Behind Bars in the Land of Law and Order
June 15, 2011 Winnipeg, MB

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The Jailhouse in Scotsguard, SK

"It's a bad year, alright. Up to 3 million acres won't be seeded this year in Manitoba. It's worse in Saskatchewan - they say it's 11 million acres. Everything's under water."
- Resident of Nesbitt (MB) on this year's historic floods

Stretching the entire width of Canada's great plains, all the way from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains to the boreal forests of the Northeast, lies a quiet stretch of road that our country - and it seems time itself - forgot. Some sections only see about 2 vehicles a day. However, at one time it was the only direct route across the prairies - and became famous as the route that brought law and order to Canada's wild west by the members of the North-West Mounted Police. It is the Red Coat Trail.

On July 8, 1874, members of the NWMP began riding into Canada's lawless west wearing their smart-looking caps and brilliant red coated uniforms. They were thus known as the Red Coats. Only a year earlier, Sir John A. Macdonald had created the police force to protect his young country's border from aggressive expansion from the United States and to reduce the cattle rustling and whiskey trading that was rife in the badlands - a place that presumably very few of the Redcoats had encountered before.

Flood of the Souris

Gathering in Fort Dufferin, Manitoba (south of today's Winnipeg), the men headed west to Fort Whoop Up (an illegal whiskey trading post which they took over) and Fort MacLeod at the termination of the trail in the Albertan foothills. Much of the prairies was still untouched and covered in wild grasses back then, and many of the Red Coats shared the same dream as other settlers - the land before them begged to be fenced, plowed and seeded with the Europeans' grains; and indeed many of them did just that once their 3 years of police service were complete.

For the next 50 years, expansion into the west continued as more settlers arrived and land continued to be converted into farmland and pasture. The NWMP's Red Coat Trail soon evolved into roads and railways while towns popped up to service the growing population. Grain elevators sprang to life, allowing farmers' grain to be weighed, purchased and loaded into railway cars headed for large cities in the east.

Ghost Town, Saskatchewan

However, in the latter half of the 1920's the wave of prosperity began to crest. Drought left the land unproductive and industry began to slow. The towns of the Red Coat Trail began to shrink. As the 20th century drew to a close, the last of the grain elevators were being shuttered and replaced by giant concrete inland terminals closer to urban centres, able to process far larger amounts of grain, brought in from farms by diesel trucks rather than railway cars. Railways fell by the wayside. Towns along the Red Coat Trail began to disappear.

That's just about when I showed up, riding in off the dusty trail, taking in the view from behind a set of handlebars. Along the barren, windswept prairie trail, my GPS and road map indicated approaching towns as I bicycled east. Yet when I arrived, eager to fill my water bottle and purchase a few snacks, I would often be greeted by nothing but a stand of tall trees, planted long ago as a wind break, and possibly a concrete foundation or two. Sometimes an iron wrought sign would indicate the town's name along with dates of birth and death, not unlike a tombstone, such as "Senate 1914-1983". Other times, buildings would remain - hollow, empty, grey ramshackle skeletons standing in a farmer's field, the glass windows long blown out and paint faded away. No chance to buy a Mars bar or Coca-cola here.

They're drilling for oil all over the place from Carlyle to Treherne, and they're drilling it up from real deep. It's deep and it's clean. So clean you could put it right in your car!"
- RV Campsite host in Weyburn (SK) about the Devonian Three Forks Formation oil fields in SE Saskatchewan and SW Manitoba

There are glimmers of hope for some as oil discoveries have put some of the area back on the map, and parts of the Red Coat Trail buzz with activity from oil rigs arriving and loaded tanker trucks headed out. Quite literally, the landscape is transforming overnight as production comes online. Elsewhere, floods wreak havoc on the Souris and Assiniboine river valleys. Many farms are underwater and nearby towns will feel the pinch as land goes unseeded - or worse for the town of Wawanesca, Manitoba, which is being cut off from civilization as bridges and roads become submerged and washed away.

Showdown!
A Pronghorn Antelope brings it

I spent a night camped on the yard of the abandoned schoolhouse in Scotsguard, Saskatchewan. It was once a thriving and lively community with restaurants and dance halls and a population of 350, but after natural disasters and fires, the town nearly vanished. Now Scotsguard is home to 2 people, Keith and Beverly Hagen, lifelong residents of the area who have lovingly attempted to restore as much of the town as best they can. They tend to its remaining structures like a giant hobby train set, and when I arrive I found them in midst of their endless ritual of grasscutting with their collection of lawnmowers and weed wackers. Rabbits and foxes run along the streets of Scotsguard, as grass and trees poke up through holes in the roads and sidewalks, no matter how many times the Hagens ride past on their John Deeres. They seem to be delaying the inevitable; countless towns along the trail simply return to nature. Inside the ring of trees surrounding the town, foundations crumble back to the earth and flowers begin to take their place.

It is safe to say that the great fields of wild grasses that once covered the prairies will never return, but many of the footprints left by ghost towns have become a bastion for outcast flora and faunae; they are tiny atolls amongst the endless fields of wheat and barley. And while there may not be Mars bars or Coca-colas waiting for a wayward cyclist, there is at least shade, a place for birds to nest and a nook or two for the flowers to bloom.

Whoa boy! You're not going to cycle across Ontario, are you? It's just rocks and trees! You'll be bored silly!"
- Woman in Assiniboia (SK) the centre of the Southern prairies


The Long Road Ahead
Hoodoos of Eastend, SK
Cypress Hills
Tornado Damage near Shauavon, SK
The Red Coat Trail near Scotsguard, SK
Railway Crossing
How fast is 20 MPH?
Base Camp on a Horizontal Everest
Grain Silos, Scotsguard SK
Abandoned Buildings, Scotsguard SK
Main Street, Scotsguard
Cadillac, SK
Glasnevin Grain Elevator - Closed Indefinitely
Johnny 5, Is That You?
Flood of the Assiniboine
Oilfields of Southern Saskatchewan
Oil Truck in Southern Saskatchewan
Red Coat Resemblance
They say if you bike a road long enough, you'll start to look like it.
Flood of the Souris
Flood of the Souris
Storm over Nesbitt, MB
The Great Plains, MB
Extreme Flatness
Inland Terminal
No railway necessary; these concrete terminals are designed for today's trucks
Safety First, Godzilla!