Some entries and accounts of our trek across Canada on the Trans Canada Trail are harder to write - for any number of reasons - than others. This is one such entry. I have written and re-written this account. I have drafted and deleted. I have wondered about simply trying to focus this day on the beautiful and cheerful aspects of the hike rather than the realities of the moment. Ultimately however a clear and honest account is always best.
Today was more than twice as long as we thought it would be, and the unexpected twists and turns it took, taking us from one extreme to another, have left us not knowing what to say or think. We've received many blessings over the past few days and weeks, which means it was inevitably time for the scales to balance out, and perhaps they did today, at least a little bit.
When we woke up at 6:00 am to the sound of baby Black-billed Magpies begging in the nearby trees, the sky was once again clear and still, but last night was a bit wild. Around midnight the wind came roaring across the prairies like a freight train, whipping the trembling aspens back and forth in a frenzy and sending ominous clouds scuffing across the nearly full moon. About half an hour later the wind died down, only to return with a vengeance at 2 am, requiring us to get up and adjust the ropes on the tarp. In between we were woken up by a dog barking, another camper banging pots and pans, and a huge crash - all of which made us wonder if the active bear we'd been warned about in the campsite was on the prowl. In the end, the only wildlife that came to check us out was a large and curious dog who sniffed the tent with large wet snuffles and 'marked' my backpack with his scent at some point in the night.
As we headed out of Erickson on the beautiful rail trail we passed several pothole lakes, their edges surrounded by cattails and their surfaces covered with waterfowl. Not too long after setting out we crossed a gravel covered bridge that spanned the chocolate brown waters of the Rolling River, after which the nearby Rolling River First Nation takes it name. The highway was right beside us, and we passed to watch a very large and lively colony of Cliff Swallows nesting under the span of its concrete bridge.
The trail soon crossed the highway - where cars in both lanes (graciously and thankfully) came to a stop for us to cross - which had a billboard sized white and black sign for the Rossburn Subdivision Trail, as well as a smaller kiosk thanking Abe Braun for his contributions to the trail. What followed was a lovely stretch of trail bordered on both sides by trembling aspen, shrubs, and small conifers. For the first time in nearly a month we found ourselves walking under a green corridor of shade trees on a lovely trail. It was a real joy!
As we hiked along we saw a stream of small groups of Double-crested Cormorants and Franklin's Gulls flying past overhead. A Great Blue Heron flew over, and as we passed the beginning of a huge marsh a majestic Bald Eagle crossed the skies. It turned out that the marsh we were looking at was Proven Marsh, and we soon came to the turnoff for the Proven Lake Wildlife Management Area.
Seeing and hearing the diversity of waterfowl on the open water we couldn't resist taking a detour off the Trans Canada Trail to walk the 3.2 km loop around the marsh. When we got to the trailhead we learned that Proven Lake - developed by Ducks Unlimited - lies at the heart of the Minnedosa Pothole Country, and is recognized as a Manitoba Heritage Marsh and an Important Bird Area due to the variety of waterfowl that nest in the marsh and use it as a stopover point during spring and fall migration.
The loop took us through a variety of different habitats, including dense shrubs, aspen forest, a managed marsh, and a spruce bog. Among the highlights were watching half a dozen Red-necked Grebe and Eared Grebe parents swimming around with their adorable, fuzzy chicks who all still had stripy heads. Several pairs of Western Grebes, who looked like they were dancing together, were a new species for us! Out on the water were many small groups of Buffleheads, Common Goldeneyes, Ring-necked Ducks, Greater/Lesser Scaups, Mallards, Northern Shovellers, Double-crested Cormorants, a Hooded Merganser female, and several Canvasbacks, their red heads glowing in the sunshine. A Black-crowned Night Heron fished at the edge of the cattails, and both Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds moved about in the reeds, busily feeding young.
Overhead a Red-tailed Hawk soared, several Barn
Swallows foraged for insects, and dozens of Franklin's Gulls flew back and
forth, coming and going from what we assume was a colony of floating nests in
the middle of the lake. We also enjoyed watching a Forster's Tern diving
for small fish, which it carried off, presumably to its nestlings.
