Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Welcome to Manitoba : South Whiteshell Trail around Falcon Lake

Well, on this warm and sunny morning we walked into downtown Kenora, Ontario to the post office to pick up a resupply package with enough food to last two weeks, and mail some things home. By early afternoon we were walking across the border into Manitoba, the seventh province on our #hike4birds across Canada.

In some ways it was a strange beginning to a new province, perhaps befitting to this strange and unpredictable year. There was no definitive transition, no ferry or bridge, just a few steps on the side of the Trans Canada Highway. The Visitor's Center on the Manitoba side was closed for renovations, and the border was otherwise unattended. A steady stream of traffic sped past in both directions. So begins a new province for us, with two weeks of backcountry camping in the isolation of the Whiteshell Provincial Park. 

The Whiteshell Provincial Park includes almost 2,800 square kilometers of protected wilderness. The landscape is set on the precambrian shield in the Boreal, and it includes many lakes, rivers, and marshes. The park features quite a few campgrounds and resorts, and offers hundreds of kilometers of hiking trails, canoe routes, cross-country ski trails, and snowmobile trails. 

The area was first populated and mapped on birch bark by the Ojibway, or Anishinaabe. The name of the park was derived from the cowrie shells that were used in ceremonies by the Anishinaabe and the Midewiwin practitioners, who are their sacred healers. The Winnipeg and Whiteshell Rivers are the two main waterways running through the park, and they were used by the Anishinaabe for trade and transportation. They also used the land in this area for harvesting wild rice, hunting, fishing, trade, ceremonies, teaching, and living. 

La Vérendrye was the first European to discover the region in 1734 on his quest to discover the Western Sea. Around 1920 the development of the Trans Canada Highway from the Ontario border to Rennie brought tourists to the region, and cottages began springing up along the lakes and rivers near the CP and CN Railway lines. The Whiteshell continued to grow and develop, and in 1961 it received park status as a forest reserve.

The Great Trail begins again at the Ontario-Manitoba border and then weaves through the Whiteshell Provincial Park. We found the Great Trail Pavilion in the parking lot for the Visitor's Center, and stopped for a break out of the hot afternoon sun. As we sat there the phone rang, and we received an invitation to speak to the students of a school in Falcon Lake that is located right on the Great Trail. After making sure we could do this in a completely physically distanced way, without coming into contact with any of the students or teachers, we decided to change course and head down a spur of the Great Trail to Falcon Lake.

We began by walking down an old and slightly overgrown paved road from the Visitor's Center to the trailhead. There we picked up a grassy track that more or less paralleled the road. It was extremely easy going, and we very much enjoyed being surrounded by forest once again. After so many logistical challenges in northern Ontario, it feels good to be back on a continuous trail, surrounded by nature.

The roadside trail soon brought us to the very well-developed beach at West Hawk Lake. A raised, landscaped sidewalk with an ornamental railing and welcome banners ran along the top of a long, sandy beach. Down below, artistic fish were carved into the wooden retaining wall. An enthusiastic beachgoer had built a very elaborate and detailed sand turtle by the waterline. At the far end of the walkway was a wooden gazebo with interpretive signage.

It turns out that West Hawk Lake was formed by a meteor, and is one of Canada's 26 known meteorite impact craters. The crater is 2.4 km wide, around 111 m deep (slightly longer than a football field), and somewhere between 990 and 100 million years old. The metamorphosed volcanic and sedimentary rocks of the precambrian shield that surround the crater are approximately 3 billion years old. It was the circular shape of West Hawk Lake, and its depth, which makes it the deepest lake in Manitoba, that prompted scientists to discover in the 1960's that it was the result of a meteor impact.

In case you didn't already have enough to worry about, we also learned in the pavilion that meteors the size of grapefruits bombard the earth every few hours, many originating from the asteroid belts between Mars and Jupiter. It doesn't seem like anyone has ever been struck by one, but it's not the kind of 'first' you'd like to become known for.

West Hawk Lake was one of the original tourist destinations in the Whiteshell Provincial Park in the 1930's. Several lodges and restaurants were opened, and the Nite Hawk Cafe used to be a happening dance hall in the 1930's and 1940's. The upscale community looked like it is still a popular destination for vacationers.

The trail took us through the small community and to another trailhead in the parking lot of the Nite Hawk Cafe, which sadly was closed in the late afternoon. We had a choice here to walk the spur down to Falcon Beach, or to continue northwards and westwards on the main trail. We chose the detour to Falcon Beach.

At the trailhead was a large sign reminding us that the Boreal Shield runs from Newfoundland and Labrador across northern Canada to Saskatchewan. The Great Trail through the Whiteshell Provincial Park traverses this landscape for 224 km, following the historically important Winnipeg River on pathways described as both 'rugged and gentle'. I guess we will discover what that means soon enough.

The trail to Falcon Beach could certainly be described as gentle, and also stunningly beautiful. It was a wide, level gravel or grassy track. There was distance and interpretive signage, outhouses, a well-stocked warmup shelter for cross-country skiers, and marble benches were strategically located along the trail in spots with nice views. 

As we made our way along in the hot afternoon we were reveling in the gorgeous scenery. The fall colours were just beginning to turn, providing a lovely mix of red, yellow, and light green foliage. In places it felt like we were walking through a corridor of glowing foliage.

The trail also provided beautiful views of marshes and deep, bright blue ponds. The cattails and grasses were turning a warm golden colour, deep red groundcover accented the shorelines, and dark green spruce and pines rose up beyond. The landscape looked like something straight out of a Group of Seven painting. 

As we approached Falcon Beach we walked through a red pine plantation. The tall, straight trunks extended high above our heads to a light and feathery canopy of sharp green needles. The air was warm and spicy smelling, and the crunch of needles under our feet was one of the few sounds we heard. The sun, which was getting low in the sky by this point, sent strong shadows along the ground, seeming to beckon us into the mossy forest.

At the far side of the plantation we emerged into a bright, sunny, corridor of golden grass. A track led down the middle, and right in the center was a White-tailed Deer, posing, as if for the camera. Eventually it bounded off, leaping high as if on spring loaded legs.

By this point the sun was getting very low in the sky, and we still had a ways to go, so we reluctantly picked up our pace. We managed to arrive in the small community of Falcon Lake just as it was getting dark. At first we thought Falcon Lake might be a hotspot for birding, but it turns out the lake was named after a Métis poet, Pierre Falcon. The lake is ringed by cottages, and was a favourite summering spot for Neil Young, who wrote the song 'Falcon Lake' while here with Buffalo Springfield. Its other claim to fame is that Falcon Lake was the inspiration for the TV series Falcon Beach, although the filming was actually done at a different lake in Manitoba.

On our way in to town we walked through the Community Center and school yard where we will be talking tomorrow morning. There was a grocery store, restaurant, motel, and multiple campgrounds, which was a bit confusing in the fading light. The temperature is now dropping quickly. Our first night in Manitoba will be spent trying to figure out what to say that might be of interest to students ranging in age from Grade 1 to Grade 10. So begins the next part of this adventure.

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