With actual snow on the ground in Manitoba, cross-country skiers across the province are enjoying the best conditions in two winters.
But there is not much celebrating going in and around Riding Mountain National Park as residents and visitors deal with the effects of Ottawa's reckless and somewhat insane decision to cut winter services at a number of national parks across Canada.
Earlier this year, the federal government slashed $29 million from Parks Canada's budget. Some of the cost savings were supposed to come from changing the focus of the parks service to "peak-period visitation," which is an Orwellian way of describing a war on winter recreation.
Effectively, Riding Mountain National Park went from being a four-season park to a three-season destination. In April, the managers of Manitoba's only road-accessible national park announced it would no longer groom ski trails, operate the park's skating rink and skating trail or keep the backcountry Cairns Cabin open during the winter. They also announced plans to stop offering visitor-safety services during the off-season and instead encourage volunteer groups or the RCMP to pick up the slack.
Immediately, cross-country skiers cried foul, as Riding Mountain used to maintain a remarkable 218-kilometre winter trail system. So did municipal politicians, lodges, outfitters and bed-and-breakfast owners who depend on the growing winter-recreation market.
In the immediate aftermath of the announcement, Dauphin-Swan River-Marquette MP Bob Sopuck, a well-known outdoorsman and Riding Mountain-area resident, pledged to find a way to prevent the winter-recreation business from collapsing in and around the park.
It seems like some progress has been made -- but so far, not enough.
Parks Canada has been training volunteers in both the Dauphin and Erickson areas to operate ski trail-grooming equipment. But there are mixed reports about whether any grooming will be done and whether other winter activities can be resurrected.
Kurt Mazur, an Erickson-area resident who volunteers for the Riding Mountain Nordic Ski Club, said he expects to be able to groom some trails this winter on the south side of the park, while a Dauphin-based volunteer group will tend to north-side trails.
"It won't be like last year, but some trails will be done," he said, adding he has been told Parks Canada has stocked Cairns Cabin with wood and will accept bookings for the backcountry cabin.
Attempts to verify this with the park were met with silence. Superintendent Robert Sheldon did not respond to an interview request, while Sopuck -- who must be mortified by the events in his own back yard -- instructed his staff to defer comment to Parks Canada.
Volunteers may be trained to groom trails, but so far don't have access to the park, said Celes Davar, who operates the Earth Rhythms ecotourism outfit and has been leading tours inside the park for 17 years.
Davar said he pays fees to access the park 12 months a year but has not been offered any refund for service reductions such as the park's failure to winterize picnic tables.
He surmises the park may be hamstrung in its ability to roll out short-term solution to the service cuts, because anything Riding Mountain does may serve as a precedent for other national parks affected by the winter cutbacks, such as Yoho in British Columbia and Prince Albert in Saskatchewan.
This Kafkaesque situation is not just the result of the federal Conservatives' desire to save money, says Davar, noting Parks Canada came up with the idea of cutting back on winter services itself.
Manitobans should be insulted, as more commercially successful parks such as Banff and Jasper, who count winter visitors by the millions, have not had to suffer any similar indignities.
The bottom line: the quality of life in Manitoba just doesn't matter that much to federal bureaucrats or politicians, who gauge priorities purely in terms of numbers on a spreadsheet.
In fact, all of Canada should be disgusted. Are we a winter nation, or a just a nation that merely endures the winter and doesn't actually bother to get up close with it outside?
Ottawa needs to wake up and smell the pine trees.