Monday, August 23, 2021

Never Say Never : Buffalo Pound Provincial Park to Moose Jaw

When we planned out our trek, many many years ago we were quiet certain that for the most part we would not be venturing down the random pathway spurs and to the disconnected segments of the Trans Canada Trail that exist.

Yet time after time, for various reasons, we have found ourselves hiking into regions and towns that we had quietly declared that we would not trek to.  As usual life colludes to disrupt the best laid plans.

After a long day struggling through the indescribably thick and heavy prairie mud from Lumsden to Buffalo Pound Provincial Park which included two breaks in the TCT pathway and a very wet day yesterday venturing from Buffalo Pound to Sun Valley – where we again found that the trail was broken – forcing us to turn back and reroute amid a deluge of rain - we have decided to ‘retreat’ down a spur of the Trans Canada Trail to the city of Moose Jaw where we will clean off, dry out, re-energize and resupply before setting out to again attempt to trek north to Saskatoon. 

Once again we are learning that it is best to Never say Never, the circumstances of the trail will invariably lead us in their own direction.

We awoke this morning in Buffalo Pound Provincial Park to find the park blanketed in a thick fog.  The soft grassy hills disappeared into the mist above us, the trees forming graceful silhouettes in the foreground.  As we heated water under the trees at our campsite we heard the distinctive 'chink' of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks above us, as well as American Robins, a Gray Catbird, and a Yellow Warbler in the surrounding shrubs.  Colourful Black-billed Magpies disappeared into the mist opposite our campsite, and the silhouettes of American Crows came in and out of focus in the fog.

As we began our climb up out of the campground we felt like we were in the French Pyrenees.  The browns and greens of the rolling hills disappeared into the distance, and the early morning sun set the mist aglow.  Dew drops hung suspended from the grasses and purple clover blossoms at the edges of the road, and the spider webs were turned to spun silver.  The spicy smell of the silvery bluegreen sage filled the air.

We climbed up to a lookout over Buffalo Lake, and took one last look at the beautiful blue waters below.  The parking lot was still soft and wet from the rain, our boots sinking into the sticky, sucking prairie mud.  It was a sign of things to come.

We climbed out of the park on a paved road, once again leaving the Qu'Appelle Valley behind.  At the top, the golden fields of harvested grain were bathed in sunlight, and we could see the grey bank of fog hanging over the valley behind us. 

Since leaving Regina we haven't seen very many Trans Canada Trail signs, and those we have found aren't usually placed in such a way as to help with navigation.  As we left the park we didn't see any trail signs, but we followed the instructions on the online trail map, which indicated we should walk west on highway 202 if we wanted to take the spur to Moose Jaw. 

We walked down the side of the paved two lane road for around 5 km.  There was little traffic, and - unlike yesterday's trek in the rain - we enjoyed the wide open prairie landscape, with the bright gold and green fields stretching out around us under a blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds. 

When we came to our turn south we discovered that the 'trail' followed a dirt road which was shear mud.  The deep ruts of tire tracks led about 6 ft down the lane, at which point the driver of an unknown pick up truck had realized the roadway was impassable and turned around, clearly with some difficulty. By the time we got 6 ft down that track each of our boots had about 6 lbs of slippery, sticky mud attached to them, and the carts were so bogged down we could barely drag them along behind ourselves.  That was the track we were supposed to follow south for 20 km.  As we pulled ourselves back off the the muddy lane a local farmer pulled up and politely asked us not to ruin the 'not all weather' roadway by walking on them after the rain.  

Since being in the prairies we've learned there are many types of road out here.  There are paved roads (which are what you assume they are), thin membrane roads (paved, but susceptible to crumbling and pot holes), gravel roads and municipal gravel roads (one is soft sand with deep gravel poured on top, the other is hard packed with a thin layer of gravel - not yet sure which is which), and dirt roads (described as 'not all weather roads').  The last frequently involve 'low level crossings' (flooded areas), and 'road hazards' (which can involve just about anything, from piles of large loose rocks in wet areas, to blind corners, to very uneven surfaces, to steep and deep ditches). One characteristic of dirt roads is certain - they become impassable under wet conditions and the days following. 

After several days of dealing with broken trails, muddy roads and re-routing I have to say that while I fully appreciate the Trans Canada Trail's efforts to get hikers and cyclists off busy roads - in my opinion putting the 'trail' on routes that are impassable under certain conditions, and for entire seasons, isn't the best strategy.  For example, on average this part of Saskatchewan has 112 days per year with more than 0.1 mm of rain. When you add spring and winter thaws to this total, that is quite a few days each year when the 'trail' is impassable, or at the very least would be destroyed and ripped up by any hikers, cyclists, or horseback riders who attempted to use it.  Following gravel roads would both make traversing the trail more enjoyable for any potential users, and help protect local throughways for the people who rely on them. 

This situation once again points to the dedication of those individuals across the country who have dedicated years and sometimes decades to securing kilometer by kilometer parts of the Trans Canada Trail and reinforces the need to support the ongoing work to connect pathways across the nation.  Trails in the prairies such as South Whiteshell, Pinawa, those in the City of Winnipeg, sections of the Crow Wing Trail, the paths of Neepawa, and amazing paths found in the cities of Yorkton, Regina and Moose Jaw here in Saskatchewan need to be the goal not the exception.  Unfailingly where we have found amazing, established pathways we have also run into countless people out enjoying them and businesses thriving because of them.  Inversely in those areas were apparently no established trail exists we have only rarely encountered anyone out walking or cycling those stretches. To those Trail Builders in each of these communities we once again take our hats off to you and your amazing work!

