Saturday, September 26, 2020

Wandering the Boreal : Pinawa to Lac du Bonnet

As you may or may nor have noticed, we've spent the past two days in the community of Pinawa. Partly this was out of shear exhaustion. Partly it was a result of the need to catch up on the blogs and photo editing, finish up grant applications, and attend to finding a winter home as well as future job related details in a location with access to cell service and wifi. We quickly discovered that we'd fallen too far behind to deal with all this in a single day. But perhaps just as importantly, there was some pretty good bird watching opportunities at the wastewater storage facility 5 km outside of town. Birders are likely the only group of people in the world who would choose to spend their day off at a sewage lagoon, but there it is.


Our species list for the pond included American White Pelicans, Trumpeter Swans, Canada Geese, Common Goldeneyes, Redheads, Wood Ducks, Buffleheads, Green-winged Teals, Blue-winged Teals, American Coots, Pied-billed Grebes, Long-necked Ducks, Mallards, Bonaparte's Gulls, Ring-billed Gulls, Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, a Wilson's Snipe, and Least Sandpipers. We also spotted a Lapland Longspur (a lifer), Palm Warblers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Common Yellowthroats, Marsh Wrens, Rusty Blackbirds, a Vesper Sparrow, Blue Jays, American Crows, and a Bald Eagle. Among the mkre interesting non-feathered creatures was a White-tailed Deer with a huge, goofy smile and a Milbert's Tortoiseshell butterfly.

After our two days of rest, it was very difficult to get going again. As we set off down the picture perfect trail along the picturesque Winnipeg River we noticed that in just two short days many of the leaves had changed from brilliant yellow to brown. Fall is such a beautiful and perfect time of year, and yet it always seems so fleeting. 

As we walked through Pinawa we saw many of the fearless White-tailed Deer we've been hanging out with over the past few days. There must have been around 30 deer that lived in and around the town site, and they seemed completely unperturbed by people.

We continued through town and out around the golf course, keeping an eye on the dark bands of clouds that were rolling through. We found ourselves on a forested track, crossing over the diversion dam, which consisted of a very large pile of lichen covered rocks. There were opportunities for tubing advertised along the trail, as well as biking and cross-country skiing. Clearly, this region had a lot to offer the outdoor recreationaist. 

At this point we picked up the Red Trail, which eventually took us to the Pinawa Suspension Bridge. This was a relatively wide, gravel, trail that wound through a beautiful forested corridor alongside the Pinawa Channel. The bright reds and yellows of the fall colours brought the overcast day to life.

As the path followed along beside the river, we crossed exposed sections of bright pink precambrian shield. The contrast between the the colourful rocks and the glowing reds of the sumac was striking. Although we walked across bare rock and over dirt footpaths in places, the trail was well marked and easy to follow. 

A few kilometers outside of town we came to the beautiful Pinawa Suspension bridge. This bridge was 54 m long and 1 m wide, and it swung freely over the water. As we approached it a large group of Indigenous hikers was climbing down the steps, which swayed somewhat alarmingly. They laughed and said it was fine, but as we climbed the bouncy steps we felt slightly uneasy. The view from the middle of the river was worth it though!

At the far side of the bridge was a parking lot with washrooms and a very creatively decorated food truck, which was closed. As we took a short break another small family with a dog set off down the popular trail section.

From the parking lot we continued down the Alice Chambers trail, which continued through a beautiful forested landscape along the river. Every so often we would emerge into more open, marshy areas, and places where we could watch the river flow over small sections of rapids. We spotted quite a few Leopard Frogs in these areas, with their spectacular bronze-lined spots glowing in the sun. 

The morning was relatively quiet, but we did hear the chatter of Black-capped Chickadees. Small groups of Yellow-rumped Warblers, Palm Warblers, and Dark-eyed Juncos moved through the shrubs. We spotted a Northern Parula and several White-throated and White-crowned Sparrows as well, and heard the dry call of a Belted Kingfisher somewhere along the river.

Around eight kilometers from the bridge the trail brought us out into an open, grassy floodplain. The sun was shining by this point, turning the grasses a rich golden brown and bringing the yellow and red aspen, birch, and silver maples alive. As we made our way through the stunning landscape we met other hikers walking dogs and enjoying the gorgeous fall morning. They had come from the Pinawa Heritage Dam which was just ahead.

The Pinawa Dam was constructed in 1906 to generate power for Winnipeg. In some ways, the story of this dam is quintessentially Canadian. At the time it was considered a huge undertaking that would be impossible to complete. In the end the workers built the dam using wheelbarrows, and they worked through the winter, using blow torches and other means to keep the concrete from freezing as they worked. Ultimately they achieved the impossible. 

In 1951 the dam was closed to allow more water from the Winnipeg River to flow through the Seven Sisters Generating Station. Later, parts of the Pinawa dam were destroyed by the Canadian Armed Forces, who used it for demolition practice. Today the water flows through the ruins of the dam creating picturesque rapids and waterfalls.

The 25-hectare park around the site had a walkway with interpretive signs over the dam, as well as a network of hiking trails through the area and along the river. There was a map showing the route for a self-guided hiking tour of the old town site. The large grassy picnic area and shelter, hiking trails, and shorelines were full of people out picnicking, walking, doing photo shoots, and enjoying the sunshine. There were also quite a few families out fishing for walleye, northern pike, catfish, and smallmouth bass along the shoreline.

After taking a few minutes to explore the Pinawa Dam Heritage Provincial Park we headed off down the road, which was the beginning of the Lee River Trail. This trail connects the dam to the community of Lac du Bonnet, and passes through two sections of the Lee River Mangement Area, as well as Treaty 3 Territory. 

Treaty 3 was a precedent setting agreement signed by the Ojibwe people and the Government of Canada in 1873. The agreement provided the federal government with access to Saulteaux lands in northwestern Ontario and eastern Manitoba in exchange for various goods and Indigenous rights to hunting, fishing, and natural resources on Treaty Lands. The agreement prompted two separate court cases which attempted to define the relationship between Indigenous rights and industry, the provinces, and the federal government. Although this agreement was used as the basis for eight subsequent treaty agreements, some of the issues raised in the lawsuits are still before the courts, and the compensation promised to the Indigenous communities has yet to be delivered in full.

Although the sign indicated that the Lee River trail was a great place for viewing wildlife, setting off down this section of trail required faith and optimism, two qualities we've been struggling to muster of late. Happily, in this case they were well warranted. We walked west down a quiet, narrow, forested road for nearly 4 km before the trail turned north and slowly wove back to return to the road we crossed back at the dam. We had originally been worried that the section leading north and back to the road might not exist, but it turned out to be gorgeous.

In the hot afternoon sun we made our way along a heavily forested, winding track. It took us through stands of balsam fir and spruce, and through areas ablaze with fall colours. Other spots were more marshy. In many areas it felt like we were walking through a painting.

The afternoon was very quiet and peaceful, and it was pretty much the perfect temperature for hiking. We were passed by several ATVs, and two hunters who were on foot. Thankfully they were carrying their rifles pointed upwards as they passed with a courteous nod. We heard the calls of passing Blue Jays and the drumming of a Hairy Woodpecker, but otherwise even the breeze and the grasshoppers seemed to be silent.

Eventually we made our way across a rather busy paved road, and then the track turned and began following a hydro corridor. We found ourselves walking a more open, pastoral landscape on an exposed gravel road. We were passed by a few more ATVs, but we were glad to be off the main road.

Finally this track brought us to a small grassy park on the edge of the Winnipeg River. An historic plaque informed us that this mighty river was formed when the last great ice sheet melted 12,000 years ago, forming Lake Agassiz. Apparently the river divides the Boreal forest of the Precambrian Shield from the Manitoba Lowlands. The Seven Hill people (Anicinabe) were the first to occupy the region 7,000-5,000 BC. Later it became an important river for exploration, fur trade, and transportation.

We took a short break at the picnic tables in the park, enjoying the view of the water. The river was very wide, flat, and calm, and it was reflecting the soft pinks, blues, and yellows of the evening sky. Just as it began to to get dark and thunder began to roll across the overcast sky we made our way across the river and towards the edge of Lac du Bonnet.

Lac du Bonnet is a town of just over 1000 residents. It holds the distinction of being the location of Manitoba's first airmail drop on 4 Oct 1927. Apparently the flight carried 85 lbs of mail from here to Bissett and Wadhope. Today it's economy is mostly centred on recreation.

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