Ruth Bitner has two large road maps of Saskatchewan attached to a bulletin board in her home. One is covered in pins — 961 of them, to be exact — each marking a city, town, village or hamlet she has visited. The other map has only about 60 pins — the communities she has yet to visit. “It’s exciting when I can move a pin from one map to another,” she says from her home in Dalmeny, Saskatchewan.
It all began in 2005 when Bitner set out to celebrate Saskatchewan’s centennial. “Initially I thought I would visit 100 communities to celebrate our 100th anniversary,” she said. From there the project snowballed, and her goal came to include every community in Saskatchewan south of the 54th parallel. Twelve years later, in September 2017, Bitner, retired Western Development Museum (WDM) collections curator, had visited 16 cities, 144 towns, 284 villages, and 517 hamlets and ghost towns long abandoned.
“With my background at the WDM and my knowledge of Saskatchewan history, these trips were made more meaningful. Once I got started, I couldn’t stop,” she said.
Her friend and former work colleague Leslee Newman or her sister-in-law Roxanne Bitner often accompanied her, and Ruth’s husband Lorne joined her whenever time permitted.
Equipped with detailed maps, bird books, wildflower books, Bill Barry’s Geographic Names of Saskatchewan, a picnic lunch, and a full tank of gas, the friends set out on their adventures. For overnight excursions, they arranged to stay at bed and breakfasts. “People in the area know their communities, and they can often tell you interesting stories. It adds to the whole ambience of the trip,” Bitner said.
While Bitner did most of the driving, Newman navigated, kept a journal, and read tidbits from Barry’s book about place names. At each stop they took photos.
Bitner was unable to select a favourite area. “There are so many interesting landscapes. I very much enjoyed the southwest. The drive west along the Frenchman River Valley between Eastend and Ravenscrag is stunningly beautiful. You can see the white mud layers in the hills from which clay is derived for pottery.
“We went on a one-day excursion to the Nisbet Forest south of Macdowall with a group from the Saskatoon Nature Society. The boggy landscape is home to numerous species of orchids and pitcher plants so it was a most interesting day.
“Wolseley is a very pretty town. Fairy Lake in the middle of the town has a swinging footbridge across the lake. It has the oldest courthouse in the province, built in 1895, and a unique brick town hall/opera house built about 1906.
“Cumberland House is the oldest permanent settlement in Saskatchewan dating to 1774. The remains of the boilers of the Northcote (the steamboat involved in the Riel Resistance at Batoche in 1885) are located in a park there.”
Bitner didn’t let the 54th parallel be a barrier from travelling farther north. On one trip they drove to Stanley Mission and chartered a boat to take them to Nistowiak Falls — a 10-metre-high falls on the Rapid River — one of the highest in Saskatchewan.
Bitner has a new appreciation of the diversity of the Saskatchewan landscape, how large the province is and the changes that have occurred over the years. “There were so many communities established in the first years of the 20th century that flourished and then were hard hit in the 1930s, particularly in the southwest. After the war things got better, but as transportation improved, schools and railway branch lines began to close. By the late 1960s and into the ’70s, many rural areas began to decline as people moved away, but there’s still lots of life in many small places.”
Bitner encourages people to explore more of this vast and beautiful province — to get off the major highways and simply see what’s out there.