IN THE SPIRIT OF SAND (Spirit Sands Trail, Spruce Woods Provincial Park)

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We were heading west and after days of driving through the rugged, rocky hills of northern Ontario, and then being caught in the midst of days of the open Prairies, I was ready to explore new scenery. I knew when I saw that Spruce Woods Provincial Park features a sand dunes area that I had located our next night’s stay.

Getting There

From the Trans Canada Highway, I drove about 40 minutes before reaching the park. As I watched for Kiche Manitou Campground – I wanted to ensure a site for the night first - I passed several signs along the way that indicated trailheads, including the one for the Spirit Sands Trail, where we would find the dunes. We soon arrived at the nearby campground.

While I registered, Andrea, the staff member working in the office mentioned that black bears inhabit the province. Sightings are rare in this region; their numbers are concentrated farther north. Dogs have to be kept leashed in the park anyway, so Tessi would be secure near me.

After I set up camp, we headed over to the featured trail. I was anxious to explore.

The Challenge of Sand

Trudging through the sand made for sluggish progress.

As we started up the sand-filled path, I noticed a dark spot on Tessi’s back. Looking closer, I realized it was a tick. While franticly inspecting her, I came across three more. In our region of southern Ontario, Lyme disease, which our ticks can carry, is a serious threat. I hoped the monthly dose of parasite control I administer to her would discourage any from lingering.

Trudging through the sand made for sluggish progress. I briefly debated continuing when I saw a signpost stating the dunes to be 1.6 km (about a mile) away. Interest in what lay ahead kept me going. While trying to keep an exuberant Tessi from pulling, I plodded onward.

We passed stands of assorted trees including spruce and aspen. Dry prairie grasses all around seemed to struggle to grow. Fallen dead trees lay tangled amongst greener plants and bushes. It must be difficult to survive in this type of terrain.

Signs along the path offer information about the vegetation and wildlife. Other signs describe the aboriginal people’s spiritual relationship with the dunes. The name “Spirit Sands” recognizes this importance.

Scenic or Easy?

I appreciated the blue sky dotted with fluffy clouds; nevertheless, the exposed afternoon sun beat its heat down on us - the first to this degree we’d experienced on this trip in early June.

The trail eventually splits. One takes a strenuous scenic route. The other is easier and faster. My love of scenic enticed me to choose the difficult one, which was not a smart idea as the temperature continued to increase. I was taken aback when the trail soon appeared to follow footprint impressions going upwards on a ridiculously steep slope. As I moved us on in hopes of this not being part of the official route, I soon spotted wooden stairs. Whew!

The stairs lead to a boardwalk. From there, I gazed at what looked like a large painted canvas. On the sandy rise before us, patches of green trees and bushes were interspersed with bare trees in what seemed like organized groupings.

We continued on until we reached another impossible-looking upslope. By then, I was feeling too scorched to bother finding an alternate way. I figured Tessi must be hot as well, though she was still energetic. I think she was just happy to be out exploring. I had loaded us up with lots of water. I decided anyway, it’d be better for both of us to try this hike again in the cooler air of the morning.

To note: Keep in mind that hot sand can be uncomfortable on or burn naked paws. Because we walk regularly, Tessi’s pads are very, very tough; I rarely need to worry about them.

Later, when I perused the park pamphlet, I caught its recommendation to hike the dunes in the morning or evening, since it tends to get hot midday. I can’t imagine it on sweltering summer days.

Meanwhile, upon returning to the campground, I stopped at the office to ask about the ticks. I was informed that these are wood ticks and aren’t the type to carry Lyme disease. Deer ticks, which can carry it, are rare in southern Manitoba.* Over the course of our stay, I ended up picking more off Tessi and one off myself.

Morning

The next morning found us on the trail under a lightly clouded sky with comfortable temperatures. Curiosity lured me to the easier route. It took us through a forest with a denser version of the same features we saw the previous day.

Seeing a sign blaring “Danger” grabbed my attention. In smaller print below, it explains: “Former National Defense Military Range; Military explosives and hazardous debris on this site may cause death or serious injury.” To think of such nastiness taking place in such utter beauty is sad. I heeded its warning not to touch any suspicious objects. Hmm - an additional reason to keep a dog leashed.

The path directed us to a sand-filled slope offering small logs chained together to fashion stairs. The going was still tough as the “steps” were partially submerged.

Our challenging ascent was rewarded with a spectacular panoramic view of sand dunes as far as I could see. Sparse sections of grass, small bushes and plants were growing all over. They generally looked parched; yet, some were blessed with flowers. Faraway, small groups of assorted trees decorated the vastness. I considered the notion that because it was still early spring, the vegetation may not have had a chance to flourish yet. 

The air was calm. I reveled in the pure silence surrounding us, making me feel like we were the only living beings for miles.

I’ve never experienced a desert. These dunes almost give me an idea of what one would be like, though officially they’re not classified as one. These receive almost twice the amount of moisture than those of a true desert region.

As we conquered a couple small hills, without any stair systems, I needed to stop often to pull my sandals (more of a hiking sandal/shoe hybrid) off to let the sand pour out of them. The granules kept squishing through the slots and building up uncomfortable layers under my feet.

The dunes are truly amazing and worth the minor exertion to see. After glimpsing yet another climb ahead, however, I decided, while catching my breath, I had enough of a workout. It was time to continue on with our drive through the Prairies.

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 (c) Cheryl Smyth, 2014

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