Saturday, September 18, 2021

Hobbling On : Warman to the Battle of Fish Creek NHS

Dear Reader, 

It has now been 91 days since we left Winnipeg, and if you have diligently been following our progress you have now read approximately 79 blog entries describing our journey. I imagine that by this point you are getting a little bored reading my descriptions of pristine fields, gently rolling fields, grain fields that stretch from horizon to horizon, fields blanketed by yellow canola blossoms, harvested fields, un-harvested fields, and fields dotted with bales hay.  If so, then rest assured you aren't alone - so am I. 

I'm certain there are prairie authors who know the language of this landscape and can spend a lifetime teaching us new ways of seeing its beauty.  I wish I were one of them, but unfortunately I do not know this language,  I do not have the words, and I feel like I have written all I can and more about it.  After 1,936.5 km I am tired of walking the endless gravel roads, getting coated with grey road dust, yellow dust from the harvest, and frequently both at the same time.  I am tired of the wind that constantly roars in my ears, and of feeling the grit between my teeth, in my nose, eyes lashes, and hair.  I'm sick of the dirt that coats my arms and legs as we once again walk north-east instead of making any headway in our westward journey.  There is great beauty out here, but I am ready for a change in scenery, a sense of progress, and a new chapter in this story.  I have never felt such joy at the change of the seasons as we enter fall - but since the trail refuses to change, then at least the colours around us will which is something!

These were the thoughts that filled my head today, and that caused us both to have a minor meltdown on the edge of the road during the late afternoon.  All I can ask, dear reader, is that you bear with us - today's story includes a conqueror's challenge, a ferry tale, and an epic battle site, and it offers a look at the changing beauty you can find on the prairies as summer gives way to fall.  The next few days will take us to places where in many ways our nation's history was decided, so really, who can complain of boredom brought on by endless gravel concessions? 

First, the Conqueror's Challenge.  I'm sure many of you are familiar with the virtual marathons and hiking challenges that have taken place during the pandemic to allow people to participate in group events without travelling or congregating.  The Conqueror's Challenge is such an event, which let's you log kilometers anywhere while tracking your progress along one of the world's more famous trails.  When we discovered that the distance between Saskatoon and Edmonton on the Trans Canada Trail was the same as the distance between St . Jean Pied-de-Port and Santiago de Compostela on the Camino Frances, we decided to sign up to give ourselves something to dream about as we cross the 'Canadian Meseta.'  

Today on our virtual trek reached Pamplona, Spain, which was a difficult day for us on the Camino as well - where Sean also had a minor meltdown (almost ending our hikes). To read more about our actual pilgrimage across Spain on the Camino Frances in 2016, please check out our blog

Now, to continue the story of our #Hike4Birds.  As we set out from Warman the sky was streaked with wispy clouds against a backdrop of soft pinks and yellows.  At 7:30 am it was already hot, humid, and slightly hazy, which gave the fields a soft golden glow.  Four white-tailed deer crossed the open gravel road ahead of us in giant leaps and bounds, disappearing into a stand of shrubs and small trees and stirring up an enormous of flock of mixed blackbirds who erupted into the air in a flurry of complaints.  

The sense of urgency was amplified by the huge combines in the fields around us that seemed to be racing across the land as they took in the harvest.  A dump truck kept pace with each harvester, driving parallel to it and receiving the harvested grain through a long chute.  When one truck was full it would race off across the field toward the storage facility in a huge cloud of dust, only to be replaced almost immediately by an empty truck who was ready to take its place.  The speed and precision of these operations were truly impressive, as were the clouds of dust that travelled across the landscape for incredibly large distances.  

As we continued along the dusty gravel roads we realized the palette of colours adorning the prairies has changed.  Almost gone are the lush bright greens, brilliant yellows, soft light browns, and pastels of spring and summer on the prairies.  They've been replaced with the rich caramel brown, deep gold, burgundy, red, and earth tones of fall.  The light pinks and purples of clover have been replaced with the deep yellows and bluish purples of golden rod and asters.  The crickets, grasshoppers, and bees have all but fallen silent - and now seem replaced with the ever present midges which crawl into our hair, into our eyes, and up our noses.  For those of us who grew up shading the prairie provinces on our hand-drawn maps of Canada yellow to represent wheat, this color scheme seems to fit more closely with how we imagined this landscape.  Perhaps the silver lining to our long walk through this landscape is that we get to see it change with the seasons, and realize it is so much more than just wheat fields. 

