A(sessippi) to Z(ed Lake)

with Neil Babaluk

Email Neil Babaluk

  • Asessippi

    01/3/2011 12:46 PM

    This blog is titled Manitoba Parks: A(sessippi) to Z(ed) Lake. I travelled to Zed Lake early on in the journey, but after visits to 75 provincial parks I still had not been to the "A" park from the title, Asessippi Provincial Park. That all changed the weekend before Christmas, when my odyssey to visit all of Manitoba's road-accessible provincial parks came to an end with a trip to Asessippi.

    Asessippi Provincial Park was one of Manitoba's first provincial parks, opening in 1964. Located just off Highway 83, between Roblin and Russell at the western edge of the province, the park surrounds Lake of the Prairies.

    When the Shellmouth Dam was built on the Assiniboine River in 1972, the lake was created when the river backed up behind the dam. The southern end of the 67 kilometre-long lake is the focal point of the park, however the park also is home to wide, steep valleys that are remnants of ancient glacier-fed Assiniboine and Shell rivers. Today, the flow of these rivers is minute, but their legacy remains in the shape of the landscape.

    The drive to Asessippi is long (381 kilometres from Winnipeg), but your efforts to get there will be rewarded in all seasons.

    In the open water season, Lake of the Prairies is home to some of the best Walleye fishing in Manitoba. If fishing isn't your thing, the lake is also excellent for boating and swimming.

    For hikers, there are excellent trails up and down the Assiniboine Valley, while history buffs can visit the remains of the Asessippi townsite. Built in 1882, the town was one of the first in this part of Manitoba. Unfortunately, the railway never made it to Asessippi and as a result it became a ghost town by the early 1890s.

    Now that winter is here, ice fishing on Lake of the Prairies and snowmobiling are popular activities in the park. The main winter attraction of the area, however, lies 10 kilometres east of the park. When most Manitobans think of the name Asessippi, the first thing that comes to mind is the Asessippi Ski Area & Resort. Being an avid snowboarder, that's why I chose Asessippi Provincial Park as the last stop of my journey.

    Opened in the late 1990s, Asessippi Ski Area & Resort is Manitoba's largest ski and snowboard hill, with three chairlifts and 25 runs in operation. Aside from being the largest, the resort offers the best skiing and snowboarding in Manitoba and has developed from a small to a full-service winter getaway destination, featuring ski and snowboard lessons, tubing, and a lodge with good food and a excellent apres-ski bar.

    Driving up to the resort is strange because it literally appears out of nowhere. There is nothing but flat prairie as far as the eye can see. Then a small, pimple of a hill rises out of the prairie.

    My travel companions, who had never visited the ski hill before, were questioning why we had bothered to drive all this way. As we drove through the resort gates, the road dropped down into a valley and the full extent of the resort came into view. It's not the Rocky Mountains, but by Manitoba standards it's excellent.

    The resort charges $44 for a full-day lift ticket and between $28 and $32 dollars for rentals, depending on whether you would rather ski or snowboard.

    Once on the slopes you never have to wait more than a couple of minutes to get on a lift and the snowpack this year is excellent. A series of beginner "green" runs and intermediate "blue" runs descend from the quad chairlift, located near the lodge. A small snowboard park, featuring rails, fun boxes, and small jumps, is also located off the quad chair.

    Further away from the lodge, more difficult "black diamond" runs cut through the forest beneath the resort's two triple chairlifts. The resort's main snowboard park, which featured the beginnings of some massive table-top jumps, was still in the process of being constructed when we were out there.

    Asessippi offers an excellent experience for skiers and snowboarders of all skill levels. Beginners and intermediates can hit the freshly groomed meandering "green" runs, while those with more skill can test the steeper runs like "Roller Coaster" and "Giant Panda."

    We had a great day on the slopes. The temperature wasn't too cold and the snow quality was excellent. It was great to get out on the hill and bomb down the trails for the first time this year.

    The trip to Asessippi Provincial Park concluded my Manitoba Parks: A to Z adventure. This journey was unforgettable and I now have a much better appreciation for the great diversity of landscapes of our province.

    I'll be back in two weeks time, with my final post, wrapping up my eight-month Manitoban adventure.

    Parks visited in today's post:

     


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  • Winter in the Whiteshell

    12/16/2010 12:38 PM

    Whiteshell Provincial Park

    Whiteshell Provincial Park is one of Manitoba's largest and best known provincial parks. At roughly 2,800 square kilometres in area and stretching from the Winnipeg River in the north to Falcon Lake in the south, from the Ontario border in the east to Seven Sisters Falls in the west, the park is home to hundreds of lakes and thousands of cottages. It is a recreational playground in all seasons.

    In the winter, snowmobilers can ride on an extensive network of trails that surround all of the major lakes in the park. Cross-country ski trails are found throughout the park, from Otter Falls in the north to Falcon Lake in the south. Maps of the snowmobile and cross country ski trails can be found at www.manitobaparks.com. West Hawk, Falcon, George, and Lyons lakes, among many others, are also hot spots for ice fishing.

