Riding Mountain threw us off our game from the very start. We were eager to visit our first Canadian National Park–as the whole country and its visitors from outside are celebrating Canada 150 with free admission to Parks Canada–but we really didn’t know what to expect. Our experience with National Parks in America allows us to anticipate the awe inspired by iconic landmarks. For instance: Arches has Delicate Arch; Bryce has the Amphitheater; Yellowstone has Prismatic Lake and Old Faithful; and Grand Canyon has, well, a grand canyon. How would Canada’s parks hold up by comparison?
I knew we were in trouble the moment we arrived at Sportsman Park in Onanole, Manitoba, a self-proclaimed RV Park located minutes from the Riding Mountain entrance. We were looking for a spacious and grassy pull-through to match the website picture that lured me into making a reservation. What we found was a cramped and worn neighborhood of crusty campers settled onto dirt patches where a blade of grass struggles to be green. It reminded me of an internment camp for refugee trailers.
A misfit on a motorcross cycle guided us to a site that challenged the laws of physics. To start with, making a wide turn onto the designated lane required a full-timer to deconstruct a portable basketball hoop struggling to stand on the corner lot. Once clear, we continued to Row B/Site 14, where our ambassador coached me around a parked car and a sprawling tree, through a raised curb, and beyond a floating wood deck that prevented the Airstream door steps from fully extending. Somehow, I managed to inch between two trailers with extended slide-outs.
Ian, my new next-door-neighbor, commented, “Didn’t think you were gonna make it, eh?”
“How do people usually manage to get into this spot?” I wondered.
“Nobody ever does,” Ian responded. “This spot’s gone vacant for more than a year.”
“You been here that long?” I doubted.
“Goin’ on five years, now that I have a son an’ all,” Ian beamed.
Ian was gracious and full of information. “Be careful at night, eh” he warned. “There’s a bear been pokin’ around here last couple nights, ever since the guy across the way spilled some grease. So it’s a good idea to always have a flashlight handy, eh.”
Note to self, “Stay inside the Airstream after dark.”
The following day, we headed for the Interpretive Center for a customary face-to-face with a ranger. He explained that Riding Mountain is at the confluence of three distinct ecosystems: prairie, boreal forest and hardwood forest. It’s divided into Front Country and Back Country with over 400 km of trails, and home to elk, moose, coyotes, wolves, lynx, beaver, bison, and the largest black bear population in North America.
“You know what to do if you encounter a bear, don’t-cha?” asked Ranger Scott.
“What do you recommend?” Leah asked.
Ranger Scott explained, “When you go into the woods, you need to smell like a human. That means you skip deodorant for the day! And make sure your clothes don’t smell like what you had for dinner. Don’t carry unwrapped food with you, and don’t forget to make some noise on the trail while you’re moving. Should you meet a bear, DON’T RUN! Just step back, never looking directly at the bear.
“What about bear spray?” I was curious.
“Never use the stuff,” Scott boasted. “But I always wear an extra shirt when I’m hiking, no matter how hot it is. So if necessary, I spread open the shirt with my arms out like this [demonstrating], and right away that bear is now lookin’ at someone who’s doubled in size. Saved my bacon on a couple occasions using that technique.”
We left Scott with a decent idea of how we’d spend the next couple of days. For starters, we took a perimeter trail around Clear Lake in the village of Wasagaming, with the lake to our left,
and an array of charming cottages and cabins on our right. In a unique arrangement with Park Canada, home owners lease their property in perpetuity from the government. When title to a home is transferred to another family member, or is sold outright to a buyer, the lease always becomes a part of the deal. But if government regulations are ever broken, the tenant can be evicted and dispossessed.
Curious about the value of Wasagaming lakefront property, we did a little digging…
and found a newly remodeled 3 bedroom/2 bath 1700 sq. ft. bungalow listed for $800,000 CAD, but we weren’t ready to move to Canada just yet.
We continued our day with an off-road ride to the top of the Manitoba Escarpment, with hazy views from the overlook,
and followed the road to the park’s east boundary, where the distinctive East Gate Entrance Building (the only surviving gate structure at Riding Mountain) gave us a glimpse of traditional 1930’s “parchitecture”, and reminded us of a time when motorcars were first gaining in popularity.
That evening we took a sunset walk on the Onanole Trail beside the RV Park. The trail began at the gnomes’ house…
continued through a pine forest, and opened onto an expansive field of prairie grass, taking us around to a wooded opening on the other side of the field.
We would have continued along had it not been for the volume of bear scat littering the trail.
That night, Ian’s campfire went well beyond the midnight quiet-time curfew, causing Leah to lose sleep while I stayed up to write.
“Isn’t there something you can do?” she complained.
But before I could offer my ugly American alibi, one of the party people yelled out, “BEAR!”
The commotion was over in a flash and so was the party. “Well, that was effective,” I mused.
The next day, we elected to hike around Moon Lake,
taking a 9 km loop trail through high, hearty shrubs and poison ivy. It was not what we expected; the lake had disappeared from view. The trail was heavily overgrown and still wet from a flash thunderstorm the night before, making the moose prints more imposing.
With Leah in front, calling off bears and moose, and me in the rear, swatting away voracious mosquitoes, we wondered if this hike would ever end. Midway through the hike we encountered another couple taking the loop from the other direction.
“See any bears or moose?” Leah questioned.
“Lots of tracks, but no animals,” he answered. “Yet I sense we’re being watched.” she volunteered. “Anyway,” she continued, “there’s a lovely clearing ahead. Enjoy.” And they were gone.
The flat trail turned steep as we climbed into a grove of firs, and we caught our first glimpse of the lake we were circling.
Soon we were bordering the banks, stepping over freshly broken plant stalks that only a moose could manage. Suddenly, Leah stepped into an uncertain spot that swallowed her boot whole, and caused her to lose balance, plunging the other foot into even deeper mud. I might have taken her picture, if I wasn’t so busy pulling her free, and I was certain that she’d forgive me later.
We emerged tired, muddy and grateful to have put this hike behind us, but still curious about the bison enclosure at Lake Audy one hour away. We’d made it our mission to see at least one wild animal in this park–even if it meant watching a small herd of bison roaming through the prairie…again.
But there were no bison grazing, or roaming, or rolling in the dust, anywhere. The viewing deck that overlooks the grasslands held no surprises, and was devoid of beasts of any kind.
Yet, it was hard to ignore the swooping passes of several starlings that darted in and out of the gallery. A closer look around the rafters, gave us the gratification we were searching for.
Half a million visitors arrive each year to Riding Mountain to enjoy the crystalline water of Clear Lake, or stroll through the charming town of Wasagaming, or angle for trout and walleye in the streams and lakes, or hike and bike through biodiverse ecosystems, but mostly people come to witness the wide assortment of wildlife.
Unfortunately, Leah and I found no animals present, although we’re certain they were around us–which is why we believe that Riding Mountain National Park is for the birds.