Manitoba hiking trails, canoe routes and backcountry campsites feel the pandemic effect

While outdoor recreation has been growing in popularity for years, the pandemic has brought Manitobans into the wilderness in numbers that appear to be unprecedented. 

Heavy use leads Manitoba Parks to draw up new trails strategy, make some immediate changes

A sunrise over Mantario Lake in late September. The Mantario Trail has seen heavy use this fall, with reports of hundreds of through-hikers on the September long weekend alone. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

During the May long weekend, so many people hiked the Spirit Sands in Spruce Woods Provincial Park, parks staff scrambled to expand the parking lot on Highway 5 to prevent long lines of vehicles from snaking down the road.

At the height of the summer, hundreds of paddlers at a time descended on the Caddy Lakes area of Whiteshell Provincial Park, where there are fewer than a dozen backcountry campsites.

During September, hikers reported congestion on the heavily used Hunt Lake day-use trail and unusual numbers of backpackers along the 63-kilometre Mantario Trail. 

While outdoor recreation has been growing in popularity for years, the pandemic has brought Manitobans into the wilderness in numbers that appear to be unprecedented. 

"That trend has been growing year after year, but the pandemic has definitely exacerbated it," said Sloan Cathcart, the head of interpretation for Manitoba Parks.

The heavy use of provincial day-hiking trails, backcountry campsites and canoe routes bodes well for the health of Manitobans as well as the engagement with nature.

But it's also revealed inadequacies of backcountry infrastructure in provincial parks — and the need to improve it.

More campgrounds, more trails

"We don't have as many parks as we need, we don't have as many services like campgrounds or backcountry trails," said Eric Reder, a campaigner for the Wilderness Committee.

"Going forward, we need backcountry trails, we need more campgrounds and we need more protected areas."

Most of Manitoba's trails, canoe routes and backcountry campsites were established in the 1970s and and 1980s, when the provincial parks system was expanded significantly.

Since then, trail construction has largely fallen to volunteer organizations, while the province has struggled to maintain existing infrastructure.

Manitoba is now about to create a new trails strategy with an eye to creating some new outdoor recreation routes and managing areas that heavily used right now.

"Knowing that a lot of our trail systems were built long ago, we're looking at how they're being used and how changes have occurred over the years," Cathcart said,

"As an example, in the wintertime, we see way more hikers now than we ever had. Decades ago, it used to be only skiers, so we only have ski trails. But now we see hikers everywhere [in the winter]."

Review will find funding for improvements

Cathcart said the review will look at how the province can create new trails and backcountry campsites, maintain existing infrastructure and find the funding required for all of it.

Under successive NDP and Progressive Conservative governments, the province provided parks with relatively flat funding over the past two decades.

One solution, Cathcart said, would involve reducing regulatory barriers for trail groups that want to help develop and maintain trails.

The south trailhead parking lot on the Mantario Trail on Sept. 6. Trail users estimate more than 200 people used the 63-kilometre trail over the September long weekend. (Cindy Reynolds/Facebook)

The new strategy won't be complete until 2021, he said. In the mean time, Manitoba Parks are planning some immediate improvements for heavily used areas of Whiteshell Provincial Park.

The parking lot at the Hunt Lake trail should be expanded this fall, he said, while the province is looking at closing down some overused campsites in the Caddy Lakes area to allow the forest to regenerate — and replacing them with new campsites, ideally with new signage and amenities.

"We need better signage on the [Whiteshell] River, put up a proper trailhead and mapping and add some online resources, so people can plan better," Cathcart said.

Backcountry infrastructure boost

Looking farther into the future, Cathcart said the province is looking at improving the backcountry infrastructure in central and northern Manitoba, which also saw more visitors this summer.

One priority is creating proper campsites — with bear-proof food-storage boxes, backcountry toilets and picnic tables — along the Kwasitchewan Falls hiking loop north of Wabowden, Cathcart said.

He also said he'd like to see new trails established in the underutilized north side of Duck Mountain Provincial Park and better establish canoe campsites along the entire Grass River corridor, from the Cranberry Lakes near Flin Flon to Paint Lake closer to Thompson.

Cathcart also said the province may expand the backcountry campsite reservation system already in use along hiking and paddling routes in Nopiming Provincial Park.

Expect critters and company

In the mean time, Manitobans who use provincial trails and paddling routes can expect more company outdoors, from people as well as rodents.

Manitoba Parks have thus far been spared the worst of a pandemic phenomenon that's emerged in Alberta and Minnesota, where novice backcountry users have been blamed for trashing campsites by leaving behind garbage or chopping down trees.

Nonetheless, there were widespread reports of campsite field mouse infestations in the Whiteshell this fall. 

"We always emphasize: leave no trace. It's one of the most important messages this summer with the sheer volume of users," Cathcart said.

"It's great to see people picking up litter and stuff as they go along. Even though we do have increased garbage and in some issues in some areas, we also see more people caring for parks as well."


Bartley Kives

Senior reporter, CBC Manitoba

Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba.