Thursday, August 26, 2021

Prairie Practicality and Saskatchewan Kindness : Eyebrow to Douglas Provincial Park

When we peeked out of the tent at 5:30 this morning we found the world blanketed in a thick layer of fog.  Everything was soaked from 2 or 3 brief showers in the night, so we once again made use of the lovely roofed picnic shelter to make our breakfast in the cool, quiet, damp, morning.  Although we didn't intend to stay in Eyebrow, we quite enjoyed our stay in this quiet, peaceful little village. 

Having packed up our soaking wet tent and tarp, we headed back to the trail, only to find that as we expected, the road surface was deep gravel over soft sand that made a quagmire of mud.  Once again we decided to follow local custom, and instead of fighting our way endlessly through the mess, we chose to take the paved road out of town instead, resolving to check the trail throughout the day to see if its solidness increased any. 

There was almost no traffic on the paved road as we wheeled silently along, feeling like we were in our own isolated bubble.  The train tracks paralleled the road on our right, and on either side of us the fields of green, brown, and gold disappeared into the fog. A flock of Western Meadowlarks flew past overhead, and from across the fields we heard the dry 'cronks' of American Crows. 


Just as we were beginning to wonder if we would miss out on all the wildlife because we were following an easier path along the highway instead of fighting through the mud on road to the east, we spotted two elk in a nearby field!  These were the first elk we've seen on the prairies, and we were super excited!  Although it looked like a pair, both animals had huge sets of antlers, meaning they were both males.  

Elk, which are also known as wapiti, are one of the largest mammals in North America, with cows weighing up to 500 lbs and bulls weighing up to 700 lbs.  They watched us across the fields, then took off running.  They seemed to gather themselves up into a projectile of shear energy as they gracefully leapt over a wire fence and were gone. 



With renewed energy we continued on down the road, scaring up two Killdeer from the nearby railway tracks.  We stopped frequently in the stunningly beautiful landscape for Sean to photograph lone trees, wind breaks, abandoned homesteads, and picturesque fence lines as they disappeared into the mist.  Progress was slow, but the beauty was almost overwhelming and our spirits were high. 

A little farther down the road we spotted two more elk, one standing tall in the canola field, and the other sitting down a few feet away, visible only from its antlers sticking up above the grain.  Again, it was a pair of males, and as we approached they stuck their noses in the air and walked off, looking both very regal or very snobby. 

At this point we had another huge treat - a trail side visit from Susan, who was heading back from Moose Jaw.  She has been a huge supporter of our hike, and is involved with fantastic work for the Nature Conservancy of Canada preserving grassland habitats on the prairies in Alberta.  It was really exciting to meet her in person, and so interesting to hear her read the landscape around us, pointing out which homesteads had been abandoned as smaller farms were consolidated into larger operations, and which clumps of trees were likely growing in the foundations of old buildings.  She also spoke about how the prairies have changed over time, with the farms becoming larger and the crops often being planted right up to the roads and right-of-ways, which is something we've noticed along the trail as well. 

As we continued along through the misty morning with a cool breeze blowing in our faces, we passed a large pond beside a cattle ranch.  The water was very low, but it was absolutely teeming with Franklin's Gulls and ducks.  They were too far away in the low light and fog to identify, but we watched as about 200 ducks seemed to rise as one from the water, inscribe a graceful arc above the pond as they flashed their white underbellies, and then land together as a single unit, seemingly in slow motion. 

Across the road was a field with a flock of Canada Geese foraging in it. Throughout the morning we could hear v's of them honking as they flew by overhead, a sure sign of the changing of the seasons. 

As we approached the small community of Tugaske the sun broke through the clouds.  First a single field turned to gold, then the mist fled, leaving behind blue sky broken by small, fluffy white clouds.  As we approached the edge of town we passed metal sculptures of a tree, a fish, and a bison fashioned from recycled farm machinery. 

