Porcupines and Pine Trees

A porcupine ambles across the TransCanada pipeline near Barren Lake in Manitoba, May 10, 2023.

The horses see the porcupine before we do. Downwind, they stop, ears pricked. Oddly, they are not alarmed, or even nervous, which makes me giggle, given all the scary leaves and sticks and squirrels we’ve been side-eyeing up until now. The walking pin cushion shuffles off, unhurrying, on its stumpy legs, and disappears into the trees.

We are riding on the TransCanada pipeline that runs through the southern part of Whiteshell Provincial Park in Manitoba. Beneath us is human-made infrastructure that funnels natural gas across the country to heat homes and cook food. It was built in the 1980s, a massive undertaking involving much dynamite and movement of rock. Others can tell you what it was like then, but what I see now is land that has adapted to the change. In the winter, it’s a corridor for wolves and lynx, deer and snowshoe hares alike. Bears traverse it. Sandhill cranes and blue herons nest near it. The porcupine is testament to the pipeline having apparently been accepted by the local flora and fauna as part of what is. The disruption happened, and the scar has been reclaimed, even embraced, by the boreal forest. It is peaceful here.

A highway would not be so peaceful. And yet, as we ride along, I imagine what the landscape would become if the powers that be decided to carve away more of the park to make way for more trucks and traffic. A porcupine crossing a pipeline is one thing. Crossing a highway is another story entirely. The pipeline curves around and up and down with the land, leaving ridges and wetlands mostly intact for their inhabitants. A highway would fill in wetlands and destroy ridges to make way for lumps of steel, rubber and plastic to go hurtling through at high speeds. A highway would be a deathtrap for forest dwellers seeking to cross it. A highway would kill this gem, this corner of the boreal forest where people – and horses – can experience the joy that I feel in this moment.

Any local trapper will tell you the beaver, pine martens and mink are all happy here. Those of us who live here year round know the land, the trees, the plants, the animals. Those who have lived here a lot longer than I have know everything about them: what they are, how they interact, why they are important to each other and to us.

Falcon Beach Ranch offers the only boreal forest horseback experience in Manitoba or northwestern Ontario.

The problem is, the South Whiteshell stands in the way of the rest of Canada travelling west to east and back again. It’s a story we’ve heard countless times in the last hundred years, since the birth of the internal combustion engine that powers the automobile. People want to get from A to B, and they want to get there as fast as possible. We want our stuff to get there just as fast. Getting there fast means bigger roads, and bigger roads means fewer trees.

Ironically, much of the traffic traversing the South Whiteshell consists of Manitobans heading to their cottages in northwestern Ontario. As a child, I remember travelling to a family friend’s cottage east of Kenora, and gleefully pointing out the “cottage rocks” (blasted by dynamite to make way for the highway, but my 5-year-old brain had not made that connection yet) that are visible at the point where the highway is flanked by Falcon Lake to the south and Barren Lake to the north. Travellers who are in a hurry to reach their weekend destinations may not necessarily be aware, or care, that they are travelling through someone else’s weekend destination to get there.

We are naturally selfish: we want what we want, when we want it. To be inconvenienced has become an intolerable offense. This seems to have been made worse by the pandemic, but it must have been brewing before that to have become the problem that it now is. People are angry, stressed, and afraid, and it shows.

I take guests on trail rides through the woods who look around in absolute awe and admonish me for taking any of it for granted. People come from the city and they are tired, burnt out, despondent. They get on a horse and we venture over the hill and into the trees, among the spruce, fir and birch, where the noise of the highway disappears and is replaced by rustling leaves, thumping grouse, chattering squirrels, knocking woodpeckers, and chirping songbirds. We breathe. We climb rocky ridges and splash through ponds. By the time our ride is done, our shoulders are lighter, our lungs fuller.

I don’t know where the highway will land. I don’t want it to be here, in this place I now call home, a home I share with many people and countless plants, animals and fungi, a home where I can be a host to the worn-out, weary folk who visit us. I don’t know how to help the rest of Canada see that their path from west to east and back again is through our home. I don’t know how to make them care. But I know I will try.

Wondering what all the fuss is about? Check out this report from Global News from March 23, 2023

Barrel Racing, Family Style

The grandpa has a chestnut gelding named Cody with whom he competes on the rodeo circuit. Today he has fitted Cody’s saddle with a set of mini-stirrups so his preschool-aged grandson can climb aboard. They are headed to the arena to do some barrel racing. The preschool kind, anyway.

