Monday, July 26, 2021

Prairie Mud and Gopher Holes : Neepawa to beyond Bethany

After a rather sleepless night we made our coffee and ate a muffin top each (yes, apparently you can buy boxes of muffin tops outside of Seinfeld), and headed out into a dark, overcast morning.  The world was shrouded in fog, but the strong smoky smell and thick oily quality of the air from the past few days seemed to be gone. 

We made our way through the quiet treed streets of Neepawa, retracing some of our steps from yesterday, and picked up the Rossburn Subdivision Trail at the edge of town.  This 175 km rail trail will take us from Neepawa to Russell, passing through several small communities and two First Nations along the way.  Manitoba Trails describes it as a nature trail and gravel trail, suitable for hiking, biking, horseback riding, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling. We're looking forward to a different experience from the gravel concessions we've hiked for the past several hundred kilometers.   Our only concern was that twice while in Neepawa two sets of people had said that the Rossburn Subdivision Trail was "beautiful land to travel through" but that "it was really an ATV trail or Snowmobile path, not something you want to hike".  

As we made our way north we had highway 5 on one side and fields of canola, wheat, and hay on the other. In all directions the landscape disappeared into the fog, giving us a sense of almost complete isolation.  Beside us a row of small shrubs and trees was alive with Clay-coloured and Vesper Sparrows busily feeding young.  The soft cooing of Mourning Doves filtered through the mist, and the dry 'cronk' of American Crows sounded from among the bales of hay in a nearby field.  A row of Common Grackles was lined up on a utility wire, and a Western Meadowlark gave its distinctive call from atop a fence post.  The foggy morning felt still, peaceful, and romantic.

As we made our way along, the crunch of our boots on the gravel, which has accompanied us for nearly a month now, was replaced with swish, swish, squish as we waded through calf deep tall grass and wildflowers.  There were two tire tracks for us to follow on the grassy track, but the rain from yesterday and last night left the vegetation heavy and wet, and the plants were bowed over onto the tracks, soaking our legs and shoes almost immediately. 

As soon as we picked up the rail trail we discovered another hazard that we haven't encountered since before Emerson.  Badger burrows!  There was a high density of these enormous cart-wheel-swallowing holes at the beginning of the trail, and to make matters worse most of them were hidden by the vegetation.  Sean was pushing his cart in front of him, and when it unexpectedly dropped into one of these invisible holes, coming to a complete and very sudden stop, he almost took his front teeth out on the cart handle.  I quickly began pulling my cart behind me to avoid a similar fate.  It also meant that we now had to trek much more slowly and always watch the ground to avoid breaking a leg or twisting an ankle.  It was pretty obvious this section of trail couldn't safely be travelled by bicycle, on horseback, or o foot without extreme care.

Otherwise, the beginning of the trail was very pleasant, with several small wooden bridges over meandering creeks.  Both creeks had water in them, leading us to wonder if they were fed by yesterday's rain, or if we've entered a different micro-climate here which hasn't been as severely affected by the drought s bit farther south.

A few concessions north of Neepawa the trail crossed the highway and began heading west.  This section was quite a bit more overgrown than the first, with the grasses reaching above our knees in some places.  A short way down the trail we came to a very large farm complex, which we believe housed chickens, and which was operated by a Hutterite Colony.

Hutterites, or Hutterite Brethren, are a communal branch of the Anabaptists, which means they believe in conscious adult baptism.  Like the Amish and the Mennonites they arose in the 15th century in Switzerland, and emigrated to Eastern Europe and eventually to Russia seeking religious freedom.  Today there are around 490 colonies of Hutterites, almost all of whom live in Western Canada and the Upper Great Plains of the United States. They live a communal lifestyle, sharing meals, working together, and being economically and spiritually interdependent.  As we could see from the large farming operation, Hutterites have embraced technology, including computers and cell phones, although they attempt to avoid using it in ways that disrupt social interactions and community.

