Stories in the Snow – Riding Mountain National Park, Manitoba

“[The] rhythm of the snowshoe trail, the beckoning of far-off hills and valleys, the majesty of the tempest, the calm and silent presence of the trees that seem to muse and ponder in their silence; the trust and confidence of small living creatures, the company of simple men; these have been my inspiration and my guide. Without them I am nothing.” – Grey Owl

Driving west from Winnipeg, Manitoba the landscape stretches to the horizon as a vast white ocean of endless prairie. My husband Jack and I are heading towards Riding Mountain National Park and are, quite frankly, wondering how there could possibly be a mountain anywhere in the vicinity. We pass through serene countryside of farmland, quintessential grain elevators and big prairie skies. I recall my high school Canadian Literature class as we travel through the town of Neepawa, former home of author Margaret Laurence. We turn north on Highway 5 and suddenly there it is … not exactly a mountain, but a long dramatic escarpment that rises high above the surrounding farmland. We have found Riding Mountain.

Riding Mountain National Park is a unique spot as it is the core of a much larger Biosphere Reserve that aims to take a collaborative approach to conservation and sustainable resource use. The Park preserves the most southerly tract of boreal forest in Manitoba, along with the wildlife that depend on it for survival. Riding Mountain National Park and 15 surrounding rural municipalities constitute the Biosphere Reserve and, as we learn over the course of our time here, there is a strong sense of community and commitment to working out a balance between humans and nature.

We already feel we have left our city lives behind in favour of the more peaceful offerings of nature as we check into the friendly Elkhorn Resort at the south end of the Park. A big comfortable bed and in-room fireplace beckon, but instead we dig into our suitcases for snowshoes and warm clothing.

We are meeting Celes Davar for an evening snowshoe hike. Celes is owner of Earth Rhythms, who describe themselves as “an award-winning Canadian learning adventure company offering small group and boutique experiential tourism experiences.” After several outings with Celes over the next few days, we will discover exactly what this means, at least to us. In short, it’s about slowing down a little to savour the subtle beauty of Riding Mountain National Park and taking the time to learn about regional ecology and culture. Snowshoeing is an excellent way to do this, and we can’t wait to get started.

Under an almost-full moon, we make the short drive to Grayling Lake where we strap on our snowshoes and head out. One of the wonderful things about Riding Mountain is that with consistent cold temperatures all winter long, you can essentially snowshoe anywhere. Lakes, beaver ponds and creeks provide frozen pathways into boreal forest, and are perfect canvases for a collage of animal footprints. The silence of the forest at night awakens our senses as moonlight casts long shadows on the frozen lake. We switch on our headlamps for a better look at some tracks that Celes helps us identify as snowshoe hare and coyote. Everywhere there are stories in the snow. We talk about the subtle changes in the landscape since Celes’ most recent snowshoe excursion at Grayling Lake with his family. Why has this tree dropped lower into the creek? What prompted the coyote to traverse this frozen creek? The stories are all there, waiting for our interpretations.

The next morning we are eager to explore further. Our drive takes us through farmland on the edge of the park toward the Lake Audy bison enclosure. Suddenly we are stopped in our tracks by the sight of a large bird in the treetops. We count ourselves fortunate to have a good look at the Northern Hawk Owl, and later note with satisfaction that it is listed as rare in the Park’s bird brochure. We watch as it dives to the ground and snatches its breakfast, presumably a small rodent.

Excited about what else the day might offer, we continue to the bison enclosure for a look at these large mammals. To me, the plains bison epitomize the history of the prairies and that delicate balance between nature and the needs of humans. Bison have been absent from this landscape for many years, yet they acted as a life-sustaining force for Native Canadians. Re-introducing plains bison to Riding Mountain is a positive step in restoring and protecting the prairie ecosystem.

As part of the Park’s management system, bulls are currently in a separate enclosure from cows and calves. As we enter the bulls’ enclosure, we note several dark shapes against the white meadow and one closer animal who prances and pirouettes as we watch in amazement. The cows and calves graze peacefully as we slowly approach, using their large heads as shovels to access grass buried under the snow.

Soon we pull out our snowshoes for a hike to Hyde Lake where we negotiate hawthorn and hazel bushes, once again reading the stories of the Park. Under Celes’ guidance, we feel we have become more observant to what is around us. We note where hazel has been freshly browsed by moose for nutrients provided by the new branches. We see indentations in the snow where elk bedded down for the night, and learn to differentiate between coyote and wolf tracks. The energy in the Park is palpable. There are tracks everywhere, and wildlife sightings are frequent. A herd of elk crosses the road in front of us as we leave Hyde Lake, and we continually see and hear jays, chickadees and snow buntings.

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