    After a 1.5-hour drive east of Winnipeg on the Trans-Canada Highway and just past the slumbering Falcon Lake Golf Course, we pulled into Falcon Lake. The townsite was quiet and with the lake just frozen over, the ice-fishing shacks were still sitting on the shore and what little snowmobiling was going on was confined to the land.

    About 15 kilometres from the Falcon Lake townsite, on the south shore of the lake, is Falcon Trails Resort. The resort operates the Falcon Ridge Ski & Recreation Area. We were disappointed that they were not open when we were out there, but we were told they are expecting a December 18th opening day for the ski hill and cross-country trails.

    The hill is one of the longest-operating ski facility in Manitoba, first opening in 1959. If you want some variety from the Winnipeg-area ski hills, you should check out Falcon Ridge.

    Our next stop was West Hawk Lake, 15 kilometres northeast of Falcon Lake, on Provincial Highway 44. The lake, formed by a meteor strike, is Manitoba's deepest, at 115 metres. Because of its depth and massive volume of water, West Hawk is one of the last lakes in Manitoba to freeze over. It was a shock to drive up to the lake and see it still unfrozen, with a plumes of steam rising from the surface.

    This hydrographic anomaly highlighted the fact that even though winter had hit the area like a bulldozer, the winter-activity season in the park was not quite ready to be kicked off.

    Newly frozen lakes and streams meant that it wasn't safe yet to open the majority of the vast network of snowmobile and cross country skiing trails for which the park is renowned. Skiers and snowmobilers will have to be content with land-based trails until later in December, when the ice on the lakes is more solid.

    With this knowledge in mind, my travel companion and I decided to take it easy and go for a cruise through the park by car. We decided to take a scenic drive to the Caddy lakes area after West Hawk Lake.

     

    After a brief stop at West Hawk Lake, we continued down Highway 44 for three kilometres, until we reached Provincial Road 312. This road runs between Caddy and West Hawk lakes before ending at Ingolf, just outside the park and just inside Ontario.

    The trip along this road provides some spectacular sights. Granite rock faces tower above the shoulders of the road and small lakes and streams break through the blanket of forest. About half-way down the road, the Whiteshell River empties into West Hawk Lake. The bridge over the river at this point provides a spectacular view.

    We had a relaxing day touring Whiteshell Provincial Park. As the winter season further descends on us, I suggest you head out to the park and check out the many winter recreation options that the Whiteshell provides.

    Next weekend, I'm heading out to the last provincial park on my list, Asessippi Provincial Park. I couldn't think of a better way to end my odyssey than with snowboarding at Manitoba's best ski/snowboard area.

    Park visited in today's blog:

     


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  • Breaking trail at Birds Hill

    12/2/2010 11:37 AM

    Birds Hill Provincial Park

    November's near record snowfall may have been a nightmare for the people in charge of Winnipeg's snow removal program, but it was a lucky break for me.

    The plan for my adventure around the province had always called for visits to several provincial parks during the winter. However, it also called for me to complete my travels by the end of the year. So if the snow came late or only in small amounts, a wrench would have been thrown into my schedule.

    Thankfully, for me, Mother Nature decided to start early and work overtime this year. With an ample supply of the white stuff blanketing the ground, I headed just north of Winnipeg to one of Manitoba's best known provincial parks, Birds Hill Provincial Park.

    Birds Hill Provincial Park is located 25 kilometres north of Winnipeg on Highway 59. Its close proximity to the city has meant that it is one of the most visited provincial parks, since it was opened in 1967, to celebrate Canada's Centennial. It also helps that the park offers a wide variety of activities during all seasons.

    During the summer, tens of thousands of people head to the park for camping, hiking, cycling, and swimming, among many other activities. The world-renowned Winnipeg Folk Festival takes over the park every July, as well.

    In the winter, cross-country skiers traverse the park's extensive network of trails and snowshoers plough through acres of forests and meadows.

    I assumed that Birds Hill Park got its name from the large numbers of birds that live within its boundaries. I was wrong. The park is named after James Curtis Bird, a factor for the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

    When Bird retired in 1824, he was given the land that now makes up the park as a grant, in recognition of his service to the HBC.

    Bird and his family referred to the area as "The Pines", but when the Manitoba government designated the park in 1964 and began work on its man-made lake, it was named after its original settler.

    Birds Hill Park is a mecca for winter outdoor activities. The park features a 30 kilometre network of cross-country skiing and hiking trails. It also boasts 21 kilometres of snowmobile trails. With the temperature hovering around a comfortable -5 degrees C, my travel companion and I were among many taking advantage of the park's trails.

    The parking lot at the Chickadee Trail trailhead was packed with skiers snapping into their bindings and getting ready to hit the trails. The story was the same at the park's stables, from where snowmobilers roared off down the trails and horseback riders saddled up.

