This morning we embarked on our first family road trip and first travel since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Here we are waiting in the drive thru line for our COVID tests (no longer a required step for arrival into Canada 🇨🇦).
First stop! The gardens were beautiful. 🌸 The upper gardens (Clemens Gardens) were more formal with fountains ⛲️. Oscar was impressed with the layout, saying “there’s a fountain and a bigger fountain and an even BIGGER fountain.” The grounds became more whimsical (Musinger Gardens) as you moved towards the (Mississippi) river, with lots of fairy houses and decor 🧚 as you descended towards the (Mississippi) river. It was a perfect place to have a picnic lunch, which is what we did. Delilah fell asleep on this first leg, so had an early nap. Oscar worked in his travel book that Grandma made him, checking off items on the scavenger hunt.
Half an hour after leaving St. Cloud, Oscar starts asking about a snack. We decide to stop at Staples, MN, the town after Motley, MN (who names these places?!), which is about the mid-point between St. Cloud and Detroit Lakes. I initially looked for a park in town, but I notice a green patch just a few minutes off the highway, south of the town. We headed there and it was almost like a campground, with vaguely marked roads, picnic shelters, a playground, and a forest of towering pine trees. 🌲We were all alone. The trees were swaying in the wind and the rustling in their needles was deafening while also peaceful. We snacked and meandered. Delilah and Oscar both used the swings, Oscar learning how to pump to gain momentum. It was a perfect stopping point and an amazing find. Oscar kept asking “where is everybody?!” Indeed!
We arrived at our stop for the night, the Lakes Inn in Detroit Lakes, MN. As promised, the property is right across the street from the lake and the owner is super friendly. He gave us a larger unit (a suite!) seeing that we have the two kids with us. The kids are delighted with the “Jack and Jill” bathroom, racing cars in circles around the suite. We walked down the street to pick up some “authentic” Mexican food, which turns out to be authentic only in the sense that the people who cooked it are Mexican. We eat our dinner next to the lake. Oscar is suspicious of the food, while Delilah dives right in. When she’s done eating, Delilah entertained herself throwing sand into the lake -- “I’m playing in a big big big big sand table!” There are shells scattered along the water line - sea snails?! Pretty sure I’ve heard about them as an invasive species in my aquatic invasive species network modeling. Their abundance certainly didn’t look like a well-balanced ecosystem.
We’re lucky that Minnesota seems to abound with high quality playgrounds. This was a quick snack / toilet break, but the kids were quick to get on the swings. Delilah was determined to climb up the play structure to use the slide and soon she was going up and down completely independently. Minnesota towns also seem to enjoy erecting large statutes and then claiming them to be the largest of their kind. This town had the “world’s largest northern pike” adjacent to this park.
We stopped in Grand Forks for lunch. Grand Forks is just over the border into North Dakota and the state border follows the river. We saw a large green space along the river and figured it was probably a good park for lunch. It was in the sense it was basically empty…including empty of amenities like bathrooms or a trash can! C’mon North Dakota! There was also green space on the Minnesota side of the river that we suspect was more developed / user-friendly. But we had a lunch on our picnic blanket. We got a kids meal grilled cheese from a sandwich shop for the kids. It came with milk, which turned out to be chocolate milk! Oscar and Delilah passed that milk box back and forth to the bitter end. After lunch, we explored a part of the river bank that was current dry. The mud had hardened into crunchy blocks. Oscar jumped on them to watch them crack and shatter.
We arrived at our Winnipeg Airbnb! The border crossing was uneventful and the border agent was completely disinterested in our ArriveCAN paperwork and vaccination status. Just like old times - questions about alcohol, guns, tobacco, and now cannabis.
Oscar quickly discovers a treasure trove of toys outside in the side yard that we assume are for our use (and if not, they are dilapidated enough to not notice the use). Oscar gravitates towards the “steam shovel” while Delilah practices her sliding skills. This is hours of entertainment! We, the parents, discover the peace and quiet that comes with two kids watching TV with headphones.
Ashley and her husband Phil had us over twice today - once in the morning for coffee and snacks and again for dinner. She is always a great host. 😁 We lucked out with the weather — in the morning, it rained on our drive over and then stopped. In the afternoon, it wasn’t unbearable hot (we just missed the heat wave that then arrived the next day).
My uncle Kurt was there in the morning. We caught him just before he left for their cottage on Lake Malachy. It was very good to see him. It has been a long time!
