Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 23, 2017
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Ride into the sunset

Under-visited, underappreciated and undiscovered Manitoba

Ask someone about 3000-square-kilometre Riding Mountain National Park and you may get a blank stare. Actually, you may get a blank stare if you ask about nature parks in Manitoba, a province that writer Bartley Kives, in A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba, calls “under-visited, underappreciated and undiscovered.”

Manitoba (tel: 800-665-0040; www.travelmanitoba.com), in the minds of most Canadians, he says, is a vast wheat field populated by parka-wearing bumpkins with a fondness for snowmobiles and ice fishing. The purpose of his book, he claims, is to shed a little light on this jewel in the rough. This seems a commendable purpose, so I make it my purpose, too.

The area that I decided to explore is the Parkland area, a huge, triangle-shaped chunk of Western Manitoba that takes its name from its two largest natural areas — Riding Mountain National Park and Duck Mountain Provincial Park. Riding Mountain is the only road-accessible national park in the province, and it contains a wealth of wildlife. There’s also the largest network of cross-country ski trails in Manitoba, as well as opportunity for hiking, mountain biking, fishing, horseback riding and much more.

In the park, my small group of tourists clustered around our guide, Celes Davar, the head honcho and founder of Earth Rhythms (tel: 888-301-0030; www.earthrhythms.ca), an ecotourism company that provides learning and craft experiences for small groups who want to experience nature and culture in this part of Manitoba. His company has a whole battery of community partners — artists, beekeepers, naturalists, musicians, chefs, aboriginal teachers, cattle ranchers and research scientists — who all add their insights into the traditions and ecology of the area.


Cache Me If You Can

Furrowing our brows, we tried to look technologically tuned in as we clutched the small, cellphone-like gadgets he had given us for our crash course in the use of Global Positioning Units. We were taking a crack at geocaching, one of the fastest growing new adventure games in the world, all made possible by the Internet and, of course, these small GPS units.

This new passion didn’t exist until 2000, when then-President Bill Clinton removed the “selected availability” classification from 24 satellites around the globe and improved the accuracy of GPS technology tenfold. With this move anyone could precisely pinpoint the location of objects to within two metres anywhere in the world. Like Athena springing from Zeus’ head, geocaching was born.

This is a high-tech treasure hunt that allows anyone with access to a computer and a low-cost GPS unit to take part in searches for “caches,” clues for which are left on a website ( www.geocaching.com ). It’s now estimated that there are more than a half million caches in over 100 countries and seven continents including Antarctica.

Davar divided our group in two teams (the Aspen Leaves and the Oak Burls) and then handed out navigation sheets for the Golden Geocache hidden somewhere in the park. It took a bit of walking around in circles before my team (the Aspen Leaves) finally got the hang of the units and were on our way to the first waypoint.

Here, our first objective was to find a pencil sketch of a bird somewhere in a window — bingo, we found a sketch of an owl. This discovery was pencilled onto a kind of a crossword sheet before we jumped into our car and headed off to the next waypoint, which we suspected might be some kind of a lab. We had to discover what kind of samples had been dropped off there. So far we were ahead of the Oak Burls by a nose.

The chase continued, and we searched for symbols on a boundary marker, the name of a farm and the genus of a particular kind of shrub, until we reached the final destination, a coffee shop-cum-store where we asked for a copy of the South Mountain Press. In it, there was an article about a house concert and we had to identify the band’s name.

Our rivals had reached the store and were searching for a CD — but the Aspen Leaves were triumphant! We got our hands on it just before they did. As a yardstick of how much fun we’d had, at least four Aspen Leaves were peppering Davar with questions about how they could get their own GPS units.


Va Va Va Moose

The next morning, we stood shivering on the edge of a sedge meadow, at a far too early hour, wishing we had brought warmer clothes. It was mid-September, but tentative snowflakes were drifting down and the temperature hovered around zero. Never mind, it was elk rutting season, and, if we were lucky, we would witness an elk passion play that would provide dinner party conversation for months to come.

According to Davar (who was once a Riding Mountain forest ranger), this meadow was created by beavers that once had a pond here and then vamoosed. Sedge is the first thing that comes back after beaver ponds dry up and elk absolutely crave sedge.

We were in the park to learn how to “bugle” which is the sound a male elk makes when he has fire in his loins and wants to make sure his harem is intact. An elk will have as many as 30 cows and is protective of each one — if an interloper tries to woo away even one little lady, the elk bull will get completely apoplectic.

