Thursday, September 30, 2021

Their Hopes our Heritage : Vawn to Edam

As we set out this morning we were greeted with a clear blue sky that was tinged with pink from the rising sun.  Overhead a continuous stream of Snow Geese stretched from one horizon to the other, forming a living, moving, glittering band.  Pockets of silvery blue frost clung to the grasses in the shadows and dips as long as they could, but they were soon chased away by the warmth of the rising sun.  As golden light flooded the fields and our long shadows stretched out before us on the gravel road, a female elk bounded off across the fields.  We felt lucky to be immersed in such a magical world. 

Those first hours of the morning, when everything feels peaceful and quiet, are my favourite time of day.  We enjoyed a pleasant walk, passing pastures filled with curious cows, grazing Canada Geese, and Snow Geese looking like drifts of snow.  Inviting tracks and curving lane ways wound off into forests still bright with the yellows and oranges of fall.  It was easy to imagine the crunch of leaves beneath our boots and the smell of fallen leaves if we'd gone to explore these enticing side trails.  Instead, we continued down our gravel road, noticing beautiful wooden buildings and abandoned barns tucked into fields and stands of trees along the way. 

While enjoying the beautiful morning we had lots to occupy our minds with.  Today is the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, meant to promote awareness and education about the Residential Schools, and to honour all the First Nations' children and their families who survived, as well as all those who didn't.  One of the things I've realized on this hike across Canada is that I personally tended to think of First Nations as the Peoples that came before the settlers, and the Treaties as something that happened in the past. As we've hiked across the country we've seen how many First Nations communities exist on this land, and while some are thriving, others are really struggling as a result of our painful shared history.  As we read at the Wanuskewin Center outside Saskatoon 'We are all Treaty people', meaning we all have a responsibility to uphold the agreement to protect and care for the lands we occupy - it is not something that is over and done with, or something that exists only between the First Nations and the government.  This likely should have been obvious to me from the start, but nonethless, it provides lots of food for thought on how we can build trust and move forward to repair some of the cultural and environmental damage that has been done. 

As we headed north towards the highway we passed the Husky Edam East Thermal Facility, and traffic began to really pick up.  This $350 million heavy oil extraction plant is part of the Calgary based company's plan to expand its operations in this area.  It will provide over 300 construction jobs as the new plants are built at a rate of two per year, and around 30 permanent, full-time positions in each one once they are operational.  Without a doubt it is massive and like the other facilities here has transformed not only the landscape but also the communities around it.  

We hadn't realized there were oil fields in Saskatchewan, and it was interesting to see the various tanks, pumps, disposal sites, and related infrastructure scattered among fields occupied by crops and grazing cows.  In addition to the 'No Hunting' signs on the fences that surrounded the pastures, there were warnings for 'High Pressure Oil Pipeline', 'High Pressure Water Pipeline,' and 'Danger of Explosion.'  The land in this area really is being 'put to use' in every possible way, both above and below the surface.  

Although there was a lot of traffic, the silver lining for us was a short stretch of very well-compacted road, followed by a short piece of pavement!  We glided along almost effortlessly for a few minutes, a lovely forest on one side and a large blue lake on the other.  Sandwiched between the water and the road was a herd of cows, some of which moo'd loudly as we passed, their low voices seeming to reverberate from deep within them. 

By mid-morning we reached the village of Edam, which is a small community of 480 residents located on Highway 26. There is a small replica of a windmill at the entrance to the hamlet, which is known as a 'Little Piece of Holland in Saskatchewan.'  The community was founded in 1907 by Dutch settlers and named after a town in the Netherlands.  Originally the settlers had wanted to call it 'Amsterdam', but the provincial government declared that was too long.   

As we approached the downtown we passed an old wooden grain elevator, which looked like it might still be in operation.  We followed a beautiful section of crushed stone dust trail bordered by golden birch trees, and complete with several benches in to town.  The Trans Canada Trail was listed as a tourist attraction for the town, and it is easy to see that a lot of work has gone into creating a lovely pathway here! 

We made our way through town, past a Senior Center, a large Community Center, a school covered by colourful murals, an elegant church, and a main street with a general store, a restaurant, a bar, and a post office.  As we sat outside the general store enjoying an iced tea, a man approached us and asked if we were staying in the campground for the night.  We hadn't heard back from them, so assumed they were closed for the season or not accepting tent campers, but when we learned we could camp for the night we decided to stop, even though we only walked 15 km today. 

The Drop Anchor RV Park turned out to be a lovely campground with extremely clean washroom and shower facilities, and laundry!  We spent a long time speaking with the owner, who remembered Mel and Malo, as well as Diane Whelan, who also came to stay for a couple days!  Interestingly, he is also one of the volunteer trail builders for this section of Trans Canada Trail, so it is partially thanks to his efforts that there is such a lovely pathway through town. 

