Cycling the Great Trail is well worth the effort

Mark Kihn stands in front of an old grain elevator at Clanwilliam, Man., which is no longer standing.  |  Brian Nicholls photo

Those soon-to-be forgotten prairie sentinels — who ever thought they’d find a subtle new purpose?

I was cycling with a former high school classmate, Brian Nicholls, and we had turned around outside of Erickson, Man., and were cycling back toward Clanwilliam on the Trans-Canada Trail, more recently renamed the Great Trail of Canada.

After a four kilometre slow ascent, we were on a higher level and then we saw it. It was about 10 kilometres away, the huge silvery white grain elevator, left behind in 1995 when Canadian National Railway abandoned the rail line. It marked our parking spot, and our lunch location, and so in a strange way, it called us back, weary legs, sore butts and all.

It was our third, last and best day of cycling on the Rossburn Subdivision pathway, which stretches 172 km from Neepawa to Russell. The “rails-to-trail” path serves as an informal boundary between the prairie and parkland. The beautiful July day in 2017 was just the right mix of hot and windy — welcomed, not oppressive.

The two ruts of the trail were well-packed and our mountain bikes easily rolled along. As with all railway beds, there were no steep hills, only long steady inclines.

In the middle of one six km climb, Brian asked why we decided to take this ride.

The answer is the reward. The vista between Clanwilliam and Erickson was wonderful. The old rail-trail ascended to serpentine along a modest prairie ridge with the fields falling off along both sides. The wind kicked up hypnotic waves of green grain on a sea that seemed so chaotic, with no shore to crash against.

A burst of dusty pink flowers greeted us as we cycled around a slow corner. We had to live a cliché. We had to “stop and smell the roses.”

Later, yet another cliché presented itself. Brian stood at the edge of a canola crop: “A man outstanding in his field.”

Ok, corny. The yellow undulating blanket of blossoms filled our senses.

After lunch, we carried on southeast toward Bethany, crossing a steel bridge up against a marsh just north of that hamlet. The bridge had no railings, only loose gravel to increase the challenge. It crossed a tributary of the Little Saskatchewan (Minnedosa) River.

Once again at our turn-around, the Clanwilliam elevator beckoned us. By late afternoon, we headed home to Minnedosa — 52 km for the day, plus a calorie burn to spike this former farm boy’s hunger.

A day earlier, we cycled the stretch from Erickson to Sandy Lake and back — 54 km. Heading northwest out of Erickson we quickly crossed the Rolling River, again on a sturdy railway bridge, no railings, and with coarse gravel. As we curved westward, we edged along Proven Marsh & Lake — a huge expanse of water, reeds, swamp grass, and forest — a waterfowl haven. The flies were bugging us, but as one sage told me later, “without flies, there’d be no birds.” Fair enough.

At Sandy Lake, we read about the town’s history in a shelter display. One of the pioneer’s enterprises was cutting ice blocks from the frozen lake and shipping the chunks via train to urban centres. Household refrigerators, invented in 1920s, ended that industry.

Sandy Lake had a huge map showing the Rossburn Subdivision of the old rail line, which debuted in 1905. The new map marked mileage and even the minor whistle-stops along the way. Apparently, we had cycled alongside Rackham. Who knew?

On our first day, we had driven to Oakburn and cycled west toward Rossburn. Oakburn, too, has a grain elevator. It needs paint, shingles are missing and the annex lists to one side. However, we saw it from miles away, and it motivated us in our return.

Vista somehow got a grand name for a humble hamlet. The white-painted rocks under the spruce tree spelled out the name, but were barely visible, fading like the village itself.

Here the trail tested us. It was merely mown grass and gravel and it proved difficult to roll the wheels; plus it was a 31C day. The heat and our lack of fitness limited us to a modest 32 km that day.

I’d describe Manitoba’s Trans-Canada Trail as “no fees, no frills.” We have cycled “rails to trails” in Wisconsin, which cost $4 per day. Those trails have restrooms, water pumps/taps, picnic tables, packed shale pathways, mowed edges, refurbished bridges, and extensive mileage markers. However, they’ve had a head start. The granddaddy of them all, the Elroy-Sparta Trail, debuted in 1965.

Our few wishes for trail improvements include:

  • Mow the length of Manitoba’s Trans-Canada Trail, especially along the edges where encroaching saplings as thick as my wrist are taking hold.
  • Install intermediate mileage signs, not just at the edge of towns/villages. Mileage signs are motivators to get started — and then to get home.
  • The bridges need railings. They are dangerous without them.
  • Sit-down rests are gold. We’d appreciate an occasional bench or a picnic table.
  • Cycling on grass or loose gravel saps energy. Cyclists appreciate fine limestone or shale gravel, which also stifles weed growth.

The path itself offered solitude and scenery as we slipped through the quiet countryside. In three days we passed only one other cyclist. We did have a farmer roar up behind us on his ATV to quiz us about our route. No harm.

As for the prairie sentinels, they’ve become relics of the not-so-distant past. They’ve been stroked by winds, pummelled by rain, and dusted by snow. They are fading. However, history will remember those tall grain elevators,which proudly carried the districts’ names and brought wealth to farmers and commerce to their local villages.

Meanwhile, those former ribbons of steel sweeping past those elevators have long since carried their last loads of grain. The Trans-Canada Trail is a new use for old railway beds, and continues to connect those fading dots on the maps.

Editor’s Note: In recent years, the cross-Canada trail has been renamed “The Great Trail.” Alas, the silvery sentinel, the Clanwilliam elevator, has been demolished. Mark Kihn and Brian Nicholls have cycled “rails to trails” extensively in the U.S .Midwest. They often average 80 km a day.

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