Winnipeg: so much more than mosquitoes

We haven’t had to deal with Winnipeg’s famous mosquitoes because we have been dealing with cold and rain instead. But they’re coming… and the city is ready. They will begin their fogging program soon – spraying vulnerable areas to try and keep the staggering numbers of skeeters under control. At that time, dogs and children are advised to remain inside – poison being spread for the greater good.

As well, trees are banded for cankerworms – the battle against nuisance insects is vigilant.

IMG_1854
Our weather, which started out in such promising fashion a week ago, has turned on us. We’ve been dogged with cold and rain and winds since we left Grasslands. Naturally we would prefer sunny and warm, but since we are a nation of weather-kvetchers, this feels right.

The last time we were in Winnipeg was 25 years ago, visiting dear friends who had moved here from Toronto. They rented a fabulous home on a leafy street, of which Winnipeg has no shortage (fabulous homes and leafy streets.) This time, we are staying on the 3rd floor of an old house in an Airbnb on Spence Street (an “emerging” neighbourhood, according to our host). It’s very cute and compact – Stephen describes it as having a “first apartment” feel. We spent a day walking around the nearby neighbourhoods and were struck by the variety of homes and the beauty of the treed boulevards and gardens. Winnipeggers are spoiled for choice.

IMG_1847
Winnipeg appears to have considerable wealth, judging by the number of very exclusive homes. We walked past this “gated” neighbourhood, flanked by stone pillars.

IMG_1852
A couple of blocks away, we headed up Wellington Crescent, one of Winnipeg’s “addresses.”

IMG_1856
Many homes looked like this one – imposing and stately.

IMG_1855
I loved this barn and silo construction – faithful to the prairie landscape, right down to the native grasses in front.

IMG_1857
In fact, much of Winnipeg shows really well. It has a bit of a reputation as “murder capital”, and it still feels edgy, but as for being in actual danger? I think Winnipeg’s rep may be more perception than fact.

We drove past the famous intersection of Portage and Main several times. From past references, I was sure we would find a desolate no-man’s land, populated by sketchy characters and pawnshops. (That can be found further north).  Portage and Main is ringed by banks and insurance buildings and is right in the heart of downtown.

IMG_1865

The Legislature Building is as resplendent as would be expected, including a floral tribute to the 2017 Canada Summer Games.

IMG_1846

We missed a lot of the Exchange District – due to the miserable weather we were unable to walk around much, but we did do a drive-by. The Exchange District is the historic centre of the grain exchange, and its 20-block area has over 150 heritage buildings. Home to theatres, shops, restaurants and condos, this is a very exciting neighbourhood that envelops history with modern-day.  We passed by two theatres that perfectly illustrate the feeling of this area – the old Pantages Theatre:

IMG_0028

…and the newer Centennial Concert Hall

IMG_0029

The VIA Railway Station is close by – we walked through and it reminded us of Union Station in Toronto.

IMG_1800
Unlike Toronto’s station, this was eerily quiet – the next train not for several hours, and almost no-one around. It gave us a chance to admire the tiled floors, the stone columns and the domed ceiling.

IMG_1801
We walked through to The Forks, which has been an aboriginal meeting place for over 6000 years. It is right at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers and today has a market, shops, restaurants, performance venues and miles of parks and walking trails along the river. We checked it out the first day we arrived, when it was actually sunny and the place was packed.

The Provencher Bridge leads pedestrians over to St Boniface, the French part of Winnipeg, and the final burial spot of Louis Riel, the famed leader of the Red River Rebellion.  We walked across the bridge, then turned back again to The Forks – planning on visiting later. We never made it back – we just ran out of time.

IMG_1810
This was our first glimpse of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights.

IMG_0422
We stopped to watch this young man practicing parkour (the discipline of running up and around obstacles, often upside down, before landing.)  His impromptu parkour structures are part of a celebration circle, to honour the ancestors who gathered there centuries before.

IMG_1830
Aboriginal culture (and issues) are quite dominant in Winnipeg. Just behind this circle is  a very different circle – a memorial to Manitoba’s missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls.

