Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Extraordinary Kindness, Extraordinary Obstacles : to Stanley Centennial Park

Every once in a while you discover a spot that feels completely peaceful.  The 100 year old farmhouse where we slept last night was such a place, and when the sun came up and the birds began singing it was very difficult to get up to leave the lovely Wakerobin B&B.  Helen greeted us downstairs with coffee and a feast of eggs, cheese, oatmeal, homemade bread and jam, strawberries, and a plate of home baked goodies.  It was the most filling and delicious breakfast we've had on the trail so far! 

As we headed out, Helen very kindly and generously packed a bag of delicious home made treats to fuel our hike today.  This incredible kindness ended up making a huge difference on what turned into a really tough and physically demanding day.

Before heading out we stopped for a short visit with the resident family of very personable goats, which included a very cute and cheeky kid.  After this Helen kindly escorted us through the beautiful forested trails on her property.  Little did we know that today would be rich in trees.


With her guidance we made our way through the small forest and around the edge of a somewhat overgrown field.  As she pointed out, local residents know where the right-of-ways are, and almost no one else uses them, so sometimes crops are planted very close to the field edges to maximize the harvest and the 'trails' get a bit overgrown.  As we ploughed along, seeing the rolling fields in the soft pink morning light was extremely beautiful.



Helen left us when we reached a gravel concession, and from there we had a 2 mile road hike, much of which was up hill!  These are the first hills we've seen since Whiteshell Provincial Park, and climbing them felt like a workout, especially on a newly re-graveled road.  However, the view we were rewarded with from the top was fantastic.  A rolling patchwork of green and yellow squares expanded into the distance, the remnants of smoke from the forest fires still hanging in the air above the delta, giving it depth as it faded into the distance.


As we approached the trailhead for the path that would take us into a forested valley, two enthusiastic dogs came running out to the edge of their property, barking loudly.  We took so long to huff and puff our way up the hill that they gave up, but returned with renewed vigor when we reached the gate at the trailhead.  This brought their master, Wes, out to investigate.  He asked what we were doing and made sure we'd seen his sign, warning of a bear with cubs in the area. 

When he learned we were hiking for birds he shared his sightings with us, and said that Gray Catbirds, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and Baltimore Orioles were common at his feeders and in the woods.   It turned out he was right!

After thanking him for letting us hike across his land on the trail, we made our way down a narrow forested footpath to an open area beside a small, meandering river.  The hills rose steeply on either side of us as we stood at the bottom of this forested river valley.  There was so much life and bird activity that we couldn't help stopping to enjoy it for a bit. 


Among the highlights was spotting Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, American Redstarts, Red-eyed Vireos, a pair of Yellow Warblers feeding young, and a Least Flycatcher. 

There were Clay-coloured Sparrows singing in the shrubs in the open grassy areas, American Goldfinches bouncing through the air, and Black-capped Chickadees giving their cheerful calls in the oaks.  We heard the gentle cooing of Mourning Doves echoing along the sides of the valley, an American Crow flying overhead, and a Blue Jay protesting loudly against some unknown incursion.  A Cedar Waxwing fed on the berries in the shrubs nearby, and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker drummed on a cottonwood across the river.  It felt like a birding bonanza!


We reluctantly left this wonderful spot and continued down the footpath, meandering along beside the riverbed and meandering through a forested area. 


Not too long afterwards we came to a single 2"x 6" board balanced over a deep, narrow gully.  This simple and usually effective bridge presented some difficulties for us with the two carts.  It was far too narrow to pull the carts over, and we didn't trust it to hold the weight of two people and a cart if we simply carried them over, especially since we had a 2-day supply of water with us.  In the end we unloaded the water jugs and Sean converted the carts to backpacks and carried them across.  Puzzle one of many for today solved!


The beautifully cleared and maintained trail wound up and down through the luscious green valley.  As we struggled along with our carts we spotted a Least Flycatcher, an Eastern Towhee, a Purple Finch, a White-breasted Nuthatch, a Chipping Sparrow, and an American Robin, while Tree Swallows circled overhead.  The songs of Eastern Wood-pewees and American Redstarts accompanied us.  A tiny Ruby-throated Hummingbird perched atop a dead stick, and at one point a Bald Eagle took flight and flew off down the length of the valley.


