Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Wonder, Despair, and Hope : Whitefish to Nairn Center

Today was filled with incredible beauty, outstanding birding, enormous frustration, and extraordinary kindness. It was one of those days that was packed full, and seemed to last forever.


The day began well enough when we headed out into a world still soaked from the huge amount of rain we had last night. As we walked down the quiet, two-lane highway we passed a peaceful looking cemetery, tucked under a canopy of tall white pines. A couple Northern Flickers chased each other through the tree trunks, and a family of Blue Jays crooned softly to each other.

As we passed a section of hay fields with picturesque barns and country homes we heard a familiar dry, resonating call in the far distance, but it seemed so out of context that at first I dismissed it as the cronking of a Common Raven.
 
 

As we continued down the road, past lush green cattail marshes with meandering streams through the middle, we enjoyed the fresh scent of a landscape recently soaked by rain. The hay fields and wildflowers lent a sweet smell to the cool morning air that felt very refreshing.

 
 


Suddenly we heard the loud, dry, echoing calls again, this time right beside us. It was a family of Sandhills Cranes! We watched the adults and still slightly fuzzy youngster walk across a pasture and disappear into the grasses on the far edge. As if that wasn't exciting enough, a little farther on we saw four Sandhill Cranes walking along the train tracks!
 
 

As we continued along through a landscape that was a mix of pastures, many with grazing horses, wetlands, and rocky outcroppings of shield covered with mixed forest, we spotted an Eastern Kingbird sitting on the utility lines and watched Common Yellowthroats skulking around in the roadside willows. American Goldfinches, Song Sparrows, and Fox Sparrows bounced around in the goldenrod and tall grasses at the edges of the fields, while families of young American Robins fed on ripened red berries. The most exciting moment was finding a Northern Hawk Owl perched on a utility wire, calmly looking back at us, its head rotated 180°!
 
 
 

As we continued on northwest down the road we followed parallel to the train tracks, beginning to climb up and down. In the marshes between the rocky promontories we saw a Great Blue Heron fishing, and a Belted Kingfisher perched on a telephone pole. Incredibly we either spotted the same owl again, or we saw a second Northern Hawk Owl, perched on a mile marker beside the tracks. When it took flight into a stand of trees a Northern Harrier shot out the other side, crossed the road and was gone.

 
 
 
 

As we continued down Fairbank Lake Rd we began to see and hear signs of mining. Most of the trucks that passed us were pickup trucks, dump trucks, cement mixing trucks, or transports. The road was very wide and well paved, and we found ourselves walking between walls of blasted shield rock.

Eventually we came to Vale's Totten Mine. From our perspective this underground mine looked like a gigantic blue corrugated building, but the areas around it were a hive of activity. Trucks were constantly coming and going, employees in yellow safety vests were busily going about their business, and lots of very large vehicles were moving around. It seems this mine became operational in 2014, and is expected to produce over 2,000 tons per day of nickel, copper, and other precious metals for 20 years. It has a main shaft that extends over 4,000 ft below the earth's surface, and when Vale opened the mine their first task was to removed the water that had been allowed to flood the shaft for the last 30 years.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Despite the activity and the noise from the mine itself, we spotted two river otters frolicking and playing with each other in a small pond beside the mine, and both Tree Swallows and Cliff Swallows were swooping low over the water looking for insects.

We passed a large sand pile just after the mine which one set of dump trucks was replenishing from a sand pit somewhere ahead of us, while another set was taking sand into the mine. We could only speculate how sand is used in the mining process.
 
 
 
 

At this point we saw a sign telling us that a bridge was going to be closed ahead of us. We decided to continue, assuming that since the steady stream of trucks was coming and going, the closure wasn't yet in effect. When we crossed a small wooden bridge with five trucks running and seven construction workers in the midst of 'conference' and standing around we assumed our troubles were over.

 
 

We walked on until we came to Spanish River Rd. After walking about three kilometers down it we came to another sign saying the road was closed due to bridge replacement, to follow D2 instead. We looked at Google maps, thinking maybe it was a small creek we could ford, or that we could walk the train tracks for a few meters to get around the bridge. The only 'creek' we could see on the satellite image was a long way down the road, and it looked like a deep, wide river with marsh on both sides. Not something we could easily ford with all our stuff. The train tracks were nowhere near the bridge. As we sat there, trying to decide whether to gamble and see if we could walk across the bridge, a construction worker drove by and stopped to tell us the bridge was indeed absolutely gone.