IMG_1833IMG_1832
We walked by this arresting billboard – proclaiming outrage at the silence surrounding indigenous genocide. I don’t understand the symbolism and would love to find out if any of you have any ideas, or know the artist.

IMG_1841
Metis artist and activist Jaime Black began the REDress project in 2010, in which she hung installations of red dresses to begin the discussion of over why over 1200 murdered and missing aboriginal women and girls have received so little attention. She has had exhibits all over the country, with hundreds of red dresses donated to her art. One of her exhibits is on display in the staggering Canadian Museum of Human Rights.

IMG_0012
We spent four hours at this museum today, and it took every drop of energy we had to get through it. It is wrenching to see what we have done and continue to do to one another.  The notion that there is no “other”, that we are all equal, has been very slow to come. We did not walk away feeling we have made much progress.

This is a must-see museum – it has achieved greatness on all levels – from the architecture to the content within. Architect Antoine Predock designed a building that would literally and figuratively take one from darkness to light.

IMG_0001
The twists and turns of the ramps parallel the human journey. (You can also take the elevator, but it felt like a necessary part of the experience to climb the ramps.)

IMG_0010
Dealing with the question of human rights, the term generally refers “to the rights and freedoms we have simply because we are human”. It need not be more complicated, nor equivocal than that, but as we travelled through the floors, we understood that while the notion of human rights has been trammelled throughout history, it has not stopped.

Human rights touched on many areas, including Canadian indigenous perspectives, language rights, protecting rights, the Holocaust, breaking the silence, taking action, and inspiring change. Much of this was powerfully portrayed through art, interactive exhibits, videos and personal anecdotes.

Another important element of human rights is one’s willingness to speak up in the face of injustice. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said it most eloquently.

IMG_0019

Winnipeg is so many things – a hotbed of artistic creativity, a bedrock of history and a place of protest and activism that spawned the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, which resulted in the labour movement. We could easily have stayed for another 2 or 3 full days – we’re leaving so much undiscovered.

 

 

 

Bison, prairie dogs and pronghorn antelope

“I feel like a cowboy”, said Fanny, a young Belgian who has been travelling for several months across Canada with her partner Jay. They think the prairies are “awesome” and in fact, love almost everything they’ve seen since arriving in Montreal eight months ago.  They are here because they heard great things about Canada and they wanted to open up and explore life before careers and family took over. Part of the attraction for them was our huge and varied landscape.

It is essential to get off the Trans-Canada Highway to see the best of the country. While some of the secondary roads are patchy and rough, others are well-maintained and practically empty. We sailed merrily along at 110 and 120 (and higher) for much of the time.

We were keen to visit Grasslands National Park in southern Saskatchewan to get up close to that deceptively passive terrain. Just look at this photo. Hidden in those hills and valleys are dozens of birds, rattlesnakes, bison, prairie dogs, Richardson ground squirrels, coyotes, and burrowing owls. You’d never know it, and that is the defining quality of the prairies – you need to get out of your car and travel on foot to appreciate what is there, right in front of your face.

IMG_1726

As we were heading toward Grasslands we got a sneak preview of the abundant animal life. We stopped by a marsh to view the hundreds of birds that were either in the water or flitting about stalks of grass. This area was just teeming with life –  so many native birds we had never seen. It was an astounding sight, but before we could attempt to take any photos we were driven back to our car by swarms of biting insects. We were actually swatting and running, like something out of a comic strip.  A serious bird-watcher or photographer might want bee-keeper style headgear and a bottle of Deet.

There are also many deer and antelope and I now have “Oh give me a home, where the buffalo roam” stuck in my head.  This little pronghorn antelope bounced across the road and stopped for a photo.

IMG_1671

The prairies are just like everything you’ve seen from photos.  Ribbon roads, railway trestles and fence posts figure prominently.

IMG_1680

So do grain elevators. Most town have one, right beside the railway tracks. Grain elevators, trains and the big sky –  iconic elements of the prairies.

IMG_1688
The fields are dotted with abandoned and crumbling  structures.  These weathered old homes aren’t going anywhere – at some point, the roof will cave in and no-one will even notice. They bear witness to a pioneer past.

