Sunday, August 29, 2021

To the Waterway : Danielson Provincial Park to the Water Trail

Although today was quiet, involving a leisurely exploration of Danielson Provincial Park and a short hike to the end of the Trans Canada Trail's land section in this stretch, it turned into a bit of a roller-coaster, and left us with food for thought.

It began with a beautiful sunny morning, during which we listened to the chorus of coyotes drifting across the lake, the calls of Common Loons out on the water, and the sharp, high pitched hiss of Cedar Waxwings in the conifers behind the tent.  They were soon joined by the loud demands of the young Merlins, the busy, friendly chatter of Black-capped Chickadees, and the toy-horn honking of a White-breasted Nuthatch.  Yellow Warblers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Tennessee Warblers, American Robins, Eastern Kingbirds, and a Veery also moved about in the shrubs around the campsite. 

After breakfast we set off down the flat grassy trail that took us north through the park, roughly paralleling the shore of Lake Diefenbaker and heading towards the Gardiner Dam.  Once again we were surrounded by many subtle shades of brown, gold, green, yellow, and red that come together in the beautiful native prairie.  We stopped often, once to watch a young mule deer walking quietly among the shrubs and trees, and a bit farther on to admire the striking black, orange, white, and blue patterns of a Red Admiral sunning itself on the rough brown bark of a tree.  It was fascinating to watch the long brown fur on it's back waving in the wind.

We could feel the small songbirds moving through the shrubs around us, hear the high squeak of the ground squirrels peeking out of their burrows but hidden by the tall dry grass, feel the gentle breeze on our faces, and hear the dry rustling of the aspen leaves.

 

The spicy smell of sage was strong, as it often is in the prairies. Here the very air feels alive, a part of the landscape that is always heard, felt, smelled, and sometimes seen.  At times it is powerful, overwhelming, and almost violent, and at others it is a soothing and gentle presence.  In this wide open space the air is always felt, even when it is still, hot, and sticky. 

It reminded us of Christina Rossetti's beautiful poem 'Who has seen the Wind?' 

 
 
As we walked through the wild and free feeling landscape we were reminded of a recent comment made to us by an Indigenous woman.  She thanked us for posting photos not just of the cultivated fields, fence lines, and roads but also of the grasslands.  As she sees it, there is native prairie hidden beneath the highly shaped, intensively managed, minimalist agricultural landscape that is dominated by straight lines, flattened surfaces, and geometry.  There is great beauty in the cultivated fields of the prairies, but I think it is very important that the Indigenous Peoples who live here hold the memory of what it used to look like, and are working hard to protect the plants, animals, and water sources that are all essential parts of the whole.  Grasslands birds and the habitats they rely on are among the most endangered terrestrial landscapes in North America, and arguably in the world.  Without doubt it is time to work with Indigenous groups to preserve, protect, and support as much native priairie as we can while there is chance to do so. 
 

 

When we reached the park boundary we found ourselves standing in a mowed hay field, looking at Highway 44 in front of us, and the vast Gardiner Dam stretching out across the water nearby us.  This walk has brought us to the end of the terrestrial portion of the Trans Canada Trail, and the beginning of the Chief Whitecap Waterway, which follows the South Saskatchewan River from the Gardiner Dam to Saskatoon. 

We've heard several locals praise this water trail, saying they enjoy it because canoeists, kayakers, and paddle boarders can pull out to camp or rest on the sandy beaches at multiple points along the beautiful river valley.  This allows paddlers to make the journey as fast or slow as they wish, and it allows them to make a stop in the community of Outlook as well, which is known as the Irrigation Capital of Canada. 

 
 
As we turned to head back to the campground we saw that the sky behind us was dark and heavy with the storm clouds that were predicted to bring showers later in the morning.  As we progressed the wind picked up, causing the grasses and trees to dance and sway.  We made a short stop at the park store to pick up some pasta for dinner, and of course to have another ice cream.  As the thunder began to rumble down the valley we headed back to the campground, making it to the roofed shelter just as the first large drops fell. 

Over the course of the afternoon several thunderstorms of medium ferocity rumbled and boomed through, producing some awe inspiring forked lightening along the way and repeatedly drenching the campground with rain.  We mostly remained in the roofed picnic shelter, wishing the tent and all our stuff was under the waterproof roof with us.  It turned out those earlier showers were just cute little pre-cursers to 'the big one'. 


