What is Wasagaming? Riding Mountain National Park, Manitoba Escarpment


What is Wasagaming? The name has its origins in the Anishanabe term, “washagama saageygun”, meaning “clear water lake”.

Wasagaming, on the second day of official fall September 2016, is almost empty of tourists or even residents. When I drove into the village, there was hardly a human in sight. This place is the commercial concession serving Manitoba's Riding Mountain National Park. Seven Anishinaabe communities recognize the park as part of their traditional territories.

The surrounding woods are already fixated on winter. Dots of yellow and orange poplars are scattered amidst somber pine/spruce trees arranged around the perimeter of a vast watershed, Clear Lake, fed by underground springs. A restaurant or two are offering service, although the one I and my fellow traveller chose for lunch will close tomorrow for the season.​

Eager to get a look at the parkland, our itinerary followed each of the main public roads criss-crossing the high country (Routes 10 and 19), including some dirt and gravel lanes. The place promised to scare up some wildlife, but actually delivered a meager reward in this regard. One bull moose on a ridge backlit by the morning sun gave about 5 minutes of its time to our curiosity. One Riding Mountain bison, near Audy Lake, devoured grasses at the roadside virtually within arms length. I nosed my vehicle along side (no other humans were around) but my foot hovered over the gas pedal in case the animal displayed a disposition to do battle. This beast ignored us, offering insult but no injury.

I frankly couldn't determine if this self-assured brute was a "wood" bison or a "plains" bison, or polluted hybrid. The animal kingdom classifiers say wood bison are heavier than the plains variety, weighing up to 2000 pounds. The highest shoulder of the wood buffalo is ahead of its front legs, while the plains bison's highest point is directly above those legs. Wood bison also have larger horn cores, darker and woollier pelages (hair/fur), and less hair on their forelegs and beards, according to reference sources.

In 1858 Henry Youle Hind, a professor of biology and chemistry at the University of Toronto, became one of the first Canadian explorers and surveyors of this place, and present-day Manitoba and Saskatchewan. The forest reserve, preserving tree species like tamarack, fir, alder, pine and spruce, was set aside as a national park in 1929 and officially declared Riding Mountain National Park on May 30, 1933. It was the first national park in Manitoba, and one of the first in western Canada.

Much of the public infrastructure in the park was created during the 1930s by laborers participating in Canada's great depression relief programs. Then, during World War II the park hosted the Whitewater labor camp for German prisoners-of-war (those facilities have since been torn down).​​

Thirty years ago, in 1986, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated the park and surrounding area Riding Mountain Biosphere Reserve, as part of its Man and the Biosphere Programme.

Elk, porcupines, coyotes, moose, timber wolves, beavers, lynxes, white-tailed deer, snowshoe hares, and cougars are among the animals that roam within the boundaries. A wild bison enclosure is located near Lake Audy. These buffalo were originally reintroduced from Alberta in 1931. Only about 40 captive bison (buffalo) can be spotted here, however. In 2017 a part of this herd was transferred west to inhabit grazing land in the Banff National Park of Canada, once again introducing the beast to Alberta.

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