Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

HEAVENLY HECLA

Allure of island remains its wilderness, cliffs, beaches and trails

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At Hecla Island, if you walk with your head up, you'll miss the chance to pick up remnants of ancient Manitoba.

Fossil-hunting on the waterfront, where the soaring cliffs of massive limestone calve off the occasional slab that crumbles into stones tumbled by at-times violent waves of Lake Winnipeg. These stones bear the marks of critters buried eons ago in Lake Agassiz, trophies for the rock hunter in every kid.

Once all but a ghost town, Hecla village is coming to life again. The decision to draw people back to the one-time Icelandic settlement, with a lottery that distributed property in the village and in new cottage developments, has produced a growing crop of year-'rounders. That has triggered new investment and development for the marina, campground and lodge.

But the allure of this island remains its wilderness, its cliffs, beaches, undeveloped waterfront and trails through the bush and marsh.

Face it, when you're towing kids, the idea of backcountry camping can be daunting and even for die-hard tenters, civilized amenities take on a new sheen. Hecla has miles of paved trail for cycling, such that leaving the car parked for a weekend is quite doable. A bike trip from the campground to the village is just long enough to earn a youngster a well-deserved afternoon nap. For the older kids, there are lengthier bush trails for hiking or biking that can keep you out for the better part of the day.

Like much of Manitoba's campground planning, the park keeps campers unnecessarily away from waterfront. Some of the sites, however, allow a rough scramble through the bush and down the cliff, to a western beachfront where the fossil hunting is supreme and the sunsets, glorious and private.

The real beauty of Hecla is that, remarkably, it has retained much of its old appearance, even with the new homes popping up in the village. There is still a house here and there, and a number of the community's public buildings -- the hall, a church that operates seasonally, the school, the icehouse that harboured the huge frozen chunks of the lake taken in winter for preserving the summer catch -- to recall for a visitor what life there entailed long ago. Living the history are fishers who still draw their livelihood from the lake, will sell walleye on the side to a visitor. The Lutheran church opens its door at the beginning of the summer season, holds worship every Sunday to September, and has the annual "blessing of the fleet" for the boats that take to the water every year.

Hecla is a tranquil piece of this province's rough and wild edges and evidence that history, even when thoroughly buried by time or shortsighted government policy, is hard to keep down.

catherine.mitchell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 1, 2009 E4

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