People passionate about nature

The History of the Mantario Wilderness Education Centre

Compiled/written by Katrina Froese, Mantario Committee Volunteer

Above: Mantario Wilderness Education Centre, 1980s (from NM Archives)

Above: Mantario Wilderness Education Centre, as it looks today (by Donna Kurt)


On December 31,1973, Nature Manitoba (at that time called the Manitoba Naturalists Society or MNS) took on the responsibility of maintenance and management of a wilderness cabin near the Ontario boundary of Whiteshell Provincial Park.

Located on a small and remote island in the southwest bay of Mantario Lake, the Mantario Wilderness Education Centre was leased to Nature Manitoba under the terms that it was to provide a place where interest in nature could be nurtured and developed, and where people could enjoy a wilderness experience.

Above: Mantario Wilderness Education Centre still sits on this remote island (by Brian Hydesmith)

Over the years, the success of Mantario has been largely due to the volunteer efforts of many dedicated people. Mantario has gone on to hold a special place in the hearts and memories of thousands of visitors over the past 45 years. Nature Manitoba’s volunteers and experienced members continue to introduce new visitors to the Mantario cabin.

Above: Group of vistors to Mantario Wilderness Education Centre (from NM Archives)

Above: Another group of vistors to Mantario Wilderness Education Centre (by Donna Kurt)

Mantario History to 1974

The Province of Manitoba established the Whiteshell Forest Reserve in 1931, later changing the name to Whiteshell Provincial Park in the early 1950’s.

Above: Mantario area of Whiteshell offers magnificent views (by Brian Hydesmith)

Above: Larger-than-life Whiteshell scenery en route to Mantario Wilderness Education Centre (by Brian Hydesmith)

In the 1960’s, “power toboggans” began to rise in popularity. Locals from Falcon Lake, Rennie and other small towns fanned out to explore new ice-fishing destinations in the Whiteshell region. Fly-in fishing was also becoming a popular summer activity in the area.

In 1964, Eldon Loeppky, a Hydro supervisor from the West Hawk Lake area with a passion for ice fishing, visited a trapper’s shack on a small island in Mantario Lake while travelling by snowmobile with a group of friends. They used the shack as a temporary shelter on a cold night, and Loeppky’s acquaintances hatched a plan to build a bigger and better shelter on that same island.

The larger cabin became provincial property, available for use by provincial employees, and eventually by non-governmental organizations.

Above: The Mantario Wilderness Zone is very remote (by Brian Hydesmith)

By 1972, a commercial operator was renting the cabin out to users at rates of over $100 per weekend – a high price tag considering the remoteness and lack of amenities at the time. Despite the high cost, Nature Manitoba organized their first ski and snowshoe outing to Mantario Lake with trip leader Ed Boudreaux in February 1972, and another with Alice Bossenmaier in 1973.

The Nature Manitoba members saw an opportunity. Supported by a growing conservation-minded community, this wilderness cabin could become a low-cost hostel for hikers, snowshoers and canoeists rather than a fly-in or snowmobile access lodge. An application was made to the Province to take over the lease when it was next up for renewal in December. Ten other community organizations supported the application.

Above: Nature Manitoba leases this property for our educational programs and member use (by Brian Hydesmith)

The Province was convinced. On December 31, 1973, Tom Walker, then Chair of the Mantario Sub-Committee, together with Frank Braun, Darvel Lloyd, and Bob Hamlin got up at 5:30am at Walker’s family cottage at Florence Lake. That morning they skied 12 miles north in the frigid cold (-45°C) to meet two provincial conservation officers at Mantario Lake to officially take possession of the cabin. The foursome enjoyed a well-insulated New Year’s Eve at the Mantario Wilderness Centre and dreamed of what it would become.

