May 8, 2017 (Part two)
I don’t have much past recollection of Manitoba, a place I once passed through on the way West way back in the 1970s. I suppose I mostly remember the north woods giving way to the nearly featureless expanse of the Canadian prairies. But what may go almost unnoticed at 65-70 mph is far more distinctive from a bicycle seat at 10 mph. And I can say that the portion of Manitoba I have encountered has actually surprised me in its own way.
The first thing I noticed is how intensely agricultural it is. The broad, fertile Red River Valley is almost completely divided into large farms, and at this time of year (early May) there is a lot of activity in the fields. The growing season may be shorter than in places farther south, but it doesn’t seem to hamper the region’s farmers. Apart from the occasional small lake or pond, and the odd forested patch, any land not under cultivation appears to be used for grazing. And the recent warm weather has finally begun to bring spring into bloom.
The motel where I intended to spend my last night on the road had been converted to weekly occupancy only, so I was forced to find other accommodations, which necessitated a 15-mile detour. This required leaving the main highway and striking off across the countryside on minor (but still paved) roads. I had no idea what to expect in the tiny rural hamlets and settlements, several of which consisted of not much more than a grain elevator, a church and a handful of houses. I had had no breakfast apart from a bottle of orange juice and a couple of donuts at the convenience store in my starting town. I was beginning to accept the fact I would likely have a lunch consisting of the dried fruit and energy bars I carry on my bike for such occasions.
However, when I pulled into the small town of Grunthal, Manitoba, I was immediately drawn to Bigg Smoak BBQ and the sign proclaiming it was open (at noon on a Saturday). I might even have thought it was a mirage, but instead it was very real, and probably the best barbecue I have had in some 20-plus such stops on the trip. Owner Rob Turner, who was presiding over the pit, got bitten by the barbecue bug a little more than four years ago. He began entering competitions shortly thereafter, and he has won a raft of ribbons and medals since that time, both in Canada and the U.S. So far he has been awarded the distinction of the best barbecue in Manitoba and the fourth best in Canada. Canadians take their barbecue seriously, so this is not a trifling award nor a matter of being a big fish in a small pond. The phrase “put some South in your mouth” now has meaning north of the border as well. My pulled pork sandwich was spectacular, easily equal to or better than anything I had in Texas. I came away happy and well-fed for the last half of the day’s trip, again into a headwind I seem unable to dodge. It was enough to make the mediocre pizza I had for dinner a distant memory, while that barbecued pork will linger long in my mind.
The next day, my last full day on the bike, included a 30-mile ride into Winnipeg, my final bicycle destination. I had mixed feelings about approaching the end of the trip, and I hoped for a memorable ride. In a sense I got what I wanted. For the first time in nearly a month I actually had a full-blown tailwind, a steady 25-30 mph southeast blow that would have ruined a day had I been riding in that direction. However, I was riding northwest and the wind was directly at my back, pushing me like an unseen hand. As the old saying goes, a rising tide floats all boats, and the same can be said of the wind and bicycles. For the first time on the trip I could maintain 15-16 mph on absolutely flat ground, which brought a broad grin to the face of this old bicyclist pulling 70 lbs. of baggage. The only sadness was that it reduced the last day of my trip to just slightly more than a two-hour ride that seemed over almost as quickly as it started.
The tall buildings of downtown Winnipeg loomed ahead on the horizon, the largest city (population a little less than 800,000) I have encountered since Houston. But first I had to cross the city’s perimeter highway and the Red River Floodway. The valley of the Red River is broad and shallow, and over the past several thousand gears of geologic history, the river has meandered across it in various channels. At times Winnipeg and other river communities, including those upstream in the U.S., have been subject to disastrous flooding. After such a flood in 1950, there were cries for a solution to the problem. The result was a gigantic engineering project, begun in 1962, completed in 1968 and later updated in 2010. In the event of a flood it can divert up to 80 percent of the river’s peak flow (more than twice the volume of water that flows over Niagara Falls) into a 29-mile long earthen channel that is routed around the city’s east side. It was the second-largest earth moving project in human history, only exceeded by the building of the Panama Canal. It’s stunning to the eye, a little less than half a mile across and about 70 feet deep. In this non-flood time, only a tiny bit of water remains in the very bottom. Since the construction of the Floodway, Winnipeg has suffered very little flood damage.
In short order I was in the city’s industrial east side and soon enough downtown. There was surprisingly little traffic on an early Sunday afternoon, and to be truthful the sensation was somewhat anticlimactic. I had finally come to the end of the line, at least for the bicycling portion of the trip.
The best barbecue of the trip in the unlikely location of Grunthal, Manitoba:
Bigg Smoak BBQ owner Rob Turner with some of his ribbons and awards:
The downtown Winnipeg skyline looking west across one of the Red River bridges: