“DADDY, WAIT.” My daughter Annika reaches down to pick up two small bunches of leaves. “This one smells like basil and this one smells like pineapple. Mmmm, they smell good together,” she says. “Now come on, let’s go Daddy.”
Annika bounds ahead of me along the path to a lighthouse-shaped tower overlooking the pier at Gull Harbour, Man., where pickerel fishing boats bob in the choppy water next to a flock of migrating cormorants. We’re at the northern tip of Hecla Island in Hecla/Grindstone Provincial Park, a peninsula and series of islands on Lake Winnipeg about a two-hour drive north of Winnipeg.
Hecla Island, Manitoba (Map: Steven Fick/Canadian Geographic)
Leaving my wife Dianne and our four-year-old daughter Lauryn at home in Toronto, I’ve come here with six-year-old Annika to experience the island’s natural beauty at a child’s pace. I’m planning to let Annika dictate the speed of our roving, with the aim of making the trip an adventure for both of us. It’s going to be a role reversal from our initial bonding experience, when I set a world record for the fastest marathon pushing a baby in a stroller. In that race, in September 2005, I zoomed along the 42.2-kilometre course on the Toronto waterfront as Annika sat in a jogging stroller watching trees and lampposts whip past. Now it’s her turn to lead me.
NEAR GULL HARBOUR, the Radisson Hecla Oasis Resort is connected to the mainland by a causeway and tucked within the boreal forest of the provincial park. The two-storey lodge’s recent renovation included the addition of an indoor/outdoor water park and a conference centre makeover, and its sleek, Nordic-inspired rooms offer unexpected luxury in such a rustic setting. The resort also has the Radisson chain’s only on-staff ecologist, field naturalist Heather Hinam, who leads guided tours of the island’s highlights.
Much of Hecla Island is close enough to the resort to experience on foot or by bike, but accompanied by a six-year-old who sometimes complains about walking three blocks to school, I request an excursion with Hinam that includes a combination of driving and hiking. Annika is shy at first but quickly warms up to Hinam after learning that her nickname is Dr. Hoo, thanks to her PhD research on the behaviour of saw-whet owls. “I did a lot of standing around in the dark,” says Hinam, whose eyes dart from side to side from beneath a wide-brimmed felt hat.
Dr. Hoo’s knowledge goes far beyond owls; she’s also an expert at identifying the region’s many plants and animals. And she knows a few things about local history: her family owned a cottage on the adjacent mainland and she has spent her summers here since the age of two.
We begin our tour at Gull Harbour Point, a windswept grassy field lined with white birch. Eagles hover overhead and swallows flitter through the trees. Annika is enchanted by the setting, pointing up at birds and down to plants and rocks. Hinam, who has maintained a child-like enthusiasm for nature, appears just as fascinated, showing Annika how the powdery coating of birch bark can be used as sunscreen and painting a patch of it on Annika’s arm. Hinam points to the sarsaparilla plant and explains that it was used to make the original root beer and tells us not to go near the stinging nettle because it really does sting.
“I heard a sound that went ‘waaah,’” Annika says as we follow a narrow trail along the water’s edge.
“Could be a flycatcher or a red-breasted nuthatch,” Hinam tells her.
Over the next hour, we walk about 200 metres, a nice change of pace from the 15 kilometres an hour that Annika and I covered in our stroller-pushing marathon. I take Annika’s hand and we look out over the water at nearby Black Island to the east and north to a peninsula of parkland that juts out from the mainland. Farther north, Lake Winnipeg squeezes through narrows two kilometres across, a sliver of its maximum width of 111 kilometres. The lake covers nearly 25,000 square kilometres, but its mean depth is only 12 metres, making it prone to large waves. Annika watches the swells crash into the rocky shoreline as we amble back to the car.
AFTER A SHORT DRIVE from the point, we reach Gull Harbour, where we meet Ivan Grimolfson, 66, a Hecla fixture whose great-grandfather emigrated here from Iceland with dozens of other families in the late 1800s. Annika cranes her neck to look up at the towering man, whose friendly blue eyes and deep belly laugh put her at ease. Stroking his long white beard, Grimolfson tells us he was born and raised on the island. “I’m here for the lake, the fishing. I went out on the boat with my dad when I was this high,” he says, touching his knees. “It gets in your blood.”
