Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Trains, Bison, and Dramatic Storms : Melville to the ridge of the Qu'Appelle Valley

Before leaving Melville we treated ourselves to breakfast at Tim Hortons, which made for a nice start to what turned into a lovely day.  As we made our way out of town it was overcast and almost chilly, which in our opinion was perfect hiking weather.

The trail took us along the edge of town, then down a small stretch of highway that was quite busy with people heading in to work.  When we turned down the gravel road that was to take us south, we found it blocked by a freight train!  The cars were sitting there, silent and still, as if asleep, and we didn't think they were even attached to an engine.  As we tried to determine whether we had to turn around and retrace our steps or whether we could continue to the next road, the train gave a soft hiss and began ever so slowly to roll forward.  It seemed like magic, but we soon went gratefully on our way.

After crossing the tracks we passed a small farm with three horses, a tiny donkey, and several goats.  The horses lined up at the fence to watch us, the diminutive donkey enthusiastically joining them, but only coming up to their shoulders.  Not to be left out, the goats began bleating loudly from their small enclosure.

We made our way down another paved road lined with nice homes set back on large treed properties, and then the pavement ended and we were once again out in the country.  As we trundled along the gravel concession, which had a dark strip of earth down the center, a double-long truck hauling sand came up behind us.  With a sinking feeling we worried that we would have another day sharing the road with a convoy of large trucks.  To our surprise the truck stopped beside us and the driver asked if we were okay, or if we needed anything.  He had seen us walking for the past few days, and offered to give us a drive somewhere during his lunch break if we needed help.  We explained what we were doing, and that we were heading towards Victoria, BC.  He laughed, saying he sure wasn't giving us a lift that far on his break.  We were very grateful for his thoughtful kindness.

As the morning progressed and we walked south towards the Qu'Appelle Valley we found ourselves walking in some stunningly beautiful countryside.  Bands of grey clouds hung low over rolling pastures that were filled with colourful wildflowers.  Tiny yellow blooms dotted the fields, which were highlighted by patches of pinkish-purple blossoms, thick, dark rusty red grasses, delicate bleached white grasses, and the dark green of cattails. Eastern Kingbirds perched on the bleached grey fence posts that lined the rolling pastures.  As we walked along we were immersed in colour.

As we passed fields with beautiful chestnut coloured horses and large herds of cows the wind began to pick up.  Soon we were climbing up undulating hills surrounded by a maelstrom of energy and noise.  The grass rustled as it swayed back and forth, the leaves in the aspen trees whispered, and the wind itself seemed to nearly roar in our ears, almost drowning out the sound of our crunching footsteps and the grasshoppers and crickets in the surrounding fields.

As the clouds scudded across the sky they made beautiful patterns and looked as if they were alive.  By late morning they had organized themselves into dark and menacing storms which we tracked across the horizon.  We could see the rain moving across the landscape, and although a few scattered showers found us, they were generally very short lived.

We turned down a small gravel track and continued through beautiful rolling hills, passing several farms as we went.  A nimble, elegant fox trotted alongside us before disappearing to the grass.  Several White-tailed deer peered at us from between the straight white trunks of a trembling aspen stand.  We spotted deer, moose, coyote, and several other types of tracks in the sand at the edges of the track.  Overhead a Red-tailed Hawk soared and played in the wind.  Closer to the ground we caught the bright orange flash of a Baltimore Oriole and the smaller yellow speck of a group of American Goldfinches.

As we approached one of our turns, we passed a field with a large herd of pure-bred black Angus cattle.  They all came up to the fence to watch us, unabashedly curious.  Sean was just photographing a large and photogenic red wooden barn, when suddenly we heard the sound of an ATV behind us, and a farmer drove up to chat.  He said he'd seen us walking in Melville when he dropped his kids off at daycare, and was curious what we were doing.  He described his farm as small-medium in size, but we'd been walking beside his land for nearly an hour.  The scale of the farming out here is truly immensely.  He also described where the trail used go, explaining that it had been re-routed after a flood in 2014 which made it impassable.  Now the farmers here are suffering from a drought.  He wished us well on our hike before attempting to wrangle the cows we'd accidentally distracted. 

