We set off an hour later than we intended to, but it was still a cool morning with a soft pink sky as we left the pavement of Somerset behind around 6:30 am. Once again there was a lot of smoke in the air, thick enough to obscure the horizon and to give us slightly sore throats and burning eyes.
Today we hiked through some incredibly beautiful rolling hill country, and almost right away we began climbing. For the first concession or so we were passed repeatedly by a fleet of trucks hauling gravel or sand from a nearby quarry. The drivers all smiled and waved as they passed, and many slowed down when they could, but with the steep hills this was often impossible, and at many points we were invisible to them until the last moment. We were blanketed in a lot of dust in that first concession, but we soon turned down a quieter road.
We passed several abandoned homes and barns, which seemed to tell the story of past struggles, or of a way of life that is fading away. As Sean was photographing these intriguing structures, we noticed that Black-billed Magpies seemed to favour these abandoned buildings.
A few kilometers into our hike we passed something new - a flock of closely sheared sheep! They were sitting down, piled together in the long grass in a tight herd. We stopped to watch their sideways munching, and the best part was, many of them had Brewer's Blackbirds and Brown-headed Cowbirds perched right on their heads and shoulders!
As we walked towards Swan Lake we were heading west, our shadows long on the road ahead of us. From the hilltops we could see for miles, the patchwork of yellow, green, and dry mowed hay fields undulating into the distance. The smoke lent the landscape extra layers that gave it great depth and beauty. A cool breeze was blowing in our faces, and we were cruising along the straight gravel road so carefree that we walked right past the turn-off for Swan Lake!
We made a U-turn and headed into town, taking a break in the beautiful grassy park at the center. There was a unique fountain, and a row of miniature decorative grain silos in the park, as well as several picnic tables. Across the street was a lovely, shady looking campground with all the amenities. As we walked down the street we passed a newspaper box, and were very surprised to see our photo on the front cover of the paper! What an amazing surprise from the Winkler-Mordon Voice!
After leaving Swan Lake behind we again walked a stretch of road with a lot of traffic from quarry trucks. The hills were so steep that the huge trucks would completely disappear from view as they sunk into the valleys, and then they would crest the hills in a huge plume of dust that blew about a mile across the fields. Even out here in the midst of vast open fields we had to walk single file on the soft road edge to avoid an accident.
Eventually we came to a turn, and followed the signs for Healing Hands Massage Therapy. It turned out the masseuse lived on a large property that was left partially wild, with a small cattail pond filled with Red-winged Blackbirds, Eastern Kingbirds, Common Yellowthroats, Yellow Warblers, and American Robins. As we followed the gravel road across a small bridge we heard suspicious plops in the water below, and saw what looked very much like turtle trails through the duckweed, leading to large rocks. As we rounded the property a large herd of cows were sheltering under the aspen trees, and overhead a high speed-chase was taking place. A Red-tailed Hawk was giving its classic eerie shriek as it wove and dived to avoid two Eastern Kingbirds who were in hot pursuit. I think this is the first time we've seen Kingbirds giving such passionate pursuit.
As the afternoon wore on we realized that for the first time in Manitoba we were really and truly in the midst of rolling hills. For a few days the landscape has been transitioning to a more varied terrain, but all day today we were trekking through soft, rounded, rolling sand hills. We also noticed that the soil at the side of the roads has become shale, with large black and reddish brown rocks strewn about as well. Things are visibly changing - so much for the assumption that the prairies were flat and unvaried!
As we continued on through the hot sunny afternoon, with a cool breeze coming from the west and the slightly cabbage-like smell of warm canola on the wind, we passed a very friendly man who was out in his garden. He stopped to ask us what we were up to and have a chat, and ended up sending us on our way with good wishes. As we continued past the garden a very friendly but shy orange and white cat came to check us out, but ultimately decided it was safer in the fields.
