Craven, Sask., is more than just Country Thunder, it's a scenic natural wonderland
CBC's virtual road trip series Land of Living Stories explores hidden gems across Sask.
CBC's virtual road trip series Land of Living Stories explores the hidden gems across Saskatchewan. You can invite CBC's Laura Sciarpelletti to your community for a virtual tour. Visit cbc.ca/lovesk to pitch your ideas.
This story was originally published on June 11, 2020.
When Kali and Matthew Eddy first visited the Qu'Appelle Valley in Saskatchewan, they were shocked by all the rolling hills, the mixture of grasslands and wetlands, and the swaths of trees.
"It's the complete opposite of where we grew up," said Eddy, who is originally from Aneroid in the flat prairie lands of southern Saskatchewan.
"I think everybody's shocked [when they visit]. It's beautiful, lush, green hill. It feels like you're not even in Saskatchewan."
Falling in love with the Qu'Appelle Valley prompted the Eddys to move to Craven, Sask., 13 years ago to raise their family on a farm. Now they own a farm-to-table restaurant in Craven called 641 Grill and Motel.
For many Saskatchewan residents, the word "Craven" is synonymous with the Country Thunder Festival. The massively popular event — formerly called the Big Valley Jamboree — brings in thousands of country music fans every year, turning the quiet community of Craven into the biggest party in Saskatchewan for one week.
But locals say that part of the Qu'Appelle Valley is home to so much more: gorgeous scenery, rich history and sprawling country roads.
"I think the biggest draw is just to get out of the hustle and bustle of the city. It's just kind of a slower pace and I think people are just drawn to the beauty of the nature," Eddy said.
With Country Thunder cancelled this year due to COVID-19, let's take a virtual road trip to check out the Craven that locals know.
Beginning in Regina, we head northwest on Highway 11 to Lumsden. As we cross the small bridge into Lumsden, we'll see plenty of trees and rolling hills, a swift and stark change from the flat prairie drive so far.
In Lumsden, we stop by Sweet Treats Ice Cream Shoppe. The popular local spot is home to creative flavours like tart blue raspberry ice cream with sour cherry ripple, or purple vanilla butter cake ice cream with a pink marshmallow ribbon and rainbow chocolate pieces.
The shop is owned by mother-daughter team Shannon and Paulette Kaytor. They also own the gift and toy store The Painted Parasol next door — a treasure trove of unique jewlery, vintage candy and house decor items.
"It's just so cool to go shopping in this quaint, cute little atmosphere," said Eddy, who often brings her children to Sweet Treats for ice cream.
Wildlife Refuge and St. Nicholas Anglican Church
On the five-minute drive along Highway 20 between Lumsden and Craven, we pass roadside market gardens selling fresh vegetables like asparagus, corn and peas.
Three sets of Megan Talbot's great grandparents homesteaded near Craven. Her grandmother owned a store in Craven for many years before her parents took over.
"I have very vivid memories. I can probably close my eyes and tell you where everything in that store was," Talbot said.
While Talbot now lives in Regina, she is irrevocably linked to the small village. Talbot lived in Craven for much of her childhood — going to high school in Lumsden — and the rest of her siblings still live there.
"When I was a kid everybody thought Craven was on its way to becoming a ghost town because it was mostly older people, there were no young families there. And now, it's booming."
Today, many Craven residents are either retired or commute to Regina for work.
Right across from the Country Thunder festival grounds in Craven, you will find Sod Farm Road. The dirt road takes you past sprawling farm fields, over hills filled with trees and up to a nature conservatory called the Hidden Valley Wildlife Refuge.
Talbot has many fond memories of driving on Sod Farm Road and hiking at Hidden Valley.
"When I was a kid that was my grandparents' favourite place to take us for a picnic," Talbot said.
"We'd have our blanket and our plaid thermos full of tea and our lunch, and just sit over there. Then afterwards we'd hike up the hill and back down again. I looked for arrowheads up at the top the field with my grandpa."
The conservatory is packed with butterflies and it's pretty common to spot at least one deer and maybe even a fox.
Only a little way further down Sod Farm Road stands a small church with a bright red roof from the early 1900s. It's best known as St. Nicholas Anglican Church, but some also call it Kennell Anglican Church, or simply, the Little Church in the Valley.
Built in the Gothic Revival architecture style, the single-story wood-frame church sits beside a graveyard.
Both Talbot's oldest friend and her brother were married in the little valley church.
"If you look there's guest books from years back and all kinds of people come from all over the world to that church," Talbot said.
If we wanted to hit Buffalo Pound Provincial Park, where Indigenous peoples of the region hunted buffalo, we would just need to hop on the nearby Tregarva Road and loop around to the Moose Jaw area.
Back in Craven, we stop by 641 Grill and Motel. Eddy and her husband use beef from their own farm at the restaurant.
"We always felt that we wanted to bring our upbringing and our love of the farm and small towns into restaurants. We knew we wanted local food and from the beginning," said Eddy.
"If you walk into the restaurant … it's just us. If you know us and our family, it's the same feel."
The most popular dish by far is the Eddy Burger, which comes with the tagline, "It doesn't get more local than this."
Almost everything on the burger is made in-house, including the pickle and brioche bun.
Before leaving Craven, you can't miss the giant guitar out front of the Craven Motor Inn, just beside 641 Grill and Motel.
Regina resident Mike Dacey has been to nearly every Country Thunder or Jamboree festival since 1983. Dacey said he has had his picture taken in front of the giant guitar countless times. Usually the picture comes after enjoying annual beers at the Craven Motor Inn ahead of the music festival's opening day.
"After a beer, we always like to drive up on top of the hill there and look down at the festival site and take some photos. You should drive up the hill and you should be playing the song Country Thunder by The Washboard Union to get into the [spirit]!"
Valeport and Last Mountain House
As we drive past Craven, we will see Last Mountain Lake, the largest natural lake in southern Saskatchewan. There by the side of the road is Valeport, a historic point of interest overlooking the lake.
"Valeport at one time had a steam ship that ran the lake, and people would go there to travel up to the lake. But as the railroad progressed that all died off," said longtime Craven resident Adri Vandeven.
Steam ships hauled grain and freight between Valeport and Port Hyman at the south end of the lake, then on to Last Mountain House, a Hudson Bay trading post on the east end. The iconic house can be visited only a few minutes down the road from Valeport.
"There are trees and people walk along the shore of the lake often. The remains of the railroad tracks that went across there from Craven to Regina Beach are still there today. People like to fish there."
After growing up in Lumsden, Vandeven moved to B.C., but he and his wife eventually moved to Craven to raise their children. Now 78, he has lived in Craven for nearly 40 years.
For Vandeven, the small community has a special charm.
"You get to know everybody. And it's not like living in the big city where you may know your next-door neighbour, but you don't know anybody else," said Vandeven.
He said Craven is certainly more than just Country Thunder. It's a close-knit and inviting community.
"Because they're local, they talk to you like you're a local and you're made to feel welcome."
Listen to the virtual road trip of the Qu'Appelle Valley on The Morning Edition: