A version of this post originally appeared on the Manitoba Hot website.
Bison, birds, and a golden boy are the main characters of three journeys that travellers can only experience while in Manitoba’s capital city. Discover what makes these signature experiences unique to Winnipeg.
A Prairie Legacy
Approximately 30 million bison once roamed the Great Plains of Canada, but by 1888 hunting reduced that number to just 800. Today, at Winnipeg’s FortWhyte Alive — a wilderness preserve just minutes from the city’s southwest corner — a herd of 35 bison still roam, and guests can see these prairie icons on an up-close bison safari.
Kalyn, an interpreter at FortWhyte Alive, slowly manoeuvres the van through the bison enclosure, and the gentle beasts — the largest land animals in North America — don't seem to mind intruding guests. That’s a good thing, because an angry bison can reach 70 km/hour in three strides. Bison are fast and agile; they can turn 90 degrees in one move and jump 6 feet in the air. Kalyn points out the herd’s alpha male. This big boy, nicknamed Chalkie, is responsible for the herd’s safety and he also has exclusive breeding rights.
Inside a tipi, a traditional Aboriginal home, Kayln teaches about the importance of bison to those who lived on the plains. While the primary purpose for hunting bison was for meat, Aboriginals used every part of the animal — horns for tools, hides for clothing, and bones for utensils, for example.
Guests are also encouraged to try throwing a traditional atl atl, a throwing spear which was used during hunts to herd the bison.
FortWhyte Alive’s story then skips centuries to the arrival of European settlers in Manitoba, and guests see inside a sod house, a reproduction of the type of shelter that settlers built to survive their first years on the prairies. Imagine living in a tiny, dark house made of earth while adjusting to new lands and a new life.
However unfamiliar the land was, it was fruitful, as Aboriginals already knew and were able to teach settlers. Kalyn explains how a willow branch contains acetylsalicylic acid, a medicinal element for treating pain; aspen trees produce a natural sunscreen; and a rosehip plant contains vitamin C.
Rosehip also makes for lovely tea, and Kalyn brews a blend of “bush tea” with rosehips, hyssop, and wild mint. Paired with bannock, traditional Aboriginal flatbread, which Kalyn cooks over an open fire, it’s a perfect end to this story.
A Bird in the Hand
As waves of European immigrants arrived throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s seeking a new life in Winnipeg and fertile lands in southern Manitoba, hundreds of kilometres of wetlands were drained to accommodate the province’s growing population. Flash forward to the 1970s. Oak Hammock Marsh, now a popular wetland 40 km north of Winnipeg, is restored and a colourful cast of characters — birds, geese, ducks, and other wildlife — take centre stage.
Oak Hammock Marsh is home to 300 species of birds (that’s half of all bird species in Canada!). Its popular bird banding programs ensure healthy populations. Guests can join bird bander Paula and naturalist guide Jacques for a hands-on experience to gather population data, such as age, sex, wing length, and weight of the marsh’s birds. Gentle hands are required when gathering the data from the first patient, a tree swallow. Carefully, Paula examines the bird, then places a metal band with identifying numbers around his leg.
When it’s time to release the bird, guests have an important job to do. Paula carefully places the bird in clasped hands, and then, on the count of three, you open your hands and in a flash the bird is off.
To get the rest of the story about Oak Hammock Marsh, climb into a canoe with naturalist guide Jacques. As he paddles and explores the waters, he shares the marsh’s history — it was once a water source for the burgeoning town of Winnipeg, as well as a practice range for World War II bombers.
Jacques shares knowledge about the plants and animals that make this place home. Along the way, he identifies bird calls, and then expertly imitates their chirps. He pulls a cattail from the marsh, peels off the outer leaves, and encourages people to take of a bite of the stem. Cattail has a crisp texture and a mild flavour – a mix of watermelon, cucumber, and celery.
Birds, too, find many tasty snacks at Oak Hammock – in fact, an abundance of food is exactly why they choose to nest and pass through on their migration. The science behind bird migration is a bit of a mystery, according to Jacques. And this is a perfect segue to Winnipeg’s third signature story, which involves plenty of mystery in boomtown Winnipeg at the turn of the 20th century.
The Hermetic Code
When British architect Frank Worthington Simon won the bid to build Manitoba’s provincial government building in 1911, Winnipeg was a thriving centre of commerce in North America. It was even dubbed ‘Chicago of the North.’
The intricately designed Manitoba Legislature, with an iconic Golden Boy perched atop the dome, was intended to show off the city’s stature. However, Simon had a few ideas of his own that he secretly inserted into his design. The result is one of Canada’s most fascinating architecture stories and tours.
The plot of the Hermetic Code Tour is an architectural odyssey filled with arcane symbolism, ancient religion references, extortion, and a passionate local historian determined to put clues together.
Dr. Frank Albo is the protagonist, the historian and the guide behind the Hermetic Code, a tour that decodes all the architectural secrets at the Manitoba Legislative Building, which Albo points out are actually “hidden in plain sight.”
Albo weaves a fascinating, mystical tale about the building referencing hieroglyphs, alchemy, Masonic rituals, animal sacrifice, and even the holiest of holies. As he tours guests around the space, he theorizes about the true intention behind the building’s design. “Don’t believe a single word I’ve said, unless I can prove it,” he says at the start of the tour.
A scholar in ancient religion and architecture, Albo cracks the building’s codes, concluding the tour with a goose bump-inducing moment that shows off of the building’s mysterious powers. No spoilers here — travellers need to see (and hear it) to believe it.