Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Westward Bound Again! : Duck Lake to beyond Wingard Ferry

Last night the full moon was so bright that the trees cast shadows, and every time we opened our eyes we thought it was morning.  Just before dawn the cows woke up, protesting loudly about the cold, wet, morning. When we opened the tent we discovered everything was covered in a thick layer of frost! Time and the seasons wait for no person…. again nature is reminding us that it is time to get moving.  Thankfully today represents the conclusion of our northerly trek as the Trans Canada Trail now heads more or less directly west until Edmonton Alberta!

The morning was gorgeous, but packing up soaking wet and partially frozen gear is always a bit of a slow process and hard on the fingers.  We were grateful for the sun's warmth as we headed off down the gravel road and it turned the old fields and forested dunes around us to a warm golden red. 

It was a short walk in to Duck Lake, and we passed several ponds alone the way.  Their deep blue surfaces provided almost perfect reflections of the colourful fall vegetation around their edges, and they were full of waterfowl.  We even spotted a small group of Trumpeter Swans paddling majestically in one! 

Although the trail uncharacteristically doesn't take us to the Battle of Duck Lake National Historic Site, this is another place of historical importance on the Trails of 1885.  Duck Lake is where the first battle of the North West Resistance was fought on March 26, 1885, and the outcome was considered a psychological victory for the Métis. 

The North West Mounted Police were on their way to confiscate guns and ammunition from Hillyard Mitchell's store in Duck Lake when they encountered a large group of Métis being led by Gabriel Dumont.  A single shot was fired, and the North West Mounted Police retreated.  The NWMP gained reinforcements from a group of civilians, while the Métis were joined by Isidore Dumont, Louis Riel, and a group of Cree allies.  When the two forces met again in March 26th, the Battle of Duck Lake lasted 30 minutes and resulted in heavy casualties, including Isidore Dumont.  Crozier ordered the retreat of the NWMP, and Dumont told his men to hold their fire and let them go.  In response to their defeat, the government formed the new North West Field Force, under the command of General Middleton, who would engage in the Resistance battles that occurred over the next eight months across the prairies. 

Duck Lake turned out to be a small community with a large Regional Interpretive Center (sadly closed).  It features various items from the North West Mounted Police, Gabriel Dumont's gold watch, and a letter written by Louis Riel, as well as an exhibit of the artwork of a local painter. 

The Main Street of Duck Lake must have looked very charming in its heyday, with colourful facades on the shop fronts and beautiful murals down its length.  The murals depict places and events of historic importance, including the Carleton Trail, the signing of Treaty 6, the women of 1885 Batoche, and scenes showing Dumont, Riel, and a fallen Métis soldier.  Today only the grocery store, Legion, and town hall seemed to still be alive and thriving. 

At the edge of town we stopped at the gas station to fill up on water and get a few snacks.  While we were taking a break at the picnic table, enjoying the sunshine, we checked the news and discovered that Alberta's health care system is being overwhelmed by the fourth wave of the pandemic, and although we are fully vaccinated and relatively unlikely to come into contact with the virus on the isolated backcountry roads, it is not socially responsible to keep hiking west this fall.  In a year defined by Covid and delayed by Covid and Quarantines so too will our western progress be (understandably) brought to a halt by Covid.  

While we absorbed this unwelcome news, and wished for a crystal ball that would give us a clue as to how future events will unfold, Victor, a very friendly driver from the Prince Albert - Saskatoon shuttle service approached us. Seeing the hiking trail decals on Sean's backpack, he asked what part of the GTA we were from.  We got to chatting about why we left the city to hike across the country, and our story resonated.  He said he had left the GTA too, because the quality of life is too poor when you only get to see your kids two hours a day, and you work multiple jobs but never have any time or money left over to enjoy life.  He said he liked to work hard, but needed room for joy as well, which is something many people have expressed to us, and we experienced too in our pre-trail life. 

As we parted ways Victor gave us his contact information in case we needed help or got into trouble and so it was with his kind offer in mind that we headed out of Duck Lake and soon found ourselves walking on a beach that was masquerading as a road that was pretending to be a trail.  The sand and gravel were so deep and so soft that our pace slowed to nearly a crawl as we painfully dragged the carts along, their extra loads of food and water making the job more difficult than usual. 

The going was tough on the hot, humid, sunny afternoon, but the scenery was spectacular.  We found ourselves walking among dried cattail marshes that were interspersed with ponds teeming with ducks.  Mallards, Northern Shovellers, Canvasbacks, Green- and Blue-winged Teals, Buffleheads, Northern Pintails, Trumpeter Swans, and of course hundreds of Canada and Snow Geese were among the species that were close enough for us to identify.  Another gentleman we met at the gas station in Duck Lake had just told us that the weather should be okay for a while because the geese were still here.  According to him, the birds provide a more accurate forecast than the news, and they reliably head south before the weather turns.  Hopefully the goose-cast is correct! 

Not only were there wild and beautiful marshes north of Duck Lake, but we found ourselves walking among trees again!  If you look at a satellite image of the trail in Saskatchewan it looks like we have recently been walking along the border between the Boreal forest in the north and the aspen-parklands, which have mostly been converted to agricultural fields in the south.  Today we bumped up into the edge of the Boreal - North America's Bird Nursery! 

It was a joy to see the dark greens of the jack pines, the soft feathery needles of tamaracks, the bright yellow leaves of the birches and aspens, and the tall white trunks of the paper birches, all contrasting with the strong reds and oranges of the ground cover and undergrowth.  The colours and composition of the forest reminded us of walking through Pinawa, Manitoba last fall around this same time. 

