Friday, August 6, 2021

A Little Kindness Goes a Long Way : Canora to Good Spirit Lake Provincial Park

This morning we had a slow start, because for reasons we'd rather not examine too closely we thought of a 36 km day as a 'short' one.  After packing our wet gear and putting on our still depressingly soaked clothes, we walked into town to treat ourselves to breakfast at Tim Horton's, and spent a little time exploring the streets of Canora.  It was another cool, overcast morning with wildfire smoke hanging in the air.  Nonetheless, we enjoyed seeing the tree-lined neighborhoods and nicely decorated main street, with its old fashioned signs, flower boxes, benches, and Ukranian art work. 

The area around Canora was first settled by Europeans in the late 19th century by Doukhobors, Romanians, and Ukrainians.  Ranchers arrived in 1884, and the town was incorporated in 1905, a year after the Canadian Northern Railway laid tracks through the area and opened a station there.  The town name was created from the first two letters of each word in the 'Canadian Northern Railway.'

Today Canora is known as the 'Heart of Good Spirit Country' due to its proximity to several lakes, including Crystal Lake, Good Spirit Lake, and Duck Mountain Provincial Park. It also has the highest density of golf courses per capita of any community in Saskatchewan.  

 As visitors enter the town along highway 5 they are welcomed to Canora by the Lesia Statue, a 25 ft tall, 4,000 lbs figure of a Ukrainian woman holding a loaf of bread and a salt shaker.  Welcoming visitors with a loaf of braided bread, called Kolach, and an offering of salt is tradition among Ukrainians and many other Eastern European cultures.  The statue was created in 1979 by Canora residents Nicholas and Ores Lewchuk to honour the Ukrainian and Eastern Europeans who settled the town.

While exploring the town we passed by the CN Station House Museum.  This railway station was built in 1904, and is now the oldest class 3 station still operating in Saskatchewan.  Although it was closed when we walked by, inside it apparently houses exhibits of CN railway memorabilia, pioneer artifacts, local art, and souvenirs.  Two CN freight lines (one east-west and the other going north) and the VIA Rail passenger service still operate through Canora.

As we walked down the main street we also passed 'Canada's only Toy and Autograph Museum'.  The museum features over 1,000 toys and autographed photos, including one from Prime Minister Stephen Harper and one signed by Laurel and Hardy.  Sadly it too was closed so early in the morning, so we couldn't check it out.

A few doors down from the Toy and Autograph Museum was the Ukrainian Heritage Museum, which we also wished we could visit.  Exhibits apparently include early settler artifacts from the area, traditional Ukrainian costumes and embroidery, arts and crafts, and a gift shop.

As we headed back towards the edge of town we passed the Holy Trinity Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Heritage Church.  It was built in 1928, and its Byzantine architecture, including the three onion domes set atop towers, was inspired by the Ukrainian Orthodox Greek Churches of Kiev.  It was designated a heritage site in 1984 and restored in 2000, and today it is a striking landmark in the town, giving tribute its Ukrainian heritage.

Around 9 am we headed out of town, following a grassy track beside the highway that was lined with newly planted saplings and shrubs, flowers, and young conifers.  At the edge of town we passed Huebert's Homestead, which had a large collection of antique tractors in the yard, behind a fence artistically covered in dozens of brightly coloured bird houses.

When we came to our first turn of the day, we were confronted with a forest of Trans Canada Trail signs telling us to continue straight.  The App suggested we should turn left, and we decided to follow it, partially based on the experiences of Erlen, who followed the new signage and ended up bush-wacking.  It turned out this was the first of several good decisions for the day, so we take our hats off to cross-Canada cyclist Erlen Dur.

As we headed south down the gravel concession, through the misty morning we had a nice view of a large, modern grain elevator across the fields.  It stood much taller and larger than it's more romantic looking wooden predecessors, but there was something intriguing about it nonetheless. Just as we were passing by it, a pickup truck passed us carrying a 'Wide Load' warning.  We turned around and sure enough, coming down the road was the top of a silo, or something like that, which was wider than the entire road! We dropped down into the ditch as it passed, all the drivers in the convoy smiling and waving to us.

As we continued south we found ourselves following Trans Canada Trail signs again, so even though we ignored the previous forest of arrows, we still seemed to be following the official trail.  A short while later we came to our second turn of the day, right at the junction with a large cattail marsh.  As we passed by it was very quiet in the misty morning, the abundance of birds that were likely nesting there a few weeks ago having gone quite or already moved on.

On either side of us the fields of light green, waxy, canola and dry, golden grains disappeared into the mist and fog.  At one point we came upon a cluster of old abandoned buildings, including a home and several sheds.  In the middle of the mowed yard was an old wooden and iron wagon wheel, partially grown into a tree.  It made us wonder what stories belonged to that place, and where they will lead.

A short while after passing the abandoned settlement we came to the place where the trail 'rejoined' our route.  There was a beautiful field, but no real trace of a trail through the tall, wet grass except for the TCT markers, which made us glad we'd chosen the original route indicated by the app on this damp

As we continued west for many, many concessions the trail was bordered by beautiful white, yellow, and purple blooming wildflowers.  At one point we saw a set of huge moose tracks crossing the road.  As the morning progressed into afternoon our trail slowly turned from a two lane gravel road, to a single lane gravel road, to a gravel road with a strip of grass in the middle, to two hard-packed tracks surrounded by grass.  The edges of the track were frequently bordered by trembling aspens, beyond which the fields extended into the distance, broken every once in a while by a small cattail marsh.  It was peaceful and beautiful, and we were thankful for the break from the gravel concessions, and for all the work that had gone in to maintaining the track.

