Sunday, July 18, 2021

Shifting Expectations and Tough Decisions : Cypress River to Spruce Woods Provincial Park

We were woken up bright and early by the very loud songs of several American Robins, the chattering of a family of House Sparrows that was nesting in the eves of the agricultural building beside us, and the cooing of an improbable number of Mourning Doves.  We were packed up and underway by 6:30 am, hoping to get some kilometers in before the temperatures once again climbed into the high 30's. 

Sometimes the best intentions are scuppered almost right away, and this morning we were waylaid by a beautiful marsh right at the edge of town.  The Cypress River Millennium Park was a shady, grassy park with several picnic tables under a large roofed pavilion provided  courtesy of the Trans Canada Trail!  There were lots of interpretive signs in the park, and behind the pavilion was a large freshwater cattail marsh with several wooden boardwalks and observation platforms.  

We spent a happy hour watching Barn Swallows feeding nestlings in the pavilion, listening to a plucky little Marsh Wren belt its song while perched sideways on a cattail, and watching bright yellow American Goldfinches bounce through the sky.  An Eastern Kingbird perched high in the dead branches of a tree, and a Grey Catbird babbled away from a few feet below it. 

The raucous calls of Red-winged Blackbirds added to the din, as did the songs of American Robins, Common Yellowthroats, and Yellow Warblers.  When we walked out on the boardwalk we spotted several families of Mallards and Wood Ducks paddling among the cattails.  A definite highlight was watching a group of five Black-crowned Night Herons taking off out of the reeds. We could easily have spent more time in that lush and vibrant marsh, but the sun was coming up and we knew we had to move on. 

As we walked down the side of the highway we noticed that corn had been planted right to the edge of the cattails in this featured marsh.  On the other side of the busy highway cows were grazing on the muddy bank, and one of them was drinking from the pond. An irrigation pipe had been lowered directly into the marsh a little farther along, to allow water to be pumped into the surrounding fields. Clearly the marsh was doing well and supporting an abundance of wildlife, but we were a little surprised that no buffers had been maintained to help keep the waters clean and preserve this important island of natural habitat. 

As we turned north on a gravel concession road we were passed by three huge transport trucks filled with pigs.  A little while later we were passed by a convoy of mysterious (to us) farm machinery that was being used to load and transport a truly huge line of stacked hay bales.  Still farther along yet another enormous machine came up behind us before turning into a field to begin harvesting wheat.  It seems like this is going to be another busy day for farmers. 

The concession was bordered by some natural vegetation, beyond which was a mix of hay, wheat, and corn fields.  As we passed a small marshy area we spotted a male Wood Duck perched on a rock above the duckweed.  On a small grassy island in the marsh a Solitary Sandpiper stood still as a statue.  

A few steps farther down the trail we watched a tiny, spotted Canadian Toad leaping across the gravel trail.  This toad occurs in the prairie regions of North America, and gets its Latin name from the word 'eyebrow,' which refers to the pronounced ridge over its eyes.  This was a new species for us! 

Soon we could see a wall of a green in front of us which marked the edge of Spruce Woods Provincial Park.  We'd been looking forward to walking through this beautiful treed green space for a while, imagining walking along under a canopy of shade trees for the first time since St. Malo Provincial Park.  Although the prairies are incredibly beautiful in their own right, I have a strong affinity for trees, and I've been missing their cool shady sanctuary dearly, especially with the punishing heat and drought.  

Yet despite the rising temperatures and ongoing drought conditions here, as we trekked down the gravel concession we came to a group of gentlemen sitting in their trucks.  When they noticed us while taking a break and cooling off in the air conditioning of their vehicles they waved us over to ask what we were doing.  In the conversation that followed we found that they were taking a break from cutting down trees in the area - not for lumber, or for sale, but simply to clear the land.  They were cutting what they could while waiting for the fire ban to lift in order to burn the piles.   According to them the financial situation is now so bad for farmers in the prairies that they need to clear all the land possible to plant more crops.  This explains why so many of the dried river streams we have seen are now being plowed, why ditches beside the roads are planted full and why so many farms have been actively cutting down the few remaining stands of trees.  In the midst of the punishing heat however it was difficult for us to comprehend the cutting of what little shade left on the landscape.  Saying our goodbyes - and reflecting on the intense pressures that Canadian farmers face in simple being able to hold onto their properties - we continued on to the nearby border of the provincial park. 