At the edge of Tugaske we passed a sign saying it was the 'Gateway to Lake Diefenbaker.'  This reservoir was formed by the construction of the Gardiner Dam across the South Saskatchewan River and the Qu'Appelle River Dam across the Qu'Appelle River.  Construction of the dams began in 1959, and the lake was filled in 1967.  The lake is 225 km long, and it is the largest body of water in Southern Saskatchewan.  It was named after John G. Diefenbaker, the 13th Prime Minster of Canada, who held office from 1957 - 1963. 

At its deepest point Lake Diefenbaker is 66 m, and it is home to 26 species of native and stocked fish.  Both the world-record Rainbow Trout and the world-record Burbot were caught in this lake.  It is bordered by long sandy beach ds, which we were happy to learn support breeding populations of endangered Piping Plovers. 

We stopped at the Co-Op in Tugaske for a coffee and banana loaf, and sat on a conveniently located bench for a break.  As we munched a man came up to ask what we were doing.  When we said we were hiking the Trans Canada Trail he warned us that it was extremely muddy today, and that if it were him he'd stay on the pavement.  He then gave us lots of advice about getting to Douglas Provincial Park, the amenities available there, and possible re-supply points between Tugaske and Saskatoon.  It was very helpful conversation, and he wished us well before we headed off. 

As we left Tugaske we passed a small campground with it's own small wooden windbreaks at each site, hinting at a set of harsh conditions we were grateful not to be experiencing.  We checked to see if the trail conditions were any better, but the man was right, the roads were still very wet and soft from the rain.  As we passed an antique turquoise car that reminded us of the Weasely's flying car in the Harry Potter series, we decided to continue on down the paved road.  Throughout the day we kept checking to see if conditions on the trail improved, but they never did - the last few days have simply brought too much rain and so the official Trans Canada Trail was more mud than roadway.

As we glided along the pavement the sun was at our backs, the wind was in our faces, and the empty road stretched out before us. The road edges were bordered by prairie sunflowers and spicy smelling sage.  At first the golden fields of harvested grain stretched out like a never-ending ocean on the rolling hills around us, extending from one horizon to the other.  

As the afternoon progressed we began to see more cattle ranches, and the crops gave way to rolling pastures. Then we began to see the beginnings of small crevices and valleys that looked like they once had creeks or rivers flowing down them, but had long since dried up and been shaped into rounded and soft grassy valleys. 


As we came to a turn we heard a low flying plane and saw a bright yellow crop duster spraying a nearby field.  It made a very low pass, did an improbably slow and sharp turn, and then came straight at us.  We had a small taste of what it must have felt like for soldiers to get buzzed by aircraft and shot at from above during the world war a century ago.  Again and again the pilot made extremely low passes over the fields, demonstrating some very skillful flying and repeatedly buzzing us in the process.  

Shortly after this bit of excitement we tried to leave the highway behind and pick up the trail, which should have taken us along the shore of Lake Diefenbaker along the Qu'Appelle Dam.  The trail app indicated we should be able to cross a field to access the trail, but we found no evidence of the access point, and our way was blocked by multiple wire fences and CP Rail crews working on the local train line.  Again, we continued a bit farther down the highway, which at this juncture was uncomfortably busy.

Soon the small river valleys and rolling hills gave way to a very large valley, completely blocked half way down by the Qu'Appelle Dam, beyond which we could see the deep blue waters of Lake Diefenbaker.  The paved road led down into the valley, at the bottom of which was a deep and fast flowing stream.  We crossed over on the bridge, and then began the long climb back up and out of the grassy treed valley on the curving road. 

As we climbed and climbed we watched as storm clouds moved across the sky.  The falling rain looked very dramatic, lit from the sunshine behind us.  Once again, we were grateful to observe the dramatic skies form a distance while none of the scattered showers came our way. 



When we finally reached the turn-off into the park a couple from Regina with a very nice basset hound pulled over to talk to us.  They very generously offered us delicious fresh peaches from BC and cold ginger ales.  It was lovely trail magic, and we very much enjoyed talking to them.  They too were interested in finding a way to add adventure to their lives, and engage with something beyond just work.  One comment that gave us much food for thought was their observation that in our modern Western society simply walking has become a radical act, even if it is just for a few kilometers to get to work.  