As we approached Good Spirit Lake we came to another intersection with a forest of TCT arrows, this time pointing us in all four directions.  What to do? Our App suggested we should continue straight to the edge of Good Spirit Lake, and then head south right along the shoreline. From the satellite image we couldn't tell if there was a trail along the lake or if we would be walking on the sandy beach - the trail line was traced through the water.  Since at least two arrows indicated that we should turn south at the intersection we decided to follow the signage.  The penalty for walking out to the lake would be about 2.5 hours of extra walking if we ended up having to backtrack because we couldn't drag the carts through sand.

As we headed south we found ourselves once again following Trans Canada Trail markers, indicating that we were on the right track, despite what the app said.  We walked down the concession until we came to Burgis Beach, where the arrows directed us to the shore of the lake.  We made our way along a street lined with small cabins and cottages and a few RVs.  Just before the lake we came to the Good Spirit Resort, where we had hoped to find a cold drink.  Unfortunately the store was closed, but there was a very nice picnic table in a small gazebo shelter, where we stopped for a break and some water.  Quite a few people were out and about, walking to the beach or working in their yards or garages.

We wandered down to the soft sandy beach and discovered that the lake is shallow, with a sandy bottom, and the water was quite a bit lower than it would normally be.  There was about 100 m of wet sand leading down to the waterline, making it look like the tide was out.  People were still out enjoying the partly sunny afternoon on the beach, and there were a few boats moored near the distant water's edge.

Unfortunately the trail markers entirely disappeared.  The app again suggested that we walk down the beach, and then find a trail at the far end that we could follow.  Although we spotted a lovely looking trail coming in from the north, our way off the beach to the south seemed to be blocked by cottages.  We decided to backtrack out of the Burgis Beach community, and head south on the concession, hoping to meet up with the trail after the beach.  When we did this we found ourselves once again following TCT signs on the road, despite the arrow pointing us to the beach. 

Somewhat confused, we followed the signs through a very affluent community of cottages, RV's, and luxury cabins at Sandy Beach to the boundary of the Good Spirit Lake Provincial Park. 

The park has a network of 39 km of trails that wind through a variety of different habitats, and can be used by hikers, cyclists, and birdwatchers in summer, and by cross-country skiers and snowmobilers in winter.  The Dune Discovery Trail features sand dunes that are up to 5 stories tall, as well as views of the lake.  The Trans Canada Trail took a circuitous route through the network, taking us through forest, over rolling sand dunes, through marshy and shrubby habitat, as well as old field stretches.

When we first crossed the park boundary we found ourselves on a wide grassy trail that undulated over sand dunes.  We were surrounded by a forest of trembling aspens, and it took us a minute to realize why we felt like it was winter.  There were no leaves on any of the standing trees!  A forest fire occurred in the Good Spirit Lake area on the Victoria Day long weekend in 2020, leaving the standing trees dead, and making way for a new crop of trembling aspens saplings that were now about 3 ft tall.

As we wove through this fascinating looking landscape we saw a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher and an Eastern Phoebe foraging for insects among the tree branches.  A Yellow Warbler flitted briefly past, and several Northern Flickers and Hairy Woodpeckers made their way among the trembling aspen stems.  The chatter of Black-capped Chickadees filled the shrubs, and above the lake we could see Franklin's and Ring-billed Gulls circling in the blue sky. 

We wove up and down the grassy sand dunes, following the very well-signed Trans Canada Trail through the network of criss-crossing trails.  At one point we passed a picnic table, and eventually came to a warm-up shelter for cross-country skiers, snowmobilers, and hikers. 

The small building had upholstered benches around the walls, a wood burning stove in the center, a coffee table, and a small cabinet filled with useful supplies for hikers and skiers.  The walls were decorated with bird art, and under the benches was a generous supply of peanuts for the bird feeders outside the window.  It was a lovely spot, completely re-built after the fire by volunteers and maintained to beautiful standards.

After a short break, we continued following the trail through the forested park, eventually coming out on the main road leading to the campground.  When the staff member at the gate saw us walking up she asked what we were doing, and when we shared our story she invited us to camp at the park as guests.  We were blown away by the kindness!

We made our way to the campsite, set up, enjoyed a glorious, warm shower, did our laundry in our small bucket, and hung it up to dry.  We then set out to explore the park and visit the beach, which Maclean's Magazine named one of the top 10 beaches in Canada.  When we saw it, we had to agree!

On our way to the water we passed a mini-golf course with a licensed outdoor patio, surrounded by patio lights.  A little farther on was a large Interpretive Center, offering lots of different scheduled activities for families and children.  The park also featured tennis and beach volleyball courts, and a disc golf course.  As we passed a row of cottages we stopped to admire a whole row of colourful and creative rock art lining someone's property.

The concession stand was located near the beach, and featured a small park store and a take-out window offering an overwhelming variety of ice creams, snacks, and different foods, including mini-donut ice cream, mac and  cheese, and curly fries.  The curly fries are crispy and delicious, and not what I expected at all!

As we waited for our fries we heard a huge kerfuffle in the tops of the nearby spruce trees.  Looking up we saw two Merlins engaged in a high speed chase.  They were wheeling and dodging, screaming all the while.  Around and around they went, never ceasing their shrill complaints.

After dinner we walked through the stand of tall conifers to the long, sandy beach.  The water was cold, but there were happy children still out playing in it.  A group of boats were moored in the shallow water.  Across the expanse of sandy beach it looked like the tide was out here too.  As the sun sunk slowly below the horizon the waters turned a beautiful pink, and we took a moment to enjoy the peaceful evening and the beautiful sunset.

As we headed back to the campsite in the dimming light we heard the happy voices of children all around.  They were exploring, learning to do tricks on their bikes, convincing their parents to go for walks, and generally pushing their boundaries.  This seems like a wonderful place to connect with nature, ourselves, and each other.

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