Monday, August 2, 2021

Amazing Trails and into Saskatchewan

Last night was very quiet and peaceful, but it got very cold as dawn approached.  As we went to sleep we listened to Common Loons calling on a nearby lake, and sometime during the night we heard coyotes calling and singing quite nearby.  As the red sun rose between the dense conifers and aspen in the Duck Mountain Provincial Forest, we again heard Common Loons duetting nearby, bringing back memories of our much-loved Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario.

The landscape we found ourselves in was unlike anything we've hiked in since leaving Winnipeg.  We are in the Duck Mountain region, where retreating glaciers have left behind boulders, sand, silt, clay, and other materials that are 250 m deep in some places.  The result is a hummocky, rolling hill landscape which is covered with mixed and Boreal forest, and is broken up by small lakes, marshes, and streams.  It is drastically different than the intensively cultivated agricultural regions we've been hiking through. We also learned that today we will be crossing the highest point on the Trans Canada Trail in Manitoba (although not the highest point in Manitoba, which is Baldy Mountain at 831 m above sea level, located about 40 km east of us). 

Shortly after setting out we passed by the active fishing lakes which dot the region, crossed the highway and came to the trailhead for the Crocus North Trail.  We were delighted to find a log book for the trail, and the first entry was from Mel and Malo (@betweensunsets) who passed through on May 16, 2017.  A little farther down was an entry from Erlen Dur, an adventurer who cycled as much of the Trans Canada Trail as he could in 2020, and whose YouTube videos we've been watching.  It was really exciting to once again find messages from those who came before us!

Here I cannot deny that we had debated simply trekking along the highway into Saskatchewan.  The few pathways which have traversed green spaces in Manitoba have either been dedicated mountain bike trails or neglected routes.  The notion of tackling a 7 km section of either of these types of trails was not something we were up to in the heat of the summer and after a month of struggling.   Evidence of ATV usage and signs indicating that this region was subject to seasonal flooding did little to relieve our fears. Ultimately we decided to gamble figuring that we could not wander down the highway into our next province – we had to finish this properly despite our concerns.  Much to our relief, the grassy track was well maintained, amazingly signed and a complete and absolute joy to hike!  Walking along between the tall spruce and aspens, in this little pocket of Boreal forest, felt like coming home.  The Crocus North section of trail reminded us of the beautiful South Whiteshell segment we entered Manitoba on last year.

About a kilometer in we were stopped at a beautiful beaver pond and marsh by the shear amount of life and activity surrounding us.  Bees were buzzing in the wildflowers, wood frogs were hopping across the grassy trail, huge dragonflies were flying above the marsh, and there were birds everywhere! 

Among the highlights were watching a pair of Common Yellowthroats feeding a rambunctious lot of fledglings in a nearby willow.  Nearby a family of Swamp Sparrows was checking cobwebs for snacks, and feeding on cattail fluff.  A group of Lincoln's Sparrows was also foraging among the marsh vegetation, and a lone Northern Waterthrush was balancing on a log at the water's edge.

Up above a family of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers was chasing each other up and down the trunks of aspens, while a small group of Yellow-rumped Warblers was foraging in the dense branches of a tall spruce.  Elegant Cedar Waxwings were feeding on ripe red berries, and an American Redstart was darting in and out of the foliage around them.  In the distance we could hear the soothing coos of Mourning Doves, and the loud, iconic "Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada" of a White-throated Sparrow.

We continued down the trail, pausing frequently at small lakes and ponds as we went.  There were small flocks of Red-necked Grebes on many of them, and we spotted groups of 2-3 American White Pelicans taking naps along the shore in a few.  A group of Hooded Merganser females floated quietly in another, along with three Common Goldeneyes.  We heard the chatter of Black-capped Chickadees, the loud demands of an Ovenbird, and the raucous calls of Red-winged Blackbirds.  A highlight was listening to three Common Loons duetting on a lake where their calls echoed in the surrounding hills!

A little farther on we heard a loud huffing in a dry beaver pond beside us, and as we watched a White-tailed Deer raised its head up above the vegetation and then bounded off into the trees on the far side of the marsh.  Fresh moose tracks were imprinted in the mud of the trail, and there were signs of activity at the beaver dam beside the pathway.

As we walked we found ourselves in a cloud of butterflies and moths of many colours and sizes. Hundreds of Greater Spangled Fritillary butterflies were flitting about among the thistles, drinking from the purple flowers.  We also enjoyed finding a Giant Tiger Moth on the trail bed, the markings on its wings reminding us of the patterns on a giraffe.

As we approached the end of this gorgeous section of pathway we came to a magical looking marsh.  The smooth surface almost perfectly reflected the trees, and the snags in the middle disappeared into the mist like a line of sentinels.  Two Belted Kingfishers were calling back and forth, and a pair of Common Loons was duetting.  Out in the middle there was a dead tree completely filled with Bonapart's Gulls, looking like a decorated Christmas tree.  Ring-billed and Bonapart's Gulls were scattered among the snags, a pair o Eastern Kingbirds were arguing on a nearby branch, and two Pelicans were perched on fallen logs.

When we emerged from the trail we came to another parking lot and trail head, and then we headed down the highway, taking our last few steps in Manitoba.  About a kilometer along it we came to the border with Saskatchewan, and crossed into our eighth province!  We stopped to take a few photos, and then headed off onto a wide grassy trail leading into Duck Mountain Provincial Park, Sk.

The trail leading into the park was a wide, closely mowed, grassy trail under a canopy of shade trees.  It was mostly immaculately kept, with the exception of several very large fallen trees which had to climb under, over, and through.  It brought to mind memories of walking the Confederation Trail in PEI two days after Hurricane Dorian hit.  Evidently there has been a very recent and violent storm here, the aftermath of which hasn't yet been cleared away.

We walked for about 5 km down the shady trail, enjoying every step.  There were interpretive signs and benches in the shade, and we passed other hikers and cyclists out enjoying nature.  Eventually we reached the Fern Lake Campground, near Ministik Beach, on the shores of Madge Lake.  Without driving in we missed all the directional signage, but eventually we managed to find our lovely treed campsite.  The campground is almost completely full for the August long weekend, so we counted ourselves very lucky to get a site.

We set up and did laundry in our collapsible bucket and then went to explore.  The long sandy beach was extremely full of people sun bathing and enjoying swimming in the lake, and there was a large blow-up castle complex floating in the lake which was covered in children having fun.  Lots of boats and jet skis were out on the water, and generally there was a festive air of celebration about the place.

We checked out the gift shop, and decided to celebrate finishing a province by treating ourselves to cheesecake in a jar.  These treats turned out to be very rich and delicious, although afterwards we discovered they had enough calories to fuel an entire day of hiking!  Oops.

As the bright red sun sunk into the lake we went back down to the beach to watch.  There was still a lot of boat activity on the water, and we were joined by others out watching nature's spectacle.  Since darkness has fallen we can hear people enjoying their campfires and setting off fireworks for the holiday.  

After so many nights camping in isolated and quiet fields and forests we aren't used to hearing so much activity, but being surrounded by so much joy seems to be a good way to kick off our explorations in a new province. 

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