Diary of a Visit in Manitoba
When I visited the park this past summer with my husband, who uses a walking stick, and my daughter, who’s a wheelchair user, I wanted to see how accessible it was for anyone who has difficulty with mobility, like our family does.
Parks Canada’s program to make its 36 national parks, marine conservation areas, national historic sites and eight of its canals accessible for all Canadians has been cut now for several years. How would we fare?
Staff training in awareness, their courtesy and experience and the changes made at the park made our time there relaxing and fun, not a chore.
Over 2,000 square feet above sea level, Riding Mountain National Park is a mix of natural beauty and cultivated colour. Visitors who use a wheelchair and who love nature are well rewarded here. After visiting the Administration Centre, possibly catching a lecture or enjoying a talk from the head gardener, you can head out along the lakeshore on a boardwalk made from recycled plastic. You can travel the trails marked accessible with some confidence, and experience wilderness and simply inhale the beauty which is Manitoba.
The park is 273 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, along a flat portion of the Trans-Canada Highway just past Portage la Prairie, then north up the Yellowhead Highway to Number 10. The second highway is single lane, with passing lanes across most hills. It’s prairie driving, with scattered traffic, often some farming machinery, past Gladstone with its Happy Rock and towns like Neepawa, birthplace of writer Margaret Laurence.
Inside the park, many buildings in the town of Wasagaming are log constructions; others are fake Tudor. The setting is pure Canadian — towering 80-foot spruce, rocks dominated by a large, brilliant blue lake called Clear Lake. Throughout the almost 3,000 square kilometres of park, the terrain tips up and down in an unprairie-like way. From the elm-shaded park along the waterfront to the more isolated little lakes, with only a hard gravel road as access, you feel you’re in wilderness, occasionally punctuated by humans. In the summer, Wasagaming is very crowded, though nothing like Banff or Jasper. The smaller lakes are quiet.
In early to middle September, the crowds have thinned; the shops are offering sales and the restaurant queues are shorter. Teenagers still hang out in the curved traffic lane in front of the Visitors Centre. Their coloured spiked hair and skateboards compete in typical teenage rivalry. It’s a loosely formed, constantly changing crowd — but in 1997, when we visited, there were no female skateboarders!
You have to travel around the accessible Visitors Centre to the back to find the entrance without steps. Following the curved sidewalk along the cedar-bordered garden, it’s a natural way to go. Behind the old building is a small prairie cactus and succulent garden, and a water fountain to make a wish. Each year, the garden must be dug outwards as the cedars advance.
We stopped at the Centre to pick up a Quickie wheelchair — described as a medium-sized, all-terrain vehicle. My 50-pound daughter found it comfortable without adjustment, and it managed the trails well. The Centre also has a very large adult all-terrain chair which looked comfortable but cumbersome because of its size. These chairs and a couple of specialized child strollers were available to borrow, free. Book in advance. Our daughter loved trying all three chairs to choose her own.
The Trail Guide inside the old fieldstone building runs on a touch screen at an accessible height. If you cannot see, the computer’s voice highlights aloud the trails and boardwalks into the bush, through a marsh and down to the beach without too many bumps. There are countless trails throughout the park to tackle, but tree roots are a hazard.
In front of the fire, a looseleaf binder chronicles the accessible features of the park. The exhibits are all tactile; audio tapes facilitate the visit, with good descriptive phrases to help the listener see what is there. No animals were destroyed to produce the magnificent Interpretation Centre that explains the topography and the animals you could encounter throughout the park — including moose, black bears, deer, raccoon, beavers and the inimitable Richardson’s ground and the thirteen-stripe squirrels. Canada geese wander freely throughout the public park, but you have to go away from the townsite to find any of the other animals.
The theatre in the Centre is accessible: it hosts regular lectures about the park. Every Thursday morning at 10:30, head gardener Hugh Penwarden delivers a “Meet the Gardener” lecture, which is extremely well attended. If you aren’t early, you may have to listen at the door. Penwarden is a very approachable man, always enthusiastic about the exquisite gardens he’s created, using companion planting and composts to rid them of bugs. The dramatic, 700-foot border garden, edged with white allysium, is a favourite with park patrons. Penwarden redug all the original beds and has replaced imported annuals with hardier perennials, including many lush lilies.
