Smoke, hail, and mud, oh my. Today was an exercise in strategic planning which reminded us that if we avoid one set of challenges, we often exchange one for another. In the end we were happy with our chosen course today, but there were some moments, beginning at 3:00 am, which made us question our decision. Yesterday began with an incredible downpour of much needed rain, followed by 42°C temperatures by around 10 am. Thanks to an incredibly generous donation from Ralph, who has followed our hike since its beginning, we were able to avoid the crushing heat and humidity yesterday in the comfort of an air conditioned motel, and wait to make the 48 km push to Neepawa until today.
When we went to bed last night, the weather forecast indicated temperatures would reach 35°C by around 11 am, so we set the alarm for 3:00 am, hoping to get at least 3/4 of the 49km distance done before the worst of the heat. When we stepped outside to make our morning coffee in the parking lot, a restless wind was swaying the cottonwoods beside us, the air felt clammy and almost cold, and we found ourselves in the midst of an intense lightening storm. The dark sky was almost constantly flickering with sheet lightening, and every once in a while a brilliant pink lightening bolt would strike the ground and thunder would rumble across the landscape. The rays of light from the motel sign filtered through the tree leaves in silvery beams, and the air smelled strongly like we were standing beside a campfire that we'd just doused with water. So we asked ourselves, do we strike out into the darkness to see what daylight brings, or do we remain in our temporary (safe and dry) shelter?
In the end we waited an hour and then decided to head out into the flickering darkness. We followed a service road beside the Trans Canada Highway, half blinded by the lights of the oncoming traffic, and then turned north returning to the Trans Canada Trail, just as a faint glimmer of daylight was appearing on the horizon to the east.
As we trekked north on the gravel road, a stiff breeze blowing in our faces, the dark outlines of trees began to take shape against the sky, and very slowly colours began to appear in the fields around us. Silvery wheat began to appear, and the blooming canola fields seemed to glow in the semi-darkness. As we passed an unharvested hay field we spotted the black and white stripes of a skunk which was quietly digging for grubs and insects.
The landscape was once again very flat, cultivated fields stretching out in all directions with almost nothing to obstruct our sight lines or provide shelter.
Soon we were bathed in an eerie grey light, and the day dawned, overcast and with thick, oily smoke from the forest fires up north hanging over everything. Sheet lightning continued to illuminate the clouds ahead while an unnerving red sun briefly arose behind us, and we could hear the wistful sound of train whistles across the fields.
Around 7:00 am we came to a rest stop at a crossroads with an historic plaque, a picnic table, a port-a-potty, and several tall conifer trees. The stone cairn was erected in memory of the pioneers of the Petrel District who established the school and the Methodist and Presbyterian Churches in this area.
As we took a break at the picnic table I looked at Google maps to remind myself of our route, and noticed a severe weather warning flashing on the map screen. I'd never seen weather noted on Google maps before, and decided it probably wasn't a good sign. Pushing the warning icon we learned that a cluster of severe thunderstorms capable of producing very strong winds, toonie sized hail, and heavy rain was in our area. Radar imagery from the Weather Network showed clusters of storms in front of and behind us. It looked like they were tracking southeast of our current position, although looking up at the sky we could see three separate layers of clouds, all going in different directions. Never before had I hoped the statistical models of the weather network were accurate! As they'd say in Newfoundland, this was some weather.
The information plaque at the rest stop indicated that we were at an interesting spot, where the Trans Canada Trail wasn't the only 'Trans Canada' corridor in the area. As we headed out of Carberry we crossed the Trans Canada Highway, and the Canadian Pacific Railway's main east-west line passes right through that town. As we headed north, the Trans Canada Trail crossed the Canadian National Railway's main Trans Canada line, which we've travelled many times on board Via Rail's passenger train The Canadian. About 2.5 miles north of the CN tracks the Trans Canada Pipeline takes oil and gas from the oilfields in the West to Ontario and many points east. Not only that, along both railroads there are fibre optic cables, which form our modern 'information highway.' Although it felt like we were sitting alone at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere, we were at a point that connected to the rest of the country in more ways than one.
Trying our best to banish thoughts of an impending apocalypse, we pushed northward on the concession through the eerie half light. The CN rail line was indeed very busy, with trains almost continuously passing along it, and we waited at the crossing for a train that was so long it seemed to stretch from one horizon to the other. Here we were firmly reminded that despite all the changes in the past century trains still hold a key and an indelible of our national character.
As the morning progressed we found ourselves trekking between potato fields, the sweet smell from the tiny white blossoms on the lush green plants mixing with the smoky air. We noticed that a lot of farmers were taking advantage of the overcast morning to water their crops, their huge sprinkler systems slowly moving through the fields.
Something else we noticed for the first time today was that instead of one crop covering an entire 1 mile square between the concession roads, each crop covered 1/4 of a square mile, and many of the potato crops were planted in a beautiful circular pattern instead of straight rows. Apparently planting in a circular pattern facilitates the use of center-pivot irrigation (aka water-wheel or circle irrigation). In this method of crop irrigation the sprinklers rotate around a central pivot and efficiently use water while optimizing the farm's yield. This stood in contrast to the fields of wheat and soy to the south which were plowed to the edge of the road.
