Sunday, August 29, 2021

To the Waterway : Danielson Provincial Park to the Water Trail

Although today was quiet, involving a leisurely exploration of Danielson Provincial Park and a short hike to the end of the Trans Canada Trail's land section in this stretch, it turned into a bit of a roller-coaster, and left us with food for thought.

It began with a beautiful sunny morning, during which we listened to the chorus of coyotes drifting across the lake, the calls of Common Loons out on the water, and the sharp, high pitched hiss of Cedar Waxwings in the conifers behind the tent.  They were soon joined by the loud demands of the young Merlins, the busy, friendly chatter of Black-capped Chickadees, and the toy-horn honking of a White-breasted Nuthatch.  Yellow Warblers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Tennessee Warblers, American Robins, Eastern Kingbirds, and a Veery also moved about in the shrubs around the campsite. 

After breakfast we set off down the flat grassy trail that took us north through the park, roughly paralleling the shore of Lake Diefenbaker and heading towards the Gardiner Dam.  Once again we were surrounded by many subtle shades of brown, gold, green, yellow, and red that come together in the beautiful native prairie.  We stopped often, once to watch a young mule deer walking quietly among the shrubs and trees, and a bit farther on to admire the striking black, orange, white, and blue patterns of a Red Admiral sunning itself on the rough brown bark of a tree.  It was fascinating to watch the long brown fur on it's back waving in the wind.

We could feel the small songbirds moving through the shrubs around us, hear the high squeak of the ground squirrels peeking out of their burrows but hidden by the tall dry grass, feel the gentle breeze on our faces, and hear the dry rustling of the aspen leaves.


The spicy smell of sage was strong, as it often is in the prairies. Here the very air feels alive, a part of the landscape that is always heard, felt, smelled, and sometimes seen.  At times it is powerful, overwhelming, and almost violent, and at others it is a soothing and gentle presence.  In this wide open space the air is always felt, even when it is still, hot, and sticky. 

It reminded us of Christina Rossetti's beautiful poem 'Who has seen the Wind?' 

As we walked through the wild and free feeling landscape we were reminded of a recent comment made to us by an Indigenous woman.  She thanked us for posting photos not just of the cultivated fields, fence lines, and roads but also of the grasslands.  As she sees it, there is native prairie hidden beneath the highly shaped, intensively managed, minimalist agricultural landscape that is dominated by straight lines, flattened surfaces, and geometry.  There is great beauty in the cultivated fields of the prairies, but I think it is very important that the Indigenous Peoples who live here hold the memory of what it used to look like, and are working hard to protect the plants, animals, and water sources that are all essential parts of the whole.  Grasslands birds and the habitats they rely on are among the most endangered terrestrial landscapes in North America, and arguably in the world.  Without doubt it is time to work with Indigenous groups to preserve, protect, and support as much native priairie as we can while there is chance to do so. 


When we reached the park boundary we found ourselves standing in a mowed hay field, looking at Highway 44 in front of us, and the vast Gardiner Dam stretching out across the water nearby us.  This walk has brought us to the end of the terrestrial portion of the Trans Canada Trail, and the beginning of the Chief Whitecap Waterway, which follows the South Saskatchewan River from the Gardiner Dam to Saskatoon. 

We've heard several locals praise this water trail, saying they enjoy it because canoeists, kayakers, and paddle boarders can pull out to camp or rest on the sandy beaches at multiple points along the beautiful river valley.  This allows paddlers to make the journey as fast or slow as they wish, and it allows them to make a stop in the community of Outlook as well, which is known as the Irrigation Capital of Canada. 

As we turned to head back to the campground we saw that the sky behind us was dark and heavy with the storm clouds that were predicted to bring showers later in the morning.  As we progressed the wind picked up, causing the grasses and trees to dance and sway.  We made a short stop at the park store to pick up some pasta for dinner, and of course to have another ice cream.  As the thunder began to rumble down the valley we headed back to the campground, making it to the roofed shelter just as the first large drops fell. 

Over the course of the afternoon several thunderstorms of medium ferocity rumbled and boomed through, producing some awe inspiring forked lightening along the way and repeatedly drenching the campground with rain.  We mostly remained in the roofed picnic shelter, wishing the tent and all our stuff was under the waterproof roof with us.  It turned out those earlier showers were just cute little pre-cursers to 'the big one'. 

