CBC's virtual road trip series Land of Living Stories explores the hidden gems across Saskatchewan. You can invite CBC's Laura Sciarpelletti to your community for a virtual tour. Visit cbc.ca/lovesk to pitch your ideas.
Saskatchewan is home to many rural municipalities. Some of them are so engulfed in nature, you feel like you're stepping into another time — a time when things were simpler and people lived off the land.
That could not be more true of the north central and far north regions of the province, areas characterized by the Indigenous people who live there and their connection to the land.
Travelling north from southern Saskatchewan, you leave the open plains of farmland for a landscape that is peppered with lakes, trees and rocky terrain.
For Colin Morrish, northern Saskatchewan is magical. Morrish, born in Uranium City, is a mining engineer who has spent a lot of his life travelling across the province to different mining projects.
One of his favourite routes to take is from Lac La Plonge — more than 330 kilometres north of Saskatoon — and further eastward through to Missinipe. The four-hour drive is a peaceful one that boasts many stops for swimming, fishing and even meditating.
Angler's Trail Resort and Morin Lake
Morrish says he has fond memories of camping at the rustic Angler's Trail Resort, right on glassy Lac La Plonge. The fishing resort is open year round and is perfect for water-skiing, quading, snowmobiling and ice fishing for lake trout and northern pike.
Morin Lake is 140 kilometres further eastbound on SK-165. Visitors love to swim and camp there, and even go scuba diving. The lake has natural sand beaches, and campers have access to modern washrooms, boat launches, a fish filleting station and beautiful forested nature trails.
After, Morrish would head 180 kilometres northeast to Churchill River.
"Whenever I was driving up north, I would mainly stop off when I was crossing the Churchill River and just listen to the water bubbling underneath the bridge. I really liked doing that," said Morrish.
But it's not just about the destination. The drive takes us through Air Ronge and La Ronge, where Robertson Trading is. The business was established in 1967 as a fur trading post. It is considered to be a local landmark and is family-run and operated.
Residents and visitors can buy items like local wild rice and meat from the butcher shop. They can also buy Indigenous artwork like antler carvings, birch bark bitings and beadwork.
Music of the North
Marcia Bird has the biggest smile you've ever seen. She is from Air Ronge and is a member of the New Dawn Drum Group. The Cree singing group is made up of four sisters and their aunt from the Lac La Ronge Indian Band in Treaty 6 territory.
Bird and her sisters spent their childhood in and out out of foster care.
"We needed a way to heal ourselves. And when we went to the sweat [lodge], we heard the songs for the first time and it had a connection to us," Bird said.
So in 2007, they started drumming, singing and travelling around Canada to perform. Bird was only nine years old when they started performing.
"When we're having deep feelings about something, we tend to write down our feelings. Sometimes when we read those feelings, they come out almost like songs."
Bird says her mother, Happy Mary Charles, had a big smile as well, and was bubbly and always supportive of the group.
"She would come into the sweats with us sometimes. And she had a rattle and she would hum along with you. She was like our No. 1 fan," Bird said.
Charles has been missing since April 3, 2017.
The New Dawn Drum Group stopped performing for a while after her disappearance, but have started up again. Bird and her sisters dedicate their songs to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. One of the songs they wrote for their mother is called Kisâkitinan, or We Love You.
When the group tours and performs, Bird says they can tell the music is helping to heal.
"They thank us for our music and [say] that it helped them in a way that we hoped. And it makes us feel like we're actually making a difference. We are trying our best right now, and even before our mom went missing we sang for sisters in spirit."
Bird says the land around La Ronge, Air Ronge and Missinipe is inspiring to the group.
"It's definitely very beautiful. Even looking outside right now, you can see the trees and the wind blowing, and it's just really calming. And going out to the traplines is also very therapeutic."
She says going back to land-based learning is important for her people.
"People have been going back to their roots and learning the ways that we used to live. It makes me feel like life is getting better."
Healing power of the land
Gregg Charles from the Lac La Ronge Indian Band knows well the healing power of land-based learning. He works as a community cultural support worker in La Ronge and Stanley Mission.
"When we were small, my mom used to trap and snare rabbits and stuff like that. And me and my late brother used to go around following her. My favourite was to go check snares [on the trapline] in the morning."
Charles was only three years old when his dad died.
"One particular memory I have is when he killed a moose prior to his death. I went out and followed him in retrieving the moose. And then I got tired and I was crying. And he threw me on top of this meat and he carried me like that," Charles said.
While people around La Ronge don't live off the land as much as they used to, Charles says you can still see people foraging for mushrooms, and picking natural medicines or berries by the side of the road. Many, like himself, still love to trap.
But the land gives Charles more than sustenance — it brings him peace.