Mantario or Bust! Programs and Adventures 1974-1999

Above: Vintage Mantario cartoon, 1977 by Darlene Payne (nee Rees)

“Now, for once, you can have a true wilderness experience without being either a wealthy American or an Olympic athlete, nor do you have to own a lot of camping equipment, or even an automobile. All you’ll need is minimal outdoor gear, the price of a day coach ticket, be in reasonably good physical condition, and willing to exert yourself to some extent.” -from article by Tom Walker in the MNS (Nature Manitoba) Bulletin, March 1974

Above: Mantario Wilderness Education Centre, 1979 (by Vera Froese)

The Mantario Wilderness Centre, as per Provincial agreement, was dedicated to non-mechanical overland travel and to wilderness preservation. Three main restrictions applied to cabin users: no aircraft or all-terrain vehicles like snowmobiles, no littering and no firearms. The Cabin could accommodate up to 16 people, and usage was intended for organized groups only.

Above: Mantario Wilderness Centre from a distance, 1980 (by Vera Froese)

The Mantario Sub-Committee wasted no time organizing trips to the cabin. The initial lease was for one year. Logging visitor numbers was important to ensure the Province would be willing to renew. In March 1974, the MNS (Nature Manitoba) Bulletin advertised two ski and snowshoe trips for March, a backpacking trip for trail marking in April, portage finding and a canoe trip to the cabin in May and a summer interpretive program. The price for an overnight trip was set at $6.00 for members or $7 for non-members, and both included 3 meals.

Above: Winter trip to Mantario Wilderness Education Centre (from NM Archives)

Above: Folks inside Mantario Cabin, 1978 (from Gerhard Dehls)

Success resulted in revenue outweighing expenditures, and the Province renewed the lease in 1975 and has continued to renew on a 21-year term, with the latest term currently being renewed in 2020. Walker reported over 300 user days in the first year of cabin access.

By 1976, the Committee put a call out for a Promotional Services Officer. This person was to reach out to like-minded organizations to tell them the cabin was available to book, to ensure that all potential users were aware of the ethical and educational objectives of the Centre, to screen and train leaders from other organizations or provide a guide for the outside group.

The “Manitoba Naturalists Society Bulletin” was also sent out frequently to members to keep them posted on upcoming trips. 

“I remember waiting with anticipation for each bulletin to arrive in my mailbox, always ready to call up my friends and book in for our next trip to Mantario.” - Vera Froese, nee. Hallgrimson, a Mantario adventure late 1970s to early 1980s.

Above: Skiiers set to compete in the first ever Mantario Marathon from Big Whiteshell Lake to the Mantario Wilderness Centre, 1978 (from Joyce Watts)

Above: Joyce Watts (nee Miller) was the only female to participate in the first Mantario Marathon, 1978

The Mantario Summer Program

The Summer Program continues to be the backbone of the Mantario Wilderness Centre offerings in July and August each year.

Above: Kids learning paddling techniques at a family-themed week of the Summer Program, 2009 (by Brian Hydesmith)

From its beginnings in summer 1974, the trips were open to the public. Two staff were hired to work full time at the cabin. One would guide people in and out, while the other would be in charge of cooking and cabin maintenance. The participant fee for a week-long excursion was set at $25 per person, a rate of $2 cabin fee and $3 meal fee per day.

Summer Program themes have included photography and sketching, and activities included basic survival skills instruction, general hiking in the area, fishing, canoeing, and identification and appreciation of local flora and fauna.

Above: Summer program particiants and staff member (from NM Archives)

Above: Summer Program, 1990 (by Maggie Wilman)

Winter Adventures

Winter trips to the cabin by ski or snowshoe are guided by volunteer trip leaders or organized and booked by approved and experienced user groups.

A group enjoying the ski out to the Mantario Wilderness Centre, 2019 (by Stephen Paterson)

The sauna is a luxury for those seeking Nordic-style rejuvenation. An old boat shed located near the water was used by participants as a sauna as early as 1974, with an oil barrel stove for heat.

