Bridges and Bushwhacking : Bear Lake to Rennie

When we woke up this morning we quickly discovered that the inside of the tent was covered in a layer of frost! Not only that, our water bottles were full of slush and our new Sawyer Squeeze filter was cracked open from the expanding ice water inside! We were hoping we'd have a few more weeks grace before things got this chilly. It is a stark reminder that although we are in the southernmost part of Manitoba, we are still farther north than Thunder Bay, and much farther north than we were in any part of Ontario.

As I sat on a convenient rock, trying to turn our slushy water into at least warm tea and coffee, I watched the sun come up across the gorge. The early morning sunshine caused the frost on the edges of the delicate golden grasses and deep red ground cover to sparkle. The beauty of the moment was marred only by the pain in my absolutely frozen fingers and toes.

Once we had everything packed up we headed off again, past the small babbling creek where we'd gotten our water. A somewhat steep descent brought us to a low lying wet area at the edge of an old beaver pond. Yesterday the tall grasses and reeds were a lush green. This morning they had turned to a soft, light brown and were covered in a light dusting of white frost. A sea of pale grey snags stood among the grasses, spanning the marsh.

A short while later we came to a beautiful arched wooden bridge with cherry red railings and sides. It was almost perfectly reflected in the black water of the river flowing beneath it, and it had a distinctly Japanese and highly refined feel to it.

After crossing the bridge we came to a set of campsites on the edge of the stream, one of which had a gorgeous view down the open, grassy, river valley. These campsites were along the Epinette Portage, and if we'd known they were there we definitely would have pushed on to that spot last night.

On the far side of the portage a wide, dark river meandered around several s-bends. The dark pines and spruce trees were almost perfectly reflected in its surface, and the shrubs surrounding its banks were full of birds. Many Ruby-crowned Kinglets and White-Throated Sparrows were among the feathered bodies that were busily moving through, but we spotted a Canada Warbler, a Black-throated Green Warbler, and a Black-and-White Warbler among the crowd as well.

After this beautiful spot the personality of the Great Trail seemed to change. As we've probably mentioned before, trails seem to us to have personalities. This is partly determined by the landscape, the terrain,  and the type of trail it is. It is also determined by the group or person who built it. Some people create trails that skirt the extreme edges of cliffs to appeal to adrenaline junkies. Some trails repeatedly ascend and descend for seemingly little purpose other than to provide exercise. Others seem to favour marshy terrain whenever possible. Some prefer offering hikers lots of signage and information en route while others provide minimal assistance.  Each of these types of trails require the walker to have a different mindset, have flexibility in what they enjoy on a pathway, and differing levels of outdoor expertise.

Up until Bear Lake, the Centennial Trail seemed to meander through the landscape in a way that followed the contours. It was very well marked, and the sections that ascended and descended usually had natural stone ledges that acted as steps for assistance. The trail was very well signed, and we were usually following a discernible footpath. This left us free to appreciate the beauty of the landscape, and we enjoyed it very much.

After Bear Lake the trail took on a different character. The visible footpath almost completely disappeared in most places, and the trail existed only as a series of signs and flagging tape. The most visible and consistent signs were white arrows on a blue diamond, but they were relatively far apart, and the meandering nature of the trail meant that we often didn't know in which direction to look for the next one. The small white Great Trail markers were often halfway between them, which helped a little. The star of the day however went to whomever put up pink flagging tape along the route. It saved us on several occasions, especially in areas where there seemed to be rock cairns leading off in multiple directions. 

In general, this section of the Centennial Trail wound it's way along rocky ridges of pink granite that were covered in thick grey lichen, dark green ground junipers, deep red ground cover and a mix of pine and spruce. Interspersed between these sections we would descent into low-lying areas of thick moss and tall, dense, spruce trees. In these areas there were often quite a few fallen trees across the trail, requiring us to scramble under, over, or around them and then relocate the trail markers. In other areas we threaded our way between dense saplings, following a narrow band of dry land between deep marsh.

Around seven kilometres in we were bushwhacking our way through a dense stand of saplings and working our way around a series of fallen trees, when the pink flagging tape brought us to the edge of a large beaver pond. Initially it looked to us like the flagging tape took us into the middle of the water, but instead it guided us around the edge. We were actually walking beside the beaver's dam, and at one point the water in the pond beside us was well above our heads!

Just after this point a very large dark cloud that we'd been watching uneasily for a while let loose on us. At first it was a light drizzle, which made the rocks slightly slippery, but then it turned into real rain. We put on our rain gear, but due to the overgrown nature of the trail, we were soon soaked from head to toe from pushing through the saplings and leaves. To make matters worse, the temperature started to drop and the wind picked up.