In our current situation however, given the conditions on the concessions spanning established trails, rather than fighting and slogging our way down a mud track that didn't have a single trail marker on it for the next 20 km, we decided to follow local custom, and find a more suitable route.  We continued down highway 202, checking each concession we passed to see if it was any more passable.   This process added quite a few kilometers to our hike, because we had to walk each successive concession, which were about 1.6 km from the highway, to see if the road stayed gravel or turned to mud beyond the buildings.  Sadly, they were all mud.

In the end, after playing concession bingo for the morning and adding nearly 10 km to our hike we decided to simply walk down highway 2, which the main road connecting Saskatoon to Moose Jaw.  Predictably, this paved road was extremely busy, the traffic was moving very fast, and like most roads in Saskatchewan it had almost no shoulder and a very steep and large ditch.  Luckily for us, the ditch was wide, dry, and mostly mowed, allowing us to walk between the fields of planted grain and canola and the highway, well below the traffic.

We made a hard push into Moose Jaw, trucking along the bumpy verge which alternated between close cropped hay fields, mowed marsh, and taller grasses and weeds.  The sun was shining overhead, the noise of the traffic was nearly deafening, and we faced a very strong head wind, which whipped the thousands of grasshoppers we disturbed back into our faces.  As we've learned from previous experiences, repeatedly colliding with wind blown grasshoppers can be quite painful. 

When we reached the outskirts of Moose Jaw we ran into further difficulties.  Since we couldn't follow the Trans Canada Trail down and around the eastern edge of the city, we had to find our own way across the Trans Canada Highway.  We've done this quite a few times before while following the Trans Canada Trail, and in Ontario we walked along the shoulder of the TCH for several hundred kilometers, so we figured we'd find a way to pull it off. It turned out we were mostly wrong. 

There was construction on the overpass for highway 2, making navigation of the on and off ramps too dangerous for us to navigate on foot.  We tried heading west for several concessions but didn't find a way over from the Service Rd, which was incredibly busy and filled with traffic weaving its way across and turning on and off the TCH, seemingly all at once.  The app indicates that the Trans Canada Trail crosses the highway at an underpass that is 9 km east of the city, and is reached by walking down ... yup, you guessed it ... a dirt road.  This wasn't something we were eager to add to the end of our 42 km day.  We finally managed to pick up the trail, find our way across the highway, and live to tell the tale, only to find ourselves beside a very large industrial area, with the road up to town closed for road work and flooded out.  It felt like the last straw.

Stuck at the edge of town and watching a bank of nasty looking storm clouds approach at high speed from the opposite direction the wind was blowing, we decided to end this challenging day by checking into a motel for the night.  As we made it to shelter the world turned white as sheets of driving rain were driven sideways by the howling wind.  Soon pea sized hail was added to the maelstrom.  Tired, covered in mud, and thoroughly dispirited we went to Boston Pizza for a salad and pizza.  As we sat there, all the TV monitors turned red and began broadcasting a tornado warning. At this point I felt like the world was trying to tell us something. 

When pilgrims hike across Spain on the Camino Frances, they cross the Meseta.  This 200 km stretch of trail traverses the large, expansive, agricultural plains of Spain.  It is described as the 'mind' section of the trail, when there are few distractions and pilgrims are left alone with their thoughts and themselves, being forced to deal with whatever mental challenges we all carry with us.  We loved the wide open landscapes of the Meseta, the space it created for thought and reflection, and the conversations we had with other pilgrims in the albergues at the end of each day.  Even though pilgrims can cross the Spanish Mesta in about a week, some people skip this section, because it is simply too hard on the mind.

We've now been walking the Canadian Mesta for 8 weeks, having crossed close to 1500 km of trail, only there are no albergues with communal meals and wine, and no fellow pilgrims to share the adventure with.  Since leaving Regina the trail has largely been unmarked, and the off-road portions of actual trail have been disconnected and inaccessible to us.  We've had a week of rain now and there is more in the forecast, which means we either accept slogging through mud at a snail's pace for hundreds of kilometers down unmarked tracks, or we find our own route following the TCT as a guide. If we were in the wilderness, accepting difficult trail conditions would seem like part of the adventure, and part of being off the beaten track.  However, when we're just walking a grid of unsigned concessions I have to be honest that at times the route possible seems completely pointless. Adding to these challenges finding our own route is harder than it sounds, because (at least from what I can tell on Google) Saskatchewan's road grid less traditional than Northern Ontario and Manitoba's and is broken in many, many places, as well as being extremely difficult to identify which roads are dirt and which are gravel from Google's satellite imagery.  On days when we have to re-route and re-route and re-route, no longer following the 'trail,' but still trying to stay true to its meandering north-south course, there is no denying that the mental challenges of the Canadian Mesta is of our toughest challenges we have yet to face while crossing the nation.

With all of that said, tonight we arrived into the beautiful and welcoming city of Moose Jaw were everyone from the Tim Hortons crew, to the hotel staff, to the waitress at the restaurant were so kind and patient with us!   Thank you to you all !  Tomorrow, after a long sleep, warm showers, and laundry - we hope to get outside and explore!

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