Whiteshell Provincial Park: Icy landscape nurtures the spirit

(Story originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press)

By the time February rolls around in Canada, long dark winter months can start to take their toll on even the heartiest of souls. What better reason for a weekend in the winter woods and some well-deserved mid-season rejuvenation – for mind, body and spirit.

Manitoba’s Whiteshell Provincal Park is a four-season holiday destination where the beauty of nature sets the stage for unforgettable outdoor experiences, and recreational resorts and romantic retreats nestled away in icy landscapes provide the base from which to explore the area.

The Whiteshell is not only teeming with opportunities for physical activity and back-woods adventure, but is also a place that holds great spiritual significance. The name “Whiteshell” comes from the small, white, sacred seashells known as the megis – believed by some Aboriginal people to be the shell through which the Creator breathed life into the first human. Today, megis shells are symbolic of both creation and the path of life.

The Whiteshell is also home to major petroform sites – rock alignments formed by the intentional placement (not piling) of stones on bedrock outcrops to create figures or shapes. The area containing petroforms is known as ‘Manito Ahbee,’ which means the place where the Creator sits. It is believed to have been a sacred meeting place where many First Nations would gather to share knowledge and wisdom. Today, petroforms serve as physical reminders to the Anishinabe of the instructions given for traditional spiritual teachings.

The petroforms and many other unique sites in Whiteshell Provincial Park can only be reached by trail, making it the perfect park for on-foot outings year-round. One such resort that caters to ‘self-propelled’ adventures in the wintertime is Falcon Trails Resort.

SELF-PROPELLING AT ITS FINEST

Located on the south shore of Falcon Lake and the southernmost reach of the Whiteshell, Falcon Trails Resort provides a home-base for self-propelled winter activities such as cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and hiking, and gravity-induced pursuits like downhill skiing, snowboarding, tobogganing and tubing.

The resort is co-owned and managed by Lois and Richard Pettit, who bought the property when the ski-hill was put up for tender by the Province in 1996. Ten years later, Falcon Trails Resort consists of nine cabins on Falcon Lake, two eco-cabins on High Lake, a welcome centre with conference facilities, and an extensive trail network groomed by the Pettits themselves. They also still maintain the ski-hill, which is the oldest operated ski facility in Manitoba.

Both Lois and Richard have a passion for physical activity. Lois loves to run half marathons, while Richard was a provincial coach for cross-country skiing and biathlon. His coaching career took him to three winter Olympics, and his dedication for excellence is obvious in the way he and Lois maintain Falcon Trails Resort.

“We wanted to offer something different, and make it an affordable resort with lots of variety of activity. This way, we can cater to all kinds of people – the sports enthusiast looking for outdoor training, couples seeking romance, families wanting a get-away, even large corporate or team retreats,” says Richard.

With Richard’s background and enthusiasm for sport, it’s no surprise that Manitoba’s provincial biathlon team trains at the site. In fact, Megan Imrie, currently one of Manitoba’s best competitive biathletes, grew up in Falcon Lake and honed her craft at the ski-hill and biathlon range.

But the area is not only for elite athletes. For those newer to outdoor activity, there are down-hill skis for rent at the chalet, and complimentary cross-country skis available for guests to use when staying at Falcon Trails Resort.

With some of the best ski trails in Manitoba, loops vary in distance from one to eight kilometers, and connect to the larger South Whiteshell Trail System that runs to West Hawk Lake on the other side of the Trans Canada highway. Combined, there are more than 40 kilometers of groomed ski trails in the area to be explored.

The best way to finish off the day, regardless of how much (or how little) physical activity you’ve experienced, is a soak in the hot-tub. Each of the nine cozy lakeside cabins at Falcon Trails Resort offers a three or four person hot-tub, located outdoors on the screened-in deck. From this soothingly spectacular vantage point, spend some quality time enjoying the scenery and your cabin company.

ENCOUNTERS OF THE FOUR-LEGGED KIND

Another great way to take in the view is by horseback. It’s an experience like no other, as my friends and I discovered on our recent trip to the Whiteshwell. After a day of cross-country skiing and hot-tubbing on the south shore of Falcon Lake, we ventured over to the north side of the Trans Canada Highway to Falcon Beach Ranch.

Admittedly a bit apprehensive about riding on top of large moving creatures, we weren’t sure what to expect. But as soon as we arrived at the ranch, the comforting smell of wood-smoke lingering in the air calmed our nerves, while the site of a corral of magnificent horses filled us with anticipation.

We couldn’t help but wonder which ones we would be riding. Surely not the funny-looking one that resembles a lama. Oh wait, that really IS a lama…

Then we saw our horses, separated from the rest, bridled up and ready to go. “They are so beautiful and tame, and yet so big and powerful, and capable of biting your hand off with one easy swipe,” I thought to myself, secretly hoping the littlest horse with the smallest teeth would be mine. My three friends hoped for the exact same thing.

Alas, the littlest horse would be ridden by our host Gillian Imrie, as one-by-one she introduced each of us to our new four-legged friend, helped us climb on, and showed us how to hold and direct the reins. Since it is warmer riding bareback in the winter, and also easier on the horse, she explained how to move with and stay on the horse without a saddle.

