22-Jul-2001 -- Some things never change, and some things are meant to be. So it was with my visit to 52 N and 100 W.
I was born more than half a century ago in the small town of Birch River, Manitoba. I now live 1000 km away in Edmonton, Alberta, and have no relatives back there. I had only been back once in 30 years, and about four times in the 39 years since my parents moved to Calgary and I decided to go with them.
This summer, Birch River was having a homecoming, and everyone was invited. My childhood best friend, whose mother and sister still lived in the area, but who now lives in Scotland, was going to be there. Although we corresponded by e-mail, I hadn’t actually seen Fred since 1987, when he lived in Pasadena, California. This was an opportunity not to be missed.
Naturally, I checked for confluences needing visiting, and decided to hit three along the 52nd parallel north latitude: 103 West and 102 West in Saskatchewan on the way out, and 100 West in Manitoba on the return trip.
The confluence at 52N 100W looked very interesting on the map, interesting enough to be worth the considerable distance off the direct route home. It is very near the tip of Red Deer Point, a 35-km-long narrow peninsula thrusting into the complex feature known as Lake Winnipegosis, and within a game bird sanctuary. Both MapQuest and Toporama showed some kind of road or trail leading to within a kilometer of the confluence, although road maps only showed a secondary road going about halfway up the peninsula. It promised to be a rarely visited place.
When I got to Birch River, I telephoned Fred and arranged to get together with him and the other members of his family, and another mutual friend and former classmate from our childhood, James. We met for lunch on Friday in Swan River, and Fred casually mentioned that he was a new owner of a GPS receiver. Even though I had recently sent him links to my earlier confluence visits, he hadn’t had time to visit them. He didn’t realize that I also had a GPS receiver, and a nearly identical one at that.
Fred and I had conspired in many projects in our youth, some involving interesting mixtures of chemicals that produced loud noises when ignited, and others involving homemade rockets – all in the name of scientific research, of course(that housefly may still be in orbit; we never saw it again). Hiking in the boreal forests around Birch River was also part of our shared history. Some things never change; Fred leapt at the chance to participate in another scientific project and walk in the woods – the hunt for 52N 100W.
While we took in such homecoming events as the variety concert, the pancake breakfast, the historical display, and the parade, Fred tried to recruit more confluencers from the many former classmates we met, but not even James could be enticed. So it was that the two of us rendezvoused at Fred’s mother’s house at 8 a. m. on Sunday. Fred would be driving his rental car and I my station wagon, since he would be returning and I would be taking a more direct route back to Edmonton. I gave Fred one of my FRS radios, so the two of us could communicate on the 200 km drive to wherever we would be forced to proceed on foot.
In Swan River I fueled my car and we both picked up sandwiches for lunch. We set off across the Manitoba countryside, eastward and then south on Highway 10 to Cowan, and then east again on Highway 20. My dash-mounted GPS receiver showed us within 10.2 km of the confluence when we reached Camperville, but I knew our land-based route would take us much further away before we could get any closer.
As we proceeded south along the west side of Sagamace Bay towards the town of Winnipegosis, I noticed some unfamiliar plants alongside the road, and I wondered if they were wild rice. Just then my radio beeped, and Fred asked if I thought it was wild rice we were seeing, since he used Manitoba wild rice in his “famous” wild rice and duck recipe. He wanted a photograph of himself among the wild rice of Manitoba to enhance the presentation for future servings of the recipe. We stopped, examined the plant, and determined that it very probably was wild rice, and I took the requested photographs.
Reaching the base of Red Deer Point, I was watching for the road leading up the peninsula; the road map indicated that it left Highway 20 just before the highway turned south again. I spotted a couple of possibilities before the turn, but we reached the corner without certainty. Reversing direction, we checked Lakeview Road, but it was a dead end. I then checked the maps I had printed from MapQuest, and found that the road actually went north from the southward leg of the corner, not before the corner. With this information, we quickly found our way and headed north on a wide gravel road.
The first section was straight, but then the road started to twist and turn. We passed a farmer on a tractor harrowing a field; she gave me a friendly wave. The fields ended 13.2 km from the confluence, where there is a sign half-obscured by brush that indicated we were entering the Red Deer Point Game Bird Sanctuary. The road was becoming narrower and rougher. When I reached a cattle corral, it seemed that this was the destination for what little traffic came this far; the next section of road showed few signs of use. I pulled over. When Fred caught up, I suggested we both get into my car. He grabbed his sandwich and the FRS radio, I shot a couple of pictures of the corral, and we proceeded. I handled the driving while Fred set to work reducing the numbers of the horde of mosquitoes that had joined us at the corral.
