Southeastern Manitoba offers several tempting day-trips from Winnipeg, with a mix of cultural, historic and natural attractions. Highlights include Steinbach’s interesting Mennonite Heritage Village to the south, and the Whiteshell and Nopiming provincial parks to the east. Accessible gateway communities in both serve to open up a sparsely inhabited region of lakes, rivers and forests on the granite Canadian Shield landscapes. Particularly noteworthy is the superb network of canoe routes between backcountry campsites.
North of Winnipeg, dreary suburbs fade into the seamless prairie landscape and the only major interruption is the Red River as it pushes its way towards Lake Winnipeg, the vast 400km-long finger of water which feeds the Nelson River and the Hudson Bay.
The main sight along the Red River corridor is Lower Fort Garry, a well-preserved former trading post. From here, birdwatchers should make a beeline to the marshlands of the Oak Hammock Marsh Wildlife Area, while most recreational traffic heads to beaches around the lake itself at Grand Beach Provincial Park, where waves lap onto sand dunes that stretch as far as the eye can see. The beaches of the lake’s west shore have less of a seaside atmosphere; its fishing and farming villages are of little interest, except for Gimli, which has its own windblown charm and an intriguing Icelandic history. Visiting the nearby Narcisse Wildlife Management Area is a must in April and May, when thousands of red-sided garter snakes gather to mate. Otherwise, head north along the lake’s western coast and you’ll encounter the scattered islands, unspoilt marshes and forests of the Hecla/Grindstone Provincial Park.
Relying on public transport to explore this region is awkward but just about workable, since most key places have at least one or two bus services per day.
If you’ve already explored the superb canoeing in Whiteshell and Nopiming provincial parks or want real wilderness, then you’re spoilt for choice in Manitoba. Much of the best water is in the eastern half of the province in the remote Atikaki Provincial Wilderness Park, which has impressive stands of thick forest, several ancient pictograph sites as well as moose, timber wolves, coyotes and black bears. Its dramatic Bloodvein River to Lake Winnipeg is particularly outstanding, with rapids, falls and wild water balanced by peaceful drifts through quiet lakes and wild-rice marshes. In the far north the Hayes, Seal and Deer rivers all drain into Hudson Bay, home to easily spotted Beluga whales, which makes for outstanding subarctic trips.
All the above are only for experienced, skilled and self-reliant backcountry canoeists. You’ll need to organize floatplane transportation and plan carefully using information from Paddle Manitoba (paddle.mb.ca) and Manitoba Conservation (gov.mb.ca/conservation) and purchase topographic maps – available from Canada Map Sales, Land Information Centre, 1007 Century St, Winnipeg (204 945 6666, 1 877 627 7226, canadamapsales.com). Several outfitters offer trips that can spare you some preparation. Northern Soul (204 878 3570, 1 866 425 9430, northernsoul.ca) and Wilderness Spirit (t 204 452 7049, 1 866 287 1591, wildernessspirit.com) both run trips to Hudson Bay and on several Atikaki rivers. These start at $400 for three days, but cost up to $4500 for a full-blown two-week adventure on the Seal River, the most remote of all.
There are about 100,000 Mennonites in Canada today, almost all descendants of those who joined a Protestant sect in the Netherlands in the early sixteenth century under the leadership of Menno Symons. The movement eventually divided into two broad factions: one group refused to have anything to do with the secular state and sustained a hostile attitude to private property; the more “liberal” clans were inclined to compromise. Many of the former – the Ammanites – moved to the US and then Ontario, settling around Kitchener-Waterloo, while the more liberal population migrated to Russia and then Manitoba in the 1870s. The Steinbach area remains a Mennonite stronghold, and though few adherents wear the traditional black and white clothes or live on communal farms, most maintain the pacifist tradition.
During the third week of July, be sure to pack up your spurs (or maybe just your camera) and head to the pleasant small town of MORRIS, 61km south of Winnipeg via Hwy-75, for the annual Manitoba Stampede and Exhibition. It’s one of Canada’s largest rodeos, yet still small enough to retain the feel of an authentic small-town hoedown.