canadian Pacific train. Like a lot of things in this part of the world, the trains here are on a larger scale than anywhere else and pull 30 or more wagons behind them.
Long before the highway was built the railways were making the trip across the Prairies, and their history is closely tied together. The Canadian Pacific Railway was built in the 1880s to connect British Colombia to Eastern Canada. But it also opened up the Prairies to European settlers who came over in their thousands to farm the land. They faced harsh winters like nothing they’d ever experienced before but made use of some of Canada's best soil and turned an empty landscape into a huge farming centre. The railroad still hauls wheat and barley from the prairies to Quebec City and Vancouver to be shipped overseas.
Farming and mining are a big part of life in this part of the country, but the Prairies aren't just about wide open spaces. The towns and cities along the way give you just as much of an insight into Prairie life, and you might well find some unexpected surprises along the way. Like the town of Moose Jaw in Saskatchewan. Today it's a smart place with colourful murals, cool coffee shops and even a thermal spa where we soaked away some of the aches and pains from our long days behind the wheel. But it wasn't so long ago that it was known as 'Little Chicago', and the 1920s visitors would've been stopping by to take advantage of gambling, prostitution and bootlegged booze.
At the Tunnels of Moose Jaw we headed underground into a network of tunnels that were used during Prohibition to produce and supply alcohol across the border. Now costumed guides take you through the stories of the town's murky past – from its connections with Al Capone to the Chinese immigrants who came here to make their fortune. Their tales of guns, glamour and grit are a world away from the gentle reputation of the Prairies.
Then there's the city of Regina, whose skyscrapers seem to suddenly appear out of nowhere in the middle of the flat plains. It's Saskatchewan's modern provincial capital and the home of Canada's iconic Mounties. You can visit the RCMP Heritage Center, right next to the training academy where rookie Mounties undergo their training. But as we were in town for Canada Day we joined in with the city's celebrations in Wascana Park. The lakeside was packed with people, all proudly dressed in red watching the Plywood Cup – where homemade plywood boats race across the lake – and First Nations traditional dancers. We spent the evening in Regina Beach, joining our campsite neighbour – a Croatian who'd come to the Prairies and never left – for a celebratory glass of wine by the campfire as we traded road trip stories.
Back on the road the hours and the miles rolled away, but if you want a change of scenery then you don't have to go far off the highway to find provincial parks, lakes and river valleys. But we headed onwards across time zones and provincial borders – from Saskatchewan into Manitoba and finally into Ontario. This is where the Prairies end, where one chapter of Canada closes and the other opens – exchanging straight roads for bends, wheat fields for forests and plains for lakes as the road carries onwards on its long journey to the coast.