The eastern sky glows with the promise of morning. Here on the shores of Clear Lake in Riding Mountain National Park, the mist – shot pink with the first rays of sun – hangs still in the cool air rising from the boreal forest that swaths the better part of western Manitoba.
Black spruce, jack pines and tamaracks make me pause at the shoreline, where I take in a few long deep breaths of clean, pine-scented air. My peace is disturbed only by a cormorant that pops up from the deep, a meal of freshly caught walleye in its bill.
I’ve got my own breakfast in hand (lattes and still-warm cinnamon buns from Whitehouse Bakery and Restaurant in town) as I make the 10-minute walk back to Wasagaming Campground. I’ve left my husband, Ivan, sleeping in the nearly king-size bed of an upfitted Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, our cushy home base for the last four days.
We may be in the wild, but we’re far from roughing it. With a dining area that expands to accommodate two or four guests, a double-burner stove and deep sink, we’ve been whipping up more than standard camping fare. And the roomy lounge area with its plush cushioned seats has encouraged us to spend lazy mornings lingering over our books. I arrive back at the campsite to find Ivan not inside the toasty heated van, but waving proudly beside a roaring campfire.
We’re in the heart of Riding Mountain National Park. At just under a three-hour drive northwest from Winnipeg, it sits atop the Manitoba Escarpment, an area of wooded hills that stands in sharp contrast to the endless prairie flatlands that surround it. Grey Owl, the British-born conservationist who famously pretended to be half Apache, spent six months in the park in 1931. Although he eventually relocated to Prince Albert National Park, Grey Owl made a lasting impression here with his environmental efforts, which included helping to restore Riding Mountain’s beaver population with the launch of the park’s first conservation program.
Today’s plan is to follow in his footsteps along the trail to his former cabin near the edge of Beaver Lodge Lake. After breakfast, we raise the Murphy bed, lock it into the wall and retract with the push of a button the LED-lined awning of our four-wheeled campsite before driving off to the trailhead, roughly six kilometres away.
We set out on the 17.4-kilometre hike on a path through dense forest. By the time we arrive at the log cabin, a quaint and well-preserved piece of the park’s history (complete with doors to accommodate Grey Owl’s pet beavers, Jelly Roll and Rawhide), we’ve worked up an appetite. The sandwiches and homemade chocolate chip cookies we’d picked up at the Clear Lake Trading Post in Wasagaming make for a satisfying snack.
Back from our long but leisurely trek, we drive still further north to the Lake Audy Road turnoff. Leaving the pavement, we venture onto a 30-kilometre gravel road, driving past whitetail deer, cow moose and calves, in search of the park’s most popular residents: a herd of roughly 40 bison.
Bison were once native to Manitoba, but moved farther west due to colonization and over-hunting. In 1931, 20 animals were relocated from Alberta in an effort to bring a little bit of wild back to the park. On the drive-through roadway, I spot a solitary bull hulking off in the distance. He makes a beautiful picture with his heavy dark brown coat in silhouette against the greening fescue and budding wildflowers. Ivan attempts a deep mooing sound, hoping to grab the bull’s attention. It is unsuccessful.
The sun is dipping low now and we pull in alongside the boat launch at the east end of Clear Lake with the aim of catching one of those sunsets you can only see on the Prairies, where flat terrain and big sky make for an unobstructed display of colour. A few vehicles ramble by – the last of the day’s duffers who have challenged the scenic Clear Lake Golf Course. Tonight, almost every vehicle stops at what seems like the town’s unofficial lookout to watch the celestial show. It’s throwing veins of golden light into the clouds and painting an angler’s line in a glowing arch.
After the last rays of colour fade, we head to the Foxtail Café, just a couple kilometres away, for dinner. It’s tucked inside the historic Scrase’s Mercantile building, and the patio tables on the main drag of Wasagaming are perfect for people-watching and enjoying the night sky. Chef Tyler Kaktins pops over to say hello, just as our appetizer arrives: a parchment-wrapped parcel of local pickerel drizzled with brown butter, dill and lemon. “It’s one of my favourites!” he says. I poke the paper with my knife and release a cloud of buttery vapour.
Back at our campsite, Ivan steps into the Sprinter and flicks the awning switch. It unfurls automatically, creating a shelter over our folding chairs. Then he turns on the line of LEDs, casting a warm glow on our space, and sparks another blaze in the firepit. Inside the camper, I pull down the Murphy bed, smooth the duvet and dim the lights. Our bedroom is all set – but first, I step back outside to take in the scent of budding tamarack trees and admire the ribbons of campfire smoke.
The crackling poplar firewood is the only sound. Flames dance in the cool night breeze. We lift our eyes to the sky, where constellations, normally invisible to us in the city, appear to overlap and collide, leaving barely a space in between. Only when the first drops of a light rainfall sizzle as they hit the campfire do we retreat to that beckoning bed. I reach for the well-worn pages of a second-hand treasure, discovered today in Poor Michael’s Emporium. It’s The Adventures of Sajo and Her Beaver People, written by Grey Owl. Even here, surrounded by every comfort, one line rings especially true: “Remember, you belong to Nature, not it to you.”
Dark-sky Photography 101
Riding Mountain National Park is one of Manitoba’s best spots for dark-sky photography. Pack your camera and follow photographer Austin MacKay’s tips for capturing stunning images after the sun goes down, when light sources include the moon, stars and, if you’re lucky, the aurora borealis.
Select a place where there is little to no light pollution (like a national park). This will create the best effect of the stars shining bright in your photographs.
Bring a lens with a width of 14 mm to 35 mm, with an aperture of f 3.5 or less. This will allow you to open your lens wide to absorb as much light
Use your ISO as this feature allows light into your camera when your surroundings are too dark. If there is no moon in the sky, set your ISO anywhere from 1600 to 4000.
Adjust focus in the dark by having someone stand about 10 metres away from your camera while holding a flashlight. Focus on the light and lock it in.
Keep it clear by checking if your lens has a stabilization mode switch on the side – and turning it off. If you don’t, your images may turn out blurry.
The Unity FX
Manufactured by Leisure Travel Vans, based in Winkler, Manitoba, the 7.7-metre Unity FX is a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter that has been transformed into a luxury recreational vehicle. Even if you’re new to driving a camper, this unit makes it easy with responsive handling, a backup camera and ample side mirrors. Setup is a breeze thanks to functions for turning on the water, levelling the unit, opening the awning and accessing the electrical hookups. Inside, the functional interior features two television sets, Corian countertops, stainless steel appliances, convertible seating and a large Murphy bed.