AFTER a couple of seasons marred by high winds and high water, the province’s premier distance-hiking trail is open from top to bottom once again.
Conditions on the Mantario Trail, the 63-kilometre footpath in Whiteshell Provincial Park’s wilderness section, are reputed to be the best they’ve been for a decade.
I say "reputed" because I haven’t ventured on to the trail myself this summer. But the reports from Manitoba Conservation — and the absence of complaints about the Canadian Shield route — are promising.
In recent years, many low-lying sections of the trail have been submerged by lakes and streams engorged by unusual precipitation. Summer water levels in the Whiteshell lakes were off the charts in 2009 and remained high in 2010.
"This year has been dry compared to the last two years," says Don Hallett, chief of park operations for Manitoba Conservation’s eastern region.
This may seem counterintuitive, considering the record scale of the flood in western Manitoba this year.
But the fact is southeastern Manitoba is experiencing its driest summer since 2006, when Manitoba Conservation shut down the backcountry due to the forest-fire threat. But there has not been so much as a campfire fire ban this year, thanks to high humidity and some sporadic rain.
The summer of 2007 also wasn’t kind to the Mantario Trail, as a June windstorm that may very well have included a tornado knocked down a lot of trees along the northern section of the route, along Big Whiteshell Lake.
The blowdown wasn’t cleaned up until October of that year, at the end of the backpacking season for most Manitobans.
Another blowdown took place in July 2010 in the southern reaches of the trail. But in the spring of the year, five fire crews went in to clear out the deadfall, Hallett said.
What does all this mean? This is the year to check out the trail if you’ve never visited before. For backpackers based in and around Winnipeg, where there are few distance hikes of any quality and none with any serious elevation change, the Mantario Trail pretty much serves as the prerequisite for longer and more challenging hikes in the Rockies or the desert parks of the U.S. Southwest.
At 63 clicks, Mantario is challenging enough to punish novice throughhikers who don’t pack wisely and lug too much gear along the trail. But the existence of designated campsites, trail markers and a published trail guide makes navigation easy for firsttime backpackers. Vault toilets — that is, big plastic biffies — and bear-proof metal food cages at the designated sites also make the backcountry-camping experience relatively idiot-proof.
The entire route from Big Whiteshell Lake to Caddy Lake or vice versa can be traversed in three to five days, depending how many clicks you want to cover. Choosing which way to travel is a matter of personal preference.
The south end of the route is more scenic and slightly more challenging, while there are long flat walks along Big Whiteshell Lake near the north trailhead. So if you prefer an easier walk at the end, head from south to north. But if you want to get the dull part over with early, begin at the north.
Through-hikers who begin at the south trailhead are asked to register at Manitoba Conservation’s Falcon Lake district office. If you start at the north end, register at the Rennie office. There are no fees to use the trail and no admission fees for Whiteshell Provincial Park — or any provincial park — this year.
The best time to walk the trail may be in September, after the Labour Day long weekend, when human traffic is light, biting insects are all but nonexistent and daytime highs are cool enough to be conducive to lugging around a pack.
If you don’t feel like traversing the entire route, you have the option of an overnight there-and-back hike from the south trailhead to the campsite at the west side of Caribou Lake. Just be warned this is a popular route: The chance of having this site to yourself on a summer weekend is minimal.
Needless to say, keep your campsite clean to avoid visits from black bears, which are plentiful in the park even if they are not known to be problematic along the Mantario Trail. You have a decent chance of hearing wolves at night, especially near Olive Lake.
You’re more likely to see bald eagles, white-tailed deer and beavers.
The trail is relatively easy to follow, but you’d be foolish not to take a compass as well as the pamphlet-sized Mantario Trail guide, which is on sale at Canada Map Sales on Century Street and outdoor gear retailers.
If you find the trail too easy, then it’s time to move on to mountain or desert trips. But difficulty is not the point — dozing to sleep to the sound of loon calls after a day of walking up and down granite bluffs is something every Manitoban deserves to experience.