Monday, July 26, 2021

Painted Landscapes : Beyond Bethany to Erickson

Last night was dark and peaceful, but we seemed to have pitched the tent in a high traffic area for curious White-tailed Deer.  Five times during the night we heard soft crunching footsteps on the trail, just a few feet from our heads, and looked out to see a deer watching us intently.  As soon as we lifted our heads to peek out of the tent the deer would bound away, huffing in consternation.

This morning dawned with a thick white fog that seemed to permeate everything.  In the aspen stand beside us we could hear the slow, repetitious 'Here I am, where are you?' of a Red-eyed Vireo, the 'chebec' call of a Least Flycatcher, and the cheerful notes of a Song Sparrow.  All else was quiet and still as we made our morning coffee.

After packing up our mostly sodden gear we set off down the trail into a magical world. Since hiking in Manitoba we've grown used to being able to see for miles in every direction, but this morning we walked in our own tiny bubble of visibility, the landscape revealing itself little by little as we walked along.  Fields of wheat that were beginning to turn brown, and bright yellow fields of canola disappeared into the mist.  The world felt strangely timeless, and it was easy to imagine that we belonged in a different century, with the ox cart trains and pioneers of old.

Just before we reached the tiny community of Clanwilliam a cattail marsh emerged from the mist.  We heard the raucous calls of many Red-winged Blackbirds, the chatter of a Marsh Wren, and the loud and haunting calls of a prehistoric sounding bird that we didn't recognize.  The shapes of the trees at the edges of the water, the lush green cattails, and the ghostly shapes of the birds moving about, some of them just beyond out sight, were stunningly beautiful.

When we reached Clanwilliam we made a detour to the Canada Post office, which also serves as a bakery and General Store.  When we went inside it was full of locals enjoying a morning coffee together.  We ended up sharing our story with them, and it turned out the owner of the 100 year old shop was a birder!  She had been noticing that over the past few winters American Robins and American Goldfinches have started overwintering in the area.  She also shared a rare bird sighting from last winter, when a Varied Thrush from the West Coast visited the area, attracting the attention of twitchers from miles around.

As we enjoyed some delicious butter tarts and coffee, one of the locals shared photos of antique tractors that he had restored and preserved.  Apparently they are diesel run, and he knows how to start them using shotgun shells or pieces of burning paper, which is much more fuel-efficient than the way tractors normally start apparently.  With a twinkle in his eye, he shared an amusing story about how a museum inherited and restored several similar tractors, but the young museum's techs couldn't figure out how to get them to run.  He shocked them all by using a shotgun shell, which gave off a dramatic explosion, shot across the room, and filled the museum with smoke. 

The farmers also spoke about the drought.  Apparently the wheat is nowhere near as tall as it should be, which means there won't be much straw for the animals this winter and it is failing to produce fruiting heads the way it should.  A second hay harvest is likely also impossible, and no one can find hay for sale to feed their animals.  The farmers are mowing the trail, and will bale that as well, because they need all the help they can get.  It isn't like they can buy hay from south of the border either, because the American Midwest is in the grip of a once in a 1000 years drought as well. Last year this region had severed flooding. Things are bad out here and it will clearly take the smartest minds and most dedicated citizens to find a means to help the prairie provinces. 

When we mentioned seeing black bears on the trail last night, we learned another bit of interesting local knowledge.  Apparently it is pretty common for bears in Riding Mountain National Park to have 2-3 cubs at a time, which is unusual for bears, who typically only give birth to one cub at a time.  There have been more bears than normal this past year in this area, and the speculation was that this is because there have been fewer hunters coming up from the US the past year due to covid-19 related travel restrictions.  An unexpected connection.

Before leaving we signed the guest book, and talk turned to another guy who had walked through the town a couple of years ago on his way west and north.  We think this was likely Dana, whose footsteps we seem to be following closely across the prairies.

Shortly after leaving Clanwilliam the sun began to burn through the mist and fog, turning the world into a sauna as the temperature rose.  The air was suddenly filled with the sweet smell of damp hay and wildflowers.  We continued down the beautiful, hard packed and well mowed rail trail, enjoying the morning, but realizing that perhaps we should have set out earlier to avoid the heat.

Although we realized we should pick up our pace, we found ourselves walking past one cattail marsh after another, and getting increasingly distracted by the birds.  In many of these prairie pothole lakes conservationists had erected duck tunnels, which are wire tubes filled with straw that provide secure nesting sites for waterfowl.

In the past few days we've entered the Prairie Pothole Region, which is an expansive area in the northern Great Plains that contains thousands of small wetlands called potholes, kettle lakes, or kettles.  These shallow depressions were formed during the Wisconsin glaciation about 10,000 years ago, when the retreating glacier left behind uneven deposits of sand and silt.  The kettle lakes fill with water in spring, creating wetlands which can range from temporary ponds to semi-permanent cattail marshes.

Our first highlight was coming across a Virginia Rail who was running back and forth across the trail calling loudly beside a tiny marsh.  We've heard the grunting calls of these elusive birds on several occasions in the past, but they typically remain hidden in dense cattails or marsh vegetation.  It was very satisfying to finally see one up close, although we didn't stick around long as we assumed it's agitation was the result of hidden fledglings close by.