As the afternoon progressed we passed quite a few herds of cows. Some were beautiful black and white Holtsteins, and others were a delicious brown with white faces. All of them came to check us out. Although cows always struck me as rather angular, square, and awkward animals, when they move together as a herd, they are really rather graceful. As the herds followed us from one end of their fields to the other they looked like a smoothly flowing and undulating river. I burst out laughing when one group all stopped in a single synchronized motion and turned to face us across the fence, forming a perfect line.
By late afternoon we climbed up to the charming little community of Bruxelles. There was a lovely treed park with a historical plaque for a school, and the last of the fancy and creative R.M. of Lorne's Trans Canada Trail markers. We have been so impressed with the trail spirit in Lorne that we are really going to miss it!
We passed rows of large, modern homes on quiet treed lots, came to the old brick community church, and passed the Post Office. Best of all, we stopped for ice cream and cold ice tea at the General Store, which was itself quite charming. It was located in someone's house, with three rooms filled with high-end items you might find in a grocery store, including boutique items and fresh veggies displayed in wicker baskets. It was delightful to see!
After a short break under the trees we continued on, and shortly turned off the concession onto a gravel track. This turned out to be a welcome diversion, taking us through beautiful rolling hay fields with a few lone trees left standing sentry on the ridges.
There was a cool breeze blowing and the sound of crickets was loud in the tall grass and wildflowers bordering the track. As we passed the drive to a farmyard a small group of highly enthusiastic Golden Retrievers and Labs came bounding out, barking and sniffing. Just then the farmer drove by on his tractor, laughing heartily at us as we waded through the maelstrom of wagging tails. Luckily the small pack stayed in their yard after checking us out, not venturing down the trail to potentially get lost.
This farmer wasn't the only one working his fields today. We'd seen many others out cutting hay, while some were baling, and still others were already collecting the huge rolls of hay. We had imagined that all these tasks would be slow ones, with the large machines labouring slowly through the fields. We were amazed at how fast the process seemed to be, with several people working together to cover large areas in a relative short amount of time. Tractors and farm machines can really move fast!
One of the highlights of walking the track was passing a relatively large flock of Bobolinks! We've heard them in a few places and caught glimpses of a few individuals as they dove into the long grass and disappeared, but this was the first time we spotted a flock and got a good view of them.
Today we hiked 46.8 km, which is pretty long for us - especially in this heat. As the afternoon wore on and the sun's rays began to feel like they were scorching our skin, our energy started to flag. We were cheered up by a friendly driver who stopped to ask what we were up to. It turned out he was very knowledgeable about the trail and birds! He described two campgrounds in Cypress River for us, and asked if we'd seen any of the Ruddy Ducks in the ponds in the area, before wishing us well and setting off on his way. His kind words and very useful advice cheered us right up!
We continued on through the fields as the shadows from the occasional roadside trees grew longer. As we crossed a small bridge over a bone-dry creek a cyclist approached us and also stopped. It turned out he was on the first day of his cycling trip on the Trans Canada Trail, and he had lots of questions for us about conditions in Whiteshell Provincial Park. It is always fun to meet a fellow adventurer, and we used the energy boost to make it the last 5 km into town.
We could see the grain elevators of Cypress River across the fields as we approached. It turned out to be a very small community, with a quiet neighborhood, and a large sports field and Agricultural Grounds, where we camped for the night. The sun was already beginning to set as we pitched the tent and hurriedly washed our clothes in our small bucket.
We walked down the main street and noticed that the outside of the Cypress Motor Inn had a beautiful mural with Prairie Winds written on it. It turns out that Scott Young, who was a journalist and the father of the Canadian singer and songwriter Neil Young lived here. The town of Cypress River features in Neil Young's title track Prairie Winds!
Since it was so late, we stepped in to the Motor Inn and were delighted to learn that the incredibly friendly owner would make us sandwiches and fries. We spent an enjoyable hour eating dinner and chatting before returning to tent in the darkness. Today began at 5:30 am, it involved walking nearly 47 km in the summer's heat, and as I finish up this blog entry it is now 1 am. Tomorrow we will do it all again!