Around 4 pm, during a break in the rain, I walked down to the beach and looked out across the lake.  We could still hear thunder all around us, and see lightening in several directions, but as I looked across the wet rolling fields along the shore I saw what can only be described as a wall of water falling under one of the storm clouds.  I suddenly felt like I was an ant in the bathroom sink and someone had just turned on the faucet full force.  Looking at the direction the clouds were headed I thought perhaps the deluge would pass to the west of us.  No such luck. 

When that storm arrived it brought so much rain so fast that the ground was soon covered in 3-4 inches of water.  Brown muddy streams flowed between the campsites and ponds began to form in many of sites.  The rain drops were hitting the ground with such force that the muddy splashes reached the tops of the wooden picnic tables.  The thunder was so loud it shook it the ground, and we could feel the energy and hear a strange click in the millisecond before some of the lightening strikes.  Every so often it would feel like the rain was letting up a little, but for nearly an hour wave after wave rolled through.  It was like all the rain that should have fallen over the last four months arrived all at one time. 

 

Have we mentioned recently that NOTHING we own is waterproof anymore?  Our gear has held up admirably for a year, but much of it has simply worn out after 3 seasons of hard trekking.  To be fair, I'm not certain that the very newest and best tents out there could have stood up to the amount of rain that fell today, and surprisingly our tent and tarp were troupers to the end.  Standing in several inches of water, and pummelled hard, they held the worst of the flood at bay.  There was still considerable soaking however, and by day's end our gear, clothes, and sleeping bags all of which had been in the tent and still in their own stuff sacks were soaked through. 

As other campers slowly emerged from their RVs around us, they watched us inspect our sodden tent with a mixture of fascination and horror.  It is moments like this, in addition to all the mornings we smell bacon and eggs cooking, and the evenings we smell the delicious barbecues of fellow campers in provincial campgrounds, that make us envy campers with RVs.  There is much to be said for the comfort and convenience of RV life. 

As we did our best to empty the water from as many bits of gear as we could, it was hard not to reflect on why we choose to camp.  While you can try to convince yourself that it is 'noble' to have such experiences by not indulging in the types of comforts those around us luxuriated in - however the reality is that it is generally not desirable to become one with the mud and water to this extent.   

While, for us, camping is about getting away from everything (including the comforts of home), and experiencing nature.  It is about venturing beyond our comfort zone, and seeing, feeling, hearing, and experiencing things we wouldn't normally encounter inside the protective shells of our climate controlled home, office, or car.  The rain, mud, extreme heat, and biting cold may bring us to tears of despair at times, but they let us appreciate the world we've built for ourselves, as well as the world our fellow creatures must now survive in.  In a tent we hear the coyotes and owls at night, we see the stars in the dark sky above, we deeply appreciate the value of shade trees, and we feel the changing seasons. For us, these experiences are worth the trade-off ... at least most of the time.   At this moment however I suspect we would both trade a great deal for some warmth, fresh clothes, and a dry sleeping bag.

Apart from weathering the storms, we spent the afternoon deciding what to do next.  We planned out a route around the waterway, that would take us to Outlook, to a roadside campsite, to Whitecap, and in to Saskatoon.  Most of this stretch would involve us walking along busy roadways and not on the Trans Canada Trail.  Then, as the rain started again, we looked up possible transportation options, finding a taxi service that runs shuttles to Indigenous communities that are up to 6 hours outside Saskatoon.  


In the end, we decided to take a shuttle around the waterway and rejoined the land pathway south of Saskatoon before trekking into the city.  We know there are people who will condemn this decision as cheating demanding instead that we walk the busy roadways or highway paralleling the waterway.  In the past we've accepted rides around the waterways, or used other means to navigate around them, and sometimes we've walked.  Generally for us however the waterways are a route onto themselves which provide no means for the hiker to follow safely along nearby.  One thing we've learned is that accepting rides around waterways gives us an opportunity to speak with locals, and we almost always come away wiser, and with a better understanding of a region than we had before.  Taxi and shuttle drivers often know their cities, towns, and counties better than anyone else, and they come into regular contact with people from all walks of life, which isn't an opportunity many of us have. We've come to value our conversations with these people, and what they give to our journey across Canada.  After walking nearly 2,000 km of gravel roads across the prairies, during which we've generally had only very limited contact with other people, we decided that a little human interaction would likely be more valuable and far more interesting than walking another 100 km of gravel roads that aren't part of the trail in the first place.  

I guess tomorrow will tell us if our decision was a good one.

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