A side trip

With open arms, the Prairies soothe the soul. Their vast expanse of horizon and big sky calm the nerves. One tends to slow down. But when you reach the mountains, the urge to know what’s on the other side hastens you to accelerate. Although we were on our way home, a side trip was in order.

Following a quiet night in the Frank Slide Interpretive Center parking lot we made our way to Fernie. After consulting a local and securing a Backroads map book we drove to Morrissey at which point we departed the asphalt and took to Forest Service Roads (FSR).

Without a radio we wouldn’t be able to follow FSR radio protocol. We’d have to confine ourselves to areas without active logging. A small, partially treed site on the Wigwam River was our destination. The route took us through the Elk Valley Conservation Area and provided great views of Mount Broadwood and the Wigwam, a world-class fly-fishing river deep in the backcountry.

The Ram-Wigwam Creek rec site was exclusively ours for the night. The next decision? Do we buy a two-way radio?

Essential travel

Abandoned in Saskatchewan for over a year, it was necessary and time to retrieve Tulák. Departing “The Hazy” we were thankful for family and grateful to be back on the road.

To return home, we would travel just over 1,900 kilometers. Our solitary route would be off the beaten path but we would not be alone. Each day brought wildlife sightings – pronghorn, deer (both Mule and White-tailed), coyote, fox, badger, hawk, eagle and dare-devil gophers. We would travel through waterfowl habitat where ducks and geese cruise the sloughs while a heron stands sentry. The silence would only be disturbed by crickets and songbirds.

Uniquely odd roadside attractions and curiosities abound in Saskatchewan. We had to stop to see the world’s largest Paper Clip, Eiffel Tower and Mastodon.   

Authentic “la cucina italiana” can be found in Ogema where the oldest brick firewall in Saskatchewan still stands.

Unimpeded we explored the Poplar River Mine just outside of Coronach, Saskatchewan. The dragline is used to remove the overburden and expose the coal seam. This was heavy duty machinery. 

Over the crest of a hill just beyond Coronach, for as far as the eye can see, a ribbon of shiny new, black railcars comes into view. The dramatic drop in global oil demand has the industry scrambling to find ways to store product until demand returns. As the western provinces have little in the way of excess storage capacity they’ve resorted to using oil railcars. At a dollar a day per car in storage fees, how can this be economically viable?  

As we zigzagged our way across Southern Saskatchewan and Alberta we were to follow routes used by First Nations, the North West Mounted Police (NWMP), outlaws and settlers. These secondary roads that hug the 49th parallel are lined with abandoned rails beds and reclaimed ghost towns the sight of which triggers thoughts on pioneers and dashed dreams.

History lessons are to be experienced. Del Bonita “of the pretty”is situated in an area once claimed as Spanish territory. It was considered a most desirable area for homesteading. Indeed, it was here in 1912 that the last great land rush in Alberta took place.

Thousands of years ago as the glaciers that once covered Canada retreated, a ridge was formed. A gap in the Milk River Ridge was to become a notorious smuggler’s rendezvous point.

Straddling the Milk River, Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park contains the greatest concentration of rock art on the North American Great Plains. Battle Scene , a significant petroglyph site is the gem. The park also showcases a NWMP outpost reconstructed on its original site.

Until you have travelled the Prairies in June, you don’t know the color of life. Fields have a green hue, at times leaning toward blue dependent on their crop – wheat, pulses (lentils, dry peas, beans and chickpeas), barley or oats.

A canola field startles the eye as does a yellow-ringed slough.

Caragana bushes are profuse on the prairie landscape. After the Great Depression, these bushes were introduced to the west to be used as windbreaks. Although new soil management techniques like no-till farming have made shelterbelts seem obsolete there are still many to be seen.

Nature is the artist and her palette runs the gamut. Sage and Prairie Rose set the scene.  

Swaths of color bathe the rangeland.  Sometimes fragile and diminutive, these blooms often require you to sprawl on the ground. 

At times the land is blanketed in color.

But it is Cacti that takes the prize this trip. Both the Plains Prickly Pear and Pincushion were in bloom.

