Along for the ride

May 18, 2010

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 24, 2010 D6

RIDING MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK—A group of Brandonites with mountain bikes is working hard this summer to put the “ride” back in Riding Mountain by creating a trail that actually illustrates why the park deserves its name.

What’s now Riding Mountain National Park acquired its monicker in pre-industrial times, when First Nations and European travellers had to get out of their canoes and on to horses in order to traverse this prairie plateau, which rises about 330 metres above the lowlands to the east.

Today, many of the trails in the park remain better suited to horses than hikers or cyclists. Most of the 400-kilometre trail network utilizes old logging roads and other arteries originally designed for vehicles.

As a result, what should be Manitoba’s biggest eco-tourism draw has a middling reputation in the outdoor-recreation community. Many of its trails are derided as too wide, too flat or too shrouded by vegetation to provide views of the park’s abundant wildlife – or the fantastic vistas along the Manitoba Escarpment on the east side of the park.

Personally, I love this park. It’s one of the few places in southern Manitoba where you can go backpacking for a couple of days and not see another human. The western portion of the park, home to both the Tilson Lake hiking loop (38.5 kilometres) and the Birdtail loop (21.4 kilometres), provides the most solitude.

But hiking on the east side of the park can be a frustrating experience, as you simply can’t see what should be stunning views.

The three main backpacking routes up the escarpment—the Packhorse, JET and Bald Hill trails, all built as part of a soil-testing study in the 1950s—offer little more than a climb. The Gorge Creek day-hiking trail is eroding and doesn’t connect to other trails. And the North and South Escarpment trails are merely connecting routes.

Happily, Parks Canada staff at Riding Mountain are not in denial. Last year, the park began conducting environmental assessments to pave the way for the East Escarpment Revitalization Project, which will eventually see 20 kilometres of new trails connect with existing routes near the park’s historic East Gate.

The first new trail is already underway, thanks to the efforts of the Manitoba Escarpment Trail Society, a Brandon-based volunteer group with about 30 members.

After years of dreaming about building a downhill cycling route into the east face of the park, construction-company owner Deron Ash and teacher Paul Mandziuk began developing a seven-kilometre singletrack route called Reeves Ravine last September.

Utilizing formal training from the International Mountain Bicycling Association, Ash and Mandziuk are leading a volunteer effort to build erosion-resistant, low-impact trails that will stand up to cyclists, people on foot and the elements.

Last weekend, they took me on a walking tour of what will eventually be Reeves Ravine, which descends about 215 metres from the existing Bald Hill trail to the bottom of the Manitoba Escarpment. This work in progress already has the best views in the park, as it snakes along the edge of a gorge before it descends through a rare oak savannah and eventually down to aspen forest.

Ash and Mandziuk are putting features in place to ensure cyclists slow down enough before turns to avoid riding into the ravine. Hikers will also have access to the trail, while the park has plans for interpretive signs.

The trail society also wants to cut a sustainable link to Bald Hill, a popular lookout point, which is currently reached by a heavily eroded footpath. Their efforts could be completed this fall, pending the formalization of an agreement between the park and the trail society, which is also working with the larger Westman Wilderness Club.

To complement the new trails, the park intends to build as many as three new backcountry cabins along a route that could eventually connect the East Gate to the old Agassiz ski area, visitor experience manager Richard Dupuis said.

The park has taken notice that backcountry tenting permits are down while Cairns Cabin is rented out almost every weekend. Baby Boomers, apparently, enjoy a roof over their heads.

There’s also a tentative plan to create some sort of mountain-bike friendly services at the East Gate, which is only 2.5 hours by car from the Perimeter Highway. Reaching out to Winnipeg cyclists should increase visits to the park.

So will providing some great vistas. After seeing Reeves Ravine, my own view of Riding Mountain has already changed.

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 24, 2010 D6

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