Forests, grasslands, lakes and rivers stretch out from the townsite of Wasagaming, Man., weaving a stunning natural tapestry called Clear Lake Country three hours northwest of Winnipeg. The heart of this gently rolling landscape is Riding Mountain National Park, well known for its wilds and summer swimming, camping and hiking. But come winter, long after the birch leaves have fallen and the crowds have left, you’ll discover that the park kicks it up a notch by creating a holiday on ice and snow. Here are the five best ways to keep your cool (just don’t forget your tuque and snow pants).
Cross-country skiing under the moonlight
Parks Canada interpreter Patrick McDermott swears by cross-country skiing at night — at least when there’s a silver moon shining down from above the spruce and aspen with such conviction that no headlamps are needed. McDermott might start skiers off on a track-set trail past a frozen marsh (read: flat terrain) before picking up the pace on a loop so dense with trees the moon disappears and the downhill sections feel like rollercoasters in the dark. Who needs alpine skiing for an adrenaline rush? Cross-country ski rentals: friendsofridingmountain.ca
Called “prairie cows” or, to the Anishinaabe, mashkode bizhiki, plains bison were first reintroduced to the Riding Mountain ecosystem in 1931 (compare that to the more famous Banff bison, which were only reintroduced in that part of the Rockies in 2017). Living safely inside the Lake Audy Bison Enclosure, about 40 of the large animals keep trees in check, ensuring the region’s grassland and grassland-woodland habitats don’t grow over. Drive to the range on your own or sign up for a guided tour with an Anishinaabe interpreter from the park, who can speak to the historical and cultural importance of the bison.
Fat biking across Clear Lake
Skating might seem like the obvious choice for a jaunt around a frozen lake, but add a twist to lake travel by riding around Clear Lake’s icy surface on a fat bike. With tires that are much thicker than those on a mountain bike, you’ll have no trouble getting through the snow drifts (when the wind is at your back, of course). If you really want to go skating, head to the Park Visitor Centre to carve your way around the nearby tree-lined, protected skating loop.
Winter camping in an oTENTik
If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to go winter camping but haven’t mustered the courage to sleep under the frosty halo of a winter night, the park’s oTENTiks have you covered. A cross between a tent and a cabin (canvas is used for the walls, while the elevated floor is wooden), each six-person camp (there are five for use in the winter) is kitted out with a heater as well as electric lights and USB plugs. Some might call it cold-weather glamping, but when you’re in your bunk bed listening to the howling wind, you’ll be happy to be chilling out without feeling chilled.
Snowshoeing through the sound of silence
The best way to appreciate the silence that envelops the forest in the snowy season is to strap on a pair of snowshoes. In the park, this quiet mode of transportation will boost your chances of seeing wildlife, such as fox or snowshoe hare. If you’re lucky on your stroll through the boundary of the eastern woodlands and the boreal forest, you might spot a saw-whet owl, Canada’s smallest owl, looking down at you from a tree.
Three hot spots to help you regain your core temperature
Step inside for a different kind of park history at Elkhorn Manor, which from 1932 to 1993 served as the home for the park’s superintendent — and the occasional sleeping quarters for the English conservationist Archie Belaney and Queen Elizabeth II. Now run by the nearby Elkhorn Resort, the stone-and-log house can be booked as your home away from home, where the rooms are replete with rich-hued wooden furniture and floral textiles for a cozy town-meets-log-home feel. Throw a party à la Heritage Moment by renting the manor for a catered dinner: offered by the resort, they might include local dishes like jackfish bisque, roasted root vegetables and pickerel rolls.
Spruced up — quite literally — with barn boards and wooden farmhouse-style communal tables, the lounge at the Lakehouse pulls a strong espresso, which you might need after downing one of the hefty lunch burgers (we suggest the chickpea Vegilante for the herbivore and the double-patty Cowboy, with melted cheddar and caramelized onion, for the carnivore). If you’re too full to move after adding oatmeal raisin or chocolate chip cookies to your meal, take a breather by the fireplace.
Park Visitor Centre
It’s customary for the Anishinaabe — who according to Ojibway park interpreter Desmond Mentuck have lived in the area around Riding Mountain since “time immemorial” — to offer guests something to eat or drink. At the Park Visitor Centre, grab a seat by the wood-burning fireplace, where Mentuck will pour you a hot cup of Labrador tea that smells like the forest on an early summer morning before showing exhibits of animals that live in the park, including wolves, bears and moose.