Around 4 pm, during a break in the rain, I walked down to the beach and looked out across the lake.  We could still hear thunder all around us, and see lightening in several directions, but as I looked across the wet rolling fields along the shore I saw what can only be described as a wall of water falling under one of the storm clouds.  I suddenly felt like I was an ant in the bathroom sink and someone had just turned on the faucet full force.  Looking at the direction the clouds were headed I thought perhaps the deluge would pass to the west of us.  No such luck. 

When that storm arrived it brought so much rain so fast that the ground was soon covered in 3-4 inches of water.  Brown muddy streams flowed between the campsites and ponds began to form in many of sites.  The rain drops were hitting the ground with such force that the muddy splashes reached the tops of the wooden picnic tables.  The thunder was so loud it shook it the ground, and we could feel the energy and hear a strange click in the millisecond before some of the lightening strikes.  Every so often it would feel like the rain was letting up a little, but for nearly an hour wave after wave rolled through.  It was like all the rain that should have fallen over the last four months arrived all at one time. 


Have we mentioned recently that NOTHING we own is waterproof anymore?  Our gear has held up admirably for a year, but much of it has simply worn out after 3 seasons of hard trekking.  To be fair, I'm not certain that the very newest and best tents out there could have stood up to the amount of rain that fell today, and surprisingly our tent and tarp were troupers to the end.  Standing in several inches of water, and pummelled hard, they held the worst of the flood at bay.  There was still considerable soaking however, and by day's end our gear, clothes, and sleeping bags all of which had been in the tent and still in their own stuff sacks were soaked through. 

As other campers slowly emerged from their RVs around us, they watched us inspect our sodden tent with a mixture of fascination and horror.  It is moments like this, in addition to all the mornings we smell bacon and eggs cooking, and the evenings we smell the delicious barbecues of fellow campers in provincial campgrounds, that make us envy campers with RVs.  There is much to be said for the comfort and convenience of RV life. 

As we did our best to empty the water from as many bits of gear as we could, it was hard not to reflect on why we choose to camp.  While you can try to convince yourself that it is 'noble' to have such experiences by not indulging in the types of comforts those around us luxuriated in - however the reality is that it is generally not desirable to become one with the mud and water to this extent.   

While, for us, camping is about getting away from everything (including the comforts of home), and experiencing nature.  It is about venturing beyond our comfort zone, and seeing, feeling, hearing, and experiencing things we wouldn't normally encounter inside the protective shells of our climate controlled home, office, or car.  The rain, mud, extreme heat, and biting cold may bring us to tears of despair at times, but they let us appreciate the world we've built for ourselves, as well as the world our fellow creatures must now survive in.  In a tent we hear the coyotes and owls at night, we see the stars in the dark sky above, we deeply appreciate the value of shade trees, and we feel the changing seasons. For us, these experiences are worth the trade-off ... at least most of the time.   At this moment however I suspect we would both trade a great deal for some warmth, fresh clothes, and a dry sleeping bag.

Apart from weathering the storms, we spent the afternoon deciding what to do next.  We planned out a route around the waterway, that would take us to Outlook, to a roadside campsite, to Whitecap, and in to Saskatoon.  Most of this stretch would involve us walking along busy roadways and not on the Trans Canada Trail.  Then, as the rain started again, we looked up possible transportation options, finding a taxi service that runs shuttles to Indigenous communities that are up to 6 hours outside Saskatoon.  

In the end, we decided to take a shuttle around the waterway and rejoined the land pathway south of Saskatoon before trekking into the city.  We know there are people who will condemn this decision as cheating demanding instead that we walk the busy roadways or highway paralleling the waterway.  In the past we've accepted rides around the waterways, or used other means to navigate around them, and sometimes we've walked.  Generally for us however the waterways are a route onto themselves which provide no means for the hiker to follow safely along nearby.  One thing we've learned is that accepting rides around waterways gives us an opportunity to speak with locals, and we almost always come away wiser, and with a better understanding of a region than we had before.  Taxi and shuttle drivers often know their cities, towns, and counties better than anyone else, and they come into regular contact with people from all walks of life, which isn't an opportunity many of us have. We've come to value our conversations with these people, and what they give to our journey across Canada.  After walking nearly 2,000 km of gravel roads across the prairies, during which we've generally had only very limited contact with other people, we decided that a little human interaction would likely be more valuable and far more interesting than walking another 100 km of gravel roads that aren't part of the trail in the first place.  

