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Belugas to bison to Bloodvein

Seven summer activities to add to your bucket list

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People watch beluga whales approach a tour boat in the Hudson Bay near Churchill, Manitoba.


People watch beluga whales approach a tour boat in the Hudson Bay near Churchill, Manitoba.

OK, so spring is finally here. You can tell because the giant snowbanks have turned into slumping, filthy mounds of black road silt.

If you're wondering what to do with yourself now that the sub-zero weather is gone, here are Seven Summer Outdoor Experiences You Must Attempt at some point in your life:


1. Be one with the belugas

Churchill is most famous around the world for the polar bears that gather east of the northern Manitoba town in late October and early November, waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze.

While seeing the bears deserves to be on your life list, you may find a far more rewarding wildlife-watching experience from the middle of June to the middle of August, when tens of thousands of beluga whales enter the Churchill River estuary to feed.

Belugas, unlike polar bears, do not eat people. It's safe to approach these amazing creatures in large passenger boats, smaller zodiacs, kayaks and even in snorkelling gear. And the tour operators in Churchill approach the whales responsibly.

Snagging a spot on a summer whale-watching tour is easier than reserving space to see the bears in the fall. This is both because the beluga-watching season is longer and because the whales receive less international press than the bears.


2. Experience the ELA

After a couple of years of consternation over the threatened closure of the Experimental Lakes Area field station, the world-renowned scientific facility finally has a future, thanks in no small part to the Province of Ontario.

The relatively pristine area itself - a swath of Canadian Shield located about 50 kilometres east of Kenora - was never threatened. But the interconnected maze of lakes does see plenty of canoe traffic, mainly because this is one of the best flatwater-touring areas on the continent.

Loops as short as two days or as long as two weeks can be strung together, utilizing the ELA and lakes to the south. It's closer than Quetico Provincial Park - and cheaper to boot, as there are no fees for accessing unorganized Crown land.

3. Kayak Kasakeemeemisekak

No time to drive a sea kayak to B.C.'s coastal waters.? Not to worry. Solid kayak-touring opportunities exist only 90 minutes north of Winnipeg.

Hecla/Grindstone Provincial Park offers the opportunity to island-hop across Lake Winnipeg's southern basin on a trip that spans three distinct eco-regions in a very short space.

Starting from Gull Harbour on Hecla Island, you can leave the Manitoba Lowlands, pass the beaches of Black and Deer islands and wind up in the Canadian Shield on the east side of the lake, also home to an archipelago known as Kasakeemeemisekak Islands. Any weekend of the summer, you'll likely have this route to yourself.


4. Backpack with bison

At Riding Mountain National Park, you can see bison at the Lake Audy enclosure. But you've never really observed North America's largest ungulate until you see them actually roam.

You can catch a glimpse of what the prairies looked like before settlement in two places within a day's drive of Winnipeg: the western unit of Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan and both units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.

Backpacking in either park will require detours around bison, which can be aggressive and territorial. But the exhilaration is worth it.

In Grasslands, the 16-kilometre Timbergulch loop offers your best chance of spotting the herd. In Theodore Roosevelt, the bison are pretty much everywhere.


5. Cycle Spruce Woods

Southern Manitoba isn't blessed with many long sections of scenic singletrack -- places where the ride is more about immersing yourself in nature than it is about challenging your technical skills.

If you've never been before, carve out one day to visit Spruce Woods Provincial Park, where the 42-kilometre Epinette Creek-Newfoundland loop serves as a gentle roller coaster. Compared to the dense foliage of Riding Mountain, the Spruce Woods parkland is unusually open forest, thanks to the sandy soil.

This means you will see what's around you while you ride.


6. Hike the Mantario Trail

Only 90 minutes east of Winnipeg, you can access 63 kilometres of excellent trail that will never bore you even if it will kick your ass if you don't head out early every morning.

You've seen me implore you to go before. Do it this summer -- in late August or September, when the bugs are gone and the footing is dry.


7. Paddle the Bloodvein

During a 220-kilometre descent from the Ontario border to Lake Winnipeg, the Bloodvein River carves an absolutely stunning swath through the pre-Cambrian granite of the Canadian Shield. This Canadian heritage waterway, accessible via a short floatplane flight or a series of portages, deserves to be spoken about in hushed and reverent tones: It's one of the most beautiful rivers anywhere -- and a hell of a lot of fun.

Most of the Bloodvein's rapids can be portaged, but a lot of the whitewater can be run by groups where at least some members have instruction or experience.

You'll need at least 10 days. Carve out the time and make it happen.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 19, 2014 C12


Updated on Saturday, April 19, 2014 at 10:02 AM CDT: fixes typo

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives


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