"Mentally, emotionally, spiritually ... when I'm out there, even when I'm out hunting, it's just like my dad is right beside me, showing me where to go and how to hunt moose," said Charles.
"When I'm feeling down or if I lost a friend or I lost one of my siblings ... I go out there and that's where I meditate, I pray and I walk. I can cry over there. It's a sort of healing place for me. There's no noise."
Thompson's Resort and Missinipe
Missinipe is a favourite spot for boating enthusiasts, fishers and adventure seekers. While 150 people live there in the summer, in the winter, the population drops down to about 10.
You can take guided tours and go on river rafting adventures with Churchill River Outfitters. And Thompson's Resort is a popular spot for visitors and locals alike. You can rent cabins, pontoons and canoes, and enjoy food made by award-winning chef Peter Phillips at the lodge's restaurant.
"Chef Peter actually has his secret mushroom-picking spot that he won't tell anybody about," said Laura Hale, manager of Thompson's Resort.
"He has different kinds of salads where he actually picks berries and dehydrates them and incorporates into our house salad."
One of the most popular dishes at the Thompson's Resort Restaurant is the bannock-bun burger. Hale says the restaurant tries to combine gourmet cooking with other aspects of the Missinipe experience.
"Say you went out for the day and caught your limit of fish. Chef Peter would actually go to your cabin and cook that fish for you," Hale said.
Sally Roberts is a Cree veteran fur trapper from the nearby Grandmother's Bay reservation. She is also a born storyteller. One of her stories is how Grandmother's Bay got its name.
Grandmother's Bay was once along a travelling route for fur traders heading downstream or upstream, says Roberts. Back in the 1800s, the story goes, a group stopped by Churchill River during the fall season. They had an elderly relative with them, and didn't think she would survive the rest of the journey.
"So they left her here, and she spent the winter in a teepee on the side of the hill," Roberts said.
"She woke up one morning, looked out [and] there was ice on the narrows. There was a caribou that fell through the ice and froze there. So she lived off that caribou. She made it through the winter."
Roberts says she doesn't know how old the woman was, but believes she was in her 90s.
"When her family that left her there came back during the spring after [ice] breakup, they were surprised to see that she was still alive."
Roberts attended a residential school throughout her childhood. After attempting to run away twice, she threw herself into sports like baseball and gymnastics as a way to keep herself busy.
Her love for being active, as well as her Cree culture, led her to fur trapping. Soon she was one of the best. Roberts has competed in and won so many trapping competitions, she says she has lost count. These competitions included snowshoe racing and chopping wood.
"We also did flour-packing, and the heaviest I packed was 600 pounds of flour on my back."
Roberts says she used to go to the nearby traplines to trap with her ex-husband.
"l out-trapped my ex-husband. So that's a really good memory. I got more beaver pelts than he did so. But he stole them on me!"
These days, Roberts acts as a guide for visitors in the area, sometimes for Churchill River Outfitters. She takes visitors to pick natural medicines in the bush and find birch bark.
Roberts says she can't run like she used to in competitions anymore, so she has thrown herself into beading, weaving and enjoying the nature that envelops Grandmother's Bay.
We're going to head further up north — way up north. Uranium City, more than 830 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon, is almost at the border between Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories.
Uranium City was founded in the 1950s as a home for miners and their families. By the early 1980s, about 5,000 people were there. But in 1982 the mine shut down. Now, there are only about 50 people there.
But those people are very proud to be in Uranium City. One such proud resident is Ken Mercredi, who was born and raised there. He left for 30 years, only to return to retire with his wife.
"People came from all over the place back then.... You got to be raised in a community where there were many different kinds of people from different backgrounds," Mercredi said.
"So you learned a lot. You know, my best friend was a German and another one was a Polish guy … and I'm an Indian. We learn to get along."
You cannot go anywhere around Uranium City without seeing a lake, he says, "and they're pristine."
You can also catch some massive fish in those lakes. In fact, the world record lake trout was caught in Lake Athabasca in 1961. It was a whopping 102 pounds.
"We've got mountains on the north shore, and an hour-and-20-minute boat ride and you're on the south shore, where the sand dunes are. And those are absolutely unique," said Mercredi.
The Athabasca sand dunes by Lake Athabasca are wild to see, and are one of the most northerly active sand dune formations on the planet. Churchill River Outfitters in Missinipe offer tours by float plane to the great dunes.
Today, you can only get to Uranium City by flying Transwest Air from Stoney Rapids, Points North Landing, Prince Albert and Saskatoon airports.
Mercredi says it's worth the trip.
"A lot of people come back and say how sad it is ... these empty houses and busted stuff," left after the large mining community swiftly emptied. "Well, yeah, but look beyond that and see the country. It's absolutely gorgeous."
Mercredi and his wife gather food from the bush, hunt and maintain a large garden.
"You live a good life. I call it God's country."