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A walk for all seasons

FortWhyte is where this Prairie girl can feel alive

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A BORN-and-bred Prairie girl, I grew up hearing the T133 Silver Star jets from CFB Portage la Prairie echoing over the Portage Plains wheat fields. While the roar of jet aircraft is a distant memory, my love for the prairie landscape survives. Like the grass roots that extend down two metres or more to anchor the soil, I am also rooted in the prairie. Where can I find prairie in the midst of Winnipeg’s concrete canyons? FortWhyte Alive.

My teeth and car stop vibrating as I turn off the washboard portion of McCreary Road I’ve christened "Axle-Break Highway" onto the smooth road headed toward FortWhyte Alive’s Alloway Centre. As I exit my car, my shoulders relax and my feet automatically head for the North Trail to help me find my fix of Prairie solitude.

I pass by the sod house nestled in its copse of white bark aspens, wind my way past the teepee encampment, which provides welcome shelter during inclement weather, and up the hill to view the bison. Past sun-silvered tree branches fashioned into a replica of an aboriginal buffalo pound, a peaceful woodland of aspens and burr oaks appears. Called the Giving Grove, it’s dedicated to FortWhyte’s volunteers.

In spring, the raucous honking of Canada geese overhead is a sure herald of the new season. Robins and red-winged blackbirds add a counterpoint tempo to the rise-and-fall chorus of a thousand and one spring peeper frogs celebrating the return of a green world. Demure violets poke their delicate noses through the spongy remains of last autumn’s leaves and grass. The star-shaped blooms of blue-eyed grasses, pastel wild strawberry blossoms and exquisite lady-slippers follow. The first appearance of red prairie lilies glowing like flames in the ever-taller grass signals that summer is on the advent.

When August arrives, even the hardiest of plants managing to remain green in this perpetually semiarid landscape begin to curl and crisp to pine-cone brown. If I stand with the prevailing westerly winds blowing at my back, I see the tall grasses billowing in the same direction, their silver-gold undersides facing up to reflect the sun’s heat back to the cloudless forget-me-not blue sky.

The ceaseless purring wind is punctuated by the zippering of grasshoppers and the lilting chirrup of crickets. It’s only when I turn around and the wind blows against my face that I can see the right-side of the grasses and realize that there is actually some green left in the landscape.

I wear sturdy shoes as the drying brush turns sharp and brittle demonstrating its willingness to sting and poke at the tender skin of bare ankles or unprotected toes.

I see shadows lengthen as days shorten. Late wildflowers bloom in random patches, their colours spilling across the landscape as if a titan had dropped his paint-box of water colours onto the grass. Aspen leaves turn pale ochre and cream in the lengthening shadows but in some sublime twist of nature’s alchemy, the sun transforms the muted foliage to molten gold when viewed against the horizon.

Two coots glide on the placid surface of a slough surrounded by tangled bulrushes; the rushes’ emerald green stalks having evolved into saffron-shaded hues matching the wildflowers. The geese sound melancholy as they begin to contemplate seeking out warmer climes.

Colours of landscape and sky become darker, harder and brittle to finally disappear under a snowy counterpane. As frost crystals gild my eyelashes and the tips of my hair, I find the monochrome palette of grey, white and pale blue snow shadows provides me with an atmosphere of quiet contemplation at year’s end. As I bid good-bye to the last straggling geese, my ears are already primed to listen for their return come spring.



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