Saskatchewan's moto is 'Land of the Living Skies' and today it certainly lived up to its reputation.  Throughout the day the bright blue sky above us was filled with a seemingly endless stream of geese.  Large v's of Canada Geese mixed with huge numbers of smaller Snow Geese, their voices mingling as the long lines merged and wove in mesmerizing patterns above us.  As the afternoon wore on many of the ponds we passed began to fill with hundreds and hundreds of geese who stopped to rest. It truly was an awesome sight to behold. 

The geese weren't the only animals on the move.  Flocks of Killdeer filled the fields around us, the ponds were full of Mallards, Teals, and Mergansers, and throughout the day we heard the dry rolling calls of Sandhill Cranes, and saw graceful lines of these ancient and huge birds flying overhead.  Everything was on the move. 

Despite the beauty around us, by late afternoon we were struggling.  It was very hot, and the hazy air smelled strongly of smoke, which burned ours eyes and throats, and made us constantly thirsty.  To make matters worse, Sean's feet - made sore by accidently buying the wrong sized shoes - has gotten progressively worse, which made it even harder to plough through the soft, deep, gravel of the roads and to ignore the blisters brought about new shoes that it turns out are a size smaller than the box indicated. Our legs are still sore from readjusting to hiking again after our break, and we are currently carrying five days of food and water, which takes a huge amount of effort to drag through the deep sandy gravel. Yet we hobble on.  

As we sat in the dirt at the edge of the road, generally feeling sorry for ourselves, two ATVs came down the road and stopped beside us.  It was a father with two curious and very cute children who enthusiastically asked if we were walking the trail.  After chatting for a few minutes they left with a cheerful "Welcome to Saskatchewan and good luck!"   Yet before they pulled away the little lady looked up at me, gave me thumbs up, and proudly announced "I think you are cool!" It felt as thought the trail itself was trying to send us encouragement.  As on the Camino, the Way Provides.....

As we continued down the dirt road, which had been boxing along beside the South Saskatchewan River for much of the day, we began to descend rather steeply into the river valley.  The tall, steep riverbanks were treed, and the rich reds, yellows, and greens of the fall foliage were set aglow by the late afternoon sun.  The bright blue waters of the river rushed along at the bottom of the colourful valley in a wide, shallow riverbed.  

As we approached the riverbank we caught our first glimpse of the Hague Ferry, which is the first of several cable ferries we will take to cross back and forth over the river.  The open platform had space for six cars, although the water is so shallow right now it can only take light loads. This toll-free ferry is one of 12 operated by the Government of Saskatchewan,  and although tiny, it transports around 10,000 vehicles a year across the water during the ice-free season. 

We waited as the ferry returned from the opposite side of the river, and then boarded along with one other car.  The crossing took less than five minutes, and as we stood on the open deck, only a few inches above the shallow wavy water, the wind blew cooling spray up on deck to cool us off.  It was a welcome moment of excitement and something new and different to enjoy which we very much appreciated. 

We took a break on the grassy slopes of the far shore, enjoying the shade of the trees and watching as the ferry made several more trips back and forth across the river.  We had been considering the possibility of camping in the trees near the ferry crossing since we were exhausted, sore, and we'd walked around 35 km.  However, the ferryman seemed a bit suspicious of us hanging about - indeed he temporarily stopped the ferry service to lock his truck and stare at us - and since we didn't want to create problems, we decided to continue on.  As it turned out, this may have been a mistake.  

We made what felt like an endless climb up the steep side of the valley on a road that seemed to have extra deep gravel.  Traffic was relatively constant and the wind was so strong we couldn't hear the cars coming over the constant roar in our ears, so we were forced to stay on the soft, sandy, sloped road edges.  When we had finally climbed out of the river valley we found ourselves in wide open fields, with almost no trees in sight. The one spot that looked like a possible place to take shelter and pitch the tent for the night had a 'No Hunting, No Trespassing, No Hiking' sign, which at that moment seemed like a special insult.  

