Bengough, Sask. loves its Gateway Festival, community history and sprawling badlands
CBC's virtual road trip series Land of Living Stories explores hidden gems across Saskatchewan
CBC's virtual road trip series Land of Living Stories explores the hidden gems and local stories across Saskatchewan. You can invite CBC's Laura Sciarpelletti to your community for a virtual tour. Visit cbc.ca/lovesk to pitch your ideas.
When musician Bryce Lewis went to perform at the Gateway Festival in Bengough, Sask., in 2013, he knew he would have a wonderful time, hear some good music and catch up with dear friends.
What Lewis did not know was that he would two-step to The Badlands Country Band with a beautiful woman named Rachele, and that she would one day be his wife.
"It was a little bit of a surprise," Lewis said.
"We had just finished playing our sets and I had left the confines of the band area and was hanging out in the crowd watching other bands. And a woman came up to me and asked if I wanted to dance, and I said yes.
"And we just hit it off."
The two festival-goers exchanged numbers, and found out they both lived in Regina. They soon started dating, and Lewis knew Rachele was the one for him.
The couple married in summer 2019 in — you guessed it — Bengough, where they first met.
Lewis is the guitarist for Regina musicians Blake Berglund and Belle Plaine. He and Rachele go back to the small community of Bengough all the time to visit family.
They also attend the festival each year, which Lewis says is a family reunion — both with relatives, and with his musician family.
He's not alone in associating the Gateway Festival with family. Many hold the town of Bengough, about 125 kilometres southwest of Regina, and the Big Muddy Valley dear.
Since the festival is postponed this summer due to COVID-19, we're going to road trip to Bengough for some stories, views and festival nostalgia.
First we go off the beaten track and traverse the little-known badlands of Avonlea, a one-hour drive southwest of Regina.
This two-hour hike cannot be spotted from the road or the town of Avonlea. It is also located on private property, and can only be accessed through a private guided tour offered by the Avonlea Heritage Museum.
"It's a 10-minute walk through this native prairie pasture before you reach this amazing drop-off, with a great panoramic view of all the geological features of the badlands," said Tanner Stevens, tour guide and co-manager at the museum.
"Eventually we walk our way through the bottom of it, seeing hoodoos, fault lines, gullies, buttes and all kinds of other things."
The tour guides fill hikers in on paleontological finds like fossils, and all the native plants and animals that live there. Bison once roamed there, and the land has never been cultivated or altered.
"You see lots of the native grasses and flowers like cone flowers, silver-leaf psoralea and prickly pear cacti with the beautiful yellow blossoms," Stevens said.
Taking the private tour is a magical experience because there aren't swarms of people around, or light from any nearby cities, says Stevens.
"You get to see and listen to nothing but nature."
For those who want to pack their road trip with as much nature as possible, take the long way home from Bengough through Weyburn and wander the Tatagwa Trail System. The gorgeous stop is packed with flora, fauna and birds, and there are 8.5 kilometres of trails to tackle, whether on foot or by bike.
Trains and pizza, pizza, pizza
Forty-five minutes down the road southbound, past fields of canola, we hit the town of Ogema. One must-visit stop is the Southern Prairie Railway, a tourist attraction out on the open pastures.
The 1925 passenger train treats tourists to Saskatchewan's gorgeous fields and glimpses at wildlife like antelope.
Ogema is also home to Solo Italia, a beloved restaurant that serves up authentic thin-crust pizzas with options like the Cosa Nostra, with fresh mozzarella, porchetta, smoked cheddar, cherry tomatoes and decadent truffle oil.
Co-owner Marco de Michele is from originally from Italy. He opened Solo Italia because he felt his new Saskatchewan life was missing the pizza of his homeland. So de Michele built his own authentic wood-fired Italian pizza oven.
After one of those pizzas, you will be plenty fuelled up to hit the road again and make your way to Bengough.
Bengough and the Gateway Festival
Bengough is a farming and ranching community of about 330 people. If you drive into town and come across any of the locals, you're guaranteed a friendly smile.
Delee Foley has lived in Bengough her entire life. She stays there because of the people.
The community's volunteer spirit is front and centre every July during the Gateway Festival.
"There isn't really one person in this town that doesn't help at Gateway. And if that isn't community love, I don't know what is," said Foley, who is treasurer for the festival.
Erica Maier, lead singer for the Saskatoon sister band The Garrys, says the volunteers from the community make the experience memorable for her and her sisters.
