Canada: Waterside

September 2018 – Canada is riddled with water. Rivers, waterfalls, mountain lakes – frequent material for tourist advertisements, yet quiet corners remain where wild creatures swim.

beaver1 23 sept 2018

Beaver: ecosystem engineer. They’re a hot topic in the UK at the moment because the reintroduction of the closely-related European species has shown a lot of promise, not only for biodiversity but also in reducing flooding of towns. Beavers change the environment, more than any wild animal except perhaps elephants. They slow rivers, create pools, fell trees – creating microhabitats, in other words, which other species eagerly use.

And the beaver’s fans don’t get much bigger than moose! These fabulous ungulates often browse in the marshy habitat created by beavers.

moose3 24 sept 2018

This one is clearly ready for the rut. A moose’s antlers can weigh close to 80lb, one of the heaviest crowns in the animal kingdom.

moose4 24 sept 2018

The weather’s still turning.

lakeside rmnp sept 18

But a woodchuck is still awake. Hibernation hasn’t called him to a winter burrow yet.

woodchuck rmnp sept 18

Canada: Directions to Winter

September 2018

The land is ready. It has dressed in mist.

Roadtrip1 Sept 18

The GPS says we have 700 kilometres to go. I’ve never tried this route before – Val Marie to the wild forests of Manitoba – and yes, the road is long and lonely, but I am not sure we will be the only travellers today. Weather is also on the move: clearing, misting, restless, drifting…

Misty church

It douses living things with dewdrops and runs away down a rolling road, laughing. We shall meet again, I fear.

Endless road

This is Canada, with quiet prairie towns and towering churches.

Canadian church

This is Canada, with prairie potholes adorned with living things.

Prairie pothole Sept 18

This is September, which is supposed to be autumn. Not a chance!

Road lost

Prairie snow. It paints road and field with the same brush, and a fox stands in the grass, wondering.

I’m uncertain too. Contrary to popular belief, prairie is not flat. Approaching a riverside town invariably means descending into a steep-sided valley. And getting out…you get the idea.

It is not as if there is another road. We have to simply continue, down, down, down. So here we are, stranded in the valley of Fort Qu’Appelle between two snow-laced slopes. I wonder how the Hudson Bay Company’s merchants coped with similar weather when this little town was a 19th century trading post. Perhaps they were sensible enough not to try.

Hudson Bay Company Sept 18

There has been much human drama here over millennia. Not much today, however; the snowstorm knocked out the electricity. We debate abandoning our journey in a chilly hotel but cars begin inching up the slope. Onward we go, and winter around dances autumn with glee.

Autumn and winter

It is dark yet bright as we approach the Manitoba hamlet of Onanole. Weather catches its breath. All await the fiery morn.

Sunrise1 23 Sept 2018

Canada: Eventide

September 2018

Out there, where land and sky are greeting. Where wind whips the grass into waves, and light dresses hills in gold.

It is wolf country. Can you hear them call?

For ninety years they’ve been gone, but the deer, I think, are still listening. The grasslands never forget their own.

White tailed deer GNP Sept 18

Things that belong to it: implausible ridges cloaked in sagebush.

GNP sundown2 Sept 18

Ghosts of villages that crumbled under Time.

Old barn Sask Sept 18

Trees that grow grackles like autumn leaves.

Grackles in the tree Sept 18

Shallow lakes the locals call ‘potholes’: scars of past glaciation, now tended by muskrats.

Muskrat Sept 18

And roads that redefine infinity.

Farm gate Sept 18

I’m on one of them. It’s been an eventful 48 hours in Saskatchewan, but now it’s time to turn north.

Canada: Whispers in the Grass

20th September 2018

Weather: whatever it is doing, the prairie knows it. You just have to hope that the roads can withstand it.

Prairie road 20 Sept 18

South of Assiniboia, lonely grid roads flanked by black-eyed susans roll towards remote border huts on the US border. Vaguely I recall fighting the selfie-snapping crowds at tourist hotspots in Banff – this is the other Canada, the raw Canada: stark, blunt and unforgiving, with a gruff charm all its own.

Hoodoo 20 Sept 2018

It carves human beings who venture into it, whittling us with rain and wind. In turn, the native people of this land once carved petroglyphs into its bones.

Petroglyph

For a place so open, its secrets are subtle. History is a matter of tipi rings and extinct lakes, but also written within flesh and bone. Once upon a time, so the story goes, pronghorn were pursued by the lightning-fast American cheetah. Like the vast majority of North American mammals, the cheetah became extinct at the end of the last ice age, but its prey has survived, its incredible speed now redundant.

Pronghorn are not deer or antelope but distant relatives of giraffes.

Pronghorn 20 Sept 2018

Cheetahs were hardly alone in the Pleistocene prairie: lions, sabre-toothed cats, dire wolves and short-faced bears also roamed. Today, the most visible predators are a bewildering array of raptors.

Raptor 20 Sept 2018

And what would the grasslands be without the sweet song of the meadowlark?

Meadowlark 20 Sept 18

The skies are still uneasy. Mule deer roam amidst droplets.

Mule deer 20 Sept 2018

If you go the prairie, you adapt to fit in with its moods. The road to the park is too dangerous in these conditions. We watch the vast sky fade into night over Val Marie, and hope for sunshine with the sunrise.

Canada: Skylines

September 19th 2018

This is Canada: a canvas for small things.

Yellow butterfly

American red squirrel Spruce Lakes MB 19 Sept 2018

Autumn food

This is Canada, where the sky can swallow your thoughts. There are no trees here, or very few, just the raw horizon furred with autumnal grass, and the sky above it reinvents itself almost every minute of the day.

Prairie sundown 19 Sept 18

Six years was too many. I don’t even know how many times I’ve been to Canada – 15? 20? – but for a variety of reasons this wild and perplexing country dropped off my radar after 2012. Coming back, remembering the sky, grateful for the air that is still flavoured with the crisp northern bite.

We landed last night at the heart of Canada, in the historic if climatically-challenged city of Winnipeg. There are no easy roads to the village of Val Marie; this time we’ve chosen to drive from the east, some 850 kilometres.

Prairie, prairie, prairie: mostly arable farmland these days, although just occasionally you catch glimpses of its glorious wildlife-filled past. Say ‘Canadian wilderness’, and most people visualise the western mountains or boreal forests – but the prairie held far higher numbers of wild things, once. Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan protects the best habitat left, but on the way there, there are many surprises.

The Souris River, for one. At 700 km, it is small by Canadian standards, but is still longer than England. Like most of the prairie landscape, it is a nod to past glaciation – its basin was once filled by the now-extinct Lake Souris.

Souris River1

Canadian royalty, for another.

Bald eagle 19 Sept 2018

After a full day of driving, we still have many hours to go. Pulling into Assiniboia, we are greeted by a great horned owl perched on the grain elevator.

Great horned owl grain train 19 Sept 2018

Looking for rodents attracted to wheat being transferred to the grain train, no doubt. Some wildlife takes full advantage of its human neighbours.

But many other species need wilderness proper. Tomorrow, we’re back on the road and turning south east.