Above: The first sauna being used in 1978 (by Grant Mohr)

The safety of this building was questionable, so volunteers Grant Mohr and Lorne Hyde took charge of building a Finnish sauna in the early summer of 1979 using 6 plane loads of donated materials. The old boathouse was torn down, and the large volunteer work group was able to finish the build in two consecutive weekends.

Above: Mantario Cabin and Sauna, 1980s (by Grant Mohr)

In winter, the sauna is usually accompanied by a cool-off in the lake. A hole is opened up in the lake using hand augers and a large ice saw. A quick dip is all you need to bring your body temperature back down!

Above: First sauna dip, 1975 (by Grant Mohr)

Above: Sauna Dip, 1980s or 90s (from NM Archives)

The Mantario Wilderness Zone

Following a public consultation process and review, the Manitoba Parks Branch put forward the Whiteshell Provincial Park Master Plan in 1982, as a response to increasing development within the first and largest of Manitoba’s Provincial Parks.

Above: The Mantario Wilderness Zone offers a true wilderness experience (by Brian Hydesmith)

The Master Plan presented guidelines and objectives with the intention to “achieve a balance between opportunities for intensive and extensive types of outdoor recreation by defining where and to what level development can and should occur, and where management will aim to preserve the relatively unaltered parklands.”

In the Master Plan, zoning changes would establish the Mantario Wilderness Zone, an area of 321 km2, overall 12% of the park’s area. The Wilderness Zone was dedicated to non-mechanized recreation only, excluding snowmobiles, motorboats, and aircraft. The Plan halted any cottage development or further expansion of private camps, and excluded future forestry or mining operations. Fishing was permitted, but hunting was excluded. Trappers who held long-term licenses for the area were permitted to continue.

Above: Whiteshell Master Plan map, 1982 (click to see full map)

Within the Wilderness Zone, the Mantario Hiking Trail, canoe routes linking to Mantario Lake, and designated campsites along hiking and canoe routes are listed as recreational facilities that would be maintained.

In response to the Master Plan, on February 20, 1983, there was a large rally of snowmobilers at Mantario Lake, in protest to their exclusion from the Mantario Wilderness Zone. The Minister of Natural Resources flew to the rally to speak to the protesters, the event made the front page of the Winnipeg Free Press. Despite the protest, the Wilderness Zone remains non-motorized access area to this day.

Rising from the Ashes: Mantario 1999 – 2020+

At the end of May, 1999, as the Mantario Wilderness Centre was preparing to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Summer Program, the organization received some very bad news. A routine flight over Mantario Lake had discovered that the cabin had burnt down! The accidental fire of unknown cause had destroyed the beloved cabin and its contents. Only one of the two outhouses and the sauna were spared.

Mantario Cabin Post Fire from Nature Manitoba on Vimeo.

The loss was huge, but the Mantario Program was identified as integral to the Nature Manitoba goal of connecting people with nature through guided wilderness experiences and nature based programming. The Committee voted to take on the task of completely rebuilding the Mantario Cabin.

The first half of the following year, January – June, 2000, was dedicated to gathering funding, building materials, labour, and interior furnishings to complete a new cabin before the 2000 Summer Program. A composting toilet was installed to increase the sustainability of the cabin site over the long term.

Above: The new cabin now sits in the same location (by Brian Hydesmith)

Above: A plaque is a reminder of the amazing effort of Nature Manitoba members and supporters (by Brian Hydesmith)

Though the new cabin design was increased from 800 to 1,150 square feet, participant capacity was to remain the same, as per agreement with the Province. The cabin would provide more elbowroom in bunkrooms and communal space.

Above: The rebuilt cabin offers lots of room to cook for groups (by Brian Hydesmith)

Above: The cabin is well-equipped for its remote location (by Brian Hydesmith)

Above: Luxuries like coffee and baking are part of this backcountry experience (by Brian Hydesmith)

Above: Modest bunks allow up to 16 people to use the cabin at a time (from NM archives)

Funding for the rebuild was secured from the Canada Trust Environmental Foundation, Sustainable Development Innovations Fund, Manitoba Culture, Heritage and Tourism, Mountain Equipment Co-op, Thomas Sill Foundation, United Grain Growers, and over 200 individual donations.