Davar first performed a female moose call but the ladies seemed to be engaged elsewhere. He then played us a tape of male elk bugling; the sounds start deep and resonant and then morph into a high-pitched squeal, ending in a bunch of grunts. As far as love calls go, it doesn’t sound like much — more like the elk just sat on the campfire. Davar then pulled out a couple of his homemade “bugles” which he blows to create a remarkable facsimile of what we heard on tape. We then took turns on his devices — one is a piece of garden hose and the other an adapted child’s baseball bat. The meadow remained empty — either it was the wrong time of the day or our bugling was sub-par.

On the way to breakfast at Lake Audy, we drove through the captive bison range in the wildest part of the park. Here, about three dozen bison of all ages grazed nonchalantly in their three-square-kilometre enclosure, unconcerned that humans were hanging out of their van snapping shots from every angle. In fact, the beasts were so uninterested in our presence that they grazed scant feet away and wandered across the road in front of our vehicle. Davar cautioned that we should stay in the car because, as docile as they seem, bison can be aggressive and can sprint up to 50 kilometre an hour.

Whatever we were expecting, breakfast in a covered shelter was a surprise. One of Earth Rhythms’ partners is Elkhorn Resort (tel: 866-355-4676; www.elkhornresort.mb.ca), a four-star resort nestled in the park, where we happened to be staying in cosy cottages. The resort had laid on a gargantuan breakfast put together on site by a chef. There were elk sausages, toad-in-the-hole, platters of fresh fruit, freshly squeezed orange juice and muffins made from seasonal berries. All of this on white tablecloths with real cutlery and dinnerware. It was like a luxury safari.

“Eat hearty,” urged Davar. “We have a long day ahead of us.”

By the evening, Davar had promised us a surprise at an historic log restaurant on the Clear Lake Golf Course. As we walked in we heard harp music and saw a young woman, Ann Germani, plucking away. There were chairs arranged in a semicircle around Ann, each with either a harp or a drum in front, and she invited us to sit down. After a few exclamations of “ya gotta be kidding,” we each picked up a harp or drum for a lesson in the art of making music when you don’t know what the heck you’re doing.

For the first experiment, Ann directed us to pluck or beat out what we thought “sleepy music” would sound like. We beat and plucked with gusto and instead of total cacophony, it didn’t sound all that bad. From there, we went on to “merry music” and then “melancholy music.” It wasn’t exactly the Vienna Philharmonic but, for total neophytes, it was a start.

A “green” buffet dinner made from heritage-farmed local ingredients followed — a vast spread of toothy breads made from locally milled grains, and a crisp and delicious duck bought just hours before from Hutterite women, all washed down with fine Fort Garry Pale Ale.

One of the park’s big attractions is a network of biking and hiking trails, some of which we tried out the following morning. During one, Davar asked us to put ourselves in the hooves of the elk and see the forest through non-human eyes. During another, we encountered an expert naturalist who, like an arboreal Hercule Poirot, deduced a wealth of information from a wolf skull he was holding.

One walk we didn’t have time for was the 17-kilometre day hike to Grey Owl’s Cabin. In 1931, the Englishman-cum-naturalist-cum-native (popularized in the film Grey Owl) lived in the Park with his two pet beavers and served as a “caretaker of animals.”


Banff East?

The first thing I noticed when we drove into the nearby town of Wasagaming was how much it resembled Banff 50 years ago. I half expected a moose to walk up the street. The shops are quaint, there’s no neon and the folks are, well, folksy. There’s the usual visitors centre and museum but also the largest log cinema in North America that shows first-run movies. The town (whose name means “clear water” in Cree) sits on a chilly clear lake called… you guessed it, Clear Lake.

While there were more adventures with Earth Rhythms in the park, one of best visits was a day spent in and around Dauphin
( www.dauphin.ca/tou.php ), 15 kilometres north of Riding Mountain. It’s the largest community in the Parkland region. We started by learning all about bee keeping, honey making and candle dipping.

The star attraction in Dauphin, however, is Ukrainian culture — but don’t expect to find any holopsy (cabbage rolls) on the menu of a local eatery. For some reason, there isn’t a single restaurant in town that features Ukrainian delicacies.

What you can see, however, is the Byzantine-domed Ukrainian Catholic Church of the Resurrection, an arts centre and a rail museum. The Fort Dauphin Museum is one place where we finally found an answer to our question: why are there so many Ukrainians in a town named after a French crown prince?

You might hear about how the French king’s son (the Dauphin) helped Ukrainians emigrate to Canada, but alas, as romantic as it is, the story is apocryphal. French explorer De La Vérendrye actually named Lake Dauphin in 1739, long before there were any Ukranians heading for the New World — or a Canada for that matter.

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