Sunday, July 18, 2021

Everything happens for a Reason : Spruce Woods to Carberry (and a bit beyond)

We woke up this morning to the sounds of a pack of coyotes singing in the distance.  Closer by we could hear the call and answer of two Red-eyed Vireos, and the very direct and loud demands of an Ovenbird.  A small clan of Black-capped Chickadees was chatting busily among themselves in the shrubs, and the whiny call of an American Goldfinch sounded from somewhere above us.  As we heated water for our morning coffee a black and white skunk trundled quietly through the neighboring campsite. 

We headed out of the campground around 6:30 am, just as other campers were beginning to rouse themselves.  We made our way along the steep sandy banks of the Assiniboine River as the sky was growing pink, and as we crossed over it on the highway bridge the red disk of the sun was just rising, turning the banks red.  It was incredibly beautiful! 

As we ventured through the park the Trans Canada Trail hugged the highway, taking the form of a sandy footpath running along beside the pavement.  We followed the footpath for a bit,  but it was very soft sand, which made pulling the wheels exhausting, so we ended up on the pavement slightly before we reached the section that was actually closed. 

Our walk through Spruce Woods Provincial Park today reminded us of a lot of HWY 60 in Ontario's Algonquin Provincial Park.  Over a 15 km stretch or so we periodically passed trail heads and campgrounds.  Both sides of the road were forested, and we passed many ponds and cattail marshes, their still surfaces providing almost perfect reflections of the surrounding trees and vegetation.  In one pond we spotted a beaver swimming purposefully along and periodically popping its nose into the air as if sniffing.  Shortly afterwards a Bald Eagle swooped low over the road before disappearing behind the trees.  

One very notable difference from the shield country of northern Ontario and Whiteshell Provincial Park were the huge sand dunes.  Many were covered in what looked like tough dune grasses, but their steep sides and distinct shapes gave the landscape a unique and interesting feel. Some of them seemed to tower over us and the surrounding trees, and the morning sun turned them a beautiful golden red. 

It was a peaceful and beautiful morning.  We were very disappointed that nearly all the trails in the park were closed due to the risk of forest fires, because Spruce Woods PP looks like a fascinating place to explore!  However, it was already very hot (34 degrees) by 7:30 am, and the humidity was the highest it's been since we started hiking in Manitoba, so it is probably just as well that we couldn't dally. 

Today's hike was mostly down the side of Highway 5 - a winding, two lane paved highway.  The traffic was consistent, but not too bad, and we were very grateful for the friendly waves,  huge smiles, and thumbs up many drivers gave us as they sped past.  We realized pretty quickly that our slow pace and relative isolation on quiet back country roads for the past month has given us a warped sense of speed.  Everything seemed to be moving so fast! 

After leaving the park we passed the Swan Lake First Nation Reserve.  This is a Saulteaux band, who are otherwise known as the Plains Ojibwe, or the Anishinabe, and are found in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia. Saulteaux is a French term meaning 'people of the rapids,' which refers to their original location around Sault Ste. Marie.  They are primarily hunters and fishers who traded extensively with the British and French during the 1800's, and were eventually pushed west during European Settlement.  

Along the highway the Reserve was mostly forested, and we could hear the sound of the breeze in the trembling aspens at the sides of the road.  We passed some very large cabins that were for rent, and the Sand Hills Casino, which was closed, but somehow looked like it belonged in the Wild West. 

By 10 am it was extremely hot, and it felt like we weren't making any progress down the seemingly endless highway.  We pulled over onto the grassy and sandy road shoulder for a break.  When Sean plunked down in an exhausted huff he was soon standing straight back up yelling and cursing!  As it turns out he had sat down on a small pile of cactuses!  We believe it was a Brittle Prickly Pear cactus, one of two species that can be found in the sand dunes of this region (the other is the Pincushion Cactus).  What an uncomfortable (and hilarious) way to discover a new species - ouch! 

As the day wore on our spirits were beginning to wilt in the heat, when a lady from the Brandon Sun pulled over and asked if we had time to chat.  She was on her way to another meeting, but when she saw us walking she detected a story and stopped.  It turned out she and her son were hikers as well, and she was very knowledgeable about hiking gear and very interested in our carts. As we talked she made a comment that really resonated with us.  She thought our trek was well suited to our times, because the Trans Canada Trail was created as part of the Canadian dream of connecting the country.  As Canada grapples with Covid and the horrors of the Residential Schools we are facing an identity crisis.  To find ways to move forward we need reminders of what connects us all and to remember that we all share a common ground.  The reporter left us with the notion that perhaps this trail story could be a part of that. 

Not too long after this meeting, we had a second random encounter that really cheered us up.  We had taken a detour off the trail to stop for a milkshake at the Summer Shack Drive Inn just outside Carberry.  As we sat in the shade a very friendly man came up and asked what we were doing.  He was very interested in our journey, and shared some of his own story.  Eventually we ended up talking to his whole family, and it turned out they were birders!  The 6 year old asked if we'd seen any Sandhill Cranes!  We haven't yet in Manitoba, but like him we've heard their loud trumpeting calls and seen their large footprints.  He had lots of questions and stories about nature, and seemed very interested in our silver sun umbrellas. We had a lot of fun chatting with this wonderful family. 

As we ventured through Carberry we notice a beautiful building called the Seton Centre.  Having seen a Seton Trail in Spruce Woods our curiosity was piqued and we have since learned that both are named after Ernest Thompson Seton (1860-1946) was a noted artist, naturalist, and ornithologist who lived (1882-1892) in the Carberry area for a period.  His first published book is The Birds of Manitoba (1891) and his means of describing as well as illustrating bird species is believed to have inspired and influenced Roger Tory Peterson’s field guides. In addition, his art and writings are viewed as contributing to Canadian literature, naturalist, and conservation efforts.  Just as his ideals about nature served to influence the development of the early Boy Scout movement. 

We made a detour into the small community of Carberry, and managed to continue for another 4 km before stopping at the Robin's Nest Motel and Cafe for the night.  When we entered the restaurant we found it full of locals enjoying lunch, and we ended up sharing our story with them as well.  One lady very kindly and quietly gave us some money for cold drinks, and another shared a story of her friend who cycled the Trans Canada Trail at the age of 65.  It may have been a day of extremely hot highway walking, but it was filled with the random kindness and incredible generosity of strangers and some truly inspiring and wonderful stories.  

Tonight - as our clothes scorch dry from their daily bucket washing - we need to figure out our way forward.  From Carberry to Neepawa is 48 km and tomorrow is set to be 41 degrees.  From what I can tell either we wait the day out here in the air conditioning or leave at 2 am to avoid the heat.  Despite the challenges and need to be sensible, as always I have faith that things will work out.  After all for the past two days owing to trail closures and fire restrictions we have been unable to walk along the exact TCT route and yet we have found so much that is wonderful.  Everything happens for a reason, even the detours, delays, and odd cactus in the rump. 

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