We continued on and eventually crossed a hydro corridor. There was another pond under it, which we stopped to check out. We also checked carefully for any signs of bears, moose, or other wildlife, but we seemed to be alone. So far we haven't really seen any signs of moose or bears on this trail. We've also noticed a rather strange absence of any ants. There are however still swarms of blackflies, which we hadn't been expecting so late in the fall and given the cold temperatures.

We were soon rather miserable, but continued trekking in order to stay warm. All of a sudden we both realized we hadn't seen any actual trail markers in a while, only pink flagging tape. We looked at the Trail Forks App, which we've been using to navigate, and realized we were on the access road out to the highway, not on the main trail. We backtracked about a kilometre to the point where the main trail should have been. At all the junctions so far there have been clusters of hand written signs indicating where each trail fork leads. We couldn't find anything like that here, and as hard as we searched we couldn't find where the trail continued. In this landscape, with the density of the trees, it takes missing only one flag to lose the trail. Maybe we weren't looking in the right spot or the right direction.  

There were lines of different coloured flagging tape headed in a variety of different directions.  We followed each.  Some took us to hunting blinds, some took us to trap lines, some took us to the edge of a lake or into a marsh.  None looked like a recognizable hiking trail and none had the Trans Canada Trail markers along them.  Eventually we decided to following the pink flags out to the road, and to try to pick up the trail at the next access point.

It turned out to be a brand new access route that was clearly still under construction. Newly cut stumps and vegetation lined the route, which was still muddy and raw. We scrambled up a a very steep embankment, back onto the hydro corridor, and up again onto a ridge before descending back onto the road.

As we made our way along the narrow, winding paved road we were passed by quite a few cars, pickup trucks, and campers. At one point a very friendly, helpful, and heavily armed Conservation Officer pulled over and offered us a ride in to Rennie. We declined but asked if he knew where we could get back onto the Centennial Trail. He checked his GPS and said the next access point would be right at the edge of town, at the Alfred Hole Goose Sanctuary and Visitor Centre.  We talked about our troubles today locating the trail and his response was that from Bear Lake until about 5 km before Rennie the trail didn't get much attention or upkeep.  In this section, according to the conservation officer, the pathway was largely just a trail in theory.  It turned out he was right. 

We thanked him and continued walking down the road. On the Trail Forks App a second access point was shown about 5 km down the road. We kept a sharp lookout for it, but never found it. Some distance past where the App suggested the trail access should be we saw a piece of old pink flagging tape on a shrub, but it was a good ten feet above us on top of a rock face, and separated from us by a wide, deep ditch filled with water. Perhaps this was the access. Then again, maybe not. Since it was still raining, and we saw no easy way up the cliff, we decided against checking.

We continued down the road until we came to the Alfred Hole Goose Sanctuary. In the spring of 1939 Alfred Hole, a local mink rancher, was given four orphaned Canada Geese by a local shopkeeper, who bet him a case of whisky that Alfred couldn't raise the goslings to six weeks old. Alfred did successfully raise the goslings, and later pinioned their wings, preventing them from flying away. The following year he got a gander to mate with one of the females and she laid four eggs. Those babies migrated the next fall with a flock of wild geese, and returned the following year. This was the beginning of a flock that grew, and was eventually recognized as playing an important role in preventing the extinction of the giant Canada Goose subspecies. Over the years Duck Unlimited Canada, the Canadian Wildlife Service, and the provincial government helped in the creation, expansion, and maintenance of the sanctuary which still supports a healthy breeding population of Canada Geese and serves as an important staging ground during spring and fall migration.

The Whiteshell Trappers Museum is also located at the Alfred Hole Goose Sanctuary. The log cabin was closed, but apparently during high season it is possible to visit the museum and speak with a modern trapper.

After exploring the sanctuary we attempted to find a place to camp in the area. It turned out one of the campgrounds was closed for the season, and the other was full. The motel in Rennie was also full as it was now hunting season. It was around 4:30 pm by this point, we were very wet, and we were starting to get cold in the biting wind. We headed into town and were greatly relieved to find that the restaurant in the motel was empty of other patrons and open for customers.  We quickly sat down and spent the better part of the next half an hour warming our hands and striving to dry out our socks and shoes. 

Rennie is a small town located on the railway line. It has a motel, campground, convenience store, post office, and gas station. The fresh people we met there were incredibly friendly. One of things that stood out about the community was its tongue-in-cheek slogan "Welcome to Rennie, home of something or somebody famous ... someday ... maybe."