IMG_1679
Saskatchewan is a province that constantly reminds you of the disproportionate person-to-land ratio. While the cities and larger towns prosper, a lot of small “towns” are actually crossroads – there are no stores, gas stations or hotels.  Success  is a tiny hamlet with a couple of dozen homes. The signpost is pocked with bullet-holes – target practice or frustration?

IMG_1694

Grasslands National Park is about 35 km. north of Montana, and Val Marie is the closest small town in Canada – again, about 35 km. to the campground. Our original plan was to stay one night in Val Marie to reorganize our car, power up our devices, buy some food and get set for 3 days of rustic (no showers) camping. It did not turn out that way. The one bed and breakfast (Convent Inn) was closed for the long weekend (?!?) and our other option, the Val Marie Hotel, was horrifying filthy. It was a shabby building with a Beverage Room Entrance, but we were willing to overlook the externals until we saw the shared bathroom. Off to the campground we went (minus groceries, since the grocery store also closed for Holiday Monday).

Our first sight of the campground saved our sagging spirits – this would be a great adventure. Our first night we sat in front of a campfire, watched the night sky and listened to coyotes howl.

IMG_1732

Grasslands is relatively new (4-5 years old), and infrastructure is still a work in progress. This campground has 24 sites, as well as 4 cabins and an overflow site, with spotlessly clean pit toilet buildings, potable water taps, dump pits for grey water and animal-proof garbage and recycle bins. The main building to the right is the Parks Canada office/wifi centre, and there are plans for showers at some point.

It is also populated with dozens of Richardson ground squirrels, who have an impressive system of tunnels. They seem willing to share their home with us and while they run and chase each other and pop in and out of their tunnels, they do not come close to people (or their dogs). They are also impressively car-smart.

There is an 80-km. Ecotour drive that runs the periphery of the park, providing a comprehensive and scenic overview of the lay of the land, as well as several lookout stations. We stopped at the black-tailed prairie dog colony. Grasslands is the only place in Canada where they exist in the wild.  They are often confused with ground squirrels, but these little characters are much larger and way more sociable. They bark and chat and chase each other, and have created a fascinating inter-connected community of big mounds and tunnels.

IMG_1703
And of course the big draw are the bison herds. They were brought into the park in 2006 from Elk Island National Park and today the herd stands at about 350. We were given a dangerous animals brochure (bison and rattlesnakes) and advised to remain at least a football field away from bison, particularly at this time of year when they are calving and more aggressive. These are majestic creatures – woolly and shaggy and huge.

IMG_1738
This one was right at the main gate, but we stayed in the car for photos – he was stomping and shaking his big head – clearly he was not on welcome committee detail.

IMG_1696
As for rattlesnakes – we had no luck with sightings. They advised us to wear boots and long pants tucked into socks, and we could have borrowed snake garters, but we ventured out and kept a close eye on the ground cover.

We headed out on an 11-km. trail, which was well marked and great for the hamstrings (described modestly as undulating prairie). No animal sightings on that hike, but lots of panoramic vistas.

IMG_1720
Very happy to be heading back to the barn – we had hiked out to the far range of hills and back.

IMG_1728
Unfortunately, the weather turned suddenly, as is often the case in the Prairies. We experienced significant howling winds on our last night, with our tent snapping and falling in on us – a long night and terrible sleep. We woke up to a changed forecast – really strong winds (up to 90 km.), followed by rain, so we reluctantly made the decision to leave.

On our way out of the park, we stopped to chat with a couple from Victoria who are also travelling across Canada, but doing it with a lot more comfort. They are pulling a bright yellow trailer emblazoned with Big Canadian Stuff and will be on the road until October. They have definitely made the case for having a warm, dry home-away-from-home, especially for travelling long distances through North America in three seasons.

We’re rethinking…

IMG_1733
We drove east on Hwy, 13, part of the historic Red Coat Trail. This is the trail taken by the North-West Mounted Police to bring law and order to the wild west; now indicated with distinctive route markers.

IMG_0414
We are hanging out for a couple of days in Weyburn, home of Tommy Douglas. We’re in  a Canalta hotel (a Western chain of hotels) and decided to stay an extra day to regroup.