As we continued on, trekking down the side of the ever deepening gravel roadway yet another truck appeared on the horizon.  As happens so often drivers, even those with the best of intentions, frequently steer where they are looking.  As a result, despite pulling over to the other side of the road to give us a wide berth and safely pass us, vehicles often nonetheless start to drift toward us as their drivers strive to figure out what we are doing or who we are.  While (obviously) nothing has thankfully ever happened to us in these situations, it can nonetheless be both unnerving and exhausting to have to constantly be aware of what might happen.  Today as the vehicle made its slow and steady progression back toward us Sean did what we often do, which is to step off the road an into the ditch to allow the truck to safely pass.  Unfortunately this time he stepped directly into a large badger hole – leading him to stumble down into the ditch below.  While only a short tumble should have done little (aside from making him feel daft) the real damage could be seen from the blood dripping down the side of his hip when he stood up.  As it turns out when he fell, he landed on his metal SIGG water bottle which normally sits on the side of backpack hip belt.  It would seem however that the force of falling on it had crushed it, split it open, and cutting through both his shorts and his hip.  Though a minor scratch it was the last straw for him after a hot day of hiking and hours of being covered in dust by passing vehicles. 

Mad at losing yet another piece of equipment that we have had with us since the beginning in 2019 his frustrations boiled over, and for several moments, harsh words and tears broke out.  Had anyone passed us at this time they likely would have thought us two insane creatures on the side of the road screeching at one another.  Yet it was little more than the frustration born of thousands of kilometers and months trekking along endless gravel concessions coming out.  It appears that our time off the trail may not have been enough to fully recover our mental fortitude.  As we have said before, while these stretches of gravel roadways and the isolated regions they take us to are not physically challenging, the fact is that after so much time of pushing 40-50 km each day in a similar landscape – we are both mentally drained.  On many days it only the overwhelming kindnesses of people in each area, the natural beauty of the province and our own determination to keep moving forward that makes us keep putting one foot in front of the other. 

Despite the stunning beauty that was all around us, as the sun began to set behind us in a spectacular blaze of red, our frustration simmered and soon led to a series of pretty arguments during which we each blamed one another for everything imaginable.  At the centre of it all however, sits the feeling at the moment, that no matter how far we push on each day, whether it's 40 km, 50 km, or 60 km, nothing ever changes, and we never get anywhere - giving way to both of us feeling overwhelmed.  As we took break in the twilight of the early evening I took the opportunity to check email and discovered that we had received messages from campgrounds canceling our upcoming reservations, notes from hikers warning us of challenges we are set to encounter, and emails from trail stewards and trail builders in Alberta asking us not to come to the province in 2021.  As it turned out today the Premier of Alberta has declared the province to be in a State of Emergency, acknowledged dangers of Covid and been asked to bring in national assistance.  In a year defined and delayed by Covid, it would seem that once again our trek will be shaped by it. 

Ultimately however it was the final email we received - from a long time follower - telling us that "the photographs from the past month on the trail were pathetically horrid", and that "the recent tone in [our] blogs and postings was an embarrassment to hikers across Canada and to the Trans Canada Trail" .  According to this gentleman we "should immediately quit so that we stop ruining Canada for so many others."  I was and still am crushed by his harsh words and condemnation.  

I have always wondered why it is that when things seem to be at their worst that the nastiest comments come?  Why do troubles arrive in batches and rarely one at a time?  And why even though we receive such amazing support from so many people across the nation cheering us that it is the negative comments which are most often, unfortunately, so memorable?

This judgement along with the realization that we will likely not be able to cross into Alberta and get to Edmonton this fall as it is gripped by the next wave of the pandemic hit all at once making us question all of our reasons to keep pushing ourselves west instead of simply returning to Quebec for the fall.  In the end, all I could do was sit in the ditch, cry and each a chocolate bar.  Sometimes you just have to get it out of you, find comfort where you can, and remember that what is right in your own heart is the right way forward.   I make no claim that the sight of me sitting there sniffling in the dust was in anyway dignified.  

