Chapter 7: Manitoba, Canada’s heart beats.

Time seems to have really flown by since my last post, which I guess is just a result of what a good time we’ve been having. We truly fell for Quebec, finishing our month there by visiting Montreal, a vibrant and exciting city, then cycling along the river to Gatineau. We had met Lise at a cafe in New Brunswick, and it was such a treat to stay with her for a few days, enjoying dipping our toes in and out of Ontario by visiting Ottawa, and then exploring Gatineau Provincial Park, hiking and kayaking.

After spending so long in Quebec, we were quite behind schedule and it is no surprise or secret that we skipped Ontario. We were going to be mostly on highway 17 and every cyclist we’d met told us how unsafe and unenjoyable this road was. We even met a lady who told us a truck had even hit her bag and broke her mirror, without even realising or stopping. So with all options considered, we took a bus from Ottawa to Winnipeg. It took 36 hours to travel the 2200km that it would take us about a month to cycle. And looking at the nonexistent shoulder, heavy truck traffic and lack of scenery, we were pretty happy with our decision.

I’m a very needy girlfriend, so my boyfriend Paul had organised to meet us in Winnipeg, the geographical half way point of our journey. Rolling up to our AirBnB and getting that long awaited cuddle was pretty special. We hadn’t planned too much for the week he was with us, except a few days relaxing in Winnipeg then hiring a car to explore northern Manitoba a bit. People in the east hadn’t spoken too highly of Winnipeg, most saying what a shame it was that Paul wasn’t meeting us in Montreal, Ottawa or BC… So we didn’t have very high expectations. The suburban area we were staying in was beautiful, with cute shops and cafés perfect for wandering and catching up on two months worth of coffee chats. We checked out the human rights museum which was seriously amazing, and were lucky enough to be in Winnipeg at the same time as the Canada Games (a sort of adolescent Olympics) so managed to stumble across a free festival with good beer and outdoor music.

After a couple of days we were raring to get out of the city to explore. We picked up the car on Sunday lunchtime and instantly set off for a day trip to Winnipeg beach. When we’re cycling, we know that if someone tells us something is a one hour drive away that it will take us one full day to cycle, so it was such a treat to drive the hour to Lake Winnipeg for just a little afternoon trip. Standing on the shore we were unable to see the other side, so although we were in the middle of Canada it felt like we were beside the ocean.

We wandered around eating ice cream and enjoying the sunshine, before making the most of our final night with Netflix and a couch to relax on.

Monday morning arrived and we set off early in search of some wilderness. We’d gone in to the tourist information centre in Winnipeg and a very friendly and knowledgeable girl had circled a few places on our map. First stop was Steep Rock. We followed the long, straight roads for a few hours, before following the gravel roads sign posted to Steep Rock.

Arriving at the lake side felt like we’d stepped out of the car in to the Caribbean. We met Pete, who after lots of travel in central and south America had come back to Steep Rock and opened a boat rental shack on the side of the lake. He had it complete with hammocks, palm trees and Latin music and it was just awesome. We hired a three person kayak and visited his pet goats on the island in the middle of the lake, jamp off the wharf in to the crystal waters, and relaxed and ate peanut butter sandwiches on his hammocks. I could have spent all week there.

We reluctantly left, still with our eyes on the prize of getting as north as we could. We drove for another couple of hours, covering days of cycling without seeing anything but straight roads and trees. We passed through a couple of first nation communities and were blown away by the amount of missing person ads in the local gas stations. In the human rights museum, we’d learnt that a shocking amount of indigenous women go missing in Canada every year, many cases remaining unsolved decades later, and it was harrowing to see the posters of local teenage girls and women missing right now.

We continued north to the next destination circled on our map – Little Limestone Lake. Pete at Steep Rock also told us it was the secret jewel of Manitoba so were excited to see what was in store for us. As it was a provincial park, we were expecting one of the tell tale brown signs marking a tourist attraction, which is why we actually drove past the road to the lake twice before eventually driving down it third time lucky. It was a first nation reserve and unfortunately the camping area was littered with used nappies, beer cans and toilet roll.. but the lake itself was stunning. It’s the largest marl lake in the world, meaning the waters change colour with temperature. It was an opaque green when we arrived, so we set up our tents in the woods, cooked dinner and went for a swim.

