Chapter 3. Northern Manitoba
(Bert) Shari and I take an early leave of Riding Mountain. She is anxious to see a moose before leaving the park and, in fact, we do get a good look at one browsing on the roadside grass. When we reach the northern edge of the park I take note of the elevation on our GPS and measure the drop over the escarpment as almost 1100 ft. Now we travel on a flat plain, mostly dedicated to farming with a few villages, but increasingly sparse as we head north. Aspen become fewer, while tamarack and Black Spruce increase. During a short break in driving, at Cowan Rest Area I bird for a few minutes and find Spruce Grouse scat, but not the bird. Our lunch stop at Red Deer River turns out to be and an amazingly good birding spot. During the ten minutes that Shari is preparing lunch I find 23 species of birds. I go out again after lunch for another half hour, birding with Dale and Beverly, and raise the total to 32. I am surprised to find six Great Blue Herons fishing along the river banks and we watch two independent juvenile Common Mergansers that have already grown to half size. After leaving the rest stop we see a series of six large nests atop the crossbars of utility poles. I see an Osprey hovering over Lake Winnipegosis, so I assume the nests are Ospreys also. Yet the seventh nest is occupied by a Bald Eagle. American Kestrels are much more common along this highway than we have seen elsewhere. I count 13 kestrels and, later, Georgia reports having seen more. We also hear that Georgia and Richard spotted a Great Gray Owl at the same mile point that someone from our 2007 trip saw one.
(Shari) “I don’t get it,” I say as my slot machine rings and the digital read out on top says I have 8 points and $5.00. We have gotten $15 of “free” money to use to play the machines at the casino. It takes us awhile to learn how to put in our card, add some seed money and then add our pin to activate our free $15. I accomplished that and now I just lost the $40 I had won during my first few minutes on the slot machine. I decide to quit before I lose more and meet the rest of the group in the restaurant where we get $5 off our already discounted meal of $10. After eating I go back to the slots and work on Bert’s “free” $15. I help Marilyn activate her card as she has never gambled in her life. Those of us playing think we have learned the system. We win as long as we are on our “free” money and then we lose. So we must quit before we eat into our own money. I gain back the $5 I lost earlier and an extra $2 before I quit. Everybody else wins from $22 to $60. I think Richard may have lost some.
At 8:45 five of us pile into our car to visit the dump and see the bears. Still on the highway, we see a coyote with some small animal in his mouth. We stop; he stops. We back up, he picks up and runs to the woods but looks around at us before disappearing. We find the dump much as we remembered it from four years ago, but bigger. Today the trash is burning and we see small plumes of smoke emanating throughout the heaps of garbage. We are told that before the burn up to 20 bears came to eat at dusk. Tonight we see only one big bear before the sun sets. It is amazing, cute, big and fearsome all at once. We are pretty close and since we are all out of the protection of the car, I wonder out load when we should run back in. The bear does not seem too interested in us. We leave when the bear departs carrying a big orange bag of some kind of bear “goodies.”
(Bert) We park our RV’s at the casino and after dinner, one carload heads to the dump on the outskirts of The Pas. En route, Kay spots a Coyote and I turn around the car for a better view. The attractive animal has caught a vole in its jaws and watches us as we take photos through the car windows. The dump is a dump: a smoldering mass of acres of refuse, old TV’s, a metal desk, twisted bicycle, mounds of black garbage bags, boards, and indiscernible junk. While waiting for bears, most of the passengers stay inside the car to avoid flying insects, but Kay and I go outside to watch several dozen gulls excitedly tearing into a delectable storehouse of food treats. Almost all of them are Ring-billed Gulls, but a half dozen are adult Herring Gulls, and one is a second cycle Herring Gull. The best is an all-white gull, including wingtips, with a black-tipped pink bill. It is a first-winter Glaucous Gull far from its normal range.
It is almost 10 PM and we still have not seen a bear. We talk to some of the local people – there has been a constant stream of people in trucks and trailers coming to unload their junk – and they say as many as twenty Black Bears can usually be seen prowling through the garbage, but a few days ago they started a fire in the dump and now the bears have less edible things to find. When we start questioning ourselves about when to leave, a Black Bear arrives from the forest and surprisingly quickly ambles over the mounds of debris and comes almost to the spot where we were watching the gulls. He stops at a pile that hides most of its body and begins munching on something hidden to us. We take our photos and watch it watching us until it finds an orange garbage bag that must contain something particularly delectable. It carries the bag in its jaws and heads back to where it left the woods, stopping once to reexamine the contents, and then resuming its walk, still holding the bag.
