Thursday, August 12, 2021

Across the Beautiful Qu'Appelle Valley...and a few words about Leave No Trace Principles!

The scene which greeted us this morning when we looked out of the tent was one which reminded us of why we are doing this hike.  The sun was rising at the end of the Qu'Appelle Valley, turning the river into a silver ribbon below a soft pink sky, and giving the folded hills on the valley edges texture and dimension. 

We made our coffee and bagels, packed up, and set off, making many stops along the lip of the valley to admire the view stretching out before us.  We made our way down to the bottom of the valley on a narrow, winding, gravel road that switch backed around steep dunes of forest-covered sand and silt.  The view on the way down was spectacular. 

About 14,000 years ago the edge of the continental ice sheet stalled over what is now southern Saskatchewan.  As the climate gradually warmed, the ice began to melt.  The meltwater originally flowed south, following the course of the Souris River, until the land underneath developed a northward tilt.  The water then began to follow a course running eastward, parallel to the ice front.  In the process it carved out a channel that is 152 km deep and 400 km long, which we now call the Qu'Appelle Valley.

When we reached the valley floor we found a historic plaque for the town of Hyde.  This village was established in 1887 by A. E. Hyde, who arrived from England.  At one time the village included a hotel, store, blacksmith, court, and post office.  At one point Mr. Hyde ran out of money and had to leave the village.  In 1904 the C.P. Railway arrived in Neudorf, and the village of Hyde slowly began to disappear as it inhabitants were drawn to the many conveniences Neudorf offered.  Today the only sign of the town was the historic plaque and the remains of an orchard.

A few steps beyond the historical plaque we came to an upsetting scene.  Someone had recently camped here on the side of the roadway and in the process had made a makeshift fire by burning dried branches.  There were no rocks around the scorch mark on the ground, the blackened circle was still smoldering and was warm to the touch.  Here we stood in the middle of a drought, just a few feet away from fields of dried crops, expensive farming equipment, as well as people's houses yet someone had not only started a campfire but not put it out!  Making matters worse there was a pile of plastic water bottles sitting in a heap.  Furious Sean soaked the ground with half of our available filtered water and collected the garbage.   This year while trekking we have not even used our MSR camp stove and fuel given the heat conditions and potential to spark a fire yet here someone had set a fire headless of the possibilities and dangers.  Beyond the inherent dangers of having an open fire at the moment, not respecting the situation nor following Leave No Trace principles by leaving garbage on a site only serves to make it less likely that future hikers and trail users will be welcomed.  All who use trails must remember that so much relies upon the kindness of local residents who allow the public access but who only do so as long as we all leave the area in good order. Hiking, Cycling, Trekking, and Camping necessitates that we are all responsible in our ventures.   Having cleaned up the site as best as we could and as we continued on an old adage came to mind : Leave only footprints, take only pictures! 

Slightly down the road we came to the double arched concrete bridge we'd seen from our campsite, which spanned the Qu'Appelle River.  We could see the ruffled blue waters of the small river winding off into the distance, its banks bordered by grass and the occasional patch of cattails.  Although we walked the valley all day, this was one of the few times we actually saw the river.

As we made our way along the valley bottom we passed many small farms.  When we first descended into the valley we passed fields of grain, some of which were being irrigated with large sprinklers.  A bit later on we passed fields of grain interspersed with hay, and a few patches of corn, which is a crop we haven't seen much of lately.  By early afternoon we were passing more and more pastures, many dotted with cows and a few filled with elegant, curious, horses. 

There was lots of activity in the valley today, with many farmers out mowing their hay and alfalfa, and harvesting their wheat.  Some fields were already dotted with spun hay bales, while others were covered in sharp golden stubble with rows of feathery grain on top, sparkling and shining in the bright afternoon sun.  Other fields were still uncut, and some made lush patches of green.

As we walked we noticed that to the south the steep sides of the valley were covered in trees, but on the north side the sandy folds of the valley wall were covered in short, dry, grass.  This is because the southern slopes are somewhat sheltered from the harsh prairie sun, and less moisture evaporates.  On the north side deep rooted grasses that are adapted to the baking soil thrive, whereas small trees and shrubs only inhabit the more sheltered coulees between the folds.

We spotted Western Meadowlarks in a few of the hay fields, which is a species we haven't seen in a few weeks.  We also spotted a Black-billed Magpie, which is another colourful favourite we've been missing.  Black-capped Chickadees, Warbling Vireos, Yellow Warblers, and Red-eyed Vireos called from the forested slopes, while Mourning Doves cooed, American Crows called, and mixed flocks of blackbirds swirled and dove.  Overhead Turkey Vultures soared majestically along the valley edges, riding the updrafts.  Every so often we would hear the iconic shriek of a Red-railed Hawk, and in the afternoon a majestic Bald Eagle soared down the length of the valley.

From the map we had assumed that we would be following a flat, level road along the bottom of the valley.  Instead, we found ourselves tracing the edge of the hills on an undulating road that wove up and down along their folds.  Sometimes we would circumvent large conical hills, or sand dunes, being momentarily cut off from the rest of the valley. It was an incredible landscape, unlike anything we'd seen before.  If you ever have the opportunity this is certainly a landscape that everyone should take the chance to venture through and enjoy!

Around noon the wind began to rise again, drowning out the crunching of our boots and wheels on the gravel road, and the high pitched chirping of the crickets.  It pushed the soft fluffy white clouds across the blue sky, causing their shadows to race each other across the patchwork of green, brown, and golden fields below.  The movement seemed to bring the valley to life.

In addition to colourful fields, there were also striking red wooden barns and weather beaten grey sheds, telling the tale of what came before for those who knew how to read it. 

By late afternoon we came to the tiny, historic village of Ellisboro.  In the 1870's the crossing of the Qu'Appelle River at this spot was known as Racette's Crossing, being named after a local servant of the Hudson's Bay Company.  It was an important crossing because it was located on the Carleton Trail, which connected the Red River Settlement to Fort Carleton. 

In 1881 the area just south of the tiny village was settled by Joseph Hoskins Ellis from Guelph, Ontario.  When he became the postmaster in 1883, and a general store was opened, the town was renamed after him.  Ten years later the first school was built in Ellisboro, and in 1894 a Presbyterian Church was erected.  In 1897 an Anglican church was added, and later a community hall.  Later on Saskatchewan's first rural high school was built, which operated between 1934 and 1944.  For unknown reasons the town had all but disappeared by 1969.

There was little more than one farm located at the crossroad, but the two white paneled churches were still standing, as was the community hall.  At the center of the historic buildings was a small grassy park with a picnic table, a Trans Canada Trail Pavilion, an antique plough under a small roofed shelter, and a historic plaque.  We gratefully took a break at the picnic table, and were joined by a very talkative black and white kitten, who wolfed down a bit of cheese we offered her before returning to her home across the road.

As we set off from Ellisboro a kind lady of very advanced years stopped her pickup truck to chat with us.  In a shaky voice she asked us lots of questions about our hike, and seemed very enthusiastic about the endeavour.  She offered us water from her place, which we assume was in Ellisboro, but since we were carrying enough for today and tomorrow we simply thanked her and headed off on our way.

We found ourselves walking among large cattle ranches, the sweet smell of hay and cows carried on the warm wind.  As we followed a section of dirt road, which bore the warning that it was not an all weather road, we were enormously grateful it wasn't wet and raining.  This would have turned the track to sticky wet mud, and made our hike a hundred times more difficult. 

Suddenly we heard a slightly unfamiliar cry from the blue sky above us.  It took us a while to spot the source, which turned out to be a pair of Swainson’s Hawks.  These large hawks of the Great Plains soar above the open countryside hunting for rodents or chasing insects along the ground.  In the fall they migrate south to Argentina, making one of the longest migrations of any raptor species and forming flocks of hundreds or thousands of individuals as they go.

As evening began and our shadows grew long on the road behind us we crossed back over the river on another bridge with double concrete arches, and began walking on the north side of the valley.  While the folded hills on the south side were covered in trees, those on the north side were blanketed in grass.  The road on the north side was much flatter, and took us much closer to the river.  It was also bordered by wire fences on both sides.  Unfortunately, this made finding a secluded place to camp impossible.

As the sun began to set in a brilliant red and pink sky, and the crescent moon came up, we decided to stop and set up the tent on the side of the road.  We were beside a fence with a Trans Canada Trail marker on it, only a few meters from the road and not on anyone's property or in their field.  Although a few cars and trucks passed us today, there hadn't been much traffic in the last few hours.

We can hear the cows mooing across the river, and as we fall asleep we can hear coyotes barking and singing all around us in the cold night air.  They're calling from the hills behind us, and others are answering from across the river.  Above us we can see fiery meteors from the Perseid shower falling in a dark and crystal clear sky. Apart from the coyotes calling out to one another it is completely silent down here.  What a beautiful and peaceful place!

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