Prairie Provinces

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Best of The Great Trail, Volume 2

Best of The Great Trail, Volume 2

British Columbia to Northern Ontario on the Trans Canada Trail
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Best Places to Bird in the Prairies

Best Places to Bird in the Prairies

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The Great Canadian Prairies Bucket List

The Great Canadian Prairies Bucket List

One-of-a-Kind Travel Experiences
also available: Paperback
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Before you die, you really should experience the wonders of the Dead Sea. The lowest place on Earth, with waters 8.6 times saltier than the ocean, one floats without any effort, cradled by the lifeless yet legendary therapeutic waters.
    The Dead Sea splits Israel and Jordan in the Middle East, which is a little far to travel even by Canadian standards. So it's Saskatchewan to the rescue, with its own lake, unique in the western hemisphere, located just a ninety-minute drive southeast of Saskatoon.
    Twelve thousand years ago, a receding glacier trapped a lake at the bottom of a valley. Hemmed in by the valley walls, water was prevented from seeping away by pressure caused by ground- water aquifers. Thousands of years of evaporation later, the result is Little Manitou Lake, with waters three times saltier than the ocean and laced with all sorts of wonderfully helpful minerals.
    As in the Dead Sea, you can float, you can heal, and you can smother yourself in goopy mud that international spas could market for small fortunes. Having visited the Dead” Sea a number of times, I admit?I am skeptical. Surely, if such a” lake existed, it would be on the “world map, or at least North “America's. Driving through the prairie, passing small towns and pot- ash mines, I have a sinking feeling (ahem) that Little Manitou will not live up to the hype. Although few people outside the area know about it, it was immensely popular in the 1950s. "Canada's Carlsbad!" reads an enthusiastic wooden sign as I enter Watrous, the nearest town. It’s sleepy and quiet, but then again, so are the towns that service the Dead Sea. I check into the Manitou Springs Hotel & Spa, my room offering a lovely view of the calm lake mirroring a big prairie sky. A few people are taking a dip, but nobody is floating on their back. Downstairs, the "rich golden colour" of the heated indoor mineral pools looks suspiciously like dirty tea, even if it is 100 percent natural.
    I walk across the street to find adults sunbathing among rows of kids playing on the coarse sandy beach. I try to imagine Cree Indians on these same banks, discovering, to their surprise, that drinking and bathing in the water cured deathly fevers and painful rheumatism. Legend has it a group of sick men were left for dead here, only to recover thanks to the water's healing properties. When they returned to their tribe, they were initially thought to be ghosts.
    Chemically, the water is rich: magnesium (helps regulate body temperature, tones skin); potassium (antibacterial); sulphate (aids nervous, blood, muscular and lymph systems); calcium (great for the skin); silica (skin tone, bone and nail growth); sulphur (for aching joints and collagen synthesis) — all of which should easily take care of the uric acid, as contributed by the small kids playing in the shallow areas.
    Unlike the suitably named Dead Sea, there is life in these waters: brine shrimp, bugs and sticky green weed the kids are collecting for messy wigs. I walk to the edge, dip in my toe thermometer, lie back and expect to sink like a stone. Instead, the water is buoyant, and I find myself easily floating on my back. Admittedly, the liquid is not as supportive as the Dead Sea, but it’s comfortable enough, in that one would have to work very hard to drown oneself.
    After applying and rinsing off the mud, I find my skin wonderfully silky and shiny, making me wonder why Dead Sea mud sells for big bucks while Manitou mud is unheard of. Watrous, there's cash to be made here! The Dead Sea undoubtedly benefits from that repetitive Trio of Important Rules: location, location, location. Manitou, on the other hand, literally means "Great Spirit" in Cree, a godly lake blessed with healing, recreational and definite bucket list qualities.   START HERE: 