This is a hotel that caters to work crews and once a week they leave out dinner for them. Last night it was cabbage rolls and potato salad. We rolled in with a filthy, bug-splattered car packed to the rafters with smoky camp gear. We hadn’t had showers for three days. Within minutes, we were checked in and sitting down to an unexpected and delicious meal. We were taken care of by very kind Prairie folks who made us want to stay a little longer. Another hidden charm –  the people. When Steve commented this morning how much he enjoyed the cabbage rolls the night before, they arrived over to our breakfast table with two plates of leftovers – “You can heat them up later.”

Breaking bad in the Badlands

Most of the people we’ve met so far in rural Alberta are just a tad different from their counterparts in B.C.  and I’m quite sure they are proud of that. Once you get out of the big cities and past hyper-touristed Banff, there is more than a touch of the wild west to be found.  In the short few days we have been in this province, we have seen this:

IMG_1613
And this, the Last Chance Saloon in Wayne, AB, right in the heart of the Badlands.
IMG_1614

After a long day of climbing hoodoos we stopped here for a beer and some local colour. Actually, everyone there was from somewhere else. Wayne’s population dwindled down to roughly 40 souls since the decline of coal mining in the 50s and the marketing of the Last Chance Saloon as a haunted hotel and inspired watering hole is their only stab at keeping the hamlet on the map.

We were joined by a couple who appeared to have begun drinking the day before; the man attempting to speak in whole sentences and the woman thinking she was. They invited us to join them at their trailer for perogies and beer, but we declined, thinking we’d never be heard from again.

I asked our server Erin about her tattoo, and was told a quite moving story. Her father passed away four years ago and she asked the funeral director to make a print of his hand on paper, which she then had tattooed on her upper arm. I tried to imagine how it would feel to lose a parent so young; perhaps this is her way of holding on to him.

IMG_1611

So back to our campground. It is run by a Harley-riding couple who look far more outlaw than they probably are, but still – I was afraid to ask them for a photo. As I’m writing this, there are about 10 big bikes around the campground – all friends of the owners.

And yet, on May 24 weekend, the campground is quiet, except for the people next door playing badminton. Sites are clean and well-cared-for, bathrooms and showers are spotless, there is even wifi throughout. We asked ahead of time about noise and were told that partiers are “thrown out.”  Adjusting my preconceived notions …

Our first dinner on our first night camping. It is so good to be back – we sleep like babies, wake up at 5:00 am to a cacophony of birdsong and everything tastes good. Love the evening campfire and watching little kids ride around on their bikes.

IMG_0319
I don’t want to miss telling you about our drive through the Rockies. It is something everyone should do at least once. The roads are beautifully engineered, even at the highest elevations. There are frequent pullouts for picnics, pit stops and photo ops. The scenery is so beautiful it looks like a painting. Mount Rundle, close to Banff:

IMG_1522
Wildlife is plentiful in this area and the highway was so dangerous to both the animals and the drivers that several years ago the province erected fencing and built overpasses (for the animals). It may have been ridiculed at one time, but it seems to have worked like a charm – we did not see so much as a dead squirrel.

IMG_1512

We couldn’t resist stopping in Banff. We lived there over 30 years ago and both our boys were born there. No question we have all changed a lot in that time, but Banff is unrecognizable from the rustic alpine town we knew and loved. Amazingly, the duplex we rented has not been torn down, although it is rather dilapidated looking. We lived on the top floor.

IMG_1527
Although Banff is in a National Park, there is little about it that speaks to nature. Masses of tourists pack streets that are filled with high-end shopping, souvenir shops and cheek-by-jowl hotels and it makes me sad.  Someone got the planning all wrong.

After leaving Banff, we arrived at our campsite just outside Drumheller around 5:00 pm.

This is the landscape we came for, the stunning slash in the Red Deer River Valley that is made up of box canyons, hoodoos, coulees and sparse vegetation. The badlands are spread out over a wide area – an area that exposed coal seams in the 1900s, as well as the fossilized remains of dinosaurs.

