Saturday, October 3, 2020

Birding the Prairies! : Selkirk to Birds Hill Provincial Park

Although it was a beautiful sunny morning when we set off down the trail again, the green grasses and coppery brown fallen leaves were all ringed with a thick layer of ice crystals.  Another frosty morning followed the trail down a tree-lined urban street, with large houses set well back on landscaped, riverfront properties.  Opposite them the Red River flowed quietly past, wide, calm, and bordered by trees.  This morning it appeared a deep sparkling blue under the clear sky.  Quite a few people were out walking, bicycling, and enjoying the gorgeous morning, and several stopped to chat with us and ask about our hike.

When we emerged from the peaceful neighborhood the trail took us past the Lower Fort Gary National Historic Site. This Fort was built on the banks of the Red River in 1830 by the Hudson's Bay Company.  It was built below the St. Andrew Rapids, about 32 km north of the original fort, after the original was destroyed in a devastating flood in 1826.

The limestone buildings of the fort housed a "fur loft", which included the company store, small warehouse, and trader's office, and the "Big House" which was the residence for the HBC's governor.  It also included a men's house, an ice-house, powder magazine, bake-house, and warehouse bastions.  The walls were intended to be impressive to local traders and HBC officers, but were not intended to be used for military defence.

The Lower Fort Gary was used for fur trade, but its main purpose was to act as a supply depot for the Red River Settlement and the surrounding Cree, Anishinabee, Métis, and European (mostly Orkney Scot) populations. Many of the furs at the fort were brought from other districts, repackaged at the fort, and sent to England via York Factory.

York boats were used to transport furs up to York Factory, which was a main Hudson's Bay Company trading post on the Hayes River, just upstream from Hudson's Bay.  The boats would return with manufactured goods and supplies sent over from England.  The two-week trip up the river in the York boats was brutal, as we learned in the Canadian documentary TV series 'Quest for the Bay' in which a team attempted to reenact the journey under historically accurate conditions (which included living on moldy pemmican). Ted Longbottom's catchy song 'Ballad of Gordy Ross' also describes the life of an HBC York boat hand.

It was at this Fort that Treaty 1 was signed between the Ojibwe, Swampy Cree People, and the Crown on August 3rd, 1870.  The treaty was intended to promote peaceful settlement of the west.  In exchange for land reserves and the promise of annuity payments, livestock and farming implements, the Indians ceded the land comprising the original province of Manitoba.

Although the fort was officially closed for the season as of yesterday, the extremely kind and friendly Parks Canada staff allowed us to walk around outside and photograph the buildings.  We would like to send out a huge thank you to them for giving us the opportunity to visit this beautiful National Historic Site.


After leaving the fort we followed the wide, flat trail along the shore of the Red River and the side of Highway 9.  From quite some distance away we could see the dam located at Lockport, which was the next community we visited.  The St. Andrews Caméré Curtain Bridge Dam was built in 1910 in order to submerge the St Andrews rapids and make the Red River navigable through to Lake Winnipeg.  

The dam is 270 m in length, and is the only Caméré Curtain style dam built in North America.  Movable curtains are rolled back before the river freezes in winter to prevent ice jams and allow spring floodwaters to pass through.  The only Canal Lock in the Canadian prairies allows boats to pass through under the bridge.  The entire structure was designated as a National Historic Site in 1990.


We walked along the riverbank and then climbed a set of steep steps up onto the bridge over the dam, which was busy with traffic.  As we crossed the dam several boats were out fishing in the rapids below us, and individual fishermen lined both shores of the river.  It is a popular spot for anglers, and also birds.  We spotted another group of American White Pelicans!

In the far shore we came to a beautiful grassy park with picnic tables, fire pits, and interpretive signage.  It turned out this was a Special Conservation Area created to protect pelicans!  It was also a site of historical importance where archaeologists have discovered artifacts from a culture that existed here 3,000 years ago.

We got so excited about the pelicans that we decided to take a detour down a spit of land between where the Red River joined with the spillway, and a small group of pelicans was napping and preening on a rocky island just offshore.  When we reached this spit we observed 12 American White Pelicans, over 200 Canada Geese, 6 Greater Yellowlegs, 4 Lesser Yellowlegs, a Belted Kingfisher, a Great Blue Heron, around 24 Double-crested Cormorants, 50 Ring-billed Gulls, and a Sharp-shinned Hawk.  

Apparently this muddy, rocky, beach was a great spot to fish!  We spent a very happy few hours photographing and enjoying the birds on the sunny shores of the river.

Finally we reluctantly decided to continue on.  It turned out there was more excitement waiting down the trail!  We found ourselves on the 45 km long Duff Roblin Parkway Trail.  This turned out to be a wide, level, crushed stone dust trail that took us along the lip of the Red River Floodway, which was also a National Historic Site.  Premier Duff Roblin was the driving force behind creating the floodway, which was completed in 1968 at a  cost of $63 million.  The floodway outlet is designed to accommodate a 1-in-700 years flood, being able to handle 4 million litres of water per second.  Since it was built, it has prevented billions of dollars of damage from flooding.


As we walked the trail along the floodway we were surrounded by wide open grassy fields that were broken only by the occasional hay bale. It was difficult to get our minds around the vastness and scale of the landscape. Everything seemed closer than it was to us, and it seemed to take forever to make any progress. 

Although the grassy fields extending to the horizon seemed empty at first glance, they were actually full of life.  A subtle movement caught our eye on the far bank of the floodway, and closer inspection revealed a coyote!  Its magnificent red coat and bushy tail had us confusing it with a Red Fox at first. It was stealthily approaching a group of Canada Geese that were paddling around in the thin band of water at the bottom of the ditch.  The coyote trotted off as Sean moved towards it with his camera, but while he was down by the water he spotted a large rat swimming past.  

A little farther down the trail we spotted a Northern Harrier flying low and fast over the hills, its bright white rump flashing in the sun.  The song of Western Meadowlarks carried across the grassy expanse, even though it took us a while to spot them.  One of the interpretive signs along the well-designed trail indicated there might be 13-lined squirrels about, which was a pretty exciting prospect.  

After a few kilometers in this new and fascinating landscape we came to a floating bridge that crossed the water and lead off towards Birds Hill Provincial Park.  

Birds Hills Provincial Park is a 35 square kilometer park was opened on July 15th, 1967 to celebrate Canada's 100th birthday.  It includes a mosaic of landscapes that don't commonly occur in such close proximity to each other, such as esker ridges, dry prairie, wet meadows, bogs, and Aspen-oak and mixed Boreal forest communities.  It was  created to preserve areas that are representative of the Aspen/Oak Parklands Natural Region, and to provide recreational opportunities, such as hiking, horseback riding, cross-country skiing, mountain biking, and wildlife viewing.

We decided to take the detour into the park to camp for the night.  When we made our reservation, we didn't realize the campsite was 8 km off the trail. Nevertheless, it was a lovely walk in, down a paved ring road with a cycling lane.  As we passed old fields, oak forests, and beautiful fall colours we were greeted by lots of other hikers and cyclists.  We wove our way through the park, managing to get lost somewhere around west beach and the lake, which was completely drained and empty.

When we finally reached our beautiful campsite we were pretty tired, the sun was beginning to set, and the temperature had plummeted.  We made a dinner of chilly and retired to the warmth of our sleeping bags.

As we fall asleep the temperature has dipped well below zero again.  We can hear the sounds of campfires and laughter around us, a large group of Canada Geese on the lake nearby, and coyotes howling off in the distance.

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