After warming up inside with hot coffee and tea, sandwiches, and fries we felt a good deal better. We decided to give the last campground in town a try. We had no cell service or access to the internet, so we walked the 4 km down the road, only to discover it too was closed for the season. Somewhat discouraged, we walked back to town, bought water and bread at the gas station/convenience store, and headed back to the trail to camp. 

And so it was at 7 pm we trekked back eastward along the Great Trail about 3 km from Rennie and the Goose Sanctuary in search of a place to set up and tuck in for the night.  We were fortunate to find a flat and reasonably dry space and soon had the tent set up as the sky began to darken.  In his frustration Sean continued down the trail with the phone and GPS only to return as night settled in having discovered that about 2 km further down the trail - or 5 km from Rennie, as the Conservation officer had suggested - the trail signs again disappeared, the pink flagging tape reappeared, and the pathway went straight into a knee deep marsh.  

We have long since come to the conclusion that the condition of trails is directly related to how far parts are from access points.  Pathways within 2-3 km of a trail head and parking lot are often in beautiful condition, while that some route is frequently much different in its upkeep further along.  

It seems that we begin every new province with a bit of a debacle. In Newfoundland we had a freak snowstorm at the end of June. In PEI we visited two days after hurricane Dorian hit, and had to scramble over, under, and around more than 100 downed trees in the first 10 km. In Ontario we got lost on the Lanark Link a few days after starting out. Today might not have been our finest day, but hopefully we will find our bearings soon. Perhaps each region simply needs to remind us that there are still new challenges ahead that we are not ready for.  

As we lay here in our tent the milky way is shining brightly above us, and we can the hear the honking of the Canada Geese at the nearby sanctuary. We are warm and cozy inside the tent. We have the food we need. Things could definitely be worse.

See you on the trail!

Remember to follow our entire adventure here :


  1. A bit more history from Cindy, one of the Caretakers of the Centennial Trail

    When the Centennial Trail was extended to Rennie under the Borders to Beaches Project completed in 2016, the Scouts and Guides advised that we did not have the resources to maintain or sign this section. It doubled the length of our original trail of 20 km. Unfortunately, nothing further had been done to this section until this year. With no one stepping up to take this on, we offered to try. As caretakers with a very limited volunteer base – basically 3 people, we began to explore this 25+ Km section. As you have discovered there are many challenges that we hope to correct over the next few years. The people who designed the trail used a method different of trail design from what we utilized and involved many areas through forest as opposed to open ridges. However, to be fair, this terrain has additional marshy areas. We completed flagging and an inventory of the entire trail this year which was a huge project – ie the flagging tape in hopes that TransCanada Trail would understand the need for additional signage.

    We want to thank you for supporting everything that we as caretakers have been advocating for for years…..adequate signage, including the entire trail on TrailForks and All Trails, and not clearing the trail to bedrock as it becomes slippery for hikers.

    The City of Winnipeg completed a study of King’s Park and subsequent Master Plan in 2016. During this time, the bridges were identified as an accessibility issue, as the rounded slope was not suitable for barrier free access in this public park.
    Evan Manning, an engineer from Pier Solutions/Fort Richmond Construction, was familiar with Trails Manitoba, as he had bid on a four bridge tender in 2016.
    Pier Solutions was hired by the City of Winnipeg to remove and replace the bridges from King’s Park. An evaluation of the structures revealed they still had an estimated life span of thirty years (post refurbishment). Both bridges were ideally suited in terms of size for the gaps remaining at Cabin Lake and Hanson’s Creek.
    The location at Hanson’s Creek is about an hour hike south from the Bear Lake Hiking Trail parking lot along the Centennial Trail. During high water, the creek is very difficult to cross, limiting access to portions of the trail. The Centennial Trail is a rugged backcountry trail and therefore not a barrier free environment. As a result, providing a universally accessible bridge was not a requirement of the project to provide access over the creek.
    With the coordination of Pier Solutions, the Province of Manitoba Sustainable Development, and Cindy Bell of the local Centennial Trail group along with financial support from the Trans Canada Trail, Trails Manitoba, and Pier Solutions, the relocation of the bridge to Hanson’s Creek became a reality. The bridge was refurbished and painted a bold red colour much like at King’s Park. Pier Solutions prepped the remote site; heated, hoarded and poured concrete; and moved materials over the frozen Hanson’s Creek with an all terrain vehicle. The dismantled bridge rails and girders were shipped to Whiteshell Provincial Park. On a frigid morning in January 2019, everything was lifted and transported by helicopter to its final destination. Finish assembly, touch up painting, and decking was installed in early May. D Granove


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