IMG_1622

After the coal disappeared, the area fell into decline until the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology opened and brought dinosaurs (and tourists) to the forefront. This renowned museum showcases one of the world’s largest collections of dinosaur skeletons with dynamic, interactive displays intended for all ages. It was fascinating  – we stayed for a few hours. The museum gave me fresh respect for the artistry and planning that is involved in  effective museum curation and display. Dozens of dioramas showed species of dinosaurs with painted backdrops.

IMG_0325
We watched a staff member demonstrate how  bones and fossils are prepared and the delicacy required to avoid damaging them.

IMG_1546
Off to the hoodoos we went!

IMG_0335
If there is anything more surreal than a field of 2-storey capped rock formations set against a Homer Simpson sky, I don’t know what it might be.  The hoodoos are fenced off from visitors, but the rest of the landscape is open. We climbed around the 70-million-years-old layers of sedimentary rock with dozens of excited kids who were zipping and leaping about on the rocks like small mountain goats. We were a little more sedate and after an hour or so we sat to appreciate the vista.

IMG_1595
Our view across the Red River.

IMG_1578
This creature met us on the way back to our car. At first we thought it was a rattlesnake, but discovered from our campground host that it was a bullsnake – similar in colouring, but not poisonous. It  was still a thrill to see it – about four feet long and menacing enough.

IMG_0341

Some more shots of the area – this one taken from Horseshoe Canyon, about 15 minutes outside Drumheller.  We climbed down to a number of the trails along the bottom of the valley. There were a few flowers in bloom, but very little vegetation. Amazingly, we saw several small cactus – how in the world do they survive the bitter cold and snow in the winter, I wonder.

IMG_0347
We were grateful to be here this time of year – our days reached about 25 degrees, which was comfortable for hiking. The valley is blistering in the summer – probably even in another month it would be too hot to stay down there for very long.

IMG_1629
One last shot of Horseshoe Canyon.

IMG_1628

We head out tomorrow in the direction of Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan. See you again in a few days.

On the road again…

After a wonderful, whirlwind month visiting friends and family on Gabriola, Vancouver Island and Vancouver, our final destination was Kamloops to visit more family. This is a shot taken of the Kamloops valley; our last memory of  “home” before we hit the highway to drive east.

IMG_1398
Our original plan was to drive coast to coast to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday. We wanted to visit as many National Parks as possible, since entrance fees are free this year (with a pass) in honour of that event and we have time on our side.

We drove across the country from Halifax twelve years ago, but that involved reluctantly leaving our youngest son behind, driving 8-10 hours a day for 5 days to meet the movers on the west coast (who were then two weeks late), anxiety over the unknowns of one new job (Stephen), and having to find a job (Ginny). We were moving to a small island of 4000 people after a lifetime of living in cities. Plus we were travelling with our cat, who remained annoyed the entire time. Our stress levels were through the roof and we remember very little of the landscape that blurred by our car window.

This time we have no pets, our sons are self-sufficient adults and we have allotted three-and-a-half months to see as much of the country as possible.

Our first reality check: we are about one month too early to visit the mountain parks.  Many of the upper trails are still snow-covered and the parking lots are closed to cars. It is quite cold at night for tent camping. There is SO much to see – we could easily devote three months just travelling through British Columbia and Alberta. We decided we will save those provinces for next summer and concentrate on all points east.

The road trip…  our three favourite words.   It is so exciting and energizing to watch the landscape unfold and the weather patterns shift. We left the rolling ranch country and desert landscape of Kamloops and soon were heading towards mountain peaks.

IMG_1422

Everything changes in the mountains. The air is clean and sweet, signs for wildlife start to appear and the creeks and rivers look cold and slightly unforgiving.

IMG_1426

We stopped at Craigellachie to see the site of The Last Spike – the joining of the east and west railway line, commemorated in this overwrought plaque:

IMG_1417

Just as we arrived, The Rocky Mountaineer pulled through, symbolically uniting east and west. We soon joined the hordes of photo-snapping German tourists, which felt like a good luck charm. If there are Germans we must be on holiday!