    We too decided to hit the trails, but not on skis, not on snowmobiles, and not on horses. Instead we strapped on snowshoes and set off down the 3.5 kilometre Cedar Bog Trail.

    This route had been recently groomed for hikers, but the snowshoes allowed us to venture off the trail. Because the trail had been groomed, the snowshoeing wasn't very strenuous and was actually quite relaxing.

    The trail loops through a sections of meadows and aspen and oak forest, before descending into a thick, cedar-filled bog. The trail is mostly flat, with a few small hills in the bog section.

    We were on the look out for wildlife as we trudged through the snow, but all that we encountered were chickadees that dive-bombed us in an attempt to get at our granola bars when we made a pit stop. In fact, several of the birds ate right out of our hands.

    There was no sign of the park's estimated 250-450 deer while we were hiking, although one did bolt in front of my car when we were leaving the park at day's end.

    After our hour long tramp, we emerged from the trail, having enjoyed a beautiful afternoon at Birds Hill Park. If you're looking for a short hike, the Cedar Bog Trail is an excellent choice. If you're looking for something a little longer, a 7.2 kilometre trail circles the park's man-made lake.

    The journey to Birds Hill Provincial Park was an excellent way to kick off the winter segment of my quest to visit all of Manitoba's road-accessible provincial parks.

    With only two more parks remaining, my journey is almost complete. The next stop on my checklist is another Manitoba favourite, Whiteshell Provincial Park.

    Park visited in this week's blog post:


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  • Historic Hecla

    11/18/2010 1:38 PM

    Hecla/Grindstone Provincial Park

    Fall is an interesting time of year for Manitoba's provincial parks. The busy summer season is over and the winter recreation season has yet to start up. Most parks are extremely quiet. Hecla/Grindstone Provincial Park is no exception. The lack of crowds makes this a great time to visit the park.

    Hecla/Grindstone Provincial Park is one of the best known provincial parks in Manitoba. Located roughly 160 kilometres north of Winnipeg on Highway 8, the park is divided into four distinct regions – Hecla Island, Grindstone Peninsula, Black Island, and Deer Island. Both Deer and Black islands are uninhabited, while Grindstone Peninsula sports a large cottage community. Hecla Island is the heart of the park, both historically and recreationally.

    Hecla Island, connected to the mainland by a short causeway that spans a channel of Lake Winnipeg, features a variety of recreation options year-round. Grassy Narrows Marsh is an excellent area for bird watching. Bike trails cut through the island's forest and beautiful beaches dot the shoreline. The luxurious Radisson Hecla Oasis Resort, open from May until November, features an excellent spa and golf course. During the winter, cross-country ski trails criss-cross the island.

    Hecla Island is also very important historically. In 1875, the Canadian government granted a large tract of land along the western shore of Lake Winnipeg to settlers from Iceland. Hecla, or Mikley Island as it was known then, was the northern boundary of New Iceland. The first settlers arrived on Hecla a year later and a thriving fishing community sprang up on the island's eastern shore. The people of New Iceland practiced self-government until 1881, when the settlement was absorbed by Manitoba.

    Residents of Hecla Island were isolated until the 1950s, when electricity and regular ferry service to the mainland were introduced. By the 1960s though, the community was in decline. The island's fishing industry was suffering and people began to leave the island. In the late 1960s, Hecla's residents approached the Manitoba government and petitioned that the island be made into a provincial park, as a way to provide jobs and economic stimulus. As a result, Hecla Island Provincial Park was established in 1969. The causeway that connects the island to the mainland was completed six years later. The park was merged with Grindstone Provincial Park in 1997.

    After crossing the causeway, my travel companions and I checked out the historical sites of the park first. We stopped at historic Hecla Village, about 10 kilometres east of the park entrance. The village features six restored buildings from the early days of the island's Icelandic settlement. A church, school, community hall, and several other buildings line the lakeshore. The village provides an interesting look at life in an early 20th century fishing settlement.

    A few kilometres north of Hecla Village are Gull Harbour and the Radisson Hecla Oasis Resort. The day we were there was the last day of the season for the resort. It's unfortunate that the resort no longer remains open for the winter. With no hotel open on the island, fewer people will get to experience the great cross-country skiing that's available in the park.

    The rest of Gull Harbour has already been shut down for the season. The iconic lighthouse stands watch over an empty marina, as all the boats have been pulled out for the winter. Gull Harbour wasn't completely deserted though. With very few people around, the deer have taken over. We ran into them wherever we went. Several does ambled through a playground and a large buck leisurely strolled through the campground. Even though I saw dozens of deer during my summer journeys and had several close encounters with deer and my car, at Hecla it was still nice to get up close and personal with them.

    Hecla/Grindstone Provincial Park was quiet the day we were there, but that made for a great experience. Now that fall is over and winter has descended on us, the winter season is starting up for many of Manitoba's provincial parks. I'll be checking out what winter activities Birds Hill, Whiteshell, and Asessippi provincial parks have to offer in the weeks ahead.

    Parks visited in today's post:


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