Saturday, August 21, 2021

Pulling through Mud to Brilliant Beauty : Lumsden to Buffalo Pound Provincial Park

This morning began with the sounds of traffic on the nearby HWY 11 at 5 am, about half an hour before it got light.  As the sun came up over the rim of the valley we watched a stream of birds moving down the oxbow of the Qu'Appelle River beside the tent.   There were Yellow Warblers, American Redstarts, American Goldfinches, Song Sparrows, House Sparrows, a Mourning Dove, an American Robin, and an Eastern Phoebe.  Down below the Mallards and Blue-winged Teals were splashing and quacking. 

We packed everything up in the cool morning air, very grateful that the tent had dried since the last of the rain fell yesterday afternoon.  As we made our way through the quiet town, which was mostly still sleeping, the sky was a pale golden yellow, and only a few stray clouds were left. 

We climbed out of Lumsden on the same narrow, winding, tree lined and paved road we'd come in by, but this time we had more energy and good will.  Half way up we stopped to take a look at the Historical Museum, which sadly wasn't open until later in the day.  The museum consists of five pioneer buildings, a modern machine shed, a livery stable, and a blacksmith shop.  The historic church, school, house, and community hall all display artifacts from early prairie life.

As we made our way west along the edge of the valley the road turned from pavement to gravel.  At this point we were in for a nasty surprise.  After a night and a day of very heavy rain the road had turned to deep, sticky, slippery, mud.  The soft sandy surface was covered in puddles and ruts, and even the cars slipped and slithered along it, fishtailing as they went.  One lady chose to drive in the grassy ditch instead of on the soupy road. 

We ploughed along in silent horror, the mud coating our shoes and the wheels of our carts. We'd been told our walk across the prairies was vastly different than Mel Vogel's, in that she faced weeks on end of slogging through mud.  As our shoes got heavier and heavier, and it got harder and harder to pull the carts through the mess, we were incredibly grateful that we hadn't encountered these conditions more frequently!  Our small taste of the prairie mud gave us an appreciation of just how strong Mel Vogel is to have survived months on end of this.

In the early morning sunshine the valley looked very beautiful, despite the mud.  The road was lined with large homes and ranches that looked out across the fields.  We passed the point where we joined the highway yesterday, and then the point where the Saw-Whet Trail should have connected to the road but no longer does because it is blocked by private property that is gated off and posted as 'No Trespassing.'  Then we were in new territory once again.

We crossed over the Qu'Appelle River and spotted a sign marking the end of the water trail.  The pullout for the water route looked very steep and overgrown, and after the rain the meandering river was moving pretty quickly. Nearby a small woodpecked worked his way up the sign inspecting it for insects to munch on.

As we slogged along we passed lots of well-to-do ranches with brightly painted and decorated barns and sheds, large homes, painted wooden fences, and immaculately clean pastures with horses.  We also passed a small goat farm with a tall white lama standing guard outside a fieldstone outbuilding. Many picturesque barns dotted the patchwork fields of green and golden yellow, some of which were striped with rows of newly harvested grain left out to dry.

Finally we turned off the main highway onto a gravel road that was much harder packed.  It was such a relief to leave the mud behind! We hadn't seen any trail marker at the turn, and almost right away the App suggested we should turn into a field on a dirt track, cross the river, and make our way down the valley amongst the fields.  A few steps on the dirt track was enough the let us know the soft sticky mud was deeper than our shoes, so we stayed on the gravel road as we made our way down the valley.





Like the section of the Qu'Appelle Valley we walked previously, this morning's hike was incredibly beautiful.  The folded hills rose up on both sides of us, covered in dry grasses on the rounded slopes, with trees growing in the coulees.  At the valley bottom fields stretched out in a colourful patchwork of green, gold, and brown.  The wind was in our faces and the sun was at our backs.







About 13 km into our hike we followed a steep, winding gravel road up out of the valley.  At the top we emerged into rolling dry grass pastures filled with cows.  Both sides of the road were lined with wire fences, the weathered grey posts creating a kind of chute.  It felt like Kingbird alley.  There were hundreds of Eastern Kingbirds perched along the fences - at least one every third section, and many more besides!


We passed an old abandoned fieldstone home, which was still standing tall, its windows gone and some of its wooden shingles missing. We wondered where the stone came from, until later in the day, when we realized the descent back into the valley had rocks exposed along it. The abandoned home had a beautiful view over the valley, and we could imagine it restored and turned into a French Chambre d'Hôte with white lace curtains in the windows, painted wooden shutters, and boxes of red geraniums under the windows.  We took a short break outside it and watched the hundreds of Barn Swallows that were flying in and out of the windows, their calls echoing inside the building.

The countryside on top of the valley was very flat and open, the harvested fields extending out in all directions without any breaks.  A Red-tailed Hawk chased a Common Raven across the blue sky above us, their calls seeming to echo across the open land.  A Swainson's Hawk landed in a field, and stood there surveying its surroundings. The Eastern Kingbirds continued to fly about and perch on the fences in an endless stream.


Eventually we turned onto a dirt track, which thankfully was hard packed and dry.  Just as we turned onto it we spotted a badger at the side of the road!  Sean was pulling out his camera when a Red-tailed Hawk shrieked overhead, and the badger jumped and dove into the tall grasses.  It looked far too big to make a meal for a hawk, but it sure wasn't taking any chances.

As we continued down the track, which was lined with small blooming stiff sunflowers, we found ourselves moving along in a swirling cloud of dancing yellow and white butterflies.  They came up off the road in waves, seeming to accompany us as we went.  A swarm of American Goldfinches and mixed sparrows also hoped and jumped and flew down the sides of the track, making it look alive. The dirt road had lots of other signs of wildlife as well - white-tailed deer and moose tracks, badger footprints, and the loud songs of crickets accompanied us as we walked.