We walked steadily north, passing between communities with names like Oberon, Wellwood, and Ingelow that sounded like they belonged in a fantasy world. When we got north of hwy 5 the gravel road came to an end and the app indicated that the Trans Canada Trail continued straight as a trail, although there were no signs on the ground confirming this. The track ahead of us ran between two fields and was deep sand. About 50 meters in water from a nearby irrigation system turned the fields and the pathways into a thick mud which immediately coated our shoes and the wheels of our carts. Given the conditions of the moment we were uncertain about how to move forward.
At which point a cyclist pulling his bike through the thick mud came across the fields, covered in soil to his knees. He stopped for a few minutes, refilled his water from our supply and enjoyed a GORP bar while advising us that the next 8-10 km were simply fields with many planted over the trail and the rest being little better than morass of thick prairie mud. His advice was to take the sure footed and passable gravel concession near by instead of continuing onward on the muddy route of the Trans Canada Trail. The young man soon struggled on pulling his mud thickened bike behind him.
When it began to rain again we decided to take the advice of locals and re-route to the gravel concession running beside us instead. On several occasions we've been advised that the roads and trails of the prairies are not 'all weather' propositions, and that locals choose their routes according to conditions. When it is wet they avoid the low muddy roads that flood because "only fools would make things worse for themselves than they need to be." We didn't want to be fools.
As we walked we could see evidence of the struggle between the need to farm as much land as possible and the desire to protect valuable ecological services. At one point we passed a beautiful marsh which was alive with birds. We could hear the melodic, downward spiral of a Veery's song, the loud chatter of a Marsh Wren, the call of a Common Yellowthroat, and the raucous complaints of Red-winged Blackbirds in the cattails. Across the road a flock of six Northern Flickers were feeding on ants on the shore, while a group of Wood Ducks paddled in the open water of the tiny pond, and an Eastern Kingbird perched on the dead branches of a nearby tree. The brilliant yellow plumage of a male American Goldfinch brightened the dark day from a nearby shrub, and an American Robin's cheerful song emanated from a pasture.
A little farther down the road we came to a beautiful rolling pasture, the curious black and white cows coming to check us out as we passed by. A group of Brewer's Blackbirds perched on the wooden fence posts along the edge of their pasture. A small group of Grasshopper Sparrows (a new exciting species!) darted back and forth, landing on the fence, diving into the grass, and perching on the low shrubs along the road edge.
All this natural diversity was set against a beautiful treed river valley in the background. Golden fields of wheat and harvested hay in the foreground turned to rolling green pastures, and in the distance the blue-green forested valley faded into the smoky haze. It was another incredibly beautiful prairie landscape, rich in natural beauty stretched out over rolling hills.
A little farther down the road however we came to a stretch of pasture where all the trees had just been cleared. Their partially burned carcasses were left in piles along the road edge, and a long row of slash lined the far edge of the pasture, clearly no longer a source of shade for the cows. Grasshopper and Savannah Sparrows as well as Brown-headed Cowbirds sat on the downed limbs as if wondering what had happened to the tree line.
Brush had been trimmed from the road edges in this stretch as well and shredded for mulch. Some of the standing trees looked like they'd like been partially mulched as well, their trunks splintered and shattered like they'd been snapped rather than cut, leaving the remaining parts of the tree open to rot and infection.
After this section of intensive management the conservation corridor was once again evident, with a plaque marking a small stand of newly planted conifers.
With 5 km left in our 48 km hike, Sean made the ill-advised comment that we'd made it, and the rest should be easy going. Although I warned him not to temp fate, it was too late. We followed the trail across hwy 5 once again, walked a concession west, and then turned north again. We were immediately greeted with a sign saying the road was closed in wet weather. The severe thunderstorms of the morning had clearly hit this region hard, and the fields and roads were soaked. Just past the sign a large puddle, filled with scummy, soapy, alkaline looking water stretched across the trail. We powered through, only to discover we were on a mud road and that puddle was the first of many. There was nothing for it but to continue on - gathering mud and gaining weight as we moved onward.
As we slogged through the thick, sticky, prairie mud we passed a field of sunflowers that were just beginning to open. Their happy faces seemed to be smiling at us. A little farther down the road we stopped to say hello to four curious horses. They let Sean pat their noses, but I just got a derisive snort. Eventually the mud turned to gravel, and the going became easier again. Phew.
Continuing on the concession descended further and further into a muddy mess and soup which added pounds of weight to our sandals and wheels. To anyone who has never experienced the effects of prairie mud there is no true way to describe its thickness, weight and ability to hinder all motion as one tries to navigate it. We have certainty never encountered anything quite like it, are continually grateful to only have had to deal with it periodically on our trek. It is perhaps one of the few benefits of venturing across the region in the midst of a drought.
As we plodded the last few kilometers into town we passed a lovely couple out walking the trail. They stopped to ask what we were doing, and in our frustration and exhaustion we may have been a little brisk, for which we would like to send out an apology. When they heard about our trek the man said he was a local nature writer who had been instrumental in getting the Rossburn Subdivision Trail made into a trail, which we thanked him for. When we mentioned we were excited to check out the bird sanctuary here they informed us that it had been decimated by the 100 year flood that hit Neepawa last year. It seems crazy to think that this region was flooded when the area we were in a week ago is experiencing the second year of a crippling draught. Either way, it was really nice to meet yet another trail builder!
After 49 km of trekking we are grateful to have arrived, grateful that the weather and temperature cooled down, but darned exhausted as well. As of tonight we have now completed what we have termed the 'Trails of Southern Manitoba' and about 320 km (or approximately 10 days) from the Saskatchewan border.