Chapter 3. Northern Manitoba
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2005 All rights reserved.
(Shari) If Larry is in charge of the weather, he has it all backwards. If we must have rain, it should occur at night or on travel days. Today, our travel day is warm and sunny. In fact, it is really perfect. We travel the first 45 min. through the north end of the National Park. Over 35 mi. long, the park covers a lot of territory and Bert says there is much yet to see here. Clay and Joyce announce that they saw a moose on the road not two minutes after we passed. Darn, again! The forest opens into farmland as soon as we exit the park. Little green shoots of something are sprouting up in fields and everything looks so young and fresh. Although we start out as a group, some stop for gas, others for lunch or rest breaks, another for a post office and by the time we reach the campground there is an hour’s time difference between the first and last arrivals. Cynthia and Carl somehow got ahead of us - I joke that anyone who arrives before us has to pay the bill for the group - and tell me that the campground is closed because it is a holiday. I think who ever told her that was half joking. Today is the American Memorial Day, but it is not a holiday in Canada. I take my contract and walk up to the town office. Here I am told that the “owner” of the campground cannot find a manager for it and is thinking of closing it. He tells me we can park there but will not have water or electricity. When I ask him about a dump or some location in town to obtain water, he says there is none. I am a little miffed, but his contract indeed says “dry” camping. I just was not informed of the changes. When I walk back to the camp, I see a trailer parked next to a fish-cleaning house not 300 ft. from our camp. The owner of the trailer is dumping his wastewater and he tells me the dump is owned by the city and that it is free. Plus it has water. Now why didn’t the “owner” tell me this? You’d think I was operating in Mexico where this kind of stuff happens all the time. So things are not as bad as they seemed and we just have to live without electricity for two nights. It is not as much of a hardship for those of us with generators but I think two rigs don’t have them. We may have to find a way to string a cord from our unit to theirs to use our generator to top off their batteries. Luckily the weather is warm. In fact many have put on shorts. Bert gives a talk about the Great Gray Owl during social hour. It is a pretty good talk, if I say so myself, and while he imbibes us with new knowledge, we nibble snacks, drink and enjoy the warm air before heading our separate ways for dinner. We join Ginny and Bill at a restaurant in town.
(Bert) “We dropped a thousand feet,” Jim announces over the CB just as we clear the northern exit of the park. A remnant of the Wisconsonian Glacier, Riding Mountain did not seem like much of an elevation change when we approached it from the south, but now that we drive to its abrupt northern limit we can see just how high this “mountain” of glacial till rises above the flat farmlands below. We’ve left the forested park and now enter broad green fields densely sprinkled with golden yellow dandelions. Some fields show the blonde stubble of last years grain crop; others reveal the rich black soil partially covered with seedlings of this seasons crop: a billion lime green toothpick stalks pushing up from a black backdrop. The fields are edged by aspen and large patches of aspen groves checkerboard with agricultural plots. Off at a distant horizon we can see a low ridge of hills covered in dark trees and unbendingly flat. Cynthia remarked to me last night that she was surprised at the many shades of green here in the north. Spring certainly is pleasing to the eye. The road is open, mostly straight and mostly in good repair. We pass through a few small towns with shops and graveyards displaying consonant laden Ukrainian names, clear evidence of what ancestry these Canadians descend from. We spy a great variety of birds through the windows of our RV’s. I’m most delighted with a dark phase “Western” Red-tailed Hawk: almost jet black throughout, but with a deep rufous red tail. Jim and Betty add Scarlet Tanager to the list and Ron finds a wood-pewee. At a lunch break at Red Deer River, while Shari prepares sandwiches, I tally 17 species, including a flock of pelicans and our first Sandhill Cranes. We cross the 53rd Parallel, marking our entry into Northern Manitoba, and then pass beside large Lake Winnipegosis, reaching the town of The Pas by early afternoon. My campfire stories this afternoon are about Great Gray Owls, 6th on the list of the top 50 most sought after birds in the continent and one we have not yet seen.
