It’s hard to tell you’re traveling north looking out the window along I-35. Southern Minnesota looks pretty much like Iowa, with the exception of a few more oak groves scattered across the distant farm fields of corn and beans. The first hints of change came as we headed northwest out of Minneapolis. The farm fields were interspersed by more forested areas and lakes. The first field of ripe winter wheat appeared somewhere in there, too. Wheat became more plentiful and corn less so as we continued into the incredibly flat Red River valley near Fargo, N.D. The first fields of sunflowers added to the mix in that area, but soybeans held on as a major crop well into Canada.
We boarded a northwest-bound train at Winnipeg, Manitoba. Corn fields continued to decline as we headed into the Canadian prairie provinces. The first intensely golden yellow fields of blooming canola entered the mix near Winnipeg and increased in frequency as we continued westward. Corn had nearly disappeared by the time we crossed into Saskatchewan and beans were declining, but occasional fields of potatoes joined the mix of wheat and canola. Hay and pasture began to become more common as the land dried out the farther west we went. Small grain and oil crops had nearly disappeared by the time we reached the rolling cattle country of western Alberta.
Our route followed the Assiniboine River westward from Winnipeg, and that took us right through some of the Canadian prairie pothole country known as North America’s “duck factory” to waterfowl hunters. Drainage hasn’t decimated Canadian wetlands to the extent that it has south of the border. Nearly every large field of wheat or canola had one or more ponds with a marshy fringe of taller vegetation. The ponds were slowly drying up, but nearly every pond with enough water had one to several families of ducks on it. Mallards and teal were common, but a few diving ducks like canvasbacks appeared on larger bodies of water. One of those held a large and distinctive black-and-white western grebe, a first sighting for me. The exposed mud flats were just the thing for early-migrating shorebirds. Shorebirds are difficult to identify under the best conditions, and I wasn’t able to identify many of them from the moving train. I was lucky to spot a few American avocets on one pond, though.
I expected to see more raptors as we headed west. Red-tailed hawks that are so common here are largely replaced by Swainson’s and ferruginous hawks across the Canadian prairies. Birds, in general, were far less common than I expected as we entered the mountains in western Alberta. Golden eagles are no doubt present with the plentiful nesting cliffs, but none were seen. A lone bald eagle was finally seen in the distance over a mountain lake near Jasper, Alberta. Crows, pigeons, English sparrows and a lone magpie were just about the only birds that could be found in the national park town of Jasper. Elk and Rocky Mountain big horn sheep were seen just outside of town on a bus tour, though. We took a tram ride up a mountain outside of Jasper, and I was finally rewarded with the sight of a peregrine falcon racing along below us.
The train ride, itself, is worth some comment. The cars on “The Canadian” were wonderfully restored and maintained stainless steel beauties from the hay days of rail travel in the early 1950s. The train traveled on rail lines operated by the Canadian National Railway, or CN for short. The CN was moving incredible volumes of freight, including shipping containers, grain, oil and gas. We met a freight train every 15 or 20 minutes, day and night, and they’re just as long as the trains we see here on our Union Pacific tracks. The passenger train often had to slow or stop to let another freight train pass. We were nearly five hours late arriving in Jasper. The train we were to take from Jasper to Vancouver, BC, a couple of days later ended up arriving nearly 20 hours late due to a freight derailment hundreds of miles to the east. The delay did allow us to see more of the impressive Frazier River valley in daylight as it cuts it way through the mountains all the way to Vancouver. Delays might have been more frustrating had it not been for the interesting people we met along the way and the smiling and helpful train crews.
Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.