Saturday, October 2, 2021

Moving Forward in Canada Together : Turtleford to St. Walburg

When we left Turtleford this morning it was -5°C, and although the sun had just risen above the horizon on yet another clear sunny morning, its warmth was not yet making itself felt.  Our fingers were frozen as we glided out of town, heading west on a road already busy with farm and oil field traffic.

To the south we could see rolling hills disappearing into the distance, lit by the golden morning light.  In a field beside the roadside a herd of graceful horses trotted effortlessly beside us, their hooves crunching in the frozen grass as they kept pace with us, their warm breath catching the early morning light.  We always enjoy the curiosity of horses, and these ones were truly beautiful. 

A little farther down the road we passed a gorgeous wooden barn, it's rough wooden exterior providing texture and contrast against the bleached blond field behind it. 


Soon we turned onto a gravel road, beginning a 17 km stretch of trail that headed straight northward.  To our absolute delight it was a quiet road with a hard-packed surface, and we were passed by only one truck over the next three hours.  It was a beautiful and enjoyable walk, but largely uneventful.  We walked among harvested fields of rich dark brown and faded blond grain.  Some were dotted with huge, tightly rolled hay bales, while others were filled with grazing geese.  Many trees now stood bare and grey, while the foliage on others was fading to brown.  In one pond we spotted a muskrat swimming hastily away from the roadway, and in another two beavers gave the water an almighty smack with their tails as they dove below the surface.  A highlight was stopping for a break outside the Emmaville Cemetery. 



Towards the end of our walk northwards the road narrowed until it was little more than a track, bordered on one side by dense shrubs and on the other by tall trees.  The shrubs provided a welcome wind break for us as we walked in the sunny lane way.  When we closed our eyes we could hear the wind in the treetops above us, and we realized it sounded like we were immersed in a forest.  Although we have grown used to the roar of the wind on the prairies, we realize it has been a long time since we've heard it rustling in the treetops. 

As we continued along the quiet concessions of the region, we met up with an older lady who had pulled over on the side of the roadway, and who we found leaning against the side of her truck – a contented smile on her face – waiting for us!  It turns out that she had heard about our trek, and had been hoping to walk for a couple of kilometers with us. Grateful for the company we headed off as a group when she said she wanted to hear our stories and to hear what we had come to know.  While we would talk about some of the things we had seen and experienced along the previous 9000+ km across Canada, in fact it was her that would be the real storyteller and giver of wisdom for the coming hour.

As we strolled down the quiet country lane under the glowing fall colours she began to talk about the depression, isolation, and anxiety in people throughout our communities and nations that she had witnessed.  She observed that at the core of so many people’s frustrations was that we no longer know what to do anymore, what to say anymore, or at times what is even right or wrong anymore.  The results were manifesting themselves into hate speech, violence, alcohol and drug use, hiding online and in hidden chat rooms, and too often found expression in forms of anger in our  society.  Little that build people up and was positive or constructive was taking place because of these situations. 

This lady, an Indigenous woman who walked with grace as she talked, was most struck by the unwillingness of people – in all cultures, of all backgrounds, and communities - to give way to acknowledging our shared histories, see the truths of the moment, and allow the changes that would make us all healthier and better.  She thought that people needed to see change as a necessary transformation and not as some judgmental or dismissive break from the past.   To illustrate her point she compared our histories, our societies and our nations to a tapestry which had begun to unravel. 

Normally, she pointed out, when there are problems and there is a loose thread one could simply pull the tattered fabric out and mend it - replacing the old with the new.  Yet at the moment the challenges we are facing together including social inequalities, a health care crisis, social anxiety and climate change are so deep and wide spread that to pull on one thread seemed to unravel the entire tapestry.  Because of this, we don’t try to fix even one thing because to pull on the loose threads and address it would mean unraveling so much more – which can be a scary prospect.  As a result people are afraid to do anything.  Yet, none of us sees that when one pulls on a loose thread, and pulls and pulls and pulls – even if we undo the whole tapestry – the reality is that we still have all the pieces there to use again.  We don’t see that the threads that we unwove from the old, so too must be used to create a new tapestry which can be rewoven - with the same pieces - toward something better for everyone.  Nothing is lost, it simply takes a new shape. 

She added that this is one of the reasons she admired many ancestors, because they saw these instances of challenge and crisis as opportunities and not moments to be afraid of.  She felt that our communities and societies would be better off if we could once again find the humility to work together, the courage to be bold, and strength to weave a new and better tapestry.

“Yes we must start listening to each other again and working together again or all is lost.”  

With those words and a gentle sigh, she turned, hugged both of us, wished us the best and quietly walked back to her truck – leaving us to our thoughts.  We never even learned her name, instead we had been gifted a story and fresh perspective.

