Hiking Duff's Ditch : Birds Hill PP to East St. Paul

Last night was a chilly -5°C, and between the constant fussing and honking of the Canada Geese in the nearby pond and the eerie howling of coyotes, it wasn't the most restful of nights.  The sun finally rose, turning the sky a soft pink and gold, just as the nearly full moon began to set.  The rising sun revealed a world encased in a thick layer of white frost.

We were in no hurry to leave the warmth of our sleeping bags, and spent as long as we could huddled inside.  The sun gradually began to warm things up, and we made hot coffee and tea by leaning as far out of the tent as possible.  When we brought our steaming cups inside the tent we discovered they were a mixed blessing ... their warmth melted the ice on the inside of the fly, and it began to rain inside the tent.  It was definitely time to get up at that point.

After making a futile attempt to dry the tarp, fly, and groundsheet in the strengthening morning sun, we finally left our campsite around 9:30 am.  We headed out down the paved ring-road, secretly hoping to find a warm breakfast at the Pineridge Hollow Restaurant, which is located in the park.

The Pineridge Hollow restaurant serves food made from locally grown produce, and has an attached farm and greenhouse where some of the ingredients for their meals are grown.  We entered the grounds through a winding mulch pathway bordered by shrubs and lights that made a magical feeling tunnel.  The grounds were artistically landscaped and decorated to make the perfect backdrop for a seasonal photoshoot, wedding, or other event.  

Sadly, when we arrived we discovered that a reservation was necessary.  The restaurant was packed full (and I suspect that two smelly hikers with huge backpacks did little to endear us), but fortunately we were able to get two coffees to go.  We took them with us as we explored the small farm, with its large, curious, and friendly pigs, disgruntled sounding goats, and soft looking rabbits.

After paying the animals a short visit we headed back out to the road to make the 7 km trek back to the main branch of the trail.  As we walked along the curving paved road, enjoying the warm sunshine and the last of the fall colours, we were passed by many cyclists who were participating in an organized ride to raise money to fight children's cancer.   There were also quite a few people out jogging and walking, and traffic into the park was almost constant.  Obviously the Birds Hill Provincial Park is a very popular weekend destination in fall.

We crossed the floating bridge over 'Duffin's Ditch' and continued down the Duff Roblin Parkway Trail towards Winnipeg.  This section of the trail was busy as well with cyclists and joggers out enjoying the gorgeous Saturday morning. 

As we walked along the grassy spillway we heard the songs of Western Meadowlarks, and watched Canada Geese and Mallards paddling about in the thin band of water beside us.  We were thrilled to spot another coyote loping along the far shore, craftily eyeing a group of waterfowl.  When Sean walked down the embankment to photograph it, it took off at high speed, each paw bending gracefully as it was lifted and placed softly down.

We are still adjusting to the scale of this landscape.  As we set out we could see a small hill on the horizon.  This hill turned out to be over 5 km from where we started, and it turned out to be a ski hill!  Springhill Winter Park was created after the floodway was built in 1960, and apparently it is a popular spot for school groups and beginners to learn how to ski and snowboard.  

After looking at the ski hill as we approached it for over an hour we finally passed by it. We were following the lovely crushed stone dust trail, and trekking along happily at a good pace.  It was around this point that we realized the kilometre markers no longer had the Trans Canada Trail markers on the bottom.  With a sinking feeling we checked the map and discovered that sure enough, we had missed the turnoff about a kilometre behind us.  

As we were standing there looking at the phone in dismay we spotted headlights coming down the trail towards.  Sean immediately geared up, complaining that no motorized vehicles were permitted on the trail.  He was getting ready to take a photo of the offending vehicle when we realized it was the RCMP.  He decided not to take the photo.  It reminded me of walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain, where the Civil Guardia drove the trail in the meseta, checking on the pilgrims.

We made our way back to the turnoff and wove our way through a residential neighbourhood with very large homes to the Silver Springs Park.  This park included a network of trails that ran through the middle of several ponds that looked like they were created by an old quarry.  A sandy cliff rose up at the end of one pond, while large homes ringed the other edge.   The trails were full of families exploring the ponds and people walking dogs.

The pond was full of Canada Geese and Mallards.  A few Common Goldeneyes and Pied-billed Grebes were paddling around in the mix, and one Double-crested Cormorant was snoozing on a rock. Several large Leopard Frogs crossed the path as we made our way among the ponds.

After leaving Silver Springs Park we climbed a hill and made our way through another residential area.  At this point the Great Trail took us down a two lane bike path that was located between two roads.  On one side were scattered small businesses, and on the other were neighbourhoods.

The Northeast Pioneers Greenway is a rail-to-trail conversion of the Marconi Spur Line.  This former CPR line, which was constructed in 1878, has been turned into a popular cycling trail that connects the Birds Hill Provincial Park to the Forks National Historic Site in downtown Winnipeg.  Along the way are interpretive signs honouring pioneers, and describing the flora and fauna of tall grass prairie habitat, wetland meadows, and bottomland forest.

We followed this trail, which was busy with cyclists, until we came to the Chief Peguis Greenway.  This was a two-lane bicycle trail that paralleled the very busy, four lane Chief Peguis Trail Highway.  Chief Peguis was a Saulteaux Chief who arrived in southern Manitoba in 1870. In 1817 he signed Treaty 1 with Lord Selkirk, which granted land along the Red River to the Selkirk Settlers.  In 1840 he converted to Christianity, and took the name William King.  Without his help the Selkirk Settlers and early members of the Hudson's Bay Company would not have survived their first few winters on the prairies. 

We seemed to walk down the Chief Peguis Greenway for a long time.  It has been since Thunder Bay that we've been in a larger city, and the fast paced traffic and noise seemed a little overwhelming.  It almost felt claustrophobic after so much time in open spaces.

Although we'd hoped to make it into downtown Winnipeg tonight, in the end we stopped short at a rather dodgy motel in the east end.  It was cheap, and provided a bed and shower, which is really all we needed - and almost all that was barely provided.
As we returned from the grocery store next door with a dinner of salad and chips, we were quietly beckoned by an hunched over elderly lady down the hall.  She asked if we could go down to McDonald's for her and buy her dinner for tonight as well as tomorrow's breakfast and lunch (which she gave us money for), because she had trouble navigating the stairs.  We agreed and filled her requested order which for 3 meals amounted to 2 muffins and a cheeseburger.  It was clear she was both very hungry and very lonely.  Her situation was a stark reminder of how difficult things are for many people right now, and how many elderly people are simply forgotten or neglected.  Her husband had passed away, and she was living on the second floor of the motel, above a bar and gambling establishment, with everything she owned crammed into a tiny room.  Her life was packed into boxes which filled around her bed from floor to ceiling.  Her situation is heartbreaking, and although we have resolved to provide her with breakfast, a few extra treats and kind words, this will do little to help her in the long run.  We are once again reminded of the privilege we enjoy in being able to do this hike, and of all those who help make it possible.  We are enormously grateful for our good fortune, and will keep this lady, and all those who are less fortunate in our thoughts each day.  Her quiet demeanour and hunger to talk to anyone and briefly escape her isolation have left an indelible mark in our hearts and memories.  

To have lived a full life, to have loved, had experiences,  been married, have had children, travelled across the world, and to have lost so much and to spend your final years forgotten in such a place is a situation which I fear far too many elderly in our country face.  
God Help those who raised each and every one of us and who have born the battle of life.  God help those of us who do not help that generation that cared for us.

See you on the trail!

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