Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Challenge and Reward : into Saskatoon

We awoke around 5 am this morning to the the sound of electric generators and space heaters being started in the RVs around us.  The nights are much colder now, and this morning was particularly damp, making us envy the heaters and coffee makers that were coming to life in the campsites around us.  However, when we unzipped the tent to look outside we were greeted with a stunningly beautiful sight - the warm colors of the prairie fields shrouded in a soft white fog. 

We quickly decided to pack up our sodden gear and re-hike part of the trail we explored yesterday, relishing the rare opportunity to experience the same place under different conditions.  One of our biggest regrets during our cross country hike is that we generally only visit each spot once, and we only experience it during one moment.  Our memories of the Qu'Appelle Valley are those of summer sunrises and sunsets, clear night skies, and hot sunny days.  How it looks, smells, and feels brightened by fall colours, white with snow, or soaked by a storm are things we can only imagine. 

We were watched with quiet horror and fascination by our 'neighbors' as we literally poured our tent into my backpack, the extra water and mud weighing at least 5 lbs extra.  None of our neighbours chose to venture out into the cool, damp, rain soaked, foggy morning, but even if we'd had some of the creature comforts available to us, we wouldn't have missed the beauty of the morning for anything.  

Comfort and safety have become the mainstays of our modern society, but seen from the trail both of them can also be seen to often stand in the way of exploration, discovery, and the satisfaction of personal achievement.  While both comfort and safety have their place - when taken to extremes - they can also lead us to live our lives moving from our climate controlled houses, to our cars, to work, to our cars, to stores, to our cars, to our houses, and then off onto vacation in trains, planes, and RVs.  We move from watching our phones, to using our computers to watching our TVs and now live in shells customized to our own specifications which we now able to take with us - and which most never move beyond.  This type of living invariably beings to shape how we feel, think and related to the world as well as others.   I wonder about the impact of all of this while seeing people making cappuccino in their heated RVs while watching the news on huge flat screen TVs on mornings such as today.  Here we all are camping yet each experience is so very different.  I wonder whether camping and venturing into nature shouldn't be seen as the opportunity to experience the world differently than one would at home or in the office?  As I hurried to wring out my soaked clothes before putting them on to hike I could certainly envy being inside and being warm (and having dry clothes), but I am also aware of the gift I am receiving by being able to venture out into this magical landscape and experience it first hand.  

When we reached the beach, Lake Diefenbaker was completely lost in the fog, but as we made our way along the grassy shoreline the mists shifted and moved, giving us glimpses of the land opposite.  A small white building made a particularly romantic outline in the fog, and captured Sean's imagination fostering memories of the Atlantic and the colourful fishing cottages along the coastline.

The mist and rain intensified the warm golden browns, yellows, and greens of the grassy fields, while in the distance the rolling hills and valleys faded into the mist.  Lone trees emerged from the fog, standing sentinel on top of grassy hills.  White flowers dotted the grasslands, many coated in a sheath of tiny water droplets.  Dew drops clung to the grasses like jewels, and decorated the delicate silvery spider webs like clear glass beads.

Through the still morning we could hear the sounds of Franklin's Gulls out on the water, but we couldn't see a single one.  An Osprey briefly appeared out of the mist overhead and then was gone.  A pair of Canada Geese flew over, their honks seeming to urge us to walk faster to outpace the changing seasons.

We could have enjoyed the magic of Danielson Provincial Park all morning, letting our imaginations run wild, and marveling at how completely different everything had looked only yesterday under the bright sunny sky.  However, we eventually had to make our way back to the park entrance, where we were picked up by Hey Taxi - our only option to navigate around the long water route to the north of us.

One of the great challenges of the Trans Canada Trail is that when the land path gives way to the water trail there are often no suitable means for hikers or cyclists to parallel the route safety.

After so long on foot, the fields seemed to fly past on the drive towards Saskatoon.  The fog that enveloped Danielson Provincial Park cleared a few miles north of the park, then briefly returned, and then transformed into a persistent driving rain.  During the journey we had the pleasure of talking to Tom, who had a very interesting perspective, and a knack for clearly and concisely articulating some of the things we've been thinking and feeling this past year, but haven't found a way to express.  If only we'd taken notes!

One of the things that we've found hard over the past few years is the extreme polarization that seems to have gripped society, combined with the attitude that our own personal opinions are somehow sacred, must not be questioned, but at the same time should be accepted as the ultimate truth by everyone else.  Recently it seems that when people encounter others who hold different views they no longer search for common ground, engage in constructive conversations, or seek solutions that respect different perspectives.  I find this sad, because I want to learn, expand my viewpoint, and change my mind when necessary, but being threatened or called names doesn't create an environment that fosters these opportunities - between individuals, cultures or in our communities. Tom said his most frequent reply to people who hold a radically different view than his these days is simply to say : "That's certainly an opinion", which seems like a pretty good response to me given the lack of other viable options.

After about an hour's drive, which covered a distance it would have taken us four days to walk along a busy highway, Tom very kindly dropped us off where the land trail picked up again south of Saskatoon. Here we found ourselves at the beginning of the Meewasin Trail, in Chief Whitecap Park, which is located on the shores of the South Saskatchewan River on Treaty Six Land. 

Chief Whitecap was a leader of the Dakota First Nation, and is recognized as a co-founder of the city of Saskatoon.  In the 1860's many Dakota decided to move northward in their traditional territory in search of peace.  Chief Whitecap established his new community on the banks of the South Saskatchewan River, and began building relationships with the Métis and settler communities in the region. 

