“The river is important in my memory for it conditioned and contained the town. What I remember are low bars overgrown with wild roses, cutbank bends, secret paths through the willows, fords across the shallows, swallows in the clay banks, days of indolence and adventure where space was as flexible as the mind’s cunning and where time did not exist.” –Wallace Stegner, Wolf Willow
Eastend, Saskatchewan is one of my favourite places anywhere, anytime. In the valley of the Frenchman (formerly Whitemud) River, surrounded by some of the most beautiful of the Cypress Hills, the town of 500 permanent residents remains pretty much just as Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) described it in the 1950s, when he returned to his childhood haunts.
Today, Wallace Stegner House, the one the Iowa-born writer occupied as a boy, operates as an artists’ retreat. Writers, visual and performing artists can apply to spend one to three months there. Poet, fiction writer and editor Seán Virgo (Dibidalen; The Eye in the Thicket) once stayed in the Stegner house and Eastend has been his home for more than two decades. I first visited him in late March about 12 years ago, when the farms were covered in snow and the lands where cattle graze displayed white patches.
June or July is a different story. With rain, which came this year, the hills and trees are draped in many shades of glorious green. But in drought years, the summer hills are a dusty shade. Precipitation, or the lack of it, is the crucial factor in this farming community. Whether they’re raising Angus cattle or growing canola, mustard, wheat or alfalfa, Saskatchewan farmers can never be certain what summer will bring.
What draws travellers to Eastend is the landscape; Scotty, the Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton discovered there in 1991; and the local culture. In the footsteps of a guide like Virgo, you can take in the surrounding country from a bluff in Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, noting a Hutterite community in the distance. The trees are mostly pines, the hills steep enough to raise the heart rate on a walk to the top. Nearer to Eastend, the Cypress Hills are rolling, showing bands of white clay where the groundcover has been washed off in the spring melt.
Ninety minutes south and east of Eastend is Grasslands National Park, where at the right time of day you can see bison gathering in the coulees and at any time you might spot an antelope, a coyote or hundreds of prairie dogs poking out of their burrows to chirp a warning to their fellows. On the ground, the prickly pear cacti, surrounded by blue gramma and needle-and-thread grass, show pale orange flowers.
Northwest of Eastend, about 24 km on Grid 614, you can see a point on the Continental Divide. North of an imaginary line, the creeks and rivers flow northeast to Hudson Bay, 1,808 km away. South of the line, creeks and rivers, including the Frenchman, flow south, 2,768 km to the Gulf of Mexico.
Coming from the Medicine Hat airport, as I was, you drive south from the TransCanada Highway, and enter Eastend across an old iron bridge. Just before the bridge, you’ll see signs pointing up the hill to the T. rex Discovery Centre. A beautiful structure embedded in the grassy slope, it houses the world’s most massive T. rex skeleton. The discovery of the skeleton, 65-million years old, occurred on August 16, 1991. An Eastend chemistry teacher named Robert Gebhardt, invited to a dig site by lead paleontologist Tim Tokaryk, came upon the fossils of the base of a tooth and a vertebra, sticking out of the bedrock. It was three years before paleontologists could start removing Scotty, named after the bottle of Scotch used in a toast by the digging crew. The skeleton, found 65 percent intact, was reconstructed and is 13 metres long and as high as a two-storey house. Scotty’s oblong skull is nearly two metres long. Visit the centre, open every day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. to view a film about Scotty, some amazing exhibits and the workspace where paleontological research and reconstruction continues.
Just before you cross the iron bridge to enter Eastend, you’ll see a farmhouse brightly renovated in with red vertical slats. It belongs to Stephen Langton Goulet, a BC-born artist and jack of all trades. On his acreage on the banks of the Frenchman River, Stephen is practising regenerative agriculture, attempting to replenish the topsoil. Some of his “rockatry” sculptures – impossibly balanced stones that look like inukshuks – stand on the property, also sculptures made of found metals such as barbed wire. Look but don’t trespass.
Upon entering the main street of Eastend, you’ll see a big sign for White Mud Clay, the studio and home of Stephen Girard, an Eastender by birth. He shapes and creates glazes for wonderful pottery made of local clays. Another Eastend potter is Nick Saville, son of a local rancher, who makes mugs, bowls and such, glazed in bright, almost neon colours. Not the only other artist in town, but a notable one is Grieta Krisjansons, sculptor of a horse in the market square, made of found metal elements, such as bicycle chains and tractor parts.
Writers, whether visitors or part-time residents, continue to flock to Eastend. Maureen Elder, a poet and foodie, lives part-time on farmland outside Eastend with her husband, musician and composer Shaun Elder. Maureen’s privately printed Honey Cumin Saskatoons; Cooking in a Special Place, is a compendium of delicious vegetarian recipes and poems, such as “Geologic”: “I recall this sea of grass / once sea of water: seen so, / my own few years seem / little matter.”
Barbara Klar, a Saskatoon writer who once planted trees in the Cypress Hills, is now a fulltime resident of Eastend. Her 2019 title, Cypress, is a gem. Here’s the opening of “South Benson Trail, The Stone Road:”
To walk uphill keep your eyes on the ground.
Stones distract from the work of climbing, show you
Their pace, the lung wish, the getting there
Dibidalen, short stories by Seán Virgo, Thistledown Press; Eye in the Thicket, an anthology of nature essays, Seán Virgo, ed., Thistledown Press
Cypress, by Barbara Klar, Brick Books
T.rex Discovery Centre https://www.royalsaskmuseum.ca/trex
Eastend Historical Museum, https://saskmuseum.org
Grasslands National Park https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/sk/grasslands
Whitemud Clay https://www.facebook.com/whitemudclaypottery
Stephen Goulet https://www.facebook.com/rockatier
Nick Saville Pottery https://www.nixavl.ca
Photos, clockwise from top left: Grieta Krisjansons’ horse, Stephen Girard pottery studio, the iron bridge over the Frenchman River, Scotty, Stephen Goulet’s rock sculptures