Peering out the window at the landmark Delta Hotel Bessborough in Saskatoon, watching traffic cross a stone bridge over the idyllic South Saskatchewan River, I thought I’d been transplanted to Europe. A half hour later in my rental car, the city dissipates into a string of strip malls, homesteads, farmsteads, and finally no steads at all, just endless flat fields of wheat. An ominous sky hovers above the autumn chill. My destination is a mysterious grove of deformed aspen trees, which locals believe might be the freakiest trees in all of Canada. It begs investigation, and provides a neat excuse to drive north into the prairies to see for myself. Cooked Bush is not on any maps. Once I drive through the small town of Hafford, I stop and ask for directions at a gas station. It looks like it could easily be the location for the hit Canadian sitcom, Corner Gas. Fortunately, the pimply kid behind the counter knows exactly what I’m looking for. Apparently “Y’all ain’t the first stranger driving these parts lookin’ for trees”.
He hands me a one-page sheet containing information about the Crooked Bush in Saskatchewan. “The Crooked Bush is a group of wild aspen trees that…twist, loop, and bend into the eeriest of forests. Courage of stone is necessary to visit it at night.” Fortunately, I planned my visit during the day, although I scored extra points for making it the week of Halloween. With no help from the pamphlet’s awfully confusing directions, I got lost within ten minutes of turning off the highway. When in doubt, follow those in front of you. I hoped the pickup truck in question was also seeking the strange and unusual, and not say, a tractor part. Ten minutes later, a lopsided wooden sign pointed right, written in what can best be described as witch scrawl. A small clearing led to a wooden boardwalk with a sign boldly proclaiming I had arrived at a legendary botanical mystery. Exiting the car, hunched up against the cold, I took a few steps, stopped, and started yelling into the bitter wind. “Tim! Tim? Are you there?” Only director Tim Burton’s warped mind could possibly have created the trees that knotted themselves over the boardwalk. Silver flecked branches with black scars, tangled and twisted, like the claw of a goblin, or the dislocated legs of a giant spider. While university researchers have determined some form of genetic mutation causes the trees, mystery still surrounds what caused the mutation in the first place, and why forests of perfectly normal, straight aspen trees surround the grove. Locals in the area have claimed to see UFO’s, while others point fingers at meteorites, contaminated soil, or over zealous imaginations. My favourite theory belongs to the farmer who claims to have seen an alien urinate in the area before the trees began to grow in the 1940’s. This might explain another creepy forest in Poland, where pine trees are deformed at 90° degree angles. After all, even little green men gotta go when they gotta go.
The boardwalk is not very long, and there are a few standout rock star trees that hog attention. Another couple arrive, telling me they’d heard about the trees for years. On Halloween, the gothically inclined are known to throw creepy parties here as well, and they’re welcome to it. There’s definitely something strange in the air, an energy charged by aliens, meteors, or an arboreal sense of humour The chill is piercing my fleece, and Mrs Esrock has run back to the car to catch up with her imagination. A few minutes later, I join her for the return drive to Saskatoon, as the late afternoon sun brightens up the wheat fields. The return drive is straight, long, and unmistakably beautiful. No verdict on whether Crooked Bush is in fact one of the most haunted spots in Canada. But, for providing an excuse to drive into the prairies on a fun, hair-brained adventure, it deserves its spot on the national Bucket List.