In 1882, Chief Whitecap advised John Neilson Lake on the best location along the South Saskatchewan River for the establishment of the Temperance colony that would eventually become Saskatoon.  Lake was leading a group of 3,100 Toronto-based Temperance Society members who had been granted 21 sections of land along the South Saskatchewan River between what are now Warman and Dundurn.  The group was seeking to escape the influences of the liquor trade in Toronto, and their goal was to establish a "dry" community in the Prairie region free of the ills brought about by the consumption of alcohol.  The settlers arrived in 1882, taking a train from Ontario to Moose Jaw, and then completing the final stage of the journey by horse-drawn cart since the railway had yet to be completed.

In 1885 Chief Whitecap ensured that the new community of Saskatoon was protected during the Riel Resistance, and he travelled with the Métis to Batoche to provide guidance and assistance.  He was arrested for treason, but later acquitted based on settler testimony that he was honest and loyal to the crown.  He died in 1889 having established strong bonds between the Dakota First Nation and their neighboring communities.  

As we set off down the trail we were delighted to discover that it was a wide, flat, crushed stone dust pathway that was well used by joggers, cyclists, and dog walkers even on an overcast, wet morning.  There were interpretive signs, distance maps, and benches placed along the trail, which offered beautiful views down the South Saskatchewan River.  Sand bars frequently poked up from the river bottom, each one hosting dozens of Double-Crested Cormorants, Franklin's Gulls, Ring-billed Gulls, Canada Geese, and/or small groups of American Crows.

We followed the path as it wound along the wide, shallow river.  The trees along its shores were just beginning to turn yellow, hinting at the riot of fall colours that will likely appear in a few weeks.  A backdrop of dark clouds and periodic rumblings of thunder in all directions gave the wet morning a dramatic feel.

As the day wore on the sun appeared, bringing warmth and humidity.  We passed a large off-leash dog park, and then the trail crossed a gravel road.  We were so used to walking gravel concessions that at first we didn't realize the gorgeous trail continued on the other side, running parallel to the road surface.  What a treat!

The next section of trail was bordered on both sides by dense shrubs and trees, the plump clusters of red and dark purple berries, and the browns, reds, maroons, and yellows of the leaves creating a colourful tunnel.  Every so often we'd catch glimpses of the huge SaskPower Plant across the river, or come out to a lookout down by the water.

The Meewasin Trail, that we were now following, stretches 80 km, bordering both sides of the river, winding under bridges, and bisecting beautiful parks and green spaces in and around Saskatoon.

As we approached the city we passed under many concrete bridges.  Several seemed to have a nearly constant stream of freight trains crossing them, while others supported picturesque pedestrian walkways running beneath paved roadways.  Quite a few featured colourful and creative bird-themed murals which we very much enjoyed seeing.

As we made our way towards Saskatoon on the hot, sunny afternoon the path was busy with walkers, joggers, roller-bladers and cyclists. Suddenly we rounded a corner in the treed pathway and caught a glimpse of the city of Saskatoon down the riverway ahead of us.  Without a doubt this was one of the nicest approaches to any city we've hiked into anywhere.

Saskatoon is Saskatchewan's largest city, and it may have been named after the Saskatoon berry, which is plentiful in the area and got its name from the Cree word misâskwatômina.  There are nine rivers crossings within the city limits, giving it the nicknames 'the Paris of the Prairies' and 'Bridge City.' 

We stopped for a short break in Gabriel Dumont Park, which was a small riverside greenspace with picnic tables, a playground, and a Trans Canada Trail Pavilion.  Each one of the many pavilions that are scattered across the country is slightly different, and we were intrigued to see that this one honored the donations made by pioneer families that had been on the land for four generations or more.  Kind of cool!

** A HUGE thank you to everyone who has helped to create this trail !!! **

After the park we crossed a sturdy wooden footbridge and then followed a sidewalk along Saskatchewan Cresecent West, which was lined with incredibly tall, old trees whose lush green canopies met high above the street below in a solid green roof.  Beyond the trunks of these natural giants were mansions, each one unique, and many of them currently undergoing renovations or upgrades.  The utility poles in front of several large homes had QR codes that pedestrians could scan to read about the history of the property they were passing - a very cool and interactive initiative!!

At the far end of this exclusive and historically important street the trail took us over Senator Sid Buckwell Bridge onto the north side of the river.  We found ourselves at the foot of the Remai Modern, a museum of modern and contemporary art.  The building was designed by Bruce Kuwabara, and was strongly influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie Style.  It was meant to reflect the region's open prairie landscapes, barns, sheds, and silos.  The glass and metal building has approximately 4 floors, and holds 11 galleries, a 150 seat theater, a restaurant, and various outdoor patios and spaces.  It makes a striking statement standing at the base of two modern steel and glass office towers.

As we made our way along the paved walkway outside the museum we discovered a whole new kind of rock art.  The banks of the South Saskatchewan River have been lined with small boulders to reduce erosion, and many of these have been painted with highly creative and colourful pictures,  inspirational messages that support diversity and creativity, or solid orange to represent solidarity with the First Nations Residential School Survivors and to remember all those  children who didn't return from those institutions.  The colourful and joyful effect of this community based artwork was wonderful to see.

As we continued along the riverbank through the Kiwanis Memorial Park, which was another beautifully maintained and busy greenspace, our pace slowed.  When we made the decision to head back out onto the trail at the end of June this year, nearly two months after we'd planned to begin, we set Saskatoon as a 'soft' goal for the year.  The global pandemic had thrown everything into question, leading to a much delayed start and continued uncertainty as to whether we'd have to pull of the trail if covid cases began to climb again.  It feels surreal to have reached a potential end-point for our hike this year.  The long days, large distances, exposed landscape, endless gravel roads, the deterioration of our gear, and the uncertainty have taken a toll on our bodies and minds.  It is time to take a few days off to rest and recharge before we continue westward from this beautiful prairie city.

Celebration Ice Cream for reaching our 2021 goal ahead of time!

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