Looking to catch some big fish and see some big lizard bones all in one trip, I found myself in Southern Alberta. Best known as the home of the Canadian Badlands, Southern Alberta is also home to what may be Alberta’s largest man-made reservoir, Lake Newell.
What we learned is that everything is bigger in the South. The fish, the water, the donuts, the flavours, the smiles, the sky, and the land. Whoever says size doesn’t matter is playing with a short stack.
Fishing Lake Newell
On a map, Lake Newell is a curious body of water in the relatively dry and tough Southern part of the province. It’s a large body of water, coming in at nearly 70 square kilometers, and is likely the largest man-made reservoir in the province. Of course, being the curious explorer I am, this massive oasis called to me and I just had to see it for myself.
Arriving at the Newell Marina with my home-made donut and fresh coffee, I was greeted by Bryce and Dawn of Trebled Life Guided Fishing Trips. The couple already had our fishing boat ready at the doc, along with at least half a dozen prepared fishing rods. Probably more.
“We’re going find some pike and walleye this morning,” Bryce tells me. “The pike get up to 30 pounds out here. They can put up a helluva fight” he says as we shove off from the dock.
Now I’m no fisherman, but I know what 30 pounds feels like and I imagine when they’re fighting for their life, it can indeed be quite a battle.
Heading away from the marina and to the morning’s fishing spot, Dawn and Bryce point to what looks like a mirage floating above the watery horizon. Dawn explains that the mirage is actually Pelican Island. It’s a protected island within Lake Newell and is one of the few places in Alberta where baby Pelicans can be found. Because of its biological importance, no one can go within 100 yards of the island’s shores. In fact, Lake Newell is becoming a popular bird-watching destination, and telescopic lenses help birders get good shots of some amazing wildlife.
Arriving at our destination, Bryce and Dawn pull out some pre-prepared fishing rods, set for walleye and pike. They have a brief conversation about what we should start with and settle on pike. It’s clear they know these waters, and have a ton of respect for each others’ abilities.
They hand us our fishing rods, give some quick instructions and before we know it, we’re casting. Shortly after that, we have a fish on the line! I’m actually relieved that it’s not a 30 pound fish, as the fight is not as bad as expected. In a matter of minutes, the fish is right alongside our boat.
We spent the better part of the morning on the lake with Bryce and Dawn, alternating between casting, getting a few tips, and covering everything from education to food to family. Bryce estimates that his 11 year son has caught hundreds of thousands of fish in his young career. Dawn proves that women can fish and says that they have guided groups of girlfriends who have never held a fishing rod before.
For us, the water was calm and the company was good, even if we didn’t catch the big one. It’s the motion of the ocean that counts, I suppose.
It was clear that Bryce and Dawn have a deep appreciation for Lake Newell and the living they’ve been able to make there.
Home-Made Donuts at Prairie Cottage Bakery
If you’re able to separate the fancy packaging from the product inside, you will find some of the best food of your life. Growing up, my Polish-Ukrainian grandmother’s most anticipated treat was fresh made donuts. They were chewy, they were covered in sugar, they were big, and they were delicious. There was no shine, but all substance.
I haven’t had one in over a decade, and I still crave them.
In Brooks, there’s a little hole-in-the-wall bakery called Prairie Cottage Bakery. Owned and operated by Mennonites, this shop makes donuts that remind me of my grandma’s. As with hers, these donuts don’t need a lot of flash. They speak for themselves.
Fossil Hunting Dinosaur Provincial Park
Situated in the rugged Red Deer River Valley 200 kilometers East of Calgary, Dinosaur Provincial Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the richest dinosaur fossil beds in the world. After driving along the Canadian plains wondering when you’ll see your next tree, the entry into the valley is a stunning surprise. For as far as you can see are hoodoos and canyons.
Much of the park is a protected heritage reserve that is off-limits to unauthorized visitors. The fragile ecosystem, combined with the potential of finding dinosaur fossils demands respect from visitors. Following a scenic driving loop, we found some well-marked trails through the hoodoos. We treaded lightly, even there, respecting this delicate, beautiful natural environment. At the end, we were rewarded with more stunning valley views and some excellent displays showing the remains of giant beasts that once roamed this very same place.
Thai Food and Buddhism in Brooks
You may not know it, but Brooks is a legitimate multicultural city. Of the city’s 14,000 residents, nearly 4,500 identify mother tongues other than English, with heavy African and Asian influences. Driving through town, this multiculturalism is evident. Young families wearing traditional clothing is not uncommon, and there are plenty of East African, Asian, and other restaurants and shops.
Wassana Restaurant is one of the city’s best-known restaurants. Located in a nondescript white building just South of downtown Brooks, Wassana serves Thai and Southeast Asian cuisine. The owner is a Lao man named Kham who has been operating Wassana for decades.
He is open, friendly, and happy to see all of his guests. He has a number of small tattoos on his arms, and one peeking out from behind the collar of his shirt. After we finish our Pad Thai and Vietnamese noodle bowl, I ask him to tell me about the tattoos.
He tells us they are Buddhist tattoos. “You don’t need these tattoos to be Buddhist though,” he says.
I ask why he has them.
He laughs and says “when you’re not at home any more, you can get tattoos if you want.”
Then he shares his story about his arrival in Canada in the 1970s as he fled the Laotian Civil War. He received many of his tattoos in a Thai refugee camp where he spent five years. It was a fascinating story, and likely one of many to be heard if we’re willing to listen. Wassana is an excellent restaurant in an unexpected location, run for decades by a fascinating, open, interesting man.
Badlands Mercantile in Patricia
The Village of Patricia is a blink-and-you-miss-it stop on the highway between Brooks and Dinosaur Provincial Park. But it is worth stopping in for some rugged Western hospitality. The Badlands Mercantile Exchange is a charming little shop along the highway where you can pick up fossils and gifts. You’ll even see roadside signs in the area for ammolite!
Piston Broke Brewing
There is no doubt that Craft beer is having a moment. Brave entrepreneurs are brewing local beer, tapping into community pride and adding in their own personal flair.
Piston Broke Brewing is the brainchild of two Brooks mechanics who turned their love of brewing into a business. One of the busiest places in the city, it features a large patio where they host comedy nights, trivia contests, live music, and other events.
Most of the brews are strong, big flavours, and the patio even has a handful of producing hops vines growing up the side of the building.
Canadian Beaver Brewery
Brooks’s second brewery has a cozy log cabin feel, and draws its inspiration from Canadiana. The long tables are made of lacquered live-edge wood placed atop oak barrels. It is one of the few places that still give you bowls of pretzels and peanuts while you drink.
If you want to see where the magic happens, Canadian Beaver even has tables in the brewing area.
For a small city, Brooks certainly has big opportunities, big ideas, and big personalities. It makes a great weekend trip from nearly anywhere in Alberta and provides deep connections with nature, the country, and exotic parts of the world.