Arts & Life, Travel

Prairies, unmistakably: Exploring “The North”

The dream was to explore the North. It did not include losing a game of chicken to an Amish buggy, receiving a geography lecture from a bemused soccer mom, or relying on the protection of a boisterous Polish-Canadian. But, c’est la vie, I s’pose. 

‘The North’ does not mean arctic, tundra, or anything above the 53rd parallel to a south central Manitoban bloke. It simply means ‘when the flat land becomes non-flat and full of trees.’ And this happens rather fast when driving north from Winnipeg. Manitoba is not, in landscape-speak, a prairie province. It is a prairie-parkland-Canadian shield-thousands-of-lakes-boreal-taiga-tundra province. And it was a sliver of all this that I was going to explore.

Photo: Johanu Botha

Childs Lake in Duck Mountain Provincial Park seemed as good a place as any. It allowed this city-sick Winnipegger a tranquil mid-journey lunch stop in Riding Mountain National Park’s breezy Wasagaming and, more practically, it was the only campsite this lazy Winnipegger could still get a spot for one day before arrival.

Photo: Johanu Botha

Things started off deceptively smoothly. The canoe basically tied itself onto the car’s roof, and Portage Avenue was unusually quite. I watched it evolve into that most romantic of highways, the Trans-Canada, without a fuss. By the time Portage la Prairie waved hello from the horizon I was two coffees deep and CBC Radio Two was playing the sleekest ‘n sexiest classical music a would-be adventurer could ask for.

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It was right about then that I made my first mistake. I decided that climbing onto the Yellowhead Highway (number 16, provincial road number 352), as planned, was an excellent idea, but that staying on it until provincial road number 10, was about as exciting as elevator music. I, on this grand foray into the North, on the cusp of my very own Manitoba-made Manifest Destiny, in which Young Man Conquers The Unconquerable Nooks ‘n Crannies Of His Incorrigible Soul, would surely not use the measly and lamentable provincial road number 10 (said in dismissive voice) to head north. Nay, I will swing car ‘n canoe right a few kilometres early onto Unnamed and Godforsaken Gravel Road. This path will guide me forth.

The thing about unnamed and godforsaken roads is that they are, as a general rule, unnamed in one’s GPS and forsaken by almost everyone except for idealistic first time travellers and serial killers. It was the latter specimen that aimed her larger than life Ford Freestar van right at my face as I, after two or three turns towards what I thought was Wasagaming, stood lost between inconspicuous field to my left and inconspicuous field to my right. A screeching Celine Dion pierced the prairie sky as she rolled down her window. This is it, I thought. All serial killers listen to Celine Dion at full blast while traveling along lonely country roads.

In any other jurisdiction on this continent the Know Where They Are Driver will ask the Lost Driver the first question. “You lost?,” “Can I help you?,” “Did your car break down?,” “Can I eat your liver with a side of fries for lunch?,” etc. But not in Manitoba. Here the pervasively reserved culture will provide neighbourly help under the constant fear that the provincial motto might be tweaked to ‘Too Friendly Manitoba.’ And so Hannibal Soccer Mom stuck her head out of the window and simply stared at me, awaiting the first move.

I eyed the absurd length of the van. It must have been remodelled to extend an extra three feet. Perhaps to better store the bodies. “Do you know the fastest way to Duck Mountain?” was all I managed to get out. She continued staring for a moment until, with the look of a lioness that had stumbled upon unappetizing prey, began her lecture.

First of all, I was too far west. Eating lunch at Wasagaming was, apparently, a gluttonous luxury, and it had led me into this mess. Instead of trying to make my way to Riding Mountain National Park, I should have just headed north on the 5, straight out of Neepawa, while still on the Yellowhead Highway. This way I would skirt to the east of Riding Mountain, and cut almost forty five minutes off of my drive time. Second of all, did I intend to make it another hundred kilometres with the canoe tied on in that manner? Because it was bound to fall off.

I heeded her advice. I had no better plan in the works and, perhaps more to the point, she just stayed there, staring me down with her Titanic-sized van parked across the direction I was heading before I realized I was lost. After giving the canoe straps a few hearty tugs to appease her growing wrath,  I directed the car east, towards what I hoped would be the number 5. Which it would’ve been had I not overshot it.

The Province of Manitoba does a perfectly fine job of marking its provincial roads, but it simply does not take into account alarmed newby travelers fleeing the clutches of a would-be killer and geography fiend. Going as fast as the canoe burden and gravel would allow, I squinted straight ahead into the distance, willing the number 5 to appear on the horizon. But like most things you’re doggedly searching for, it stayed out of site. If I had noticed the GPS’s reconnection with yonder satellites I would’ve seen the blue spot representing me hurtle past the 5 and into territory beyond.

It was only when I passed the lousy excuse for a road numbered two-six-zero that I realized I had gone too far.  But by this time I had an Amish buggy, complete with healthy horse and formally dressed couple, bearing down on me, and it was all I could think about. They had appeared out of nowhere, as if a futuristic example of the very technology they rejected had conjured them magically onto the path my canoe-carrying-automobile was turning into a speedway. The gravel road sloped down steeply on either side and moving over for the buggy could’ve caused my vehicle to slip and roll. So I did what any self-respecting 21st century-loving-iPod-embracing young adult facing the steady gaze of enduring tradition would do: I powered on against it.

It was a colossal game of chicken that, had any of the major American networks been present, would’ve been on the 24 hour news cycle for at least a week. Bright red canoe strapped down onto speeding car, chunks of rock spurting from spinning wheels, crazy-eyed driver leaning over steering wheel in a deadlock stare with calm elderly Amish gentleman and his wife, their noble steed trotting happily along. It was the anxiety of my generation pitted against the rootedness of his. The latter won, heartily.

