Friday, September 17, 2021

Science Trek : Saskatoon to Warman

We are back on the trail again after a short break in British Columbia, and as we headed west out of Saskatoon on a cold, sunny, fall morning it felt good to be underway again.  Our hope is to make it to Edmonton before winter arrives, but as the fourth wave of the pandemic picks up momentum we will have to reassess our options yet again when we reach North Battleford to see if continuing west is possible. 

We walked into Saskatoon on the beautiful Meewasin Trail, and this morning we headed back to the river to pick back up where we left off.  As we followed the contours of the South Saskatchewan River we were surrounded by the golden leaves of fall, and we heard the crunch of fallen foliage beneath our feet as we trekked down the paved bicycle path.  The chilly air nipped at our fingers, and we could see our breath dispersed in delicate clouds in the early morning sunlight.  Once again the seasons were changing around us and as we headed onto one of the most northerly sections of the Trans Canada Trail along the East-West route it is clear that we now need to make haste. 

As we made our way along we passed a long sandbar that was occupied by a huge flock of gulls, a large group of Canada Geese, and a few Double-crested Cormorants.  A short distance away a single American White Pelican was fishing along the bank, its movements creating ripples in the nearly perfect reflections of the golden and green trees along the shore. 

Just after the sandbar we came to a weir which extended in a straight line across the width of the river, the water flowing over its top in a smooth silvery curve.  A lookout with interpretive signage indicated that the weir was constructed to slow and control the flow of the river through Saskatoon, and as a result, it created the sandbar island.  The island continues to grow annually, and to provide habitat for gulls, geese, shorebirds, and Red-winged Blackbirds.  Additional signage also revealed that the Prince of Wales, HRH Prince Charles once visited this site and was given a Trans Canada Trail Walking stick – which we both thought was neat to discover! Not only is Prince Charles a large supporter of the environmental movements across the globe, but he has also spent time on the TCT!

It was an enjoyable morning following the river on one side of the path and admiring the amazing architecture in the homes on our other side.  Each one was different, and many had huge glass windows facing the water. As with many beautiful urban trails, the pathway was full of people out walking, jogging, and cycling, reaffirming our previous observation that wherever nice trails are built, people will come to enjoy them. 

Just after we passed one of the many concrete bridges that span the river we were very surprised to hear someone call my name.  We were delighted to meet Steve and his wife who were out for a morning walk.  We are always completely amazed when people recognize us in places we've never been before.  We almost never randomly run into people we know in the towns we live in, so what are the odds of meeting someone in a place we're just passing through once?  Stopping to chat with people from the communities we pass through is one of our favourite parts of this hike, and meeting this lovely couple really made our morning!  

Feeling encouraged we continued on, only to have another treat!  During our walks through Saskatoon we've repeatedly noticed groups of students riding on the trails, all wearing bright yellow high visibility covers on their backpacks for safety.  Each time we have seen them in parks or on the trail they have been polite, courteous and extremely happy.   Today we leap frogged down the trail with just such a group of these students and two teachers all riding bicycles.  We were delighted when they stopped to chat and we discovered what they were all about!  After talking with the group of attentive individuals about exploring Canada, promoting Citizen Science, and the need for new explorers we asked about their adventures around the city. 

As it turns out this group were Grade 8 students from the ScienceTrek program at the Montgomery School in Saskatoon.  This innovative program combines experiential science with outdoor pursuits, creating an exciting and engaging learning environment.  The goal is for students to develop a lifelong interest in hiking, biking, canoeing, skiing, and camping, while developing personally and culturally, and preparing to take a full compliment of science courses in high-school.  The students we met looked highly engaged and extremely enthusiastic, and seemed to be learning geography, history, and ecology while doing physical exercise and also developing a connection to their local environment.  What a great way to learn!  Much like Vancouver Library’s amazing Birding Backpack program, ScienceTrek is the type of science curriculum that more schools across the nation should take a look at and emulate! Here on the shores of the South Saskatoon River it was easy to see the excitement and interest in the faces of this diverse group of students – here could easily be the next generation of Canada’s explorers, environmentalists and leaders!

After this inspiring introduction we followed the trail farther down the river, passing by a golf course and then an off-leash dog park which was full of energetic and happy looking dogs chasing each other up and down the path.  From there we walked along a stretch of busy road bordered by industrial complexes, which made us extremely grateful that the wide, flat trail continued on beside the road.  If only we could follow this trail all the way to Edmonton!   Once again the Meewasin Trail (which has constantly impressed us) in this area was amazingly well designed with the safety of hikers and cyclists in mind while also ensuring that the nearby Heritage Park was accessible from the city!  

About 3 km farther along we came to a turnoff, and followed the gorgeous trail between harvested fields, happy to leave the noise of the traffic behind us.  Overhead a Bald Eagle soared in the blue sky, and the bushes were full of American Robins and Cedar Waxwings feeding on berries, American Goldfinches, cryptic fall warblers, and Black-capped Chickadees moving through the leaves, and White-throated Sparrows foraging below.  Large groups of small brown sparrows moved through the stubble of the fields in waves, appearing for only a few seconds before sinking below the stems as they hurried along. 

