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Saskatchewan Geography

Local Geography - The Quill Lakes Region

The local area where the village of Kandahar is located in is known as ‘The Quill Lakes Region,’ named after the three Quill Lakes. These three large, shallow lakes, teem with bird life during the spring and fall migrations. Sandhill and whooping cranes, Canada geese and ducks can be seen by the thousands during these periods, when they use the lakes to rest and fish.

Rare nesting areas for colonial birds are here as well. Islands in ‘Middle Quill Lake’ support these nests of white pelicans and double-crested cormorants and a stable colony of great blue herons.

The Quill Lakes are remnants of ‘Glacial Quill Lake’, which occupied the low basin here during the retreat of the last continental ice sheet more than 10,000 years ago. When glaciers covering this area retreated, massive quantities of ice melt stopped flowing into the Quill Lake basin, leaving only springs and seasonal runoff to renew water supply.

Without an outlet for the modern Quill Lakes, salinity is high due to evaporation. The lakes are also shallow and evaporation proceeds quickly. Fish survival in Big Quill Lake is limited because of this high senility but some minnows and other small fish exist near freshwater springs where salinity is reduced. Walleye have been stocked in ‘Little Quill Lake’ but the population is not sustainable because the salinity and alkalinity of the water prevent their reproduction.

General Geography - Saskatchewan

It is one of only two Canadian provinces without a saltwater coast, and it is the only province whose boundaries are wholly artificial. Its southern half is largely an extension of the Great Plains of central North America, rarely rising 2,000 feet (610 metres) above sea level. It measures 760 miles (1,223 km) from south to north, tapering from a width of 393 miles (632 km), where it abuts Montana and North Dakota in the United States, to 277 miles (446 km), where it meets the Northwest Territories.

Saskatchewan’s landscape makes its inhabitants conscious of the sky, and the changing patterns of light and shadow. Saskatchewan commonly offers magnificent sunrises and sunsets and are as much a part of the scenery as any contour of the earth. Economically, the province has always been heavily dependent on the exportation of agriculture and minerals.


The most important division of the land in Saskatchewan is between the northern one-third of the province, which is part of the Canadian Shield, and the plains, which cover the southern two-thirds. The Canadian Shield is an area of mostly igneous and metamorphic rocks of Precambrian age (about 540 million to 4 billion years old). The plains comprise a wedge-shaped succession of sedimentary rocks, the oldest of which abut the shield margin while the youngest occur in the Cypress Hills in the southwestern portion of the province. The highest elevations in Saskatchewan are also found in the Cypress Hills, peaking at 4,567 feet (1,392 metres) above sea level. These hills—the only part of Saskatchewan that escaped glaciation—contain unique plant and animal life. The lowest point in the province, 699 feet (213 metres), is in the extreme northwest.

Continental glaciation greatly influenced Saskatchewan’s landscape, scouring and molding the northern shield to produce a landscape of rocky outcrops, lakes, and rivers. Glacial deposits on the shield tend to be thin and discontinuous. The southern plains are covered with a veneer of sediments laid down by ice sheets and their subsequent meltwaters. The most important agricultural regions occur in areas of finer-grained sediment while rolling hills of hummocky moraine and other coarser-grained sediments are primarily used for ranching. Cut into the plains are many spectacular river valleys, including those of the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers and the Qu’Appelle River.


Climate is a major limiting factor for agriculture, restricting it to the area south of 55° N latitude. Even within this zone, there are as few as 80 to 100 frost-free days annually. Temperature variations are extreme; January temperatures have fallen below the mid-60s F (about −53 °C) in settled parts, and in July temperatures of more than 100 °F (about 41 °C) have been recorded. In other words, Saskatchewan has a variable climate with cold winters and warm to hot summers. Because the province lies in the continental interior, precipitation is low, averaging from about 10 to 20 inches (about 250 to 510 mm) each year. Most winter precipitation falls as snow, which ranges from about 30 inches (about 750 mm) in the southwest to more than 60 inches (about 1,500 mm) in the north-central area. Drought years are not uncommon.

Plant and Animal Life

Saskatchewan is marked by six recognizable bands of natural plant life. The NE corner of the province consists of subarctic woodland in which widely spaced black spruce and jack pine occur amid lichen ground cover. To the southwest of the subarctic woodland lies the northern boreal forest, also mostly black spruce and jack pine but much more densely packed. South of the shield margin, where soil cover is thicker, the predominantly coniferous northern boreal forest gives way to a mixed forest belt known as the southern boreal forest that includes stands of broad-leaved trees such as trembling aspen. Some parts of the southern boreal forest were cleared for farming, but no agriculture occurs north of this zone. South of the southern boreal forest lies the aspen parkland, which represents a transition between the forest and grassland belts. This is the most densely settled zone in rural Saskatchewan, partly because many First Nations (Indian) Reserves are located there and partly because farms are generally smaller than those farther south. The two most southerly vegetation bands are composed of mixed prairie and dry mixed prairie, dominated by mid-height and short grasses. The relative abundance of short grasses increases as soil moisture decreases. The three most southerly zones produce a rich profusion of attractive wildflowers.