(Bert) A pair of beavers swims across the Pasquia River when we arrive; this mammal certainly has been oft seen on our trip. With farm fields on one side and a wooded riverside on the other we have two good habitats to search this morning. Farmside, we watch small groups of grazing Sandhill Cranes, tall enough to be seen a half-mile away. Out near the horizon a pair of coyotes trots into the woods. A Merlin appears out of nowhere and captures a goldfinch in flight and then is chased by a kestrel intent on taking away its catch. The kestrel does not succeed. Streamside, we tally eleven waterfowl species, adding Green-winged Teal to the list for the first time. A hen Common Goldeneye teaches five young chicks how to find food at the edge of the river. We spend an hour at one small pond near a river bend, finding Horned Grebes and digiscoping a Marbled Godwit. In the afternoon we head out of The Pas in another direction, trying to find the Saskeram wildlife refuge. I stop at a flooded field when I see Ring-billed Gulls and, collectively, we discover a bonanza of migrants visit the wet spot. First we see a Marbled Godwit and then 50 ft away a Hudsonian. That gets us wondering about the identification and we set up two scopes, one on each godwit. We compare birds, taking note of the much darker and deeper rufous of the Hudsonian and the lighter brown colors of the Marbled. The backs in particular are easily compared: the dark back with white feather edging on the Hudsonian and the browner lines of feathers moving down the back of the Marbled. An hour later the two godwits are still at the water spot, but this time they were side by side so that we can simultaneously have both in view through binoculars and we get a good impression of the smaller size of the Hudsonian. At the same spot we find migrant Black-bellied Plovers, so different from the drab wintering forms I see on the Texas coast that at first I call them Golden-Plovers. More shorebirds show up as we watch and we align scopes on Semipalmated Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, Wilson’s Phalaropes and Semipalmated Plovers. After getting all-conflicting directions three times, we finally find the Saskeram. Recent rains and melting snow prevent us from driving the refuge road, but near the entrance we find a Common Raven nest in a wooded area. The large nest is overflowing with five young very near fledging. In fact, one is already out on a limb and looking lonely, it awkwardly jumps back into the nest. In the late afternoon, my campfire stories are of ptarmigans, in preparation for our trip to Churchill.
(Shari) Looking out my window in the early morning, the Saskatchewan River looks like a big long mirror. Houses on the opposite side are reflected in its waters and its calmness remains unbroken: no wind, no boats, no birds diving for food. Everything is still except for the occasional train horn eerily sounding ¼ mile away. The birders have departed and probably Marlene, Larry and I are the only ones in camp. I make brownies for tomorrow’s chili supper and wash my hair. Later I walk next door to the new Xtra Foods Grocery store and find it wonderful. Before I know it, I have spent $60 and now have to carry it home. Luckily Bert is back and he meets me part way to relieve me of a few packages. I spend the afternoon browning meat for the chili, cutting onions and green peppers and reading a bit in my book. Bert and I walk the half block to the library to obtain our e-mail before our social hour, bird talk and travel meeting. Bert uses his iPod to play the “song” of the various ptarmigan’s found in North America. Bill tells me what he thinks it sounds like and I have to agree (it is a little risqué for this journal but part of the song sounds like the female saying to the male “don’t you dare.” Too soon it is time to retire to our rigs for dinner. It has been a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious day.
(Bert) Leaving The Pas we drive 120 mi. without encountering another village and nearly a hundred without passing a gas station or house or stop sign. Except for an occasional 18-wheeler, we have the road to ourselves. Forests, wetlands and lakes spread on all sides. R-Tent-III leads the pack with an hour’s head start; others follow in groups of two or three, so when we all gather later in the day we compare notes on what wildlife we saw along the way. About 20 bird species are tallied in route, mostly ducks. The prize sighting definitely should be awarded to Ron who identified a rare-in-this-season Northern Hawk-Owl 30 mi. outside of The Pas. In addition to reports of Woodchuck, Muskrat and Beaver, Larry and Marlene add a Black Bear with two cubs about 15 mi. before our turn-off to Wekusko Falls. While I wait for the others to arrive I walk around the campground, devoid of campers but alive with singing birds. I hear and then see a Bay-breasted Warbler and then many Cape May Warblers. Knowing these are sought after by some in our group, I note the campsite locations where the birds have established their nesting territories. Ron, who is quite knowledgeable of western species has not seen many eastern species, so it’s quite convenient that he chooses a campsite near these warblers and soon finds both additions to his life list. Mickey has the distinct privilege of seeing a Spruce Grouse near their campsite, the only one in our group so far to see one during the trip. Many watch a Magnolia Warbler that seems to like being photographed, as it allows close approach. Bruce and Olive find a large nest and later Bruce takes me to it and we both photograph the well-constructed stick nest high in a trembling aspen. It appears intact, but unattended. From its construction, position and the local habitat I suspect it’s builder was a Broad-winged Hawk. Too bad we couldn’t watch it in use.
