Tuesday, July 27, 2021

And a Good-hearted Farmer Shall Save them : Beyond Rossburn to Russell

Today was another very long day, with more unexpected challenges, but it began with stunning beauty.  When the alarm went off at 5:30 am this morning the sky above the river valley was a soft pink.  It slowly turned to yellow, as Eastern Phoebes, American Robins, Red-eyed Vireos, American Goldfinches, Blue Jays, a Grey Catbird, and a Vesper Sparrow welcomed the new day with their songs.  We watched as the golden light lit the treetops on the steep sides of the river valley, and suddenly there it was - the sun peeking over the lip of the ridge behind the tent, bringing warmth to the cool, damp, morning.



After enjoying our coffees and packing our tent we made our way down the valley and soon spotted a White-tailed Deer standing stalk still in a lush green field, watching us silently. He appeared to glow in the early morning light slanting across the dew soaked field.  Below him a delicate mist rose up from the water.

As we came to the end of the river valley we found a sign welcoming us to the Traditional Territory of the Waywayseecappo.  The Waywayseecappo First Nation's Reserve near the southeast corner of Riding Mountain National Park is 10,059 hectares.  The tiny corner of it we walked through looked like beautiful rolling hill countryside, with colourful and beautiful homes dotting the grassy hills around a large circular wooden gathering place, several businesses, and a huge community center, which is home to the Waywayseecappo Wolverines, a Junior A hockey team.  The band also runs a gas station and convenience store on the highway, but sadly they - and the treats they held - were a long way downhill from the trail.


The Waywayseecappo First Nation is a signatory of the Framework Agreement on First Nation Land Management.  This arrangement with the Canadian government recognizes the inherent right of First Nations to govern their reserve lands and natural resources according to their own principles and priorities, for the benefit of their people, without interference from the federal government. The goal of this framework is to enhance environmental protection, facilitate economic opportunities and timely decision making, and allow community led law enforcement.  From our perspective, the beautiful gathering places, economic enterprises and the backyard pools, barbeques, and trampolines outside the homes made it appear like this format created space for joy and hope within the community, which we were very happy to see.



At the far edge of the reserve the trail became a very nice ATV track that was very difficult for us to navigate with the carts.  The tracks had been recently resurfaced with very deep gravel that our wheels sunk deeply into.  In addition, the bridges were mostly out meaning the trail undulated along with the landscape.  A notable exception was the Birdtail Bridge, which had been restored by the Canadian Military Engineers in 2003, where the ATV track led steeply down to the river, crossed through the shallow water, and then climbed steeply up the other side.  A beautiful metal footbridge had been installed to help hikers cross the creek, but it wasn't lined up with the ATV track, so to get to it we had to plough through waist deep grass, and at the other end of it we were deposited into dense cattails, chest high thistles, and a large slippery mud puddle.  

The next couple of river crossings didn't have bridges, just a collection of large rocks in the water at the bottom of two steep climbs to ease the crossing. Needless to say we spent most of the morning once again scrambling through the mud with our carts. 

This section of trail was in a beautiful treed river valley with stunning scenery.  It would be a lovely place to ATV in summer or snowmobile in winter.  However, the amount of effort required to drag or push wheeled carts through the deep gravel and steep muddy slopes made it unsuitable for our purposes.  We eventually made it to a concession crossing were we met with a friendly young man by the name of Jonas Lukas who was cycling through the region.  He looked started to see two muddy figures pulling themselves out of the bush but was kind enough to stop and chat.  As the conversation went on he admitted that most of his friends who had purported to cycle the Rossburn Subdivision Trail or the Trans Canada Trail in Manitoba had made a point of venturing around the greenspaces and dirt pathways like the one we had just come out of because of their variable conditions. He was boxing the concessions in this region because the trails to the west of us - that we were due to trek next - were in similarly rough condition and had led him to already painfully flip his bike twice this morning.   Given his commentary we decided that since it had ultimately taken us 2 hours to trek 4.4 km already that it was time that we left the ATV track and boxed around on the local concessions too.  We kept crossing the trail and checking if conditions had changed any.  We added distance to our hike doing this, but reduced the effort necessary to keep moving forward. 


The white gravel roads also took us through beautiful scenery, winding among bright blue pothole lakes sunk into brilliant yellow canola fields that glowed in the bright sun.  We spotted a Richardson's ground squirrel trying to blend in to the road, and on one pond we spotted a family of Ruddy Ducks paddling companionably along.

One concession east of Angusville we picked up the trail again.  At this point we were surrounded by rolling fields of wheat and hay.  We passed more small pothole lakes filled with waterfowl including Black Terns who were hovering above the pond before diving down in graceful loops to scoop small insects from the water's surface.



As we approached Angusville we could see its grain elevator rising above the trees from quite some distance away.  When we reached the small community we discovered it was like many of the prairie towns we've visited.  It had a Railway Ave running parallel to where the railway tracks used to sit.  All the white clapboard buildings, some with squared off facades, were lined up along one side facing the missing tracks. In the communities we visit the Trans Canada Trail now occupies the place where the tracks used to be, and in many cases the trail is now surrounded by a large greenspace that has been turned into a park, playground, and/or campground.  At one end of the greenspace there is often a grain elevator, unless it has fallen into ruin and been removed.  In Angusville the grain elevator still stands tall reminding visitors of a previous time. 


