Manitou Beach

Manitou Beach and Last Mountain Lake

In the heart of the Canadian prairies, 126 kilometers southeast of Joni Mitchell's hometown Saskatoon, is a lake with a natural salinity of 12 percent, which is 3.5 times saltier than the world's oceans and 50 percent saltier than the Dead Sea. Little Manitou Lake is fed by non-thermal underground mineral springs, and for hundreds of years the Cree Indians would visit to cure themselves through healing baths.

Today the village of Manitou Beach hosts the Manitou Springs Mineral Spa (tel. 1-800/667-7672 or 1-306/946-2233). It calls itself Canada's largest indoor mineral spa, although few people outside Saskatchewan will have heard of it. The large indoor pool at the spa is divided into three sections with lake water artificially heated to different temperatures. The natural buoyancy of the water allows you to float weightlessly, a truly unique experience. Another local curiosity is a lakeside ballroom called Danceland with a horsehair floor.

The pool is open to the public from 9 am to 10 pm daily yearround, only closing for maintenance in early December. Admission costs around CDN$15, and a variety of passes are available. In summer you can swim in the same type of water for free from a nearby beach. Numerous therapies are offered, and the spa has 60 hotel rooms on the premises. Inexpensive motels and B&Bs are nearby, and in summer there's camping. Manitou Beach lies on Little Manitou Lake's southern shore, five kilometers north of Watrous between Regina and Saskatoon. From the Yellowhead Highway, follow provincial highway 365 some 30 kilometers south from Plunkett directly into this valley.

But that's not all there is to see and do around here. At the north end of Last Mountain Lake, about 50 kilometers south of Manitou Beach, is North America's oldest federal bird sanctuary, Last Mountain Lake National Wildlife Area. Every year during the spring and fall migrations, hundreds of thousands of birds stop here to feed, breed, and relax. At peak migration times up to 250,000 ducks and 400,000 lesser snow geese may be present. Huge colonies of cormorants, gulls, grebes, white pelicans, and terns nest on islands in the lake, and a total of 281 species of birds have been counted at Last Mountain. Of these, 104 are known to breed here, including nine shorebirds, 43 songbirds, and 13 ducks. The NWA offers sanctuary to nine of Canada's 36 species of threatened or endangered birds.

The wetlands and grasslands of this area are lonely remnants of habitats destroyed on a massive scale over the past entury. Since 1887 the north end of 88-km-long Last Mountain Lake has been under the protection of the government of Canada, which in 1951 transferred the administration of the area to the Canadian Wildlife Service. The NWA's 15,600 hectares are directly on the central North American flyway and from March to May and September to November you can observe the vast colonies mentioned above. At these times around 40,000 sandhill cranes spend a month here during their 6,000-kilometer migration between Alaska and Mexico.

To avoid crop damage to surrounding farms, the CWS plants lure crops of barley and other grains to provide feeding areas for the birds. Sadly, the birds are often rather skittish as hunting is permitted in the area at certain times of year, and boat launching is allowed on the lake. Despite the good work the CWS is undoubtedly doing, this unique area requires better protection.

Last Mountain Lake is in south-central Saskatchewan, accessible from Simpson on Highway 2 south of Watrous. The NWA is open during daylight hours and admission is free. Maps and brochures are available at a self-service information kiosk. A 16-kilometer road runs through the area, and two short self-guided nature trails are provided. One crosses the mixed grass prairies, while the other is over a wetland. An observation tower has been erected above the lake, although it's unlikely you'll be able to get close to the flocks. The bison which once populated this area in the tens of thousands had been totally wiped out by 1879, victims of an earlier generation of hunters.

From the series Unknown Sights of Canada by David Stanley

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