The small town of Willow Bunch is nestled in the coulees south of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. Founded around 1870, it is one of the oldest Euro-Metis settlements in Saskatchewan. Jean-Louis Legare was a notable leader of the community in the early years.The local regional park is named for this man.
As part of the area emcompassing Wood Mountain, Assiniboia and the Cypress Hills to the west, Willow Bunch is steeped in history. The famous Red Coat Trail — used by settlers, outlaws, the RNWMP and Sitting Bull and his people, lies about 20 km to the north of the town. To the east is the Big Muddy, once a hideout for outlaws and currently ranching country.
A notable name to come out of Willow Bunch was Edouard Beaupre, the ‘Willow Bunch Giant.’ A huge man, he is prominently featured in the local museum. His story is, in actuality, quite heartbreaking and warrants coverage in a separate blog post.
As my wife and I toured around the area, we were taken by the vast distances, the barren desolation and the rugged beauty of the region. We came across places with names like St. Victor, Big Beaver, Harptree, Crane Valley, Verwood — sleepy little bergs that in all likelihood once teemed with life, and today often still serve as the social centre for ranchers and farmers whose neighbours are a lot more than shouting distance away from each other. Much credit goes to the people who keep these communities alive.
Whether spending time or just passing through these little hamlets, I couldn’t help but wonder if this is the future of the rest of rural Saskatchewan. I’m not belittling these communities. Far from it, for in a lot of ways I envy them for having the privilege of living where everyone knows your name.
Willow Bunch is a quiet, peaceful little community, and though we only spent two nights in the ‘Jolly Giant’ Motel, the people we met were very friendly and accommodating. On our first morning, we were having a plate of bacon and eggs put on by Nick at the local restaurant when the coffee row crowd began to filter in. Soon, there were a half dozen of the local faithful… cowboys, farmers… honest, hard-working folk, seated around their table. Luckily for us, we were within earshot. Here are a few snippets of the conversation:
“You gonna get drunk again this morning?”
“I’m half French and half scared…”
“Yeah, well I’m half Scotch and half ginger ale…”
And all followed by a hearty laugh. Lord, how I miss being part of a small town!
An old friend of mine, Irvin Yorga from nearby Flintoft, had arranged a golf match for the first morning. Arriving at the clubhouse a bit early, I was pleased to have Erin de Ronde, who works at the course, help me out with some local knowledge and advice. Thanks in no small part to her, our short two days in the area were much more interesting.
The Willow Bunch golf course is an absolute gem. Part of the regioal park, it is nestled in the bottom of a coulee and is very challenging off the blue tees. I won’t share my score, but let’s just say I was about ten under for nine holes (I lost ten more golf balls than I found). Regardless, it was great seeing Irvin again and we had a wonderful morning together.
Hole #1 Tee. The picture doesn’t necessarily do the course justice. It’s a bit unique to have a par 3 on the first hole.
Our days were spent driving and touring, trying to pack in as much as we could. The Shurniak Art Gallery in Assiniboia was stunning — originals by Group of Seven artists are among the permanent displays. The private collection is classy, extensive and extremely impressive.
The Big Muddy, Aust’s General Store in Big Beaver and the Willow Bunch Museum were on our list and will be featured in upcoming posts. There was much in the area we did not get to, as there are guided tours for much of these local features. Maybe another road trip next year!
Welcome to ‘How I Spent My Vacation’ by Glen C. Larson!