AS our trustworthy Cessna 180 four-seat float plane heads north out of Thompson, more than 420 metres over the wide, fast-flowing Burntwood River, a green belt of endless boreal forest and waterways stretches to the horizon.
I'm buckled into the narrow co-pilot's seat on that Saturday morning, while local eco-tourism operator Michelle Pruder is scrunched in the rear. Within minutes, our pilot points out a giant glacier esker about 30 kilometres due west of Thompson.
"That's Mile 20," says the longtime resident of this thriving northern Manitoba mining community of 15,000-17,000 hardy souls, located 764 kilometres north of Winnipeg up the two-lane concrete and asphalt Highway 6.
I'd seen that impressive ice-age remnant, (also known as the Eagle's Head because of its amazing resemblance to a great raptor in profile), earlier that day during a drive on the often rough and rolling gravel road to the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation, 65 kilometres west of Thompson.
"The Eagle's Head is used by First Nations for ceremonial purposes," said my 39-year-old host, entrepreneur Shane Cripps. Cripps is president of Thompson Northern Experiences, a new business offering tours of attractions in or near Thompson, like breathtaking Manasan Falls on the Burntwood.
In consultation with Julia Adams, a media-relations specialist with Travel Manitoba (my sponsor on this journey), I'd decided to take a mid-August road trip to Manitoba's dynamic third-largest city -- the so-called "Hub of the North" -- to check out such atractions as the spectacular Pisew Falls and Paint Lake Provincial Park.
Adams made arrangements with Cripps to act as my liaison/host, at least part-time, in Thompson. His business partner, the patient and affable Don Fulford, 68, chauffeured me around in his well-used, white 1999 Pontiac Grand Am to various places during that extended weekend visit.
My last trip to Thompson had been in the mid-1970s, when I was a camp clerk for Manitoba Hydro at the then-under-construction Jenpeg generating station on the upper arm of the mighty Nelson River, about 200 kilometres southeast of Thompson. It was high time to become reacquainted with the region.
Apart from the float-plane flight, I traversed part of Thompson's Millennium Walkway, a scenic 15-kilometre trail that circles around the city through the whispering forest.
I also spent time on the award-winning Spirit Way path, with its 16 points of interest showcasing Thompson's vistas and cultural history, including the world's largest lighted mural -- a wolf painted by Winnipeg artist Charles Johnston from a work by renowned wildlife artist Robert Bateman.
At the Heritage North Museum, I discovered a wealth of mining, fur-trade, First Nations and other historic artifacts inside two splendid log buildings.
I camped one night in beautiful Paint Lake Provincial Park and persuaded the park interpreter, Nathan Krulicki, who hails from Gimli, to accompany me on an evening paddle in a banged up, tippy aluminum canoe. On a leisurely ride with Cripps on a pontoon boat down the Burntwood River to roaring Manasan Falls, I photographed a bald eagle perched patiently on a log boom.
We hiked through a sweet-scented pine and spruce forest to view the haunting power of famous Pisew Falls, which has created its own temperate, misty microclimate, and observed otters frolicking in the Grass River rapids while crossing the sturdy Rotary Suspension Bridge.
We scarfed succulent cherry tomatoes from the gorgeous garden of retirees David and Kay Skime, who spend their summers in an elegant 600-square-foot log cabin (built by David over the years) in "a patch of heaven" on Setting Lake. We stopped outside the headquarters of VALE, the Brazilian mining multinational that bought out INCO several years ago, and admired the giant King Miner statue on the outskirts of Thompson.
During our 90-minute float-plane flight, which began from the Burntwood River seaplane base near the modern Miles Hart Bridge, we banked over the Mystery Mountain Winter Park, the Paint Lake Provincial Park and Marina Camp grounds/complex and the sci-fi-looking Global Aerospace Centre for Icing and Environmental Research (GLACIER) where Rolls Royce and Pratt Whitney operate "the largest and most advanced cold weather test and research facility for gas turbines in the world."
Many kilometres of trails for snowmobiling could be seen as well, cutting narrow swaths through the rugged landscape. We followed the Grass River upstream past scenic rapids to Phillips Lake, where we landed in front of Manitoba's highest waterfall, Kwasitchewan Falls, before taking off and gradually climbing out over the Rotary Suspension Bridge and Pisew Falls -- a double joy seeing it both at ground level and from the air.
