Backyard vacations important in pandemic

Pat McDougall stands next to a marker along the North West Mounted Police Trail, located east of the Cypress Hills.

Two Swift Current residents have developed a renewed appreciation for the beauty of the prairie landscape since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Betty McDougall has been going on day trips in southwest Saskatchewan and surrounding areas with husband Pat since late March.

They have undertaken 12 trips until the end of July, which took them off the beaten path in various directions to enjoy the scenery and wildlife.

Pat’s career in the road construction industry meant they were never able to go on summer trips until his retirement a few years ago.

They have travelled to various destinations outside Canada since his retirement, for example they visited California’s scenic Redwood Coast and last year they drove with friends to New Orleans for the famous jazz and heritage festival.

“Then this year with COVID, because we couldn't do any of that, we thought why don't we just explore around,” Betty said. “So we just started doing that and we’ll just pick a part of the highway or a few grid roads.”

There were various COVID-19 restrictions in place when they started their adventures and they therefore only went on day trips.

“We packed a lunch and we went, because we didn't want to have any contact with anybody,” she said. “We had lots of the Saskatchewan wave as we met vehicles on the road, but we just stayed to ourselves and toured around.”

The first trip was a lot of fun and thereafter they just continued to explore different parts of the region. They have visited the Great Sandhills, explored the Cypress Hills, checked out regional parks along the South Saskatchewan River, and travelled through the badlands of the Big Muddy Valley.

They got a glimpse of the St. Victor Petroglyphs Provincial Historic Park, even though the entrance gate was closed during their trip to that area, and they retraced the North West Mounted Police Trail, which runs from Wood Mountain to Fort Walsh.

“We always hear how Saskatchewan is flat and there's nothing to see and we know better than that as Saskatchewanians, but I think that's something that it really reinforced is that there's so much beauty out there,” she said about their trips. “When you go down to the Big Muddy, it compares to going to Drumheller. It's so pretty, there's so much beautiful scenery, the elevations of the land are amazing. So I think it really enforced that for us.”

There have been many memorable moments during these trips. An unexpected and unforgettable experience occurred during a trip on a beautiful spring day in April, when they came upon a cow and her newborn calf. 

“We missed the birth by minutes, and so we sat and watched momma clean up this baby, and it tried to get its legs under it,” she recalled. “That was really neat. I grew up on a farm. So it's certainly something I had seen as a kid, but hadn't seen it for years. So it was pretty cool.”

Another interesting experience was to visit the site of the continental divide in Saskatchewan, which is the point of separation between major drainage basins on the continent.

They were also surprised to discover the Great Wall of Saskatchewan, which is located just west of Smiley. The wall is about 3/8th of a mile long and was created over a period of 29 years by a local resident. There is also a three-room sod house at the site.

“We never knew that such a thing existed, and sort of came upon it,” she said. “That's one place we'd like to go back, because it was really wet. I walked in a bit. … So we'd like to go back and actually explore it more in depth.”

They saw the Great Wall of Saskatchewan during a day trip to west-central Saskatchewan. This excursion included a visit to the hamlet of Loverna, where Pat’s grandfather Dr. James Ambrose O’Brien is buried.

“We hadn't been there for years, and so just to go and pay our respects there was kind of neat already, to do that again too,” she said.

Betty is an avid photographer and she took a lot of photographs during these 12 trips, which she has shared in posts on her Facebook page. They have seen a lot of wildlife, and the leisurely pace of their trips provided her with an opportunity to take time to compose images of animals.

“We were relaxed, we weren't in a hurry,” she said. “Otherwise you quickly take a snap, but there were times that I could really take some time and patiently wait. There was one that I took at the petroglyphs where there were bird houses along the fence, and the swallows were there. I waited patiently until momma got into the bird house and then poked her nose out.”

The restrictions that came along with the pandemic has not caused major changes to their lifestyle, because they are already retired.

“I think it's easier for us, because we are retired,” she said. “I sympathize with folks who are working and have had to change their schedules completely, worry about their jobs, their mortgages, their children.”

However, for them life is certainly not the same as before. They are obviously concerned about the health and well-being of their children and grandchildren, there will not be a trip this year to visit family in British Columbia, and even regular routines such as a visit with friends for coffee had to change, but these day trips have helped them to keep life in perspective and to connect with nature.

“It gives us something to look forward to, and it's the substitute for the drive to B.C. and visiting the kids,” she said. “I think our philosophy, both Pat's and mine, is here's the cards we've been dealt and so how do we make the best of it.”

They are planning to continue their trips and future excursions might be even further afield to visit places further north in the province, for example to go to Batoche or to visit the crooked bush near Hafford. There are also other places they want to visit again to explore in more detail, for example the Big Muddy badlands and a trip to Ogema to experience the Southern Prairie Railway train ride.

“I think even doing this has sort of encouraged us to think about post-COVID, what else is there to explore in Saskatchewan, and there's so much,” she said.

She will therefore suggest to anyone looking for something to do during this pandemic to consider a road trip to explore the beauty of Saskatchewan.

“Even if it's an afternoon trip, there's so much, even within our area of Swift Current that you could go out for an afternoon or a day and check out,” she said. “Sometimes we need to be able to slow down and that's what COVID has forced us to do, to slow down and take a look at what's out there.”

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