At the next marsh we spotted two pairs of Yellow-headed Blackbirds busily feeding young.  We couldn't see the nests in the dense cattails, but as the adults approached with beakfuls of juicy dragonflies and insects we could hear the loud cries of the hungry nestlings across the marsh.  On the same little pond we spotted an American Coot paddling around in the open water, which is a first for us in Manitoba.  Eastern Kingbirds, American Robins, American Goldfinches, and the obligatory Marsh Wren were also adding to the din.  A Red-tailed Hawk soared high above us, giving its iconic screech for good measure.

As the fog cleared we realized that the landscape had taken on a new character.  We were surrounded by soft, round, undulating hills that looked kind of like giant moguls on a downhill ski slope - also the result of glacial activity.  They were covered by yellow canola which had patches of lush green showing through, making them look like a drawing that had been carefully shaded by a young artist.  

The rail trail steadily climbed, giving us a panoramic view out over this stunning landscape.  Tucked in among the colourful hills were many pothole lakes, their surfaces reflecting the strong clear blue of the sky above.  As we looked out over the magnificent vista below the eerie yodel of a Common Loon sounded from above.  A group of 15 American White Pelicans flew by overhead, and a small group of Franklin's Gulls, looking tiny in comparison, flew by in the opposite direction.

All morning we had been looking forward to meeting Jean, who lives along the trail and had very kindly invited us for rhubarb muffins and coffee.  We didn't have cell service after Clanwilliam, so we weren't sure exactly where we were, but she had given us very detailed instructions for finding her home, so we thought we'd be fine.  Just as we thought we should start paying attention and begin looking for the landmarks she'd given us, we arrived at the edge of Erickson.  Somehow we'd gotten so distracted with the birds and the beauty around us that we'd blown past without even realizing it! This was a huge disappointment and we felt very bad.  By this point it was 3:30 pm and the sun was beating down hard, so turning around really wasn't an option.

We continued around the edge of Erickson on the rail trail until we came to Sunset Park, on the shores of Leda Lake.  This beautiful grassy park had a few picnic tables and stone benches overlooking the lake, and a replica of a wooden Viking ship.

There was also a very colourful and beautiful wooden Trans Canada Trail sign, showing a hiker against a scenic background, in which we were happy to note that birds outnumbered people 4 to 1.  We made a quick stop at the General Store in town for a cold drink and an ice cream, and then continued on down the trail to the campground. 

We were delighted to discover a lovely campground with treed sites, drinkable water, an immaculately clean washroom with a shower (pure heaven!), and a wonderfully friendly site host.  We sheltered in the shade of the trees (yes trees!!) and relaxed at the picnic table, glad to have discovered this beautiful spot.

As we sat there Doug drove up in his truck, having recognized our tent from the road.  He has been following our hike online, and we were looking forward to meeting him when we reach Sandy Lake tomorrow afternoon. It was a pleasant surprise to meet him here, and he very generously gave us a bag of delicious clementines!  Maybe we will meet him again tomorrow.

We luxuriated in cold showers, and then packed up our highly offensive laundry and headed back to town.  After hand washing our clothes in our small bucket for several weeks, and after a few days of them never really drying out in the humid weather, proper laundry was definitely in order!

The ADK Store is a wonderful establishment that is a general store, cafe, ice cream vendor, and laundromat.  Sitting in the air conditioned back room writing and waiting for our laundry felt lovely, and when it was done (twice, just for good measure) we purchased a tasty picnic of fries and delicious veggie sandwiches which we ate in the park on the edge of the lake.

Leda Lake is a Ducks Unlimited wetland, and beyond a wide margin of cattails it was absolutely filled with waterfowl.  Unfortunately they were pretty far out in the lake, and we were looking into the setting sun, so we weren't able to identify anything other than the flocks of enormous American White Pelicans.  It felt like a birding bonanza, but one we could hear without actually being able to see close up.  Oh to have a tiny, weightless, unbreakable spotting scope we could tuck away in our packs!

As we looked out at the beautiful lake we were sitting beside the replica Viking Ship, and we noticed a Nordic Inn downtown.  The town has just under 500 inhabitants, and it was originally established as a stop along the CN Railway in 1905. When the post office opened in 1908 it was renamed Avesta, after a town in south-central Sweden.  My brief search has failed to identify the story behind the Nordic theme, but I assume the original settlers were of Swedish or Nordic descent.

Today we had a sense that our time in Manitoba is coming to an end.  Road signs point down the highway to Regina and Yorkton now.  We met a couple from Melville, SK as we entered Erickson, who stopped for a friendly chat. Even the license plates on cars are increasingly from Saskatchewan and Alberta.  This morning we were warned of possible severe weather coming in from across the Saskatchewan border.  We think we know have only 10 days left in this beautiful province. The red sun has sunk below the horizon, and as we watch a nearly constant stream of gulls, ducks, and pelicans flying past overhead on their way to the lake, we realize we are going to miss this.

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