At this point the road consisted of two tracks an axle-width apart with grass growing about knee-high between them. We soon came to a barbed-wire and pole gate 8 km from the confluence. Since it was unlocked and seemed designed to control cattle rather than vehicles, Fred opened the gate and we proceeded. In accordance with the Code of the West, we made sure to close the gate behind us. At 5.2 km from the confluence, we dealt with a wooden gate the same way.
Soon the road became entirely grass-covered. Fred remarked that I seemed to have risen above interest in material possessions, implying that anyone who cared about his car would have stopped by now. I replied that tools were meant to be used, and I expected this kind of road to be within the design limits of my all-wheel-drive but low-clearance vehicle. But less than a kilometer later, at 4.4 km from the confluence, we came to another wire gate, beyond which I did not care to drive.
It looks as if the road on the maps has not been used as a road beyond this point for many years. We ate our sandwiches (since it was about noon) and decided to proceed on foot. We liberally applied DEET insect repellent to exposed skin, I put on my Homecoming 2001 souvenir cap, grabbed my day pack, camera bag, water bottle and trekking pole/monopod, and we set off.
Two things quickly became apparent. One was that DEET’s original use as a solvent in the plastics industry was highly effective; Fred had become one with his GPS receiver. “When I asked for a liquid crystal display, this wasn’t what I meant,” he said. He pried his fingers loose and interposed a piece of paper towel between his hand and his Magellan 320.
The other was that the trail we were following would be impassible to any vehicle that couldn’t knock trees out of the way. Only cattle seemed to have passed that way in recent years, and like us they had made their way around or under the horizontal tree trunks that were found every few hundred meters.
Except for the mosquitoes, the walk was pleasant. Only a few sections were somewhat chewed up by hooves. The sun came and went, but no rain fell. Butterflies of several varieties fluttered by, tiny frogs hopped underfoot, and several garter snakes slithered across our path. Often we were literally in clover, and other wildflowers lined the route.
We knew that the old overgrown road would not lead us to the confluence, and the thickness of the brush on either side was intimidating. As we neared the point at which the trail passed closest to our goal, we started looking for a break in the trees. At 4.4 km from the gate, an old, overgrown, but still passable footpath appeared on our right (east), going in just the right direction. Some things are meant to be. An opening to the left led to Coleman Bay, a few steps away. (Lake Winnipegosis is so convoluted its bays have bays; Coleman is part of Sagamace Bay.)
We pushed on through the thick grass of the narrow trail. After 120 meters we came to an arch of trees over the trail, resembling the remains of a teepee; we could think of no reason for it, human or natural. We passed through a stand of spruce and back into deciduous poplar forest. When the trail appeared to split a couple of times, we let the GPS guide us. About 650 meters from the beginning of the narrow trail we were approaching the confluence when we broke out onto the vestiges of another abandoned road running north and south. The confluence appeared to be very near the junction of these two routes.
Diligent walking in circles with compass and GPS often brought us near the magic zeroes, but always the readings would jump past on longitude or latitude. The dense growth seemed to be a problem. At one point my GPS said I was too far west; as I headed east, the readings put me even further west. Finally we decided we must have passed over the confluence at some point during the confluence dance, and stopped on the old road to take photos and to eat some of the saskatoons that grew there in great numbers. Saskatoons are the berries of an indigenous shrub, similar in appearance to the blueberry.
With some difficulty, we relocated the narrow east-west trail, and retraced our route, driven on by the hordes of mosquitoes buzzing in our ears. We paused at the junction with the main trail, and took a look at the calm waters of Coleman Bay. It was about 4:30 by the time we got back to the car. In a few minutes, with pauses to open and close gates, we were back at the corral where Fred’s car waited. It was time to say goodbye; perhaps next time would not be so long in coming.
On the hiking part of the visit (about 10 km return), we had seen few signs of people. There were two plastic bags, two flattened drink cans, and a discharged shotgun shell – that was all. It was a trip well worth the effort.
After our farewells, I headed off to Baldy Mountain, Manitoba’s highest point, to take photos for the Canadian Mountain Encyclopedia website, before heading back to Edmonton.