Wednesday, July 14, 2021

A Meandering Trail to Haven : Altona to Wakerobin B&B

After a relatively long hike of 41 km yesterday, getting going was tough this morning.  When we began our undignified hobble out of Altona around 6:30 am the air was hazy and thick with smoke from several forest fires that are burning in southern Manitoba.  The air had that strange smell, not like a campfire at all, but perhaps more like wet ash.  Despite the air quality advisory, we were grateful for the overcast skies and deliciously cool temperatures, and the haze gave the landscape depth that was actually quite beautiful.


As we left Altona on our way back down south to the border we spotted a sign indicating the route out of town.  It was not the road we were expecting to take based on the App, but we followed it, figuring it didn't really matter which concession in the grid we chose.  When we reached the place where we needed to turn west there was no trail marker indicating the turn, but we made it anyway.  A few concessions later we came across a cluster of trail signs that would have made sense if we'd taken that concession south, although it still wasn't lining up with the App.  This was a precursor to the rest of the day, during which we saw a total of 3 directional signs over 42 km.  Pretty much since Emerson the trail signs have become more and more sparse, leaving us to rely on the App, which doesn't always reflect realistic options.


As we progressed through the cool morning we passed bright yellow, misty pale purple, and dark green fields.  We trekked by several beautiful Mennonite farms, with their large gardens and treed yards.  We noticed that in this more treed landscape there was a lot more moisture in the standing ponds and small reservoirs, and these tiny water sources in turn supported a whole community of birds and wildlife.


In this area we spotted a pair of Horned Larks forging for insects on the road, Barn Swallows swooping and diving above the wheat fields, several Killdeer running between the rows of soy plants, Mourning Doves cooing gently from the eves of a red wooden barn, and of course, the ubiquitous Red-winged Blackbirds throughout.

A few kilometers into the hike we left the gravel concession, climbed a small rise, and turned down a grassy track.  The raised track and its deep grass pathway took us past a large pile of colourful bee boxes to an irrigation pond, where a tractor was being used to pump water out through a pipe leading to some distant field.


A group of Franklin's Gulls circled above the water, and a Greater Yellowlegs made its way around the edge of the pond below.  A family of Mallards paddled in the center of the water, and a large group of Canada Geese made their way along the far shore.


In the surrounding fields we spotted several Bobolinks and Western Meadowlarks, and as we made our way down the cattail filled ditch we heard the songs of a Marsh Wren, a Common Yellowthroat, and a Clay-coloured Sparrow.  Brown-headed Cowbirds, Brewer's and Red-winged Blackbirds, and Common Grackles made their way in groups along the field edges.

One of our greatest challenges in these stretches is watching were we walk.  Often along the berms and tracks there are large badger holes in the ground.  This section was no different with some large enough to fit the entire wheel of our carts into!  In such areas it would be very easy to twist and ankle or break a leg if we were not watchful. 

As the day wore on we boxed our way along gravel concessions south to the border and then back up north again.  We passed through several small communities with German names, giving a hint as to their Mennonite heritage.  Most of these communities were simply small groups of homes, offering no places to rest or other amenities for weary and sweltering travelers.

At one point the trail followed PR 242 for a mile, which was a paved highway.  It was much busier than the gravel concessions, and as we walked along we attracted quite a bit of attention.  Most drivers waved as they passed, but the unusual spectacle we presented really seemed to freak out one older gentlemen.  He pulled out of his laneway super slowly while staring at us, then drove by at about 2 km per hour, pulled into another driveway, waited for us walk by, then did another slow drive-by. The third time we passed him he pulled onto the roadway, stopped and took a photograph of us with an older cell phone.  By our fourth encounter he pulled up and told us that he was a COP.  He wanted to see our IDs, wanted Sean's camera to inspect the images on it, and demanded to know what was in our backpacks.  We obliged him and showed our IDs, but Sean refused to hand his camera over and neither of us volunteered any information about our belongings.   

The man photographed our IDs and soundly informed us that "our type was not wanted here and that the police had been called".  This stunned us as he had introduced himself as a COP.  When we then asked to see his ID, he momentarily looked confused before self righteously clarifying that he was not a police officer but a Citizen on Patrol who "had the authority to protect the area".  I politely explained what we were doing and were we were hiking to but he simply wanted us to leave the area.  Frustrated we walked on, but each time other vehicles slowed down, or crawled past us the unfriendly glares from the drivers made it clear we were not welcome in this stretch.  Such rare negative interactions make Sean really uncomfortable.  As someone raised not to be seen or heard being a spectacle is unnerving for him, but  I figure we might as well embrace it and when necessary stand our ground.

After 30.6 km we took our first break for the day, sitting on a grassy lawn outside a closed elementary school.  We usually try to take a break every 5-10 km, so this felt like a long stint before our first snack.

As the afternoon wore on we followed the gravel concessions until we reached another off-road section of trail.  We followed the pleasant grassy track between fields, and alongside a large array of tall communications towers.  We stopped at the base of these structures to admire some truly impressive thistles, with large purple blossoms.


After this we followed the track across a concession and then ran into a snag. Someone had erected an electric fence across the trail.  Upon investigation we discovered the fence formed a long rectangle, seeming to serve no purpose other than to fence in the public track. In the ditch next to the fencing was a TCT sign still on its post pulled out of the ground and laying in the grass.  There was a phone number we were instructed to call if we wanted access, but no one answered our repeated attempts.  The detour around the fenced off section was about 5 km, which was depressing to add to an already 40 km trek in the heat.  However we have always sought to respect property owners and their claims on this trek and so despite the fact that by all indications this was the trail we walked around the concession to cross 400 meters of closed trail. Sadly we would later discover that there was no reason for this fencing, that the land was unused and that it was a public right of way.  5 exhausting kilometers of trekking for no point.  


All afternoon we had watched a green wall of treed hills approaching on the hazy horizon in front of us.  In the otherwise completely flat landscape, even these modest rises looked daunting.  By late afternoon we found ourselves approaching the hills, too tired to relish the thought of climbing them.  In a field beside us a beautiful lone horse was standing below a shade tree grazing, and a farmer was mowing his field in front of a truly impressive pile of hay bales.  The square bales must have been stacked 11 high, 60 wide, and about half a concession long.  It reminded us of something you could build in Minecraft.  The true scale of them was only possible to grasp when the farmer in his tractor passed in front of them while mowing his field. 




Around 5 pm we arrived at the Wakerobin Bed and Breakfast, which was our goal for the day.  Helen enthusiastically met us halfway down the long drive, and walked with us back to the beautiful, white-paneled century old farmhouse.  There was a large and lush garden out front, a small herd of friendly goats, several picturesque wooden sheds and outbuildings, and beyond was a lovely old forest. 


We spent a wonderful evening with Helen and Alan, learning about the history of the region, the farm, and the local birds and wildlife.  Helen very kindly and generously fed us a delicious dinner, complete with a divine berry crisp, and seemed to think of everything, even offering to half fill and freeze our large water jugs for tomorrow.  She and her husband were extremely generous with their knowledge of the trails in the area, and the photos and maps they shared with us (and that we thankfully had the foresight to take photos of) ended up saving us later on.  It was a lovely evening, and as we retired to our cozy room (after long cold showers) to have the greatest sleep we have enjoyed in Manitoba we really couldn't have asked for any more. 

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