Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Giants of the Prairies

I took a little road trip with my mom this past weekend; we had a fun time checking out some of the kitsch giant attractions in prairie towns northeast of Edmonton.
We headed east on the Yellowhead and spotted a few bison en route through Elk Island National Park. Mundare was our first stop, a town of 850 that seemed to be still asleep on this Sunday morning. We walked through the downtown, where not a business was open, appreciating the quiet and charm of the hanging baskets and old storefronts. The Ukrainian Hall featured a couple of nice murals.
Mundare boasts the world's largest sausage, a 12.8-metre garlic sausage (kielbasa or kovbasa) commissioned by Stawnichy's, a Ukranian sausage company with Mundare roots.
Displayed near the sausage and also sponsored by Stawnichy's is a Ukrainian-painted bison, part of a 2001 cultural project in which 32 such bison were displayed on Edmonton's streets.
A short ways east from Mundare, our next stop was Vegreville, a larger town (pop. 5700) sharing a strong Ukrainian heritage. We walked through Vegreville's historic downtown, which was a bit livelier than Mundare's, and just as quaint.
We were lured by silver cupolas in a residential skyline to a lovely Ukrainian Catholic Church with an immaculately kept garden. Its brightly coloured hall, with paintings, stained glass, and chandeliers, was not what one would expect within such a modest exterior.
On the east side of town we found Elks Park, a nice green space that is home to Vegreville's claim to fame: the world's largest pysanka (Ukranian Easter egg). Assembled in 1973 from over 2200 aluminum equilateral triangles, construction of the egg was a mathematical, architectural, and engineering feat. What we didn't appreciate until seeing the egg in person is that it is free to pivot in the wind like a weathervane -- taking a photo at the optimal angle requires a bit of patience! We also found the symbolism behind the designs on the egg to be interesting; as explained on a plaque, the symbols represent such things as wisdom, rich harvests, and eternal life.
Elks Park is also home to a CN caboose, which was interesting to poke around in. Information placards within explain the significance of the 1905 arrival of the Canadian Northern Railway just northeast of Vegreville -- the town relocated its buildings northeast by 4.5 miles to intercept the tracks.
We headed north from Vegreville through many, many farms, distinguishable only by state of barn dilapidation.
We stopped for a picnic lunch in Vilna, a town of 250 that boasts more than its nondescript highway presence would suggest (we missed the turnoff and had to double back). Besides having the world's largest mushrooms, Vilna has a very well-restored historic downtown, complete with brightly painted shopfronts, old-style street lamps, and wooden boardwalks.
Vilna's metal mushroom sculpture commemorates the abundance of fungi in the region.
We continued west from Vilna to the town of Smoky Lake (pop. 1000), the "Pumpkin Capital of Alberta", known for its fall pumpkin festival and weigh-in.
Seven giant cement pumpkins are displayed in Smoky Lake's downtown park, with pumpkin vines growing amongst annuals in surrounding flowerbeds.
Also in the park is a CN caboose and the old railway station, now housing the visitor's information centre with a display of CNR artifacts.
At the advice of a friendly couple we'd met at the giant mushrooms in Vilna, we headed south from Smoky Lake to visit Andrew, home of the world's largest mallard duck. Unlike some of the more showy restored historic downtowns we'd visited, Andrew's just feels like that of a small town going about business in the same way it has for the past several decades. We walked past the token Chinese restaurant, grocery store, and hotel/liquor store, all open for business.
Down the street we stopped at the historic grain elevator. Built in the 1920s, it's the only remaining one of a row of six that once stood in the town. Next door is the old train station, alongside a CN caboose (a recurring small-town theme).
Down the road we took a look at the world's largest mallard duck, erected in 1992. The mallard was selected as a symbol for Andrew, as they are common in the town, which is near Whitford Lake's waterfowl breeding and nesting grounds.
From Andrew we made our way through Lamont and Fort Saskatchewan to return to Edmonton. Checking out these towns and their giant attractions made for an enjoyable little road trip, with interesting cultural sights making up for not-so-exciting prairie geography.

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