Sunday, August 1, 2021

Northward Bound : Roblin to Duck Mountain Forest

Today was one of our longer days on the trail this year, and it was both blessed and cursed.  We were blessed with cooler temperatures throughout the day, which felt nice and allowed us to make some good progress.  The downside was that everything was blanketed in thick, brown, oily smoke from the forest fires that surround us.  Although the sun was shining it was with an eerie orange light, and even our shadows looked reddish.  We've had some smoky days out here this year, but this was the first time it was thick enough to give us sore throats, and at times it was hard to catch our breath.  We were reminded of childhood charms we would repeat to chase away the smoke around a campfire, like ' I hate white rabbits, I hate white rabbits.'  As I lay here writing this and waiting for our sleep, our clothes smell strongly like we sat beside a campfire all day. 


Although the smoke added to our respiratory challenges, there were times when the layers and colours it added to the rolling hill landscape were stunningly beautiful.  Golden fields of grain or rolling fields of bright yellow canola would give way to soft dark green tree lines, and behind them smoky blue hills would recede into the distance.  The strange sun reflected golden on the small ponds and marshes we passed, which were surrounded by sharp green cattails and filled with tall black snags that stood out against the soft smoky background.

After leaving Roblin behind we headed out into the country on rolling concessions that again were covered in a deep, thick layer of gravel.  Maximum effort was required to pull our carts up the rolling hills, and like the past two days, every time we headed north we steadily climbed up, and up, and up into the highlands. 

The morning was spent boxing north, then east, then north, then east again, before coming all the way back to the highway, crossing over, and again heading north for much of the rest of the day. The countryside was beautiful, but this morning was one where I struggled to appreciate this hike as a journey, and grew impatient, not to reach our destination, but to begin heading west (the 'right' direction!) again.  I've been finding it difficult to accept walking 350 km of gravel concessions just to get 100 km west of where we were a week ago, especially with the deep gravel, relentless climbing, and thick smoke making the walking physically exhausting.  Taking the long way around is something we've done many times on the Trans Canada Trail, and usually we end up at a gorgeous section of trail, a historically significant location, or a unique natural feature.  I guess I will just have to wait and see what this detour brings. 

One thing we've noticed since leaving Neepawa is that the trail markers are oriented differently here.  Instead of being oriented like a road sign, perpendicular to the road so you can see and read them as you approach, these are placed parallel to the trail, so you can only spot them as you walk past.  This can sometimes make figuring out which direction to turn difficult, because there is no indication at the corner.  In addition, since we've been hiking the Crocus Trail we've noticed the signs are about knee height above the ground.  Since the road is typically raised above the surrounding fields, this means they are often down below in the ditch, hidden by tall grass and shrubs.  Each trail has it's own personality, and this unique method of trail marking has added to the identity of this section.

After trekking out of Roblin this morning we followed the pathway as always however when we reached Deepdale Rd we searched for a trail marker, and we finally found it leaned over in the ditch, pointing us down the highway.  That wasn't what we remembered from the map, but having no cell service we couldn't check. Just then a friendly lady out walking her dogs asked if we needed anything, and when we asked if she knew where the trail headed next she pointed down the highway. Taking her advice, and having faith in the marker, we walked down the highway for about 10 km.  We've since realized this was not actually the official trail, but after the deep gravel of the concessions it felt lovely to glide on the pavement for a while, being virtually the only ones out on the road.

Eventually we came across another trail marker and headed back on to the gravel concessions, going in the direction of San Clara.  We climbed steadily again, passing marshes filled with Blue-winged Teals, Buffleheads, and Wood Ducks.  The soft cooing of Mourning Doves mixed with the gentle mooing of cows.  We also saw quite a few Northern Flickers moving about in the trembling aspens, and above the golden fields of ripe grain large mixed flocks of blackbirds had begun the gather.


We reached San Clara around 2 pm, having walked just over 42 km.  We took a break in a mowed grassy area with a single swing set, being closely watched by the residents of the surrounding homes. I suppose we must have presented quite a strange picture, and we discovered a picnic area at the crossroads a little while after taking our break, so I imagine people were wondering why we weren't making use of it instead.


As we headed out of San Clara we stopped at the Métis Center, where lessons in Michif, the Métis language, fiddling and jigging, and beadwork are taught.  Outside the beautiful wooden cabin there were several information plaques about the Métis culture and Métis heritage we've seen along the Trans Canada Trail in Manitoba.  The Métis have blended their European and First Nations ancestry into a unique culture, which we saw east of the Red River on the Crow Wing Trail, along the Red River North section of the trail near Winnipeg, and in San Clara. 

Many of the people in San Clara identify themselves as being blood relatives of Louis Riel, the renown Métis leader. Riel was born in the Red River Settlement in 1844, and the Métis began to disperse from that area in the 1860's, many moving to the San Clara - Boggy Creek region.


As we walked through the town we saw several blue flags with the white infinite symbol, as we've seen in other places across Manitoba.  This is the Métis flag, which is thought to be the oldest Indigenous flag in Canada.  It is a combination of the blue and white found on the Scottish flag, and the traditional colours of the fleur-de-lis, and it represents the coming together of the European and First Nations cultures.


After San Clara the gravel roads became easier to walk, more hard packed, and with less deep gravel.  We started to notice a change in the landscape, to one where more wild things were allowed to grow.  There were a lot more trees on the landscape, and we started to see conifers mixed in with the aspens, suggesting a transition back to the Boreal.  The road verges were less severely mowed, and many of the fields were hay, alfalfa, fallow, or pasture.  As we rounded a corner in the road a very large herd of mostly black cows came enthusiastically to check us out.  They followed us the length of their pasture, mooing excitedly among themselves as if discussing the strangers passing by.


After a short stint on the paved highway the trail again diverted onto a gravel concession road.  This one led down to several lakes offer good fishing opportunities.  On this Saturday evening of the long weekend there was a constant stream of pickup trucks racing down the narrow winding road, inadvertently covering us in dust. It looked like many were on their way to try their luck at fishing and to enjoy the weekend.


Having walked quite a long way by that point, we began to look for a likely place to camp.  We prefer to find spots hidden by trees, but the successional aspen forests of this area let so much light through their canopies that they have a dense layer of undergrowth.  The dense shrubs and thorny plants make it difficult to find a flat spot large enough to put the tent.  However, for the first time in a month we are back in a forested landscape, which gave us more options. At one point while investigating a potential site I scared up a family of Ruffed Grouse, who did their best to give me a heart attack.  Around 6 pm we finally found a spot in the Duck Mountain Provincial Forest and wildlife refuge, pretty tired after a very long day.  We now have only 15 km of trail left until we reach the Saskatchewan border.

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