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Looking for a sign

Small-town Manitoba is learning to put its best foot forward by highlighting attractions, conservation, local projects, history and more with interpretive signs and trails

If you didn’t know better, you’d never guess Minnedosa was a small town in the rolling plains of Manitoba.

Nestled in a valley along Hwy. 10 north of Brandon, the town trades the normal vista of waving crops for a picturesque valley with woody embankments and the Little Saskatchewan River, which pools in a man-made lake to the east before flowing through the heart of the community.

Looking across from the spillway on the south end of Minnedosa Lake, buildings peek out from the treed hillside on the opposite shore, preceded by a line of colourful flags running the length of the dam and marking the walking path that connects the town with the recreational areas on the other side.

That path is perhaps the most visible sign of the trail network honeycombing Minnedosa, a network that combines the community’s self-described “outdoorsy” culture with its long history.

Within town, benches and decorative walls pepper Minnedosa’s main street, each a stop on the Founders Parks Walking Tour and fitted with educational signage dedicated to the town’s roots. Similarly, visitors can download a guide for a self-guided tour of 10 of the town’s historical stone buildings.

To the south of the dam, the green space between the highway and lake is crisscrossed by the Oxbow Trail, a connective tissue between the fenced-off Bison Park, Heritage Village, marsh boardwalk, and dam trail.

“If you are on that trail and you’re just kind of at the corner of the bison compound, you’re essentially almost downtown. It’s another three-minute walk and you’re in the middle of downtown. It’s kind of an interesting and unique dynamic to have that right in the middle of the community,” economic development officer Chantelle Parrott said.

“You can take your bike out or you can go hiking or you do this and do that or whatever, and you never actually have to get in your car to do it,” she added. “Everything is just that connected by a walking distance. It’s definitely one of those things where people come here and they love that aspect. It can become an entire afternoon of just exploring to get from, say, the campground to downtown Minnedosa, but it can also be done in 15 minutes if you’re just wanting to get from point A to point B.”

Simple start

Minnedosa’s trails, and, more particularly, their interpretive signs, represent perhaps one of the easiest ways for rural Manitoba to kindle interest from visitors and, according to interpretive sign designer Heather Hinam, often one of the first options that small communities look to.

“I think the first step is figuring out what makes you special,” she said.

“Most of the time, people don’t notice what’s in their own backyard, so you have to find the people in your community who are super excited, like really, really excited about the community and are big proponents of the community. Because whoever they are, they’re going to know what the neat stuff is and they’re going to know what the story is.”

In many cases, she added, that includes tidbits that even most locals don’t know.

In Minnedosa, those tidbits might include a refresher on Tanner’s Crossing (the town’s first settlement in the late 1800s and a name that lives on in the local elementary school), a reported meteorite strike in 1901, the 1818 trading post (a site is now under the lake), archeological finds dating to 500 BC or the town’s history with the Riel Rebellion, all stories included on the Oxbow Trail or Founders Parks Walking Tour.

For other stops, the signs are augmented by old equipment, such as a horse-drawn scraper that would have been used to build the railway, or a bench and fire hydrant — designed to look like an outdoor waiting area — near a sign about the Canadian Pacific Railroad.

The more creative signage is welcome to Hinam, who often urges her clients to look past the normal square board and flat graphic.

Instead, she has seen signs cut to mimic some theme of a trail or that use props such as an old wheelbarrow to draw attention to their content.

Likewise, she said, graphics will often determine the success of a sign, and text-heavy plaques risk losing a reader’s interest.

Different purposes

Minnedosa’s nature trails, including signs on natural prairie plants and human impact on them, add a separate purpose to a trail system that is otherwise aimed at fitness or slants towards history.

Conservation is a common theme in the interpretive trails that cross Manitoba, often highlighting a local conservation project or aimed at public awareness as organizations and communities look to highlight their natural scenery.

Anyone driving from Holland to Glenboro on Hwy. 2 has seen another such example.

Surrounded on three sides by wetlands, Cypress River’s Millennium Park serves as a highway rest stop, a waypoint for the Trans-Canada Trail and a home to an interpretive boardwalk operated by the LaSalle Redboine Conservation District.

“We see a lot of use out of that park,” conservation district manager Justin Reid said. “There’s a lot of use out of the boardwalk. Every time I drive by, there’s always vehicles parked there. We’ve done school groups there with local elementary school classes. It’s great that we’re able to have a spot so close, especially so close to our office, that we can go out and do critter-dipping stations and just kind of do the wetland education, the invertebrate education, with the kids and they have a lot of fun doing it and they generally remember it for years to come.”

The conservation district is also in the process of adding signs to its one-kilometre trail at Pelly’s Lake near Treherne, one of the district’s largest drainage projects.

It hopes to have signs up by this fall or next year, pending funding.

“Once we get all the signs created and installed, it’ll be there to educate people on the importance of multi-use retention systems for flood impact control, nutrient reduction and things like that,” Reid said.

Both interpretive and Trans-Canada trails have been a boon for the RM of Victoria’s tourism, economic development officer Kaley Young said.

The roadside park was a hub for Canada 150 celebrations last year, part of 14 such events celebrating the Trans-Canada Trail across Manitoba.

“The Trans-Canada Trail is one of those bucket list items and to be able to have it in our municipality makes it easier to access,” Young said.

“The trail itself goes through the Tiger Hills, which, if you are from Winnipeg and have only travelled on Hwy. 1, you think Manitoba is flat. Well, it’s not. There’s a lot of rolling hills and some great scenery of farmland and animals and just a really gorgeous rural portrait,” she added.

Maintenance

But while signage and trails may be among the first things a community reaches for to appeal to visitors, that draw can quickly backfire if maintenance falls by the wayside.

In the RM of Victoria, one of the early advocates for bringing the Trans-Canada Trail to the region also looked after the trail for years. That individual has since stepped away, Young said, leaving the region to seek other volunteers.

The boardwalk, meanwhile, is in need of repair.

Reid says they hope to replace the boardwalk, as well as any signs that have faded.

“It was pretty good for a long time because the boardwalk itself wasn’t a floating boardwalk. Everything was driven into the ground,” he said. “But in the last couple of years, the frost has kind of pushed sections of the boardwalk off the ground, so now it’s unstable and after 12, 15 years, some of the sections, the boards have started to rot away being wet and just sort of out in the weather.”

Minnedosa is also looking to revamp its trails, which are now largely maintained by the town.

Parrott says she took home ideas for improving signage after listening to Hinam speak. Those improvements will have to wait until the town completes its rebrand, she said.

The economic development officer hopes to have signage in place by next year’s summer tourism season.

“The trail doesn’t have to be physical,” Hinam added, for communities concerned about maintenance. “Things like birding trails are not physical. If you want to build a trail, that’s a whole other ball of wax, but definitely worthwhile if you’ve got somebody who’s willing to maintain it.”

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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