Thanks to the rains that turned Canada Day into a soggy disappointment, the August long weekend is shaping up to be the busiest of the summer in cottage country, provincial parks and the backcountry beyond.
This is bound to be a glorious few days for the vast majority of Manitobans who love the outdoors. But if you prize solitude over easy access to paddling country, this isn't the best weekend to visit popular flatwater destinations in the Whiteshell, Nopiming Provincial Park and Ontario's Experimental Lakes Area, where put-ins and portages may be congested and campsites tend to be occupied early in the day.
In response to complaints about overused canoe-country campsites in Nopiming in particular, Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship has taken the first step toward capping the number of paddlers and boaters using the most popular routes within the province's eighth-most-visited park.
'This is going to take some adjustment, as people have gotten used to going wherever they want, whenever they want... This is going to reduce overuse and (environmental) impacts'
As soon as 2015, there will be entrance quotas limiting the number of paddlers and boaters who plan to camp overnight at wilderness sites along six routes: the eastern stretch of the Manigotagan River, Shoe Lake, the Bird River up to Elbow Lake, Rabbit River to Cole Lake, the Seagrim's chain of lakes and routes connecting Beresford Lake to Garner, Gem and Long lakes.
The province plans to create a first-come, first-served reservation system allowing access to these routes, much the same way Ontario's busy Quetico Provincial Park caps the number of paddlers entering various access points.
"This is going to take some adjustment, as people have gotten used to going wherever they want, whenever they want," Conservation and Water Stewardship Minister Gord Mackintosh said last week in an interview. "This is going to reduce overuse and (environmental) impacts."
Normally, the idea of the province poking its proboscis into the wilderness should upset paddlers. After all, Manitoba is one of the few jurisdictions on the continent that enacts an indiscriminately broad, tourism-killing backcountry-travel ban every time the forest-fire threat is high.
But the complaints about Nopiming are serious. Paddlers routinely report campsites littered with garbage, denuded of trees and strewn with improperly disposed human waste.
The same complaints are made about the Whiteshell, the ELA, Lake of the Woods and anywhere else paddlers and people in motorboats have easy access to the water. Nopiming just happened to be selected for a provincial pilot project aimed at cataloguing all the available backcountry campsites.
Over the past year, provincial parks planner Ashleigh Hall and recreation manager Elisabeth Ostrop compiled data about Nopiming backcountry sites into a new provincial web page that shows paddlers all the options.
The site, at http://wfp.to/Oli, shows the location of all known backcountry campsites, put-ins and takeouts and portages along the six highest-used Nopiming water routes. There's GPS data for all the features and an invitation for park users to submit photos.
The plan is to use this site to create a reservation system that will limit the number of people or parties who can enter each route during a given time to a set maximum. The province isn't planning to allow people to reserve specific sites along the route, though some Manigotagan River sites operated by Caribou Lodge can be reserved.
This system works, more or less, in Quetico, where peak-season backcountry-travel permits are expensive. Manitoba's parks branch doesn't appear prepared to charge similar fees.
I've long argued backcountry-camping fees could generate revenue to allow conservation officers to function as park rangers. The presence of parks staff in the backcountry would improve safety and serve as a deterrent to campers prone to trash wilderness campsites.
Manitoba Conservation has a long way to go before its parks branch catches up to those in other Canadian provinces and most U.S. states. The new Nopiming website is a good start, but for now it does not mark rapids, archeological sites or other points of interest.
The province's goal should be to create and sell interpretive maps similar to the Manitoba Eco-Network's Manigotagan River guide, which retails for $10 and can be accessed for free online at http://wfp.to/OJ4.
If the Nopiming pilot project proves successful, online backcountry maps should be expanded to other provincial parks popular with paddlers, hikers and off-road cyclists. Whiteshell, Spruce Woods, Hecla/Grindstone and Turtle Mountain are the logical places to start.
So don't be freaked out by entrance quotas. All they do is ensure the wilderness retains a sense of wildness, even along popular routes.