Manitoba, Canada: A true wilderness experience, complete with northern lights

for Traveler Magazine

The North Seal River Wilderness Lodge.

It all started back with those haunting trips to the Northwoods of Wisconsin and Ontario as a youngster. Even then, all those years ago, the seeds were sown. But by the time he was in his mid-20s, Ken Gangler’s life had hit a crossroads. Playing bass in a successful band, he began to wonder, should he continue with this murky world of rock’n’roll, or forge an entirely different path?

It’s still dawn as I shoulder my pack and make my way down a rickety wooden jetty on Egenolf Lake to where bush pilot Colin Knight is readying the vintage De Havilland floatplane. Across the water, a thin band of yellow light rises behind spruce trees, the sky milky white in a land where the sun never sets long during summer.
From the air, it’s apparent why Manitoba is the lake province, swirls of indigo sprawl towards the horizon straddled by islands of boreal forest. There are 110,000 lakes in this province alone, almost 16 per cent of its surface area. It’s one reason fishing enthusiasts are drawn from around the world and at Blackfish Lake I clamber aboard a five-metre aluminium craft to have a crack myself.

Northern Lights

My guide is Napoleon Denechezhe (aka Nap) an affable, if taciturn character charged with the thankless task of teaching me how to fish. Bobbing silently amid calm waters, the vast swaths of pristine wilderness are ours alone.
Commercial fishing is forbidden here and consequently the waters are teeming with northern pike, walleye and lake trout. In spite of my ham-fisted attempts, it doesn’t take long to reel in several, my rod nipping and bending as I crank the reel, Denechezhe bemused at my flustered approach.

Heading ashore, fellow guide Sengadore McCallum strikes up a fire while Denechezhe makes short work of cleaning and gutting the fish.
The pike is fried in boiling oil alongside chopped potatoes, onions, beans and sweet corn. Taking a seat on the sand, we watch in silence as a pair of bald eagles nest on the opposite shore.
Back at the ranch, Ken Gangler is holding court over drinks. The set-up is upmarket for a fishing lodge, though comfortable rather than super luxurious.
Surrounded by eight cabins housing up to 24 guests, the main lodge overlooks Egonolf Lake and the floatplanes moored to the jetty. Inside there’s a pool table, some vaguely disconcerting stuffed wildlife, comfy sofas and, in the corner, a semicircular bar.

All these touches evoke the preferred aspects of the lodges Gangler stayed at with his father in the 1980s and ’90s. Back then, the family were based in Chicago, but they threw it all in to run smaller lodges in Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories before selling them on to focus on the ultimate dream: this place.
“I never want to do anything by half measures,” says Gangler. “I didn’t want one of those imitation wilderness getaways with road access and a supermarket around the corner, I wanted something truly authentic.”
He has succeeded. The North Seal Wilderness Lodge can only be accessed via charter plane from Winnipeg, with everything we can see or touch flown in on DC-3s.

Floatplane over a sand esker

Nowadays it’s much less a fishing lodge and more an all-round adventure destination. Gangler has brought on board resident ecologist Brian Kotak, a genial man of science and head guide John Tronrud, a man’s-man who I’m sure could wrestle a wolf into a headlock if circumstances called for it.
Gangler’s is not a place with cheesy, set itineraries. It’s choose your own adventure. Some days I kayak the lake or take a fat bike for a burn, sitting by the fire pit afterwards with a beer, awaiting the northern lights. Other times we set out as a group led by Kotak, Tronrud and the local First Nations guides.
This stretch of Manitoba is famed for its eskers: sand and gravel ridges left behind when the glaciers retreated 8000 years ago. There are 13 in the immediate vicinity, some rising to 70 metres and higher. The longest is the Robertson Esker, spanning 300 metres.
We make a beeline for it on a blustery afternoon, our motorised boats thudding over the choppy lake surface, spumes of salty spray whipping in off white caps as we pick up speed.
From the ridge line you can see for kilometres in all directions, forest and lakes sprawling interchangeably towards the horizon.
“We’re probably the first non-indigenous people to set foot on this esker in about 2000 years,” says Kotak.
Beside a set of freshly shed cariboo antlers, we find a spearhead fashioned from quartz. It was likely created by hunters all those millennia ago – I’m sure it’s not a prop – and would have been tied to a stick and thrown at animals close range.
On our final day we board the floatplanes again for a 140-kilometre flight north to the Nunavut border. Inside a dilapidated cariboo hunting cabin is the remnant destruction of a curious bear; claw marks gouged across the ceiling and cupboard doors.
The place hasn’t been used in years – the nearest road is more than 500 kilometres away – but with the floatplanes connecting the site to the main lodge, Gangler plans to redevelop this area, too, adding refurbished cabins, a fleet of kayaks and obvious safety precautions against encroaching critters.
Next season, visitors here will more likely be shooting cariboo, wolves and bears with DSLRs than rifles.
Gliding back onto the surface of Egonolf Lake, the lodge now feels like home. There’s been a definite shift in my daily rhythms, fewer furtive glances at my watch, less preoccupation with life’s trivialities.

The northern lights are slower than usual to make their appearance on our final night. Determined for one last glimpse – though they’ve shown up every night – I find myself alone by the fire at 2am. It’s quiet; only the sporadic pop of a burning log or the low murmur of wind out across the lake. Above the treetops, a raging swirl of emerald green dances in the night sky.
I think of the closing lines to Robert William Service’s poem, Call of the Wild.
“There’s a whisper on the night-wind, there’s a star agleam to guide us, And the Wild is calling, calling … let us go.”

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