The eighth of a series of jaunts in the key of white. This week: the first half of a walk on Omand’s Creek from the Assiniboine River to Brookside Cemetery.
I stand at the mouth of Omand’s Creek. Behind me, the broad Assiniboine River surges by on its way to meet the Red River, just a few kilometres to the east. Ahead is the diminutive Omand’s Creek, my frozen path for the next six-plus kilometres.
It is late February and winter still holds a tight grip on the land. The waters of both the Assiniboine and Omand’s Creek are solid ice and walkable. A thin layer of snow blankets their flat surfaces and the surrounding landscape of bare tree limbs and dead bullrushes. It is a comfortably warm day under the clear prairie sky. The temperature hovers just below freezing. The sun warms the back of my dark parka. Perfect conditions for a walk along one of Winnipeg’s most under-appreciated waterways.
From here, Omand’s Creek would appear to be an idyllic, sylvan wonderland. Cyclists and walkers wind their way up and down its gently rolling banks. Children gleefully toboggan down its slick slopes, hopefully avoiding the stands of trees dotting their path.
I start my way north upon the creek’s surface, following its path as it gently snakes its way through a genteel parkland setting. High above me on the east bank lies Raglan Road, its row of stately old homes—including mine—obscured by a dense row of trees. But the trees soon wane in density.
It takes but one city block—from the Assiniboine River to Portage Avenue—for the creek’s complexion to change completely. Now it passes invisibly beneath eight lanes of traffic and emerges on the other side to a different world. The creek still winds its way northward but in a more constrained fashion. Here, the steep banks are lined with low bush. But peering above the east bank is a restaurant, Rae and Jerry’s Steakhouse, and high above the west bank lies the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) rail line.
Within minutes I encounter another underpass, this one beneath the BNSF. The bridge’s forest of concrete posts and diagonal bracing are encrusted with vividly coloured graffiti. It is a somewhat intimidating passage, causing me to recall a recent violent robbery that occurred here, an event notable enough to find itself prominently mentioned in the Wikipedia entry for Omand’s Creek.
Past the bridge, Omand’s Creek once again finds itself in a parklike setting. Bluestem Nature Park surrounds the creek for a while and, down here on the creek’s icy surface, the city seems far away. But it’s not. Lining the brow of the surrounding park, poking above the reeds and prairie grasses, are the brands of our retail world: Bed, Bath and Beyond, Toys R Us, Home Depot, Walmart. Signs, icons, malls crust the horizon.
There is sonic dissonance as well. Over the rustling of dry reeds chaffing in the gentle breeze, I hear the not-so-distant rumble of diesel locomotives on the BNSF rail line and the insistent traffic on Empress Street.
Down here, among the reeds, is a highly contorted version of nature. A waterway that unnaturally follows a dead straight course hemmed in by Empress Street on one side and strip malls and the BNSF rail line on the other.
That this parkland exists at all is a matter of commerce versus nature, the latter being aptly represented by a group of concerned citizens. In 1985, plans were afoot to pave over this portion of Omand’s Creek, making the land more accessible from Empress Street for commercial development. But local residents and the Manitoba Naturalist Society intervened. Supported by a 1986 study of the creek’s abundant wildlife and fauna, the Province of Manitoba intervened and negotiated a land swap with developers that saved the creek and allowed the creation of Bluestem Nature Park.
Ahead lies a series of bridges linking Empress Street to the big box stores and strip malls on the other side of the creek. These are low bridges, barely tolerating the existence of this beleaguered waterway. But I walk through each. The first leads me down a low, long, dark conduit. I need to hunch over at the waist, into an awkward L-shape, as I make my way along the bare ice floor. Above me, shoppers drive across the bridge on their way to the Festival Polo shopping centre and its Montana’s restaurant, Indigo bookstore and Home Depot. They are oblivious to the lone fool crouching in the steel tube below.
I am not the first to use this seasonal water-top route. There is a well-trod path threading through the reeds and under the variety of road crossings. It is a novel way to reach nearby stores. Nor am I unfamiliar with the route. Each winter I walk this part of the creek with Styxx, our curious greyhound, and we both delight in the wintertime seclusion it offers. He, in particular, is attracted by the smells of small animals and deer that also use the path. But our journeys extend northward only up to the long, dark passage under the Festival Polo bridge. It’s a claustrophobic passage that would spook a hound, even a long, lanky one.
I am on my own now. Just me and a scant selection of fellow water-walkers. Omand’s Creek continues north on its rigid, straight course for a kilometre or two. I make my way, stooped, under a series of brutal concrete bridges. Some lead to more big box stores. Others connect major east-west streets: St. Matthews, Ellice and finally Sargent.
From here on, there will be no footpaths to follow, save for the occasional rabbit or deer tracks. Beyond Sargent, there are no stores, no reason for most humans to travel further on. From here on, Omand’s Creek is mine alone to explore.
In next week’s blog, my journey along the frozen surface of Omand’s Creek gets tough as I continue through industrial St. James and skirt an international airport before arriving at my destination, Brookside Cemetery.