Isn’t Manitoba supposed to be flat? I thought to myself as I spotted Riding Mountain National Park on the itinerary for the Big Five Safari from Winnipeg to Churchill. Of course, the ‘mountain’ in question turned out to be more of a hill.
This national park, a few hours drive up north from Winnipeg, is one of the most diverse in Canada.
It may not have gigantic peaks to rival the likes of Banff and Yoho, but it is unique in the fact that it is located atop the Manitoba Escarpment – an elevated area marking the boundary where a huge glacial lake once was.
So, it is a mountain in the sense that it rises dramatically from the surrounding flatter than flat prairieland.
Riding Mountain features 3,000km of rolling hills and valleys, bold boreal forest, lakes and meadows, making it a fantastic spot for wildlife watching.
We were on the look out for black bear, moose and bison, but there was also a vast array of bird and plant life to see.
Plants are not just plants
I will be honest and admit that I am quite ignorant when it comes to plants. While I can appreciate aesthetically beautiful wild flowers, I generally do not have a clue what the different species are.
As plant fanatics excitedly rummaged through the meadows, my attention was holding out for the big animals.
I think my lack of interest comes from an absence of knowledge. However, my eyes were most definitely opened to just how magical the plantworld can be.
My green-fingered mother will be so proud.
Do you know Earl Grey tea? Well, the attractive lilac bergamot flower pictured below is used to make this well-known beverage.
I was amazed when our enthusiastic guide from Frontiers North Adventures, Doug Ross, picked up a plant that I would not have even looked twice at and explained that the round section contained the larvae of a gall wasp.
Plants being used to aid the reproduction of insects was a new concept for me and I was fascinated.
Particularly striking were the many lakes that could be found in the park…
What about the animals?
The black bears were no where to be seen during our two days in Riding Mountain National Park. That is the thing about nature, sightings can be unpredictable.
Sometimes you can spot a few bears at the same time and on other occasions there will be nothing. Some members of our group got a quick flash of a moose, which I missed, and there were plenty of deer around.
In the end, it was the bison that turned out to be the most prolific in terms of visibility. And they did not disappoint.
The park has a bison enclosure and we first stumbled across the herd on the road ahead of us, and came to stop to take a good look at these gigantic animals that are often referred to as being Canada’s equivalent to the African elephant.
These hoofed animals are closely related to cattle, but are only distantly related to buffalo – an animal they are often confused with due to some apparent similarities in appearance.
Parks Canada guide Annik Adam, pictured below with some bison fur, gave an interesting talk on the history of the bison and the vital part that they play in trimming the grassland.
They effectively keep the forest back by devouring an incredible 24 pounds of grass per day, along with five gallons of water.
While the herd currently comprises of 44, a massive 70 million bison roamed Canada 2,000 years ago.
But when the European settlers began to arrive in Manitoba during the 18th century, and exhaustively hunted the bison, their numbers dwindled dramatically to a meagre 200.
Bison tongue was a delicacy in Europe and for years these animals would be left to die after this sought after organ had been obtained.
Annik showed us a photograph from this period of a mountain of bison bones, describing the animal loss as ‘carnage’.
The Whitewater POW camp was located in Riding Mountain National Park during the Second World War. The location was selected due to its remoteness and German prisoners were put to work chopping fuelwood.
The thick bush itself was considered to be a natural fence, with the possibility of escaping deemed to be impossible, therefore the camp had no boundaries and was essentially a minimum security prison.
The inmates were catagorized by two labels: those who were supporters of the Nazi regime and those who were not.
Despite the wilderness surrounding the camp, we were told how prisoners would make journeys to outlying settlements and mingle with the locals. There were even rumours of some attending dances.
On one occasion, the sirens were sounded after some prisoners failed to return to camp. They came back later on, claiming to have lost their way on a hike, but there were suspicions that an escape had been attempted.
My trip to Riding Mountain National Park was part of a sponsored tour on Frontiers North Adventures’ Big Five Safari in Manitoba. All views are my own.
I have also written a general article on my safari experience, along with a post on going behind the scenes at a dog sledding operation in Churchill.
Have you ever visited Riding Mountain National Park? Are you a fan of wildlife watching?