This morning, CBC Radio’s “The Sunday Edition” broadcast this repeat of a 2013 program on walking. It’s worth a listen.
I was mentally and physically incapable of reading anything this morning. Mentally, I was exhausted; physically, I was not up to the work of reading. As I’ve discovered, sitting still for hours, reading and taking notes, is physical labour. When I was younger, it was easier. Now it makes my knees ache: the same feeling I get when I’m crammed into an economy-class seat on a transatlantic flight. Google tells me this condition is called chondromalacia, that it’s caused by the breakdown of cartilage under the kneecap. The point is that sitting for hours reading and writing hurts. And this morning I needed a day off. My goal was to reach 125 texts by Monday, when classes begin again. 130 would be even better: that would be 10 books or articles for each month I’ve been working at this project. But I might not get there. I need a rest.
Christine and I left to walk around the lake about noon. We followed the path on the south side of the lake. We met a friendly man with an equally friendly silver Labrador retriever named Striker. We saw lots of people enjoying the sunshine and the mild temperatures. At this time of year, temperatures in the minus single digits is a gift, especially if the sun is out. There is an ice rink in a flooded parking lot, and it was pretty busy. There was a time when we could skate on the lake, but since the aeration equipment was installed to keep the lake from smelling like rotten eggs when the ice melts in the spring, it’s no longer safe. We stopped at the café where we always stop, the Naked Bean, for coffee and something to eat. Then Christine headed home, and I headed for the east side of the lake.
Once you cross Broad Street, there are always fewer people in the park; all the action is on the west side. I saw a kid wearing a bright red MAGA hat cross-country skiing: perhaps a true believer, home from college in the States, hoping to scandalize people here with his support for the Impeached One? I saw runners and walkers. “You’ve got to get out in this weather while we’ve got it,” one woman told me. Oh, yes. The weather could turn any day now, leaving a balmy day like this one a memory. Remember, minus 30 would be a more seasonable temperature. I was surprised to see something new: the paved trail has been extended past the city’s one hill. How did I miss that? When did I last walk this way? Six months ago? The Provincial Capital Commission has been busy. I’m not a huge fan of paved trails, but it’s safer than walking on the narrow road, and that’s an improvement.
The sky started to cloud over just as magic hour began. My back was starting to hurt from the exercise, another sign that I need to get away from my desk more often. I called Christine. “Want to meet at the pub for a New Year’s Eve drink?” I asked. She did. I left the park and walked up Albert Street. We met and toasted the end of 2019. Then we headed for home.
Best wishes for a happy 2020 to everyone reading this. I hope next year brings you what you’re hoping for. It’s going to bring me a lot of work, but I’m pretty sure I’m up to the task–as long as my knees hold out.
The morning was muggy, with rain threatening to make the day a challenge. When we started walking, though, the sun came out, and the rain didn’t materialize. It was a perfect day for walking.
Everyone was up early this morning, which was a good thing, because there was lots to do. We had to launder our towels and bedding, and clean the kitchen, which was filled with boxes and coolers and debris from last night’s supper. That supper was fantastic, and contrary to my prediction yesterday, we had just enough food. We gave Hugh Henry a book about Saskatchewan history, signed by everyone in the group. It was a token of our appreciation for the hard work that went into planning this walk.
It took less time than you’d think to return the rectory to the state it was in when we arrived. Raeann even vacuumed upstairs and down. Chaos resolved into order, and after a smudge we were on our way back to Beardy’s-Okemasis First Nation, where we stopped yesterday.
The first couple of miles, through the reserve, were on pavement. We passed a trio of beautiful horses, and Hugh Garth made friends with them. Soon we turned north, onto gravel, but it wasn’t long before we turned again, onto a dirt road, everyone’s favourite walking surface. Shortly after lunch, we came to the site of Ste. Anne de Titanic, a francophone Catholic church that closed in 1964. The building is gone, but there is a memorial and a cemetery that clearly is still in use. There is a pair of outhouses, too. The whole site is well cared for; clearly it means a lot to the people connected to it. Honestly, that’s where we should’ve stopped for lunch, although the spot we chose, shaded by aspens and dogwoods, was pretty good too.
In the afternoon I walked down a grassy road allowance with Larry’s son, Ryan. He’s a conservation biologist with an interest in grassland birds. He knows a lot about prairie plants, too. He told me that the grassland ecosystem is poorly understood; scientists just don’t know how the parts of it beneath the surface of the soil–nematodes, microorganisms, soil chemistry–are interrelated, or how they affect the mix of grasses and forbs we see on the surface. That makes prairie restoration projects a challenge. There’s more to them than just spreading seeds and waiting. For instance, some plants don’t propagate well from seed; plugs work better for those species. And it’s best to start by seeding the grasses first, and controlling broadleaf weeds with herbicides for the first few years, until all the weed seeds in the soil are gone. Then the forbs can be over seeded. But the issues of soil chemistry and microorganisms will remain. Given the challenges involved in restoring grassland, it would be better to stop ploughing it under altogether. That’s what I took away from our conversation. Also the fact that Ryan is a crooner with a fondness for the great America songbook.
We got to Fort Carlton by four o’clock, tired and bitten by mosquitoes but happy. There is a restoration of the fort, which burned, accidentally, in 1885. It would be worth coming back for a closer look. The young woman at the reception desk could hardly believe we had walked all the way from Humboldt. “Just stand downwind of us,” I told her.
We sat together and reflected on the walk and what we had learned. I’ve been thinking about those Cree words Louise gave us the other morning: pêyatihk, meaning patience, and sôhkitê, or courage. I think we put both virtues into practice on this walk: courage by carrying on even when we were tired and sore, and patience and forbearance by attending to each other’s positive qualities. There’s no way such a disparate group of people, from so many different walks of life, could cohere so quickly without pêyatihk. We became a team, and I’d like to think deep bonds were formed over the past eight days.
Then we returned to our vehicles and parted. Some of us will camp at Fort Carlton; others, like me, are heading home. The past week has left me with a lot to think about, and I hope for an opportunity to walk with those folks again.
Just as we finished walking yesterday, it started to rain. We were all glad to be staying in the rectory at St. Laurent-Grandin, out of the wet. The rain stopped while we were getting a tour of the site of a fur-trading post nearby. Two posts, actually: the Northwest Company and the Hudson Bay Company built their posts side by side in 1805, probably because they were thinking about mutual defence: a post just downriver was burned by a group of Gros Ventres eleven years before. And the rain kept the dust down this morning, at least for the first hour or so.
We encountered two angry pit bulls this morning. They were quite aggressive, and although their owner tried to call them back, she had little control over them. I tossed them a couple of Milk Bones, but they took that as an affront. I started backing away, but Peter walked right past them like they were ghosts. I thought he was brave, but he told me he was thinking of a Cree saying: the moon doesn’t stop moving just because the dogs bark. In other words, carry on regardless. We ended up following his example. There was little else we could do.
Otherwise today’s walk was uneventful. We trudged past a large stand of little bluestem (no pictures: it doesn’t photograph well), and some Indian paintbrush and blanket flower. By the time we got to Duck Lake, it was just after noon and ate lunch on the battered picnic tables outside the Regional Interpretive Centre. Some of went into look at the exhibits and climb the tower for a panoramic view; others sat outside and rested.
Then we were back on the road, heading towards our destination: Beardy’s-Okemasis First Nation. Tonight we’re making a communal supper. Spaghetti with red sauce is my contribution. The kitchen is chaos. We are going to have so much food–more than we can possibly eat.
Tomorrow we reach our destination–Fort Carlton, the Hudson Bay post where Treaty 6 was negotiated in 1876. I don’t know if anything of the post remains, or if it’s just a provincial park. This time tomorrow, I’ll know.
Last night was windy and I thought I heard rain hitting the bivvy. In the morning there was only the wind. The day promised to be hot but that wind, which made breaking camp a challenge, kept us cool.
Before turning in yesterday I went to see Paul Lapointe’s studio north of Batoche. I liked his art, especially the woodcuts of ravens, and the miniature horse foals in his corral stole my heart. Their mothers were cute, too.
We’ve been walking on pavement today. Yesterday the gravel and dirt roads didn’t bother my blisters, and I thought I was past the worst, but the pavement today has aggravated them, so I’m taking a turn driving a support vehicle. I’ve learned, again, how important it is to prepare for these walks, and what happens if you don’t.
We ate lunch at a church on One Arrow First Nation, but another twenty minutes of walking brought us to Batoche, where the new visitors’ centre has a canteen. I suppose our picnic was more nutritious than burgers and fries, but at least one of us indulged in pie and ice cream and a cold drink. We didn’t have enough time to explore the site, but I’ll come back for a longer visit.
Our goal today is St. Laurent-Grandin, on the other side of the South Saskatchewan River. We’ll be staying in the old rectory, which means a shower for this smelly pilgrim. We’ll be there two nights, and there might be a communal supper tomorrow night. I hope so.
Tuesday night we visited the Tourand’s Coulee/Fish Creek battle site where, during the 1885 Resistance, 120 or so Métis fighters made a much larger force of British regulars and Canadian militia to retreat, delaying their assault on Batoche for more than two weeks. The Métis Elder, Pat Adams, who showed us the area, explained the ways that the oral history of the battle is often correct, and the history books are often wrong. He was informed and passionate, but we were a restless audience: tired and sore after a day of walking and pestered by mosquitoes. I’m sorry about that. Anyway, the place has two names because the Métis knew it as Tourand’s Coulee, while Parks Canada has, until recently, followed colonial practice and referred to the place as Fish Creek. Now both names are on the sign: a small example of progress.
I’m tired and sore again today–almost too tired and sore to lay out my bivvy or cook supper. I feel the chill that accompanies heat exhaustion, even though it wasn’t hot today. Warm, yes: we walked under a nearly cloudless sky. It was the first day I’ve walked without an undershirt. (It’s time to launder the sweat-stained shirt I’ve been wearing.) But I often finish the day with a touch of heat exhaustion. It’s not strange. At least I finished. My blisters didn’t bother me as much this afternoon, and I was able to walk all the way to the end, despite the temptation of the support vehicles. But I’m paying for it now.
It was a day of thoughtful conversations. Rick and I talked about my PhD project, and the contradiction between a solo walking practice and the need to engage with community. It’s the question that’s been bothering me since I walked to Wood Mountain alone last summer, and it’s something I need to figure out before I write my project proposal next winter. Rick made a suggestion that might work; I need to write it down before the post-walk brain fog takes over.
And this morning, Louise left us with two Cree words: pêyatihk–I think that’s how it’s spelled–and sôhkitêhêwin. The first suggests patience and forbearance; the second, courage. I wonder if I displayed those virtues today. sôhkitêhêwin, perhaps, since I managed to stagger to our destination, although that might just have been bloody-mindedness. But did I express pêyatihk? I don’t know. Maybe.
One of the day’s highlights was seeing a small herd of bison–a huge bull and some cows–behind a tall, strong fence. They were magnificent. They ran away before I could get my camera pointed in the right direction, so you’ll have to take my word for it.
Other moments worth mentioning: Pat and Rick buying ice cream sandwiches for the group; lunch at an old Ukrainian Catholic Church; and this photograph, which Hugh, our leader, set up for Matthew Anderson. I horned in to get a picture for the blog, but it’s all Hugh’s idea.
Now I must get out of this chair, change my shirt, and make camp. We have another visit with Pat tonight, or else we can go to an artist’s studio in Batoche. But I won’t be able to do either one if I don’t stir myself.
We got off to a late start this morning; a set of car keys went missing. (They reappeared.) It had been a cold, damp night, and I was happy to get a hot shower. There was a kitchen, too, so no fiddling with camp stoves at breakfast. Such luxury! Last night we were well treated, too, with excellent pizza. Pizza in Prud’homme; I had no idea.
The first leg of today’s journey was in a curving dirt road–wonderful for walking. Then we were back on the gravel grid. We stopped for lunch in a peaceful country churchyard. Then we carried on. It sounds uneventful, but lots was happening: conversations, songs, meditation, listening to the sigh of the wind in the barleys day the crunch of footsteps. All the dogs we’ve met have been friendly, too, or at least not overtly hostile. One was too friendly, following us for miles. I hope he finds his way home.
In the middle of the afternoon I took a ten driving a support vehicle. It was my turn, and as the day goes on and the miles add up, my blisters start stinging. I’m writing some of these words while parked at the side of the road, watching others directly experience the land, its contours and sounds. There’s a patch of little bluestem beside the road, a rare bit of native grass in a place where agronomic species predominate. The road has departed from the grid and is curving gently. The sun is warm. It’s almost perfect.
Tonight a Métis Elder is going to take us to Tourand’s Coulee, the site of a battle during the 1885 Resistance. That might mean cutting today’s walk short, but it will be worthwhile,even though it’s a perfect day for walking in this beautiful place.
Rain on the bivvy sack woke me this morning. It sounded worse than it was: a mere sprinkle, hardly enough to make a difference in this dry season. But it was a useful dry run for the possibility of a serious rain while I’m sleeping out. I mean, I can hardly get out of the thing, let alone get out in a rainstorm while still keeping my sleeping bag dry. (Sorry, no photos of the bivvy sack; it was raining! But more information is available here.)
Our hosts, Ken and Diane, let us sleep in their orchard last night, next to the cherry trees. (Got any Chekhov jokes?) My bivvy was between two saskatoon bushes. They have a beautiful space, with huge gardens. Last night, Ken brought out his banjo and Dave, one of the walkers, got his guitar, and we had a singalong. Ken and Dianne were very kind, and that was a little surprising, because their son, who lived on the next farm, died just three weeks ago.
This morning Harold left for a meeting in Saskatoon. He said he might rejoin us later, but the way he said goodbye, I don’t think it’s likely.
We were followed this morning by someone’s friendly border collie (is there any other kind?). He finally turned back; good thing, because we’ve had to drive other friendly dogs home on other walks.
Mostly we walked on dirt roads today, which led to a slight problem when one dead ended at a slough. We stopped at a Hungarian Catholic church, St. Lazlo’s, which was, surprisingly, open. It’s well cared for; clearly it’s important to the community. We also walked past an old wooden grain elevator in Bremen–the kind you rarely see anymore.
Sometimes I walked alone today; sometimes with companions. We talked about the numbered treaties and the need for Settlers to make restitution. Rick said I need to see First Reformed–that it’s an important film. I’m going to look for it. For the last hour, I drove one of the support vehicles; we all need to take a turn, and my feet are quite blistered.
When we got to Prud’homme, we were given a tour of the museum and the church and the cemetery, which features Stations of the Cross with people represented by wheat, on the steel fence. The view from the cemetery, which stands on the top of a hill, is incredible. After supper at the local pub, we’re going to have to make camp. I hope we finish before dark. We have access to the showers at the rink–and there is hot water! After three days of walking, I am very dirty. If not tonight, tomorrow morning.
This morning, Hugh handed out buttons bearing the Cree word Louise Halfe, one of the 14 people walking to Fort Carlton, suggested as the theme for our walk: asohtêwak, “together the hearts walk.” It’s a lovely statement about the possibility of deep connection that can be created when we walk together, literally or metaphorically. Cree is beautiful like that: words have stories, embedded etymological meanings, beyond the dictionary definitions. Every morning Louise says a prayer in Cree, and I love the sound of the language, so soft and rhythmic. I can pick out the occasional word, which after two years of learning the language is either not bad or terrible.
There are three kinds of roads in Saskatchewan: paved, gravel, and dirt. Dirt is the softest on a walker’s feet, and as long as it hasn’t rained recently, it’s the best walking surface. (It hasn’t rained around here for months.) For a few miles today we had the pleasure of walking on dirt roads. Someone had planted along row of potatoes along the side of one of them. I guess the Rural Municipality doesn’t mind.
