If you’re interested in Canadian history and would like somewhere different to go this summer, why not plan a trip to the site of one of Manitoba’s former prisoner of war camps? An interesting, often-forgotten part of the history of Riding Mountain National Park is the prison camp established there during the Second World War. It was started during the summer of 1943 along what is now the Central Trail, used by hikers and mountain bikers wanting a wilderness experience.
The original plan was to build the camp on the south shore of Lake Audy, but the final choice was about 15 km farther west on the northeast shore of Whitewater Lake. There was a fuel shortage across the province, and a stand of fire-damaged trees at Whitewater Lake could provide firewood for the prisoners to cut. It was believed that this site was sufficiently isolated so as to make escape difficult.
The lumber needed to build the camp was brought from Dewitts Mill, located on the northwest shore of Lake Audy. A Winnipeg company with a small crew was hired to help with the sawing, camp construction and road repairs. This crew was augmented by a number of conscientious objectors, mostly Mennonite pacifi sts. Heavy rainfall that summer caused delays because the trail needed filling and corduroying (an arrangement of logs); work on the actual buildings didn’t begin until early August. The crew put up about 15 buildings in all – six large bunkhouses with washrooms and showers, an office and quarters for the administrators and guards, a cookhouse and dining room, store, barns, machine shop, blacksmith shop and a small hospital. The construction cost is estimated to have been about $300,000.
Since the camp was in the wilderness, no fences, walls or guard towers were built around it. Boundaries were marked by red blazes on trees but officials believed that because of its isolation escapes wouldn’t occur. However, it appears that the prisoners often “escaped” temporarily. They would walk to the southern edge of the park where immigrant residents from the area picked them up. Apparently while “free,” the prisoners sometimes attended dances and visited in homes around the communities of Olha, Seech and Crawford Park. In the morning they would walk back to the camp, claiming to have been lost overnight. Little was done to discipline those who were caught, since they always returned. (Talk about a new meaning for Camp Wanna-Come-Back! But from experience, prisoners knew that conditions at this camp were far better than in other Canadian camps.) operating the camp power plant; going to Dauphin with the guards to pick up supplies; operating the canteen; catching fish in the nearby lake; and raising pigs in a small enclosure.
In the evenings the prisoners entertained themselves in various ways. There was a camp radio to listen to, and some men staged theatrical or musical performances. Numerous sports were played while others took up woodcarving, such as replica battleships to scale. Some even made boats, chiselling out dugout canoes from large spruce
Statistics show that 440 German prisoners arrived on October 26, 1943. They were brought from the large prisoner of war camp at Medicine Hat, which was severely overcrowded. The prisoners wore a blue denim uniform with a red stripe on the outer leg and a large red circle on the back of the shirt and jacket. Each prisoner was paid 50 cents a day for cutting wood, but the anticipated quota was usually not met – perhaps because of animosity and problems among the prisoners themselves, some of whom were ardent Nazis, while others were not. The prisoners sometimes organized “slowdowns” to keep the output less. The firewood was transported out by two routes: south to Elphinstone and north to Dauphin via the “Strathclair Trail.”
Besides cutting wood, the prisoners also helped run the camp: trees and then paddling them on the lake. If you visit the campsite today, you can still find dugout remains rotting along what used to be a creek. We found these on our last visit there, a couple of summers ago. (You can also see one – about 12 feet long – in the Fort Dauphin museum.)
Another diversion was the camp “mascot,” a black bear cub that the prisoners captured. They made a pet of it, but apparently it ransacked the kitchen one morning. In fall, it hibernated under one of the buildings.
The woodcutting, besides being rather unproductive, had other problems. One unfortunate incident was the death in March 1944 of a German prisoner after a tree fell on him. The funeral was held in Dauphin with a number of prisoners attending. There were other, less serious injuries as well. By the spring of 1944, the need for dry wood in the province decreased, and the wood-cutting phase eased off. Some prisoners were put to work clearing a route on the Central Trail instead.
By August 1945, the war had ended in Europe, and the Whitewater Prison Camp was decommissioned. Prisoners were transferred elsewhere and the various buildings were removed by the spring of 1946.
On a visit to the site today, one at first sees little evidence of the camp. Picnic tables, barbecue pits and an outhouse are maintained by the park for campers and sightseers. Surprisingly, you can’t even see the lake due to the trees that have grown up. However, if you search, some of the foundations can be located, as well as remains of the dugout canoes.
If you’re interested in visiting the site and would like to hike or bike there, take the Central Trail beginning at the north end of the bison enclosure (10 km one way on an easy, basically flat route). If you prefer an organized tour, the Friends of Riding Mountain run Sunday bike tours, or if you’d like an easier method, horse-drawn wagon tours are offered by the Friends with park interpreters. Visitors will visit the campsite where they will use a GPS to explore and will discover more about how the prisoners adapted to wilderness life and how they built their dugout canoes. This five-hour program is available twice per summer (one was July 17 and the next will be September 5) and costs $59. For information or to reserve a spot call 204-848-4037.
The Whitewater Lake PoW Camp is a spot where you can visit a piece of Canadian history. A Stanford student, Adrien Myers, is doing a “dig” there this summer, so perhaps more of our history will be unearthed.
Further information on the camp is available in a couple of books:
The Sawmill Boys, P. O. W.’s and Conscientious Objectors: Stories from the Parkland by Ed Stozek; and Park Prisoners: The Untold Story of Western Canada’s National Parks, 1915-1946 by Bill Waiser.
– Donna Gamache writes from MacGregor, Manitoba