Gimli to Riding Mountain, Manitoba

This trip was planned to be just Churchill, with a side of obligatory Winnipeg. Maybe a short drive too, given how much time we had before heading to Churchill. With good weather in the forecast, we bit the bullet and I quickly cobbled together a plan together solely based on the only reasonably priced accommodation I could find with space available on Thanksgiving.

Well, that short drive turned into two of the most Canadian days I’ve ever had.

One hour’s drive from Winnipeg is the town of Gimli. If your brain goes straight to Lord of the Rings, well…you’re not the only one. But perhaps that perception isn’t so far off, because this town has a giant Viking statue situated on the shores of Lake Winnipeg. (And we all know that Middle-earth was based off of Norse mythology, right? Right.)

Amidst an era of hardship in Iceland involving rampant disease, poverty, and a destructive volcanic eruption (of course), Icelanders wanted out. Nearly a quarter of their population at the time, in fact: 20,000 people left between 1870 and 1915. In 1875, a group managed to obtain a reserve from Canada and set up their own briefly-self-governing settlement after sailing across the Atlantic, St. Lawrence River, and the Great Lakes. Ironically, they then proceeded to have a brutal winter exceeding those of Iceland, but they learned to survive and eventually thrived, fishing from the lake and farming the land. Religious differences later split the group up, sending an offshoot to the States, but Canada remains the country with the largest population of Icelanders outside of Iceland, and Manitoba, again, has the largest proportion of them.

Canadian ties to Iceland don’t just end with Manitoba. The first Europeans to land in North American were Vikings from Iceland… and I visited that spot, L’Anse aux Meadows, a few years ago! Nowadays, New Iceland remains the one spot in Canada with strong Icelandic heritage, with annual summer festivals, but unfortunately, the language is no longer widely spoken, nor is the food available. Flags and the telltale family home signs and surnames give away the history, but even without it, it seems like a beautiful place to be.

Further down the road, still within New Iceland, is Arborg. As a casual fan of curling, and as someone who appreciates kitschy small-town “world’s largest” sculptures, I couldn’t resist a stop…

Passing through three hours of flat, Saskatchewan-like farmland with the occasional grain elevator, we also made one quick stop at the Narrows, so named for the easiest spot to cross Lake Manitoba. Is it always this windy there? We have no idea how people could possibly fish in those conditions.

The landscape changed gradually but quickly to hills and forests as we approached our destination: Riding Mountain National Park, whose existence I only just learned of after booking the accommodation. Heh. Not knowing what we were in for, we took the Brûlé Trail to Kinosao Lake — “oh, it’s getting dark soon, let’s just do a quick short 45 minute walk after all that driving.” The trail itself? Well, as residents of BC, it’s pleasant but not much to write home about. But as soon as we got to the lake in golden hour…

…There was a canoe with paddles and life jackets next to the dock, and no one around! And so, we canoed ourselves to a beaver dam (then collided into it by accident), marvelled at the silence, and the fact that we weren’t trekking 10 hours to somewhere remote just to experience this. Just a magical moment, living in a Canadian postcard.

Oh, that’s not all. With about half an hour to spare, we made it out to enjoy the setting sun on the much larger Clear Lake, walking lakeside around Wasagaming before darkness and a lovely un-festive but still warm Thanksgiving dinner.

Driving half an hour in complete darkness to our accommodation, the Fairmount B&B located six kilometres on an unlit gravel road off the main highway to Minnedosa, we found ourselves the only guests at a beautifully kept 107 year old farmhouse. We had our own little Thanksgiving moment, sharing some supermarket pumpkin pie we brought over some farm-grown tea and conversation with the lovely host Susan. But before we truly settled in… hey, it’s really, really dark out here, shall we check out the Milky Way?

Well, we never saw it. Instead…

Whew. That’s a whole lot of Canada in one day. Waking up the next morning, we decided to slow down and enjoy our surroundings a little, finally able to see the farm in daylight and realising our accommodation was a destination unto itself. After a farm-fresh breakfast and conversation, Susan took us around her property, garden, and animals, sharing the remarkable history of both the farm as it started with a widowed mother of six, and Susan’s own fish-out-of-water story, a city-born person moving to the country 50 years ago, holding a bunch of eclectic jobs over the years.

But oh, stereotypical Canada wasn’t quite done with us yet. Saying goodbye to Susan, we decided to drive up to Riding Mountain one more time before driving three hours back to Winnipeg, and we were lucky enough to run into the park’s resident herd of bison, just next to the road for us to stare at for an hour.

And what was supposed to be an uneventful drive back turned into something else, as we decided to stop in Portage la Prairie to stretch our legs a bit… just as thousands of Canada geese decided to descend for the evening. I mean, in Vancouver, I hate them as they’re a public nuisance, but even I have to admit that this was a pretty beautiful sight and couldn’t believe our luck.

We just threw up our hands and took the long way back to Winnipeg.

I thought I’d seen it all, having travelled so much of my own country over the years. And this was just two autumn days in Manitoba. Wow. We’ve barely even scratched the surface.

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