A drive through Riding Mountain National Park (RMNP) in winter can be enjoyable. As one approaches from the east or north, the park rises island-like above the surrounding plain. You can see why early settlers termed these hills mountains, even though the elevation at the top averages only 600 to 700 metres.
Approaching from the south on No. 10 Highway, visitors will not feel the park is mountainous. But from the north via No. 10, the highway up the escarpment climbs abruptly, and from the east by No. 19, the road rises through wide turns, with an excellent viewpoint from the top.
Before the region achieved national park status in 1933 it was classed as a forest reserve, and the timber was the source for a thriving logging industry, which continued for some time even after 1933. The relatively flat to rolling top yielded two types of timber — for lumber white spruce, black spruce and jack pine; and for fuel chiefly tamarack, oak and birch.
Many portable mills were established there, as well as some stationary mills. One stationary mill, owned by the Peden brothers, operated on the shores of Whitewater Lake from 1910-38. Alex Kippen also ran mills, both portable and stationary, along what is now No. 10, north of Clear Lake. At the stationary mill, he provided a camp for workers to stay, and produced lumber for relief camps of the 1930s, and for cottages around Clear Lake.
Still another mill was run by Bert Walker and Howard McCracken at Rat Lake, on the southeast side of the reserve, from 1925-38. It employed about 25 men to cut jack pine for railway ties which were hauled out by sled. In 1935, 16,000 ties were hauled out, at the rate of 40 to 50 per sleigh.
The villages of Laurier and McCreary were two northeast centres for the logging. Area farmers used the winter months, when farm work was lighter, to get out fuel and lumber, for their own use and to sell. The Forest Service required them to get permits, stating what type of trees and quantity could be cut. Sometimes, in the case of spruce and jack pine, the rangers marked which trees could be cut.
On the lower slopes were stands of bur oak, often sold to tanneries in Winnipeg for tannic acid. Since the best stands were about 16 km from the towns, it was most efficient to spend several days at a time there. Younger farmers, especially unmarried ones, often did that, while older men hired young men to fill their permits for them. Hay and food supplies would be taken in for the week. The cutting began in late autumn but transporting the wood had to wait until sleigh travel was possible. About two to 2-1/4 cords of wood could be hauled on one load, and several trips were needed to fill a railway car, which held 16 cords.
When the region became protected, sawmills eventually had to move outside the park. The logs were hauled out full length, usually about five metres. Spruce and pine were then taken full length to the sawmills, while tamarack logs were hauled to the bottom of the mountain and cut into cordwood length.
Logging for lumber usually lasted all winter, as conditions permitted, while tamarack cutting was normally done in the spring, once melting snow on the flat land below made hauling longer logs impossible. While snow still lay on the mountain, tamarack logs could be hauled to the bottom and left there until the following winter, when sleighs could be used again.
Bringing five-metre logs down the steep escarpment on the north and east was often a problem. The nightmare of a runaway sleigh was always in a man’s mind, so to slow down sleighs, large chains were placed around runners to act as locks. Also, manure was spread on trails to make them less slippery. In one place, the slope was so steep that a timber chute was used to slide logs to the bottom.
Centres on the south and west sides of the mountain didn’t have an escarpment to deal with. Mills in more distant towns such as Birtle and Minnedosa sometimes had logs floated down to them by river, and shingle mills were popular on the south side of the park for a time.
The next time you take a winter’s drive through RMNP, look around at all the trees, and think back to those times. In summertime, check out the short trail to the remnants of one of Kippen’s Mills, located about 40 km north of Wasagaming.
For more information on Manitoba’s logging history you can download this pdf, The lumber industry in Manitoba, courtesy of the Government of Manitoba.
Donna Gamache writes from MacGregor, Manitoba