Not only was the vegetation different, but the road undulated up and down among rolling hills.  Many were blanked by hay and alfalfa crops that were still a strong emerald green, while others were covered in wild looking pasture lands.  Over the course of the afternoon several small groups of horses came gracefully trotting across their pastures to stare at us, their legs barely seeming to touch the ground as their bodies floated elegantly along. We were also checked out by several herds of beautiful black and reddish brown cows, their hooves thundering across the ground as they galloped over to see us. 

In the late afternoon we watched as two truly enormous combines came down the road towards us.  As they drew up level with us they stopped and the farmer climbed down the ladder from one enormous vehicle while his young son climbed down out of the second one.  Both father and son seemed very happy and jolly, and curious about the people they see walking through, which included Mel Vogel, whom they remember meeting a year or two ago on the trail.  They had lots of questions for us, and we ended up chatting with them for a few minutes before they wished us well and we continued on. 

Just before we reached the North Saskatchewan River we came to a fork in the trail – an intersection in which each road leading away from it was marked as part of the Trans Canada Trail!  The branch we didn't take led down to the spot where Fort Carelton, which was constructed in 1810, used to be located.  It's strategic location on the North Saskatchewan River and the overland Carleton Trail, which connected the Red River Settlement (Winnipeg) to Edmonton, made it one of the most important Hudson's Bay Company posts on the prairies.  Although it was an integral part of the fur trade from 1810 to around 1870, by the 1880's its glory days were over.  It was briefly used by the North West Mounted Police during the 1885 North-West Resistance, but they soon realized they couldn't defend it, and retreated to Prince Albert.  During the hurried evacuation the fort caught fire and was destroyed. 

A few kilometers down the main branch of the trail we began descending the long weaving roadway towards the North Saskatchewan River and the Wingard Ferry.  The winding gravel road was bordered by trees that were sporting their full fall colours, which were reflected in the smooth waters of the wide, deep, river.  When we arrived at the water's edge the ferry was on the far shore, and it was only fifteen minutes before the ferry operator went on break at 6:30 pm. Luckily for us, the French-Canadian ferry driver, who was a lovely lady with bright pink hair, came to fetch us and very kindly took us across the water.  It was a peaceful and beautiful crossing and we were the only ones on board. 

Although all that remains of Wingard today is the ferry, a church, and a cemetery, it was originally founded in 1882 by a Danish settler, Nels Peterson.  He began farming in the region and named it 'Weingarten' which is Danish for 'vineyard.'  We didn't see any evidence of vineyards nearby today however. 

The Wingard Ferry is the last ferry we'll take in Saskatchewan.  It is part of a tradition that began 150 years ago, when the Métis trader Xavier Letendre began ferrying people across the South Saskatchewan River near Batoche in his scow. His ferry gained notoriety during the North-west Resistance, when the Métis lowered the ferry cable to stop the steamship Nothcote from passing down the river on May 9th, during the Battle of Batoche, thereby creating a distraction while they attached the militia from the south. 

As the settlement of the prairies continued into the 1900's, roads began to replace oxen trails and ferries were required for river crossings.  At first ferry licenses were awarded to the highest bidder, but prices soon became prohibitive, and the new government stepped in to regulate prices and pay operators a set fee.  By 1912 tolls had been eliminated entirely.  

When Saskatchewan became a province in 1905 there were 17 cable ferries and one steam powered crossing, and by 1927 there were 47 of them which spanned the North and South Saskatchewan, Red Deer, and Beaver Rivers.  Today there are 12 ferries still in operation, which provide free service usually from April until the rivers freeze for the winter.  

On the far side of the North Saskatchewan River we had a long, steep climb back up out of the valley.  However, the road was much harder packed, and had far less loose gravel, which made for easier going.  Soon we found ourselves at the top of the valley, surrounded by open farm country once again.  Harvested fields stretched out in all directions, and a large grain storage facility with many tanks stood tall on our left.  Although the land was more open again, there were still lots of trees planted between the fields, along the road edges, and in the dips and marshes between the crops.  

To our surprise we found ourselves following the Riverland Heritage Tour.  Although there were signs for heritage sites at various spots along the road we didn't see any explanation of what was there, so either there is an accompanying guide, or the existing sites are farther along the road. 

We had hoped to stop in the Hazlet Regional Park for the night, but we'd been a bit skeptical about its existence (or at least it's existence where Google located it).  Sure enough, as the satellite image suggested, when we reached the 'park' we found another long row of grain silos and no campground.  Another Google fail in our world.  So much for that.  

With few other options open to us we simply continued down the gravel road as the sun began to set.  Inexplicably, although it was still very warm and humid, a few of the fields we passed looked like they were steaming.  This didn't seem possible, but it gave the evening landscape a soft and mysterious look in the fading evening light. Shortly afterwards, the sun set in a blaze of brilliant red and gold glory.  It was stunningly bright and beautiful, and the large v's of swans and geese flying by overhead made it feel like a perfect evening. 

As the light was fading to darkness we found a place to pitch the tent in a triangle of trees bordered on all sides by roads.  We are in a small dip, invisible from the passing traffic, and it feels quite cozy.  From our small hideaway we can hear cows mooing, dogs barking, coyotes singing, and geese honking overhead, but it feels very safe and protected.  A good end to another very beautiful day!

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