(Shari) A morning walk at 6:30 to McDonald’s is a treat. Afterwards we pull out of our site to dump and fill with water. We are an hour ahead of the caravan in order to make arrangements at the Provincial Park. We keep our eyes peeled for the bear we saw last year but to no avail. Marlene and Larry later say they saw a momma and two cubs on the way. This travel day is prime for wildlife since it is so remote. It reminds me of scenery I saw in Alaska, without the mountains, of course. Spruce and aspen, few if any buildings and even fewer cars are encountered on our two-hour journey. When we arrive at the campground I arrange payment and wait at the gate for our group to arrive so that I can give them maps and direct them where to go. Bert then helps them park. I hear through the grape vine that Clay and Joyce got stuck and had a hard time getting out of the last campsite. I wait an additional 30 min. for them but at 12:30 I am starving and decide to go back to R-Tent-III for lunch. I am glad I did since they don’t come in for another 45 min. The campground is full of “wobbler’s”, as Clay pronounces the word in his Virginia drawl, and everyone is so excited. The group birds while I make chili and get organized for our dinner. After our chili supper, Clay leads a group out to find the Magnolia warbler, a lifer for many. Bert better look out or he will be out of a job for sure!
(Shari) A 15 min. head start allows Bert and me to check out the entrance to Pisew Falls. Everyone I talk with in Manitoba says we just must go in to see this natural wonder. So Bert and I turn into the newly paved entrance, praying that we will not get stuck and have to back up along the 1 km entrance road. To our relief the park has a newly constructed turn circle large enough to park 12 rigs along its edges. We unhook the car and Bert drives it to the road and puts a big sign in the window saying, “Okay to enter with RV’s”, while I stay by the CB and announce for the next 60 min. that it is okay to come on in. After an hour of this litany, I decide to join the group in their sightseeing, and hope the sign in the car does it job because Jim and Betty and Marlene and Larry have not yet arrived. As I walk down the boardwalk steps, I hear the roar of the waterfalls before I see them. The amber water churns frothy white as it cascades over the smooth rocks. To make the setting even more picturesque, a huge mound of white snow fronts the falls and all is framed with green spruce and newly budding aspen trees. The birders get me to focus my binoculars on a Bald Eagle with a fledged baby across the water. Finding out that Cynthia saw a Great Gray Owl in route, I talk with her and enjoy the little dance she does when telling me about it. She found it very close to the place we saw one last year. Deciding to walk another path that leads to a suspension bridge, I am the first of the group to cross the rushing river on the swinging bridge built in 1995 by Thompson’s Rotary. This is a lovely setting and well worth the side excursion before our stop in Thompson. After lunch we lead the group to the gas station where we all get a nice discount when filling our tanks. Diesel fuel is less expensive than regular unleaded fuel in Canada but it still works out, according to Bert, to be about $2.42 per gallon, about the same price posted in Wisconsin when we left in mid-May. After filling our almost empty tank (we had not gotten fuel since leaving North Dakota) we head to the campground. When everyone is situated, Bert talks about some of the birds in Churchill and I talk about administrative details concerning the train, the lodge, the bus and the town. We are all thankful that Larry has built a fire since it seems to keep the many mosquitoes at bay, however I do notice most of the women, including me, are wearing their bug jackets. We then depart for our various rigs, all pumped up for our vacation-within-a-vacation starting tomorrow.
(Bert) I drive very slowly when I reach the section of road where we saw a Great Gray Owl last year at this time. The highway is bordered by aspen forest, most about 20-ft. high, and sprinkled with spruce. We see no owls. But when we stop at Pisew Falls, Cynthia comes up to me to tell me about the Great Gray she saw flying over the forest, very close to last year’s location. How lucky! All of us drove past the spot at different times, separated by at least half hour, but only Cynthia got to see the owl. Almost everyone, though, reports seeing large flocks (200-300 birds) of Canada Geese flying north. They may reach Churchill about the time we do. At Pisew Falls we walk the short distance to a dramatically beautiful waterfall, a few hundred feet wide and gushing with brown water. Below and forward of the waterfall is a rock ice hill looking like a giant snow drift, still unmelted from winter. Perhaps it is the accumulation of spray from the waterfall and its density has preserved it long after the snow has melted here. Across the river, beyond the waterfall, Bruce spies a Bald Eagle and when we study the spot with binoculars we see two adults in a tree and a juvenile on the boulder below. Goldeneyes and a merganser swim near the edge of the falls, but distant enough not to get sucked into its powerful pull. We complete our day’s travel and reach our campground in Thompson. Around a campfire Shari and I discuss arrangements for our trip to Churchill tomorrow evening.
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