Welcome to A Walk in the Park, our series of profiles of Canada’s National Parks. By Ned Morgan.
Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park boasts over 3000 square km of boreal forest, aspen parkland, Escarpment features, wilderness lakes and rivers, rolling fescue prairie, and MTB trails. In the midst of a primarily agricultural area of the province, Riding Mountain preserves a myriad backcountry that is home to wolves, moose, elk, black bear, hundreds of bird species, and a captive bison herd.
Riding Mountain obtained official status in 1930 and opened in 1933. The East Gate National Historic Site is an example of the Rustic Design tradition of the 1930s. Local craftsmen, hired through the Federal Government’s Depression Relief Program, fashioned the gate using materials from the region.
In addition to its Rustic past, Riding Mountain also boasts the just-launched oTENTik shelters for family camping, available from mid-May to late September.
The park’s backcountry is big and wild enough that during the Second World War it safely held German prisoners of war. The PoW camp‘s relatively lax regime allowed the enemy to canoe on Whitewater Lake. Not only that – the prisoners even made their own canoes.
From 1943-45, the captive Germans – mostly Afrika Korps captured in Egypt after the Second Battle of El-Alamein in 1942 – fashioned an unknown number of dugout canoes in their spare time. Though allowed to canoe on the lake, permanent escape for the paddlers was all but a geographical impossibility. The handcrafted canoes may have been hypothetical getaway vessels, but even if the prisoners paddled and portaged for weeks, they’d still be in the centre of an enemy continent.
Last year, Vancouver-born Stanford University scholar Adrian Myers completed his PhD dissertation on the camp; he and his team uncovered six PoW-built canoes at Whitewater Lake in varying states of decay. “This was a labour detachment sent to Riding Mountain National Park for the purpose of logging. So as the prisoners came across trees that were big enough, they set them aside for recreational use,” says Myers, who identified the canoemakers’ likely tools: a bow saw, axes, chisels, hammers and knives. Mature fir, spruce, or poplar trees logged from the surrounding forests probably provided the raw material.
In addition to the canoes identified in situ and two preserved at Fort Dauphin Museum, more probably existed. “The historical documentation mentions a flotilla,” says Myers. “They might’ve made 20 or 30.”
You can visit the remote site – but not in May and June, since it is a calving ground for elk – by hiking, cycling or horseback riding to Whitewater Lake along Central Trail. In addition to the canoes, traces of a foundation remain.