He offered us a complimentary campsite for the night, volunteered to bring us an extension cord so we could recharge everything, and let us know there was WiFi. His thoughtful kindness was very much appreciated.  Perhaps best of all, he shared a huge black book with us, called 'Their Hopes, Our Heritage' detailing the history of the region, as well as the families that settled here.  We were so happy to learn that someone had collected the stories of the early settlers, local communities and regional before they faded from memory and were lost to history.  

From the historical accounts we learned that Edam sits at a crossroads of the Paynton, Carleton and Fort Pitt Trails.  It is also located only 14 miles southeast of Pine Island, which was an important locus of the Fur Trade on the Saskatchewan River during the late 1780's.  During the winter of 1787-88 three factions were competing for their share in the fur trade - representatives from the Hudson's Bay Company, the North West Company, and private partners Donald McKay and Alexander Shaw.  

Like many other prairie communities, Edam has been an important location in the prairies and its fortunes have risen and fall in relation to its grain elevator, its place on the railway line, as a stop-over on the highway, and now because of the oil fields.  The sense of community and mutual respect for one another which can be felt throughout the town is wonderful to see and experience. 

While for many the prairies are fly over regions and often dismissed as places where "just" wheat is grown.  Yet the fact is that in many rural communities like Edam, history has repeatedly converged, Canada as a nation has been defined, and in many ways our country's future as well as the direction it takes will be determined.  I have a grate deal of envy for those communities across Canada where people still chat with one another, individuals still work together building local parks, and where people support community businesses.  I believe, that we would all do better if we took the time to know our neighbors, know more about our communities, and to learn more about each region in this nation - because in the process we would also learn more about ourselves and remember the Common Ground that we all have as Canadians. 

Edam might seem to be 'just another' small, quiet, and charming town but I am grateful for time we have spent in communities just like it across the prairies.  We are grateful to meet and talk with so many of the amazing regular Canadians here, and grateful to have had the opportunity to connect with and learn from those who live and work hard out here.  Whether outside a coffee shop, talking on the side of the road during the harvest, chatting over the fence line at a ranch or by a oil refinery with tradespeople we have both learned a lot - by listening.   

While I certainly have my own views on events and our country (as does everyone),   I also have to admit that there is certainly no denying that there are valuable perspectives into the nation and ideas about our future which need to be listened to and learned from in each small town across Canada.  

Perhaps the main lesson his year is that we have a much more in common with each other than polls, political maps, and elections reveal.  We are not divided by politics and need not be separated by geography or by whether we live in a megacity or close knit community.  The simple fact is that as Canadians we are stronger together, and have common aspirations - just so long as we are willing to once again listen to one another and learn from one another. 

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

‘This isn’t the TCT you are looking for’ : North Battleford to Meota and onward to….Vawn

Today was another long day on the Trans Canada Trail, but it brought a few interesting changes.  The walk out of North Battleford followed a beautiful paved bike path alongside Territorial Rd for a few kilometers, which had beautiful shade trees and benches along its length.  After that we followed the usual gravel road north and then part of the highway to Hamlin, which is 14 km north of North Battleford.  In Hamlin we passed another historic plaque for a school, and then walked by a busy depot with a row of modern grain elevators lined up along the railway tracks.  A stream of trucks was driving into the depot, dropping off loads of grain, and a long string of railway cars was parked alongside, ready to receive the bounty.  Thankfully this part of the morning’s trek was uneventful!

As we turned north again, heading towards Meota, we began to see the first of many large, industrial plants sitting out in the harvested fields.  Indeed throughout much of the day the agricultural fields that we have traced for the past 3 months throughout Manitoba and Saskatchewan would slowly give way to more and more Industrial sites.  We later learned that the processing facilities are operated by Serafina Energy Ltd., which is a Canadian, private, intermediate heavy oil company.  It produces approximately 25,000 barrels per day of thermal heavy oil at Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage facilities near Meota and Edam.  In addition to the facilities, we started to see cleared square patches of earth with small oil dereks in the center located out in many of the fields.  As we passed by the massive processing complexes a strong, unpleasant smell carried on the wind that made us feel slightly queasy. 

We made our way north under a very bright blue sky, on a hot sunny morning. Many beautiful, romantic looking, abandoned wooden buildings stood at the edges of fields now mostly turned a rich dark brown, bleached blond, or faded green.  Some of the trees already had bare branches, while the leaves on others have turned a darker, burnt orange, coppery brown, or faded yellow.  The colours still burned incredibly bright under the blue sky, but it feels like autumn is beginning to gracefully slip away. 

It was also another day full of Snow Geese.  At one point we spotted a large group of several thousand Snow Geese resting in a harvested field of grain and looking a lot like a snow drift.  A smaller group of Canada Geese, led by a single white Snow Goose, approached from the east, and as they drew level the Snow Geese rose up out of the field in a swirling vortex of wings and squeaky honks.  The group seemed to move as one, looking like the Luck Dragon from the Never Ending Story, as it undulated and shimmered in the air. After several passes around the field the birds calmed down, returning to the field to rest. 

