Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Search for Manitoba lore cracks open nature's door

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SANDILANDS -- A chump stumped by a stump?

That described me tromping through the woods last week "in search of the Giant Stump," east of Winnipeg along the Trans-Canada Highway.

Two emails arrived within a week telling of a mysterious "giant stump." It wasn't real. It was made of concrete and perhaps some kind of fibreglass composite exterior.

But it was off in the middle of nowhere. And it was massive, 10 feet across.

Problem was the directions in the emails diverged. One said it was just past Richer. Another said it was just west of the Spruce Siding turnoff, or about 25 kilometres east of Richer in the Sandilands Provincial Forest.

One set of directions said there was "a little path" to the giant stump. The other said there was "an old trail." One said it was 100 metres off the highway, the other said it was 100 feet.

Perhaps most confusing, one placed it where the Trans-Canada is split by a woody strip. The other placed it where the Trans-Canada is split by a woods a second time.

I began at the first location. Like reading a great novel, the ancillary discoveries you make on a nature walk are often what make it great, not necessarily the big theme.

I didn't see the stump there but found something else: I didn't know ditches could be so interesting! Orchids beautiful enough to pop into your mouth like barley candy grew there.

I found a large yellow lady slipper and thought how unique and beautiful, only to walk a little ways and see they were as common as dandelions.

I also found decades of human detritus. It's like an archeological dig with your foot. You can kick them up: a screwdriver handle, a set of lock-grip pliers, two non-matching work gloves, drink cans, all in just a square metre patch of ground. They're concealed in shallow graves under wind-blown dirt and highway dust.

On the second stop, I walked a trail in the woods beside the ditch. It was an animal trail. I walked a long ways, occasionally veering into the woods along fainter trails. It doesn't take much time to start feeling like you're changing somehow, becoming a smidgen like Henry David Thoreau, especially walking what's probably a deer trail.

Wild roses were starting to blossom, and the entire kingdom of flying insects, with their different tones and decibel levels buzzing, were out but they were too busy enjoying their first days of life to bother with me.

And no giant stump.

So I headed back to the car. I couldn't afford to waste any more time on this. I'd parked on a little sand road off the highway and before getting back on the highway, decided to see where it went. I turned left down a vehicle trail covered with the type of ground-crawling vegetation that grows in sand.

And there it was. The giant stump. It was about stomach high. It's outer bark was attractively creviced and painted, perhaps using shop rock.

One emailer had thought it was a base for an old fire tower.

Nature photographer Hans Arnold -- he runs Hans Arnold Photography and his book, Wish You Were Here (out of print) was a bestseller -- had another explanation. He was the first to alert me to the stump, stumbling on it while looking for things to photograph.

He later met a retired Manitoba Conservation officer at a function and asked about the stump. The retired officer said the stump was built to hold a giant statue of Smokey the Bear to warn about forest fires. That was in the late 1960s, early 1970s.

The province filled in the rest of the story. A fire had blazed through that Sandilands forest in the fall of 1955. So the province began building the Smokey the Bear while that stretch of the Trans-Canada was being converted from a two-lane to a four-lane highway.

Two summer students had built the stump when federal officials changed their minds and rerouted the new highway about a 100 metres farther north. That was too far away for motorists to see Smokey, and the project was abandoned.

The stump is pretty easy to find and you can drive right to it. (The "old trail" and "little path" were a sand road.) Driving east, there's a yellow seasonal sign where the sand road begins, that reads: "Zack's Burger Bus 7 Kms Ahead."

I was feeling a little hungry myself by then and since Zack's wasn't open, headed to Geppetto's for a bite from its snack shop and, so it felt, back to my regular life.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 25, 2010 A13

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