Last night our tent was blown and buffeted by 60 kph winds, which made for a relatively sleepless night. When we got up at 5:30 this morning, the sky was overcast, and a very dark bank of clouds was lurking on the horizon. We were grateful to be in a campsite with a solid wooden picnic shelter to shield our stove from the strong gusts as we made our morning coffee, and we were quite proud of ourselves for taking down the tent without anything flying away.
When we left Miami we deviated from the Trans Canada Trail for the first few concessions. Instead of boxing south, then west, then north again on gravel concession roads, we couldn't resist taking the beautiful curving rail trail north past the Railway Museum, through a lovely forested greenspace, and then past the Miami Golf course. It connected to the trail in a more direct and much more pleasant fashion than the road walking, and since today's trail section was 57 km long, we felt happy with our decision.
Franklin's Gulls wheeled and dove above us, playing in the wild wind. We could hear the song of a Warbling Vireo above the rustling branches, and a few intrepid American Goldfinches dashed across the trail, getting blown sideways before taking refuge in the shrubs. For a brief period the sun made a valiant attempt to break through the clouds, turning the sky below them a light pinkish-yellow, and sending faint beams of light downwards in a small burst of hope.
Almost immediately we began to climb the rolling hills and ridges of the escarpment. The canola fields glowed brightly yellow under the menacing sky, and a light rain began to fall. Although we don't enjoy walking in the rain, we added our prayers to those of the local farmers for a good shower to help alleviate the drought and bring the crops and wildlife some much needed relief.
When we reached the top of the ridge we were rewarded with stunning views out across the delta below us. The patchwork of greens and yellows stretched out like a quilt and faded into the distance, the small patches of trees forming layers as in a painting.
At the top of the ridge we passed a hay field with a large Red-tailed Hawk perched atop one of the large bales. A group of five Black-billed Magpies flew overhead, apparently unconcerned by the raptor's presence.
The trail diverted off the road, and we found ourselves following a right-of-way around the edges of several fields. It hadn't been mowed, and the tall grass and thistles were waist deep. Although it was somewhat prickly and tough to navigate, the un-mowed strip was also covered in clover which was blooming in white, pink, and many subtle shades of purple. With the sweet smelling wildflowers and tall grasses swaying in the breeze, and the colourful valley stretching out below, we felt like we were part of a wild and beautiful landscape.
There were no Trans Canada Trail or other signs in this area, and when our bushwhacking led us out to a rail trail (which we later discovered was the same one we'd started out on in Miami) we assumed that was our path, and gratefully took it. It was quite fun to walk along with a deep, treed river valley stretching out far below the raised railway bed on with sides.
When we emerged back onto a gravel road we realized we had once again accidentally diverted from the 'real' trail, which seemed to have boxed back down to the bottom of the ridge. We walked the road back to the trail, and began following a dirt track alongside a blooming canola field. At the far edge was a beautiful wooden barn, which Sean stopped to photograph.
Just as he was walking along a grassy track to take his picture the skies opened up and it rained HARD! The wind was bending the trees around us, the dark clouds were racing by above our heads, the rain was pelting down, and there were a few claps of thunder, accompanied by impressive forks of lightning. As we scrambled to cover our carts and packs with rain covers we could feel the incredible and violent energy swirling all around us. In the midst of this unbridled chaos the Franklin Gulls continued to wheel and dive and play.
The rain lasted about 20 minutes, and as it abated Sean ventured out again onto the grassy track, thoroughly soaking his shoes to get his barn photo. After that we waited out the last of the storm on the road below a canopy of trees.
From there we found ourselves walking through the Deerwood Wildlife Management Area for the first time today. This was a beautiful, wild feeling sanctuary with grassy fields, shrubs, small wetlands, and beautiful tall cottonwood, linden trees, savannah oaks, and willows. Two White-tailed Deer crossed the trail ahead of us, followed closely by two fawns, still covered with white spots. The adults vaulted the wire fence, gracefully leaping 6 ft into the air, while the babies clumsily 'leapt' about 6 inches, clearing the bottom wire and ducking under the top one.
We heard Black-capped Chickadees, Baltimore Orioles, American Robins, Song Sparrows, Clay-coloured Sparrows, and three Red-tailed Hawks. It was a lovely treat to walk through the sanctuary with so much life.
Although there hadn't been enough rain to soak the ground, we noticed that the wheels of our carts and the soles of our shoes were gradually becoming heavier and heavier as they collected a thick layer of the dark, rich, sticky, prairie mud. We were left wondering what the trick is to getting this stuff off, until a little while later we walked a gravel concession, and watched as the thick layers slowly peeled away in clumps and clods.
When we reached the edge of the Regional Municipality of Lorne we found a large Trans Canada Trail Pavilion, with a very detailed map, a logbook, and a container with hints for the ongoing Treasure Hunt that is taking place along the Trans Canada Trail in Lorne! There was even a stack of pamphlets with information on each of the towns we will be passing through in this RM, including a list of amenities and municipal campgrounds. We were really impressed with the spirit shown along this section of trail!
It was a beautiful but strenuous day, and by the late afternoon we were very hot and tired. As we turned west for the final push into Altamont, we saw a sign that made us wonder if we were indeed suffering from heat stroke. There on the edge of a patch of weeds was a 'No Fishing' sign. A few hundred meters down the road we saw another one, attached to the fence surrounding a wheat field. Next? There was one on the edge of a soy field. I guess there were to be no Barley Trout or Soy Salmon for dinner tonight? Just as we were trying to get out tired minds around what we were seeing, two pickup trucks drove by pulling fishing boats. Sometimes an explanation required.
After a very long day of isolation, as we steadily climbed up to Altamont, which is at the highest point on the escarpment, we were passed every couple of minutes by one of a fleet of large trucks hauling soil. The clouds of dust they kicked up where tremendous, and each one left us feeling curiously dry and parched. Dust has a taste that is curiously difficult to describe. It was a long 4 km in to town.
We stopped at the Altamont campground, which turned out to be a grassy area adjacent to the baseball stadium. It was by no means as fancy as the campground in Miami, but it had flush toilets, shade, and running water. When we first arrived there was only scalding hot water, but the very kind campground caretaker, George, came by on his ATV to get the cold water working for us. When he heard what we were doing he very generously waived the camping fee for the night, and suggested that we walk to the trail sign at the center of town.
A beautiful, handmade sign had been put up for the Trans Canada Trail right at the center of town, complete with the names of all the people who supported it, and flanked a bank of flags. The trail really seems to be an important and central part of this community, and we were very impressed!
Beside the trail marker is a sign declaring Altamont to be the Bat Capital of Manitoba, although there is a question mark after the designation. Sadly we did not get an explanation for this intriguing sign before we left town. Does it refer to the mammals? To people? Possibly the ones who want to fish in the fields? Why the question mark?
As we look at the maps for tomorrow we realized we are now only 500 km from the Saskatchewan border as the trail winds. This is approximately equal to the distance we've walked since leaving Winnipeg, leaving us half-way through the 2021 portion of our hike across Manitoba.