We knew that the backcountry trails in Manitoba are currently closed due to a high risk of forest fires, but on the map it looked to us like we could walk through the park on the road, which tightly paralleled the trail in many places in any case.  To our utter dismay, when we reached the park boundary we found the 'road,' which was actually more of a sandy track, was also roped off and closed. We phoned the number for the Manitoba Conservation Authority on the sign, and they directed us around the closure on concession roads.  

Thanks to the help of Manitoba Conservation officers, we were able to box around the closure, and re-join the trail on the far side of it (adding 20+ km to our day).  Now closer to the TCT than we had been for the past 5 hours, we found ourselves on a highly exposed gravel road, surrounded on both sides by the trees of the park, but not actually near or under them.  We were again near to the official Trans Canada Trail which wove along on the edge of the gravel road as a narrow, white, footpath through the grass.  While it was only 5 feet away from the road it was also clearly inside the Park Boundaries and therefore closed to us.

After the extra kilometers, and in the now extreme heat of the afternoon, it was hard not to feel absolutely crushed by our unfilled expectations.  We had set our hearts on a day of trekking under a canopy of shade trees, and instead found ourselves baking on the road edge for another day. Just as we were moping along, we looked up and realized that we were walking between restored mixed grass prairies, experimental grazing pastures, and small patches of tall-grass prairie preserves.  It seemed it was once again time to learn that important lesson - accept don't expect.  If you let yourself become attached to unrealized expectations you run the risk of missing the beauty in what is actually there.  Often this is just as good or better than what you'd unrealistically hoped for.  

Once we started looking, we saw incredible beauty all around us.  There was a whole palette of different greens represented in the grasslands, ranging from pale blue-green to yellowish brown, to reddish green to a dry light blond.  Against this subtle and varied background were the tiny dots of dark purple, pale blue, vibrant pink, and bright yellow wildflowers, looking like they belonged in an impressionist painting.  The occasional dark green of ground junipers added intriguing focal points and sent up a strong spicy smell when stepped on. 

Not only were these landscapes incredibly beautiful, their preservation is also vitally important. Before the arrival of European Settlers south-central Manitoba was covered in tall-grass prairie which included an astonishing variety of grasses, wildflowers, orchids, and wildlife.  This rich and complex ecosystem produced incredibly fertile soils, which were perfect for growing cereal and forage crops.  Today less than 1% of the original 6,000 sq km of tall-grass prairies remains, much of it in areas that were too rocky to farm, so it was a privilege to experience some of it today. 

The road we were on skirted the edge of Spruce Woods Provincial Park, which followed the steep treed valley along the meandering Assiniboine River.  We stopped in the shade of a few cottonwood trees in the parking lot for the Steel's Ferry Overlook, which is at the trailhead for a 1.2 km loop that apparently provides stunning views down the river corridor.  It turns out this trail was actually open, but we didn't realize it at the time, and we felt it was too hot for additional exploration with all our gear in any case. 

After this brief break we continued on, the gravel road taking us through a section of grassland that was burnt a golden brown.  It was very colourful, and something about the dry, open landscape with its tall, lone trees made us feel like we were walking the Serengeti in Africa.  We found ourselves looking for giraffes.  Instead, we spotted a Turkey Vulture making lazy circles overhead, and a Northern Harrier hunting low to the ground.  Interestingly was have found that most of the hawks and harriers that we have seen in Manitoba have not been perched on the tops of trees surveying the land but have instead been standing in fields - which takes some getting used to seeing. 

Around 4 pm we finally made it to our huge and shady campsite in the Kitche Manitou campground in Spruce Woods Provincial Park.  Our planned 28 km trek had been transformed into a 49 km endeavor. 

 As we sat at the picnic table, relaxing and trying to cool off, we watched two different squirrels scampering around.  The boldest were the Franklin's Ground Squirrels, which our friendly neighbours referred to as Rock-tailed Squirrels. There seemed to be three of these cuties, and they came right up to us, weaving between our feet and checking out the tent.  

Rather sadly they were clearly incredibly thirsty, coming to a within a few inches of us to drink and drink and drink the water in our small bucket.  Bees, hover flies, ants, and all manner of other insects were also drawn to the moisture, clearly indicating how hard this drought is on the wildlife.  

Meanwhile, an American Red Squirrel was making soft sighing and groaning sounds as it tucked itself into a leafy cocoon and lay stretched full length on a tree branch.  It is really hot and dry out here! 