I guess tomorrow will tell us if our decision was a good one.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Return of Summer Heat : Elbow to Danielson Provincial Park

This morning began with one of those incredible prairie sunrises, when the sky turns rosy pink and gold as the red disk of the rises above the horizon.  Before leaving the quiet Village of Elbow we took one last walk down its wide main street. Along the way we stopped to examine the sod house, which is part of the Elbow and District Museum.  In the early 1900's wood was so scarce on the prairies that settlers often built their first homesteads out of sod. It was fascinating to see how the exterior, which was constructed from rectangular bricks of earth, contrasted with the period furnishings of polished wood, the lace, fine tablecloths, and porcelain dishes inside.

At the edge of town we stopped for Sean to photograph the well-preserved white and red grain elevator, which was lit up by the morning sun.  As with many of the historic wooden grain elevators we've passed in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the roof was covered in Rock Doves.  Their soft cooing always seems to give these elevators their own voice, much like the cathedrals in Europe, which periodically speak to the surrounding towns and villages through the ringing of their bells.

As we made our way out of town, walking towards the bright blue waters of Lake Diefenbaker, we passed the edge of a small valley that was filled with small shrubs and grasses and we were delighted to spot two grazing Mule Deer! 

We made our way among rolling fields of golden grain, the hot sun at our backs, a bright blue sky with wispy white clouds overhead, and the royal blue waters of the lake beside us.  The fields of grain seemed to stretch to the horizon, giving us what we've come to think of as the quintessential prairie experience.

Throughout the morning we boxed north, then west to the lake, then north, then back towards the lakeshore again.  Small sparrows flitted among the grain stalks in the fields, and we spotted a Sprague's Pipit running down the edge of the gravel road.  Overhead a Northern Harrier soared in the clear blue sky, searching for morsels in the field below.

About 14 km into our hike we approached the lakeshore community of Sunset Beach.  The road dipped down into a sheltered inlet at the base of a flooded coulee, the grassy hills rising up on either side.  Above us was a small community of summer homes and RVs, perched high up, right in the edge of the reservoir.  As we skirted the inlet and then continued back inland we passed another part of the planned community, which was still developing.  It consisted mostly of gravel lots separated by wooden fences with several rows of RVs parked in each bay.

As we've hiked across the prairies we've seen many campgrounds, parks, and communities that consist of RVs or small homes sitting in the midst of wide open fields.  Seeing these developments during a heat wave, in the midst of a baking hot day, it has taken me a long time to appreciate why anyone would choose to relax or live in such an exposed spot.  However, I've come to understand that the beauty of the harsh and exposed prairie landscape is often hardest to see in the midday sun.  It is there at sunrise and sunset.  It is there in the nighttime skies that are so full of stars the eyes and mind can't fully grasp the vastness.  It is there in the stillness and quiet of foggy days, when the hundreds of subtle shades of greens, yellows, browns, and reds come forward, and at any moment an elk, deer, or bear could emerge from the mist.  It's there when the fields of grass and grain move like waves, giving us a brief glimpse of the wind.  I'm certain it is there in the northern lights, and in a hundred other moments I've never seen or imagined.  Although my soul is undeniably tied to the lush shady forests and lakes of the Great Lakes St. Lawrence and Boreal landscapes, this hike has led me to appreciate the pull of places like Sunset Beach.

As we continued towards the border of Danielson Provincial Park on gravel roads, dirt roads, and grassy tracks the trail was generally well marked, and in quite a few spots the trail markers even gave the distance to the next turn.  In a few spots the markers were missing however, meaning we nearly passed a turn because we were complacently waiting for the next sign.

By mid afternoon we came to the final stretch, where we walked passed an enormous combine that was harvesting straw. The dust from this operation was stunning, and seemed to travel a long way across the fields.  We found ourselves covered in yellow grit and coughing.  We never appreciated how dusty harvest time could be!  By the end of two concessions we were both covered in a fine yellow dust and sneezing constantly!

As we continued through the hot afternoon sun we passed many interesting old wooden barns and outbuildings.  We could see the blue waters of the lake right through a few of them, and in others the sunlight filtered between the boards to create interesting shafts of light.

When we reached the boundary of Danielson Provincial Park we were in for a treat, although it wasn't what we'd expected.  From about 5 km back we could see what looked like a wall of trees, so we were expecting a forested trail.  Instead, we found ourselves in a stunningly beautiful native prairie habitat. Warm golden and light brown grasses swayed in the slight breeze, broken by the silvery leaves of wolf willow shrubs, the soft bluish green of the strongly scented prairie sage, and partially shaded by shrubs, trembling aspen, and other small scattered trees.  The song of the crickets was loud, mixed with the rustling of the aspen leaves.