Ashley and Phil’s son, Martin, is 6. Initially he and Oscar played separately, with Martin generously sharing his toys with both Oscar and Delilah. Both enjoyed a car that you can take apart and reconstruct with a set of kid-sized tools. In the afternoon, Oscar wanted to show Martin the “steam shovel” from our Airbnb, so we brought it over. The two boys played and played and laughed and laughed. It was great that we were able to be there long enough for them to warm up to each other again. Though they’ve only met a few times, they’ve always gotten along notably well. Delilah spent most of her time observing and petting Gonzo the dog, who has luckily mellowed since we last saw him. 🐶
Ashley was very excited to be serving farmer’s sausage burgers for dinner. They were delicious! She said it was a very Oma/Opa meal, though I don’t ever remember eating farmer’s sausage with them. Maybe they served it and I just didn’t eat it. 😬
Oscar, Delilah, and I took a walk to the supposedly close by playground close to the edge of the airport (we were promised views of planes taking off). It was a longer and hotter walk than I expected. And when we got there the playground itself was overrun with kids. Way too crowded for us. We could indeed see the Winnipeg Airport, but it seems that flight traffic is down (I wonder why?!) because we didn’t see any plane movement. We did count at least 5 tractor-looking things trimming the airport grass. Oscar and Delilah entertained themselves by “getting lost” in some tall grass , which felt like an appropriate prairie game.
Well, we left Delilah’s shoes in Detroit Lakes (we had back ups and Ashley was kind enough to give us an old pair of Martin’s shoes). And we lost this car at our Winnipeg Airbnb. Within the 30 minutes of arriving, Oscar rolled it under the (locked) door to the basement and we never were able to coordinate with the host to retrieve it. We had to break the news to Oscar this morning. He cried…but luckily I had thought some “back up” cars might be handy and so had them stashed away for emergencies. And emergency it was! Goodbye, silver corvette. Hello, yellow Lamborghini! The Airbnb host later sent over this picture of where he’d put the corvette. Perfect!
Rest disaster! We drove into the beautiful Island Park. There was a fighter jet statue and some enticing looking gardens...but as we were getting out of the car, we were swarmed by mosquitoes! 🦟🦟🦟 They flew inside the car, especially around Delilah. We drove off quickly, windows open, shooing them out the windows. We ended up just having a quick snack and bathroom break in the gas station parking lot. The kids were happy zooming their new cars along the curb.
I had originally thought that Brandon, MB was going to be our most promising stop on our drive to Regina. Unfortunately, the park I had identified was closed for construction. We had a snack in a nearby green space instead. It was pretty minimal, but at least had some trees for shade (a premium in this prairie landscape) and a view of a train track. Lots of prairie dog holes too, which required some carefully stepping. On our way out of town, we got coffee at Coffee Culture Cafe, a regional chain.
Uncle Kurt mentioned that Gail’s first job was in Virden and he would make the 3+ hour commute each weekend. This seemed like a promising stop before Delilah’s nap. Victoria Park was relatively shaded with large, mature trees (even some redbuds!). Unfortunately the swings were right in the sun, but that didn’t deter Delilah. It’s hard to see in the picture, but there is an oil pump(?) in the background marking this park as one of the early oil well sites dating from 1955. Not quite the quality of the MN parks, but an adequate, shady, and not too buggy (😘 you, picaridin) spot for a picnic lunch.
We arrived in Regina! I had been curious to see Saskatchewan’s capital city, but had also been warned their wasn’t much to see. Our Airbnb was just a block away from Wascana Park, which is a green space that surrounds Wascana Lake. All of which is disappointingly human-made. Many of the cultural sights of Regina surround the lake (legislative buildings, museums, etc.). We took a walk to a space called the “waterfowl display ponds” where we could supposedly see all kinds of bird species. Along the way we saw terrifying large flocks of Canada geese. Once we got to the ponds, guess what we saw? Even MORE Canada geese and a couple ducks. We did get to see some ducklings and goslings, too, but the space seemed pretty neglected. I’d say Regina lived up to its underwhelming reputation.
Our Airbnb host specifically recommended Candy Cane Playground for the kids, a quick walk away, also in Wascana Park. It was large and bright. Initially overrun with kids, it cleared up a bit once a school group moved on to their next activity. Delilah was quite happy with her blue slide, but was perplexed to see some kids, not much older than her, running up, rather than sliding down, the slides. She tried a few times herself, unsuccessfully. Oscar played on a blue climbing structure, pretending it was a house and poking his head out of different “windows” to say “hi” to us.
