Posted by Jacquie Crone
A winter getaway doesn’t necessarily have to translate into “getting away from winter”. There’s plenty to do right here in Manitoba.
Riding Mountain National Park (RMNP) is a particularly unique place to visit in the winter. The Park is quiet and seemingly in a state of hibernation. In high season, May until October, the eastern section of the Park buzzes with around 40,000 cottagers and maybe 300,000 visitors all coming and going. But at this time of year, the buildings are shuttered and sealed against the cold, and in the small town of Wasagaming the lights are off and nobody’s home.
And yet over at the Park’s Administrative Office there is a light, and inside, signs of life.
My friends and I had been planning our 3-day excursion to the “mountain” for months. Our expectations were high but simple: we wanted to cross-country ski, snowshoe, eat heartily, catch up over a glass of wine and sleep soundly. Oh, and practice the “call of the wild”.
In theory, spontaneity is a wonderful thing, but if you’re going to pull off a successful getaway, then a little preliminary planning will serve you well. (Have you ever tried to get 3 busy women in one place at one time? It’s like herding cats.)
I had scanned RMNP’s web page and thumbed through bits and pieces of literature to learn that there are 28 winter-access trails in this great park. Of these, 140 kms are tracked for classic x-country skiing, another 118 kms are categorized as wilderness trails, and yet another 100 kms are dedicated to snowshoeing. I felt confident that there was a sufficient selection to address our recreational needs – ya figure?
My other pre-planning consideration was to secure lodgings. In high season this is a no-brainer. RMNP has stellar campgrounds and, in the towns of Wasagaming and nearby Onanole, there’s a plethora of cabins, Bed and Breakfasts (B&Bs), resorts and motels to choose from. In the winter it’s a bit trickier as most of these operations are closed for the season.
Don’t misunderstand, the Park had options: a rugged wilderness cabin with an outhouse close by, random backcountry tenting by permit only, and a Mongolian style, non-heated Yurt. I pondered these wholesome suggestions for, oh I don’t know, about 3 seconds?
Elkhorn Resort seemed like the logical choice. The resort was open all year round, was centrally located, the Elkhorn Mountain Grill’s menu included a tempting selection of regional dishes, there’s a spa and, wait for it – the resort is heated!
Still, I’ve “been there, done that” many times, so instead I focused on B&Bs. Several B&Bs dot the park’s perimeter, and after some contemplation we settled on a 2-night stay at Kathy and Bert Swann’s Maple Grove B&B. Maple Grove is a massive Victorian Heritage home (circa 1910) situated on a farm on the west side of the Park and south of the Town of Rossburn.
Maple Grove B&B
As for the “call of the wild” our intention was to sing to the wolves. Even I know it’s just lame to try howling in the daytime — in fact it could get you hauled away. During our stay, however, the moon would be in its full phase, so, barring cloud cover, we should be free to howl to our hearts’ content without fear of repercussion.
We blew into the Park Administration Office at mid-day; one from of us from Kamsack SK, one from Warren MB and the other from Winnipeg. The drive out was a “white-knuckler” with snow, wind, and the temperatures plummeting. No amount of pre-planning can guarantee the cooperation of our fickle Manitoba weather.
Park Interpreter Annik Adam and Visitor Services Attendant Olivier Durand were there with maps, up-to-the-minute trail condition reports and plenty of expert advice. Before we could say, “Bob’s your close relative” we had sketched out a plan of attack for the next 48 hours, utilizing both the west and the east side of the park. We would remain flexible while bearing in mind the changing weather and the location of our B&B — which was situated about 90 km west of where we currently stood.
Our expectations for our getaway to the “mountain” were not only met but surpassed. Daytime temperatures were a chilly -22, but the trails were well protected and out of the wind. And don’t forget, there’s actual topography in Riding Mountain, which meant hills, which require exertion and the welcome production of internal heat.
Flat Lake Trail
On cross-country skis we followed the meticulously-set tracks along the shores of Lake Katherine, one of my favorite campgrounds. We hoped to ski the whole 17.8 km Grey Owl Trail but we ran out of daylight and turned around about mid-way at the warm-up shack. On our last day we drove up PTH 264 and entered the remote western side of the park. The road was drifted in and yet, much to our surprise, the Flat Lake Trail was freshly groomed and idyllic in every way.
Our snowshoes got a good workout as well. By day we trekked along the Arrowhead Trail, just east of Clear Lake, and by night, under the full moon with just a suggestion of Northern Lights, we crunched our way out to Kinosao Lake via the Brulé Trail.
Snowshoeing at night was as exhilarating as it was creepy. My preferred position in the pack was generally last so that I could star gaze, navel gaze, or whatever. However, that position also made me the most vulnerable: I had the distinct impression that I was going to get “picked-off”. By what you might ask? Wild animals? Well, my companions were singing for the wolves to be sure but my concern wasn’t with them. Things that go bump in the night? That was it! My over-active imagination was firing on all cylinders and if I looked over my shoulder once, I looked over it a 100 times. And I saw stuff move — no really, I did.
After each long and active day we dragged our weary bones back to the Maple Grove B+B. My bedroom was the designated party room and we had all the fixings: red wine, white wine, and sweet and salty snacks piled high. I’d like to regale you with sordid tales of unrestrained celebration — but no, I doubt that Kathy and Bert Swann even noticed we were home. Each night I fell asleep midsentence with my wine glass balanced precariously on my stomach, rudely leaving my guests to make their way back to their own room with nary a “goodnight” from me.
So, if it’s not too late – good night!
If you go: entry to RMNP requires a National Park Discovery pass. The pass is $19.60 per day, or $136.00 annually, for a family (up to 7 people per car). During the winter you can purchase your pass at the Park Administration Office, the Elkhorn Resort, CAA, or on line.
The Riding Mountain Loppet will be Saturday, March 5, 2011. For more information on this and other activities in the Park see Friends of Riding Mountain National Park .