If you're into car camping, Monday morning marks the start of online reservations for motor-vehicle campgrounds in Manitoba provincial parks.
Manitoba Conservation & Water Stewardship has enhanced the services it provides people who partake in car camping. But it continues to move only slowly to improve backcountry camping.
A year ago, when the province unveiled a new long-term strategy for its parks, it acknowledged work must be done to improve backcountry camping experiences.
With the help of volunteer groups, the province has started improving portage trails along canoe routes, cleaning up heavily used campsites and the installing throne-style pit toilets along the busy Bird River canoe route in Nopiming Provincial Park.
The province also started the labour-intensive process of cataloguing back-country campsites along popular canoe and backpacking routes.
This is a preliminary step toward a much-desired reservation system for some of the busiest back-country sites. Back-country reservations, which are already employed by national parks and many state and provincial parks outside of Manitoba, offer peace of mind to park users during the peak season, reduce the environmental impact on the busiest sites and create modest revenue streams to recover the cost of back-country patrols and maintenance.
What Manitoba has yet to do, however, is create a single walk-in campsite in any of its provincial campgrounds. Such sites, which can be located as close as a few hundred metres from a conventional motor-vehicle campground, serve as a middle ground between car camping and backpacking.
Both novice wilderness campers and people with younger kids can appreciate walk-in sites, because they provide some of the solitude of back-country camping without all of the risk inherent in actual wilderness camping.
While the demand for walk-in sites is obviously far smaller than the demand for RV spaces, there is a pent-up need for these spots in parks close to Winnipeg. This is purely anecdotal, but the most common question flung my way involves suggestions for overnight backpacking and canoe trips.
This makes sense, considering most working people can only get away on weekends and don't have time for multi-day back-country treks.
The only walk-in sites within 150 kilometres of Winnipeg exist at Minnesota's Lake Bronson State Park, accessible from Highway 59, a few minutes south of the U.S. border. The park has three walk-in campsites accessible from its Two Rivers Campground.
The closest is 800 metres away from the Two Rivers parking area, while the farthest requires a 2.4-kilometre walk, far enough to give kids a taste of what it's like to actually go backpacking. Fees are $12 to $23 US, depending on the season.
There is no amenity like this in a Manitoba provincial campground. The opportunity exists to create a handful of walk-in sites in the underutilized northern section of Birds Hill Park, within three to five kilometres of the Lime Kiln and Tamarack trailheads. But the idea is merely under consideration, for now.
These sites would prove extremely popular, as Birds Hill Park is only 20 minutes from the Perimeter. Conservation officials worried about cost recovery or liability could simply charge a premium for the use of these sites: People do pay for convenience.
There's also a demand for more short backpacking routes within the handful of larger provincial parks near Winnipeg. Right now, the list of overnight backpacking options within two hours of the city is minuscule.
In Whiteshell Provincial Park, campsites on the west and east side of Caribou Lake offer return-trip options of 20 or 24 kilometres. You can access both sites from the Mantario Trail's southern trailhead near Caddy Lake.
You can also get away with backcountry camping along the Black Wolf Trail in Hecla-Grindstone Provincial Park and off the Newfoundland Trail in Spruce Woods Provincial Park, provided you camp away from the trail, do not light a fire and don't draw attention to yourself. Technically, overnight camping isn't permitted in either location.
More than three hours away, Riding Mountain National Park offers numerous backpacking options. But a weekend trip from Winnipeg to Riding Mountain demands at least seven hours of highway driving.
There remains some room for designating new back-country campsites in Spruce Woods, Whiteshell and Hecla-Grindstone. There's also room for walk-in sites near car campgrounds in Birds Hill Park and Grand Beach.
Manitoba Conservation should be commended for improving the canoe-campsite situation. People using their feet need somewhere to go, too.