Welcome back, Wanuskewin

From my house in the city, it is a long walk out to Wanuskewin — about 17 kilometers along the South Saskatchewan River valley. I have made the hike many times over the years. I like the fact that I can set out from my front door, pick up the thread of nature down by the water, and follow it right out of town. You hardly know you are in the city over much of the route if you stick close to the water, following the maze of informal trails through the willows and dogwood of the valley bottom where the chickadees romp. Yet the urban setting re-asserts itself — when you pass the graffitied mouths of storm sewers, the rusting hulks of automobiles abandoned in the valley in decades past, or under the exhaust plumes of the chemical factory on the city’s north boundary.

On Sunday, I joined up with my good friend Mark Nicholson to make the walk for the first time in several years. The occasion was the re-opening of Wanuskewin Heritage Park, our destination at the end of trail. Wanuskewin is a wild coulee where Tipperary Creek joins the South Saskatchewan. Paleo-indian Plains cultures sheltered in this vale as much as 6,000 years ago, hunting bison by driving them over the steep bluffs, gathering berries, fishing.

The Cree “Wanuskewin” may be translated as “seeking harmony” or “seeking balance,” and the walk to get there provides the pilgrim with four of five hours to meditate on what such words really mean in modern times.

Unlike me, my friend Mark grew up in Saskatoon, has watched the city’s boundary sprawl away, year by year. North of the University Bridge, we came upon the rusted remains of the old ski lift that used to pull the daring up to the ski jump that once was installed on the river bank. With time, nature has all but erased evidence of this recreation area. The next generation of skiers would have to drive in their cars all the way to Blackstrap Lake, which itself has now fallen into disuse, has its own rusting ski lift. One door closes; another opens.

We watched goldeneyes diving in the icy water below the weir. The concrete dam was built as a Depression make-work project. To my eye it is ugly, but many people think it is an attractive urban site. Pelicans certainly do. In summer, they commute from their nests at Redberry Lake to feed here.

When Mark was growing up, North Park was the last neighborhood. Today there are several more kilometres of residential housing beyond the north rail bridge. We trudged along the east-side dirt trails, crossed over the pedestrian walkway under the 42nd Street bridge, and continued on the west side on the paved walkway of the Meewasin Valley trail system. As we rounded the river bend under the ramparts of River Heights, a bald eagle came upstream. Dams on rivers, like the weir and the Gardiner Dam hydroelectric station to the south, create year-round open water and feeding opportunities that keep such magnificent predators in business here in January. Returning to the dirt tracks at the latitude of Lawson Heights, we passed many bird feeders hung in the diamond willow by local people hungry for the signs of life in winter. The chickadees seemed delighted to patronize these establishments, bar-hopping noisily along the river.

Where the river narrows, we passed the long fence — and the long stench — of the sewage treatment plant, just one of a thousand such burdens heaped upon the South Saskatchewan by communities along the water course. Then you come to the Akzo Nobel chemical plant. A company with roots in the Netherlands going back to the 18th centrury, Akzo makes industrial chemicals for potash refinement, among other things, and potash is used to fertilize crops. Akzo has placarded a section of the river bank as private property, but Mark and I take our commonwealth rights of access to riparian zones very seriously and we walked right on past. Probably the company has posted the area to decrease its legal liability in case of a toxic leak, in the event of which an alarm will alert you to take flight.

We walked on until just past the warning sign at the north end of the trail and sat down to enjoy lunch, and a bit of still-warm coffee from our Thermoses. The air was still enough that we could feel real heat in the noon sun. The old moon, the last of 2009, was somewhere in its glare, though I had seen the sliver of it while getting ready before dawn. The new decade seemed fully underway, and it was possible to imagine that days were actually getting longer.

The riverbank is wildest north of the chemical plant, the banks steepened into bluffs, the river frozen right across. Rounding a bend, we saw movement on the ice and Mark got out binoculars. Three coyotes were feeding on some kind of kill in the middle of the ice, ravens too getting in on the action. All withdrew into the thickets of the opposite bank as we approached along the ice margin.

Our legs were feeling the distance by the time we reached the Wanuskewin trails network; the climb up the coulee to the main building seemed to take a long time and the very last of our strength. At a bend in the trail, we passed a porcupine sound asleep in the sun. I was looking forward to sleep myself. After nearly five hours, we reached the glass doors of the building. Inside, dancers in costume were doing a performance for visitors gathered in the main hall. It was good to see Wanuskewin open again.

Wanuskewin Heritage Park had funding challenges from its inception back in the nineties, challenges which led to its closure a few years ago. I hope they have found a financially sustainable business model, because the facility is a fine place think about sustainability in a wider sense. Wanuskewin used to be a bison-hunting camp. The bison and its culture bowed to European agriculture, a story that still unfolds today. How much potash do we need for agriculture, anyway? How much water to treat how much sewage? And what price shall we pay? The answers are not easy, so we must meditate hard upon them, and walking is good for that. “What does Wanuskewin mean to you?” their brochure used to ask.

It was too far to turn around and walk home again — at least for us. My wife had agreed to pick us up, and we waited in the coffee shop until she came walking up through the Lloyd Pinay bison sculptures of Wanuskewin’s entrance. A long walk in the sun gives us time to think about what the world ought to be. Asking for a ride home by car reminds us to think with humility, to admit how deeply we are tied to all that modern society provides as we try to negotiate with ourselves what we want versus what we need.


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