Saskatoon is an amazing city. It seems to have been designed by someone who sat down one day with a list headed “What do Families Need?” and managed to tick every box. Snow. Sunshine. Occasional rain. Outdoor activities. Indoor activities. Parks. Schools in parks. Playgrounds. An amazing river trail, with wildlife, bridges, and acres of space. A city that’s easy to get around, with almost everywhere within easy reach. After almost a year here, we’ve lost that initial surprise at how child-friendly this city is, and so it was wonderful to see it all again through the eyes of our Irish visitors, and hear their opinions on where we have chosen to live.
I meant to keep track of where we went and what we did, but the days merged into a blur of swimming, eating, travelling around and watching eight kids having the time of their lives. There was some confusion in the beginning, such as Nicholas asking Sam which school he was going to attend, and the ensuing explanation that the cousins were here to visit rather than live (cue much disappointment for my kids).
They spent a lot of time at the summer camps in the two schools beside us. St. Angela is running the Playground Program, with a paddling pool, activities and arts & crafts. Brownell is running the Youth Program, so Christopher and Benjamin decided that this was more their style. They brought Sam with him, playing the “he’s only here for two weeks” card (they’re supposed to be 12 years old to do this camp), and spent the days playing various games and sports. The fact they’re only 10, 9 and 7 didn’t seem to matter. The other five painted, created, chalked and played in the pool.
We visited the hotel a number of times to go to their water-park, and discovered that they have the best water-slides in Saskatoon. The pool and hot tubs were generally ignored, as the children spent up to three hours at a time whizzing down the slides and climbing back up the steps to do it all again. They started out carefully observing the rules – one child at a time etc. – and ended up coming down in tandem, all eight of them splashing down in a tangle of limbs and waves of water. I was persuaded onto the “slow” slide, and gently sped down the tunnel, splashing down at the end feeling very zen-like. “Come onto the fast one”, begged Isabel, and so we climbed up again and launched ourselves down. The children had omitted to tell me that there’s a big drop in the middle of this one, so instead of arriving calmly at the bottom, I arrived careening wildly, shrieking my head off and cursing the kids. Most undignified. Liz took a video, but it has been buried in the Family Vault, not to be looked at for another hundred years.
We made a couple of trips to the library; once to the Frances Morrison library downtown, where Jennifer and Rebecca had a great time at Storytelling in Pooh Corner, a mini-auditorium where the amazing weavers of tales use music, dance and their enthusiasm for children’s stories to draw the children in and provide memorable experiences. I was enthralled the last time Rebecca and I went along and ducked through the wooden door to the magic beyond. We took them to our local library as well, the Rusty McDonald branch, where the small ones played with the computers and the toy kitchen while the older kids lolled around on beanbags with books.
The weather alternated between scorching sunshine and downpours of rain, and the extraordinary heatwave in Ireland was a cause of disgruntlement. It happens so rarely that any Irish person who had the misfortune to be out of the country while it happened would be mourning their missed opportunity for years to come. Decades, even. Ireland becomes a different country when the sun shines, and every man, woman and child undergoes a startling transformation in behaviour and attitude. The knowledge that it will be a temporary hiatus sends everyone into overdrive, and every single sunshine-based activity must be done immediately. Paddling pools and barbecues disappeared from all shops in minutes. Sunburn and heatstroke abounded. The coast was thronged. And Liz and Eddie were here. Disastrous timing.
We took a trip to Outlook and Lake Diefenbaker, the furthest out of Saskatoon that we’ve managed to get since we arrived in Canada. It brought “are we there yet?” to whole new levels. 100km on a perfectly straight road, the only turn-off happening when we diverted briefly into Outlook. Miles and miles of undulating prairies, with the odd farm throw in, plenty of animals, and rolling fields of gold and green. It was hypnotic. The rumble strips at the junction for Outlook stirred us back into alertness, and we went to visit the town with the longest pedestrian bridge in Canada.
The bridge is 3000 feet long, with spectacular views and a welcome breeze. We had a picnic, which was abbreviated by the arrival of mosquitoes, and headed back on the road to Lake Diefenbaker. When we got to the lake, there was a breeze that could skin a cat, and so we ended up having a typically Irish beach day, with the adults huddling into their clothes and the children joyfully swimming until they realised that they were freezing. Cue shivering and whingeing and a mad scramble to get dressed again. The breeze allowed me to demonstrate that Irish obsession with drying clothes outdoors – grand drying out today, anyone?
There was lots of eating involved over the fortnight, with 4 adults and 8 children to be fed and watered, and treats of hotel breakfasts, slushies, trips to Jerry’s and Crave, and lots of ice-cream. The boys had a hotel sleep-over one night, and the girls the next. While Rebecca and Isabel settled for pancakes, Benjamin and Nicholas lost the run of themselves altogether and had adult-sized Banana Splits. Pure indulgence.
We went to the Cameco Family Day at the Zoo on Sunday, where there was a day of entertainment planned. Unfortunately, it rained on and off for the day, and so the attendance was much lower than usual. There were gorgeous free teddy bears being distributed at the gate, one of whom has been despatched back to my youngest nephew in Wexford for his birthday (Benjamin made the sacrifice). There was a Raptor Show at 11am, so we went over to have a look and wait for Liz and Eddie, who were running late. There were two beautiful owls, a bald eagle and a falcon; the falcon was let loose and the trainer swung a lure in lazy circles. The hawk dived, missed, swooped around and made another pass, right over our heads. He repeated this until the trainer let him pounce on the lure, which he then pinned to the ground, with wings outstretched to protect his bounty from predators. It was fantastic. There was a Science Show, science stations, face-painting, air-brush tattooing, bouncy castles and opportunities to meet a hedgehog and snake up close. I was persuaded into getting a Tigger tattoo on my arm, which thankfully washed off the next day. We decided to head back to the second Raptor Show, which didn’t go quite to plan. The first bird, a Harris Hawk, saw his chance of escape, and flew off over the trees. The falcon made one swoop for the lure, circled, and headed off after the hawk. The bald eagle launched himself from his perch, swooped over a ducking crowd and disappeared. Epic fail. Burt the eagle was retrieved almost immediately, and brought back to the fold, while the other two were eventually tracked through their electronic transmitters.
There were the obligatory visits to the Mall, Walmart, the new Target store that opened last week, and Cabela’s, the awesome hunting and fishing store. It epitomises the very essence of the Outdoor Canadian Man. We spent a couple of hours looking around while the kids did a scavenger hunt around the store, and it almost made me want to buy a bow and arrow/gun/fishing rod/anything that can kill an animal, and head off into the wilds of northern Saskatchewan. The kids had to climb rocky slopes, take bark rubbings from a tree, count the full-sized moose, try on camouflage gear, check out the tents, high-five a staff member, learn how to use a pop gun (cue deafened customers) and decide which flavour of fudge sample they would like to try. All in store. It was a great way to spend a couple of hours, particularly when we got to sit down at the end in comfy leather chairs in front of a gigantic fireplace.
We climbed the bridge beside the Pelican Weir on the river, after discovering that the pelicans were being most unco-operative and had chosen to sit on a mid-river island. The police held a community Barbecue last week, so we wandered downtown to eat burgers, listen to a great band, and banter with the mascots and the Fire Department. Benjamin put on his own body weight in fire gear, and then ran around for a few minutes in response to the fire-fighter’s challenge. I was melting with the heat even looking at him. Perfect days.