Tuesday, September 29, 2020

A return to Newfoundland and the Boreal : Powerview-Pine Falls to beyond Stead

Today was a gorgeous, warm, sunny, fall day that took us straight back into the landscape of Newfoundland. It made us realize both how quickly time flies, and how far we've come since taking our leave of The Rock.

We began the day by walking out of Powerview and into the neighbouring community of Pine Falls. This amalgamated town was created as a paper mill town in the 1920's. The mill was originally owned by the Manitoba Pulp and Paper Company, then the Abitibi Paper Company, the Pine Falls Paper Group, and finally Tembec, who shut down the mill in 1998. 

Adjacent to Pine Falls are lands occupied by the Sagkeeng First Nation. The Sagkeeng Reserve, which was once called Fort Alexander, is located at the North and South shores of the mouth of the Winnipeg River. In the Ojibwe language the name 'sagkeeng' means 'at the outlet' and 'winnipi' means 'murky waters.' Some members of this Anishinabee First Nation are descended from the ancient copper culture that existed in the area many thousands of years ago. Copper points and artifacts have been found around the Fort Alexander fishing, hunting, trading, and meeting grounds of this ancient culture. Today, the youth of the Sagkeeng First Nation achieved renown when their dance troupe, Sagkeeng's Finest, won the the first and only season of 'Canada's Got Talent' in 2012.

We threaded our way through the treed subdivisions of Pine Falls, whose streets were named after various tree species, walked past the school and the medical complex, and made a quick stop at the grocery store on the edge of town. Just outside the shop was a beautifully restored and preserved steam engine. Locomotive #30 was built in 1924, and was operated through Pine Falls from 1954 to 1963. It was the last steam engine to run daily in Western Canada, and it now stands as a reminder of the mill and all it meant to the community.

After crossing the highway we picked up the Whistle Pig trail. How can you not love a trail with a name like that? It turned out to be a gravel ATV track that we followed for the entire day. In many places it was regular gravel, but in a few sections it was covered in very large, rather sharp, rocks that we sunk right down into - just like on Newfoundland's T'Railway Trail.

The plaque at the edge of Powerview-Pine Falls said the Winnipeg River created a dividing line between the Boreal Shield and the Manitoba Lowlands, and indeed we found ourselves in a vast, open landscape that was very different from the shield landscape we've been walking through so far.

The track was bordered by cattail marshes, open bogs, and beaver ponds, many with light grey snags marking the spots where living trees used to stand. Beyond these wet areas the tall, distinctive shapes of black spruce banded together in small stands of trees. The edges of the trail were bordered with the feathery shapes of tamarack, their light green needles just beginning to turn yellow.

In other areas the trail took us through stands of aspen and birch. Their brilliant yellow canopies were glowing brightly in the strong fall sunshine, making a striking contrast with the reds of the understory.

As the afternoon progressed we walked among stands of dense spruce and balsam fir. The forest floor in these stands was covered with a deep, luxurious carpet of bright emerald green moss that made us want to find a sunny spot to lie down and nap on.

We walked this pleasant track all day, seeing only one other person on an ATV as we passed through the collection of homes that made up the community of Stead. Otherwise we walked alone beneath the bright blue sky with its conglomeration of billowy and interesting looking clouds.

 As we walked today we saw a plethora of Garter/Ribbon snakes. They were lying on the trail attempting to warm up, but although the afternoon was warm, many of them were very sluggish. We enjoyed watching them tasting the air with their long, forked tongues. Especially when we moved around they would flick their bright red tongues in and out, showing us the black tip as they 'tasted' the air.

We also saw a variety of woolly bear and other caterpillars, many of whom seemed to be hurrying across the trail. They were joined by quite a few grasshoppers, and we were struck by how quiet the grasshoppers are now - they've completely stopped singing, which must mean mating season is over for them.

 As we walked we scared many small groups of Wood Ducks up out of the trail-side ponds and puddles. They would be hiding among the logs and grasses and then take flight in a huge kerfuffle of wings as we approached. The second most prevalent bird was the Canada Jay. Groups of them would fly from tree to tree down the trail ahead of us, teasing us with their wide variety of calls and noises. We were also accompanied by small flocks of Dark-eyed Juncos, a Turkey Vulture circling lazily overhead, and a Palm Warbler feeding frantically in a tamarack tree at the side of the trail.

One of the highlights of today was finding a geocache. Sean spotted it by chance as we were walking past, and we decided to log it. We've made it a point to find a geocache along the trail in each province we walk through. So far we haven't been doing too much geocaching as a Covid precaution, but today we logged find number 501! It turns out this trail is loaded with caches about every 100 m, so it would be a great place to go geocaching while exploring the Boreal.

