Friday, July 12, 2013

Model the Prairies' Natural Environment

To convincingly model the Canadian prairies, it's best to understand the land. Though Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta are Prairie provinces, they're farm from uniformly flat!  You cannot see the entire province from atop a chair! You cannot watch your dog run away for a week! You cannot see next month on the horizon! Now that we've got that most common misconception out of the way, let's look at some of the landforms of the Prairies, as well as some of their natural vegetation and natural history. I've illustrated this series of posts with various non-train photos I took in the West in the 1980's.  I trust they will be useful to those wishing to model this expansive, beautiful and often-overlooked region of our country. CN mainline at Bradwell, Saskatchewan (top). Read more about the Built Environment and Railway Environment.
Not surprisingly, the Prairies are often referred to as Canada's breadbasket.  A New Holland combine make short work of a field of grain near Headingley, Manitoba in 1985. Did you know that only one-quarter of Manitoba is habitable? The northern and eastern portions are underlain by Precambrian rock of the massive Canadian Shield, arguably Canada's most prevalent landform region. About 50 miles east of Winnipeg, the Shield becomes grassland.  Suddenly.  Blink and you'll miss it.  I photographed it from the Super Continental on CN lines in 1982.  Notice a few spruce trees that remain among the now flat grassland:
The First Prairie level in southwest Manitoba includes the glacial deposits and rich soil of Lake Agassiz. The expansive grasslands, as well as those of Dundurn in Saskatchewan and Suffield in Alberta are favoured by Canadian and British armies as training grounds.  In pre-9/11 days, we were able to photograph German Marder armoured personnel carriers and Leopard main battle tanks from a country road near CFB Shilo, Manitoba: 
The Second Prairie Level is divided from the first by the Manitoba Escarpment.  As I said, definitely not flat! Originally a trestle partially replaced with fill, the Treesbank railway bridge is visible across a tilled field and much vegetation:
Turtle, Riding, Duck and Porcupine Mountains, plus an elaborate river system: the Red, Assiniboine, Seine, Shell and Minnedosa Rivers combine to prove that Manitoba is only partially flat.  The Treesbank ferry was still operating across the Assiniboine River in 1984, but closed in 1989 after a bridge was opened nearby. Who knew there were ferries operating in the Prairie provinces?  A short but necessary link across a natural barrier.
Manitoba's arable land includes special crops such as sunflowers, flax, sugar beets as well as grain. Farms that dot the landscape continue to grow larger, as do the road and rail infrastructure and equipment used to move their harvests. The Trans-Canada Highway's eastbound and westbound lanes are well-separated, seen here in 1984 as a Reimer cab-over heads east from Brandon (below). The openness of the landscape shapes the land, repositioning dust or topsoil at the whim of the wind. The sky rises from the horizon as a limitless dome.
The only truly large, completely flat parts of Manitoba range from Elma on the CN and Oakbank on the CP through Portage la Prairie to the vicinity of MacGregor. Portage la Prairie has long been known as a centre of vegetable production, including potatoes and onions, also strawberries.  Shelterbelts of trees protect farms from the wind, providing shade and demarcating individual settlements on the vast surrounding fields. A farm just west of West Tower:
Saskatchewan's short-grass prairie in the southwest experiences evaporation that exceeds precipitation during the growing season. Near Estlin in September 1985, this parked Massey-Ferguson combine had little to harvest due to a poor growing season and locust infestation.  In fact, their tiny bodies could be seen everywhere, on roads, fields and on the combine itself.  Another natural phenomenon that can affect the livelihoods of those who rely on the land. Drought stunts natural vegetation and crops alike.
The bald prairie is actually the flat bottom of glacial lakes, including potholes filled with rain and melting snow forming prairie oases or "sloughs" some fed with salt by groundwater.  The Cypress Hills represent the highest elevations in Canada between Labrador and the Rocky Mountains.  The North and Saskatchewan Rivers and the prominent watercourses of Saskatchewan.  Over 140 prairie grass species have been documented, including root systems as deep as nine feet! Veritable land-oceans of grass, like green waves lap at the CN roadbed in Forgan, Saskatchewan:
Saskatchewan contains nearly one-half of Canada's productive farmland.  Saskatchewan potash mining is responsibile for up to 40% of world production, and is used for fertilizer production.  While riding VIA No 2 near Holden, Alberta, trackside water, swamp and elevators and distant trees are representative of Alberta grain and pasture lands, and remind us of the importance of a dramatically cloud-laden layout backdrop:
Alberta's southeast is prairie, then parkland with aspen forests in the central region approaching the foothills and then the Rockies.  Ten miles east of Irma, the CN Fabyan Viaduct bridges the Battle River is 200 feet above the river valley below and a field of straw or hay (can't tell from this altitude - see, not flat!):
The last glaciers receded over 10,000 years ago, though traces of them still survive in the mountains. Wheat farming extends from the US border to northwest Alberta's Peace River Valley.  Nearly two-thirds of Alberta is covered by forests, with natural gas and oil being produced as early as 1886.   Alberta has the most coal deposits of any province, estimated at 46 billion tons. As the above photos remind us, there are hundreds of lakes, rivers and other bodies of water in the Prairies!