(Bert) Before leaving The Pas, we bird at Clearwater Lake. I head directly for the volleyball sandlot on the beach. There they are, strutting and puffing. Four Sharp-tailed Grouse put on a show, oblivious to people walking large dogs nearby and us gawking at them through binoculars and camera lens. I particularly like one photo that shows two grouse with bodies pitched forward, ruffed necks extended, tails fanned, and feathered feet steadily walking to each other in a face off. At the beach we add Semipalmated Plover and Bonaparte’s Gull to the trip list. One gull is in spring plumage while the other is still in nonbreeding colors that should have been supplanted already in April. We find an unattended Killdeer nest with three spotted eggs, marked by a stake and flag to keep the lawnmowers from running it over. For several days now I’ve been hearing, but not seeing Pileated Woodpeckers, so this time we track down two of them. Barbara thinks it is a life bird for her. By 10 AM we are back at the casino and soon on the road heading to Wekusko Falls.
(Shari) “We’re birders, yes we are; travlin’ both near and far…” So goes the song that our good friend Bill wrote on one of our previous caravans. Sung to the tune of Roger Miller’s “King of the Road”, Richard plays it for us tonight on his ukulele. We have a sing-along after our spaghetti dinner around the campfire. I have placed about ten mosquito coils around our circle, which keep the bugs at bay. It has been another terrific day of sunshine and good birds, topped with a sighting of a wolf, a bear, a coyote and a Northern Hawk-Owl. The wolf was sighted at the garbage dump, as Doug and Kay were out playing “Now where is it now…” Seems Kay misplaces things a lot, but never loses them. I can just hear the First Nation workers at the dump saying to each other, “Now why is that well-dressed couple in that fancy camper poking around the garbage?” She told me at breakfast this morning when four of us went to bird through the windows of the local “Timmies”, enjoying coffee and donuts at the same time, that she could not find the eyepiece to her binoculars. She wondered if it was in our car since she drove with us last night to watch the bear at the dump. I looked, but found no cap, so she and Doug are out poking around the mess of plastic bags, wood, broken springs, old chairs and rusty bikes, looking for it. I think it is like finding a needle in a haystack, but she finds it!!! See, she didn’t lose it, just didn’t know where it was. As we are checking into the campground, the attendant informs us that this park has no ticks. “Not anymore” says Bert as he picks one off of his jacket. Later he finds another one at our campsite. I hope the two little ticks don’t find each other or at least that that are both the same sex. I’d hate to hear that the park had become tick infested since June of 2011. I make spaghetti sauce in the afternoon so do not go out to enjoy the path to the waterfalls. After dinner, Richard and Georgia stay to enjoy the campfire and we talk and talk. Before we know it, it is past 9:30. Bedtime.
(Bert) Last night around the campfire I asked if anyone saw Cape May and Magnolia Warblers in the afternoon. None had, so I suggested we go out early this morning, as this park is the best place I know to find Cape May Warbler. The difficulty is that they invariably stay hidden at the top of the tall spruce trees. Before we start birding, Dale plays a recording of the Cape May so that we have the high-pitched song imbedded in our minds. Within minutes I hear my first one, but too distant to start the pursuit. I hear a second and pass on that one too. The fourth one I hear seems like it is singing from a treetop that must be one of those in view. I keep advancing around the camp roads in the direction of the sound and all others keep lock step behind me, staring in the direction I aim my binoculars. After 15 min. without success, I look at the group and ask how many others were hearing the Cape May Warbler. None! In fact, none heard any of the ones I have been hearing. We try again at the eighth one I hear, which Kay hears one or two times also. No success. I hear Bay-breasted Warbler and Canada Warbler and everyone gets a look at these, the Bay-breasted not higher than 4 ft. above the ground and the Canada also at good viewing height. We have been birding now for 90 min. and when I hear my tenth Cape May Warbler we search again for it. This time a warbler flies from one tree to another and the song moves with it, so it must be the Cape May. It flies again and again. Then I hear a second singing nearby. I go toward that one, but Dale stays on the first one and this time the Cape May lands in an aspen in clear view for everyone to see. Walking back to their position, I am the last in the group to see the bird as it clearly displays its chestnut facial patch and strongly dark stripes on a brilliant yellow body. That is the hardest I ever worked to find a Cape May Warbler. I thank Dale for spotting the bird and he thanks me for my bionic ears.
(Shari) In all the caravans we have done to Churchill, we have never had such nice weather in Pisew Falls and Thompson. It is sunny and almost hot as I traverse the trail to the falls. I meet Doug, Kay, Georgia and Richard on their way back and take some photos with the waterfalls in the background. I tell them about the trail to the suspension bridge and then head in that direction myself. As I walk down the steps, lo and behold a cute furry animal is making its way up the steps. It perks up its head and looks at me as if to say, what are you doing on my boardwalk? I grab my camera and get a shot before he scurries off underneath the wooden planks. I think I have seen a marten and when I go back to the rig to look at the book, I am sure of it. Actually everyone in the group except Bert, Dale and Bev saw it. I don’t think I have ever seen a marten before and it is the size of a house cat with a cute little koala bear like face with orange chin fur. Now that was a treat!