We stopped in a metal picnic shelter in the park in Angusville and laid out the tent to dry in the hot sun.  Sean went in to town to see if we could buy water at the Convenience Store that Google maps suggested was on the main street.  It turned out the store had closed some time ago, and many of the other buildings on the street were boarded up and empty.  It seems that just as the construction of the railway transformed the region so too has the closing of the rail lines had a profound impact on many prairie towns.  Add to this the constant pressures faced out here by farming communities such as floods, droughts, crop failures, increasing costs and I find it amazing that anyone is still able to make a go of it.   Clearly Manitobans are made of very stern stuff and have a stronger resolve than I.


We left Angusville on a nice hard packed rail trail, but as we made our way along beside the highway the track once again became increasingly overgrown and riddled with badger holes.  We found ourselves walking along a track of multi-colored purple clover, which was incredibly beautiful, but exhausting to navigate with the carts.  We were soon again forced to watch our feet and spend most of our time navigating the trail rather than enjoying the region.


A few kilometers outside of Silverton we had an unfortunate encounter with a couple of ATV drivers. They came up behind us fast, but because of the wind and traffic sounds we didn't hear them until they revved their engine a few meters behind us.  At the same time as I noticed them the driver of the first ATV sped up and drove right at me.  I yelled at Sean who was in front of me as they swerved and drove at Sean instead.  Startled he turned and was clipped by the second ATV and tossed into the ditch - backpack, wheels and all - as they raced past. 

A dozen feet in front of us both black ATVs came to a skidding halt at which point all the occupants flipped up their visors, laughed at us and gave us the middle finger with both hands. Tired, hot, dirty, sunburned, hungry, and having already pushed through 120 km of challenging (for us) terrain in three days this felt like the last straw.  We were struggling along an ATV track that clearly wasn't intended for use by hikers or cyclists, and it was clear we weren't welcome here.

In Russell, which is our goal for the night,  we will be just 15 km from the Saskatchewan border, but on the trail we have another 100 km to go before crossing into  Saskatchewan.  In the same way the distance from Russell Manitoba to Yorkton Saskatchewan is a mere a mere 104 km on the roadway we will cover 329 km on the TCT before arriving.  As we picked ourselves up out of the grass, slowed our heart rates down, and removed the ticks, we were sorely tempted to simply keep walking straight down the highway and into a new province.  To be perfectly honest we were dumbstruck by the attitudes we had recently encountered and horrified by having someone speed up in an ATV to race directly at us.  I tried to find a taxi, but had no wifi or cell service.  Had I been able to call out at that moment I have no doubt that we could have either paid to return to Winnipeg to leave the trail or had asked be driven to the border of Saskatchewan.  

As always, however the world conspired and with no cell reception we were forced to walk on.  

When we got to the tiny community of Silverton, which was a small group of homes with an imposing grain elevator, we took a break at the side of the trail in the shade.  As we sat there, feeling completely dispirited, a farmer turned down the track on a huge tractor. Figuring that we were due to be told off by another resident who simply had to be exactly were we were sitting at that moment I jumped up ready to vent and give him a piece of my mind.  Instead the large John Deer tractor came to a slow silent stop several feet away and the sturdy gentleman in a clean blue plaid shirt swung out of the cabin, climbed out onto the front to ask if we were okay and if we needed water or anything else.  He assured us that he lived just down the road and he'd be happy to get us anything we needed.   His offer was a firm reminder that not everyone in this region was against us today.  His kindness and generosity nearly brought us to tears, and gave us the courage and energy to keep going on. He reminded us once again that often after something bad happens, there often comes great good, and reaffirmed our feeling that we are in a province of extremes.  This farmer effectively saved our hike in Manitoba. 

Seeing us both puffy eyed and shaking he again asked "are you sure you're ok?"  Then with a kind smile, gentle encouragement and wave he pointed over his shoulder toward the town of Russell and said - "you're almost there keep on keepin on!"  No one should ever believe that pure selfless kindness and encouragement does not matter - indeed a simple act can change the world for someone. 


Despite his positive support, after Silverton it felt like a long haul into Russell.  The headquarters for the Rossburn Subdivision Trail as part of Asessippi Parkland Tourism are in Russell, and as we approached the town the trail became increasingly easier for us to navigate.  We walked through the middle of an immaculately kept golf course, where the trail became a 4 ft wide crushed stone dust trail. For the next 8 km the trail was a joy to walk, even with our packs and carts.  The transformation in the nature and condition of the trail was so dramatic that it did not in any way reflect what the previous 170 km to the east had.


As we continued towards the town we crossed picturesque fields, and large ponds full of waterfowl, including a few very cute families of American Coots.  Saplings had been planted on either side of the trail, and decorative swallow boxes had been put up along its edges.  We paused to watch a group of Barn Swallows resting on the wire fence and once again wished we had a spotting scope for the waterfowl out on the lake.




By late afternoon we made it to the town of Russell and - after chatting with my parents who insisted we take a few days off the trail to calm down - gratefully checked in to a wonderful motel on the edge of the highway.  It is time for a break with warm showers, food, and beds.
 



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