IMG_1411

Mountain roads are twisty, beautifully engineered and fun to drive. It’s never boring – every turn in the road brings a fresh adventure.
IMG_0240

We drove past a sign that said, “Road Closure from 2 pm to 5 pm” and thought it meant “single lane” or “slow going”. Imagine our surprise when we came to a complete halt at 3:00 pm and stayed put for another 2 hours. We were just 27 km. from our destination, Revelstoke. But, early in the trip and still in “go-with-the-flow” mode, we amused ourselves by going for walks, talking to other drivers and reading our books.  Soon enough, the work trucks started to file past us in the opposite direction and our wait was over.

We stayed in Revelstoke for two nights because we have fond memories of this town and wanted to revisit some of the trails we had hiked before.  In 2010, our son Alex Burr was one of 32 students chosen by the Parks Canada-sponsored “Canada’s Greatest Summer Job”, and spent that summer interviewing and taking videos in Revelstoke and Glacier National Park to celebrate the Park Canada’s 125th anniversary. We visited him for a few days in July, which meant the roads were clear to drive right up to the Meadows in the Sky Parkway (closed to us this time). We hiked and biked in town and drove out to other hiking spots, so this time around, we chose two areas we felt might be available. In fact, neither of them were officially open, (they open tomorrow), but we parked our car and with the tacit (you didn’t hear it from me) approval from one of the workers, we ventured in to the Skunk Cabbage Boardwalk Trail. I’m not sure if these jazzy red Adirondack (Muskoka?) chairs are part of this years celebrations, but they look shiny and new.

IMG_1433

The Skunk Cabbage Boardwalk Trail is delightful this time of year as the flowers are just coming out, so we were able to walk without being treated to their distinctive odiferous scent. The flowers attract bears and while there was evidence of recent visits we had no encounters. This area is also home to a huge number of migrating birds and we were serenaded all the way through.

IMG_1443

On to the Giant Cedars Boardwalk Trail, just a couple of kilometres down the road. We didn’t see any giant trees like we have seen in Cathedral Grove or the California Redwoods, but they were impressively large nonetheless, and we indulged in a half hour of “forest-bathing.”

IMG_1451

After lunch at the fabulous Modern Cafe back in Revelstoke, we drove to Begbie Falls for a 6-km. round-trip hike. The bridge over the Columbia River enroute to Begbie.

IMG_1460

This area is a hot spot for mountain biking as well as hiking and there were a number of challenging bike trails with ominous signs,” Extremely difficult. Use at your own risk.”

We were happy to plod along on the road, our (my) only concern the cougar or grizzly that might be lying in wait.

We walked out of the forest into a clearing to be treated to a view of the ski hills that are slowly shedding their snow cover.

IMG_1473

The path to the falls is steep but well-maintained and the view was worth the scramble down. The falls are much bigger than they look in this photo.

IMG_1471

The town of Revelstoke is just on the brink. It will never become Banff and the locals are anxious to keep it that way. They want to balance progress and economic prosperity with sustainable growth and retention of character. The older homes and civic buildings are beautifully maintained and the shops and cafes downtown have character and quality. We were here just before the season begins; these streets will soon be packed.

IMG_1454

As we travel across the country, we will camp, stay with friends and family and try to find affordable hotels/hostels that are not party-central. When we read about The Cube Hotel in Revelstoke we  thought we would give it a try. If only all hostels were like this one.

IMG_1429

This old warehouse was bought by owner Louis-Marc Simard and his partner and completed gutted.  Spotlessly clean and decorated with original art, the lobby and communal areas are inviting, comfortable and fully equipped. A full, delicious hot breakfast is included. Our room – comfy bed, sink and toilet in the room, immaculate showers down the hall, waffle-weave dressing gowns, flat-screen TV and decent reading lights. All this for $68 a night.

We could easily stay another day or two in Revelstoke. As I write this, I am listening to a train wind its way through town, the sound of the wheels on the tracks echoing through the valley. If I had to choose between living by the ocean or right in the mountains, it would be difficult.

We’re heading for Drumheller and the badlands tomorrow – we’ll be there for a few days of hiking and hoodoos. And camping – an activity I thought I had left behind.

My friend Nicola sent me this graffiti she snapped on a hike in Mexico. She thought we might relate.

unnamed