Eventually the nice track grew into a gravel road. First we passed several fields of black angus cows.  Then we spotted a couple of White-tailed Deer who bounded out of a field and down the road.  To our surprise, a group of cows trotted out of the field and down the road after the deer. Apparently there were cattle at large! 

Soon we found ourselves passing a very large cattle farm.  The wind breaks and pens continued for nearly an entire concession, and it took us a while to realize that some of the pens were filled with hundreds of silent cattle, most of them with their heads down, feeding from bins.  There were truly huge piles of straw filling and towering above the barns and buildings around the farm, making us realize just how much straw is necessary to raise cattle.


As the afternoon progressed we found ourselves surrounded by signs of industry.  For about two hours we walked towards a large white balloon, which turned out to be Environment Canada's Bethune Weather Radar station.  On the other side of the road we could see a large industrial complex on the horizon. On both sides of the road were large sand and gravel pits, the machinery for digging scattered among the piles.  Suddenly we were grateful it was Saturday and none of the digging and hauling and was going on.

We later learned that the industrial complex was actually the K&S Potash Canada Mine.  It is part of the German-based K&S Group, which has been mining potash for 125 years.  The Bethune potash solution mine extracts potash crude salt, which is processed into potassium chloride.  It is one of the top ten deepest mines in the world, and it opened in 2017 with an expected life of 55 years.  Potash is used primarily for fertilizer, and Saskatchewan is the largest potash producer in the world, accounting for about 30% of total global production.  In 2012, this province produced about 8.8 million tonnes of potash, worth about $6 billion.


Many times while walking the seemingly endless gravel roads we've wished there was a conveniently located bench, or somewhere to sit down to take a break.  There never is, because why should there be?  However, today, while in the middle nowhere, we came across a large and sturdy wooden bench with metal legs placed on a grassy sand dune at the side of the road.  There really is no explanation for its presence, but we took full advantage of it, sitting down and enjoying the view out over the quarry.



At this point we had a very annoying stretch of trail that made a 'c' shape, boxing around something for 6 km.  Google maps suggested there was a shortcut across this box, but the satellite image suggested the shortcut was a lie, and there was something we couldn't identify blocking the crossroad.  As we took our break on the lovely bench, getting continuously yelled at by a pair of Swainson's Hawks who were circling ceaselessly overhead, we debated whether to try the shortcut or not.  In the end we decided against risking it, and walked the long way around.  The obstacle we ended up crossing was a train track which was located at the bottom of a very deep, steep ditch that was fenced off at both sides. Good thing we decided against the shortcut and stuck to the trail!

After boxing around the tracks we found ourselves once again descending into the Qu'Appelle River valley.  As we descended the steep gravel road, winding between two soft, rounded sand dunes, we had stunning views down the valley, with the blue waters of Buffalo Lake in the distance. 


By this time it was late afternoon, the sun's rays were scorching hot, and we were getting pretty tired.  With relief we reached the turnoff into Buffalo Pound Provincial Park, and found ourselves at a trailhead in the Nicolle Flats Nature Area.  We took a short break in the shade of the trees, and then made our way down the beautiful grassy trail.

After a few steps in a shady treed corridor we emerged onto an open grassy lookout with a view out over the wetland and marsh extending out below us.  The late afternoon sun was setting the valley walls alight and causing the reds, yellows, greens, and browns of the marsh vegetation to glow.  We could see the flat Dyke Trail curving off across the marsh below us. 




To our left we could see the remains of the Nicolle Homestead.  The old fieldstone house was the home of Charles Nicolle, who was a member of the North West Mounted Police in the 1870's.  He built his house and farm in the Qu'Appelle Valley in 1881, and his family farmed the land there until 1959.  Apparently they were famous for holding large family gatherings and having picnics at the old homestead.  Today only the fieldstone house remains.

We made our way down onto the Dyke Trail, and followed the curving sandy track through the dry marsh.  Beside us the Qu'Appelle River meandered along, broken every once in a while by a beaver dam.  The smooth water provided a nearly perfect reflection of the trees along the shore.  A Great Blue Heron took flight from the shore as we passed.  An immature Bald Eagle soared overhead.



At the far end of the trail we crossed the Buffalo Pound dam, which is a 1400 m long embankment dam that was built in 1939 to control flooding.  As we walked the gravel road on top of it we had dry marsh on one side and the deep blue waters of Buffalo Pound Lake on the other. Red-necked Grebes and Mallards paddled in the water, and Franklin's Gulls soared overhead and dotted the calm surface of the lake.

At the far side of the dam we came to an enclosure with a herd of bison.  It seemed to be feeding time, and the herd was flowing down the sloping hills towards the paddock in a continuous, elegant, galloping group.


We followed the paved and undulating park road along the side of the valley for another 4 km as the sunk began to sink towards the horizon.  The rain had left large puddles in the dips, and as campers made their way from the nature trail back to the campgrounds we had to pause frequently to avoid getting splattered.  Despite our best efforts both us and the camera ended up fairly nicely splattered.


Eventually we made it to the lower chalet campgrounds, which turned out to be at the foot of an exciting looking downhill ski and mountain biking hill.  We set our tent up in a large open space, surrounded by a few other campers.  As darkness fell and the temperatures dropped we were grateful to be able to stop walking, to have a beautiful place to camp, and to have something to eat.  On our way to the washroom to brush our teeth we could see bats flying in circles eating the flying insects swarming the lights of nearby RVs !  As we fall asleep we can again hear a pack of coyotes calling in the valley and feel that all is well out here. 

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