Most of my early experiences with recreational travel were pretty close to home.
When I was about five, my father took me on a train ride from Regina to visit his mother and sister in Vancouver. I have a faint memory of passing though the tunnels in the Rockies. I also took a couple of Greyhound adventures as a young lad to visit my Dad in various cities after my folks split up. I recall a sign outside Parry Sound, Ont., that read: Home of Bobby Orr. Exciting stuff for a young Bruins fan.
But when it came to later going places for fun, it started in Manitoba, and most notably Whiteshell Provincial Park. Visiting a friend’s trailer at Otter Falls; a cabin at Nutimik; camping at Falcon or West Hawk — this is where I first satisfied the itch to get out of town and explore.
As I got a little older and had a tad more coin in the jeans, I started to visit more national and international locations. In 2019, I went to Jordan, Banff, London and Greece. A long ways from home. I had plans to do similar type of trips in 2020 — Jamaica, Oregon and Germany to name a few.
Frankly, it’s been quite some time since I took the time to explore my own neck of the woods.
You’re probably guessing where I’m going here. Yep, with a global pandemic limiting travel I’ve made the decision to get out and explore Manitoba again. First stop — the place where it all started.
Husband and wife Judy and Stu Cornell were working up north for the Hudson’s Bay Co. when they decided they wanted to come home to Manitoba. They also knew they wanted to work in the wilderness tourism industry — after all, they had met several years earlier while working together at a lodge in Sioux Narrows.
While Stu stayed on the job, Judy was tasked with heading home to find them a place to call their own. With the help of her parents, who had some previous experience in the tourism trade, they came across the perfect place just north of Rennie.
What cinched the deal was the rustic camp was situated where a branch of the Rennie River leaves Brereton Lake.
"The place had running water, so I called Stu and he immediately said ‘Buy it?’" Judy explains, still a sense of excitement in her voice as she recalls that moment of discovery. "The river doesn’t freeze over in the cold Manitoba winters, giving us a year-round fresh water supply. It was exactly what we were looking for."
It was April of 1979 and the birth of the Inverness Falls Resort.
The original resort had several one-room cabins.
"That was the way folks explored the wilderness back then," Judy tells me as we lounge in a couple of comfy Adirondacks overlooking the lake on a recent gorgeous Saturday morning. "But in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the market changed and people no longer wanted to rough it as much. I’ll never forget when we installed fireplaces in the cabins… then it was hot tubs."
Today, the resort offers cosy lakeview suites, pet welcome lakeview cabins, luxury cottages and two-bedroom chalets featuring fireplaces, satellite entertainment and a private spa experience. You’ll find single-person whirlpool tubs in the lakeview suites, two-person hydro-thermo massage tubs in the chalets and hot tubs in the cottages and cabins.
It’s not the Hyatt-Regency folks, but it’s pretty darn comfy for being in the woods.
There’s a safe sandy beach next to the resort and 14 km of hiking and biking trails throughout the rugged and beautiful Canadian Shield. The Trans Canada Trail goes right by the resort’s front door on its way to Cabin Lake and then on up through the park. Guests have free use of canoes, row boats, peddle boats, kayaks and mountain bikes.
While the amenities have changed over the years what brings people to the area year after year hasn’t, says Judy. "What most people are looking for is to get back to the forest, the rocks, the water... to just re-anchor themselves a bit."
On my recent stay, my travelling companion and I stayed in a two-bedroom chalet tucked into the forest with the ever-present sound of the streaming river below. Forest, rocks and water. If you’re looking for some peace and quiet folks, this is the spot. FYI: The beds are heavenly.
And if you’re wondering, self-distancing is made easy as the cottages and chalets are separate buildings with space in between; and the resort offers lots of private spots to enjoy nature.
Archaeological excavations along the Winnipeg River suggest human presence in the Whiteshell area has been traced back to at least 8,000 years ago. For thousands of years, Indigenous people used the area for harvesting wild rice, hunting, fishing, trade, ceremonies, teaching and dwelling.
The development of roads around 1920, brought the first tourists to the Whiteshell area, with the first summer cottages being close to the CP and CN railway lines. In 1961, the government of Manitoba designated the area the Whiteshell Provincial Park and today it is one of our most popular provincial parks containing 13 main freshwater lakes — over 200 in total — which are used for recreation such as boating, hiking, biking, watersports and angling.
A recent visit had us searching for bike trails in the central portion of the park. Here’s a sampling of what we found, along with one must-see attraction:
● Cabin Lake Road — Part of the Trans Canada Trail, officially named The Great Trail in 2016, this path starts a stones throw from the front door of the Inverness Falls Resort and travels 4.7 km on a decent trail to a newly-constructed walking bridge at the Rennie River. Stu and Judy have placed a picnic bench at the idyllic spot.
● Pine Point Rapids: 8.2-km single track, in-and-out path that’s a fun ride with a spectacular destination.
● Foresters Footsteps: Near Betula Lake, this was the truest and best bike bath in the area. Most of the 4.2-km loop follows old logging roads through gorgeous pine forest, except for the last third which takes you up a granite rock ridge.
● Word of mouth: Jessica Lake has a trio of loops that are 1.3, 1.5 and 3.5 kms in length. A father and his two sons advised us during our Sunday ride at FF, that they were worth a visit.
● Bannock Point Petraforms: An historic spot where you will see stones laid out on the bedrock in shapes of turtles, snakes, geometric designs and a Thunderbird. The are believed to have been made centuries ago by First Nations people for their value in teaching and healing ceremonies. The area has a ceremonial feel to it; the songbirds are delightful and take notice of the amazing moss and lichen. The offerings left on the various rocks are interesting, ranging from coins and tobacco to a Virden Rodeo badge and car vent air fresheners. On our recent visit there was a lot of red dresses hanging in trees, leftover from a ceremony calling for action to end exploitation of Indigenous Women and Indigenous Sacred Sites on Mother Earth.
My trip to the Whiteshell was organized by the good folks at Travel Manitoba, who have launched a new campaign called Home is Where the Heart Is. With international tourism limited — TM hopes we will use our tourism dollars this year to rediscover our own backyard,
"We are encouraging locals to show Manitoba some love this summer," says TM president and CEO Colin Ferguson, "by safely exploring new — and returning to favourite — destinations around the province."
Pre-pandemic, tourism contributed $1.6 billion to Manitoba’s economy, with 85 percent of visitation and 58 percent of expenditures coming from Manitobans traveling within the province. Estimates indicate a significant drop in 2020, which could result in thoiusands of jobs being lost.
The new campaign, partly funded by Destinations Canada, is a shift from last year when we were celebrating being named one of Lonely Planet’s Top 10 regions in the world to visit.
"Our international profile certainly got a boost," said Ferguson. "But Manitobans traveling within Manitoba have always been — and will continue to be — vital to Manitoba’s tourism industry."
After getting back from my weekend in the woods, friends asked how my getaway was. The common refrain was: "The Whiteshell is gorgeous. I haven’t been in years."
This is the year.
If you’re looking for more info on the Whiteshell or another idea where to go, check out the Travel Manitoba website.
As a young boy in the 1960s, Steve would plead with his mother to let him watch Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday nights. And CFL football. And baseball. And PGA golf. And… well, you get the picture.
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