It was then in the quiet afternoon, under the glow of the setting sun that Sean broke his silence and whispered "they aren't really mad at you, you know.  Everyone is scared and no one knows what to do.  They attack you online because you are there and are an easy target.  It's not you, it's not the hike, its the anxiety that we have seen and heard in every community that we have visited in the past two years.  Times are tough and no one knows what is coming tomorrow.  It is getting to the point that it is hard to tell up from down and right from wrong, and so people lash out.  Uncertainty and the unknown aren't things you can put your finger on or confront and so everyone is scared.  It's not you, even this guy doesn't believe half of what he is saying.  He is just scared and needs to take it out on someone.   Come on now, get up lets keep going."  Childishly and peevishly I retorted that I didn't want to keep walking today to which I was soundly told "well you can't stay here, you've eaten all the chocolate."  And so, after 20 minutes of feeling bad for myself I got up continued to walked on and on and on.

Pushing on as the day’s light continued to fade amid a brilliant sunset, by this point we had been trekking for more than 10 hours today without much of a break and we were now very clearly running against the clock to find a place to camp.  And so as a red moon arose in the sky in front of us we made our final turn in the ‘trail’ for the day venturing toward the national historic site known as the Battle of Fish Creek – a seminal area in the Northwest Rebellion and along the Trails of 1885

The light faded around us we finally approached the Battle of Tourond's Coulee / Fish Creek National Historic Site, where we set up camp for the night under a small roofed shelter. This 36 hectare historic site features a grassy parking lot, a picnic area, and several kilometers of grassy trails with interpretive signage that walks visitors through the site of the Battle of Tourond's Coulee, which took place in 1885 as part of the Northwest Rebellion, or Métis Resistance. 

The Northwest Rebellion occurred as a result of growing tensions between the Métis People, the First Nations, settlers, and the Canadian Federal Government.  The Numbered Treaties, which the First Nations saw as a commitment and agreement with the Canadian Government to coexist and protect the land on which they depended, were just being signed.  However, the First Nations were watching as more and more land was being converted to farms by settlers, the bison were disappearing, and they were increasingly being pushed westward or into reserves, losing their way of life.  The Métis were concerned their own interests wouldn't be protected, because they weren't included in the treaties, and they weren't settlers.  An unresponsive government did nothing to address these concerns, which ultimately led to armed conflict.  

In response to the Métis victory during the battle at Duck Lake on March 26th, 1885, the government created the North West Field Force which consisted of about 800 men under the command of Major-General F.D. Middleton.  On April 24th, 1885 General Gabriel Dumont led the Métis and their Cree and Dakota First Nations Allies across Fish Creek and into their first major military engagement with the new army, which took place at Tourond's Coulee. 

While Dumont's men were outnumbered, Middleton's new North West Field Force lacked experience and training.  Dumont's men hid in the ravine that is just off the main trail at the historic site, and throughout the day were able to inflict heavy casualties on Middleton's forces.  By evening many Métis had fled or retreated and 6 had died, but reinforcements arrived from Batoche, and that night Dumont set fire to the prairie in the hopes of driving the militia back.  Middleton retreated to a camp 1 km north of the battle site with 55 of his men wounded and 10 dead.  This was counted as a psychological  victory for the Métis, because they had fewer casualties, had stooped Middleton from moving into the Coulee, and had delayed his advancement.  

As the skies darkened a huge blood red moon rose in the sky across the field, partially obscured by the clouds that were scudding across the sky.   Outlines of soldiers stood on the hills around us, silhouetted against the sky, and the voices of coyotes rang out into the darkness from the grassy valley just below our shelter.  Suddenly we realized anew that despite the challenges, our hike across the vast prairies has been filled with far more beauty than we ever expected, and it truly is a privilege to experience moments like this.  

And so dear reader, if you are still with me, then you too have made it down another 54.7 km of gravel roads and through another day on the prairies.

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