The next scene was me parked at a perilous angle on the roadside, car nose pointed straight at the ditch, and E-brake pulled nearly out its mechanical socket. A final reminder of my defeat was watching the buggy pass ever-so-steadily by in the rearview mirror. I can’t say for sure, but I swear the slightest of smiles tugged at the old man’s lips.

Surviving two travel mishaps in a row gave me newfound courage. Surely I had graduated from some sort of adventurer’s rite of passage and the rest of my journey would be seamless. And it was (for the next 24 hours). I curved by way back to the 260, headed north until I hit the 265, which I followed west to the number 5. I scorned soccer mom’s advice and stayed north on the 5 for less than ten kilometres before swinging west again on the picturesque 357. The slight ups ‘n downs of this road is a roller coaster to the average south central ‘toba driver. And it creates canola field and small lake punctuated fanfare right to the number 10.

Driving north on the 10, despite my earlier doubts, plays like an exciting teaser trailer to the Riding Mountain National Park that is to come. Farmland sees the invasion of ever larger outcroppings of unfarmable shrubbery and forest. Erickson may be the last big town you pass before the park, but I suggest waiting for Onanole to purchase last minute necessities before heading in. Onanole’s mix of no-nonsense farm culture with quaint lakeside living is a confusing blend particularly palatable to those travelers for whom identity is rarely a straightforward thing.

Photo: Johanu Botha

If a bottle of wine is what you forgot, simply jump off the 10 to your right and enter Onanole’s hardware store. It doubles as a liquor vendour. If you’re more of a beer person simply continue a few buildings to Onanole’s beer vendour. It’s usually marked by a piece paper – with ‘Vendor’ scrawled on it – taped to the door. If fantastic coffee, tea, arts ‘n crafts, or a good book didn’t make it into your bag on time then jump left off of the 10 and peruse Poor Michael’s Bookshop. This gem of a place is not only one of the best second hand bookstores in the province, but it is also the home base for wonderfully irreverent Manitoba folk band the Dust Poets. The Poets themselves are currently on hiatus, but chances are the frontman himself will be around sipping coffee or organizing books.

Photo: Johanu Botha

From there I cruised into Riding Mountain and enjoyed a – late – lunch at the Whitehouse Bakery in Wasagaming. Their cinnamon buns are a local favorite, but the breakfast ‘n burger options are just as good. A quick stroll through the Maple Leaf draped town and I was back in the car, still heading North. The 10 meets the 5 at Dauphin on the other side of Riding Mountain, and the 5 took me west to the 366, which guided me into Duck Mountain Provincial Park.

The landscape was everything a city-sick Winnipegger could ask for. The rolling hills I had seen spill into the horizon further south was now crowded by forest so thick it looked like one could not even step into it. It was all bark and leaf and shrub and stick. When Childs Lake came into view after climbing onto the 367 I knew the six and a half hour drive was worth it. Like millions of deep blue diamonds melted and poured into the southwestern corner of the park, Childs Lake glistens a happy welcome to any weary traveler.


Photo: Johanu Botha
Photo: Johanu Botha

The story worth telling is almost over, as the rest of the trip was mostly a perfectly peaceful array of campfires, starry nights, and slippery jack fish hauled into, and then released from, the trusty canoe. I write almost, because by the second night that most dreaded of parkland creatures reared their nasty heads into my otherwise tranquil situation; the Rowdy Campers showed up.

Manitoba Conservation is adamant about the fact that ‘Rowdy Campers Will Not Be Tolerated.’ They plaster it on their pamphlets and their offices, and the bison that adorns the shoulders of Conservation Officer uniforms holds a certain dignity that within itself should make any camper ashamed to blast some awful Top 40 hit at 3AM in the morning. Nevertheless, Conservation cannot be everywhere all the time, and every now and then some Rowdy Campers are free to run amok.

And run amok they did. Not only were their campfire stories screamed, but they had literally brought along separate speakers that were placed on the back of a pick-up truck at full volume. It was like Dauphin’s Country Fest had moved, unscheduled, into the sacred territory that is the Canadian campground. Gone was the quiet murmurings of the adjacent camp site, the crack of many small fires, the giggling of kids pretending to sleep hours after the parents had told them to hit the hay- all the things that craft the natural soundtrack to a remote spot specifically protected to be enjoyed as a remote spot.

I hadn’t seen Conservation Officers for hours and had begun contemplating the uselessness of one guy asking twelve other inebriated guys to tone it down a little, when from the darkness my neighbour appeared. He had driven the six and a half hours to show his two young children ‘the wilderness.’ “They could at least be playing good music,” he said in a thick Polish accent. I agreed.

It was an interesting situation. The accents coming from the rowdy campsite were thoroughly Canadian. The young men monopolizing the campground as their own backyard Las Vegas were either born in this country, or spent most of their lives here. Yet it was the middle-aged Polish immigrant that best understood the value Canada has historically placed on its natural wealth, and the respectful enjoyment thereof. Or maybe it had nothing to do with nationality. Maybe it was simply the anxiety of their generation pitted against the rootedness of his.

The Polish gentleman set off on his truck to find Manitoba Conservation. He informed them of the situation and returned to his campsite. A few minutes later we heard a sharp female voice bark at the rowdy site. A string of indistinguishable sentences followed, and then silence. A beautiful, starry-sky blessed silence that would last for the rest of the weekend.

I could see the Conservation Officer walk through the campground after reprimanding the rowdies. She turned her flashlight on for only a second every ten feet to confirm her path without bothering campers. As she passed my site I could make out the bison on her shoulder, dignified in its gaze over the Manitoba night. All was well again.

Johanu Botha is a student of public policy and political philosophy. His hobbies include the mandolin and intermittent bouts of existential angst. You can reach him at