Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 11, 2017
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Winter Shell

Break out on a self-guided adventure in eastern Manitoba

Cabin fever set in hard. We live in the middle of the prairies and though we hadn't been away for several winters, we couldn't warm up to the idea of the tropics. A trip to Mexico or Jamaica was out. We wanted to get away, but without going far. Retreat, with a bit of adventure -- that was the ticket.

The answer was just outside our own backdoor in cottage country at the eastern edge of the Manitoba prairies. Wild space galore. While many Manitobans and Ontarians flock to the Whiteshell in the summer, with its 1500 kilometers of Canadian Shield country, deep lakes, rising white rock, inclined pines, mosquitoes and moss, it was a place I assumed to be abandoned in the winter.

Its beauty is due to the continent's violent encounter with the Ice Age, the glacial remains of which can still be seen. But did I want to spend my holiday on an ice-age stretch of rock?

My husband seemed to think so. He had heard about a new vacation package designed by Winnipeg-based Randonnée Tours, a company known for matching up North Americans with cycling, touring and hiking tours that feature select hotels.

They've now tailored a getaway to Canada's geographic centre. The Whiteshell Winter Sampler offers five days of multi-sport adventure, comfortable lodges and catered food in the spectacular snowy scenery of a provincial park. Everything is included in the price and paid for in advance so you never have to deal with money while you're out having fun. That's kind of satisfying. I only had to worry about packing enough socks and my minus-40-degree winter-worthy boots.

Sleigh Bells Ring
A guide from Randonnée transported us two hours from Winnipeg to Whiteshell Provincial Park. I was transfixed by the passing scenes. White with winter's landscape, it was curious to imagine venturing into the forests and fields we would avoid in summer because of the insects. The countryside was lined with pines and the bare trunks of hardwoods. It certainly looked tranquil.

We entered at the southern end of the park and headed toward the new all-season Falcon Trails Resort. We immediately settled into our chalet, complete with hot tub and wood stove.

A sleigh ride through the woods seemed like the perfect way to ease into the great outdoors. It was horse-drawn, lined with wool blankets and lamb skins. It was slow and smooth. I breathed in the fresh cool air for what seemed a long time. There were wolf tracks around; though you'll rarely see a wolf, you might catch a glimpse of a fox or deer.

Our guide and wilderness interpreter, Murray, told us about the old forest and the lack of moose in these parts. Murray, who used to work for the fisheries and wildlife branch of the Manitoba government, explained that the bigger mammals need the new growth that comes when old forests are maintained with regular fires. He assured us that he wasn't going to take this too far -- this wasn't the right moment for a forest fire.

Maybe it was Murray's hot chocolate, maybe the incredible stillness of the snowy wooded scene, but I just couldn't get over actually being in the forest in the winter. I felt thankfully quiet for the first time in months.

That night at the lodge, we ate barbecued steak and chicken with wild rice and sautéed snow peas and peppers, a lively Caesar salad, and, if that wasn't enough, strawberry shortcake. Très bon.

Now I had some time to take in our enticing chalet, with its white pine floors, cosy furniture and hot tub. There were lots of blankets for any of the several big beds we could choose from. The kitchen was stocked with food.

 

Two kinds of horsepower
The following morning, we followed a trapline on horseback. Other than the crunching of the horse's hooves in the snow, it was quiet in the woods. The horses were content to walk, though we urged them on. This was unfortunate for my husband, who was trying to hold his camera while riding bareback. He fell off his horse.

We paused at the lodge for a homemade lunch, then were set to ski cross-country on 15 kilometres of groomed trails. We later learned that we'd skied the easy part of the biathlon trail where Canada's Olympic athletes train. Peter, our ski guide, knew the place well and easily identified animal tracks and the best spots for my photographer partner.

That night, the hot tub was my refuge. It came in mighty handy for those sore muscles after all the exercise. I soaked while looking out onto the frozen lake, so utterly seduced with the sensation. What a day!

Randonnée doesn't overlook a single detail. Hotels, cuisine and trails are perfectly selected. The staff also gives plenty of counsel on how to approach increased activity in the elements. They'd told me what to pack and how much water to drink when we exercised. I'm no winter sports buff but I felt great.

The next morning held a five-hour, 100-kilometre trip by snowmobile. I was hoping the lakes were still solid. Growing up in Manitoba, I had an attitude about snowmobiles -- they were noisy and people got killed on them. I had no idea what was in store.

Snowmobiling thrilled me; those machines are astounding. We toured from the southern end of the park up to Brereton Lake and our next chalet at the Inverness Falls Resort. We travelled as fast as the machines could take us across lakes, muskeg and through forests. Thanks to the heated handles and foot rests, I was utterly comfortable. Our outfitter Mike explained that anytime I let up on the gas, I lost all speed and was immediately down to a controllable rate. You don't have to be going fast to feel the thrill.

The trails were well maintained and marked with directions, speed recommendations and stop signs, making the runs as safe as possible. We had a hot lunch -- prepared by Mike along a frozen shore in a spacious wood-heated cabin maintained by the Manitoba Snowmobile Association. Their motto: Why Hibernate? I couldn't agree more.

Chalet Life
When we arrived at Inverness Falls, we found ourselves in another cosy chalet. My husband wondered if the place wasn't just the right size for us, once the kids were grown.

We'd reached the self-guided part of the tour: we didn't have to be anywhere at any time. I self-guided myself into the whirlpool bath between hikes around the resort's trickling falls. I also discovered the lodge's free movie rental. That night we enjoyed a dinner of breaded walleye with a finale of apple crisp and yogurt. The fridge was full, so we had pea-meal bacon and melon for breakfast. The whole thing was catered with a hearty mid-winter spirit that replenished us for the next day.

Over coffee, I browsed through Inverness Falls' scrapbook. I learned that there's been more than one reported UFO sighting in Whiteshell's history. The place was indeed eerily beautiful.

Later that morning, after some cross-country skiing in the forests, we squeezed a movie into our afternoon. Lots of time for a soak in the whirlpool, too. A tasty lunch and a dinner of teriyaki chicken arrived with no effort on our part.

On our final morning, the fridge at Inverness Falls was still full of food, but today was transport day. En route home, in a chauffeured car, the countryside whizzed by wistfully.

 

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