Harold went to Mass in Bruno this morning. “I’ll catch up,” he said. Everyone thought he meant that he would drive. But when he left, I noticed that he was carrying his pack. Sure enough, when we were finishing lunch, we spotted a lone figure walking quickly down the road towards us. It was Harold. “I know the average person walks at three miles an hour,” he said, “so I was trying for four. I don’t think I quite made it.”
By the way, Harold is 83.
Later we thought we saw a large Gumby in the distance. It was this sculpture. A border collie came out to greet us–that rare creature, a friendly farm dog. I offered him a Milk Bone. He was reluctant to take it; maybe it was stale. To be polite, I think, he finally accepted it. But he refused to be photographed.
We passed memorials for two schools this afternoon. Rural depopulation has been happening here since the 1930s. Farms get bigger as the economy of farming changes, and when people sell up they move away. It’s a global phenomenon. We also passed a large glacial erratic–a buffalo rubbing stone. I left some tobacco with it. The roadsides were filled with wildflowers: roses, blanket flower, asters, goldenrod, sage.
Later in the afternoon, I took a turn driving one of the support vehicles for a couple of miles. Then I kept walking. My feet are blistered and sore, but I sang to myself to keep up my spirits. When I sang “The Old Gray Mare,” Madonna thought I was talking about her. “Well, if the horseshoe fits,” I answered.
Speaking of Madonna: since Matthew, who had the idea for these walks back in 2014, can’t be with us this year, she suggested her stuffed prairie dog might represent him. Here it (he?) is, tied to her walking pole. So, Matthew, you aren’t here physically, but you are here in spirit–and in effigy.
The day started off cold and windy, and the people who came out to see us off at Original Humboldt (the site of a nineteenth-century telegraph station that became a small settlement) felt sorry for us. “Oh, it’s too cold to walk,” one woman said. “They’ll freeze.” I was glad I had packed a winter hat. Then the sun came out, and even though the wind stayed cool, when we stopped for lunch in the lee of some aspen trees, it was quite warm.
A group of 15 or so of us are walking from Humboldt to Fort Carlton along the path of the old Carlton Trail, which ran from Fort Garry to Fort Edmonton. Not on the actual trail: it’s been covered over by girls of barley and canola, although part of the original trail–the wagon ruts–are apparently visible at Batoche. No, we’re walking on grid roads roughly parallel to the Trail. It’s the third trail walk the Saskatchewan History and Folklore Society has sponsored. The first was a walk along the North West Mounted Police Trail, from Wood Mountain Post to Fort Walsh, in 2015; the second was the Battleford Trail Walk, from Swift Current to Fort Battleford, in 2017. Hugh Henry, an artist and historian from Swift Current, organized or, as I prefer to say, curated all three walks, along with last summer’s walk along the Frenchmen’s Trail, from Mortlach to Gravelbourg. The point of these walks, Hugh says, is to give participants a chance to connect with themselves, other walkers, and the landscape. And I would think, to connect with the multiple histories of this space.
Today we trudged along grid roads: six miles west, four miles north, past fields and sloughs churned into white caps by the wind, with a stop for lunch in the grove of aspens. That took us to the edge of the hamlet of Carmel, where our party divided into two groups: those who were willing to walk four miles more, and those who preferred to get first dibs on the camping spots in Bruno, where we’re staying tonight. I kept walking, but my feet are sore and I’m wondering if the other group made the better choice. But the roadside ditches were filled with asters and goldenrod and wild roses, and although the wind was in our faces most of the day, the sky was beautiful.
A few of us decided to help out the local economy by eating at the Bruno Hotel. (Also there’s cold beer.) The others are cooking for themselves, which might’ve been a better decision, but I don’t feel like ramen noodles. We’ll see what the chow mein here is like. (It’s excellent.)
The overnight low will be four degrees tonight. Think of us as we shiver together, wearing all the clothes we’ve brought and hoping the wind doesn’t carry our tents away.