SPRUCE WOODS PROVINCIAL PARK -- On a sunny Thursday afternoon, the only signs of life on the Yellow Quill cross-country ski trails are tracks left behind by deer, foxes, rabbits, squirrels and some sort of weasel-like creature.
Now before you jump to conclusions, I can assure you I am not the weasel in question. I just can't tell one skinny mustelid from another simply from its tracks, as ermine, mink and marten footprints look pretty much the same to anyone who hasn't grown up on a trapline.
One of the most gratifying aspects of cross-country skiing outside of Winnipeg is being able to see evidence of so much wildlife. Even the quietest humans can spend hours in the forest in the summer without ever catching a glimpse of any animal stealthier than white-tailed deer. But the winter snows reveal the presence of all sorts of mammals, especially in protected parks.
This island of boreal forest is unique in Manitoba because the relative sparseness of the vegetation. In the coniferous forests of the Whiteshell or the aspen parkland of Riding Mountain, the growth is so dense you could be standing metres from a moose without having a clue it was there.
The rolling hills of Spruce Woods, the remnants of a sandy glacial lakebottom, are nowhere near as suffocating. While the vast majority of the park's visitors head straight to Spirit Sands to see the dunes, the rest of the park is worthy of exploration.
During the winter, there are three separate cross-country ski-trail systems accessible directly from Highway 5 and used only gently compared to trails in closer proximity to Winnipeg.
From the city, getting here requires a 105-minute drive. But if you go during the week, you'll probably have the park to yourself. This past Thursday, when weather conditions were perfect -- it was -9 C with no discernible wind -- my skis were the first to grace the Yellow Quill trails since they had been packed (but not tracked) some time during the previous week.
The Yellow Quill system has three short loops with the option of combining two into an 11-kilometre ski. The gentle hills include a lot of short slopes but none of them are even remotely technical. The trails warrant an intermediate rating only because they are not tracked.
The better-known Epinette Creek-Newfoundland trail system offers the option of skiing loops of 3.5, 5.7, 16.2 or 41.7 kilometres, depending on whether you have a couple of hours or an entire day to kill. Jackfish Cabin, at the far end of the longest loop, can be reserved for overnight stays by calling Manitoba Conservation at 204-834-8800. This late in the winter, all that's available are Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Between the two systems sit the Seton Trails, which offer three short criss-crossing loops, including two that can be combined into a 7.7-kilometre ski. The trails are named after author Ernest Thompson Seton, who worked as a provincial naturalist in the 1890s.
Seton was fascinated by wolves, which were later hunted out much of southern Manitoba. Given a large resident population in Riding Mountain National Park and expanding wolf populations elsewhere in the province, it's possible wolves could re-colonize Spruce Woods at some point.
Some of the tracks in the park this week suggest the presence of larger animals. But again, good luck discerning red fox from coyote from lynx footprints in deep snow.
Spruce Woods cross-country ski trails
Get there: From Winnipeg, take Highway 2 or the Trans-Canada Highway west to Highway 5. The Highway 2 route is 166 kilometres from the Perimeter at McGillivray Boulevard. The Trans-Canada route is 175 kilometres from the Perimeter at Portage Avenue.
Navigation: Ski-trail maps may be available at the three trailheads. You can also download them at http://www.gov.mb.ca/conservation/parks/pdf/maps/2011_12_winter_maps/winter_spruce_woods.pdf
Trail conditions: Manitoba Conservation updates trail conditions once a week at http://www.gov.mb.ca/conservation/parks/recreation/ski_trail.html