The cabin was rebuilt with volunteer labour before the July 2000 Summer Program – an amazing feat of strength in community.

Getting To Mantario: Over the Years

Above: Map from Nature Manitoba's MNS Bulletin, 1974

The Mantario Cabin has been accessed over many routes over the years. Here are a few examples of ways that groups have made their way there on their own steam.

Above: How to get to Mantario brochure, 1976 (click to see full map)

Winnitoba Rail Station

Above: Waiting at Winnitoba Station (from NM Archives)

In the 1970s, groups could start their trip to the Mantario cabin by boarding a passenger train in central Winnipeg and hopping off at Winnitoba Station, a stop on the rail line located near Florence Lake. Winter ski and snowshoe trips, and summer canoe trips would then follow a lake-based route with portages, with estimated travel time of 7-9 hours.

A hiking path also provided foot access from Winnitoba to Mantario Lake. Marked with rock cairns and blaze tape, this track was not to be attempted by inexperienced hikers.

Above: Group going in from Winnitoba (by Grant Mohr)

Above: Leaving Winnitoba Station (by Grant Mohr)

In 1974, the fare to Winnitoba on the CNR Super Continental cost $9.50 return. The train would leave Winnipeg on Saturday at 8 a.m., but could be delayed and trip would be cancelled if the train did not leave before noon. The train was expected to pick up passengers at Winnitoba for the return journey at 8:30pm on Sunday.

Above: Winnitoba Station (by Grant Mohr)

The Winnitoba route could only be used when the passenger train left Winnipeg on Saturday morning and was coming back on Sunday evening.  The CN Camper Special went out on Friday night and came back on Sunday night. When Via Rail took over operations, they eventually changed the train schedule so it is now an inconvenient way to access the area.

Mantario Hiking Trail

Tom Walker and others spent many weekends and holidays scouting and flagging the trail all way from Caddy Lake to Big Whiteshell Lake, which would eventually become parts of the Mantario Hiking Trail. Walker’s cabin at Florence Lake was home base for many of these excursions.

Above: Nature Manitoba group hiking the Mantario Trail, 1990s (from NM archives)

There had been existing trails criss-crossing the landscape. Jack Gray, a trapper in the 1920s-30s left ghost trails that have become part of Mantario Trail. From the 1930s-70s, Alex Kolansky, another trapper, created trails to follow as well.

Lake Access Routes

The Northern Route remains the access route for today’s Summer Program and most member user groups. Starting at Big Whiteshell Lake, the portages are well marked and vary in distance up to a maximum of 2 km. The roughly 20 km route, covering 5 or 6 portages, can take 6-8 hours depending on group and method of travel.

Above: Up-and-over portage en route to Mantario Wilderness Centre (from NM archives)

The Southern Route is an alternative that connects from Caddy Lake, with a long portage to Nora Lake, then following the lake route from Florence Lake, as followed in  the Winnitoba days.

Several Middle Routes also exist from Caddy Lake or Lone Island Lake following a chain of lakes east to Mantario Lake. These routes have 8 (or more) portages, and were listed in the 1976 brochure as “a very long day of hard work.”

See the Witeshell Backcountry Map here for routes. 

Indian Creek Route

This trapper’s route is infrequently travelled by canoe and ski groups who want a bit more of a challenge, or to avoid high winds on the lakes. The route begins with the canoe portages from Mantario Lake into Hop, Bishoff, and Indian Lake, and then follows Indian Creek to Little Whiteshell and Big Whiteshell Lakes.

Kolanski Ski Trail

The Kolanski Ski Trail, now inaccessible, was cut by volunteers in summer 1980 to provide an option for winter trips to skip the cold, windblown lakes and travel via a forest route. The Kolanski Trail was named after Alex Kolanski, a trapper whose territory included the area around Mantario Lake.