Soon we came to the grassy and treed slopes of the Opimihaw Valley, the thin band of Opimihaw Creek meandering along the bottom on its way to join the South Saskatchewan River.  Situated in the valley is the Wanuskewin Heritage Park, which is a National Historic Site of Canada unlike any other.  Within the 240 hectare grounds 19 archeological digs have uncovered artifacts dating back 6,000 years, providing insight into the culture and history of the Northern Plains Peoples, who include Cree, Assiniboine, Saulteaux, Atsina, Dakota, and Blackfoot.  Evidence of summer and winter camp sites, bison kill sites, pottery fragments, projectile points, a medicine wheel created from a huge circle of boulders, and much more have been uncovered in the area. 

We could see trails snaking through the grassy fields and along the edges of valley, punctuated with benches offering gorgeous views of the coulees and folds of the valley walls.  It was a calm and beautiful place, and the name Wanuskewin, which means 'being at peace with oneself' in the Cree language seemed to fit. 

We passed a herd of plains bison, and caught sight of a beautiful and uniquely shaped wooden building with a large playground outside that made us wish we were kids.  This unique building was the Interpretive Center, and we were extremely grateful when the amazing staff offered to store our backpacks and carts in a safe spot so that we could explore the exhibits and art gallery.  

The Wanuskewin Heritage Park became a Provincial Heritage Property in 1983, it was declared a National Historic Site in 1987, and it opened to the public in 1993.  The remarkably complete and well-preserved evidence of many different aspects of habitation, hunting and gathering, and spirituality from so many different First Nations may eventually result in its designation as a UNESCO Heritage site.

The main hall of the Interpretive Center was dedicated to sharing knowledge of the history, culture, artwork, and current initiatives of the Plains Indigenous Peoples.  Displays of artifacts recovered from the archeological digs were on display, as well as ceremonial clothing with exquisite beadwork and elaborate patterns.  

Some of the most interesting exhibits for us were those dedicated to sharing Indigenous ways of knowing, particularly those describing our relationship with nature.  As I understand it, the Indigenous belief system sees everything that is alive as sharing the same life force, and therefore all living things are considered our brothers and sisters.  The Earth is considered our Mother because she provides everything required to support life, and the other heavenly bodies are also seen as grandmothers and grandfathers who watch over us. This would mean that our message that 'Nature is for everyone', meaning that everyone should feel welcome on trails and in natural spaces, could perhaps better be understood as 'We are all part of nature, and therefore we all belong.' 

We also enjoyed seeing how much emphasis was placed on hope for the future.  Indigenous cultures are being brought back to life after a very dark period of attempted cultural genocide.  It is amazing to me that in the face of so many atrocities, some of which are still ongoing, there were many signs of hope, and continued reminders that we are all Treaty People. The treaties are not something that happened to Indigenous Peoples in the pastas, but rather an ongoing agreement between the First Nations and the Canadian Government about the treatment and occupation of land, which we all have a responsibility and an opportunity to participate in.  However, to move forward together and in harmony we need truth and reconciliation, and "Reconciliation is about forging and maintaining respectful relationships.  There are no short cuts."  I hope this is a lesson we can all learn. 

We also very much enjoyed seeing the work of the current artist-in-residence Adrian Stimson – a neat and highly talented gentleman - from the Siksika Nation.  The art work he had on display included many paintings of plains bison done on pieces of wood, which seemed to capture the essence of both the powerful animals and the landscape perfectly. 

There were several additional Indigenous art exhibits as well (which our pictures do no justice to).  One showed the flow of time in two long pieces of cloth, on top of which were superimposed the numbered treaties, cultural movements such 'Idle no More', and large portraits of many different birds. It was a powerful way to portray the passage of time, action and consequence, and the interconnectedness of everything. 

Another gallery showcased very elaborate needlework tapestries depicting scenes of historical importance.  The tapestries lined the walls of a large room, and in the center was a very long wooden table formed from one piece of wood, which had many wooden legs shaped like wolves legs.  The wooden table top had a wavering line of clear glass poured along its center like a river, and it was set with pottery plates decorated with animals.  The effect was very interesting and beautiful. 

After exploring the various exhibits we stopped in the restaurant for a snack, and ended up trying the iced bison coffee and the Bannock with three-berry jam.  They were prepared by an incredibly friendly and joyous seeming cook with a great sense of humor, and they were absolutely delicious! 

When we continued on from the Wanuskewin Heritage Park we followed the long gravel concession roads that boxed north, then west, then north.  We were surrounded by fields, many filled with the rich brown stalks of harvested grain, but others still sporting the bright yellow blossoms of canola crops.  Once again we spotted Western Meadowlarks perched on fence posts, Sprague's Pipits scurrying along the road edges, and colourful Black-billed Magpies hanging out in people's front yards.  

The next section of trail will involve at least 7 days of hiking with no opportunity to resupply or get water.  To reduce this distance as much as possible we made a detour off the trail to the community of Warman to stock up on supplies.  This is apparently one of the fastest growing cities in Saskatchewan, with people commuting 20 km to Saskatoon for work.  To reach the downtown we had to cross the very busy Highway 11.  Although we finally managed it on foot, I wouldn't recommend trying this - though the TCT does cross this very busy highway further north of us again! 

Although it was a 'short' 28 km day, we both made the novice mistake of wearing new shoes.  In addition to this, it turns out that any physical fitness we developed over the past two months disappeared during our break from the trail.  This left us with pretty sore legs and beaten up feet at the end of the day.  As we did our re-supply in Warman, which will be the last chance we have to fill up on food and water for the next week, we are wondering how we will manage the 54 km we have planned for tomorrow.  I guess we will find out!

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