When driving the Trans Canada across the Prairies you could be convinced to join the Flat Earth Society. But traverse the road less travelled and a host of landscapes will dispel the myth that the Prairies are boring. Just past The Dirt Hills and over a rise you enter the Big Muddy Valley. Castle Butte looms ahead.

Haunted by our 2019 memories of the West Block – Grasslands National Park we were lured to visit the East Block, a Badlands landscape.

We were in rattlesnake territory when we spent the night at the 70 Mile and Eagle Butte trailhead in the West Block.

Captivated by the wide-open plain we explored Old Man on His Back . Alone on this vast property the opportunity to commune with Nature was ours. An encounter with Plains Bison was our reward.

From Old Man on His Back in the Milk River Basin we drove west in search of the river. Sweeping views of the Sweet Grass Hills to the south are seen for miles.

At a Milk River canoe access point we made camp.

Further west, abruptly the Great Plains meet the peaks of the Rocky Mountains. Majestic Chief Mountain is most prominent. Although our sojourn on the Prairies was over its images are imprinted forever. The Prairies, where morning and evening sun bathes the horizon in vivid flaming color. The Prairies, where a rippling sea of grasses is mesmerizing. The Prairies, where in its good moments one is tempted to return.

“With open eyes, beauty resides in the scrubbiest of places, in the thickest of overgrown weeds, in the way the warm embrace of glowing sunlight softens long-gone blooms and coddles the ones arising new.” Miriam Halliday

Stalled

First it was an electrical issue. Following the heart attack Laddie needed a pacemaker. Then a leaky valve cancelled our trip to retrieve Tulák in Saskatchewan. Further tests revealed a triple bypass was in order. Needless to say Laddie’s open-heart surgery has stalled our travels.

Laddie is on the mend. Tulák is in storage. And we’re hoping to be back on the road in 2020.

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“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, 

but in having new eyes.”

                                                                                                            Marcel Proust

 

When life throws you a curve ball ……..

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Our journey through the Badlands, Sandhills and Grasslands to Esterhazy, Saskatchewan had been relaxing and gratifying. Settled in to care for his mom Laddie passed the time with Tulák. The small water leak below the sink was easily repaired. Quick connect fittings for the air lines were installed. He was making progress until he came down with what he thought was a stomach flu.

Three days later Laddie had his brother-in-law take him to the hospital. What Laddie assumed to be stomach flu had been a heart attack. Laddie is in good hands at the Regina General Hospital. Tulák has been moved to our niece’s farm for safe-keeping.

A redirection, but …………….…

“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.”

words by Lao Tzo

Journey to the Grasslands

Although there’s no traffic on these back roads you’re not alone. And you’re being watched.

It is the red-winged blackbird that guards the Red Coat Trail these days.

Eastend, Saskatchewan began as the most eastern North West Mounted Police (NWMP) detachment from Fort Walsh and was the east end of their patrol. Today it is home to the fossil remains of the Tyrannosaurus Rex nicknamed “Scotty” which was found nearby.

trex-scotty

As we approach the West Block of Grasslands National Park 70 Mile Butte looms in the distance. A four kilometre hike takes you to a 100-metre-tall hilltop and a lookout over the French River Valley.

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The views at the summit are not the only reward along this front-country hike.

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Prairie dogs would be visible until you motioned to take a photo of their colony. Gophers weren’t as shy.

To view bison graze at dusk was a spiritual experience but was captured only in our memory.

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The solitude of the grasslands shall haunt us.

Journey to the Great Sandhills

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East of Dinosaur Provincial Park, the land transitions. Dressed for the occasion, coyote are well camouflaged.

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Tumbleweed congregates in the ditch along the fence line. Rolling prairie leads us to a peaceful campsite alongside the Red Deer River.

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A bump in the road signals you’ve crossed the border from Alberta into Saskatchewan. Gravel replaces pavement. Now, there’s one more river to cross.

The seasonal Estuary ferry transports us across the South Saskatchewan River.

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Pronghorn, known informally in North America as antelope and mule deer roam the fields.

Signage to the Great Sandhills was lacking so we turned into a farm yard. The owner is accustomed to providing directions and sent us on our way after showing us his wolves. He has a breeding pair with ten pups in a licensed, inspected pen littered with cattle carcasses in various states of decomposition.

