One of the biggest complaints people have about Manitoba is a lack of relief, and I’m not talking about a shortage of Rolaids at Shoppers Drug Mart.
The province is just too damn flat, complain people who drive straight from Saskatchewan to Ontario without straying from the dull-as-dishwater Trans-Canada Highway.
True enough, there are no mountain ranges in Manitoba. But the province is not quite as pancake-like as even many locals claim.
Melting glaciers carved 100-metre-deep spillways across southwestern and south-central Manitoba, creating valleys for the Pembina, Souris and Assiniboine rivers. The east face of Riding Mountain, "the Ducks" and the Porcupine Hills rise as high as 340 metres from the surrounding prairie.
And the entire eastern third of the province, as well as much of the north, are covered by the Canadian Shield, a landscape dominated by granite ridges, cliffs and other pre-Cambrian outcroppings the glaciers never got around to grinding down.
In the shield country north of Lake Winnipeg, in the midst of what the fur traders called "the upper track," you'll find the two tallest waterfalls in Manitoba -- features that have little to do with postcard images of endless fields of wheat and canola.
Just east of Highway 6, about 75 kilometres south of Thompson, the Grass River drops 13 metres at Pisew Falls, which is easily viewed from a wooden walkway that extends from a parking lot just off the highway.
Enveloped in mist-fed moss all summer and ice all winter, Pisew Falls demands a pit stop on any drive down to and from Manitoba's north. But this place also becomes a destination unto itself, if you want to see the biggest plunge in the province.
At the south end of the same parking lot, a trail extends north toward a bridge over the Grass River. Keep heading north and you'll eventually come to two sets of rapids and finally Kwasitchewan Falls, which drops another 14.2 metres about 12 kilometres downstream.
At 22 kilometres in total, the trail between the two sets of falls makes for a moderately strenuous day hike or a relatively easy backpacking trip. Opt for the latter option and you'll be rewarded with four campsites along the Grass River, including a gorgeous site alongside a set of scenic rapids that burble above the falls.
The length of this loop and the spectacular scenery makes it one of the best short backpacking routes in the entire province. I spent a lazy late-July weekend here right after taking the overnight train from Churchill to Thompson.
Deprived of decent sleep, the short hike to the rapids felt more difficult than it needed to be. Large mounds of bear scat on the trail were disconcerting.
But the destination was rewarding, and not just because of the beatific way dragonflies hovered above the Kwasitchewan Falls.
The relatively remote location -- almost a day's drive away from Winnipeg -- ensures this trail is rarely overrun by weekend warriors.
Go during the week, and you may very well have the loop to yourself. Just be careful not to get too close to the falls: Careless sightseers have slipped and fallen to their deaths at Pisew Falls, while Kwasitchewan Falls is just remote enough to make a back-country medivac problematic.
If you take the trouble to reach the Grass River, you'll find few more picturesque spots in Manitoba. The best time to go is late in the summer or in early fall, when the bugs disappear, the leaves turn colour and the daytime temperatures are cool enough to make a walk with a backpack a bit more pleasant.
GETTING THERE: The Pisew Falls-Kwasitchewan Falls trailhead is about seven hours north of Winnipeg, between Wabowden and Thompson. From the city, take Highway 6 north about 675 kilometres until you see the sign for Pisew Falls Provincial Park, about 30 kilometres past Wabowden. The trailhead is located in the Pisew Falls parking lot.
BACK-COUNTRY CAMPING: You're not required to register or pay any fees to use the wilderness campsites along the Grass River, but all the usual wilderness camping precautions apply.
TAKE PARTICULAR CARE TO AVOID PROBLEMS WITH BLACK BEARS: Keep a clean campsite and hang all food and toiletries from a tall tree limb, away from your tent.
MORE INFORMATION: Park info and map of the trail may be downloaded at www.gov.mb.ca/ conservation/parks/popular_ parks/northeast/pisew.html