Take the ultimate virtual ride to the homes of bears, musical community and heritage

·6 min read
John Prosak on the trail from Sturgeon River Ranch into Prince Albert National Park.  (Sturgeon River Ranch  - image credit)
John Prosak on the trail from Sturgeon River Ranch into Prince Albert National Park. (Sturgeon River Ranch - image credit)

CBC's virtual road trip series Land of Living Stories explores the hidden gems across Saskatchewan.

CBC's Land of Living Stories series has been to 10 areas across Saskatchewan since June 2020. Those trips have been packed with iconic destinations, musical and cultural histories, hilarious stories, and resilient and creative people.

Sometimes, it's impossible to get to every story in one road trip. So Land of Living Stories is taking a mini trip back to some places we've already been to tell the stories we missed last time.

Buckle up!

Laura Sciarpelletti/CBC
Laura Sciarpelletti/CBC

The bear whisperer

Take a short 30-kilometre drive out of Big River in northwest Saskatchewan and you will find Sturgeon River Ranch at the end of a charming dirt road.

The ranch is located on the southwest side of Prince Albert National Park and is owned by John Prosak, who takes guests on long, rustic horseback rides on the park's trails.

Prince Albert National Park is a hotbed for wildlife sightings, from free-ranging bison to deer, wolves and frogs. Prosak is no stranger to any of these creatures, but it is the bears he loves the most.

"They're a very inquisitive, intriguing animal. And they do get to know a person. And so a lot of the bears that I have in videos of my close encounters know me personally ... have known me for probably their whole lives," said Prosak.

John Prosak
John Prosak

Prosak is referencing what he calls 'Howdy Friends!' videos. They feature Prosak in the middle of a wildlife encounter, usually singing to the animals or making jokes for the viewers. He posts these on his social media and often shows them to guests. He admits he does not recommend this closeness to unexperienced, unprepared people. It took him 10 years to feel confident enough.

While Prosak feels very comfortable around wildlife, that isn't always the case for his horseback riding guests.

"Typically, when I have a guest that is afraid of bears, I'll show them some of my bear videos with me being really close to the bears. And we did have a lady last year with her family up in the wagon, and we were doing a wagon ride on the west side trail, and a mom and her cubs crossed the trail right in front of us."

The little bear cubs climbed right up a tree beside the wagon.

"The lady would have been terrified. She admitted, 'I'm so glad that you show me those videos. Because I would have been absolutely freaking out.' She still was shaking. But she actually got the nerve together to get her camera out and take a picture of the cubs.

CBC News
CBC News

In Prosak's videos he typically runs into cubs on the trail, or finds adult bears rifling through his back-country equipment. No matter what the adventure, it's always hilarious and often adorable.

"We've gone over political debates with the bears and I've sung Garth Brooks songs to them and we've done ticket giveaways," he said. "Yeah, people probably think I'm crazy. Been out here in the woods too long with the bears."

Laura Sciarpelletti/CBC
Laura Sciarpelletti/CBC

Ness Creek Music Festival

Thirty-eight kilometres north of Sturgeon River Ranch lies Ness Creek and its festival grounds. The Ness Creek Music Festival was created by tree planters in 1990.

Gordon Olson's father wanted to pass his farm down to his sons. Olson, being an active and often-travelling tree planter, was not interested in maintaining a farm and raising cows.

CBC News
CBC News

For part of this Land of Living Stories road trip, we focused on Ness Creek Music Festival and what it's like being out in the country and woods. Sturgeon River Ranch owner John Prosak guest-curated this playlist for us all. Listen to it here.

What Olson was interested in was bringing music to his little chunk of land on the outskirts of the Prince Albert National Park. So was fellow tree planter Cathy Sproule.

"We thought, 'geez, wouldn't it be fun to have one? [We] didn't have a clue. Honestly, we didn't have a clue what we were doing, but we thought we'll do this," said Sproule.

In November 1990, Olson drove Sproule out to the land in his little Toyota truck.

"It was basically a pasture. There was no infrastructure. It was just a wide open, beautiful space in the boreal forest overlooking Ness Creek itself. And it was gorgeous. So we said, 'let's do it,' said Sproule.

Sturgeon River Ranch
Sturgeon River Ranch
CBC News
CBC News

In the early days, the festival was a modest little music utopia, mostly populated by tree planters in tents. Today the site is home to a multitude of festivals from blues to jazz, and of course the original Ness Creek Music Festival. The site is just a little busier now.

It fills with RVs and tents, people cooking together and play events for kids. There is always a drum circle in the forest, which John Prosak of Sturgeon River Ranch says is his fondest memory of the festival.

You can see the 30-year history of festivals at Ness Creek in the faces of those who continue to attend year after year.

"The music is an important part of the festival, but it's what brings people together. For me, it's just the memories of every year of seeing people and watching kids grow up," he said. "People were having babies at that time, but now I've seen these kids grow up into adults and they're bringing their kids here for the festival and for the other events."

Olson and Sproule say they have had many musical highlights, but it's the growth of the festival community that has been most precious.

Today if you take the trip up near Prince Albert National Park to attend one of Ness Creek's festivals, it's likely that Prosak isn't far away, singing to the bears.

Nathan Jones/Ness Creek Music Festival/Facebook
Nathan Jones/Ness Creek Music Festival/Facebook

Ogema

Saskatchewan is packed with very small municipalities. These towns and villages have people who harbour great pride in the unique histories and sizes of those tight-knit communities.

A great example of this is the town of Ogema, located 115 kilometres south of Regina. Ogema has a population of just over 400 people.

Those people work hard to preserve the town's heritage. So much so that Ogema has even won a United Nations sanctioned international award for heritage conservation.

Ogema is home to the Southern Prairie Railway, a tourist attraction out on the open pastures. The 1925 passenger train treats tourists to Saskatchewan's gorgeous fields and to glimpses at wildlife like antelope.

Laura Sciarpelletti/CBC
Laura Sciarpelletti/CBC

The Deep South Pioneer Museum commemorates early settler life on the Prairies. Ogema Mayor Carol Peterson calls it a "great place to be."

The town used to have a 28-foot-tall firewall that had been standing since 1915. Tragically, strong winds on January 19, 2021, knocked down the historical wall.

"The reason our pioneer ancestors built that was because in 1915 in there was a bad fire in Ogema and we lost one side of Main Street. So they built the fire hall on one side and the firewall on the other so that they would only lose one quadrant of Main Street if there was another fire," said Peterson.

Stuart Leonard/Facebook
Stuart Leonard/Facebook

The town could not secure government funds to build what they wanted, so the citizens paid for it themselves.

"It just shows the tenacity of our ancestors. I think the drive behind a lot of our citizens is we want to be here. We want to stay here. And we want to preserve what we have," Peterson said.

"I think the tenacity that built the firewall just keeps going from generation to generation. Some of the original families that settled here are still here and we just want to keep what we have. And by keeping what we have ... once it's gone, it's gone and you can't build an antique or an old building. We're trying to preserve the past for the future."

Sarah Peterson
Sarah Peterson
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