We emerged from our comforting, cool oasis bright and early this morning, ready to take advantage of the slightly cooler temperatures. Almost immediately we hit several snags.
As we crossed the Red River we spotted a Belted Kingfisher flying along the water's edge, and we passed through a mixed cloud of Cliff, Bank, and Tree Swallows by the bridge, all chartering excitedly in the morning air. A White-tailed Deer bounded off down the shoreline at our approach.The Trans Canada Trail makes several loops in Emerson, and we'd explored most of them yesterday. However, we were confused by the signage around the Manitoba Tourism Center and the App, which suggested two different routes out of town. The App indicated we should head right down to the Customs building to cross the six to eight lane highway, whereas the signs indicated otherwise. After a bit of confusion we made our way north on an access road, past the Tourism Center, and crossed the highway at Post Road. As we progressed we listened to the vigorous complaints of over a dozen Killdeer, the loud clear notes of a Western Meadowlark signing from atop a signpost, and watched a flock of Rock Pigeons wheeling through the air above the parking lot.
After crossing the highway we followed the Post Road for a few hundred meters and then headed down to the border, where we were supposed to spend most of the day heading west along the grassy berm between Canada and the US. What we found was a trail covered in waist high grass that concealed numerous badger holes. Some of these hidden hazards were large enough to swallow the wheels of our carts, and they were surprisingly deep, making us hope we were lucky enough to meet the impressive seeming badgers that created them! As interesting as it may have been, we had no wish to drag the carts through that mess for the next 22 km, so we headed back up north one concession - still being followed unsubtly by our now ever present black Canadian Border Services SUV - and continued along the Post Road, finally heading due west for the first time this year. A concession later the CBSA officers turned their vehicle around and with a rev of their engine drove eastward leaving us to proceed on our own.
The post road was constructed in 1878, to help the early pioneers safely navigate the route between Emerson and Mountain City (now Morden) during winter when the road was lost in the snow. Wooden posts that were 10 ft tall and 6 in diameter were erected 250 ft apart all along the route, and these markers were what the pioneers followed through the snow to get safely in to town for supplies. It was the only marked road in the area, and soon the mail service began using it as well. As we hiked the route today we could still see remnants of these posts along the way.
Construction of the Post Road was no easy feat. When the pioneers arrived on the prairies there were no trees to harvest for firewood, or to make into lumber for homes, barns, or fenced animal enclosures. When they first arrived, most settlers lived in sod huts in the ground. The fact that each community along the road was able to donate wooden posts of those dimensions and labour speaks to the importance of this route in surviving the harsh conditions out on the prairies.
As more Europeans settled the land, more roads were built, different machinery was used, and eventually the eastern portion of the road fell into disuse. By 1930 there was no sign of it on aerial survey photographs, but the western portion, which we walked today, became a gravel road called PR243. Incidentally, this road is also the route the North West Mounted Police took on their March West.
As we headed west today, into what was the Mennonite farming reserve, the land seemed to take on a slightly different character. It was still a minimalist landscape, dominated by geometric lines and angles formed by roads, hydro corridors, utility poles, railway lines, and the fields themselves. However, there were considerably more trees on the landscape, standing in small patches, surrounding homes and yards, and forming wind breaks between the fields. These small patches of green seemed to support an abundance of wildlife.
We stopped to watch a small group of Horned Larks foraging in the middle of the gravel road. Beside us American Robins were singing in the tall cottonwoods, the soft cooing of Mourning Doves floated out of the farmyard on the morning air, and a Great Crested Flycatcher perched on the utility wire, a little ways down from a Brewer's Blackbird. All of a sudden an enormous light brown hawk/immature eagle swooped low over the road clutching an unfortunate skunk in its talons, with a flock of irate Red-winged Blackbirds following in hot pursuit. Unfortunately, the raptor flew away from us across the farm before we could identify it. So much life.
A little farther along the road a man noticed us and sped down his laneway in a golf cart to ask us where we were coming from. He was very friendly and remembered a man walking the Trans Canada Trail a few years ago. He couldn't remember the name, but we bet it was Dana Meise, the first person to officially walk all three branches of the Trans Canada Trail, finishing in 2018.
As we continued along we spotted a few wind turbines on the horizon, bringing back memories of the Caminos in Spain and Portugal. As we passed a Mennonite farm three American Kestrels chased each other among the treetops. A trio of American Goldfinches flew by overhead, seeming to glow against an improbably blue sky. A pair of Brown-headed Cowbirds perched on the utility pole. Most improbably, a Wood Frog jumped in great leaps and bounds along the dusty gravel road ahead of us. It seemed so out of context to us in this agricultural landscape!
Very little traffic passed us today, but a farmer in a pickup truck stopped to chat. He too was very friendly and supportive, and told us that he farmed the land along the border. He said he was glad we weren't on the trail down there because he didn't think it improved much west of Emerson, and he considered it largely impassable at the moment. It was good to have a second opinion that jived with ours and reaffirmed our decision to walk the historic Post Road instead.
As we walked the road we occasionally passed historic markers, gravestones, and memorials. We stopped for a break in a lovely shady cemetery near the pioneer settlement of Edenburg, which contained both old and new gravestones. Many of the names on the headstones belonged to the six families who originally founded the settlement in 1879. We sat on a bench under the shade of a tree and watched an American Kestrel being chased by irate Brewer's Blackbirds and a Red-headed Woodpeckers making its way up the trunk of a cottonwood tree. A very vocal House Wren was busily feeding nestlings in the tree above us, and while we searched for its nest cavity we discovered a geocache!
By mid-morning we reached the small community of Gretna Manitoba. We walked around a large Enbridge Natural Gas hub, and in to town a grassy track lined with evergreen saplings. Apparently these young trees are part of an initiative dedicated to planting 8,500 trees along the trail in the area. As the sun beat down on our heads, we are 100% in favour of this ingenious scheme!
We stopped in a small gazebo on the main street of Gretna, which featured a very modern Credit Union, a historic red brick Post Office, a Variety Store, and a grain elevator. There was a beautifully landscaped prairie grass garden around the gazebo, complete with an iron bison sculpture, and inside was a historical cairn dedicated to the North West Mounted Police, who apparently stopped to make camp 2 miles up the road on their March West. I guess our trek today was longer than theirs.
After a refreshing break in the lovely shade, complete with ice cream and cold drinks, we headed back out into the country along a beautiful section of rail trail. As the afternoon progressed we made our way along the Altona-Gretna Rhineland Rail Trail, which brought us to the border of the West Reserve Land which was set aside for the Mennonites in the late 1800s. The Mennonites were the first large group to immigrate en masse to Canada, and they negotiated two blocks of land - the East Reserve consisting of 8 townships east of the Red River, and the West Reserve, consisting of 17 townships on the west side of the river. Originally these blocks were set aside for the exclusive use of the Mennonites, but in 1898 they were opened to general settlement.
As we approached Altona we began to see fields of sunflowers. This town was founded in 1880, and today it is known as the "Sunflower Capital of Canada." Since 1965 it has hosted an annual Sunflower Festival, during which a Sunflower Queen is crowned, there is dancing, art, baseball, a quilt show, and more.