Standing on the outdoor viewing platform of one of Frontier North's customized Tundra Buggies, I gaze at the permafrost of northern Manitoba. Two polar bears are on their hind legs, sparring like boxers, oblivious to the fact they are providing one of the most spectacular animal encounters you can experience anywhere. I'm wearing two thermal under-layers and a layer of fleece beneath my parka, but what does it matter if my nose is an icicle”
    Watching the largest carnivore on Earth in its natural habitat lights a fire under your soul. Each October and November, hungry bears along the southwest coast of Hudson Bay emerge from a state scientists call walking hibernation, reducing their metabolisms while waiting for the ice to freeze. When it does, they’ll head north and break their long summer fast. Cool ocean currents in the bay freeze these waters early, making the small bayside community of Churchill the most southerly point for humans to encounter polar bears.
    The 900-plus bears that annually migrate through this region are joined by thousands of tourists, scientists, media and students, all excited by this unique wildlife encounter. It is not uncommon for bears to wander directly into town. Surrounded by bear traps, Churchill is closely monitored on camera, and famously has a jail for offending bears that continue to pose a problem. We're advised to stick within certain town limits, with polar bear warning signs reinforcing the message.Considering that Churchill's population shares the landscape with hundreds of hungry bears, it is remarkable there haven't been any human fatalities for decades. In fact, Churchill has become a model of how humans and wildlife can live together.
    We're not ten minutes from the airport, seated in a school bus shuttle, when we spot our first bear. Fellow passengers around me explode into action: cameras, whoops, sighs, even tears. A solitary sub-adult male bear is ambling over rocks close to the bay. He stands on his hind legs like a giant meerkat, observing us with curious eyes. Although the bear has yet to feed after a long summer, there's no doubting he is a magnificent creature: shag-carpet hair the colour of a vanilla milkshake, round furry ears, a black button nose. Polar bears look too cuddly to be hungry carnivores, but a loaded rifle” above our driver's seat reminds “us otherwise. The bears can” run up to forty kilometres an “hour, and with one of the best “noses in the animal kingdom,?can smell prey from miles away.” Camouflaged against the snow, these ruthless hunters are perfectly adapted to be top of the Arctic food chain, with no natural enemies - save humans, and the rapid disappearance of their habitat.
    Elated from our first sighting, we transfer to a Tundra Buggy for the ninety-minute drive to Frontier North's Tundra Buggy Lodge. The forty-passenger Buggy sits on 1.7-metre tires above a customized fire truck chassis. Heated by a propane furnace, it has anti-fog windows, an eagle-eyed driver and a handy latrine at the back (it’s way too dangerous to step on the ground, and besides, good luck finding a tree on the tundra). The "road" is a rough, bouncy mud track, but all discomfort vanishes when we spot several more bears, anxiously waiting for the ice to freeze. Hundreds of photographs are taken as we observe them for a half-hour.
    Docking to the impressive hundred-metre-long lodge on wheels, we settle into the bunks, kitchen and lounge for the next few days. Since the lodge is located at a particular gathering point for bears, the onboard crew don't touch ground for the entire eight-week season. The price of the excursion is steep, but nobody is complaining about sharing quarters. We're here for one reason - polar bears - and fortunately, nobody is going home disappointed. For the next three days, we spend eight hours a day roaming the tundra and are treated to a polar bear extravaganza. Multiple male pairs spar just metres from our windows, exerting their dominance for the winter to come. Large, curious bears stand up on their hind legs against our buggy, their warm breath literally fogging up our camera lenses. A lone bear walks across a frozen lake, backlit by the low afternoon sun. It’s a photographer's dream, and pure heaven for a polar bear enthusiast.
    Arctic foxes, hares and gyrfalcons also make an appearance, as do boxes of wine, great food, interesting presentations and wonderful company.?
    The bears around Churchill are among the most threatened of the estimated twenty thousand polar bears remaining in the Arctic. They're also the most accessible to reach.
    Frontier North's Tundra Buggy experience is without a doubt something to do before you die. Although, with melting sea ice, rising sea levels and the increasing threat to their natural habitat, you might want to act before the polar bears surrounding Churchill sadly beat you to it.

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