On the far side of the loop, as we passed through the spruce bog we heard the loud, clear 'Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada' of a White-throated Sparrow and the distinctive 'Quick, three beers!' of a Olive-sided Flycatcher. We also spotted what we think were moose or elk tracks in the loose sand, as well as the tiny footprints (or hoof prints ?) of a baby deer. These familiar sights and signs gave us a lovely reminder of being back in the Boreal.
It took us 2 hours to make our way through this marsh, but we could easily have spent all day enjoying the birds there, despite the rising heat. Reluctantly we climbed back up to the Trans Canada Trail and continued our trek towards Sandy Lake.
Since leaving Erickson we had been following the Elk Link Trail as well as the TCT. This 15.3 km branch of the TCT leads from Erickson up to Onanole, a community at the gates of Riding Mountain National Park. This National Park supports an incredible diversity of wildlife and offers stunning landscapes ranging from Boreal forest to grasslands that we'd loved to have seen. It has over 370 km of trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding and 130 km of them open year around for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and fat biking. It has three front-country campgrounds as well as back-country camping. Unfortunately we arrived on a weekend, and there were no campsites available at the campground on the southern tip of the park. Even if we'd been able to work around that difficulty, the map indicated that the trailheads were simply too far apart to make exploring this beautiful park on foot practical. Hopefully we can return one day to explore this national treasure when we have access to a car.
We sadly made our way past the turnoff to the park and continued our westward trek. We were passed by a cyclist, which has been a somewhat rare occurrence on the trails after Winnipeg, but was understandable given the gorgeous trail in this section. A few minutes later we rounded a bend in the trail and spotted a mother black bear and two cubs! We kept a respectful distance, took many photos, and waited until they'd meandered off into the trees before continuing on. We sang a song and rang our bear bells as we passed by, just to let them know we were there.
We continued climbing on the gorgeous, shaded track which was bordered by trees on both sides. Sun filtered through the leaves, and we were escorted by a swarm of bright blue dragonflies that sparkled like jewels in the dappled light.
A short distance later we came upon the Proven Lake Shelter, which was the cleanest, nicest, most well-equipped warm-up shelter for snowmobile riders we've encountered yet. (This is a huge statement considering the amazing shelters we enjoyed crossing Newfoundland!) The little wooden cabin was provided by the Thunder and Ice Trails snowmobile club, and it had a wood burning stove, a kitchen area, table, and solar powered lights. We signed the guest book and took a rest inside, marveling at the luxurious resting spot, and wishing it was about 20 km farther down the trail so we could spend the night. This was another reminder of the dedication local snowmobile clubs and their volunteers show for maintaining and supporting trails across the country.
As we continued along we caught glimpses of Proven Lake far below us, and occasionally we'd catch sight of the fields or marshes beyond our treed corridor. When we approached the community of Sandy Lake, where we intended to camp tonight, we took a break, sitting on one of the sandy ruts of the trail to minimize the likelihood of ticks fastening on to us while we were stationary. Suddenly we heard an ATV coming down the trail. We scrambled to get out of the way, and although we managed to hurl our stuff and ourselves into the shrubs in time, the vehicle never slowed down, and the couple laughed at what I'm sure was a comical sight as they raced passed. Yet within a couple of seconds a large 'pop' brought the ATV to a quick stop. I soon realized that in my rush to jump off the trail I had dropped my sealed SIGG water bottle and that the ATV had driven over it, crushing it in the process giving off a loud pop as the top of it exploded off - much like a blown tire would have. The driver quickly looked around, realized that he had driven over my water bottle, turned to me, laughed and commented "No worries looks like I didn't break anything of mine", and sped off spraying us with gravel. Apparently we've been alone on roads and concessions in Manitoba for so long now that we've forgotten to share the trail, which was our bad. Still, the driver's lack of common courtesy was a foreshadowing of the troubles we were about to encounter.
As we approached the town we passed a golf course, which was full of people out enjoying the sunny afternoon. Traffic picked up along the pathway, as did the number of discarded beer cans along the trail, which cemented our suspicion that this community was part of cottage country and likely a party town.
When we arrived in Sandy Lake the trail took us along the edge of the large, shallow, lake which was bordered with wall-to-wall cottages built right on the water line. There was a row of RV's parked in the laneways between many of the cottages, giving the shoreline the look of being double parked.
