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History Haunts Prairie Woodland

By Yul Hager

Riding Mountain National Park, Manitoba —

Riding Mountain National Park is only a stone's throw away from Manitoba's provincial capital Winnipeg, but judging by the low number of people I encountered during a recent drive-through, it may as well have been located near the Arctic Circle.

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Established as a park in 1929 in an effort to shield the area from development, the nearly 3,000 sq km of boreal forest, marsh and grassland were once a popular hunting ground of the Cree nation. Elk, moose, wolf, deer and bear still range this pistol-shaped parcel of land dominated by the Manitoba Escarpment, an uncharacteristic rise in the province's horizontal landscape. The draw for many tourists is the park's population of wild plains bison that placidly graze the fescue grass along Lake Audy, 30 km northwest of the tourist village of Wasagaming. But be forewarned. Though these wooly-headed beasts may seem like passive cattle, my vehicle was charged by a nostril-steaming bull that regarded me a as a threat.

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Riding Mountain is the place where in the early 1930s Archie Belaney, under the assumed name Grey Owl, worked as Canada's first park naturalist. Belaney was the Englishman who convinced the world he was First Nations and became an international celebrity for his driving dedication to preserve the wilderness. His cabin still stands on the shore of Beaver Lodge Lake and can be reached via a trail that meanders through 18 km of tranquil balsam, spruce and pine woodland.

The history doesn't stop there. In 1943, the Government of Canada established a detention camp at Whitewater Lake to accommodate German prisoners-of-war. The location was remote and fenceless, officials trusting that the rugged country at their doorstep would deter prisoners from escaping. Whitewater wasn't a typical POW camp. Descriptions of life there give the impression that being interned at Riding Mountain was not overly harsh. Sports and handicrafts filled prisoners' days. Some interns constructed dugout canoes; others formed an orchestra. Many developed friendships with guards and were known, on occasion, to party at nearby hamlets. Though the facilities have disappeared, tourists can still see their concrete foundations by hiking along the 73-km Central Trail to the rustic campsite at Gunn Creek.

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Much like the men at Whitewater, visitors today have little trouble finding ways to spend their time. There are over 400 km of hiking, cycling and horse trails crisscrossing the backcountry that, in winter, are open for Nordic skiing and snowmobiling. Five drive-in campgrounds dot this farmland-surrounded "island park" and numerous lakes offer anglers opportunities to snag northern pike, rainbow trout and perch to sizzle over a campfire. For those who enjoy a country atmosphere with a touch of the urbane, Wasagaming, situated near the south end of the park, has all the comforts of a resort community. Restaurants, cafés, gift shops and lodging abound, making this village on the shores of Clear Lake a favourite destination for weekenders. Whatever your inclinations, a visit to Riding Mountain National Park will reveal that Manitoba is not all wheat fields and grain elevators.