I’ve been riding bits and pieces of the Trans-Canada Trail in Manitoba for a while. Long enough that they seem to have changed the name.
Since 2016 they have been promoting it as the Great Trail – a bit boastful for your typical Canadian.
This fall I realized that I had completed the final gap in one of the legs, the 333 kilometers between Emerson and the Trans-Canada Highway at Carberry. Of course, being inefficient and usually biking solo, most of it was done in both directions. That translates to more than 600 kilometers in reality.
It’s a chance to pause and reflect.
You’ve heard of “slow food” – this is slow travel. The legendary desert traveler Wilfred Thesiger said it best:
I had no desire to travel faster. In this way, there was time to notice things — a grasshopper under a bush, a dead swallow on the ground, the tracks of a hare, a bird’s nest, the shape and colour of ripples on the sand, the bloom of tiny seedlings pushing through the soil. There was time to collect a plant or to look at a rock. The very slowness of our march diminished its monotony. I thought how terribly boring it would be to rush about this country in a car.
You have to like that sentiment – how terribly boring it would be to rush about this country in a car.
In Manitoba the long-distance cyclist has to find joy in small things. And forgive the inventor of gravel roads.
Odds are you will discover a new flower. What are these? It was a mystery near Swan Lake where I had to stop for these gaudy pink confections in a roadside ditch. My best guess was a type of milkweed, that favourite of butterflies.
There is a definite shortage of wild ditches in southern Manitoba, where they are usually sprayed, scraped or farmed. On one occasion on an unusually narrow mile road, I left my Honda literally parked in a ditch for the day -the ditch was probably in better shape than my front lawn.
These horses were hanging out at trailside in the Spruce Woods Provincial Park area, where some parcels of private land remain surrounded by the park. Cattle will stare blankly at passersby, either stupefied or concerned. Horses will consider you.
Spruce Woods has “Cadillac trails”. Here the TCT was a rare single track sprinkled with limestone rolling along from the northern park boundary to the Kiche Manitou campground and a good distance beyond toward Cypress River. Only in the southeastern part of the park did it deteriorate into a sandy trail that was a challenge to make headway on.
Trying to remember what my daddy said
Before too much time took away his head
He said we’re going back and I’ll show you what I’m talking about
Going back to Cypress River, back to the old farmhouse
Neil Young had an early album entitled Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, but if you’re named in a Neil Young song, you are somewhere. Cypress River figures in the title track of Neil’s 2005 Prairie Wind album. Unfortunately, the rail line that served this impressive elevator was abandoned in 2014. But after a ride through the “desert”, there was a decent food store with cold drinks to slake my thirst.
In rural Manitoba, it sometimes seems as if there are more people dead than alive. And we’re not talking about the Walking Dead. Many small towns have faded, but their graveyards still expand, albeit slowly.
At one country cemetery on a hilltop, there was a charming mailbox to store their records. Very folk art. It made me think of those possibly apocryphal stories of unscrupulous Eastern antique dealers scooping up weather vanes from barns. We won’t mention where it is located.
In the Bruxelles area (not surprisingly it was originally settled by Belgians), the green rolling farmland is some of the most attractive country seen.
Tiny Bruxelles is wrapped around a hillside and has a grocery store and a gas pump! More surprising, it has a beautiful B&B, a guest house near the church. It was probably a former priest’s home. Visitors can head down the road to the nearby beach at Lake Seven. It’s right on the trail.
South of Morden, one farmer was re-purposing machinery into whimsical creations.
It was sort of Transformers meets Jurassic Park meets Keystone Agricultural Producers. Rural residents love to find something to ornament their front lawns.
The Trail runs right through Altona and it was more than just a giant sunflower. I stopped this summer at the Gallery in the Park. The circa 1902 Johann Schwartz home has been beautifully restored and turned into an art gallery (free!) open spring through fall with multiple rotating exhibits.
During my visit the featured artist in the main gallery was Winnipegger Jordan Miller, plus exhibits by Sharon Cory, Jayne Nixon and Gail Sawatzky on the second floor.
Even more surprising was the huge sculpture garden extending west toward the horizon. There were several dozen installations but room for plenty more.
I cheated here – the National Historic Site of Neubergthal is actually three miles off the Trail. Never having visited, I couldn’t resist stopping in for a stroll down the street.
I say street because there is only one street. Founded in 1876, Neubergthal is the best remaining example of the original Mennonite settlements in the province. Farmers would cluster their homes along a single street to form a village with long narrow farmsteads.
Grand old cottonwoods line the street and there are a number of the traditional house-barns surviving.
If you’re traveling on four wheels, a visit to the elevator museum at Plum Coulee, Altona’s Gallery in the Park and a stroll through Neubergthal, would make for an easy summer day trip.
It wasn’t all sunshine and roses. Occasionally the TCT website map and signage on the ground disagreed. And one or two short stretches were furiously overgrown (Trails Manitoba maintains an office in downtown Winnipeg and welcomes trail reports). Given the Trail’s penchant for following gravel roads, untamed vegetation is usually not a problem.
On a long distance ride, you remember the moments, not the endless road.
On the Emerson-Carberry leg, you can get up close and personal with Manitoba’s first wind farm near St Leon. “They break down every year,” remarked one Altamont resident scornfully.
You can trace much of the Escarpment, a treat in Manitoba where we lack “views.”
On the dark side, I found a lonely memorial to murder victims on this southwest leg, one of two I stumbled across this summer.
The Trail will be quiet now throughout Manitoba. At least, until the Actif Epica race on the Crow Wing Trail in February. Hardy racers (or madmen) will brave the winter cold for 200 km from Emerson to Winnipeg.
I’d sign up, but I don’t own a fat bike. At least that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
Favourite Trail section: Tinker Creek
Favourite countryside: Cypress River-Bruxelles-Swan Lake
All photos by Greg Petzold