We walked past the Lion's Campground, seeing that it was completely full for the weekend. When we arrived at the establishment where we had made a reservation for the night I felt uncertain of our decision. The owner was standing in his pontoon boat parked in front of the property ogling the bikini clan teenagers walking around. I had to wait for him to notice me to ask about our reservation. At which point as he rubbed his gut and I was checked over in a way that I have not been since my first year at university during intro week at a bar. The man then glanced over his shoulder again to check out the barely dressed young ladies, took a swig of his pink Mike's Hard Lemonade and said that he had given away our campsite at noon "because a friend of his came into town and needed a place". I pushed for the campsite that I had already paid for and was then flatly told "listen sweet cheeks, I don't think you would fit with my peoples". I'm not sure if he meant because I was clothed, not drunk, unimpressed with is boat, or because I was a hiker.
When we asked if any motel rooms were available for the night the owner just laughed and after creatively informing me of what he thought my intelligence level must be for asking such a question he then suggested that I - but pointedly not Sean - could get a room at his buddy's house for an outrageous sum. When I refused this suggestion and his less than obvious inferences I was told "well best you leave, you aren't wanted here." Clearly the economic hardships caused by Covid related travel restrictions aren't a concern in the community of Sandy Beach Manitoba.
Realizing we would have to hike on in the scorching afternoon sun we took a break in the central grassy park, sitting on a bench in the shade at the back of a restored railway station. I walked over to the small grocery store to buy enough water for two days (about 16 litres), which together with a package of breakfast bagels and two ice creams cost an alarming $65. The store was incredibly busy, and as in many resort towns in northern Ontario, it seemed like the holiday makers and visitors had little respect for the local residents and hardworking cashiers.
As we sat in the park eating our ice creams we watched a stream of scantily clad and fashionably dressed beach goers drive by on ATVs. At one point a man raced up over the grassing knoll in front of us on his ATV and without preamble gruffly yelled over the sound of his engine 'Where are you from?' Sean, now very tired of this question quickly responded "Canada, and you?". Without answering he simply grunted, dropped his empty beer can on the trail, belched, and raced away.
This exchange has happened on countless occasions in the rural areas west of Emerson, and we feel like we've simply failed to grasp the conversational style of this part of the province. At first we assumed it was because we were walking along the Canada-US border, where illegal immigration is an active concern, but this gruff greeting has continued well north of there. We are never approached with a 'hi' a 'hello', or "how are you doing?". Instead we are simply greeted with a blunt 'where are you from?' Maybe our answer is disappointing, or is worthy of disapproval, or maybe we are supposed to return the question in a way we don't understand. As we approach the end of our time in Manitoba we are left with the impression we may have failed to fully grasp all it has to offer, which is a bit disappointing.
Mildly refreshed from our stop and having refilled our larger water containers, I got up to put the 4 empty 4 litre water jugs into the nearby recycling container. Given their size I had to remove the lid of the large public recycling bin, at which point an older lady quickly hobbled up to me - clearly believing I was looking for empty beer cans - and yelled "your sort aren't wanted here, go away! Shoo Shoo!". Exhausted of the attitudes of the town, we decided to follow her advice, respect the local sentiment and leave.
As we walked out of Sandy Lake we were again pushed off the trail by several sets of ATVs racing through - none slowed down or stopped for us, and most were drinking as they wove along the pathway. Interestingly we passed several signs reminding trail users to respect the trail, and to respect themselves, making us think that perhaps our impressions and experiences were not atypical of the region. As we continued along we were also passed by several pick-up trucks on the trail, all with ATVs in the back or in a towed trailer. One individual, alarmingly pulled up in his old brown truck with a rifle on the seat next to him and asked if we had "seen any deer or bear on the trail?" We both nodded no, to which he waved his appreciation and slowly drove on clearly looking for the animals which were alluding him.
Not too much farther along we came to a waste disposal site. Discarded appliances and rusty metal machinery were piled high, and all manner of plastic bags and other smaller garbage had been blown or dragged out of the open pit onto the trail. As we passed by we scared up a flock of American Crows that were foraging among the scraps. For whatever reason the entire area felt wrong on just about every level.
The next section of trail took us along the edge of the Keeseekoowenin First Nation Reserve. Here as we have experienced throughout this section of trail we noted that the level of maintenance changed immediately at the border of the municipality.
