Wherever we roam in the world, we tend to tote along luggage packed with preconceived ideas. In France, you figure the food is going to be great. In the Caribbean, you assume the weather will be hot. In central Canada, you expect to see nothing but prairie, endless wheat fields and grain silos. And when one of these notions turns out to be wrong, it’s always a shock.
Like when you come across a bunch of big sand dunes in the middle of the Manitoba prairies. You can’t help but be surprised.
“The Spirits Sands dune field is actually only about three or four square kilometres in area,” notes Madeleine Robinson, an interpreter and guide at Spruce Woods Provincial Park. “All the same, before long you start feeling like you’re lost in the middle of a dessert, even though there are high grasses growing here and there.”
Located on the 50th parallel about 180 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg, Spruce Woods is a geographical oddity in Canada. Long ago the region was covered by a glacier and then submerged for a period beneath Lake Agassiz, an enormous glacial lake. The waters eventually drained away and the region slowly dried out, leaving the sandy ground exposed. The sand soon scattered in the wind, in some places blowing into drifts that became small mountains rising as high as 30 metres. Today, it is the remnants of those dunes that visitors to the park explore and marvel.
Although the Spirit Sands area of the park gets markedly more precipitation than “real” deserts, it nevertheless has a microclimate that provides a hospitable habitat for cacti and reptiles. Residents include the prairie skink, the only lizard native to the Prairies, and the hognose snake, which uses its flat snout to unearth and eat toads that hide in the sand.
But as the name Spruce Woods implies, the park contains more than sand dunes. In fact much of its terrain is covered with spruce trees – another eccentricity of Mother Nature in this area.
“All you see on the Manitoba prairies are potato, wheat and barley fields,” says Robinson. “So it’s yet another surprise when you see all these evergreens growing in a region that’s so well known for its agriculture.”
Once covered entirely in sand, the region that now makes up Spruce Woods Provincial Park was always considered poor for farming. As a result, it was left alone and nature was allowed to take its course. Gradually part of the area was colonized by ever-growing numbers of spruce trees, which have such long roots that they can grow in soil that’s not terribly fertile.
About 50 trails wind through Spruce Woods, and there are extensive services for campers, cyclists, hikers and horseback riders who want to explore some or all of the park’s 235 square kilometres. For those with a yen for water sports, two inviting beaches offer lots of family fun. And when the Assiniboine River is high enough, canoeists can paddle the meandering waterway and admire the cliffs along its banks.
But the award for most bizarre feature in the park doesn’t go to the sand dunes. Near the eerie blue-green oasis of spruce trees and spring-fed pond known as the Devil’s Punch Bowl, some people swear there’s not just sand, but quicksand. “Personally, I’ve never been able to confirm it,” says Robinson. “It’s not impossible, but I have to say I have my doubts.”
Whatever the truth of the matter, visitors don’t need to become trapped in quicksand to be held in thrall – the parks’ extraordinary and beautiful environment accomplishes that.
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