We continued to Sasagiu rapids (where Highway 6 crosses the Grass River) and along the shoreline of Setting Lake -- at 50 kilometres in length, the longest lake in the Grass River system -- and eventually landed at Cottage Bay.
"Now you know why I enjoy every flight over this scenic playground in northern Manitoba," said our pilot, who originally moved to Thompson to work for INCO back in the late 1960s from a farming community in Saskatchewan.
"For those who have not travelled to Thompson, they should make it their No. 1 destination for their next holiday, either summer or winter," he said. "Twenty minutes in any direction gets you away from work and into great fishing and other outdoor activities."
Added Pruder: "There's such great camping, fishing and canoeing in this region and we have the longest snowmobiling season in Manitoba. This is such a great place to live and play."
That's for sure.
IF YOU GO
Things to do and see in Thompson and vicinity
1) Paint Lake Provincial Park and Resort: 32 kilometres south of Thompson on Highway 6 onto Provincial Road 375. It extends over 22,662 hectares of boreal forest. Summer offerings include more than 160 campsites, picnic areas, two boat launches, a marina, hiking trails, fishing, a beautiful beach area and interpretive programming. In the winter, visitors have access to a toboggan hill, outdoor skating rink, warm-up shack, ice fishing and miles of snowmobile trails. Washroom facilities are adequate, but need to be improved.
2) Pisew Falls Provincial Park: 74 kilometres south of Thompson. A short boardwalk leads to an observation platform overlooking the spectacular 13-metre-long falls. A second trail leads to the Rotary Suspension Bridge, which spans the Grass River below the falls. The bridge also leads to a 22-kilometre return hiking trail to Kwasitchewan Falls — Manitoba’s highest waterfall. Keep your eyes open for wildlife.
3) Millennium Walkway: A well-maintained 15-kilometre walking, jogging or cycling loop around the city through the whispering boreal forest with many points of interest along the way.
4) Heritage North Museum: a treasure of mining, fur trade, First Nations and other historic artifacts, including a boreal forest diorama with a caribou hide teepee, mounted animals and a woolly mammoth tusk, inside two beautiful log buildings. Phone (204) 667-2216; website: http://www.heritagenorthmuseum.ca
5) Spirit Way: The award-winning 2.5-kilometre pathway starts at the Heritage North Museum and extends to the Miles Hart Bridge over the Burntwood River. It showcases Thompson’s vistas, scenery and cultural history, including the world’s largest lighted mural (19.5 metres wide by 26.2 metres high) — depicting a wolf on the side of an apartment block by Winnipeg artist Charles Johnston (from a Robert Bateman painting).
6) Thompson Golf Course: A challenging, well-groomed nine-hole golf course. Located on Highway 391 on the northern outskirts of the city.
7) King Miner Statue: Built to celebrate Thompson’s 25th anniversary. It’s located on Mystery Lake Road/Highway 6 at the south entrance to the city.
8) Mystery Mountain Ski Area: 25 kilometres of cross-country ski trails, four lifts, 18 downhill runs, a sizeable snowboarding half-pipe, a tobogganing area, snow-tubing and a biathlon range, located 22 kilometres north of Thompson.
9) Take a guided boat trip on the Burntwood River — with a possible stop for fishing — up to the impressive Manasan Falls with Shane Cripps, owner of Thompson Northern Experiences; 204-679-8388; email: firstname.lastname@example.org <mailto:email@example.com>
A place to stay:
McCreedy Campground offers 49 sites (28 electrically serviced, of which 20 are pull–through for motorhomes), an on-site campground office with 24-hour supervision, coin-operated showers, hot and cold running water, a playground and more. The campground, which is owned and operated by Nick and Colleen Smook, offers vehicle storage for visitors travelling further north. For more information call (204) 778-8810.
Northern Inn & Steakhouse, 104 Hemlock Cres.; Northern Flavours Coffee House, 28 Station Rd.; River View Restaurant, Lot one Burntwood River base (owners are Shane and Li Cripps).
For further information about Thompson, including hotel and bed and breakfast accommodations, see the websites http://www.thompson.ca or http://visitnorthernmanitoba.ca/index.php?pageid=ACC000