When Americans think of great Canadian national parks, Riding Mountain rarely makes the list. Though only 57 miles north of the Trans-Canada Highway in western Manitoba, most highway travelers are too bent on getting through the Great Plains as quickly as possible to make the short detour.
That's unfortunate, for within Riding Mountain National Park's 1,150-square-mile boundary, three distinct ecosystems meet: mixed grasslands, deciduous eastern and northern boreal forests.
This blending forms a mixed forest, all of which is encircled by agricultural land, resulting in an ecological island with more diverse wildlife per square mile than any comparatively sized region in mid-North America.
Variety of Wildlife
Permanent residents are estimated at 5,000 elk, 1,000 deer, 20,000 beaver, 100 wolves, 200 to 400 coyotes, 4,000 moose, an unknown number of bears and innumerable birds. In addition, Parks Canada, the Canadian national park service, has reintroduced a small herd of plains bison.
The area can easily be experienced by car, foot or horseback in spring, summer and fall, and by car and cross-country skis in winter. Each season reveals something special.
Winter offers an excellent opportunity to experience the "call of the wild," especially for Nordic skiers. Riding Mountain rises above the Great Plains on the Manitoba Escarpment and is laced with rolling hills, valleys, lakes and streams.
Most of the easily accessible regions are generally level, making it suitable even for novice skiers. Snow conditions are relatively consistent, averaging three feet of good powder from December through March.
At the eastern edge of the escarpment, a major elevation drop of 1,300 feet allows a five-mile downhill run along an unplowed road. The best hilly region is Mt. Agassiz, with both alpine and Nordic areas.
Parks Canada maintains 52 miles of marked and packed trails, and 41 miles of groomed trails. Most of the park is still remote wilderness.
While wildlife sightings aren't guaranteed, many animals can usually be spotted. Bison are most tolerant of people, but their behavior shouldn't be mistaken for friendliness. They're still wild, powerful beasts and are to be regarded with caution. Other animals spook easily.
Beavers are inactive within their large lodges seen on almost every frozen pond. Bears hibernate, but except for bison, which are limited to a confined area, all other species roam freely in search of food.
Although Riding Mountain is a reserve, wildlife hasn't come to regard man as peaceful. Poaching is still common; many locals resent the park and view it as rich hunting ground and denied farmland.
One of the best ways to enjoy the park's evirons is to follow herd tracks through brush, forest and along unplowed roads. Often, faint sounds of movement will guide you until a sighting is finally made.
Winter viewing is perhaps most rewarding because animals move slowly to conserve energy and are more easily seen through barren trees.
Spring renews life in the park. Flowers sprout, animals give birth and migratory birds fill the sky, some returning, others just stopping on their way north.
Most tourists arrive on summer weekends to enjoy quiet, rustic resort life centered around Clear Lake with its boating activities. From sunrise to sunset, they keep busy with tennis, golf, lawn bowling, horseback riding, fishing, backpacking and day hiking.
In the boreal forest, old man's beard lichen hangs like draped lace from trees, while reindeer moss forms thickly matted ground cover, spiced with bright red mushrooms. Densely grouped white-barked aspen trees in the eastern deciduous forest are lit with Canadian goldenrods, blue giant hyssops and dainty New England asters.
Animal viewing is best early in the morning and late afternoon. Fall is particularly colorful, with the sound of rutting elk bugling through crisp autumn leaves.
For those who prefer group activities, Parks Canada and nearby establishments offer periodic programs throughout the winter season. Snow camping and survival courses are popular.
Trapper-style "homes" vary with personality. While some may haul a toboggan loaded with a wood stove to be installed in a tent, most opt for a traditional quinzhee , an Indian snow shelter. Piling up a 10-to-12-foot diameter, 5-foot-high mound of snow, they dig out a domed compartment for comfortable sleeping, despite consistent near-freezing temperatures.
Days are cheered with gray jays, chickadees, crossbills and woodpeckers carefully scouting campsites, while nights bring crystal stars and hopes of Northern Lights displays.
Nordic Skiing Race
The major Nordic skiing event is the annual Riding Mountain National Park Loppet, which this year takes place March 6 and includes two races, one of 30 kilometers and the other encompassing 115 kilometers. The Riding Mountain course covers an old horse trail, unplowed roads, a golf course, a lake and forest trails before ending in the streets of Wasagaming, the park's headquarters. Prizes are merchandise.
Riding Mountain can be reached with public transportation from Winnipeg and Brandon, Manitoba, but private car is needed within the park, especially in winter.
Accommodations range from resort-style Elkhorn Lodge, complete with sauna, indoor pool, convention center and summer hay rides/winter sleigh rides, to rustic motels and cabins, and the hospitable Manitoba Farm House, run by Bob Sopuck at his farm near the bison compound.
Sopuck also leads ski tours when he has time and offers miles of trails starting at his door.
Details can be obtained from the Superintendent, Riding Mountain National Park, Wasagaming, Manitoba, Canada ROJ 2HO, phone (204) 848-2811.
Bob Sopuck can be reached at Aspen Ridge Farm, c/o General Delivery, Lake Audy, Manitoba, Canada ROJ 0J0, phone (204) 848-2964. Room rates are $50 Canadian (about $40 U.S.) per person, including three home-cooked meals.
For information on custom tours, contact Riding Mountain Nature Tours, Box 429, Erickson, Manitoba, Canada ROJ OPO, phone (204) 636-2968. Rates are $150 Canadian (about $119 U.S.) a day for a group.
The major hotel is the Elkhorn Resort, Box 40, Clear Lake, Manitoba ROJ 2HO, Canada, phone (204) 848-2802. It features an array of activities, including a skating rink, indoor pool and sauna. Winter rates are $79 Canadian double (about $62 U.S.).
Weekends in Winnipeg, three hours away, will provide an interesting change of pace. Winnipeg has excellent ethnic restaurants, plus cultural and festival activities throughout the year. For scheduling and information, contact Travel Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada R3C OV8, phone (204) 944-4006.
Riding Mountain offers a distinct nature experience at any time of year, and can be combined with the Canadian Rockies or a 1,000-mile railroad journey from Winnipeg to Churchill on Hudson Bay. For combinations, call Air Canada and/or the Canadian desk at Amtrak.
For more information on traveling in Canada, contact the Canadian Consulate General, 300 S. Grand Ave., Suite 1000, Los Angeles 90071, phone (213) 687-7432.