When we went to bed last night the air was cold and clear, a blanket of stars shining bright in the sky above us. The road construction had come to a halt at nightfall, the coyotes had sung their chorus, and all was well as we snuggled down.
A few hours later however, the smell of smoke was so thick in the air that we both kept getting up to check if anything was on fire in our immediate vicinity. The smell was no less strong when we got up, and the world outside was shrouded in a layer of thick, oily, brown smoke. Apparently a wildfire near the region of Hudson Bay, Saskatchewan – some 500 + km away - was the location of the fire. As we hiked across Manitoba this summer we have experienced many smoky days from wildfires in the west and north, but it seems unusual to have smoke blowing in from the east.
As we set off down the highway for the final 4 km of our hike westward this season, it was with mixed feelings. Our departure this year was delayed by the 3rd wave of Covid 19, and the end is being cut short by the 4th wave of the pandemic. Although we didn't cover as much ground as we'd hoped to this year, we're pretty happy with what we managed to do in the limited time we had. This year we've hiked through a drought, extreme heat, smoke from forest fires, very high winds, and a global pandemic, but we feel extremely fortunate. We've enjoyed unbelievably good weather for weeks on end, seen stunning scenery, encountered incredible birds and wildlife, met kind, generous, and interesting people, and learned a lot about the creation of Canada as well as the diversity of its peoples. While it feels good to reach our 9th province and another milestone on this hike, it has been a great privilege to be out here, and we will miss the beautiful prairie landscapes sunrises, and of course the friendly peoples.
When we set out this year we compared the trek from Winnipeg Manitoba to Edmonton Alberta to the Maeseta on the Camino de Santiago – Both are similar in that they are each long open stretches amid open prairie landscapes which invariably forces one to look inward. Certainly, as in Spain, the past three months have left us lots of time for reflection and consideration.
For the past few days we have both struggled to put into words the things we have seen, summarize the experiences we have had, and make sense of the symbolism, signs, and wisdom that have been offered to us en route. While others who are better and smarter than us would likely have some great wisdom to impart, the truth is that ….this is a tough process. As we approach the Alberta border we are struck by the symmetry between this moment and crossing into previous regions. We are stunned by what we see as symbolism in events and nature around us. And we are admittedly nervous of the unknown in front of us – most especially so as we trek today amid the smoke from a wildfire. Are the things we see food for thought, cause for reflection, or do they portend future challenges in Alberta and B.C.?
While, I am hesitant to refer to a film, the fact is that on the Trans Canada Trail in the fields of the prairies, we often think of the Camino movie – 'The Way', staring Martin Sheen. (If you have not seen it, do yourselves a favour – get a bottle of Spanish wine and spend an evening being inspired!) In particular we are reminded of the scene in which the protagonist and the group of intrepid pilgrims meet ‘Jack from Ireland’ in a hay field. Jack, an author suffering writers block is frustrated in his attempts to put the experience of his trek into words. Famously, in the midst of being annoyed about the meaning of the pathway he rants…
“…this place means something…this place is brimming with significance! That’s the problem with the whole damn road. Metaphor man! You’re walking all alone and all of a sudden I see a dog fight near a cheese farm. What does that dogfight mean? And despite its literalness, the idea of a pilgrim’s journey on this road is a metaphor bonanza. Friends, the road itself is among our oldest tropes. The high road and the low, the long and winding, the lonesome, the royal, the open road, and the private. You have the road to hell, the Tobacco Road, the crooked, the straight and the narrow. The road stretching into infinity bordered with lacy mists favored by sentimental poets. There’s the more dignified road of Mr. Frost, and for Yanks every four years, there is the Road to the White House. Then you have the road which most concerns me today, the wrong road, which I fear I must surely have taken…” But then again, “maybe I should adopt a more conservative attitude, instead of trying to trickle meaning out of every curve in the road….”.
We likewise struggle at moments like this – approaching a huge milestone in our trek - to find meaning in the day. We reflect on the past season of trekking, other provinces we have ventured out of and into – and it is these thoughts which we find ourselves with today. Questions abound in the Canadian Mesta. How does our approach to Alberta compare to the transition from other provinces? What are we to make of the smoke around us? What lessons have we learned from the amazing peoples across Canada let alone in Manitoba and Saskatchewan? Have we done the prairies justice in our presentation of them? What will the trail in Alberta and British Columbia be like? Will we be welcomed in the west or be shunned? Questions, questions, questions.....
We remember setting out from Cape Spear and St. John's at the beginning. We laugh about our struggles on the East Coast Trail as we learned about life under full pack weight. We think of the ferry from Newfoundland to Cape Breton and the ferry from Nova Scotia to PEI. We think of the shuttle over the Confederation bridge to New Brunswick, and the snow storms as we entered Quebec. We remember the police blockade between Quebec and Ontario, we think of trekking the Trans Canada Highway into Manitoba, and the amazing Crocus North trail which lead us into Saskatchewan.