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Active sand dunes cover a relatively small portion of the Sandhills which have a long history in ranching. Cattle continue to graze on the stabilized sand. The vastness of this landscape astonishes and its fragile beauty delights.

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Journey to the Badlands

Travelling east, dandelions carpeted the slopes along the all too familiar Crowsnest Highway #3.  Anxious to leave the familiar, just past Fort MacLeod, Alberta we headed north. The smell of cow manure permeated the air. We had entered feedlot country.

In Brooks, Alberta we were in for a surprise. Today, it is jobs at one of Canada’s largest meatpacking plants that bring migrants from all corners of the globe. One hundred years ago it was the promise of water that lured immigrants to the land.

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The Brooks Aqueduct was built between 1912 and 1914 as part of an irrigation system to provide water to the arid farmlands of southeastern Alberta. It is an enormous engineered concrete structure, 20 meters high.

What did the pioneers think when they arrived given the spareness of this land?

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To the northeast Dinosaur Provincial Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site protects the largest section of badlands in Canada.

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It was here we came to understand the word ‘coulee’ – a derivative from the French verb ‘couler’ which means ‘to flow.’ Often dry, coulees are the products of intense erosion by water. These Badlands continue to be sculpted by wind and water revealing color, texture, form and fossils.

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We had crossed the Oldman and Bow rivers over the course of this day. It would be to the banks of the Red Deer River that we would now travel.

 

Spring travel has its rewards

Fresh, verdant hues colored our Kootenay highway route initially. As we moved into the dry south Okanagan we were delighted to see bouquets of Arrowleaf Balsamroot everywhere the eye wandered.

Arrow-leaved Balsamroot

This member of the sunflower tribe was new to us and we marveled at its abundance.

Onward to Langley, the floral parade now marched in pinks and purples as Azaleas and Rhododendrons strut their stuff. Vast fields of high bush blueberries spread across the Fraser Valley.

Free evening accommodation was available at BC Recreation Sites. West of Rock Creek, Jolly Creek, a grassy site in a tight valley was quiet and dark.

 

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At the Dewdney (Princeton) site on the Similkameen River evidence of the hand laid retaining wall of the historic Dewdney Trail could be seen.

The N’kwala (Merritt) site located beside the Nicola River had us back in Ponderosa Pine territory.

The whining and whistling of semis and trains through the Fraser Canyon didn’t impede Anne’s sleep at the Yale Rest Area alongside the Trans Canada highway.

Vestiges of the past gave us time to reflect on those who came before.

The proprietor at the Vulture Garage had quite the collection but his pride and joy was a bucket dragster.

But it is the hillsides of Arrowleaf Balsamroot and Ponderosa Pine that will be etched into our memory.

Fixes at Mross Imports

Suspecting a leak in the left front axle/hub reduction we attended Hans’ shop. After a thorough wash of the area and a road test there was no sign of an oil leak. The left front wheel was removed and the hub reduction and axle area was thoroughly cleaned of oil and excess grease from the king pins. The boot at the transfer case to the front torque tube was inspected and found to have some oil inside. The front diff was also found to be over full. The decision was made to change all the fluids in the hubs, axles and transmission.

Headlights were adjusted and two air-line fitting adapters to allow the installation of quick couplers for air tools or air lines were made. A full brake fluid flush and tire rotation including the spare tire was also undertaken.

40 kilometers later when stopped to refuel, the leak had re-appeared on the left front hub. We returned to the shop. The leak could now be pinpointed to the outer seal on the hub reduction at the front axle.

All seals in the axle and hub reduction were replaced.

Seven hours later we’re back on the road.

Electrical upgrades

Finding new batteries for Tulák took time and some research on-line. Scott Ingham at Expedition Imports in Vallejo, California was most helpful. He led us to Napa! 

After a quick trip to Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho and an easy border crossing we were home with two new lead-acid batteries that fit the Unimog battery tray perfectly.

We’d always intended to install a battery cut-off switch for the “house” batteries but somehow had overlooked it. A Blue Sea model with a simple ON/OFF switch for a single circuit met our needs. Tucked up behind the house “Lifeline” batteries the switch is a great safety device enabling work on the “house” system.

Next up? It’s time to get the differential leak fixed.