Consider the above when setting out to model Western Canada. There are some excellent scenery products available to help you believably represent the Prairie provinces in scale! This is part one of a three-part series; part two will deal with modelling the Built Environment, and part three the Railway Environment. Someone else who shares my interest in the geography and history of the Prairies (and other parts of Canada, too) is Dave Winter. Check out Dave's three expansive Proto-File pages for some great photos and thought-provoking thoughts on modelling interesting scenes he has photographed. Prairie modeller Randy O'Brien has also posted some perfect train meets prairie photos.

"The wind was persistent now, a steady urgency upon his straight back, smoking up the dust from the road along the walk, lifting it and carrying it out to the prairie beyond.  He looked up to find that the street had stopped.  Ahead lay the sudden emptiness of the prairie.  For the first time in his four years of life he was alone on the prairie.  He had seen it often, from the veranda of his uncle's farmhouse, or at the end of a long street, but till now he had never heard it.  The hum of telephone wires along the road, the ring of hidden crickets, the stitching sound of grasshoppers, the sudden relief of a meadow lark's song, were deliciously strange to him."  
-W.O Mitchell Who Has Seen the Wind
On the road between Fillmore and Cedoux, Saskatchewan
"A land of geese, snipe, and wild ducks, fragrant in the soft evenings with the scent of willow and balsam. Acres of yellow daisies, tiger lilies, purple sage, and briar rose.  Pastures of tall buffalo grass, green hay meadows, which in the spring were shallowed ponds, a country of memories and old bones - furrowed trails fashioned decades before by thousands of bison, vast fields of withered herbage, dead lakes rimmed with tell-tale crusts of alkali."  
-Pierre Berton  The National Dream / The Last Spike
On the road between Wawanesa and Shilo, Manitoba
Running extra...
A new show on TLC: Railfan Sisters! My sister stopped at a level crossing in Charlotte, Vermont while driving east. A southbound Vermont Railway freight on former Rutland RR Burlington-Rutland VT line rolled through with an interesting mix of motive power: CP SD40-2 6069, a second CP SD, Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern SD40-3 6083 (ex-CP SD-40 5503) and Vermont Railway GP40-2W 310 (ex-CN 9650). The train comprised Herzog ballast cars and tank cars. She made good use of her cell phone camera to capture these images while waiting for the train to pass. Tune in for the next, all-new episode: Amtrak in Westport NY.


Allison said...

I feel as if I should put this on my resume, especially because of the CP know, Collaborative Piano comes to mind for me..!
The interesting twist is that one of "my" violinists at Meadowmount right now is Wil Herzog! So imagine my surprise when his name popped up on the freight cars!

Don't know if I'll be as lucky on my return trip tomorrow, but let me know if you need some trackside shots at Westport!

Eric said...

Thanks, fellow CP'er. Herzog does ballast work all over North America, including for CN here.

Safe trip back, and it's always a good time to be trackside, wherever one finds oneself!

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