I was on the fence about the risks of going to an indoor museum. I have great childhood memories of going to the Royal BC Museum (each provincial capital has their own) and I wanted to share that with Oscar. But ugh COVID and few masks in sight. When the day came, rain was forecast and we needed something to do while Delilah napped. Oscar and I both have elastomeric masks, so using those I hoped the risk were minimal and that the museum wouldn’t be too busy on a Monday afternoon. The entrance fee was by donation, so worst case scenario we’d just leave if it didn’t seem worth it.
Oscar was initially quite resistant to going. He of course doesn’t have any memory of museums! However, once we entered and met Megamunch, the mechanical T-Rex, Oscar was game. The museum was unfortunately busier than I’d have liked. By the time we arrived there were at least two schools groups there, which we kept dodging. Luckily, the attention span of a 5-year-old isn’t that long anyway, so we really only stayed about an hour.
The bottom floor was dinosaurs with real skeletons to show scale (eg a t-Rex foot, a triceratops skull). The hall also had a full-sized T-Rex skeleton.
The top floor was natural history focused on the different landscapes of the prairies. I saw what I hoped were previews of what we would see in Grasslands National Park. You could tell the creators of the different biome scenes didn’t have much to work with in terms of exotic species and certainly very few large animals. Instead, they created subtle displays that revealed more detail the longer you looked at them, with small birds and butterflies half-hidden throughout. It was quite compelling! There were also some semi-submerged scenes where you could see both the above and below water views. And there was a room that would switch between day and night in a forested space, which Oscar particularly enjoyed.
There were also some displays on indigenous culture, but they were less elaborate than the animal displays and mostly focused on clothing and jewelry, far less exciting to Oscar.
I’m glad I took Oscar and that David encouraged that decision. His excitement in the museum makes me a little sad that he’s missing out on those same experiences he could be having at home. But he’s still young to really be getting much out of these spaces. There’s still time for the world to figure itself out.
After Oscar and I went through the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, we got ice cream at an “artisanal ice cream shop” in a Regina strip mall. As far as we could tell, outside of Wascana park, most of the city is a strip mall or a residential neighborhood. I got the Saskatoon berry cheesecake flavor, which was excellent. David didn’t realize that “Saskatoon berry” is a specific type of berry, local to Saskatchewan. Delilah as always prefers just the cone. She eagerly waits until we get our ice cream down to the cone and then samples from each of ours.
Our first stop today was Crescent Park in Moose Jaw, SK. It was what I imagined all our green space stops would be (but weren’t always…). It seemed like it was an older park because it had a wrought-iron fence around it and defined entrances, in the style of formal green spaces in places like Boston. Or maybe it was just imitating that style of park 😉. It was shady and forested, with a big pond on the middle where lots of geese (and goslings!) were swimming. We continued walking and the kids spied a playground…so a beeline it was. The kids explored the playground while David went to get us coffee.
The playground was next to a public pool that seemed well-uses, but the playground itself was deserted. There was “on demand” water park (press a button to activate?!) that thankfully the kids showed no interest (didn’t need wet kids in the car!). The first thing Oscar was drawn to was a large car play structure, of course. He played “getting groceries” and Delilah soon picked up the routine too.
And then Delilah noticed the slides. Now Delilah has become a real slide enthusiast, ever since she got lots of practice on the small backyard slide in Winnipeg and then again at the playground in Regina. Oscar on the other hand continues to be quite slide-hesitant. Delilah went down the green slide a number of times and then decided it would be most fun if she and Oscar went down the slide together. Oscar, self-aware kid that he is, did and did not want to go down the slide. He sat at the top of the slide for a while. Delilah continued her sliding routine, every time trying to convince him to come down with her. Eventually, he does. And it’s fun! And they do it again. And again. And again. Now they’re both in this sliding loop — slide down, run to the steps, walk up the steps, slide down, saying their “1-2-3 emergency” mantra as they go. It was heartwarming to see Delilah give Oscar the confidence and encouragement he needed. ❤️
I always find Saskatchewan highways to be so impressive with their flat, expansive views and bright yellow fields.
We enjoyed watching this herd of cows wander in and run out of sight.
The 2nd floor of that barn is our suite. It’s literally right next to the park.
Delilah kept referring to this rock formation as a “crocodile”.
Prairie prickly pear flower
That’s our car wayyyyy down there 🚗
Very close to the Montana border!
Mule deer antlers
After the morning’s hike, the picnic lunch, and the long backcountry drive, David and I were in need of some coffee! We had been told that there was a small museum in the old Val Marie schoolhouse that also, importantly, had good coffee. Even after the already long outing, we convinced Oscar to extend the day just a bit with this last stop. Hearing that it was a museum, and his recent experience at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, probably helped stoke his acquiescence.
When we finally got back to the village, we brought both kids into the old schoolhouse building, masked of course. The “museum” was essentially one room with a diorama of local animal species arranged in the middle. This kind of display was now familiar to Oscar, but Delilah just lost it. She was so excited and proceeded to point out every animal she knew and ask about every animal she didn’t. It was small but comprehensive! The cafe was in the next room over. It was also the gift shop, another novelty for the kids, especially Delilah. She probably picked up every stuffed animal they had, gave it a hug, said “I love it” and put it back. We only saw one other person, also masked.
We got iced coffee for ourselves and a raspberry Italian soda for Oscar, which he adored and nursed slowly the rest of the afternoon. There was a shady picnic table outside where we enjoyed our drinks…until the kids spied the playground of the current (modern) school of the village of Val Marie. It was right in the sun but the kids insisted on trying out all the slides!
We had good luck with the weather with the rain rolling in on our last afternoon. That was in itself an event, with the thunderstorms visible far on the horizon. Between storms, a rainbow appeared, only to be consumed by the next rain storm that rolled through.
THIS is how Oscar takes photos these days. As soon as he notices you taking a picture, he’ll start posing and insist you keep taking pictures long after you’ve gotten the shot you wanted 😂.
Our last hike in Grasslands National Park was the Riverwalk Trail. We took advantage of our pass being valid until 11am to do one last hike the day of our departure. Our guide had recommended this trail as being popular with kids, probably due to the tire swing at the trail head. It was a fairly easy hike through what we more traditionally would have thought of as grasslands. There were some interesting birds but not much other wildlife. Again we saw the small but colorful prairie flowers and lots of tiny blue butterflies. The soundscape would have been quite dramatic, I think, had Delilah not been insistent on “singing” the same word over and over again. I will miss these prairies and the vast expanse of space.
Arriving in the town of Swift Current was an urban shock after our days in the grasslands and village of Val Marie. Stores! Lights! People! We got Greek take-out from the restaurant I had pre-picked for lunch on my itinerary. It wasn’t bad. The spanakopita was a hit. Delilah ate a whole chicken strip. David did a quick workout session with the kids before heading back to the car. On the walk back, this bright red mustang caught Oscar’s eye — his favorite color!
We just drove through Medicine Hat, but it seemed to have some interesting geography (unfortunately with the highway going right through it). It was raining, so exploration wouldn’t have been pleasant. 🌧
We stayed at a motel to reduce the COVID exposure risks that come with shared indoor corridors. It was pretty basic and small, especially compared to the Airbnbs that we’d been staying at. The kids were totally enamored with the telephone. They took turns making “phone calls” to Grandma, Grandad, Nana, and Opa. We had a simple “grocery store dinner” and then went to bed. It took Delilah a while to fall asleep and she was super chatty (so hard for anyone else to fall asleep). The joys of everyone in a single room!
Exploring different small town coffee shops has been a fun part of this road trip — especially when they deliver delicious coffee! The Steaming Cup was a great find. The coffee was great ☕️ and they even had oat milk. The food looked good too, but we had (unfortunately?) already eaten breakfast in our motel room.
The landscape changes suddenly and dramatically approaching Dinosaur Provincial Park. One minute it’s never-ending farmland and then all of a sudden, rugged badlands appear. The outlook stop just before arriving at the visitor center was incredible — hoodoos as far as the eye could see!
We did a guided hike that advertised you would find real fossils. They did not mention the short bus ride required to get to the start of the hike, which was within the restricted conservation area of the park. The drive was cool (right into the rugged landscape) but Delilah was not happy about it. She seemed to miss the security of her car seat.
Once we arrived, it was a short “hike” (stroll really) to the space where we were given free reign to look for fossils after a quick orientation. They were everywhere! You couldn’t help but step on them! Most were small bone fragments, but there were a few substantial ones embedded in the ground. We touched real dinosaur bones!! 🦖 🦴 Neither of our kids are dinosaur-enthusiasts, though Oscar seemed to enjoy the experience. Afterwards he said his favorite part was the bus ride. Delilah’s favorite part was the playground. 🙄
Our route was pretty flat to the final stretch. Definitely not the winding road I remembered from my childhood trips coming from the West. And then…there they were! The Rockies! Our trip journal continues in part 2.