Although the trail was beautifully maintained, there were a couple forks without any signage.  We continued following the river, although the direction wasn't always obvious due to the snaking of the trails. After the first fork the trail became what I would describe as a medium-difficult mountain biking path.  It was very narrow, switchbacked up and down the sides of the valley, and at no point was flat or straight.  Some of the "bumps" were nearly vertical 8 ft ascents or descents.  This made for extremely tough going with the carts, which weighed over 70 lbs each with the extra water.  Many times I wasn't strong enough to claw my way up the rises, and the cart pulled me down backwards until I was stopped against a conveniently placed tree or sapling.  I had to remove the water and try again, coming back for it after I hauled the cart up.  On a few occasions Sean's brute force was the only thing that the got my cart up the hill without my having to unload it completely.  This quickly became pretty tiring.


Eventually we emerged onto a sandy track that took us past a sunflower field. The flowers weren't blooming yet, but their gorgeous spiraled delicate green buds were already very beautiful.  As we made our way along the winding track, through the rolling pastures and wheat fields, it felt like we were back on the Camino in Spain.



As we crested a rise and saw below us a brilliant yellow field of blooming canola we were momentarily puzzled by colourful plastic shelters placed around the edges. From a distance the orange, blue, and white pods looked like roofed cylinders with a door cut in the side.  When we got closer we discovered they were plastic bee yurts!  Inside, the walls were covered in plastic panels that were perforated with tubes for the bees to nest in, and there was a stack of trays at the bottom that were filled with hundreds of mud burrows.  We could hear the bees buzzing from several meters away, and the ground was crawling with the tiny, compact, yellow leaf cutter bees, which are used to pollinate alfalfa and canola, among other crops. It was very exciting to discover our first bee yurts!

We continued to follow the track past a herd of curious cows, and alongside a thick forest, where we could hear the loud "Teacher! Teacher! Teacher!" call of an Ovenbird.  Overhead a Red-tailed Hawed soared majestically in the brilliant blue sky.  

The track led  us out a farm, where the trail signs disappeared.  Once again we made our way along the uncut edge of a planted field through which we wove our way out to a gravel concession. 

Back on the dusty roadways the trail proceeded past a quaint Mennonite Cemetery and led us to climb a large hill.  At the top there were again differences between the old TCT guidebook route and local maps and the new route on the app.  Uncertain we ventured down the next concession following the online app to the next green space on our trek. 

When we got to the top of it we took a break in the hard-packed dirt parking lot for the Tinker Creek Trail.  As we sat on the ground, enjoying a drink of water and the last of Helen's treats, two teenage boys and their dads rode up the hill on mountain bikes, laughing and teasing each other.  This should have been a clear indication of what lay ahead, but for whatever reason - and loath to avoid any treed spaces out here on the prairies - we decided to ignore the obvious.

When we headed into the Tinker Creek Trail system we discovered another great spot for mountain biking.  This steep, treed river valley was a continuation of the first green space we crossed this morning, and it presented all the same challenges for us.  The narrow, winding trails zigzagged and switchbacked up and down the sides of the valley, providing what I'm certain would be a satisfying biking course, and even an enjoyable hike without heavy carts and high temperatures. 

The other difficulty we faced was that the narrow dirt track wasn't wide enough for the wheels, and in the sections of trail that cut across the valley sides the carts would often tip sideways, threatening to roll us down the hillside.  Twice I was toppled over sideways, the arms of the cart pushing my legs from underneath me as I rolled over like a turtle and tumbled down the hill in an undignified flailing ball.  Perhaps the worst was when a group of cyclists came rocketing down the pathway with no realistic ability to stop.   As they rushed downward they yelled for us to move.  Without thinking I pulled the cart off the track which subsequently pulled me off my feet and resulted in my tumbling downhill some 50 feet.  When I came to a stop on my back at the bottom of the hill one cyclist road up and yelled at me that "this was a cyclist's only pathway" informing me that I "needed to leave the area right away".  Without offering to help me back onto my feet he road away. Huff. 

Sadly this then meant that I had to again haul myself and the cart back up hill again.  Although the landscape was incredibly beautiful, and I'm positive this was an awesome trail for mountain bike enthusiasts, it was a tiring morning for us, and it was only through the shear goodness of Helen's amazing homemade treats that we made it through. It took us nearly 2 hours to go 3 km, and by the end the physical exertion left us exhausted.

