Into Winnipeg, “Heart of the World” (June 23 – 28)

I might have been more excited to cross over from Ontario into Manitoba than anyone has ever been before! Think about it. From May 3 to June 23, I’d been crossing this massive province by its less populated northern route. The awesome landscapes of rock and lake had begun to lose their charm as I battled thunderstorms, tried to stake my tent into rocky soil, and got eaten by huge mosquitoes and tiny blackflies, no matter how much DEET I smeared into my skin. I’d have a shower only once every few days, and accumulated strata of DEET, sweat, blood, sunscreen, and more sweat would all come off at once. Sometimes it was hot, but almost never hot and sunny enough to go shirtless or for my shirt to actually dry. There was never any real food, anywhere, but rather a succession of surprisingly expensive roadside chip trucks and local fast food diners, plus convenience stores where I’d stock up on Snickers bars, or – if I was lucky – trail mix. All of which had to be stowed away carefully to keep the bears, lynx, wolves, coyotes, cougars, moose, etc. away from my campsite. I’m not complaining here, because running across Ontario was truly one of the most amazing experiences of my life (hopefully an impression I’ve conveyed through this blog), but rather giving some context to why I was so excited to enter a province and a landscape which most of my friends have never had any reason to find thrilling.

Amazingly, my high expectations for the sudden changes in climate, geography, and social differences across this social border were all fulfilled. When I took the photo below, just as I crossed the border into Manitoba, there was still some partial cloud cover, but it literally disappeared within 20 minutes… until ten days later, when I crossed the border into Saskatchewan. Obviously this is a bit of an amazing coincidence, because unlike between ON and MB, there is not a natural geographic explanation for the border between MB and SK (i.e. the cessation of the shield, lakes and hills crossing into MB), but it’s still pretty cool.

To me, this border crossing was a huge milestone in the run.

At the Manitoba welcome center, I basked in the sun and had a picnic lunch with a quartet of Franco-Ontarien retirees who were on a roadtrip to Vancouver. One old guy just sat there munching on raw green onions, which I thought was pretty impressive. When I set out for Falcon Lake, it was hot and sunny on a flat highway that had just become divided (and yet was still legal to run on!) Falcon Lake turned out to be a beautiful resort area where I took my time reading in the sun, after dining on sweet potato fries topped with chili, and later ice cream… The next day I ran to Hadashville, and I was there before I knew it – with the flatness of the road, the 50k run seemed to fly by. However, it wasn’t much of a town. I quickly located the only place in town and ordered a Lvivske Ukrainian Lager, having just eaten a bit before. Megan and Henri had asked me “when’s the poutine going to start?” as they headed east, and when I said it hadn’t ever stopped, they put it together that perhaps Kenora was the dividing line between the land of poutine and the land of pierogies, which turned out to be true. This restaurant I was in in Hadashville was pretty impressively Ukrainian, and I sat there eating my obligatory order of fries (licensing issues) with my Lvivske. As I was about to leave, two young guys who’d just come in and ordered a couple Lvivskes and two small caesar salads (to-go!) asked me what I was doing in Hadashville. These guys, Matt and Ed, were firefighters who would get flown in to forest fires all over Manitoba from their base just down the road, and they invited me to spend the night on the base. It being so close to the solstice, there were so many hours of daylight left after my run that I had no clue what else I was going to do, so I was awfully glad I’d run into these friendly dudes. We all headed back to the base, myself racing them (in their car) with the Chariot to a spot about half a mile down the road. (They won, but I put up a good fight.) Matt’s from Burlington, and Ed from London (both Ontario), and they come out here to do this work every summer. Man, that night I learned more than I ever knew before about forest fires and how they’re fought: Ed went to pick up some readouts that showed where all the lightning strikes in the past 24 hours happened, just so he could know what they might be in for tomorrow, and showed me and explained everything. These guys really cared about their work, and loved it in a way, despite sometimes ridiculously taxing circumstances (i.e. their entire camp and all their possessions, out on a job, being burnt up by the fire they were fighting, back-to-back 17-hour days with a couple hours’ nap in-between). They showed me their little garage gym and I got in a good strength workout, alternating between pullups, some dumbbell stuff, and even the bag, just because it was there.

Helipad outside the fire base I shared with Matt and Ed in Hadashville, MB.

Typical Canadian garage, bench press & decomposing stuffed moose.