Grandpa has the reins, on the ground, and jogs across to the first barrel. Cody breaks into a smart trot and the little boy is positively gleeful.Mom and the other grandparents are watching, and so are the ranch staff. We cheer as they round the last barrel in record time.

Now grandpa gives the boy the reins, and jogs away for another race. Cody doesn’t need to be led; his nose is right at grandpa’s shoulder, and the mini-racer is reining him around those barrels like a pro.

Meanwhile, dad is giving little sister a ride on a pinto pony named Roo. The toddler catches wind of what’s happening and wants to join the fun. Mom takes the lead rope and sets out to the first barrel. Roo is not a barrel racer – his short legs and round stature work against him in this way. But it is his sheer strength of will against the idea that is both impressive and comical. As he is dragged around the course, he resists trotting as if such silliness it is far beneath him. “Are you kidding me?” his body language says. Mom arrives at the gate and announces that her daughter would like a faster steed. No one can blame her for that. The toddler looks significantly less gleeful than her big brother. Her time will come I’m sure, but it’s hard to be patient when you’re only two.

Now dad has taken over with Cody and the boy. I smile and turn away to attend to something, feeling somewhat like I am intruding on something rather intimate and special. This feeling is intensified when a few minutes later I catch glimpse of mom and dad leading daughter and son on their mounts, side by side, away from me, around the arena. They seem to be riding off into the sunset, even though it’s pretty much solar noon.

My heart kind of aches a little. With grandparents looking on, there are three generations of ranchers doing what they do best, and doing it together. Do they know how lucky they are? They work so hard, but do they know that people like me would give their right eye to have been able to live this life – a life free from the enemies of allergy and inflammation freaking out the immune system and shutting down a girl’s wildest dreams of a life with horses?

But then my heart aches again, this time swelling with joy. These people, this family, have given me a gift. They have allowed me into their space to reconnect with a life I thought I had lost forever. Because of them, I see now that maybe all is not lost. There may be enough space in my life, and enough air in my lungs, for horses. I take a breath, and wonder if this family will ever know what they have done for me. It feels silly, sentimental, even melodramatic, to try to express it to them. But imagine losing your arm and then thirty years later having it miraculously begin to regrow. It’s too much to ask, too good to be true.

So I’ll just work as hard as I can, and be grateful for all I have been given, today. I don’t need to know how it will all turn out. It’s enough that today happened, and that those mini-barrel racers showed me what joy really looks like and reminded me that I too, can find joy in my own way.

Horse Tails

It’s lunchtime at the ranch and I am taking a break. In the barn. The rest of the staff are elsewhere, but not I. I just can’t stay away from these animals. I am starved for their company. This is therapy.

Two rows of standing stalls are occupied by twenty horses having lunch. The barn is not quiet, but it is very peaceful. After a busy morning of trail riding, everyone is happy for a breather. My ears  – and soul – are massaged by the rhythmic sounds of munching, swishing, a little bit of stomping. The smell of fresh hay mixes with horse and manure and I love it. This is therapy.

I have developed a habit of keeping a mane and tail comb in my pocket, and with twenty bums to choose from, it’s little wonder why. I pick a tail and lean against the powerful rear quarters of an appaloosa. If I had an appaloosa, I think to myself, I might call him Captain Underpants. Just for fun. But this one is Pongo, and he munches while I lean against him just enough to let him know I’m there and go to work on the knots and clumps of mud that have built up in his tail. This is dirty work. Hair in handfuls, dirt falling to the ground if it makes it past my hands and arms and jeans. When I am finished, he swishes his tail and it flows freely, rather than flailing around a bunch of knobs on a string like a cat o’ nine tails. I am satisfied. This is therapy.

I move to another: a deep chestnut mare named Dixie. I repeat the ritual: lean in, comb out, feel the power that allows me to approach it, and enjoy. I marvel at how much I don’t hate this. Perhaps it is because I am a volunteer, and I am here only because I want to be. This is not a chore. This is therapy.

All too soon, the staff are back from lunch and everyone is run out to the corral to wind up for the afternoon. But I am refreshed. And ready. I almost feel naughty for stealing some time with these equine companions. Naughty, but not sorry. This is therapy.