As the warm sunny afternoon turned to evening we began looking for a spot to pitch the tent. It felt so nice to just be able to stop and camp when we felt like it! We were looking for a dry sheltered spot since tonight we are supposed to get rain and up to 70 kph winds. So far we've had one rain shower, which was accompanied by some high winds and a drop in temperature, but otherwise it has been pretty quiet. As we lay here in the dark we can hear waves of Canada Geese flying past overhead. 


Sunday, September 27, 2020

Dam it ! : Lac du Bonnet to Poweview-Pine Falls

Today did not turn out the way we imagined it would, but that isn't really an unusual occurrence while on the trail. It all began fairly well, with a short walk down the edge of a wide, flat gravel road. The skies were mostly overcast, but occasional breaks in the clouds provided moving bands of sunshine that set the fall foliage on either side of us aglow. 

We soon arrived at the trailhead for the Blueberry Rock Hiking Trails. Our route through the network of trail loops was around 1 km, and it took us up a lovely piece of exposed shield to a lookout point, complete with a wooden lookout tower. There were two sets of campsites along the route, with benches, fires pits, and garbage cans. However, due to the higher elevation there was no access to water. 

We enjoyed the forested loop, feeling like we were back in a very tiny patch of the Whiteshell Provincial Park. Since leaving Pinawa, the landscape has become much flatter and more open, with only very scattered pockets of Boreal forest. The trail consisted of a flat grassy track, and then the familiar blue and white arrows guided us over the rocky, lichen-covered sections. Great Trail signage describing the flora and fauna of the area was provided along the route as well.

After leaving the tiny patch of Boreal forest, we found ourselves walking on a long, straight, dirt track. At first the track was lined on both sides by deciduous forest. The brilliant reds, yellows, and oranges were lit by the sun and thrown into sharp contrast with heavy, solid, dark blue storm clouds racing by behind them. A strong wind was blowing, causing yellow leaves to fall like rain. Suddenly a majestic Bald Eagle was swept past, riding the wind in a low arc across the trail. 

For the next few kilometers the dirt track ran along the top of a berm at the edge of the Winnipeg River. The wide expanse of slate grey water was covered in white caps, and splashes of water were whipped up onto the berm by the wind.

The far side of the river was mostly forested, with small buildings occasionally dotting the colourful shoreline. Small forested islands were scattered along the river, and in places patches of wild rice and cattails had grown out along the shore. In one of these areas we were delighted to spot three River Otters! They were rolling and playing in a tight pile on top of a mound of cattails. Eventually they dove gracefully into the water and were gone.

A little farther down the shore a large group of American Coots was paddling around amid the grasses and reeds. We also spotted a Black-billed Magie, with its striking black, white, and blue plumage and long tail, but sadly it was gone before a decent photo was possible.  

One of our favourite birding moments on this section of trail was watching a little Pine Siskin that kept ahead of us on the trail. It would fly along the ground, spot a dandelion, and jump up onto the stem. Its weight was just enough to slowly bend the stem so that the dandelion head with all its seeds was lying flat on the ground. The little bird would then hop to the end and begin harvesting beakfuls of seeds. A really clever maneuver!

As we made our way along the edge of the river we were passed by a convoy of ATVs. They passed us once, then must have detoured off the main track, because they passed us a second time going in the same direction, and then again when they returned a third time covering us in dust as they raced by. It felt quite busy for a section of trail which was gated and posted as no motorized vehicles.

When we reached the end of the berm we passed a couple people out fishing, one of whom had a very nice, friendly dog. We paused to let it sniff us before heading off away from the water, crossing the highway, and turning down a more inland ATV track. We had hoped this track might provide a bit of a reprieve from the wind, but in the end it wasn't overly sheltered despite being bordered by trees. 

For the next few kilometers we followed the dirt and grass track which more or less paralleled the road on one side and the power lines on the other. We've come to the realization that this area is all about power generation. The Winnipeg River flows from Lake of the Woods to Lake Winnipeg, a distance of around 235 km. There are six hydroelectric dams along the river in Manitoba, located at Point du Bois, Slave Falls, Seven Sisters, MacArthur Falls, Great Falls, and Pine Falls. The Great Trail took us past at least four of these dams, and as it turned out, across one of them (Seven Sisters). In between, we seemed to be spending quite a bit of time walking hydro corridors.

As we made our way down the track we passed houses, farms, marshes, and woodlots. Several of the marshes had beaver lodges, and in one of the larger beaver ponds we spotted a small flock of Wood Ducks which promptly took flight in a flurry of feathers as we passed. We also saw half a dozen or more garter snakes along the trail ranging in size from large earthworms to over 2 ft long. One of the highlights was finding several kinds of tracks in the dry mud, one of which we think might have belonged to a beaver, and the other to a black bear.

Eventually the track came back to the road again, and ran along beside it. As we were trekking along, a beaten up old pickup truck pulled over and a hunter got out. He asked us if we were walking the Trans Canada Trail, and said he'd seen us walking outside Lac du Bonnet. He warned us that the dam at Great Falls was closed, and that we wouldn't be able to walk across. He suggested we call someone for a ride to the other side. We thanked him for the advice, but having no cell service and no one to call for rescue, we continued on.

After what seemed like quite a lot of walking, the trail brought us back out to the river again. By this point the sky was very dark, and we could see bands of rain moving across the landscape ahead of us. Eventually we dipped back inland a little and then came out at the edge of Great Falls. We emerged into a small parking area, and sure enough, the pedestrian walkway over the power generating station was fenced off, and a sign warned it was closed to the public until further notice.  Aside from the immediate frustration of the situation we were now in, the closure of the bridge also meant that almost 30 km of the Trans Canada Trail was now impossible for us to hike along.

It was spitting rain at this point so we walked into the tiny town and sat down outside the community center under an awning to figure out what to do next. Unfortunately we had no cell service and there wasn't any wifi, so we had very little to go on.  Thankfully it was at this moment that a small elderly lady walked up to us asking us what we were doing.  We chatted for sometime telling her of our predicament at which point she suggested that we stay at the motel which was 'a few minutes down the road'.  At this point, soaked and cold we thought this a wonderful idea.  We followed, at her suggestion, to her house where she called up the 'local' motel and we made reservations for the evening.  We thanked her for her hospitality and advice and set to leave. As we walked down her front steps she cheerfully called to us to 'smile and enjoy' noting that 'once we loaded up our car' it would be 'a quick ride to the motel'.  This comment stopped both of us in our tracks and we gently reiterated that 'we were hiking and had no car'.  Her only response was 'oh....oh dear. Well I am sure you will have a great hike along the way.  Take care.'  Thinking this an odd farewell we reiterated our goodbyes and continued on.  

Half and hour later, as we were trekking down the edge of Highway 11 heading northward and looking for the motel only 'a few minutes away' we crossed through a zone of good wifi only to get our reservation notice from the accommodations.  It was at this point that we realized that the motel we had called was some 19 km away in Powerview-Pine Falls - a location 'a few minutes away' by car, but at least 4 hours away for us on foot.  Having already walked 25 km to get to Great Falls, another 19 was almost crushing to deal with. 

It felt like a very long afternoon covering those next 19 km. The road mostly followed the river. Sometimes we could see it, and at other points we were separated from the water by private property. Homes and cottages were situated along the riverbank, and we walked passed several small communities that consisted of tidy loops of small houses. Occasionally we would pass boat launches or cleared areas filled with float planes.

On the other side of the road was farmland. Most of it seemed to consist of fields of grass, but occasionally pieces of the shield would poke up through the soil in small tree covered hills. These fields tended to have cows or horses grazing in them. Occasionally there would be small businesses. 

Although the pastoral landscape was pleasant enough, it was very flat, and there were very few trees anywhere near the road. This made for tough going today, because we were walking into a relentless, unceasing 35 kph wind. With no shelter we got no reprieve from it, and it was strong enough to make forward motion very tiring. The brief periods of rain were quite unpleasant. It also made finding any places to camp quite challenging. We realized we will need to perfect our skills at pitching the tent in high wind and keeping it adequately pegged down. 

We felt today like we have entered a different landscape, both geographically and culturally. Since leaving Whiteshell Provincial Park we've met only a very few people, and they have all been extremely polite, although somewhat reserved.  Gone is the blatant and unabashed curiosity about us and our hike. There has been a subtle shift to more denim and plaid, and the conversations around us have shifted to crops, farming, and potash. It feels like we are surrounded by a strong and independent people here who have learned to survive and thrive under harsh conditions, and who expect us to do the same.

We finally reached Powerview-Pine Falls around 6:30 pm. We were extremely sore and tired after fighting the wind for so long, and in the last hour the temperature dropped, giving the wind a definite bite.

As the clouds continued to gather and the wind showed no signs of abating, we checked into the Papertown Inn. Here, after 9 hours and more than 40 km of hiking we are very grateful to take shelter from the elements for another night. Although today was not what we expected, it turned out okay in the end.