The flat grassy trail led us through open grasslands, and through tunnels of thorny shrubs with beautiful clusters of bright red berries.  As we approached the campground we found ourselves weaving through soft, rolling hills.  The natural crevices were filled with trees, their leaves beginning to turn yellow and coppery brown, complimenting the reds and burgundies of the shrubs below them, and the purples and yellows of the wildflowers that dotted the fields. 

After crossing a very challenging looking frisbee golf course we came to the main entrance to Danielson Provincial Park.  The park gate was closed but happily the store was open and selling deliciously cold ice cream!  We sat on a wooden bench to enjoy the cool treat before booking a campsite online and heading over to the campground.

We found our nice treed site and set up, washed our clothes in our little bucket and hung them up in the scorching hot sun to dry, and then had showers.  Just behind our site was a natural area with tall grasses and conifers.  There was a family of Merlins flying among the trees, the young begging and whining for food at high volume, which was quite entertaining to watch.  One of the adults was banded too, which was kind of exciting!    If every day's hike could end this way life on the trail would be truly lovely.

Danielson Provincial Park was named after Gustaf Herman Danielson, a Swedish man who immigrated to Canada from Minnesota in 1904.  He was the foreman of the Wells Land and Cattle Company.  He started his own farm, planting a grove of trees, which was unusual at the time.  In 1922 he was elected a councillor, and later a reeve of the RM of Arm River, a school trustee, and then director of the hospital board.  From 1934 to 1964 he served as the member from Arm River in the Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan.  His biography is a humbling reminder of how much of a difference one person can make.

The park opened in 1971 and features treed campsites, several sandy beaches, multiple boat launches, great fishing opportunities in Lake Diefenbaker, and hiking trails that wind through a variety of habitats, including grassland, sand dunes, and treed areas. It spans both sides of the Gardiner Dam, and also offers a Visitor's Center with interpretive displays for the hydroelectric power in the northeastern portion if the park.

As the sun set we walked down to the beach.  The sky turned a series of brilliant pinks, reds, and yellows as the sun sunk below the horizon on the far side of the lake.  The water was full of Franklin's Gulls, and we spotted a group of American White Pelicans farther down the shore.  A small flock of Baird's Sandpipers was foraging on the sandbars just off shore, moving back and forth at the very edge of the water.  It was truly a beautiful evening.

Across the waters we could see the long straight line of the Gardiner Dam, with the five tall penstock control towers rising above it.  The Gardiner Dam is the third largest embankment dam in Canada and one of the largest in the world.  It is 64 m (204 ft) tall, nearly 5 km (3.1 miles) long, 1.5 km (0.93 miles) wide at its base, and has a volume of 65,000,000 cubic meters.  Highway 44 crosses the top of it.  When it was built in the 1960's it dammed the south Saskatchewan River, creating Lake Diefenbaker. 

The dam is owned and operated by the Saskatchewan Water Security Agency.  An integrated power generating plant, SaskPower's Coteau Creek Hydroelectric Station is located at the dam and produces a net 186 MW of electricity from three generators.  This accounts for about 5% of Saskatchewan's annual power consumption. 

As darkness fell we made our way back up to the tent, stopping to watch a Common Nighthawk foraging for  insects above us, it white wing patches clearly visible.  Tomorrow we will spend the day exploring the park, walking the rest of the Trans Canada Trail to where the 120 km water route picks up, and deciding how to make our way around the water trail to Saskatoon.  As we lay here we can hear the call and answer of two owls in the treed campground, and the calls of another bird we cannot identify. This gentle night chorus was joined by the songs of at least two groups of coyotes, and the soft footsteps of something walking in the grass behind the tent.

As I reflect on the past few days I would have to recommend that anyone who wants to experience what it's like to walk across Saskatchewan on the Trans Canada Trail should begin in Eyebrow or Douglas Provincial Park and walk to Danielson Provincial Park.  The trail in this section is a mix of gravel roads, dirt roads, grassy tracks, and gorgeous trails, giving you the full spectrum.  It takes you through seemingly endless fields of golden grain, into two beautiful provincial parks with patches of native prairie, to the lovely and bustling resort town of Elbow, and along the shores of Lake Diefenbaker.  If you begin in Eyebrow you will also experience the charm and friendliness of a typical small, quiet prairie town.  

The past few days have been a pleasure to hike, and seem to have given us a full range of experiences that we have greatly enjoyed!