Colleen is ready for us in Thompson and has a packet of information materials for each rig. She and her husband have opened a new section in the back which is basically a gravel parking lot with electrical poles sticking up. All the nice pull-through sites in the woods are taken by semi-permanent residents, many of which look like seasonal workers. Too bad for us, but we won’t be at our sites very long. We have another long social after Bert’s talk on the birds of Churchill and mine on the logistics of train travel. It is almost 9 when we finally sit down to our salad dinner. Colleen told us of a northern lights display tonight and I want to see it. Bert goes to bed and I stay up until 12:30, but never see the lights. I think clouds are covering the northern sky, but I see the moon in the west. Barb and Don had heard about the display on the radio so it should have been a good one. Maybe tomorrow night we can see it from the train. Now that would be cool.
(Bert) Even in early morning the temperature is in the 70s with blue skies and the feeling of maturing spring. We bird along a wide bridge that crosses Burntwood River, studying side-by-side Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, watch a pair of Canada Geese tend to their fuzzy yellow goslings, and add Wilson’s Warbler to our trip list. Georgia and I watch a fly-by black bird without any coloring in its wings and both take it as a Rusty Blackbird. A photogenic Snowshoe Hare is all brown now except for a bit of white showing in its oversized large hind feet. We return by mid-morning, anxious to pack for the train to Churchill.
(Shari) How can it take three hours to pack? All the stuff I want takes up two backpacks. Even at that I forget a pair of jeans. I don’t know how others can get by with so little. Bert has even more than I do. Then again, he has that big camera, scope and tripod plus his Neos and bulky sweater. But Don and Barbara take the prize for the most luggage. Each comes with a big rolling duffle. The porter feels sorry for them and gives them a bigger room on the train. They never would have been able to move in the standard two berth rooms the others have. I swear the rooms are smaller than they ever have been in the past. As Kay enters her room, I hear her say “Where are the beds? Aren’t we supposed to have beds?” We tell her the porter takes them down from the ceiling at bedtime. Right now two chairs fill up the tiny room’s space. The car is different than in other years because I remember sleeping parallel to the train tracks and not perpendicular. I wonder if this way will have less of a sway. We meet in the observation car and watch the landscape whiz past our glass domed car at about 5 mph. At this rate, we will have a long trip. We order wine or beer or in my case a Bloody Mary before we go to the dining car with Georgia and Richard. The rest of the group has already eaten and tell us all the options on the menu are good. Many go back to the observation car and watch for birds; I go to the room. The bed is already made up. I sit up and read for a while but soon the quiet click clack of the wheels on the track lulls me to sleep. I barely hear Bert come in.
(Bert) Birders gather in the observation car with its 360 degree panoramic view of the northern woods. Spring leaves densely clothe the aspen, willows and tamarack, and the White Spruce trees have taken on a new vibrancy. As we thread northward, leaves are paler green and smaller, marking a spring still in progress. I am surprised we see no large mammals, even as the skies darken toward nightfall, and the only mammal we see from the train is a Muskrat. Almost no villages exist along the route. At one of the few stops, Pikwitonei, we see a Hairy Woodpecker fly over the train and land on a utility pole. Meanwhile, the young railroad construction workers quickly pile out of the train for a very short smoking break. At an otherwise unscheduled stop, all of them leave the train at an adjoining rail where box cars are constructed as a series of tiny apartments for the workers. One large railroad car is filled with railway spikes and nearby creosote soaked black ties lie in stacks. The young men work in 20-day shifts, then 10 days off, replacing the railway ties with new ones. The old ties tilt and bend from permafrost shifting, causing our train to slow up frequently to a snail’s pace. Even at top speed I doubt we reach 40 mph and, usually travel at a fraction of that. In fact, Colleen described it as “Butterflies fly faster than the train.”
With the boisterous young men absent, the train is quiet. A massive set of tall utility poles string thick cables that form a succession of U-loops parallel to the train track. Many of the X-shaped crossbeams hold big stick nests. Judging by nearby residents, it seems the larger and better constructed ones are Rough-legged Hawks, the smaller and flimsier ones are Common Ravens and the smallest are abandoned or incomplete starts. Most of us are getting drowsy, but a man who frequently travels the train encourages us to stay up a bit longer. As darkness starts to take hold of the night, the man points out the nest at eye level to the observation car occupants and on the nest’s edge sits an adult Bald Eagle. Nearby sits its mate. It was worth waiting up for the sighting.
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