Sunday, September 26, 2021

A Visual Feast of Landscapes and Colours : to North Battleford

Ultimately our refuge….our little patch of forest proved to be a peaceful spot to spend the night.  The bright white light of the moon shone through the canopy, and we could see bright stars hanging like jewels above the leaves.  As we were heading to bed a group of coyotes passed through, yipping and barking as they wove through the underbrush on both sides of the tent.  Even their noisy commotion wasn't enough to silence a small creature that spent the night quietly chewing something at the end of the tent.  No idea what it was, but since it wasn't the tent it was chewing we were happy to live and let live. 

We began packing up just as the horizon began to turn a beautiful pale yellow, and by the time we headed back out onto the gravel road in the warm, dry morning the sun was just peeking over the horizon.  Pale pink and yellow streaked the sky, making it look like we were walking through a watercolor painting.  

A few kilometers down the road we came to several historical buildings that left us wishing we could learn more about them.  The first seemed to be an abandoned meeting hall with a uniquely shaped facade, missing windows, and the white paint peeling from its wooden siding.  

The second building was an elegant, stately looking Ukrainian church.  The paint was peeling from its siding as well, but the beautiful stained glass in its windows was still intact, and the silver domes and crosses on its twin spires remained pristine looking.  A plaque outside identified it as the St. Volodymyr Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada, which was built in 1933.  The plaque commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Ukrainian settlers in Canada, who arrived in 1891.  After months of seeing these beautiful houses of worship across the prairies we hope one day to be invited to see the interior of them.  

Beside the church was another historic plaque for Dominion School 779.  A brief Google search yields little information about this place, but it looks like it once hosted a thriving community of settlers.  It seems like there is an opportunity, and perhaps a need, to document small settlements, historical churches, and school houses across the prairies, which are disappearing as farming operations grow and younger people move into the cities for work, before their stories are lost to history.  

We continued on through open rolling countryside, rounded hay bales scattered irregularly throughout the golden brown fields.  Small stands of trees filled the dips and valleys, their fall colours adding warmth and texture to the landscape.  As we climbed and descended the hilly road we spotted two red foxes with magnificent, black, bushy black tails crossing the road ahead of us. 

The hills around us grew rounder and more defined, like wrinkles in a blanket.  The fields extended as far as we could see in every direction, the closely harvested grain stalks making them look like a velvet duvet covering a sleeping earth below. It almost made us want to check if the sleeping form underneath was breathing.  

It is difficult to describe the strange and beautiful landscape we found ourselves in, but it was definitely something different.  A small wooden building, pushed sideways by the ferocious winds but still standing defiantly at the edge of the road, seemed to speak of determination, perseverance, and steadfastness.  We made our way towards it, up an extremely steep and long climb, remembering stone buildings along the pilgrimage routes of Europe that had a similar attitude, and feeling like it captured perfectly the spirit of surviving the harsh landscape. 

Above the golden, rolling landscape the bright blue sky was filled with thousands of migrating birds.  Wave after wave of Snow Geese passed by, their voices growing louder and louder and then quickly fading as they disappeared towards the horizon.  Large V's of Canada Geese shifted and wove as they too made their way south.  The graceful white forms of either Trumpeter or Tundra Swans glinted against the blue sky as their elegant lines joined the throng.  The living river of birds also included smaller flocks of Sandhill Cranes whose dry, rolling calls reverberated across the hills, as well as many, many small groups of ducks.  

It seemed like we stopped a hundred times to admire and photograph the stunning scenery as the winding road (it wasn't straight!) wove between the hills and then climbed again to offer us panoramic views of the surrounding landscape.  

Eventually we descended into a lush feeling valley, past the Rawlyk Farm, where the farmers were out tending to their fields. They stopped for a friendly chat, sounding a bit dubious that we thought we'd make it the 22 miles into North Battleford in one day, but wishing us the best of luck.  Their friendly dog walked with us for a little while before they came to retrieve him. 

We wound our way up the side of a beautiful treed valley.  At the bottom was a small pond that had almost completely dried up, the water leaving behind a white residue that looked like ice from a distance.  Apparently the residue is salt or minerals from the soil, and there many names for these shallow ponds or lakes, including salt pans, playas, and alkali flats.  

When we reached the top of the valley we found ourselves in flatter, open country with fields that extended for miles.  For the next 25 km we walked down a straight gravel road among fields.  Many farmers were out bringing in their crops, and in some sections there was a lot of traffic.  Otherwise little changed as we walked and walked and walked.  Sometimes each kilometer we walk seems like five, and that stretch of roadway seemed truly endless.  Perhaps we were just tired. 

Finally we reached the paved highway that lead down into North Battleford.  We soon discovered that like many prairie towns, this one has three major highways running through it, as well as an extremely busy ring road that circles the town.  High speed traffic, no sidewalks, and multiple crossings makes these cities extremely dangerous for pedestrians and hikers alike. 

By the time we reached the motel where we had a reservation we were pretty tired and very ready for a hot shower and some rest.  Tomorrow we're taking a day off to recuperate, catch up on the blogs, and explore North Battleford, which is another important stop on the Trails of 1885.

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