Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Day 46: The descent

Pat and Dave had warned me that there was a dam at Fort Qu'Appelle, but also thought it would be open, and so it was. However, when I heard open I had assumed open like a channel, open like a door, not open like a two foot sheer drop. I wondered if this is what they meant, and how many times they had canoed over this dam. A large metal sign warned "This structure not designed for public use," which was not encouraging, but there weren't the bright orange barriers I was used to seeing before dams, so a descent was perhaps possible.

I climbed up the bank and stood on the dam walkway, looking down through the perforated metal to the raging waters below. It did not look safe. The water poured through several open channels, and each channel had large metal screws sticking out on either side. There was enough room to go between them but accumulated plant debris on them showed not everything did.

I walked over onto the wooded "Trans Canada Trail" to grab a stick, and then dropped it in the water. The stick fell through the dam, under the water, and didn't reappear for several seconds. Maybe they had shot it many times before, but they probably didn't do it on fully loaded open canoes. I had no experience with this kind of obstacle. I decided not to risk it.

I climbed back down in the canoe, put my life vest back on, and paddled out, took one last look, and completely changed my mind. I was never going to be here again, a portage would be a huge pain. The worse that happens is I take a spill and have to recover all my stuff in the pool below.

So I chose the channel with the least white water below it, paddled as hard as I could toward it, my bow crosses the dam, my hull scrapes the bottom, and I stop. The water below it wasn't white because there wasn't enough flow, and then there I am, the first six feet of a fifteen foot canoe just sticking out over the dam. The water wasn't shallow enough for me to get out and pull it back, so I had to straddle the boat, and push my feet against the dam while holding on to push the canoe back. The low flow there meant, with some effort, I was able to get the boat out of trouble, and free again.

For my second attempt, I chose the channel with the most white water beneath it. I suppose this is the Goldilocks method of shooting a dam. I took a breath, paddled as hard as I could toward it, my bow crosses the dam, falls rather more than I liked into the water below, and is followed by the rest of the boat, upright and in one piece. There was half an inch of water sloshing inside at my feet, and my heart was pumping hard in my chest.

It felt amazing.

I parked the boat and wandered over to the "fort". This is clearly a modern reconstruction, festooned with the flags of Saskatchewan and Canada. There were no signs on the outside, and inside, I saw only "Washrooms only inside" and "Smile, you are on camera!" It was less welcoming than I thought a fort should be. I got out of there, fast.

I took the Trans Canada Trail through the woods, over the dam, and into the Fort Qu'Appelle museum. Merv showed me around, and he was old, and incredible. He knew everything about every artifact, where it was found, who brought it in, how much it was worth. There were models of the historical fort, xray machines and piercers, fur coats, guns, and fossils. The frames and display cases were as interesting to him as the objects they contained. I thought someone better videotape Merv's tour before the museum becomes just another collection of "pretty cool" things.

He showed me one thing that struck me significantly, although it will take me some time to explain why. It was a simple metal sign, black sticker letters pressed on to a white background. There were several paragraph on it, explaining the geology of an area, "the formations were carved at the end of the last ice age 11000 years ago" etc etc. Merv said there used to be a geological trail that ran all through and around the city, with about a dozen of these signs placed up. There was a lot of trouble with vandals, shooting, and the like, but he and others did their best to keep it going. And Merv gave me an explanation for so much I had seen in Saskatchewan when he said, "the new government isn't interested in this kind of thing."

I gathered that the Trans Canada Trail I had been walking on had taken the place of this geological trail. Well, simple tradeoff, right? A local limited interest trail, versus a hiking trail spanning the length of the country. Perhaps, but what I haven't told you yet is that this Trans Canada Trail won't even get you out of the city of Fort Qu'Appelle.

The idea for a Trans Canada Trail was conceived some time ago, and in many provinces a long distance portion of the trail actually does exist, but in Alberta and Saskatchewan it consists only of some relabeled municipal park trails, so you can't cross the country, and not even the province.

The descent from thinking to feeling. So much made sense to me then. In all the provincial parks I had been, the interpretive centers were closed or unpopulated, spooky, abandoned buildings. And in Missouri State Parks, if there is a camp store there are sure to be books about the area, its geology, flora, fauna. But the privatized camp stores in Saskatchewan were devoid of these things. Being ever in want of a bird book, I had to invent names for the ones that interested me: "bowtie", "fearless", "kentucky".

Before I left, Cameron had given me a copy of Tom Stoppard's play "Arcadia" to read along the way. The book uses English gardens as an analogy to the change in values from the ordered, truth-seeking Enlightenment, to the irregular, emotional Romantics. There it was simply a change in fashion, but in Saskatchewan I imagined it now as some political cataclysm that closed the interpretive parks, privatized the camp stores, and transformed the geological trails to cross country trails that do not actually cross the country. Who has time for all those useless facts anyway, or actually hiking trans Canada, if you can drive into a place and feel as though you might? Centers of learning and exploration fall to campers who never leave the tended lawns: Et in Arcadia ego!

Here I show even I am unable to resist the spirit of the age. I do not know if the above interpretation is true, only that it feels right to me at this time.

Day 46 ended: 50*45.962N, 103*46.350W


LBA said...

I walked across newfoundland on the Trans Canada trail. it disappeared a few times but it was there. Read the story

Kevin Saff said...

Hi, LBA,

It's my current understanding that the TCT is quite substantial in many provinces, but in Alberta and Saskatchewan the situation is woeful.

Your adventures are on my reading list, now. Thank you!