Adventures on the wagon trail east

Cole and Elmo, two Percheron cross horses, needed a little practice to get them accustomed to work on busy roads and highways. | Submitted photo

It’s not every day that two 70-something-year-old men set out on a nearly 700-kilometre horse-drawn wagon adventure spanning two provinces. But try telling that to cousins Joe Alexander of Virden, Manitoba and Derwin Clarke of Balzac, Alberta who recently did just that.

The duo made the journey from Eastend, Saskatchewan to Virden, Manitoba to reenact the same trek their grandfather made more than 100 years prior.

“We were just two old guys who wanted to go on a wagon ride,” laughed 73-year old Clarke. “We had no idea that people would be interested in what we were doing.”

The journey took them 19 days. They left the fairgrounds at Eastend in the early morning hours of July 7 heading east on the Red Coat Trail, Saskatchewan Highway 13 (Manitoba Highway 2). They arrived at the family farm just south west of Virden around noon on July 25, a total of 675 kilometres behind them.

They averaged 37 kilometres per day in a modified covered wagon pulled by two Percheron cross horses and traveled mainly in the morning when it was a bit cooler.

So, what in the world would inspire the cousins to make such a trek?

Having been raised like brothers and both being horse enthusiasts their entire lives, the cousins reconnect each year by taking a wagon trip into the mountains. On their last such trip, the topic came up about how their grandparents left Virden in 1914 to homestead near Frontier, Sask. Four years and two children later, after struggling to make a go of it in drought conditions, their grandparents made the difficult decision to return and settle near Virden. Sam Clarke, their grandpa, put his wife, Mildred and three young children (two of which were Joe’s mother and Derwin’s dad) on the train in Eastend and then followed them home driving his team and democrat with saddle horse in tow. How many days it took him and his exact route is unknown, but the cousins came up with the bright idea to recreate the trip.

The covered wagon benefited from modern touches such as rubber tires and plexiglass walls to improve the travellers’ view. | Submitted photo

“We got sitting around one night (in the mountains) and got talking about Grandpa and how he’d made that trip and thought, we could do that,” said 76-year-old, Joe. “And the more we talked, the more we started thinking, ya we’d better do it, cause we’re not getting any younger.”

The decision made, they took the first half of 2021 to prepare.

Since it was Clarke that owned the wagon, he reconfigured it to include a plexiglass perimeter at eye level between the top of the wagon’s wooden sides and the canvas cover, enabling them to see all sides from the comfort of the wagon seat. Alexander built two sets of cupboards to mount in the wagon box to store the necessities, and rigged it with flashing tail lights so they would be visible on the roadways. With a fresh coat of red paint and outfitted with a sign on the rear of the wagon which read “Two Geezers on Board”, the wagon was ready to go.

Camp sites were found in ditches and abandoned farm yards, fair or rodeo grounds and once, a baseball dugout to take shelter from a storm. | Submitted photo

In preparation for the trip, Clarke set to conditioning the team, Cole (6 years) and Elmo (14 years) by gradually increasing their driving time each day, eventually working up to 10 to 12 miles per day for the last month and a half prior to the trip. In order to get them traffic safe, he took them in to nearby Airdrie, Alberta to get them used to driving through town, as well as experiencing all types of scenarios that they might encounter.

With the wagon packed and loaded, they met in Eastend to begin their journey. The wagon was stocked with enough feed for the horses for the entire trip, 270 liters of water for the horses aboard at all times, and plenty of food and water for the teamsters.

What happened next was not what they expected.

Kindness. Hospitality. Generosity. Respect. Down-home goodness and a restored faith in humanity.

“Basically, we only had one priority when we set out and that was if anybody stopped, we’d stop and talk to them,” said Clarke humbly. “That was it. If anybody came into camp, we’d make time for them. But we didn’t realize how many there would be.”

Though there were plenty of offers of lodging along the way, Joe and Derwin spent many nights on their cots, under the stars. | Submitted photo

People did come into camp - every, single, night. They were genuinely interested in what the pair were doing. They were attracted by the horses. They visited about the good ‘ol days. They reminisced with stories of how their ancestors had made similar trips or had similar experiences. Clarke and Alexander and the horses were someone and something that people could connect and relate to.

They set up camp in ditches and abandoned farm yards and occasionally sought shelter in a fair or rodeo grounds and even a baseball dugout one night when it stormed. But usually, they slept under the stars because it was good for the soul.

And that’s how their trip went. People would stop them along the road with cinnamon buns and chocolate chip muffins, hot coffee and water, oats and feed for the horses. They went out of their way to find them shelter from the elements when it stormed and, in some cases, provided them with lodging for the night. All along their route, they encountered folks who were following their journey on social media or had heard via the grapevine that they were passing by the area, and were welcomed with open arms, a hot meal and stabling. Traffic was respectful of their space on the shoulder of the highway and moved over and slowed down to pass. Neither Alexander nor Clarke were ever concerned or worried for their safety; on the contrary, they never felt more welcomed, assured or confident in what they were trying to accomplish.

Cousins Joe Alexander (left) and Derwin Clarke spent 19 days on the road to retrace their grandfather’s trek more than 100 years ago. | Submitted photo

They were overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from family, friends and the strangers, with whom some of them they have developed lasting friendships.

As well as the people they met, they also have a new appreciation for the countryside, the wonders of nature, and the ability to slow down and live life one kilometre at a time.

The last kilometre to their final destination was bittersweet for the pair. They were proud to have accomplished what they had set out to do, but were feeling a little melancholy that it was coming to an end.

Over the span of their 19 days, they were written about in seven newspapers and did two CBC interviews. Never in their wildest dreams did they ever think that anyone would be interested or care about what they were trying to achieve. After all, they were just two guys going for wagon ride, albeit a long one!

Would they do it all again?

“In a New York second,” Clarke said without hesitation.

In a FaceBook post at the conclusion of their journey, Clarke wrote: “In the end, it was all about the people and hospitality showed to us. We will never forget you, for you, in the end, were what the trip was about.”

He attached an audio clip of the famous song, ‘Happy Trails’ by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, which was especially fitting and offered this explanation: “I picked this old song because life is not about sunshine or darkness, but the trail we all trod together. May all your trails be happy ones.”

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