As we headed back down to the Trans Canada Highway on a dusty, hilly, gravel road in the hot afternoon a black truck filled with waste and debris - uncovered and unstrapped down - raced by and as it passed by a piece of wood flew out of the back end and caught Sean on the shoulder forcing him backwards and into the ditch. I was 10 feet away and stunned that so much had happened so quickly. I raced up to him to find him already standing back up but cursing up a storm. I couldn't figure out what was wrong and then realized what was missing.

His lens and camera took the brunt of the strike and both looked horrid for it. His lens cap was shattered and the crack in the lens itself was immediately evident. Even his Peak Design mental camera clip was cut through with the impact.


He hoped for the best - having already put both pieces of equipment through a lot on his own - but our hopes were dashed when we went to take the next image.   The crack in the lens leaves a streak of light at the top and whatever is wrong in the body is leaving the black bar.

Despite all of this the truck drove on - I suspect - unaware that it was pouring construction debris out its back end or of the damage it had already caused. Given the circumstances and the luck of no one getting hurt we can't really complain, but it is costly problem that we lack the funds or time to deal with.

In the end we had to walk back down south to Highway 17, arriving only a few kilometers west of where we began this morning, but having walked 26.5 km to get there. We then had no choice but to follow Highway 17 for 7 km to Nairn Center.

 
 

Combined with the frustration of losing the camera, we felt pretty low. Over the past two days we have been re-routed seven times for road construction. Whether it is because the government has decided to invested in infrastructure repair to keep the economy going, or because municipalities are taking advantage of less traffic during the pandemic, or it is just our bad luck, every bridge on a minor road seems to be under repair right now. In these northern communities, where there is often only one road other than the TCH in any given area, this means we spend a lot of time weaving in circles, only to come back to an incredibly dangerous and unpleasant Trans Canada Highway. We are left wondering if we should just cut our losses and walk the TCH to Sault St. Marie or perhaps surrender entirely and take the bus. At least either option would be faster and definitely safer.

 




As soon as we reached Nairn Center it was clear from the welcome sign that we'd reached a logging town. It is home to an Eacom sawmill, plenty of white pine plantations, and some very active logging operations.

 

We had been seeing signs for a truck stop and Jeremy's Country Restaurant, and when we finally got there we gratefully made a stop at the restaurant. As we were waiting to be seated an older couple said they had seen us on TV, and asked about the hike, chatting for a bit and then wishing us well as we sat down to eat. We enjoyed a delicious meal of iced tea, veggie wraps, and fries, and when we went to leave we learned the couple had paid for our meal. What an incredible kindness!  I wish we had been able to talk more with them or thank them in person.  (If you ever read this then THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK!  Your kindness saved our day and brought our spirits up enough to keep going!)

As we left, the friendly and helpful staff, who were very busy, also took a few moments to ask what we were doing and try to find a safe spot for us to legally camp tonight. After a very trying and hot day we deeply appreciated the kindness!



After dinner we hiked a few more kilometers and then found a beautiful stand of white pine trees with a grassy floor. We pitched the tent wedged between a very busy logging road, the train tracks, and as we soon discovered, a dirt track. As we were setting up camp a brown Jeep zipped down the track. A while later, as the sun was beginning to set, it came back. With a sinking feeling we realized it slowed down, stopped, and then reversed. When the driver called out, asking if anyone was in the tent, we answered, expecting trouble. Instead, the man very kindly warned us that there was a large bear about 300 m down the road nosing about in some trash, and he advised us not to keep any food with us in the tent tonight. We thanked him for yet another kindness today.
 

We very quietly and cautiously made our way down the track to see if we could spot the bear. Sure enough - we did! As we watched and took a few photos he ambled off into the woods, which is always a good sign. The track is lined with blueberry bushes, and the pine needle covered forest floor is dotted with a huge variety of mushrooms of all shapes and sizes. Hopefully the bear can find enough food to be full!

 

 As we try to fall sleep midnight has come and gone and it is well and truly dark. The highway is still roaring, and there are still large trucks going back and forth on the logging road. It is very busy in this spot, but we are left feeling grateful all the random acts of kindness we received- they leave us feeling that for as many obstacles as we encounter, the forces of the world do want us to succeed. 





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