"The backstage area for artists is, in my opinion, probably the best backstage area at any festival I've played," said Maier.
"It's all people from the community and it seems like everyone's having an awesome time," Maier said.
Gateway was created in 2004 as a way to revitalize arts and culture in Bengough. It has become a melting pot of established acts like the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Steve Earle and Corb Lund, and homegrown Saskatchewan talent like Colter Wall and Belle Plaine.
"We've watched it grow in what I think is a nice healthy organic way," from serving the local community "to now having a much broader reach," said Michael Dawson, artistic director of Gateway.
"The festival also provides the opportunity to have artists from across Saskatchewan share the stage with what I'd call legacy artists, and get in front of a new audience."
Canadian country music artist Corb Lund played the first Gateway Festival in 2004. He has played multiple times since, and was set to play this year.
Lund says the town of Bengough is a special place to have a festival.
"I'm kind of biased because I'm a rural person. So I think it's cool that people have access to that stuff outside of the major centres. And actually it's super cool because urban people come there and see that it's pretty awesome," Lund said.
Since the 2020 Gateway was postponed, Foley says some of the reactions of ticket-holders have been heart-warming.
"People that have been coming for years are sad....They bought tickets and they are saying, 'just keep the money and we will support you with it,'" Foley said.
"Lots of them are saying they will just buy again next year."
Water tower-free since 1979
The Bengough and District Museum is one of the most enjoyable places to end up in the town. The building is packed with Indigenous artifacts like arrowheads, and is a treasure trove of items from Bengough's coal mining days, local farmers of the past and war veterans.
You will also find pictures and newspaper clippings of an infamous moment in Bengough's history there.
In 1979, Bengough came only a couple of metres from disaster.
The town's water tower stood right near a skating rink, which was close to the local school.
Pat Craven, chair of the museum, was a teacher at the school at the time.
"All of a sudden I heard this giant boom. Like a crash. Like an earthquake. You almost felt like your feet vibrated underneath," said Craven.
The water tower had toppled over and crashed in front of the skating rink. Luckily, no one was hurt. But underneath the collapsed water tower was a little half-ton truck belonging to the rink's caretaker.
"The caretaker went out there and he had so many special words to say about the condition of his truck. That was the most humorous thing about it. But it could have been quite deadly, actually," Craven said.
"I think the kids actually lifted off the ice a little bit because there was a lot of weight."
Bengough's own Champsosaurus
Along the walls of the Bengough and District Museum, there are old newspaper clippings of famed Saskatchewan paleontologist Tim Tokaryk unearthing fossils in the Big Muddy Valley.
Craven says she remembers his time in Bengough back in 1990 very well.
In 1990, young Carol Nelson of Big Beaver brought a box of fossils belonging to the prehistoric reptile Champsosaurus to the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Regina, where Tokaryk worked.
He went to stay in Bengough and dig for the rest of the prehistoric reptile in the Big Muddy Valley.
"I was really excited because that was also part of the province where we hadn't spent all that much time in. There's a vast amount of rock exposed in the Big Muddy Valley. But no one had actually spent any time looking for fossils in there," Tokaryk said.
"So this is a great introduction for myself and for the museum that there was material to be found there, and a really significant story of life after the extinction of the dinosaurs."
Tokaryk says he was in his late 20s and that the reptile was one of the first skeletons he collected in Saskatchewan. He says it was fascinating, and the people of Bengough made that time even more enjoyable.
"I've worked in small towns most of my adult life in the summertime.... You're automatically dragged into the community in a wonderful, informative and enlightening way."
Finally, driving less than 30 minutes into the Big Muddy Valley from Bengough, we'll find Castle Butte.
The massive sandstone formation is one of the most iconic spots in southern Saskatchewan. It's a relic of the Ice Age, and was a landmark for the Indigenous people. The hike up the rock is a steep one, but simply a must for the view.
Castle Butte is meant to be taken in and enjoyed without rush. So if you need snacks and water, stop by the nearby longtime family-owned Aust's General Store in Big Beaver. The store slogan is, "If we don't have it, you don't need it."
Standing at the top of Castle Butte, it's not hard to understand why the people of Bengough love the region so much.
As Saskatchewan waits for the return of mass gatherings like the Gateway Festival, it's good to know that there is so much more to love about Bengough and the Big Muddy Valley.
Listen to the road trip on CBC's The Morning Edition: