Crossing the Canadian Prairies
Surviving and enjoying the 1,400 km Flatland crossing with our Jeep Wrangler JK
The Canadian Prairies start east of Winnipeg and end West of Calgary. The distance is about 1,400 km on the Trans-Canada Hwy 1. The trip takes us about three days from entering Manitoba, crossing Saskatchewan and into Alberta before we get close to the Rocky Mountains. We have three days to enjoy the endless sky. Three days of crops swaying in the wind. Three days to get excited about grain elevators. Three days of watching the trains pull 100 or more cars across the land. Three days of headwind.
Yes, the headwind. That kept us guessing for a while. Our thought was that driving on a highway @ 100km/h in a place that is flat as a pancake, we should be in Calagary in no time. WRONG!
We could keep our pace in northern Ontario despite all the gentle hills. But here in the Prairies, the Jeep was frequently shifting down to the 3rd gear (5 gear automatic). We changed to manual mode in 4th gear and still, the transmission was shifting down. We pulled over and got out to make sure the wheels are ok. The wind was impossible to miss. According to the weather App, we had a 30 to 40km/h wind from the west. A few days later we found out that it was not only headwind, it was also uphill. Did you know that from Winnipeg (239 MASL) to Calgary (1045 MASL) is an 800 meter elevation gain?
We got the 2013 Jeep Wrangler 4-door to go offroad and when the weather permits, drive without the doors. We don't have the tow package. Our Jeep is rated for a maximum tow weight of 2,000 lb, our trailer is around 1,800 lb fully loaded. We have a roof rack that adds to the wind resistence. Fully loaded, the overall weight of the Jeep is below the maximum limit.
Before you ask if we use some low-grade gasoline, no we don't. Since 2019, we fill up with Shell V-Power Premium. The odd time when we don't find a Shell station, any other 91 Octane has to do. It's not that we have money to burn, but we are actually saving money. Prior to the premium gas we had problems with the engine in the winter. The motor started without a problem, but stalled as soon we put it in gear. We got the full carburetor flush, clean, scrub and whatever else the dealership had to offer. When Chris, our Service Advisor recommended to fill up with premium, we followed his advice. He was right, all the problems disappeared. We noticed a smoother performance in the Rocky Mountains and possibly more 'pep'. Well, if you are pulling an 1,800 lb trailer up a mountain, 60km/h top speed at times is all we got. We don't run the engine any higher than 3,000 RPM over longer period of time.
Now that we know, we just take it easy. That's why we spend three days crossing the Prairies. Adding a day to our trip does not make a big difference. Over the last 15 years, we drove out west seven times, always taking the Trans Canada. The last three trips were with the Jeep, no wonder we have over 250,000 kilometer on the odometer.
Enough with the engine, gas and wind talk, the Canadian Prairies are amazing. Lets see how the 'Three days of...' from above really look like. Click the images with the white frame to get the big picture.
Three days of endless sky. We made this trip every other year. We crossed the Prairies as early as May and as late as October. We had sunshine most of the time. And we always had a headwind when driving West, or so we recall. In 2019 driving East on our way home, we watched dark clouds ahead of us for several hours. Then around Winnipeg, we drove into the heavy rain. Several hours later, we finally 'outran' the rain at the Ontario border. Torrential rain caught up with us again overnight. For three days, we had our own personal rain cloud following us. The whole trip was epic, the rain was just a fitting finale.
Three days of crop swaying in the wind. Over 90% of the Canadian Wheat Production comes from the Prairies. Saskatchewan is the main producer of wheat in Canada, it is also called Canada's breadbasket.
It is not always wheat. The farmers grow other crop, such as canola, barley, flax, lentils, oats, peas and hemp. We passed many of the bright yellow fields that are typical for canola. We saw a few fields with sunflowers. Now this is a sight. Not just the size of the field, but all flowers point into the same direction. The big question is, do they follow the sun? Yes, the young flowers follow the sun and eventually face east when they mature.
Three days to get excited about grain elevators. These iconic buildings are associated with the Canadian Prairies, but they are disappearing. Back in 1933, there were over 5,700 grain elevators. Now there are only about 400 of those old-school elevators standing in Saskatchewan. Many of them are not in use anymore. The grain elevators collect the grains in big tanks. The grain is then transfered to trains and transported to the destination. These old buildings are replaced by modern, more sterile facilities. These are big, round metal silos. They are practical for sure, but not much to look at.
Three days of watching the trains pull 100 or more cars across the land. There are always trains crossing the Prairies. The tracks are often very close to the Trans Canada highway and easy to spot. The odd time, we raced with the train for a short while. The trains speed seems to be around 90km/h.
We watched the same trains pulling the cars up the Rocky Mountains. We were recording one of these trains, hoping to capture a neat video. It took about 20 minutes for all the cars to pass. Two locomotives were pulling, one was somewhere at the 60th position and one was at the end. The train travelled maybe walking speed and the noise of the wheels and metal couplings was hypnotizing. We just had to watch until all the cars made it past our outlook.
During the bug season, you will know when you are close to the Reed Lake. Thousands of birds visit the lake during the Spring migration. The peak for bird watching is mid May. This is a shallow lake and it is a breeding ground for mosquitoes. When we passed in August 2016, the windshield washer couldn't keep up, we had to get out every 15 minutes to soak the windshield with water and a scrubber. A nasty, but memorable experience.
On the way West you will reach Calgary. You notice that the clouds on the horizon are actually the Rocky Mountains. You are leaving the Prairies behind. We don't know exactly where that is, maneuvering around Calgary is like an obstacle course. Once you found your way through the giant construction zone, your attention is on the Rocky Mountains that are getting closer. The new landscape is exciting and makes you forget the last two or three days.
Since we have the Jeep and the trailer, we can stay overnight almost anywhere. We take our time and have a coffee break in Maple Creek SK. The Daily Grind is such an interesting coffee place. We also try to schedule the trip to have breakfast at Al's Steakhouse & Grill in Broadview SK.
In 2020, we were not able to look for other places along the way due to COVID restrictions. Manitoba and Saskatchewan only permitted travel on the Trans Canada. We obeyed and stopped for gas and food.
We wouldn't want to travel with any other vehicle. Pulling the travel trailer may take more time, but the Jeep never failed us. When we reach our destination, we have all the time to explore these amazing places where only a Jeep can get us. And we just started to discover Canada.
Two highways through the Prairies
There is the Hwy 1 and the Hwy 16 through the Prairies, we travelled both of them.
The Hwy 1 from Kenora ON to Calgary AB is about 1,550km. The time to decide is around Winnipeg. When you stay on Hwy 1, you will pass Regina SK and enter Alberta. The Dinosaur Provincial Park is close to the highway, so are the Atlas Coal Mine National Historic Site and the Royal Tyrrell Museum. The next city is Calgary AB before you enter the Banff National Park in the Rocky Mountains.
The Hwy 16 from Kenora ON to Edmonton AB is about 1,510km. Around Winnipeg you take Hwy 16 and pass Riding Mountain National Park, Saskatoon SK and the Wanuskewin Heritage Park. Before you get to Edmonton AB, you pass Elk Island National Park, and after Edmononton, you get to the Jasper National Park in the Rocky Mountains.
Between the Banff National Park and the Jasper National Park is the Icefield Parkway. And this is a story for another time.