When we saw an opportunity to escape onto a gravel road we took it, only to discover two badly injured kittens in the road, and a third one dead nearby.  Sean, always drawn to cats dropped his pack to pet them only to discover that both were seriously injured.  He opened a can of tuna to feed the obviously hungry and dying creatures, he then tried to give them water, but there was little we could do to help them.  I had no cell service to call for help and when I flagged down a man in a truck driving by to tell him about the kittens his answer was a blunt and cold "so what?" before droving away. Feeling terrible, we stumbled numbly on, taking a break when we got to the trailhead where we should have popped out of Tinkers Creek. Here Sean sat under a tree crying in a combination of frustration, exhaustion, and despair about the kittens. Some times there are no good solutions to the challenges of the moment and you just need to find a way to get through them. I could offer no words to console him.

We were exhausted, and just beginning to think we'd pitch the tent at the trailhead for the night, when a steady stream of traffic began to pass us on our isolated and previously deserted roadside, and a surreal scene unfolded. First a car with four young men drove up the dead-end road, and a few minutes later shots range out across the valley.  They were doing target practice, and we could only hope they had the heart and skill to euthanize the poor kittens.

Shortly after this, another car parked a few feet from us and a pair elegantly dressed Mennonite women in long skirts, sandals, and fancy blouses got out, along with a rosy cheeked toddler.  They proceeded to unload a very large bunch of blue balloons, an ample wicker picnic basket, and a large wooden box.  Off they set into the nearby woods for a perfect teddy bear's picnic!  As they passed they remarked in German 'What must they think of us? They must think we're crazy!' Since we were the ones sitting in the dirt eating cold rice out of plastic packets, I hardly think we were in a position to comment, but the festive picnic certainly was a surprise in our remote spot!  A few minutes after they passed us we could hear joyous and melodic singing coming from the forest, it seemed that it was someone's birthday party!



Seeing how busy our little corner of the world became, we decided to walk on.  As the sun sunk down towards the horizon in the late afternoon we plodded along down the gravel concessions for another 16 km.  A ridge of forested hills rose beside us, looking beautiful in the evening light, but we were too tired to fully appreciate it. 


As we passed through a small town in the cooling evening air dogs seemed to chase after us from nearly every home, ranging in size from large German shepherds to equally spunky Chihuahuas.  There must have been a gathering of some sort in a nearby community, because as we crossed the settlement almost every resident got in their van and drove away, leaving us in a nearly constant cloud of dust. 

As we approached 35 km of trekking in the rising heat of the late afternoon one man in an aging truck pulled over and bruskly demanded to know what we were doing on "his road".  I went into our usual introduction and explanation but was quickly interrupted with the single question : "Where are you from?"  When I responded that we had walked from Cape Spear Newfoundland but that we were actually from Ontario the man scowled, grunted "Ontario" as though it was a curse, pulled his truck 5 feet forward and with his foot on the break spun his tires for over a minute to purposefully spray us with gravel, leaving us covered in grey dust before driving off. 

Dispirited we continued on along the Trans Canada Trail on its weaving route down concession roadways. By early evening we finally made it to Stanley Centennial Park, where our map indicated there was camping.  To our enormous surprise it turned out that about half the park was a frisbee golf course, and there was some kind of tournament going on!  We'd expected to find the park deserted, but people in sporty outfits, carrying specialized frisbee bags were making their way around the course in teams of four.

The park itself was a large treed greenspace with picnic tables, gazebos, several playgrounds, multiple metal shelters filled with picnic tables, and immaculately clean washroom facilities.  We found a campsite to pitch the tent in, and gratefully set to work making  writing and editing photos at one of the shaded picnic tables.  

Never did we expect to find mountain bike courses, a fancy dress picnic, and a frisbee tournament when we set out today!  While the day had its beauty and delights it was also one of stark contrasts and challenges.  I am sure that we only made it through owing to the extraordinary kindnesses show to us by Helen and her husband at Wakerobin last night and this morning!  



1 comment:

  1. I read this yesterday and I was so shocked I could not continue. I admire your courage, I applaud when people help you, but I get embarrassed and ashamed beyond words to see that some Canadians behave the way you described, spraying you with gravel.

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