In an environment that we've designed for cars, and that we now move through at the speed of machinery and instant online interactions, we're begun to think of walking as nothing more than an inefficient waste of time that should be minimized at all costs.  Yet, at the same time the number of people hiking European pilgrimage routes, the US Triple Crown trails, and many others besides has sky rocketed in recent years.  In many parts of the world refugees are walking by the thousands towards what they hope will be a better life for themselves and their children.  It seems like humans are beginning to realize that radical action is needed for ourselves and for our planet. 

After meeting the lovely couple we crossed the boundary for Douglas Provincial Park and picked up a wonderful grassy trail.  The winding pathway led us through trembling aspen stands and then out to more open grassy areas with beautiful views of the deep blue lake.  It felt magical to walk among the straight white stems of the aspens under a green canopy that created a rustling tunnel around the trail. 

The sandy trail bed was covered in short spiky grasses, stringy dark carpet junipers, and at least two varieties of thorny cacti.  It struck us that to survive this harsh prairie landscape everything is very tough, wearing extra layers of protection in order to persevere and survive. 

As in other Saskatchewan parks, we passed interpretive signage, maps with distances marked on them, and benches along the way.  According to an older article on the TCT that we were recently forwarded the original vision for the Trans Canada Trail was apparently to have this type of infrastructure in place across the entire country.  If this vision is one day realized it will be a truly epic achievement, and it will be done through the work of thousands of volunteers.  With this pleasant dream in our mind's eye we took a break at one of the well placed benches and watched as a Pileated Woodpecker flew past, calling loudly as it went. 



Trekking onward we enjoyed following the meandering grassy trail as it alternated between forested sections and open grassy hills, with views of the long beaches along the shores of the deep blue lake.  Eventually we emerged onto a large sandy beach, and found ourselves at the Store by the Shore.  The beach was full of people out enjoying the warm sunny afternoon, and the grassy area with picnic tables outside the store was also full of families. 


Here we dropped our gear at one of the picnic tables and ordered two milkshakes, a veggie wrap, and a burger from the concession stand.  As we waited for our food several families began chatting with us about the hike, what the trail was like, and what it was like to see Canada.  Word of our exploits quickly spread, and soon we had a very generous invitation from the store owner to become a taste tester for her new poutine later in the evening, and a kind offer for a ride in to Elbow for the fireworks tonight.  It was heartwarming to receive such a hearty welcome and to see such curiosity about our expedition.



After our much appreciated dinner we headed up to our campsite for the night, which turned out to be only a few feet from the Trans Canada Trail.  We enjoyed gloriously warm showers and then headed back through the treed campground to the store and beach to do laundry (what luxury!).  

Douglas Provincial Park was established in the 1960's after Lake Diefenbaker was created by the construction of the Gardiner Dam, and it was named after Saskatchewan Premier and recently proclaimed 'Greatest Canadian' Tommy Douglas. The provincial park features a long sandy shoreline, large wooded campsites, huge inland sand dunes, hiking trails, a boat launch, great fishing opportunities, and it is close to the championship golf course in Elbow.  


As we waited for our laundry to finish we watched a gorgeous sunset across the lake.  In the bushes along the shoreline there were American Robins, Eastern Kingbirds, Cedar Waxwings, Black- capped Chickadees, a host of sparrows, Yellow Warblers, and a Brown Thrasher.  A group of American White Pelicans was floating on the water, joined by a group of Franklin's Gulls.  Along the shallow sandy shore a whole flock of Baird's Sandpipers. 

We watched as the sun set the sky ablaze in a glory of reds, pinks, and yellows which bathed the sand dunes behind us in a warm rosy light.  As twilight began to fall we made our way back up to the campground, surrounded by the sounds of children, dogs, campfires, and music from many happy campers.  Later on, as we lay under a blanket of millions of brilliant white stars we heard the sounds of the fireworks, the distant sounds of coyotes howling at the half moon, and the duetting of two Common Loons on the lake.  We feel very fortunate to be here at this moment.

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