On the border: riding the 49th to Emerson

Looking south to the U.S.A. /GREG PETZOLD

The border can’t stay out of the news these days. It brings to mind sunnier days with no politics.

Canada and the U.S. share the longest border in the world, some 8900 kilometers. Last summer it was quiet along our southern frontier. It was time to ride the Manitoba portion of the Trans-Canada Trail which parallels the border.

When they coined the phrase “wide-open spaces”, they must have been thinking of the 49th parallel. Making a transit by mountain bike, you’ll spend a lot of time alone.

Not an appealing place to wander during the winter.

Start: western end of the border run, just north of the U.S. at the edge of the Escarpment. /GREG PETZOLD

Canada’s national trail remains a work in progress, stitched together using not just trails, but country roads and even waterways.

From the edge of the Escarpment south of Morden, the Trans-Canada Trail (TCT) winds east near the border for some 92 kilometers to reach Emerson. It does make a jog up to Altona, but returns via an abandoned rail line (bumpy) south to Gretna.

After Gretna, the TCT becomes the border, running arrow-straight to the main crossing at Emerson.

Hill-free ride on the TCT for over 90 kilometers between the Escarpment (at left) and Emerson.

At first, heading east to Altona, much of the TCT just follows dusty gravel mile roads. Passing trucks left me in a choking cloud. On the border sections it was strictly a dirt track, not a road you would take a motor vehicle on.

The occasional border pylons bear arcane references to 1800’s treaties you’ve never heard of.

Native plants are few and far between. Look for a deep ditch. /GREG PETZOLD

A lonely roadside grave marker, any farmstead or village long gone. /GREG PETZOLD

Many Mennonite settlements in the region have survived but the border strip is thinly populated. When I rolled through the tiny village of Neuhorst, cattle were lounging in the shade.

An unexpected road sign. /GREG PETZOLD

This is the land “where everybody knows your name.” Strangers can literally be spotted miles away.

On the Gretna-Neuhorst leg I saw my first “Ford Crossing” sign.

You’re not approaching a car dealership.

The mile road takes a dip under water. There’s no bridge over a large creek. OK for tractors, but I didn’t feel like lugging my bike barefoot in uncharted waters and took a detour.

Flood level marker on the TCT /GREG PETZOLD

On the Gretna-Emerson leg it’s absolutely flat country complete with flood level markers at trailside. Flood waters can flow across the miles like spilled milk on a table-top. You’re on your own here. There are no farmyards near the border.

Looking west: America on the left, Canada on the right. Don’t get confused. /GREG PETZOLD

At Gretna, a man stood in the road waiting for me, beside what turned out to be the Border Lane Shooting Range. He didn’t want to start shooting until he talked to me, he said. And explained that they didn’t shoot if anyone was working in the fields beyond.

Diplomatically, the range runs west to east right along the border. North-south might cause some friction.

On the 23 kilometers between Gretna and Emerson, the soft, grassy track makes cyclists work a bit. Shade was pretty much non-existent. This is sunscreen country. Only one grove of trees offers a break.

Despite the lack of cover, I stirred up deer three times on this stretch.

TCT on the border: not suitable for motor vehicles. /GREG PETZOLD

The only life on the trail was four boys fishing a deep point in a drainage ditch. They showed off half a dozen northern pike, that must have made poor travel decisions at high water time in the spring. They roared off north on a pair of quads.

Fortress America has some signage but no drones in sight. /GREG PETZOLD

Near Emerson, the U.S. warns you to keep out, with signage promising a “heavy penalty.” On the Canadian side we’re more laid-back. There’s nothing but empty fields.

A detour kept me at a healthy distance from the border crossing point and wound up this leg in Emerson, behind its impressive ring dike. In the 1880’s, Emerson was a destination – a boomtown with 10,000 residents that thought it would leave Winnipeg in the shade.

Today 689 people remain, but it is once again a destination.

The finish line:  Emerson Courthouse


Photographer and local historian in spare time. Hiked Sinai, kayaked Superior, capsized on the Nahanni. Tracing (slowly) the Trans-Canada Trail across Manitoba by bike.

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