The Canadian prairies: renowned for being able to watch your dog run away for three days, a place where elevation changes are a myth, and one of the few spots where the ocean is just a legend parents use to threaten their kids into brushing their teeth. However, there is one other thing that the prairies are known for: painfully straight stretches of road, with gravel roads being known as grids here in Saskatchewan. Alberta calls them Range Roads I think, and think they’re better than us for it, but they’re also worse at seceding than Quebec so what do they know?
Grid roads are exactly as they sound: roads in a grid formation that cross all of southern Saskatchewan, basically. Sure, there are a few jigs and jags in places, but because land was allotted in square land parcels, it for the most part is divided by roads that outline the parcels of land. So, if you look between each east-west lot (four and five, for example) and every one or two lots north-south, there should be a grid road between.
These roads are the responsibility of the rural municipalities they fall in, and as such quality goes from “passable” to “developing nation in the middle of a civil war”. Is it an all season road? If it’s not one of the main grids, probably not! When will it get plowed after a snowstorm? Who knows! Will there be gravel, dirt, or rocks the size of your fist in the middle of the road? More than likely!
Seriously, though, rocks will get kicked onto your vehicle by other vehicles. The width of the roads vary, going from basically three lanes wide to barely wider than your vehicle. Some of the roads might not be traveled for days at a time, and others may have been claimed as farm land, or reclaimed by nature. You never know what you’re going to get.
There’s also washboard, which basically a series of bumps in the roadway. It can cause you to lose traction and control, so it’s best to take the grids at no more than the maximum speed of 80 km/h. Yes, most of these roads do not have a signed speed limit, but every grid road in Saskatchewan abides by that maximum speed, or lower.
I’ve got a few tidbits of advice. I know, shocking, advice in an advice column. What else were you expecting?
Google Maps always suggests that I take a grid road to get home to save fifteen minutes when on my way from Saskatoon. Thing is, I know the washboard on that roads will be bad, I know that at night it’l be hours before another vehicle passes me, and cell service can be spotty. I’d rather take the paved highway, which takes longer, but I have cell service the whole way, I stop in a town, and there is the occasional vehicle that passes by. Fifteen minutes is worth keeping myself a little safer.
I was cruising the grids one night for work when I came across one I didn’t know. So, I took it slow, kept my head up, and was careful. If I drove it like I did the other grids I know like the back of my hand, I never would have been able to stop in time for the abrupt snowbank in front of me.
Another thing that can interfere with grids in the winter are the plows. You may think that you have more shoulder to pull over than you do because it looks flat and plowed, only to find out that it’s actually the ditch.
This ties into a previous point. You may follow Google maps or our work’s proprietary map system, which will say “yes, this is a road you can go down”. Thing is, grids might not be all weather roads. So in the winter, everything might be hunky dory until you realize that the road ended a few hundred metres back and you’re on farmland, with no turning back. Or you drive through a snowdrift three feet deep. Congratulations, now you’re thoroughly sewered. Stick to the numbered grids, and you should be okay.
This may seem counter-intuitive to what I just said, but when you find yourself in a pickle on the grids, you can’t half ass getting out of there. A few examples:
- As mentioned before with the snowbank in the middle of the road, I ended up driving almost a kilometre and a half backwards. No “I’m just going to pull a three point turn” lazy way out, because I knew the grid was too narrow for that.
- I was making my way to assist a colleague when I thought I’d follow the maps. In the middle of the night. That didn’t pan out when car tracks turned to ATV tracks and road turned into snowy field. So I put my truck from 2WD into 4Hi and slammed the gas, and kept it cruising at 80 km/h through some of the worst “road” I’ve ever driven. No damage when I broke through the snowbank on the other side, at least!
- I was pulling over for an oncoming semi-truck in a snow storm when I misjudged the road and the back end ended up falling into the ditch. One again, 4Hi, pedal to the metal, and I drove that thing sideways along the ditch until I hit an approach and was able to climb back up it
In conclusion, the grids can be a nasty place to get stuck. I’ve seen more than enough rollovers and stuck vehicles on -40 nights to know that not taking them safely can be life or death. Drive smart, drive safe, and for the love of the gods, just avoid the damn grids.