Some mornings it is very hard to get up and get going. This morning that was more true than usual. It was rainy and windy for most of the night, and when we stepped outside it was 0°C. Dark bands of clouds were racing across sky, and a stiff, cold wind was blowing.
Reluctantly we set off down the ATV trail once again. Last night's rain had filled the ruts with water, which did nothing to boost our enthusiasm for today's 35 km hike. As we walked, the sun broke through the clouds, turning the yellow leaves of the aspens along the trail into a cheerful glowing wall. The warmth of the sun felt wonderful. Ten minutes later the sun had disappeared, and it was spitting rain. Or was it? No ... it was snowing gently! For the rest of the day the schizophrenic weather alternated between brief periods of sun, gentle rain, and random snowflakes. The wicked cold wind continued to blow through it all - as well as our sweaters and rain gear.
Our attitudes already fouled by having to get out of bed and walk in the weather deteriorated throughout the day. By noon we were arguing with one another.
For most of the day we followed an arrow straight ATV track that in turn followed the old abandoned railway line. A relatively busy divided highway paralleled the track, making us appreciate that we had a trail and weren't walking on the shoulder of the road. The landscape on both sides was wide open agricultural fields. Fallow fields, mowed hay fields, and harvested wheat fields made a colourful patchwork around us. Some of them were filled with thousands of Canada Geese pausing to refuel on their southward migration.
We passed only one small community between Brokenhead and Selkirk. Libau was a collection of homes and an abandoned grain silo, whose white metal siding stood out against the dark storm clouds behind it. Libau was settled in the 1800's by Latvian and German settlers who immigrated to Manitoba from parts of Imperial Russia. They named their community after their point of departure, the ice-free harbor of Libau on the Baltic Sea.
The plowed fields and black prairie soil gave off a rich, earthy smell that was mixed with the scent of wet fallen leaves. Last night's wind had blown many of the coloured leaves off the trees, giving some stands the barren look of winter. As small v's of Canada Geese flew by overhead it felt like they were beckoning us to follow them south. They seemed to be warning us that winter is coming and we need to prepare.
As we approached Selkirk, we spotted a coyote ahead of us on the trail. It ducked in and out of the shrubs, picking up speed when it saw us behind it. It was too far ahead to photograph, but we enjoyed watching the wild, free looking creature trotting down the trail ahead of us.
We passed a few small rivers and creeks on the old train bridges, which lacked railings. They had been covered in a deep layer of gravel, and felt very heavy and solid, although the absence of railings in the wind was slightly unnerving. Watching the slow moving water meander past, and a group of Pied-billed Grebes paddle at high speed down the waterway was a nice change of scenery.
Approaching the outskirts of Selkirk we noticed 2 ATVers putting up small posters on each of the Great Trail signs. As we walked up they demanded to talk with us and as they approached we put on our masks which only seemed to upset them. Before we realized what was going on they both got very agitated, yelling at us and calling us 'sheep' and 'mindless zombies'.
Uncertain what to say or do we said that we understood that there was a Mask Mandate throughout the region if not the province. In the end there was an altercation and Sean had his mask forcibly taken off him before they got back on their ATVs and drove off yelling that we were 'sheeple'.
Having never had such an encounter we stood their stunned. Sean picked up his mask out of the mud, fixing his backpack and checking his camera to ensure that all was well. Thankfully no damage to anything beyond our prides.
As we stood on this intersection between the trail and roadway uncertain of what to think of this encounter I realized that we again stood on one of those axis of the pathway that wove out into a region for several kilometers only to essentially come back to where we were standing. That devilish temptation to cut a few kilometers and save ourselves an hour of trekking in the cold wind arose in me once again. I wanted to be inside, warm, dry, and done. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) it was at this moment Sean started walking - down the trail, and so I followed. Here the ATV track took a detour around someone's private property, and all of a sudden we found ourselves walking through that rich prairie mud. It was extremely sticky and deep. We were soon sunk into the field up to our ankles and our boots were coated in a thick layer that felt like they weighed about 2 lbs on each foot. It was really hard to get off too!
