We spent a short and mostly sleepless night in the very warm tent, watching the progress of the moon as it made its way across the clear sky above the trees. Every half hour or so we would turn on the headlamp to remove a tick. Throughout the night the high pitched whine of mosquitos outside our tiny shelter sounded like a machine, constant, unceasing, and waiting to accelerate into high gear if any part of our anatomy came within reach.
Around 4:30 am, when the half moon was still high in the sky and the horizon was just beginning to lighten, we decided to get underway. Half an hour later we bid farewell to our small treed oasis and headed back out onto the country roads. Within a few minutes we were greeted by a stunningly beautiful prairie sunrise that was unlike anything we've ever seen firsthand.
The huge blood-red disc of the sun rose above the horizon, turning the fields a soft blue-ish green, then a misty pink, then a strong warm red. As our shadows lengthened and birdsong filled the air we felt like we were being watched. Sure enough, a large reddish brown deer, standing half-submerged in a sea of yellow canola blossoms had poked its head up to watch us pass by. A little farther along another deer took to its heels, bounding across a hay field in huge gravity-defying leaps and bounds.
The morning air was filled with slightly electronic calls of Western Meadowlarks, the rough squawks of Red-winged Blackbirds, the occasional buzzy call of a Clay-coloured Sparrow, and the constant chatter of Barn and Tree Swallows flying overhead. From farther away we could hear an enthusiastic Song Sparrow, the clear notes of a Baltimore Oriole, and the sweet song of an American Robin. A few songs that remain unrecognizable to us joined the chorus, while a short distance away a Northern Harrier swooped low over a soy field hunting for breakfast.
As we made our way up a small rise in one of the many gravel concessions, heading towards one of those rare stands of trees, we saw a raccoon scurry across the road in front of us. A white-tailed deer in the adjacent field gave a start, looked down the road in front of us with its ears standing at attention, and abruptly bounded off at high speed. Suddenly a black bear and her two small cubs popped out of the trees onto the road ahead! The mother made her way sedately down the road, calmly crossing from one side to the other, while the cubs frolicked and bounced around her, engaging in lively fisticuffs with each other as they went. In the rising heat of the morning even the bear family crossed the road in the shade!
At the far edge of the lovely stand trees, we came to a lush, vibrant marsh. The historical plaque referred to the small freshwater marsh, with its standing water and abundant cattails as an oasis, and it certainly was. A Black Tern swooped and dove for insects above the water, much like a swallow would. Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds called from the reeds. A Common Yellowthroat was feeding its young nearby, and the calls of a Marsh Wren resounded from a snag. A Red-headed Woodpecker flew over, too fast to capture, but nonetheless a new species for us! Jewel-like damsel flies and large dragonflies with black-barred wings paused on standing vegetation at the water's edge. Yet another white-tailed deer came to drink. It felt like we were standing in a pocket in vibrant life, where all the diverse life forms from the surrounding ocean of inhospitable intensive agriculture sheltered.
After this we left the gravel concessions and walked along a short section of grassy trail. On one side was a row of trembling aspens and willow shrubs, which provided welcome shade. On the other was a barbed wire fence separating us from a cow pasture. In this less-intensively cultivated area the ground and air were cooler, and the grass was soaked with dew.
We soon passed a herd of black cows (we guess either Galloway or Angus), the brown calves standing in their mother's protective shadows. At first they seemed stunned by the appearance of two wheeled centaurs at the edge of their world, many pausing to stare mid-chew, leaving long strands of grass hanging from their mouths. They shied away, then turned to follow us along the length of their pasture, huffing, mooing, and munching softly as they walked.
By 10 am we'd covered roughly 20 km of trail, but the heat was really starting to build, already hitting 30°C. They say walking with a full pack on makes it feel 10°C warmer than the ambient temperature, and we'd have to agree. To make matters more challenging, the next section of trail was essentially 6 km of shadeless gravel roads south to the Canada - US border, and then 16 km of open roads straight west to Emerson. The heat is supposed to continue rising over the next two days, reaching a high of 42°C tomorrow, so our goal was to reach Emerson tonight and take shelter in an air conditioned motel tomorrow.
With no other option, we began walking the blindingly bright, white, gravel roads. The land around us appeared completely flat, the horizon broken only by single trees standing sentry in the middle of open fields. A patchwork of colours surrounded us, the dark green of soy leaves contrasting with lemon yellow canola blossoms, interspersed with the soft green of wheat, and the dry brownish-blond of newly mowed hay fields. It seemed amazing that these crops could remain so lush and green in the midst of such a dry, hot expanse.
Out in the emptiness we were passed by a few trucks, the drivers of which almost all gave us a friendly two-fingered wave as they passed. Most pulled over to the opposite side of the narrow roads and some slowed down, but even the most considerate drivers couldn't avoid covering us in a cloud dust. By the end of the day we had streaks of grit and dirt on our faces, around our ankles, and in the creases of our elbows.
Every once in a while we passed an abandoned home, the weather-beaten grey boards telling a story of the struggles and efforts of previous settlers that braved the extremes of the prairies to make their way. The grass around many of these buildings was neatly cut, and the fields around them were cultivated, suggesting this history might still be known to the current occupants of this area. Despite the heat, Sean enjoyed photographing these pastoral buildings of a time past.
As we walked a few Turkey Vultures circled overhead as though waiting for us to succumb to the heat and join the piles of bleached white bones we've seen lying on the side of the roads and trails. Defiantly we did our best to confound their expectations although it is possible that at some point we began to smell unpleasantly like carrion.
As the day wore on we began to struggle with the heat more and more. There was a slight breeze blowing north out of Minnesota, which we were extremely grateful for. Despite this, by noon it felt like the sun's rays were scorching any part of us that was exposed to it. Even though we sheltered below our Gossamer Gear sun umbrellas, our parched lips cracked and our faces got badly burnt. We began the day with nearly 20 litres of water, and by the end we had none left. Periodically we would pour a little on our heads and faces to cool off, but slowly the water in our bottles heated up to the point where it felt too hot on our skin. Drinking water helped, but we may as well have been sipping hot tea. We could feel the heat from the gravel road seeping up through the soles of our shoes, burning the bottoms of our feet and making our legs strangely sore.
We pushed onwards, doggedly crunching along one step at a time, saying a prayer of thanks for the breeze, and stopping every half a concession to take a drink of warm water. By 2 pm we'd covered nearly 41 km, and were only 5 km short of our goal. However, we were both feeling so hot, nauseous, and disoriented that we decided to call Emerson Taxi in an effort to avoid serious heat stroke.
An extremely kind lady picked us up in a van within a very few short minutes, helped us load our carts, and then turned the AC up high for the 5 minute drive into town. It felt like wonderful trail magic, and we would highly recommend using this service to anyone who gets into difficulty in the Crow Wing Trail and needs help.
We quickly checked into the Maple Leaf Motel and stood under a cold shower for a very long time to cool off. Gradually we turned back into humans, and realized how close we'd come to pushing too far. We are enormously grateful that help was there when we needed it.
The motel is simple, but it is immaculately clean and well cared for, and the owners are very friendly. They even offer guest laundry services, returning our previously revolting clothes folded into little cubes with a military precision that was truly astonishing, and up to even Sean's exacting standards.
The afternoon turned into a blast furnace outside, but apart from a quick 2 km walk to the grocery store and back we hid inside our dark, cool, oasis, not even opening the curtains. We spent a few hours catching up with photo editing, blogging, and various other online tasks, before heading to bed (in front of a fan) very early and sleeping the sleep of the dead.