Cooling off in the blessed shade, we were serenaded by a Red-eyed Vireo, an Eastern Phoebe, and an extremely loud cicada.  As the sun began to set we walked along the sandy and eroded banks of the winding Assiniboine River, noticing that the water level was far below the tops of the banks.  Patches of dry sand were exposed in the middle of the waterway, and other campers had walked out to explore them and watch the sunset.  As we surveyed the treed river valley a group of five huge American White Pelicans flew by overhead. 

We walked down the winding paved park road to the Main Office, where there is an Interpretive Center, a mini golf course, a playground, and a store and concession stand inside a replica of Fort Des Epinettes. 

Fort Des Epinettes, or Pine Fort, was a trading post on the Assiniboine River that was active between 1768 and 1811.  It was the first post on the Assiniboine River, and closely tied to other forts in the region through the fur trade.  Its strategic location enabled it to secure furs from the Cree, Ojibwe, and Assiniboine, as well as buffalo robes, horses, and corn from the Madans.  

It was originally established by three independent traders from the Montreal region, but met resistance from the local Assinibione, who wanted to preserve their own role in the trade route along the Assinibone River.  After a smallpox epidemic wiped out many of the Indigenous and white traders, a second outpost was established by the North West Company 3/4 of a mile upstream, which operated until 1794.  It became active in the pemmican trade as well.  In 1794 the NWC moved their operations to a new location. 

Before European settlement the Assiniboin People occupied the plains from the Red River west to the Rocky Mountains, and the Assiniboine River takes its name from this branch of the Dakota Nation.  This Nation is composed of several different groups who speak Nakota, a variation of the Dakota language.  They moved widely, living in encampments of 400 to 1,500 people and occasionally gathering in groups of 3,000 people. 

The Assiniboin People played an important role in developing the inland fur trade.  They guided early European explorers, including Verendrye, supplied forts with pemmican, and traded as far north as York Factory.  Their alliances with the Cree and Ojibway in the north, and the Mandan and Hidasta in the south created a prosperous trade network along the river.  By the mid-1800's European diseases and the disappearance of the buffalo drove the Assiniboine west into Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Montana, where their descendants live today.  

We stopped for an ice cream at the replica fort and carried it down to the beach, listening to hordes of very happy children splashing and playing in the oxbow lake, which seemed to have much higher water levels than the river.  It is a lovely campground, and tonight it is full of people out enjoying nature. 

Being in this beautiful treed park feels like a small vacation, and we are disappointed that more of the trails aren't open for us to explore.  In particular, we'd love to walk the Spirit Sands and Devil's Punch Bowl Trail.  This trail takes hikers through a 4 km sq section of open, blowing sand dunes that tower 30 meters above the surrounding prairie.  This unique landscape is home to creatures like the Hognose Snake, the Northern Prairie Skink (Manitoba's only lizard), and both Prickly Pear and Pincushion cacti.  The Devil's Punch Bowl is described as an eerie blue-green pond that is constantly fed by shifting sands from 45 m tall dunes.  It sounds like a sight to see, and we're very sorry to have missed it, but as always, we will respect local guidelines and restrictions and recreate responsibly. 


  1. Great post. Love the squirrel pictures. They look very different than the types we have on the west coast. Always great to consider early travellers and settlers on my own smaller trips on the TCT, knowing that fresh cold water and belly filling food is always just a short walk (relatively) away and that I have a portable map that will show me abundant choices. A life saving trading post is all people might have had, on any given day at one time. I'm glad you shared with the squirrels. They share the land with us. Only right that when we have plenty we share with them, in appropriate situations.

  2. Thank you for your observations, your insights, and for your words. So few take the time to offer their pictures and their experiences. I especially appreciated the words about how drought is hurting small animals and even insects!

  3. I love your narrative and the photos! I felt I was walking with you, particularly as you described the beauty of the Prairie and the sounds of birds. I moved from Winnipeg in 1979, but have made the drive back twice - and will do so again this summer, pandemic restrictions permitting. When I came to the end of your story, I was reminded of the two summers I was involved with the archaeological dig of Pine Fort in 1972 and 1973. Hugh Mackie led the Archaeological Club at Glenlawn - a motley collection of students of whom I was one. Thank you for this beautiful tour of an amazing part of Manitoba!

  4. Interesting that Epinette was translated into Pine. The tree Epinette actually is the Spruce.


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