I’m just gonna say it. I think winter gets a tough rap. So many haters out there trying to escape the snow and crisp, fresh air. Admittedly, I’ve been one of those haters for a long time, but you know what? That ends now. Or rather, it ended a couple of years ago when, while showing a group of international visitors all the amazing things you can do here in the winter, I discovered that all that comes between you and utter delight in this very under-appreciated season, are layers, a good parka and an adventurous spirit.
Living in Winnipeg, we all know that there are a wealth of winter activities at our disposal and I take advantage of these at every opportunity. But let’s face it…our winter is pretty long and after a while you might want to change things up a bit. What happens when you get a bit restless, curious and want to venture outside the Perimeter? For me, that means exploring new areas of the province and this time, it meant a weekend in The Pas.
There are plenty of things to do around town on an average winter weekend (and I'll get to those soon), but I was lucky enough to visit on the best weekend of the year in The Pas and I’d strongly suggest that you do the same!
I’ve been hearing stories about the Northern Manitoba Trappers’ Fest since I was a kid – true story, as one of Canada’s oldest winter festivals, it celebrated its 71st season this year – so when I was offered the chance to head up there this year, I jumped at it. Getting to celebrate this annual festival with the local community and also spend some additional time in and around the town was something I’ve always wanted to do.
The Trappers' Festival is a celebration of the strong heritage, proud traditions and steadfast resilience of the people who settled this area in the northern reaches of our province.
Word of warning: there’s lots going on at Trappers Fest. Your first stop should be at HQ, located at the Wescana Inn. Browse the photos from years past and talk to the helpful volunteers (the festival can attribute a huge amount of it’s success to the incredibly passionate volunteers who work tirelessly to make the event run smoothly) and get answers to any of your questions. Also, be sure to pick up a festival guide. You’ll be lost without it. There are way too many activities to keep up with them all on your own! And while you’re at it, pick up a souvenir ice worm. Pin this little bundle of fluff to your jacket and you immediately become an honourary member of the Trappers community (or at least, that’s what they told me! And from the number of these on the streets, I have to assume it’s true).
There are enough activities to keep you busy for a week, but since you only have a couple of days, how do you choose? Here are just a few of the "don't miss" highlights:
The big opening event is the Torchlight parade that starts in the centre of town. Groups within the community get together and put together their costumes and floats and start the ride through town meandering their way to the edge of the Saskatchewan River. Kids line up on the streets to collect candy as the floats pass by working their way to the big finale, a massive bonfire (in fact, there were 2 bonfire towers side by side) along with complimentary hot dogs and hot chocolate to warm the body and the soul. It was a spectacular opening to the festival and you could sense the excitement in the air.
World Championship Dog Sled Race
You read that right. The WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP of dog sled racing takes place on Halcrow Lake in The Pas. It’s one of the highlights of the Trappers’ Fest and brings teams from all over Canada, the USA and some years from places as far away as Germany and England! Teams of 10 dogs and one musher line up for the start of the race that takes them through snowy terrain some 35 miles (56kms) roundtrip. And they do it again the next day. And then again the next. At the end of the 3-day race, the team with the fastest combined time is crowned the winner.
Best part of these races? Watching all the dogs being brought to the starting line and collared up to the sled. You can see their anticipation as they bark and jump in obvious merriment while waiting for the start. It’s loud. Even from across the open field, you have trouble hearing yourself speak over the racket. But then the starting gun fires and it is immediate silence. Almost deafening silence and then, a split-second later, all you hear is the sounds of the sleds and the dog’s feet as they push their way through the snow to get into the lead spot. It’s pulse-racing action and makes you wish you could be on the back of that sled getting whisked away at top speed!
Little known fact: most people expect sled racing dogs to be huskies. In fact, most are a cross-breed with a whole lot of Greyhound mixed in.
King & Queen Trapper Competition
Now this is where the fun really starts. The King and Queen Trapper events have been a show-stopper since the early days. Men and women volunteer to compete in a variety of competitions that pit them against one another to show off their skill in things that would have been daily life activities for Trappers back in the day. From crazy feats of strength like the log throw, pole climb, flour packing and wood saw to more sedate (though no less integral to the Trapper lifestyle) tea boiling, trap setting and frying pan bannock making. Events take place throughout the Festival and at the end, there are two victors who stand tall among the others: King Trapper and Queen Trapper. It's a title worthy of pride and reputation in The Pas. And for spectators, it makes for very entertaining days! Most of the events (though not all, so check your programs) take place at Fort Whoop-It Up in the centre of town.
The Sam Waller Museum
Starting out as a little Northern Museum where Sam Waller, a former teacher, lived and housed his unique and eclectic collectibles, today, the Sam Waller Museum is a step back in time to not only the bizarre (think dressed fleas and two-headed calves) but also a recording of the history of The Pas and the surrounding region. There is something for everybody here and you don't want to miss a visit. The building was formerly the courthouse and there are still jail cells in the basement where you can go inside and see for yourself why you always want to stay on the right side of the law!
Cree Panels at Christ Church
Painstakingly restored, these art panels depict The Ten Commandments written in the Cree Language and have been saved and displayed for posterity. A fascinating history is held within the walls of the Christ Church. Henry Budd Sr, the father of the founder of the Devon Mission who built this church, was the first Indigenous person to ever be ordained a minister and there are also ties to the disappearance of Sir John Franklin.
Walk through the door of this nondescript heritage building, and you’ll find yourself immersed in the quirkiest little restaurant you ever did see. Packed full of nostalgic memorabilia collected over the last 50-odd years, you won’t be able to stop yourself from wandering around to take in the history – both of the restaurant and the town itself. When you’re done perusing (don’t miss the flying tinfoil moose at the back of the room!), take a seat and enjoy some home-cooked diner classics.
Other options for dining in The Pas include Good Thymes, a trendy space with a delightful menu ranging from pub grub to elevated entrees; Fat Boy Restaurant, a casual diner with comfort food done right; and The Eagle’s Nest Restaurant in Opaskwayak Cree Nation (located in Aseneskak Casino).
Shop till you drop
By now, you're probably looking for a bit of a break. Does a coffee break sound about right? Located right on Fischer Avenue (the main drag in town), is Lyet's Cafe. A charming little spot with a wall full of loose leaf teas and her own unique medium roast coffee blend (roasted right here in Winnipeg), there is also a gift shop with housewares, clothing and jewelry. It's a comfortable spot to spend some time and relax before getting back outdoors.
White Feather by Cree-Ations
Across the street and just a little bit down the way, is White Feather. A must-stop for Indigenous crafts and artwork where you can buy beautiful hand-sewn mukluks, ribbon shirts, antler carvings and dream catchers. As a point of interest, this store is owned and operated by the same family that runs the Cree-Ations store in Winnipeg!
Outdoor Winter Adventure
Of course, in the north, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the many outdoor activities you can entertain yourself with while in The Pas. Grab some snowshoes or bring your snow machines and head out onto Clearwater Lake Provincial Park. There are over 420kms of groomed snowmobile trails in the area! And when the sun sets, take a short drive just out of town and look up to the skies. On a clear night, you'll see the dancing Aurora Borealis overhead in a display that will leave you breathless.
After a weekend away in The Pas, I came away with a new appreciation for the North and for winter. The cold temperatures melt away in the midst of the warm welcomes, the "Happy Trappers" greetings that you hear from most every passerby and the overall sense of community that makes this a place I'll always remember. So pack up your layers and warm parka and make the trip. You won't regret it!