It had been on my radar for many years. Like all those big, green, inviting splotches found while poring over maps, Riding Mountain National Park stood out for me as a “would-like- to-explore- someday” destination. It didn’t seem all that far away either. Mapping software said the drive should be about five and a half hours from Fargo, closer by far than, say, the Black Hills. Yet no one I knew ever really mentioned it. In fact, it wasn’t until this summer that I had ever met anyone who had stepped foot there.
The kicker, I suppose, is the fact it’s in Manitoba. Having to cross the international border carries a certain amount of angst for some, not to mention the fact you need a passport these days; somewhat limiting factors to be sure.
Still, the more I read about Riding Mountain, the more inviting it sounded.
Geologically, it’s an “island;” a high piece of forested ground at the edge of glacial Lake Agassiz on the Manitoba escarpment (we know it as the Pembina escarpment) surrounded by farmland. It’s as if someone carved out a 3000-square kilometer piece of far northern Minnesota and plopped it in the middle of the Prairie Provinces.
Three ecosystems join here in a unique union. Aspen parkland, boreal forest, and fescue prairie merge on this high terrain to form a hodgepodge of landscapes featuring lakes, streams, bogs, forests and meadows.
As a result, the plants and animals (including birds) are an admixture, too, like American crow and common raven, eastern wood-pewee and western wood-pewee, or black-capped chickadee and boreal chickadee.
Ultimately, that’s what tipped the scales; the chance to see great gray owls, gray jays, spruce grouse and black-backed woodpeckers on nesting territory became too much to ignore. Throw in the possibility of seeing lynx, timber wolves, moose and black bears at the same time and, well, I was committed.
Nine of us from the Fargo area completed a four-day field trip just 10 days ago after putting it on our calendar a few months ago. It didn’t disappoint.
Using hints provided to us by Rob Parsons of Winnipeg and Adrian Azar of Williston, N.D., our group tried to hit as many bird hotspots as possible despite the shortness of time.
Three species stood out as being incredibly common here: cedar waxwing, alder flycatcher, and white-winged crossbill. I’m not sure we made a stop during our two days in the park when the staccato chatter of white-winged crossbills wasn’t part of the audio soundtrack.
We found boreal chickadees. We also found Swainson’s thrushes, Lincoln’s sparrows, evening grosbeaks, gray jays, and ruby-crowned kinglets. Granted we see these species in Fargo, but this was different. They migrate through the Red River Valley each spring and fall where their presence is fleeting. This, however, was their summer destination, their nesting grounds, a very special place.
We saw two black bears, but whiffed on moose. We missed great gray owl and the northern woodpeckers we were seeking, too, plus a few nesting warblers. After all, this was late July and many species have greatly curtailed their singing if not stopped altogether, making them difficult to locate.
The litmus test I use to judge the quality of any experience is to answer the following question: Would I do it again? No debate on this one, it’s a big “yes.” I got a similar reaction from the other Fargoans: “Enjoyable … memorable … beautiful area … great trip.”
I’d recommend a couple of things though. First, don’t schedule your trip to Riding Mountain National Park during a Canadian “long weekend,” whatever that is. It made it very difficult to find
accommodations and forced us to stay nearly 30 miles away from the park. Camping might be the better option with a smaller group.
Also, if the goal of your visit is to find birds, an early-to-mid June date would be more productive as the birds are much more actively singing then.
We couldn’t even begin to see the entire park, something that would likely take weeks. Plus the vast majority of it is roadless, which leaves hundreds of square miles, er kilometers, nearly untouched and ripe for exploration. I truly cannot wait to visit again. While the possibilities may not be endless, they sure seem that way, with outdoor adventure waiting around every bend.