Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Exploring Beautiful Neepawa

Although it was raining gently this morning, the smoke was so thick it obscured everything beyond about 200 m.  We decided to take a day to explore the bird sanctuary and the 10 km of Trans Canada Trail that are in and around the historic town of Neepawa.  This had been something we were planning to do in any case, but the extremely poor air quality made us glad we weren't continuing down the trail with all our gear today.

Prior to European settlement this area was inhabited by the Cree and Assiniboine Peoples who followed the Plains Bison, sheltering up north in the winter and travelling down south of Neepawa in the summer.  The town's name, 'Neepawa,' comes from the Cree word meaning 'Land of Plenty' and was first used in 1873.  

European fur traders eventually arrived in the area, and many people travelled through it on the North Fort Ellis Trail, which went from the Red River to Edmonton.  A group of travelers on this trail who originally came from Listowel, Ontario decided to settle the region, which was then part of the Northwest Territories, in 1877.  Over the next 30 years settlers from the British Isles, Poland, Hungary, and other parts of eastern Europe began arriving.

We began our explorations of the town by visiting the childhood home of the internationally renown Canadian author Margaret Lawrence.  Lawrence was born in 1926 and lived in Neepawa in her grandfather's house from 1935 to 1944.  She spent several decades abroad, which gave her the distance and perspective to write about Canada and prairie life.  

Her best known novels are set in a fictional prairie town called Manawaka and regionalism, realism, and feminism are strong themes that play throughout.  Before her death in 1986 Margaret Lawrence founded the Writer's Trust of Canada and the Writer's Union of Canada, she received two Governor-General's awards for fiction, became a Champion of the Order of Canada, and she served as chancellor for Trent University, where we were both students.  She is perhaps best known for her novel Stone Angel.

On our walk through the tree lined streets of Neepawa, with their beautifully restored old houses we came across the Lily Garden.   The flower beds of this charming little garden, with its white arbour, wooden foot bridge, old fashioned lamps, and picnic table were in full bloom, presenting a cheerful riot of colours in the foggy morning.   This beautiful spot was a hidden gem, tucked away under a canopy of huge old trees and behind a wall of greenery.

As we made our way around Neepawa we saw many references to lilies. Horticulturalists refer to Neepawa as the Lily Capital of the World, in part because of the Lily Nook, which is a 6 acre plot located just outside of town, which features over 1,500 named varieties of lilies spanning all nine divisions of the genus lilium.  Throughout town we saw sculptures, art works, quilt square paintings, and gardens featuring beautifully coloured lilies of all kinds.

Our ramblings also took us past the historic Plains County Court House building.  This red brick building was erected in 1884, one year after the town of Neepawa was incorporated.  It ensured that this town became the administrative center for the newly settled region, providing accommodations for the county court, town hall, jail and theater.  This impressive structure was designed by C. Osborn Wickenden, who also designed the court houses in Brandon and Winnipeg.  The buildings in Brandon and Neepawa are now the oldest surviving court houses in the Prairies.

Next we walked out to the Beautiful Plains Museum, which is located in the CNR Heritage Railway Station that was built in 1902.  The museum was created as a tribute to the pioneers who settled this region.  Although the museum was closed when we visited, the three floors of the station apparently feature replicas of a general store, medical hall, log cabin, chapel and more.

From the train station we followed the Trans Canada Trail into the central Riverbed Park.  A small river meandered through this treed greenspace, which featured a swimming pool, campground, Frisbee golf course, shaded picnic tables, and gazebos.  The trail also took us past the historic Stoney Creek white wooden one-room schoolhouse, which was built in 1987.  It was a lovely mixture of nature, recreation, and history and even on this soggy day there were lots of people out enjoying it.

We continued following the Trans Canada Trail along the river, leaving the paved pathway and picking up a dirt track.  Our intention was to follow it along the river to the Neepawa Cemetery, but we were momentarily confused by the placement of the trail signs, which were oriented parallel to the trail. When we spotted them it was useful to confirm that we were still on the right path, but spotting their profiles was difficult as we moved forward through the crisscrossing trails of the park and surrounding area. 

Eventually we made our way to the cemetery, which was a huge greenspace filled with large canopy trees and shrouded in thick foggy smoke.  As we wandered among the headstones, reading the names and inscriptions the peace, quiet, and mist made us feel like we'd been transported to another world.  We found the Stone Angel that provided the inspiration for Margaret Lawrence's famous novel, and visited the headstone of the famous author.

At the back of the cemetery we found the Trans Canada Trail, and we were able to follow the mowed grassy trail along the river back to town.  The misty valley felt magical, with the lush green vegetation bordering the quiet, winding stream.  We crossed a beautiful wooden bridge, and at the end of the trail we climbed out of the river valley on a long wooden staircase.  As we approached the road we saw several Purple Martins sitting on the railing.

To end our explorations of Neepawa we intended to visit the bird sanctuary on the edge of Park Lake which is also a loop in the Trans Canada Trail.  We tried one road and ran into an active construction site that we couldn't cross.  We tried the other road and found signs telling us the bridge was out, we assume as a result of the flood last year.  At that point it began to rain in earnest, so we didn't attempt the 5-6 km of trekking required to box around the lake to find the final access point. Some things just aren't meant to be.

We stopped at Lola's Bakery for a snack and ended up with a delicious box of caramelized onion pastries which we enjoyed in the beautiful town park by the water's edge. 

When we got back to our motel we met up with a local supporter of our #comewalkwithus trek who brought along a few beers to enjoy - made by Farmery Beer - while we chatted about the hike and birding.  

We also got the opportunity to talk with our South Korean host about photographing Canada’s natural beauty and birds! It was the perfect end to lovely day of exploring. 

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