Animal Life

Many animal species—wolf, bison, grizzly bear, and black-footed ferret, to name some—had been eliminated from the more-settled regions of the province by the early 20th century. Through conservation efforts, some of those species have made a comeback. Cougars are seen occasionally along the river valleys. Wolves and black bears occur in northern Saskatchewan. Moose, deer, elk, and antelope are common regionally, although caribou numbers have declined. Coyotes, foxes, and lynx, together with the gophers, rabbits, and other creatures they prey on, are abundant. Saskatchewan is on the main western flyway of waterfowl, songbirds, hawks, and owls, many of which nest in the province. Regrettably, loss of habitat has meant the decline of many prairie species.

Population Composition

The population has changed markedly during the area’s history. It was originally exclusively First Nation, but later the French and British settled in the area, colonizing the province. Subsequently it also had a large population of Métis (people of mixed Indian and European ancestry). Following construction of a transcontinental railway in the early 1880s, further settlement spread across the plains. In addition to British and eastern Canadian settlers, other Europeans—notably Germans, Austrians, Ukrainians, Scandinavians, Russians, and Poles—came to the area. Some were attracted by generous homestead grants; others came to escape religious and political persecution in their own countries. The period of heaviest immigration was in the early 20th century. The population rose drastically in 1921. Many of these groups settled in separate communities where they could use their own languages and continue their own religions and customs. Saskatchewan contains many settlements readily identifiable as being of Ukrainian, French Canadian, German, or other ethnic origin.

Settlement Patterns

All of Saskatchewan is farther north than any of the most densely populated parts of Canada, and the province’s own north is sparsely settled and inaccessible except by air and by the few roads that service northern mines. Saskatchewan’s best-known regions and sites are its main agricultural and recreational areas: the wheat-oilseed belt, the ranching country and the sites of Saskatchewan’s few battles.

Saskatchewan’s rural landscape was strongly influenced by the Dominion Land Survey System, which divided the prairies into townships that measured 6 by 6 miles (10 by 10 km), each of which was divided into 36 1-square-mile (2.5-square-km) sections. Each of those sections was then further subdivided into fourths, many of which had been available as free homesteads. As a consequence of the arrangement of the survey and the provisions of the Homestead Act, a rural settlement typically consists of dispersed, isolated farmsteads. Most urban settlements were created to service the rural population and were, therefore, located at relatively equal intervals along railway main lines and branch lines. Cities grew at nodes in the railway network.

In the early 21st century fewer than 15 urban settlements qualified for city status, and only two were of significant size: the provincial capital, Regina, and its slightly larger sister city, Saskatoon. Together, these two cities include more than one-third of Saskatchewan’s population. Other notable cities include Moose Jaw and Prince Albert. By the early 21st century about two-thirds of Saskatchewan’s population was considered urban.

Because of the modernization of agriculture in the period since World War II, Saskatchewan’s rural population has been declining. Consequently, there is less need for the smaller urban centres, many of which disappeared as their inhabitants migrated to the cities. One major change that accompanied the shift in settlement patterns was the decline in the number of wooden grain elevators; once ubiquitous, they have been replaced by a much smaller number of large concrete or steel grain-handling facilities. This restructuring of the rural landscape was associated with the closure of many railway branch lines.

Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing

Agriculture has been a mainstay of Saskatchewan’s economy since the late 19th century. The initial focus was on small family farms, many of which produced wheat for external markets. The number of farms peaked in the 1930s at about 142,000. By the early 21st century that number had fallen by more than two-thirds, and the average farm size had increased dramatically. Saskatchewan has a large percentage of Canada’s farmland and the largest average farm size of any province. Although wheat remains a major crop, both the amount of wheat and the amount of land devoted to its cultivation have declined while production of canola (rapeseed) and specialty crops such as mustard, peas, and lentils has increased. In some regions livestock raising is prominent.

Although approximately two-fifths of Saskatchewan is covered by forest, the forest industry is small and mostly concentrated in the southern boreal forest.

Resources and Power

Saskatchewan has a wide variety of mineral resources, including oil, potash, and uranium. Potash is mainly used for fertilizer. Saskatchewan is one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of potash. The province is also a significant producer of oil and natural gas. Rich uranium deposits support mines in northern Saskatchewan, and diamonds of industrial quality were discovered in the 1980s. Other significant minerals include gold, salt, sodium sulfate, lignite, zinc, copper, and a variety of clays.

Most of Saskatchewan’s electrical energy is derived from coal-powered thermal plants. There are several small hydroelectric dams, and considerable investment has been directed at alternative energy resources such as wind power and biofuels.

Cultural Life

Although lacking great metropolitan centres, Saskatchewan has developed creditable art galleries as well as professional theatre and musical venues. The Regina Symphony Orchestra, founded as the Regina Orchestral Society in 1908, is the oldest continuously performing orchestra in Canada. However, provincial audiences are small, and many artists leave for careers elsewhere. Writing in and about the province, always strong, has blossomed since the 1960s, and the same is true of painting and sculpture. The province has produced a number of visual artists including the modernist group known as the Regina Five. A number of Saskatchewan natives have also made their marks as performers, including actor Leslie Nielsen, radio and television host Art Linkletter, and popular musicians Joni Mitchell, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Colin James. The province is served by the radio and television networks of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and by private broadcasting services.