Friday, August 27, 2021

Amazing Trailways : Douglas Provincial Park to Elbow

As the sun came up, setting the conifers in the campground aglow, the songs of coyotes rang out across the quiet valley once again.  A few moments later the eerie yodeling of Common Loons joined the chorus from out on the lake.  Closer to the campsite a large group of Black-capped Chickadees was chattering busily among themselves, and a constant stream of songbirds was moving past through the canopy.  Among them were Eastern Kingbirds, Cedar Waxwings, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, American Robins, Mourning Doves, Gray Catbirds, American Goldfinches, Orange-crowned Warblers, Yellow Warblers, Wilson's Warblers, Tennessee Warblers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Song Sparrows, and American Goldfinches.  A steady stream of Franklin's Gulls flew overhead to the lake, adding to the sense of movement and urgency above us. 

When we followed the Trans Canada Trail out through the campground we passed a sign for the showers with a TCT logo on it.  Showers right on the trail? Really, what more could you ask for? 

We left the campground on the Sunset Interpretive Trail, which led us out past the walk-in campsite sites, to an open grassy savannah landscape dotted with stands of shrubs and trees.  Interpretive signage lined the trail, and as we made our way along we spotted three White-tailed Deer, including a youngster that still had white spots, peeking out from among the shrubs. 

A lovely curving wooden boardwalk took us over a small pond, and out onto a grassy track with a panoramic view out over the bright blue waters of Lake Diefenbaker.  Several American White Pelicans were floating in the open waters, along with a large group of Franklin's Gulls. 

As we made our way through Douglas Provincial Park, following the shore of Lake Diefenbaker, we passed several small ponds that were divided from the main body of water.  The smooth surface of the ponds reflected the blue sky with its puffy white clouds, and in one we spotted an American Beaver placidly chewing on a freshly harvested aspen branch complete with a bouquet of tasty green leaves.

It was a hot sunny morning, the sound of grasshoppers and crickets was loud, and smell of sage was strong as we made our way through shaded tunnels of trees, then out into open grassy areas with a view of the lake, then back under the gloriously shady trees.  At one point we spotted two Bald Eagles perched majestically on top of a dead snag at the waters edge.  We also enjoyed seeing several different species of cacti once again. 

When we reached the northern boundary of Douglas Provincial Park we continued down the grassy track for a bit, which to our delight was called the Piping Plover Trail.  After a very short section of pulling the carts through the soft, deep sand of the beach we found ourselves walking along a grassy stretch between a band of trees on the lakeshore and a row of summer homes.  There were plenty of trail signs to reassure us that we were on the trail, but in a few spots we found  navigation a little confusing because there was a network of trails leading from the homes to the beach and it wasn't always clear if our trail was on the beach or higher up on the shore. 

As we wound our way along the lakeshore we spotted a Great Blue Heron flying over the water towards us.  It slowed almost to a stop in midair, made a graceful arcing loop, and landed on a small pond near the water's edge.  Not too long afterwards we came to the resort village of Mistusinne.  

We took a break at the Mistusinne 150 Park, which consisted of a small green space planted with Scots pine saplings, a flag, and a plaque commemorating Canada's 150th anniversary.  The Gardiner Dam, which was built to create Lake Diefenbaker was constructed for Canada's 100th birthday in 1967, and shortly afterward the planned resort community of Mistusinne was built.  It was named after a giant stone that once stood near this spot and was sacred to the First Nations. 

As we sat on a bench enjoying a beautiful view out over the lake and letting part of our soaked tent dry in the hot sun a steady stream of trucks towing boats passed down the gravel road behind us.  We could also see several fishing boats and a sail boat out on the blue waters of the lake.  It was nice to see so many people out enjoying this beautiful Sunday. 

The next section of trail took us down a very sandy track surrounded by rolling hills of grass, high above the lake below.  We were thankful for a slight breeze coming off the water, as it was hot work pulling the carts through the sand.  Several ATVs were out exploring the rolling hummocky hills as well, moving slowly along the network of tracks as they explored the sunny hillsides. 

We followed the track inland, past the very colourful and character-filled Coyote Campground,  and then boxed around a small treed pasture with two beautiful horses. They were standing beside each other, arranged head to tail so that they could use their tails to brush the flies off the other one's face.  Pretty smart! 

After crossing over the railway tracks we found ourselves following the trail along the overgrown edge of a canola field.  To our surprise, two German cyclists came riding towards us and gave us a cheerful hello as they passed!  As we walked across the field we could see large glass-fronted buildings ahead of us, and realized we were approaching the beautiful resort village of Elbow. 

Soon we found ourselves walking along a ridge, with the lake on one side and a deep grassy valley on the other.  We came out to a lookout point with several picnic tables which gave us a panoramic view out over the lake and down onto Elbow's harbor and marina. The harbour was long and narrow, the water filling the crevice between two steep grassy hills.  A graceful line of white sailboats were moored along one side, and there was a lot of activity as boats entered and exited the harbour.  Lots of people were out walking the trails below us, and happy voices of people swimming off the docks carried on the wind.  Proving once again that when you build wonderful trails people use and love them!

As we sat at the picnic tables enjoying the view below and drying another part of the tent a group of four hikers climbed the steep hill to join us at the lookout.  They gave us a slightly quizzical smile before turning to enjoy the view.

We followed a steep footpath down from the lookout and along the edge of the hill above the harbour.  We followed the footpath back inland along the valley, where we eventually crossed a cute wooden footbridge over a very small stream, and then began heading back toward the lake on the other side of the harbour.  At the far end of the harbour we climbed up to the Club House for the Harbour Golf Club and Resort which had a beautiful patio with a fantastic view out over the marina. The patio was full of people enjoying a late lunch and the stunning view. 

On the return journey we followed a paved pathway lined with large colourful rocks on the uphill side.  Periodically very long wooden staircases led straight up the sides of the valley beside us.  This side of the harbour was filled with people our for a walk, many of whom gave us a friendly greeting as we passed. 

When we climbed back up out of the harbour we found ourselves in a parking lot that was busy with cars and trucks pulling boats.  At the far end we came to a monument for the 'Big Rock.'  This 400 tonne, 79 ft around glacial erratic used to sit near Elbow before it was flooded and the stone was removed. The rock was sacred to the Cree and other Plains People, and one legend says it was dropped there by a giant eagle. 

The next section of trail, which took us to the charming little village of Elbow, wove up and down along the hills bordering the edges of Lake Diefenbaker.  As we made our way around the golf course, being warned to avoid flying golf balls, the trail wove up onto exposed grassy hills and then down into treed coulees.  Whether hiking or cycling, this trail certainly provides a rigorous workout, but there were many, many benches placed along it to provide trail users with a rest and with gorgeous panoramic views over the lake. 

On the hot afternoon we certainly appreciated the treed sections.  The canopy above our heads was still green and full, letting only a little sunlight filter through, but the crunch, crunch, crunch or coppery aspen and yellow elm leaves beneath our feet signaled the beginning of fall. The purple astors, yellow golden rod, and shrubs dripping in plump red and black berries provided further colourful reminders of the changing seasons. 

About 5 km into this beautiful trail we climbed a particularly steep hill and emerged at a parking lot with a cluster of picnic tables and several plaques.  As we approached the rest stop we heard someone calling our names, and realized we'd run into Natalie and Rick, two of the volunteer trail builders for this section!  It was lovely to meet them in person, and to receive both a warm welcome to Elbow and a very generous offer of dinner at the golf course. 

After a short conversation we continued on toward Elbow.  This small community, population ~300, got its name from its location at the 'elbow' or bend in the South Saskatchewan River, which is at the point where the two arms of Lake Diefenbaker meet.  The South Saskatchewan River originates at the confluence of the Bow and Oldman Rivers in northern Alberta, and it is one of Canada's major rivers, flowing more than 1,392 kilometers across Alberta and Saskatchewan. 

At the end of the pathway we found a large group of beach goers, many vehicles with boats, and an enticing smelling snack truck.  By the time we had climbed the hill it was late afternoon, there was no breeze, and the sun felt like it was scorching hot.  We made our way to the Sunset RV Campground and Suites, and gratefully took freezing cold showers.  We have been warned that Elbow will be the last point where we can resupply before Saskatoon, and since we aren't sure yet how we will navigate around the 120 km waterway that leads there, we needed to figure out groceries.  Although neither one of us wanted to venture back into the heat, we walked downtown to do the resupply. 

We found a beautiful, very wide Main St. with a town hall, a museum, a sod house, a grocery store, two restaurants (both sadly closed), a boutique store,  candy shop, and an ice cream store! We waited in a long line of holiday makers for an ice cream, which we very much enjoyed before doing our resupply shopping.  By the time we got back to the campground we were very hot and tired, but we managed to start the laundry and set about planning tomorrow.  By the time the laundry was finished we were simply too tired to do anything more - our ice cream cone enjoyed earlier in the evening was to be our meal for the night - as such we simply went to bed and slept.  

In the end we didn't take Natalie and Rick up on their amazing offer of dinner, which was a real loss, because we very much enjoy hearing the stories and experiences of trail builders across the country, and we have yet to connect with any of these dedicated volunteers in the prairies in person. Together with the trail sections in the Provincial parks, the Elbow Trail is one of the nicest, most well built and maintained, and cleanest portions of the Trans Canada Trail we've walked in Saskatchewan so far.  It would have been an honour to meet the people who have dedicated their time to creating it.

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