For a short distance we followed a lovely dirt track that paralleled the abandoned railway.  For those few beautiful kilometers we were reminded of what it felt like to hike a trail intended for walking.  We thoroughly enjoyed being free of the choking dust from passing cars and trucks and having to plough through the deep, soft, sand and gravel.  It was a few short kilometers of purely enjoying the fall colours, the bird songs, and quiet openness of the landscape. 

All too soon we were back on a gravel grid road, and sharing it with oil field traffic.  There are times when we feel like the Matrix is playing tricks on us, and as we attempted to cross a one lane concrete bridge of the style used in the Qu'Appelle Valley, we converged with two other vehicles.  It seems so unlikely that in a landscape so open, vast, and empty, the four people who are within a 10 km radius all arrive at a single narrow bridge simultaneously.  Yet that is exactly what kept happening repeatedly today. 

Shortly afterwards we came to the trail branch that led off to Meota, which is a small village on the shores of Jackfish Lake.  It's name is derived from a Cree phrase meaning 'good place to camp' or 'it is good here.'  We had originally had reservations to stay in the campground in Meota, but like several other places in this region, the Meota Regional Park closed early this year, apparently due to the fourth wave of covid.  As a result we arrived into this quaint community to discover that our reservations had been cancelled with no advance notification.  So no viable lodgings possible after 40 km of trekking we had little option but to continue onwards, hoping to find somewhere else to camp. 

We returned to the TCT and headed west finding ourselves in a mix of flat, open fields and cow pastures.  As the afternoon progressed it occurred to me that herds of cows have distinct personalities.  Some of them come galloping across their enclosures at full speed in a ground-shaking wave to stand at the fence and look at us. Others are more shy, and one or two will trot away from us, eventually convincing the whole group that it's safer to stay well back.  Some herds just stop and stand stock still, each and every cow staring at us, some with half consumed grass hanging from their mouths.  Still others are quiet as we approach them, but then start mooing back and forth like gossiping old biddies, clearly discussing the strange sight before them.    

As we trekked onward from Meota we had initially set our sights on camping in a large tract of forest that showed up on the satellite image, but when we approached it we discovered it too housed a large herd of cows.  Once again, we found ourselves on a rather busy gravel road, hemmed in on both sides by fenced off pastures, with nowhere to camp but in the ditch at the side of the road. 

Over the course of the day several drivers stopped to ask if we were lost, where we were headed, and what we were doing.  On three separate occasions when we said we were walking the Trans Canada Trail, the drivers bluntly informed us that we were “off track” as it was on the abandoned rail line, which apparently follows the highway, and is an actual trail.  This is the first place in the prairies where the locals didn't know exactly where the Trans Canada Trail route was, and the fact that three of them suggested it should be on an existing rail trail made us wonder why indeed we were ploughing through more gravel if a trail actually exists here? 

Part way through the afternoon we passed a sign for the Paynton Ferry, which we learned is part of the historic Paynton Trail.  Perhaps this is what the locals were referring to here?  The ferry began operations in 1907, crossing the river 6 miles north of Paynton, and serving as an important link on the Paynton Trail.  This throughway was used by settlers, First Nations Peoples, mail, freight, and produce wagons and it followed the path of least resistance, skirting around steep hills, deep gullies, wetlands, and sloughs.  As the railway made its way through Edam, Mervin, and Turtleford the trail lost most of its value as a commercial route. However, with the establishment of the Edam West oil patch in the 1970's and 80's the route came back to life, with the roads along the 'path of least resistance' being upgraded and re-established to service the oil filed traffic. 

As the sun began to set and to really heat up an already hot afternoon, we were passed by a lot of very large farm machinery.  I was particularly impressed by a young teenage girl who was driving a huge tractor that was pulling an enormous metal bin behind it.  She was singing away to music as she passed us on the road, and a little while later we saw her driving in a field beside a second machine that was harvesting corn and dropping it into her truck.  The two vehicles moved in perfect synchronization, even turning corners without losing any of the harvested corn or really slowing down.

We were reminded of a comment made by Tom, who helped us around the waterway on the way to Saskatoon.  He said he appreciates farmers for their skills - that they are engineers, mechanics, carpenters, electricians, and plumbers, and they have the ability to fix or build anything.  Apparently their skills are developed at a young age, and include pulling off some impressive driving maneuvers during harvest. 

As the afternoon wore on, and we began to approach the 55 km mark, we still couldn't find any appealing spots to camp.  Perhaps it is a sign that we are simply tired now, but instead of continuing to walk until dark, which would have put us over 65 km, we decided to divert off the trail to Vawn.  We stayed for the night in a small room in the Vawn Hotel, which had a shared bathroom down the hall and reminded us very much of the albergues in Europe.  Downstairs in the hotel bar and restaurant Sean had one of the best hamburgers he can remember, which likely came from fresh grass-fed local cattle. Many of the folks in the bar had seen us walking on the roads and came over for a chat as we all watched the baseball game on TV.   Here again we were asked about our hike, encouraged on, but also bluntly informed that the Trans Canada Trail was in fact on the local rail rail

and not on the concessions.  And so, another long day on the trail with good weather, friendly people, and beautiful scenery came to a close.