Jailhouse in Scotsguard, SK
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
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
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.
of the Souris
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
A Pronghorn Antelope brings it
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.
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