We shared this secret spot with just one other couple from Winnipeg and in the morning Paul and I had the water all to ourselves. It had changed to a chalky blue in the early sun and was a perfect escape from the mosquitos. But still, the north beckoned so we quickly ate our peanut butter sandwiches while swotting the blood sucking b***yards and drove away with the windows down hoping to rid ourselves from them all.

Our next stop was another couple of hours north at Pisew Falls. The forest lined road opened up a bit on the way, and we passed over a few rivers and admired lakes that were hardly even marked on the map. Pisew Falls itself was incredible, the second biggest waterfall in Manitoba (the first was a 22km hike downriver) and we enjoyed yet another tourist free spot. Northern Manitoba is not on everyone’s travel bucket list, and we were lucky to share most of it with locals or weekending Winnipegers.

We considered doing the hike to the other waterfall, but our lack of gear and supplies made us make the sensible decision and we just enjoyed a swim in the river instead.

Our last destination heading north was just a half hour drive away at Paint Lake. We’d met an older couple at the falls who were enjoying their fresh fish catch, so this inspired Paul to buy a fishing rod and see what delights we could have for dinner. Unfortunately, the only fish he caught (while neither Kirsty or I were around) got away so the vege pasta we planned had to do…Followed by marshmallows on the fire of course.

Paint lake is in the region dubbed as the wolf capital of the world, and we had the pleasure of being woken by howling multiple times in the night. They sounded far enough away not be actually worried, but thanks to my over active imagination I had some pretty vivid dreams.

We woke up to a dreary morning so treated ourselves to a shower and breakfast at the campsite restaurant. The only other guests were anglers looking forward to a day on the boat, and (for lack of a better word) it all felt very Canadian. We stuffed our faces with pancakes and coffee, and admired the pictures on the wall of the northern lights as seen from the lake. The waitress told us that now usually was a good time to see them, but it was just a shame the nights had been so cloudy. We had to start making our way back down south, so we accepted the fact that this trip probably wasn’t going to be a northern lights one.

We stopped at the river by Pisew Falls on the way back down, and Kirsty and Paul had a fishing battle. Paul with his shop bought rod and Kirsty with a pretty big stick and piece of line. Amazingly, both caught fish within minutes! We ended up with two pike and one pickerel for dinner…But just Paul and I would be sampling the delights as Kirsty was well and truly grossed out. Think it was the standing on the fish’s head that did it…

With a trunk full of fish we continued south, sticking close to the Sesketchewan border. We stopped at Clear Lake, initially at the provincial camp ground… But after not being too keen to pitch our tents on the gravel they try to sell off as sites, the receptionist told us about a secret grassy spot just down the road. It was perfect. We cooked and ate our fish on the wharf and my oh my it was delicious!! The pickerel especially was super tasty. We enjoyed the long sunset and went to bed happy, content with our last night of camping before Paul had to head home and we had to get back on the bikes.

My bladder seems to have got in to the habit of waking me up at 4 or 5am every night, and after more wolf howling I got Paul to come out at the same time. He looked up tiredly at the sky and said “I think that’s the northern lights.” What initially looked like cloud cover soon started moving like smoke and we realised it was indeed the Aurora Borealis that we were looking at. We woke Kirsty up and all enjoyed the unique patterns in the sky, before Paul and I climbed back in to our tent.

Ten minutes later, Kirsty woke us back up saying she thought the lights were getting brighter. And five minutes after that the sky was dancing! We couldn’t believe what we were seeing, the sky was so clear, the sun was just beginning to rise in the east and we had the northern lights in all their glory dancing right above our heads. It was an incredible moment and certainly one I will cherish forever.

We were all on a high afterwards and took a while to get back to sleep. We woke up dreary the next day but then quickly became hyper again as we remembered the magic from the night before. We began the long drive south to where Paul would drop us before heading to the airport, and spent most of the day reflecting on how lucky we’d been to be camping on our own in that wild spot, and wake up at just the right moment.

We expected very little from northern Manitoba, but it gave us the perfect playground for the wilderness Kirsty and I had been longing for for the last few weeks. The time we had there has been my highlight so far, and the memories we made will be cherished for years to come.

I said a sad “see you soon” to Paul as he left early the next morning for the airport and his flight home, and Kirsty and I set off for the Saskatchewan border and the long prairies that were waiting for us. Thanks Manitoba, you were just perfect. Rocky Mountains… We’re coming for you!!

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