The trail skirted around town, following a wide dirt road through a semi-rural and industrial area, and then crossing another meandering river. It then turned into a nice crushed-stone pathway that wound underneath a grassy, mowed hydro corridor, beside a train yard. It was kind of strange to see railway carriages parked beneath hydro towers on a grassy lawn, but I suppose it was a good use of space.
The trail wove through fields, eventually paralleling a road, and then taking us over the Selkirk Lift Bridge, which spans the Red River. The lift bridge was built in 1935 to replace an existing ferry, and the center section can be raised by a system of pulleys to allow ships to pass through along the river.
As we walked across the bridge we noticed that many strips of red cloth had been tied to the waist high railing along the edge. We assumed this was part of the Red Cloth Ribbon Awareness Campaign which is meant to be a reminder that Indigenous women and girls are missing and have been murdered, and that no one has been brought to justice, and that this is a national crisis that needs to be addressed. If you see strips of red cloth tied to bridges across the country, that is the intended reminder. It was horrifying to witness just how many ribbons were flying in the wind.
The river below us was wide, calm, and slate grey as we crossed over. The Red River of the North originates at the confluence of the Bois de Sioux and Otter Tail Rivers between the US states of Minnesota and North Dakota. From there it flows northward through the Red River Valley, empties into Lake Winnipeg, and ultimately flows into Hudson Bay by way of the Neslon River.
At the far side of the bridge we came to Queens Park, which was a small greenspace with a row of Great Trail Signs, a picnic table, and a trailhead kiosk for the Aspen-Oak Parklands and Lowlands section of the trail, which is 152 km long. The parklands is a transition zone between the grasslands from the south and the forest from the north. This mix of habitats at the Center of the continent makes for interesting birding because species from different habitats and regions converge here.
After the park we followed the Great Trail signs down a residential street with a sidewalk. The street was known as the Veterans Memorial Parkway, and banners attached to the utility poles along it showed photos and information for different veterans that had come from the region and given their lives in WWI and WWII. Partway along the street, on the shores of the river, was a large memorial for the soldiers who gave their lives in the Great War, together with a reminder that all we have now is a result of their sacrifices.
Selkirk is a relatively large town with over 10,000 people, which seems to act as a suburb to Winnipeg. The mainstays of the economy are tourism, a steel mill, and a major psychiatric hospital. It got its name from Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk, who originally obtained the grant to establish a European colony on the site in 1813.Selkirk's other claim to fame is that it is known as the 'Catfish Capital of the World.' To honour this, it has a 33 ft tall fibreglass statue of a catfish called 'Chuck the Channel Cat.' It was erected in 1986, and was named after Chuck Norquay, who was a local fisherman on the Red River who worked hard to promote Selkirk. Apparently the Red River is home to some very large catfish, and offers some great fishing opportunities. Although I objected as strongly as I could, there was no way Sean was passing by this roadside attraction, so we made the detour to see it. Although I had no idea what lay in store for me when I got up this morning, I can now say I've seen a giant fibreglass catfish.
Given our sodden and muddy condition, and the increasingly cold weather Sean, after 35 km of hiking, walked straight to a local motel. There was apparently to be no discussion about tonight's lodgings. As we checked in the manager kept giving us dirty looks for wearing our masks, even going so far as to comment that 'masks were only for desperate pathetic scared people' who had become 'mindless government followers'. We gave no reply and instead gratefully went to our room. The conversations around us at dinner int he local restaurant were little different in content. Few people walked in wearing masks and those who did were smirked at or had comments made at them. Masked as we left our table we returned to our room to unpack and figure out tomorrow.
After cleaning the mud off our shoes and pants, hanging up our gear to dry out and enjoying a warming shower I went to check the online world only to discover a number of upset emails from a local trail group furious about our commentary of our time on their segment of the Great Trail. We were told in no uncertain terms that our view of the trail was entirely incorrect, that the trail was complete, beautiful, well maintained, easily found, and simple to traverse. We were told that our experiences on 'their section' made us 'idiots' who would get lost in a city park and who in no uncertain terms 'should go home and stay out of Manitoba'. Sigh.
I put down my phone, ate a chocolate bar, and pulled the covers over my head hoping that tomorrow would bring a better world. Sometimes it is just the best way to deal with things.
Some days begin rough and they never seem to get much better as you go along. Today was a very tough day.