The gardens throughout are accessible, from the border garden to the Victory garden outside the Visitors Centre to the wishing well garden at the opposite end of the lake.
There are dropped curbs in all of the public spaces of Wasagaming. Travel throughout the town is easy — but it is difficult to spend money. Many of the shops still have a single step or more which prohibit entrance.
The Wigwam Restaurant is an institution itself in the town. Built in the 1928-29 season by O.J. and Ernest Gunsdal, it is sheathed in logs. The small step outside can be overcome, with some work. Inside, spaces have been left at the table for wheelchairs as a matter of course. The food is good traditional fare with portions slightly too large. The restaurant’s interior has a feeling of its own history without being cute. Don’t drink too much, however, because the bathrooms are impossible. Unless you can leave your wheels at the door, you won’t fit inside.
Throughout the town, the washrooms are a disaster. The one on the beach has a cumbersome, heavy door with no automatic entry. If you enter with a bang, you squash the unfortunate using the hand dryer. The sinks are hard to use and the hand dryer is high.
Restaurants like the White House Bakery and Restaurant and the Pizza Place are completely accessible, and staff are familiar with and not nonplussed by the entrance of vehicles of various sizes. It’s a nice change.
Wheelchair users as well as walkers with visual or hearing disabilities are welcomed on the guided tours. The staff have been trained to accommodate, not patronize, and some of the training has remained intact despite the years since the training.
We opted for the unguided Marsh Walk because we love the marsh and visit Winnipeg’s Fort Whyte Environmental Centre regularly. The comparison did not bode well; at the park we met no wildlife. (At Fort Whyte, we are spoiled by the presence of deer, ducks, geese and other wildlife, winter and summer.) On the Marsh Walk, you must focus on other pleasures. For two dollars you can get a marsh kit with a stable magnifying glass, although the net needs a longer handle to be useful.
The trail is 1.9 kilometres, with enough marsh plant life to muffle the presence of other humans. The signage is excellent, with plenty of good natural information. The handrail doesn’t work for left-handed cane carriers like my husband. He could have taken the trail backwards, but the exit is not marked!
It’s fun fishing for insects and swamp swimmers, and the marsh is only a short walk from a boat launch and a bike trail which hardier wheelchair patrons, like us, can challenge and enjoy. Our loaned all-terrain Quickie worked well travelling across grass and well-packed sand, bumps and beach.
The highlight of our two-day visit was our trek along the Boreal Island Trail, a 25-kilometre drive north up Highway Ten. The boreal forest has a cedar boardwalk as well as some hard-packed sand and gravel. It’s steep at the start. Going downward takes muscle. You have to pull, not push, the all-terrain, digging your heels in and going down sideways.
It’s hard to say whether the natural isolated beauty or the silence is more stunning. Tall black pines tower over the trail. The forest floor, carpeted with moss, camomile and wild raspberry, produces succulent fruit right through September. Black spruce and tamarack exist alongside the white and black pine; mushrooms and deep moss proliferate as you get deeper into the trail and inhale the dampness. Ferns hold drops of moisture intact “a la Walt Disney.” Steps are made from roots. You travel through bog and it’s beautiful. There are signs of deer, and we saw and heard the occasional squirrel. We were warned of moose but weren’t fortunate enough to see any. Nor did we hear the bugling. But this is an accessible trail not to miss.
At the campsites and more isolated lakes, the washrooms are a treat. These cement structures with log roofs and a skylight that lets in light or lets you see the stars, depending on the time of day, are accessible and comfortably roomy. Cement sidewalks or hard-packed gravel provide access. Seats are raised with handles.
“The Canadian Parks Service still considers itself a leading force in the provisions for disabled persons,” says Bob Fern, who was responsible for coordinating the National Parks’ Access Program.
“All the changes made have been to the better for everyone. Everyone likes things more tactile, for instance, whether they have a visual impairment or not. I look forward to the program being revitalized soon.”
Call to get information before visiting any national parks or historic sites. The most northerly parks, like Kluane in the Yukon, have made only the Visitors Centre accessible. None of the original guidebooks outlining the sites’ features of accessibility are still available. You may have to search to find someone in the offices who knows anything about the Accessibility Program, but the information is there. Persist. It took me several phone calls, some strident, to get the information I needed.
(Sarah Yates is a freelance writer living in Winnipeg, Manitoba.)