The shift from one province and one region to another has always been unique and memorable. Each has always made us aware of what we have gained and are leaving behind as well as hinting at what awaits us in the future. What will we come away with today? Are there meanings we are missing, messages we fail to comprehend? How will the venture from Saskatchewan to Alberta compare to other provinces? What comes next?
The truth of it all is that we don’t know….and so we continue to do the only thing we can - we listen, we learn and we strive to do our best to pass everything on, one step at a time – carrying our doubts, our hopes, and best intentions along with us.
With such a short distance to travel today we again set out later than usual, and so when we emerged from our hidden campsite at 6:30 am the road crews had already begun to arrive. As we set out it was again through the work site and road development. Despite being interlopers here amid the hustle of the construction everyone was patient, offering us friendly waves, and smiles as we passed by.
When we reached the end of the construction zone we passed a young Indigenous man who was in charge of traffic control. He looked very cold sitting still in the cool windy morning, but cheerfully asked what we were doing and offered us some coffee from his thermos. He was very enthusiastic about the hike, but agreed that it made sense for us to stop at the Alberta border right now. As we headed off he gave us a huge smile and wished us safe travels.
As we continued westward a soft red sun struggled to break through the smoke. Large ponds and lakes on either side of the road were filled with ducks and geese, and we could hear the chatter of flocks passing by overhead. A Common Raven flew low over our heads, sounding for all the world like it was speaking to us. Across the field a white-tailed deer disappeared into the mist. There is no doubt that we will miss the quiet, peaceful mornings out here as we return to the more densely populated, noisy, and fast-paced east.
The closer we got to the Alberta border the more hilly the landscape looked. It was difficult to make anything out through the smoke, but it looked very much like there were layers of foothills in the distance. It is clear we have some stunning scenery to look forward to when we return!
Then all too soon, our westward hike ended at Highway 17, which marks the border between the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta. Perhaps fittingly there was a Trans Canada Trail marker fixed underneath the stop sign, as if reaffirming that the exposed crossroad was indeed the end point for us. Across the busy roadway a herd of bison wearily watched us from behind a double row of fencing. As we waited for our ride south to Lloydminster a friendly rancher from Alberta stopped to satisfy his curiously about us. He'd seen us walking yesterday, but was too busy to stop at the time. He shared bits of local history and news before wishing us well and welcoming us to Alberta next spring. It felt like a wonderful introduction to our next province.
The only thing missing was the opportunity to take our ‘traditional’ border crossing picture at the next provincial sign. Fittingly, I suppose, the TCT had chosen a route that was so remote that there was no physical sign to indicate that we were at the boundary between two provinces.
Thankfully, when Erik – a local resident - came to pick us up and help us he also very generously agreed to stop at the next major crossroad so we could take a photo of the 'Welcome to Alberta' sign. He also shared lots of local history and info with us as we made the incredibly beautiful trip south across the wide North Saskatchewan River and through the rolling hills.
When we reached Lloydminster Erik showed us the blue line that has been painted down the middle of the sidewalk, marking the division between Saskatchewan and Alberta within the city itself. In addition, a series of tall orange metal markers also demarcate the line, and he was kind enough to stop so we could take another photo.
As Erik explained to us, Lloydminster claims the unusual geographical distinction of straddling two Canadian provinces. About 70% of it is in Alberta, and 30% is in Saskatchewan, but it is considered one city, with a single shared administration. It was founded in 1903 by the Barr Colonists from Britain who dreamed of having a sober, all-British settlement. At the time, the land was still part of the North-West Territories, and the community straddled the Fourth Meridian of the Dominion Land Survey. The Meridian was supposed to coincide with 110° west longitude, but due to the imperfect survey methods of the time, it was located a few hundred meters to the west.
Perhaps next spring we will have another chance to explore Lloydminster in more detail – which while unfortunately is not on the Trans Canada Trail route is now our point of departure to return to the TCT. This morning we are catching a bus, then a plane, then a train, and heading back east. We may still have a few surprises in store, but today effectively marks the end of our westward trek for 2021.
When we set out from Winnipeg Manitoba some 96 days and more than 2300 km ago we released a soundtrack of songs which we felt were relevant to the city, the Forks, and the waterways which have shaped the region. Perhaps our favourite song in that listing is Ted Longbottom’s ‘Ballad of Gordy Ross’ about Tripman voyaging in Yorkboats and their struggles as fur traders on the rivers for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Today, as we leave the trail and as the seasons turn once again on us, the lyrics of that song resonate deeply:
"...Oh the river flows
The free wind blows
The seasons pass away
And the wild geese fly in the autumn sky
But they'll be back some day..."
And so will we.
Thank you all for being part of our epic journey across the prairies in 2021 - we couldn't have done it without you and your support!