“What if you fall off?” we asked. “I’ll help you get back on,” she answered. And with that logical answer, we were off on our first bareback horseback adventure.

My horse was a brown beauty named Babe, who fell in behind Imrie and her little lead horse. Following behind us was Snip, aptly named because she apparently likes to playfully bite the other horses. An endearing trait, perhaps, but not if that horse’s mouth is right behind your horse’s butt… Realizing this, it became an intentional goal to keep Babe far enough ahead of Snip so there’d be no butt-biting shenanigans out on the trail. I had no desire to be the first one to fall off my horse.

We sauntered off into the snow-covered woods for an hour-long ride, astounded by the beauty and the tranquility of the winter scenery. The trail cuts through Canadian Shield country, winding through the pine-filled forest, alongside ridges that drop down far, and adjacent to rock-faces that rise up high. It is amazingly peaceful, filling you with solitude and serenity while all you have to do is sit back, relax, and go along for the ride.

Although we were all beginners at riding, it didn’t take long to get the hang of bareback. Within minutes I found myself in a natural rhythm, becoming one with the horse. I discovered it was okay to release the reins a little, and even loosen the death-grip being applied by my thighs. As long as Snip stayed far behind I was feeling pretty good.

In no time I was holding on with only one hand, stroking Babe’s mane with the other hand, and horse-whispering quietly enough so no one else but Babe could hear me. Then a crazy thought jumped into my head.

I wanna be a cowboy!

My mind instantly began to romanticize this notion. Oh what fun it would be, out riding the range with Babe everyday, enjoying the sights and the silence. Sleeping under the stars. Riding in rodeos. Living the cowboy life.

As my imagination ran with it, I glanced back just in time to see Snip right on Babe’s tail. Literally. Reality came rushing back, as I hurried to put some distance between Snip’s teeth and Babe’s behind. It was then I realized that horses still do scare me, which probably wouldn’t serve me well for a career as cowboy.

And just like that, the dream was gone.

For those who want the horse experience without being on horseback, Falcon Beach Ranch also offers seasonal sleigh rides. Perfect for larger groups, you can sit back under warm blankets and glide down snow-covered trails, stopping along the way for a blazing bonfire and tasty hot chocolate.

If an overnight stay at a ranch strikes your fancy, choose from one of their three chalet log cabins. Each one is nestled in the pine trees, equipped with wood-burning fireplace, cathedral ceiling, loft bedroom, screened-in deck with barbeque, three-piece bath, and modern amenities.

A cowboy’s home-on-the-range-in-the-woods wouldn’t be complete without a cedar log sauna and outdoor hot-tub located just a few feet from your cabin – especially enjoyable after a day of bareback horseback riding.

Trust me. Your thighs will thank you.

Where is the Whiteshell?

An hour’s drive east of Winnipeg, Whiteshell Provincial Park covers more than 2700 square-kilometers adjacent to the Manitoba-Ontario border. The park stretches from Pinawa and Pointe du Bois on its northern edge, with Rennie, Falcon Lake and West Hawk Lake framing the southern boundaries.

What can you do there?

Skiing: Downhill skiing at Falcon Lake offers 11 groomed runs accessed by three lifts. Downhill and cross-country ski rentals are available. Guests staying overnight at the resort get free skis. More info at Falcon Trails Resort www.falcontrails.mb.ca.

Horseback riding: Available in the winter by reservation. One-hour trail rides and group sleigh rides. Special packages include romantic rides for two, “wild west” weddings, and overnight trips. More info at Falcon Beach Ranch www.falconbeachranch.com.Snowmobiling: With more than 250 km of groomed trails, the Whiteshell is paradise for power-sledders. There are many places to stay where you can bring your own machines and easily access the trails, while some resorts offer machine rentals and snowmobile get-away packages. More info on snowmobiling in the Whiteshell, and Manitoba’s 11,000 km of groomed scenic trails, at Snoman (Snowmobilers of Manitoba) Inc. http://www.snoman.mb.ca/.

Other winter activities:
Ice-fishing
Snowshoeing
Walking/hiking
Ice-skating
Tobogganing
Hot-tubbing

Winter accommodations in Whiteshell Provincial Park:
Barrier Bay Resort
www.barrierbay.com (exclusively couples)
Big Whiteshell Lodge
www.bigwhiteshelllodge.com
Crescent Beach Cottages
www.whiteshell.mb.ca/cbc
Falcon Lake Resort Hotel
www.falcon-resort.mb.ca
George Lake Outfitters
www.georgelakeoutfitters.com
Inverness Falls Resort
www.invernessfalls.mb.ca
Jessica Lake Lodge
www.jessicalake.com
Keystone Resort
www.keystoneresort.mb.ca
Nutimik Lodge
www.nutimik.mb.ca
Otter Falls Resort
www.otterfallsresort.com
Pinewood Lodge
www.mypinewood.com
Riverview Lodge
www.riverviewlodge.ca
Tall Pine Lodges
www.tallpinelodges.com (exclusively couples)
West Hawk Lake Resort
www.whiteshell.mb.ca/westhawkwww.whiteshell.mb.ca
www.travelmanitoba.com
www.manitobaparks.com

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