Each Victoria Day weekend since I can remember, our family made the drive up through the flat prairie lands west and north of Winnipeg, past the small towns of Gladstone and Neepawa and continuing on to Minnedosa, where the land starts to rise and the wheat fields and dome of prairie skies give way to scrubby ranches - eventually sloping up steeply as the slender poplars and pines of the "mountain" come into view.
That mountain was the hill at the centre of Riding Mountain National Park, a place I return to year after year even though I now live more than 2,000 kilometres away.
As we neared the park, I would roll down the windows and breathe in air cleaner and fresher than anywhere on Earth. Antsy to get to the cabin, I would burst from the car the moment we came to a stop to rediscover all the forgotten corners - from the old woodstove in the corner to the Peanuts sheets on our beds to the detailed pastoral scene my mom had painted along the back wall of the cottage.
Then I would jump on my bike for the 10-minute ride to the lake: I needed to get to the shore, to sift tiny stones through my hand, to finally plunge it in to get a sense of how cold it was. Some years, the ice was barely off the water.
The real star of Riding Mountain is that lake: It's rocky and chilly, but the colour draws you in. It can change from an ominous green on stormy days to deep blue on sunny days to a Caribbean turquoise when the wind is up and sailboats are out. The best part is that you can see straight down to the bottom, which is why the lake and townsite are also known as Clear Lake.
You need to be confident to conquer this body of water, and not just because it's cold. Except for the main beach and boardwalk, which the locals scoff at and say is for the tourists (it's good for people-watching), there are few natural sand beaches. Getting in requires strong feet and pure grit. You have to manoeuvre over the shore's slippery and sometimes sharp rocks to make your way into the deeper water, where you can dive down and search for crayfish and the prettiest stones on the bottom. The thrill of taking the plunge is always worth it.
Riding Mountain was designated a national park in 1933, and for the longest time was used as a seasonal campground. My grandparents first bought a "permanent campsite" and built a tiny cottage in the 1950s. In the early years, people built tiny wood shanties that the park required be moved in and out each season on a trailer, but eventually cottagers were allowed to leave the buildings on the site year-round. That area is still known as "the old campground" and liking your neighbours is a must, since you're only 1.5 metres from them.
To this day, the resort town is replete with log structures built during the Depression by the down-on-their-luck through a government employment program. You can still see a movie at North America's largest log theatre, which opened in 1937, and check out interpretive displays of park flora and fauna at the visitor centre, designated a federal heritage building.
At the main beach, you can listen to live music at the retro log bandstand (it's even got musical notes carved around the top) at events like Canada Day celebrations, eat at the WigWam restaurant (a Manitoba Heritage building), or rent a tandem or four-person bicycle (with a roof) and tour the streets.
Anyone up for a hike should make a beeline for the Clear Lake trail. You can start at a number of points along the lake and hike the circumference in about 24 hours. Taking tents and supplies is recommended, of course. If you want a much shorter hike, or a great one to do with younger kids, try the Ominik marsh walk. It's accessible from town and is so well maintained you can take strollers the entire 1.9 kilometres.
My love for Riding Mountain was instilled in me mostly by my father, Grant, and his younger sister, my Aunt Mary-Ann, who spent their childhood summers going to Friday-night dances at a large hall called Danceland (which still hosts concerts and weddings) and roller skating - with about 500 of their friends. Eventually, after both got married, they ended up with their own properties at Riding Mountain. Our cottage was a humble farmhouse moved across the province on a trailer, but my aunt and uncle's was much more spectacular: Their spacious log cabin was built shortly after the park opened. It was named "Upsan Downs" because it was built at the top of a steep hill and had great views, but to get to the water's edge you had to navigate a stairway hewn into the side of the hill with rickety poplar banisters. As kids, there was nothing more fun than racing down those stairs at breakneck speed with life jackets, towels and oars.
We kids biked the trails along the lake, dumped each other out of canoes, caught minnows, played tennis and bought grab bags of candy from the grocery/meat/video store. Some of our best times were spent watching the sun set on the water, or glimpsing wildlife - everything from hummingbirds to the occasional thrilling brown bear cub. And as we got older, our play matured: The log cabin became a place for raucous political discussions, poker, family announcements - and lots of laughter.
And when it was time to get married, Riding Mountain had to be the place. Two nights before the big day, we gathered for drinks with the wedding party, and a group of us snuck away to the boat cove to look at the Northern Lights. With docks and a wide pebbly beach open to the public, we could pick our spot, spread a blanket and tilt our heads to the universe. Lying on the dock that night, we watched a brilliant aurora borealis - the entire circumference of the lake was ringed with shimmering greens, blues and bright white. I took it as a sign that our wedding would turn out okay.
A few years later, I dunked my growing belly into the lake and swore I felt my son's very first, tiny kick (did I mention the water is cold?). Last summer, my family introduced him to the lake. He chortled with glee when the waves crashed across his chubby, seven-month-old legs. He wasn't the least bit afraid.
But the sunny skies over our haven got a bit cloudier last summer, too. My aunt was diagnosed with cancer, looking frailer as the days got shorter, squeezing enjoyment out of every moment. Many nights, we gathered chairs outside, theatre-style, and sat quietly watching Clear Lake's greatest show - the evening sunset.
This summer, I am looking forward, as always, to filling my city-starved lungs with Riding Mountain air. I am eager to see my son and his cousins playing on the pier, trying to catch minnows, and throwing pennies in the historic wishing well near the golf course.
But I'm not looking forward to what will likely be a changed family … one without my aunt. We've spent the winter hoping and praying with her that she would make it for "one more summer at the lake." I know when I watch the sun dip down into the water, or see my son playing along the shore that, somehow, she'll make it there after all.
MAKE THE MOST OF RIDING MOUNTAIN
- Take a sunset trip on the park's tour boat, the Martese, for a slice of the park's history. ( theclearlakemarina.com or 204-867-7299)
- Enjoy ridiculously large and sticky cinnamon buns at the Whitehouse Bakery - people come for miles to eat them. (204-848-7700)
- Hike down to Deep Bay, one of the deepest points of the lake. While you're there, see the artist-in- residence's cabin and take in an artists talk. ( artscouncil.mb.ca)
- Check out bulletin boards throughout the park to find out when morning yoga classes will take place on the lawn bowling green - then om with the birds.
- Score some antiques and straight-from-the-farm food at the weekend flea market held at Sportsman's Park, located in Onanole as you head into the park. There are also bouncy structures and a mini-golf course for the kids. ( sportsmanspark.ca/flea_market.htm, 204-848-2520)
- Drive to Lake Audy to see the bison herd.
- Spend a day getting pampered at Elkhorn Resort and Spa. Soak in the natural mineral waters overlooking the hotel's ranch. ( elkhornresort.mb.ca or 1-866-355-4676)
- For more information, go to discoverclearlake.com or pc.gc.ca/pn-np/mb/riding/ne.aspx. Special to The Globe and Mail