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Prairie Moments

Rural Municipality of Loreburn

In the Fall of 2020 I ventured into the land of wheat fields. I felt good on my travels for a couple of reasons.

First and foremost, there were no crowds….anywhere. This was different from when I travelled west to the mountains last summer. Then I found crowds everywhere, not from the USA, Germany, Japan, or China—but from Calgary and surrounding environs. Folks not able to travel could not be expected to sit around their homes during the nice weather and they didn’t. They were in Canmore, Banff, cycling on the parkway, and crowding almost every trail that could be accessed from the highway, but turn east, out onto the prairies, and it was different.

The second contributor to feeling good was that I took my time, travelled some never before seen roads, and unearthed memories that then rolled around in my head as I looked out on the land and poked around prairie towns. I travelled with care—mask in hand and worn whenever I couldn’t keep my space. I took special care when eating. Many times I just bought a sealed sandwich, found a park, and settled down to eat underneath a grove of poplar.

One of my long forgotten memories came to me between Elbow and Loreburn, Saskatchewan.

Most readers will know that I am from the prairies, more specifically, Regina, Saskatchewan. We moved from Regina to Calgary when I was six, back in 1950-51. The last few of those first six years are packed with memories of the prairies.

One of those was the boredom felt when I travelled with Mom and Dad in our 1938 Chevrolet or later, in our 1949 Monarch. Driving to our cottage from our home in Regina on Katepwa Lake, a 56 mile journey, was bad enough, but the trip from Calgary to Regina and back again after we moved to Calgary, was interminable. The questioning from the back seat was probably regular. “How much longer ’til we get there?”

To try to temper my boredom, Dad would suggest that I look for the next town’s grain elevator on the horizon and try to identify the name of the town before looking on a map. Mom would then look at the map and tell me how many more elevators there were before our destination. That didn’t cure the boredom completely, but it helped.

A new grain elevator appeared every fifteen minutes or so. Grain elevators were spaced 12 to 16km apart so that, in the day of horse drawn grain wagons, the farmer could start with his grain wagon headed for the elevator in the morning, travel there, dump his grain, and make it home again by dusk. In some places, small towns built up around the elevator to provide services to the local farmers, while in other cases, the elevator stood alone with only the elevator attendant’s family house nearby. Where towns did build up, passenger and baggage stations were built. As the horse drawn wagon was replaced with gas engine trucks, the farmer could travel further in a day so some elevators were abandoned, then torn down.

Rail Line into the town of Loreburn

This fall, driving between the towns of Elbow and Loreburn, I was reminded of my grain elevator spotting back in the early 1950’s. Those towns are both in Saskatchewan, about 13 km apart, and the CPR Outlook railway branch line runs through them. What’s more, each town still has a grain elevator. When standing in Elbow and looking north over the flat prairie land, I could not see the elevator in Loreburn. The same was the case in Loreburn when looking south. But as I drove north on the highway between the two towns which, like most highways on the flat prairie paralleled the railway, I spotted the top of the Loreburn elevator with about 8 km to go. That’s the moment the memory came back—the memory of that seven year old in the back of our car, hoping each grain elevator that came into view was the last one and we had arrived at our destination.

Another moment of reflection occurred on my way home and after a chance discovery of a small cafe in Alsask called the Herbal Twist Team Room. There I enjoyed an excellent bowl of Borsht while straining to hear a conversation between three or four of the local farmers, curious as to how busy they were, this being harvest time. If the concern about the virus didn’t exist, I would have gone over and talked to them.

After lunch, driving south from Alsask, I came to a corner where, on one side, was a mature crop of wheat, standing tall and golden, while on the other side was a field where, as far as my eye could see, the crop had been taken off. I stopped and went to look at the field of wheat first. The stalks were tall and the bulging heads of wheat were level with my chest. I thought of the farmer who would be harvesting that grain, trucking it to the nearest grain elevator or more likely the nearest, modern metal silo, and then proudly bringing home the record of his sale.

Harvest is In

I turned, walked across the road and surveyed the unending rows of stubble where similar healthy wheat stood not long ago. That farmer must have felt accomplished. I stood for a while to let feeling of the moment sink in and for the image to be sketched into my memory as well as my camera.

As I drove away from this place I thought about the difference between this viewpoint and the viewpoints I often visit in Banff National Park. At those places would be a row of photographers, each taking a photograph of the same place. When spending time hiking in the mountains as a teenager and later in my 20’s, I felt private and insular when I took out my camera. There would be nobody else around—the same experience as I had just encountered at that turn in the road, south of Alsask. Once again I felt life was good.



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