After we passed this large farming complex, the rail trail pulled away from the road a little, and we found ourselves surrounded on all sides by quiet rolling fields that disappeared into the distance.  There were no roads, cars, or houses in sight, which is something we hadn't experienced yet in Manitoba.  As large as the distances are out here between roads and communities, we can usually see a house or barn somewhere on the horizon.  Today we were alone in the still, foggy, rain soaked fields.

Although the skies were grey, we were surrounded by colour.  Yellow, white, and purple wildflowers bordered the trail.  Fields of yellow canola disappeared into the fog.  The wheat fields, many of which are just beginning to turn brown on top, looked like they where green dappled with patches of golden light.

As we progressed the trail became increasingly muddy. In places the trail had been ploughed under, becoming part of the wheat fields.  Here we trusted the TCT signage and walked across planted fields as there was no other way forward.   The thick, sticky, black mud stuck to our shoes and coated the wheels in a heavy layer.  At one point we came to a 'Low Level Crossing' sign, and discovered the bridge was out.   The grassy trail, which was extremely slippery from the rain, dipped sharply down in a mess of water, mud, tall grass and cattails before climbing steeply back up as a muddy track.  I slipped on the way up, doing a face plant in the mud and getting it everywhere in the process, even on the top of my head.  And so it was that by 9 am in the morning I was covered from head to toe in thick prairie mud.  Pulling myself upright I literally had to claw my way up the muddy slope to continue onward. As a result both the cart's wheels and myself were soon thick with the heavy contents of the fields.  

For the next 25 km trail conditions varied.  In some places the tire track ruts were firm and the grass was relatively short.  In other parts the grass was nearly waist high, interspersed with small saplings, and the wheel ruts were pure mud.  

We struggled along, waging a constant war on the prairie mud and mostly losing, until two concessions before we reached the tiny community of Bethany.  At that point we'd had enough of fighting the mud, and decided to box up a concession and over several for a break, and pick the trail back up in Bethany. 

Our reward for this foolishness was to find a 'road' that had even deeper mud than the trail. Although we had mud everywhere, and our shoes were heavy bricks of sticky mud, we persisted and eventually picked up a gravel concession.  At the point where the two roads met we found a sign saying 'Road Closed When Wet.' No kidding. We then proceeded to climb up and down four incredibly tall and steep hills while boxing around a gravel pit.  We assume the rail trail was flat, with only a 2% grade.  I guess it serves us right, although having a break from the mud felt worthwhile, especially given the toll it took on Sean's feet.

We picked up the trail again in Bethany, and to our delight found that it was hard packed gravel, and the grass had been freshly mowed!  We'd like to thank whomever did this work, because it was a pleasure to walk this stretch of trail!

Not long after leaving Bethany we came to a beautiful cattail marsh.  Red-winged Blackbirds called from among the reeds, and a flock of Franklin's Gulls flew by overhead.  An American Robin sang from a tree nearby and a Wood Duck swam on the open water.  Overhead a Turkey Vulture soared on the breeze.

By around 6 pm the sun had burned through the cloud cover, increasing the temperature and raising the humidity, and we'd walked about 36 km.  We took a break beside a lovely stand of trees, and eventually decided to pitch the tent and camp there for the night.  Just as we were setting up a large bear and two cubs came running full steam across the trail, not too far from the tent.  We weren't sure if we should move on or not, but since the bear family was moving fast, and they didn't hang around, we decided to stay put.

As the sun was setting a White-tailed Deer who was just beginning to grow fuzzy little antlers came leaping and bounding out of the wheat beside us.  He huffed and snorted loudly as he went. With visions of bears still in our heads, this startled us quite a bit. A little while later two very polite teenagers on ATVs drove by the tent, which is right on the edge of the trail.  Apparently this is quite a busy corridor! As I finish this blog I'm listening to the breeze rustling the leaves of the aspen trees in the grove beside us and the sun is bringing another day on the Trans Canada Trail to a conclusion. 

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