When I was growing up, we never had summer nights at the beach. There were plenty of beaches — Christina Lake, Champion Lakes, Kootenay Lake, Arrow Lakes, probably many I never heard of — that people went to. A lot of my friends’ families had cabins at “the beach”, and they went there regularly. We didn’t do that.
Instead, we went camping, often roughing it for weeks at a time, staying at old forestry camps up in the back country of the West Kootenay region, mainly up around Whatshan, Mosquito (aptly named!) and Caribou lakes. I really enjoyed those trips and still cherish the memories of them (even Mosquito Lake), but I never experienced the phenomenon known as “going to the cabin” or “going to the beach”.
Saskatchewan has a long tradition of spending summer at the beach. All you have to do is look at the resort villages that dot the Qu’Appelle Valley, or towns like Wakaw, Christopher Lake and Emma Lake, the resorts north of Blaine Lake and North Battleford. I bet that for every town or city in Saskatchewan, there’s a resort community that served as citizens’ summer residences or weekend retreats.
Manitou Beach is one such village, one of the most famous resorts in Saskatchewan. In its heyday, back in the 1920s and earlier, Manitou Beach rivaled Jasper and Banff, both in fame and in reputation. Hugging the southern edge of Little Manitou lake, the village once called itself “The Carlsbad of Canada”, in reference to its renown “healing waters”.
I had heard of the lake and the resort village shortly after moving to Saskatchewan. When the historic Chalet Pool burned down in 1983, it made big headlines. There were big headlines again in 1987, when a new pool and spa, Manitou Springs, opened on the site of the former pool.
My first visit to the community was in 1993, during the 10th anniversary ride of the Great Saskatchewan Heritage Bicycle Tour, organized by the Wascana Freewheelers Bicycle Touring Club in Regina. Retracing the route of the first Heritage Tour, the 1993 ride started in Regina on the Friday of the Victoria Day long weekend, winding through the Qu’Appelle Valley with stops in Lumsden and Craven, before cruising up Highway 20 to end the day in Strasbourg. We spent that first night in the town park. Most of the cyclists pitched their tents in the thick willows and lush grasses, but two other cyclists and I figured that being on higher ground would be better for avoiding mosquitoes and riding out any rain. There were a lot of mosquitoes. It had been cloudy most of the day, with enough wind to make the riding uncomfortable, but not enough to keep the mosquitoes at bay, except on high, exposed ground. The air was humid and rain was likely. We weren’t expecting a thunderstorm, but one roared through in the middle of the night, with fierce, noisy wind and heavy, pelting rain.
The cyclists down in the willows found themselves adrift in a newly formed lake. One later told me that he resigned himself to floating on his air mattress, getting a little sleep once he realized that the water had stopped rising and wouldn’t trap him against the top of his tent.
Up on our hill, all we could hear was rain and wind and thunder. We slept through the commotion in the willows. In the morning, there was a steady march of tired cyclists trudging to the town’s laundromat to use the large capacity dryers.
Our second day on the road, Saturday, had us pushing against a north wind most of the day. Cyclists were tired by the time they reached Watrous. I was going slow, but after taking a long break at the museum in Nokomis, I saw that the winds had changed and were now blowing from the south. The tailwind brought me into Watrous around five o’clock, approaching the time we were supposed to meet for supper in Manitou Beach. Our support van approached me just as I was passing the CBC 540 AM transmitter on Highway 365. I would have appreciated getting a ride, but the driver said that the van’s alternator had died and the vehicle was running on a rapidly depleting battery. He was on his way to meet a mechanic in Watrous. But it’s only 6 km to Manitou, he said.
So, not even 15 minutes later, I was at the entrance to Manitou and District Regional Park, following the directions in the tour book to the area set aside for our cycling group. No time for a shower, just ride down the hill to the hall, which was next to the Manitou Springs mineral spa. There’s a parking lot for the hotel on that site now. There’s a new Community Hall up the hill, on Watrous Street, a few minutes’ walk from the regional park.
After supper, there were some very weary cyclists happily soaking in the hot mineral waters. We floated for hours, until after sunset. Rejuvenated, we made our way out onto the street, greeted by what most people must remember as “summer at the beach.”
There were easily hundreds of people wandering up and down the main business road, MacLachlan Avenue. Several cyclists had returned briefly to the campground to retrieve their bedding, still wet from the previous night’s storm, and had stuffed the dryers in Manitou’s laundromat. It would take awhile for the machines to run their cycles, maybe more than once, and we were happy to join the throngs on the street. What a festive atmosphere — a warm, summer-like night, a pink band of light along the northwestern horizon.
We walked up and down the street until late into the night. At some point, we stood in the long line at Burger Buoy and ordered hamburgers, fries and drinks, then took them down to the beach to sit and enjoy them under a starry canopy, while salty waves gently lapped the shore at our feet.
When we made our way up to camp, there was a triple bill playing at the drive-in theatre. Our little tent village gave us ringside seats and we could hear the soundtrack playing from the speakers that hung on the posts by the cars.
That was my introduction to Manitou Beach. The village has changed in a lot of ways, but the summer nights are still warm and the salty air, reminding me of the ocean, is still relaxing. Living in Saskatoon, now, we can visit in winter, too.