That night, Ed & Matt built a bonfire in the back yard, and we all hung out on the back patio they’d built themselves last summer. They got out their cameras/phones and started showing me pictures of fires they’d fought, fires they’d deliberately started and played with in the comfort of their backyard, etc. These guys interacted with and talked about fire like it was what made up the world, and I suppose in some ways it is. It was just their element. We all talked a lot that night and had a good time. Ed and I got in a conversation about the ways people get around and where the future of transportation was headed. He believed something big is going to happen soon, something that could change the ways we live our lives and the sorts of ecological decisions we all tacitly make right now. It’s a sentiment I’ve run into a few times lately, both before and after that night. He said that when whatever-it-is went down, it would be the farmers who managed best without gas / fossil fuels, because they know how to produce everything they need and be self-sufficient on their farms. It’s hard to disagree with that, and yet I reflected on how, sometimes on my trip, it’s seemed like it’s farmers who have the most cavalier attitude towards driving places in their big trucks. Ed’s probably right nonetheless –  farmers need trucks for their work, after all, and maybe they only use them so much now because our society is arranged in such a way that that luxury is affordable and has become something that we feel we need to live. He told another story about a coworker who wanted to rush back into their burning camp to save his iPhone from the flames, and was freaking out. “These people, they can look just like you and me, but if you take away their iPhone or their internet or whatever, they’ll just lose their sanity completely!” It’s interesting, right? This coworker, a guy who fights forest fires, is in theory a lot more adapted to living in the wilderness and without technology than a citydweller like me, and yet I think I would be able to let that go, as would many of my urban friends. It’s some matter of perspective on technology and how manic our relationship to it sometimes becomes… looks can be deceiving: when country folk become too attached to their big trucks and iPhones, they get just as bad as the urbanites. 

Whatever the case, Matt and Ed were on call the next morning and had to get ready for duty, so I moved on to Ste. Anne, where I was to meet up with Rebecca’s parents, whom I’d never met before. Doug picked me up just as I was about to reach Ste. Anne, and I said that was the exact spot we’d have to come back to the morning after next (Doug and Leona live somewhat off the highway, so they volunteered to pick me up and drop me back off for my visiting them and taking a rest day in the Steinbach area). He brought a cold wet washcloth that felt like heaven, and took me to Leona’s house, where I got to take a shower before we all sat down to a beautiful meal of which I’m really sorry not to have a photo. Huge steaks, tons of lovely roasted vegetables, and the local Fort Garry Dark Ale. It’s always so fun meeting the parents of a good friend from Montreal in their native environment, too. Leona reminded me rather strongly of Rebecca, and, well, I hope this doesn’t raise too many eyebrows in everybody’s respective households, but I couldn’t help thinking of Dave (Rebecca’s boyfriend and another good friend of mine) when talking with Doug. Both were extremely proud parents, and perhaps this united feeling of parental achievement is one of the things that allows them – a pretty recently separated couple – to enjoy such a cordial relationship with one another.

Incidentally, Doug is also a firefighter, but he’s worked with structure fires in downtown Winnipeg for many years. We all got into a conversation that was strangely similar to the one I’d had with Matt and Ed the night before: I don’t think it was me that steered the conversation back into sustainable living, but I’m always willing to go there, so that’s where we went. Doug remarked that in his firefighting experiences he’s encountered a lot of people who simply “don’t know what to do” in the event of very minor emergencies, like extremely hot or cold weather and so forth. I think he was saying that sometime soon, it could become pretty important, this division between everyday people who simply do or do not “know what to do” in the event of shit hitting the fan. I felt glad for the wilderness/camping/survival experiences I had throughout Ontario, although I don’t know how far they go to counteract a lifetime of being a city kid with abstruse intellectual interests.

At some point during dinner, Leona mentioned that she really thought I should name the Chariot. Fair enough – we have had a pretty close bond through all the crazy experiences we’ve shared in the past two months. Sometimes I feel like the thing is really stuck to me, and if I’m ever without it there’s a little alarm that continuously goes off in my head. I’m not sure how I feel about the practice of naming vehicles (is the Chariot even a vehicle??) as if they were living things, but in this case I did give in, and after a few days’ careful consideration, I’ll say that I’ve named “the Chariot” – that is, my Chariot Cougar 2 jogging stroller – Grady. Just Grady is fine, but, for the record, it is short for “Gradus ad Parnassum.”

I stayed on the farm with Doug that night, and decided to take my rest day in Steinbach instead of Winnipeg – after all, what really matters is how and with whom you’re spending the time, not where. To be honest, my rest days are mostly spent getting in touch with people, writing, reading and relaxing, so a big city doesn’t even have much to offer me. Doug was a great host, and despite my blogging for so much of the day off we got quite a bit of time to hang out. All the same, I’m sorry to have had such a short time to spend with both him and Leona.

Doug dropping me off on the TCH, well-rested and ready to run to Winnipeg.