As we turned the corner the sun came out, making us feel like we were in a different world. Suddenly the sky overhead was a brilliant blue, dotted with small, puffy, white clouds.  The gravel road seemed to glow white, cutting a line between fields of golden grain, light green canola fields, and burnt brown hay fields strewn with large bales of hay.  As we walked along we watched as the shadows of the small clouds chased each other across the rolling landscape.

We continued on through the afternoon, taking a few breaks along the way.  During one of these pauses another farmer came to investigate what we were doing.  He didn't stop to chat, instead he pulled up and in a friendly manner simply asked what was going on, and when we said we were walking the trail he paused for a moment seeming to digest the improbable comment and then in a matter of fact manner simply replied "OK", and drove back to his farm.

As we continued down the concession we came to a herd of bison.  Those huge, powerful looking animals looked so at home on the burnt grass hills.  Their dark, woolly and almost velvety brown coats contrasted beautifully with the light, dry, crisp grass.  Sadly these bison were rather shy, and instead of coming over to investigate, like the cows always do, they retreated behind their hill and out of sight.

By late afternoon we found ourselves being pursued by a rather scary looking bank of very dark clouds.  We continued walking towards the blue sky and sunshine, being buffeted by 50 kph winds that sometimes made it difficult to navigate a straight course and keep pushing forward. Every once in a while we looked behind us, watching the patches of rain race across the fields.  Then we had one of those rare, perfect moments.

We came to a beautiful blue-gray barn, standing in a field of golden grain that was set ablaze by the golden sunlight.  The banks of dark storm clouds provided a dramatic background, while a small group of rusty red Barn Swallows was playing in the ferocious wind, adding a little hint of extra colour.  Incredibly, a few minutes later a rainbow appeared in the skies above the field. It was truly an extraordinary moment.

In the end, the storm came incredibly close, and we were left feeling very lucky that it missed us.  We sent up silent thanks to Saint Roch, the patron saint of pilgrims, whom we believe has helped us avoid storms and other troubles along our trails many times before. 

As we turned west briefly we found ourselves walking directly into the wind, which was extremely tiring.  It seemed to want to blow us backwards!  As we took our final break of the day, another farmer stopped for a friendly chat.  We laughed and joked a bit, and he also wished us well before heading off on his way.  It has certainly been a day of meeting friendly folks out here, and although I'm sure they're all checking to make sure we're not up to no good on their land, we have thoroughly enjoyed it.

By early evening we were finally approaching the Qu’Appelle Valley.  Incredibly, we had been climbing for most of the day, and the final approach was a concerted climb. How do you climb into a valley on the prairies?  We were really looking forward to seeing the valley, because everyone we talked to today said the descent at Hyde would be one of the most beautiful sights on our trip.  The first guy we talked to said he had his wedding photos taken there.

When we finally reached the lip of the valley, we weren't disappointed.  The view was incredible!  The steep, undulating sides of the valley are treed, and they give way to a flat bottom, where the tiny Qu'Appelle river meanders along, like a silvery ribbon.  This 430 km long river flows east from Lake Diefenbaker in southwestern Saskatchewan to the Assiniboine River in Manitoba, meeting it near Lake of the Prairies.  At this point the Qu'Appelle valley is farmed, so a patchwork of lush green fields stretched out before us along the length of the valley. 

We found a secluded spot out of the wind to pitch our tent on the lip of the valley.  We now have a stunning view out our tent door, and this is without doubt one of the nicest spots we've camped along the Trans Canada Trail so far.  As we fall asleep we can hear the sounds of crickets, and the mooing of a very discontented cow nearby.  There is a sliver of a crescent moon in the sky, and it is very peaceful.  A perfect end to a very long but incredibly gorgeous day.

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