After taking a few minutes, we steadily climbed until we turned west again, walking on a raised gravel road that felt very exposed.  Open fields extended on all sides of us again, oil field infrastructure was visible in many of them, and the road was bordered by a deep ditch.  The wind hit us like a wall, and we once again found ourselves ploughing through deep gravel and sand on the sloped edges of the road as we were passed by fast moving traffic.  

As the afternoon progressed and we again turned north towards St. Walburg the skies began to cloud over.  In the windy, darkening afternoon it felt like fall.  We watched a Northern Harrier wheeling and diving in the wind above the fields, but despite its skillful aerobatics it seemed to be having trouble hunting in the gusty afternoon.  The feeling that winter is on its way was intensified by wave after wave of geese flying overhead. In one pasture the cows were sharing their grazing space with several thousand Snow, Canada, and White-fronted Geese.  It was quite a sight. 


As we made our way north towards St. Walburg we passed the turnoff for the Imhoff Museum, which was closed for the season.  This was the home of Count Berthold von Imhoff (1868-1939), who was a renown artist known for his religious murals and paintings.  He was born in Mannheim Germany in 1868, but immigrated with is family to Reading, Pennsylvania, where he established a successful fresco and art business.  He moved to St. Walburg, Saskatchewan in 1914, where he continued to decorate churches in rural Saskatchewan, North Dakota, and Pennsylvania, where he completed the Cathedral in Reading, which many consider to be his masterpiece.  

Imhoff decorated over 90 churches.  While he never sold any canvases, he painted prolifically, making blue prints of his murals and frescos.  The collection of these canvases is now housed in the Imhoff Gallery and Museum at the farm near St. Walburg and at the Barr Colony Museum in Lloydminster.  It seems there are two copies of each of his canvases, and the museum auctions one painting off per year in order to remain open. 

At the edge of town we crossed a beautiful treed pathway, which is part of the Trans Canada Trail in St. Walburg.  When we went to explore the loop of trail around town, we found ourselves in a golden tunnel of birch and aspen, the white trunks standing tall on either side of the winding pathway, and the brilliant leaves glowing against a blue sky.  Golden leaves fell like rain in the wind, and blanketed the trail in a shining carpet.  

The Trans Canada Trail is marked in a 24 km loop around the town, which includes both pathways for hiking and cycling, and sections of road that can be cycled.  The pathways we walked featured benches, interpretive signs, bird houses, and a guest book.  It was truly a joy to walk this beautiful trail! 

We were also delighted to discover that the Trans Canada Trail in St. Walburg is a hotspot on of the Saskatchewan Birding Trail - Prairie to Pine Corridor.  This corridor includes several communities in northwestern Saskatchewan, including St. Walburg, Paradise Hill, Turtleford, Mervin, Edam, Vawn, Meota, Glaslyn, Turtle Lake, Livelong, Spruce Lake, and Bright Sand Lake.  It is not a continuous trail, but rather a series of "birding hotspots" in a variety of habitats including natural wetlands, forests, grasslands, parkland, hills, riparian areas, and sloughs.  Over 256 bird species have been reported along this trail, including Whooping Cranes, Saw-whet Owls, Swainson's Hawks, Piping Plovers, Sprague's Pipits, and Golden Eagles, to name just a few.  



As we continued in to town we passed a small Tourism Information stand, and a tall bronze statue of Baron von Imhoff riding his horse.  As it's name suggests, this town was originally settled by Germans around 1910, with Polish, Ukrainian, and French settlers joining them later on.  The Canadian National Railway reached St. Walburg in 1919, bringing with it a boom in the area. 

We explored the downtown, which featured several churches, a bar and restaurant, a grocery store, several variety stores, a liquor store, a town hall and library, a small central park, and several colourful murals.  There was also a tall wooden grain elevator at one end of town, and my personal favourite - a Chuckwagon Monument and a Chuckwagon Interpretive Center, which very disappointingly was closed.  

Chuckwagons were mobile field kitchens situated in covered wagons that were used for the storage and transportation of food and cooking equipment on the prairies in the US and Canada.  These old-fashioned 'food trucks' were part of the settlers' wagon trains, and they were used by cowboys, traveling workers, and loggers. Today there are Chuckwagon cook-offs and suppers, and annual races.  Apparently the premier Chuckwagon racing circuit in North American is in Calgary, Alberta, run by the World Professional Chuckwagon Association.  That must be a sight you see. 

The 43 km walk into St. Walburg felt like a long hard push, which is probably an indication of our exhaustion more than anything else.  We are now just 56 km east of the Alberta border, the conclusion of our 8th province, and the end of our westward hike for this season.  As always, the prospect of bringing this section of our hike to its conclusion is a surreal and bittersweet prospect.


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