I was pretty excited to see Winnipeg. Why? I’m sure it has a lot to do with the films of Guy Maddin, especially two of my favorites, “The Saddest Music in the World” and “My Winnipeg.” Does seeing the actual city in real life add much to the richly bizarre, monochromatic, vaguely mid-century and totally unrealistic Winnipeg of Maddin’s imagination? Probably not: and, according to Leona Woodmass, Maddin’s Winnipeg isn’t even anything like the real thing. “We aren’t weird! We’re pretty normal!” she said. Fair enough, I said, I’m sure that if I was actually from Winnipeg I’d get sick of people talking about Guy Maddin, too, since the city promotes him so heavily as a “local artistic figure.” But still, I think there’s something to the metaphor Maddin uses at the beginning of “My Winnipeg” when he’s talking about the city originating from the forks of the Red and the Assiniboine, a natural crossroads or meeting place: he claims that the native peoples believed that, below the confluence of the two rivers, there was a “forks beneath the forks,” a confluence of energy beneath the surface which gave rise to what’s visible. All of Maddin’s work is aimed at perceiving the “forks beneath the forks,” metaphorically speaking. He isn’t saying that Winnipeggers are any “weirder” than anyone else, in my opinion, but rather trying to penetrate below the surface of places and people who externally epitomize normality, similar to what Lynch does in “Blue Velvet.”

Passing the longitudinal centre of Canada on my way into Guy Maddin’s hometown, “The Heart of the World.”

Backpackers’ Guest House in Winnipeg, a good place to spend the night if you’re short of cash and friends.

The next morning I ran some errands, and succeeded in finding dry bags in which to keep my gear (no more soggy gear, even in the here very unlikely event of a thunderstorm). It was idiotic, yet inevitable, that I didn’t manage to get out of the city until around 1 pm. My ever-demanding itinerary was asking me to go 86 km that day, all the way to Portage la Prairie – absolutely the longest (planned!) run of my trip. I was psychologically prepared for it, and I think I would have made it, but wouldn’t you know it? Of all the days to get a 100 km/h headwind, it had to be that one. The wind slowly started picking up in the late morning, until by the time I was running to Portage, it was blowing me directly back into Winnipeg. I ran into the wind for a couple hours, until I realized I wasn’t moving much faster than I would be if I simply walked, spending far less energy. When you run, there is always a point when both feet are in the air, and at that time it’s possible for the wind to blow your whole body back, much more than when you’re walking! Grady wasn’t helping matters, with all that wide chassis filling up with wind and pushing me back even more strongly. Frankly, I’m pretty proud to have made it some 50 km that day, considering the late start and truly extreme headwind. It’s a pity that I had to walk the majority of it, but to move forward is the important thing. Because of that wind, I wasn’t able to make it to the house of Jackie, a friend of the cycling couple Megan and Henri who was willing to put me up. Instead, I pitched my tent in a strip of grass between a row of trees and a field of crops, right next to the highway. 

Grady, sporting a bright orange flag for increased visibility (thanks Doug), and my new dry bags, which took the place of garbage bags. If I still look like a hobo, at least I look like a well-equipped one.

Wind aside, I was really loving this endless, beautiful, sunny weather, and all the nice flat road with a wide paved shoulder. For the next few days, I was headed right through some of the kindest and most welcoming strip of prairie yet.


~ by edmundmilly on July 9, 2012.

5 Responses to “Into Winnipeg, “Heart of the World” (June 23 – 28)”

  1. Another great post! I’m loving your updates and it was cool to read your experiences of Manitoba! Again, I’m so sorry that I just barely missed you in Winnipeg! I hope the prairie weather continues to be kind, though I apologize on its behalf for the wind!

  2. I saw you on July 6 while driving from Winnipeg to Edmonton, maybe a few hundred kilometers east of Regina. I just wanted to say that you are an inspiration, and you look like a complete bad ass on the road.

  3. Edmund, it’s a delight to read your progress. Here’s a strategy I learned from a trans-Canada cyclist, who said it was very helpful in the Prairies: leave very early in the morning, when the wind tends to be low. If it turns into a headwind later on, you’ll have hopefully covered all or most of your required distance by then. If it turns into a tailwind, keep on going! I don’t know that this would work very well for me as I’m not much of an early riser, but maybe it will be helpful for you. Stay safe, dry, well-fed, well-hydrated, etc.

    • Hi Victor, thanks for that. Somehow it surprises me that you’re NOT an early riser, but yeah, it probably doesn’t surprise you that I’m not much of one either, haha. My philosophy is just, try to get going before noon, and assume there’s going to be a headwind (there usually is, going east to west)… if there’s a tailwind, savor it. The best hours for me are always just before the sun goes down; I feel so good around 7 pm.

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