Without knowing the specifics, the history of this tribe sounds very troubled, and we could see what looked like remnants of this past trauma as we walked past. Several homes backed onto the trail, their windows and doors shattered or missing, and multiple derelict vehicles and other detritus rusting away outside each one. At the end of one laneway a large pile of bright pink and purple women's and children's clothes were torn up and hurled onto the trail, along with pieces of knotted and frayed electrical chord. A woman stood on the porch of the home, a baby on her hip, and a blank and hopeless expression on her face as we passed. It was heartbreaking, and almost against our will we quickened our steps.
As we continued down the trail another black bear with two cubs crossed ahead of us. Despite being alarmingly thin and watching us for some time all three bears eventually trunddled down the tract ahead of us. Shortly afterwards we came to a trestle bridge. It had no sides and unlike almost all other TCT train bridges had no decking, and many of the widely spaced ties were partially rotten through. Dragging the carts across while looking down at the roadway below us was a bit of an unnerving experience. At one point Sean's right leg pushed through a rotten rail beam bringing him to his knees as he looked down at the roadway well below. For us this was a minor inconvenience, but for the people who use this trail to access their homes, this was unacceptable. If this lack of maintenance was the result of our proximity to the Reserve it was reprehensible and needs to be addressed - especially given that the surrounding segments of the pathway are leveled, covered in gravel, and all have had their trestles maintained. Once again the inequalities with which we treat the varied communities in this nation are staggering and show through at every level - even in the condition of their trails.
Eventually we emerged from the treed corridor and looked out over the grassy valley and rolling hills below us. As we trekked toward the townsite of Elphinstone the sun had begun to set over the surrounding countryside and only the steeple from atop the church sitting on the forested hillside could be seen. In many ways it was a very camino like setting. Yet as we progressed we began to notice that almost all of the buildings at the edge of the town and reserve were boarded up, including what we later discovered was the former local school. We crossed another trestle bridge, which was in even worse condition than the first, crossing it aged us perhaps 10 years and as we picked our way carefully over we felt ourselves being watched from the tiny community. As we slowly negotiated crossing this rotten bridge we were carefully and silently watched by 4 young ladies who looked as empty as the women we had passed further up the trail. I waved and said hello, but all four stepped back in unison. Fear not hope lives here. In a nation with so many possibilities how do we allow youth, let alone any person, to be so hollowed out and left without any sense of hope? It is possible that our impressions of the Keeseekowenin Reserve were entirely misplaced, but we were left with a strong belief that conditions there were unacceptable, and that as Canada moves forward we have no choice but to find a way to work together with all the First Nations to build a better community for all of us, where everyone has respect, equal opportunity, and hope for the future.
We did not take pictures of this community for it would only have transformed this ongoing tragedy into a spectacle, which would not be appropriate.
Our Plan B had been to camp in the Lion's Campground in Elphinstone, but when we arrived we found the picnic tables in the shelter mostly destroyed, and saw heavy bars on the windows and door of the sewage treatment building. Although the lawn was nearly mowed, the park was bordered by flags and trees, a ceremonial teepee had been erected, the nearby heritage tractor display was inside a secured cage. I thought about putting our tent up out of sight behind the sewage treatment building but when I investigated I found old mattresses and pillows clearly being regularly used by another individual. To add to our feelings of unease we were passed by a steady stream of cars that slowed to a crawl as they circled around and around to stare at us, their occupants clearly highly suspicious of two unknown people in the park at the edge of town. Regardless we needed a break and so stopped to eat some tortilla chips for dinner and watch the Purple Martins who lived in the birdhouses erected around the edge of the park. As we sat there seven RCMP cruisers sped past us into the Reserve, their sirens screaming. A few minutes later a single ambulance followed.
As we followed the trail out of town the ambulance passed us again, heading out of the Reserve with no urgency, but with a single RCMP escort. We continued walking out into the countryside, finding ourselves once again surrounded by rolling fields of canola, hay, and wheat. As the sun sank below the horizon the mosquitos came out in full force, and the dew began to settle on everything. We hurriedly pitched the tent on the side of the trail, finally bringing an end to the day.
Sometimes it is hard to find the common ground we all share...but perhaps seeing the world as others do, is key to the way forward.