Just east of Saskatoon, Route 16 turned into a two lane highway. The terrain remained flat and mostly agricultural. Along the way we saw a number of interesting, and at times mysterious, things. When we stopped in Lanigan at the Historical Society, the young lady there was able to answer our questions.
• The huge “factories” with square chimneys and large piles next to them are potash refineries. Under them (a half mile underground) are potash mines. The tunnels for the mines (26 feet across) stretch for miles under the fields. At the factory, the potash (KCl) is separated from the “salt” (NaCl), clay, and sand before it is shipped out for agricultural use – primarily to Japan.
• The fields with periwinkle-blue flowers which look like a lake from a distance are flax.
• The blue domed huts (approximately 3 feet by 3 feet) spread out throughout many of the alfalfa fields are hives for leaf cutter bees.
• Canola is grown so widely in this area because it is the most consistent cash crop. Wet or dry summers, it produces well. Incidentally, this has been an extremely wet summer (we knew that from our rainy days). We passed many areas which are obviously not usually under water, but are now. Everything is really green here in Manitoba – something not usual for August. (A farmer we spoke to said that in mid-July areas of western Manitoba received 6 inches of rain in a 24-hour period.)
• Many Ukrainians came to this area in the early 1900s to escape czarist Russia. Their legacy is the many lovely Eastern Orthodox style churches we see along the way. Not large, most have just a single dome, but they are a bit of a surprise sitting among the canola in the fields.
• While many ranchers raise cattle, more and more are raising bison because they are more efficient and the meat is easily marketed because it is leaner. Bison are well-suited to the local climate and grasses.
About 5:00 we followed a hand-lettered “Camping” sign to an area just off Route 16 near the town of Birtle. It is a lovely grassy and shady area behind what used to be the town school before declining enrollments and consolidation. At some point the field was set up for camping – has electric hookups, fire ring, fire wood, and trash/recycling cans (even a playground at the school). According to the gentleman mowing the nearby baseball field, there is no fee. It was a great place to camp and would have been perfect except for the flies and the train track (well-used with a very loud whistle) about 300 yards away. Fortunately there were just a couple of trains overnight.
We see lots of trains since Route 16 has been paralleling a major train line. Typically a train is composed of 3 or 4 engines, 40-60 hopper cars to carry grain or potash, and 20-30 black tank cars that are labeled “liquid propane – no odor added.” A few of the trains have box cars or carry shipping containers. What we do not see are many semi-trucks on the road.