Lake Winnipeg has been the focus of serious ecological concern for the past eight years because of something else that gets in the blood: toxins produced by massive blooms of blue-green algae. The result of excess phosphorus in the water from agricultural and industrial sources and sewage treatment runoff, the proliferation of algae has led to the eutrophication of the lake — the depletion of oxygen and death of animal life in the water — and has caused, at times, up to two-thirds of its surface to turn green. The blooms also appear to be spurring an explosion of the area’s pickerel and whitefish populations, however, and Grimolfson says the algae has been around as long as he can remember.
“We used to swim in it,” he says, “and come out looking like little green men from Mars.”
“I wouldn’t want to swim in there,” says Annika, looking over the dock at a carpet of green just below the water’s surface. Hinam points out to the Namao, a 33-metre research vessel trolling on the horizon. It’s manned by fish biologist Al Kristofferson, who has been studying the health of the Lake Winnipeg ecosystem for a dozen years. “Every time I do a tour,” says Hinam, “I tell people the story of the lake and what they can do to help fix it.”
We’ve covered another 100 metres in the past hour. Annika is strolling along the beach and doesn’t want to leave. “Can you write down that this place has really soft sand,” she instructs. “It’s almost like powder.”
Our next stop is East Quarry, an old gravel quarry along the lake’s edge, where layered limestone formations create a giant playground for a six-year-old. Annika jumps between the rocks, occasionally stooping down to examine the interesting ones — cracked slabs of white and rust-coloured stone in varied shapes and sizes. Hinam used to explore this area when she was Annika’s age and is clearly enjoying watching her play.
We come across the impeccably preserved fossil of a snail-like creature about the size of a grapefruit. Annika has dreamed of becoming a palaeontologist since the age of four, when she watched the BBC series “Walking with Dinosaurs” about 50 times, so she’s immediately entranced by the fossil, kneeling down to trace the curves with her finger. Hinam explains that this area was flooded 450 million years ago by a tropical sea and that quarry activity and the waves of Lake Winnipeg have exposed the remnants of ancient marine animals.
Her paleontological patience still developing, Annika bounds off to a series of jagged rocks past the edge of the quarry. “Oh, you found my favourite spot,” says Hinam, helping Annika up to a perch with a spectacular view of the lake. Annika takes a seat next to Hinam and they sit watching the water. I have an urge to hurry them along but quickly realize that we have nowhere to rush off to.
THE NEXT DAY, we drive along the eastern shore about seven kilometres south of the resort to tour Hecla Village, an outpost founded by Icelandic settlers in 1876. At its peak in the 1920s and 1930s, the population swelled to more than 500, but only a handful of restored buildings remain, scattered on large lots near the lake. Annika takes her time walking through the old schoolhouse and the fish station, which also houses a museum displaying artifacts such as ice-fishing nets and an old wooden boat. Only nine families remain in the main village (all of Icelandic descent) and another handful of families live north of the town.
On the drive back north, Hinam makes a stop to visit Maxine (Helgason) Ingalls, a descendant of the original settlers, and her husband John Ingalls. They invite us in to sit on their sun porch, with a view of the lake, and Maxine tells us stories of growing up on the island.
“We never had any money, but we never knew that we were poor,” she says. “It was a time warp. Everything came to a standstill and didn’t go anywhere.”
This place does have a calming effect. Annika flips through a history book about Hecla and learns that the island was named after the famous Mount Hekla volcano in Iceland and that the original settlers called it Mikley, Icelandic for “big island.” The Ingalls returned to the island from Summerside, P.E.I., after the government launched a program to resettle the original inhabitants, who had been relocated in the 1960s to make way for the provincial park, which opened to the public in 1975. “Never would I have thought that I could come back here,” says Maxine, “and have this feeling.”
Before we leave, the Ingalls give Annika a small snail fossil. She holds it tight. Outside, we see a fox dash across the grass near the edge of the water.
Our last morning in Hecla, Annika takes my hand and leads me on a walk at her usual snail’s pace, this time along the boardwalk in the Grassy Narrows Marsh near the island’s south end. The 800-metre boardwalk cuts into the centre of the marsh, through a corridor of nearly two-metre-tall reeds. It’s pouring rain so we don’t go very far. Or very fast.