Above: Kolanski Ski Trail Map, 1980 (from Grant Mohr)

According to Grant Mohr, Dave Fitzjohn and Dennis LeNeveu initially flagged a trail that ran from the south end of Big Whiteshell Lake to One Lake. Wilderness Corp volunteers led by Scott Nickels started cutting the trail in summer 1980. Grant Mohr coordinated trip leaders for six work trips in fall, 1980 with groups working from either end to meet in the middle. Trail improvements continued. On February 20, 1983, with Minister of Natural Resources, Al Mackling, present, there was an official ribbon cutting ceremony.

Above: Ribbon cutting for the Kolanski Ski Trail, 1983 (by Grant Mohr)

The trail was viewed as a good option during high user winters, when the ski tracks were broken every weekend by a new group. The Park snowmobiles did not groom the trail, and it began to prove a difficult option in deep unpacked snow or maintain after windfall in summers.

Getting Involved: The Mantario Sub-Committee

From the beginning, the Mantario effort was pushed ahead by a voluntary group of the cabin’s earliest users and champions, including Tom Walker, Gene Bossenbaier, Doug Kyle, Art Meers, and Janice Kaminsky. Bob Hamlin, Lorne Hyde, Ed Boudreaux, Laurie Logan, Joan Horbatiuk, Grant Mohr and others.

During the rebuild of the cabin in 2000, the Committee Executive included Ray Neilsen, André Laberge, Mike Brown, Debora Voth, Julie Gold, Henry Redekop, and Denise Levesque, and many others who volunteered countless hours in other roles.

Above: Maintanance of the Centre is done by many dedicated volunteers (by Brian Hydesmith)

The Committee is responsible for everything to do with the cabin’s upkeep and programming, including maintenance and stocking of the cabin, organizing volunteers for work parties, and the planning and organization of the Summer Program including selecting theme weeks, coordinating trip leaders, purchasing food, and aspects of marketing.

Summer Program guide positions were salaried up to and including summer 2015. Supervision and training of summer guides was coordinated by a volunteer and became onerous. Since 2015, the Summer Program has continued to be offered by amazing trip leaders and guides who are Nature Manitoba volunteers.

There are many Nature Manitoba volunteers who have contributed their time and experience to introducing new people to the Mantario wilderness. One volunteer, Donna Kurt, has led 26 annual Thanksgiving canoe trips, with over 150 participants.

Above: Volunteers make special trips to take on larger tasks like laundry (by Brian Hydesmith)

Nature Manitoba’s administrative and communications staff are a huge asset in managing cabin bookings, summer program registrations, handling payments and using the website and social media to inform the public about Mantario.

Above: The hard work and dedication of Nature Manitoba volunteers allows for a fun and immersive wilderness experience for all (by Brian Hydesmith)

I would like to thank Christine Mazur, for historical research and contributions to this article, as well as Grant Mohr, Brian Hydesmith and Vera Froese for contributions of stories and photos.

Videos made by Nature Manitoba members and supporters:

Tales from the Mantario Woods Full Movie from Nature Manitoba on Vimeo.

Mantario Cabin from David Warrenchuk on Vimeo.

Next Stop, Winnitoba! The story of a summer resort by D.A. Patterson and A.L. Crossin (Florence Lake Campers Association)
Tales from the Mantario Woods, film documentary by Christine Mazur, 2009.
Tom Walker- “Mantario - A Wilderness Project” published on pp. 69-71 in Manitoba Naturalists Society Volume 2 (1942-1975), by the History Committee.
Whiteshell Provincial Natural Park Master Plan, Manitoba Parks Branch, Department of Natural Resources, October 1982.
Manitoba Naturalists Society Bulletin, March 1974. (monthly publication from the Society office)
Mantario A Wilderness Place Pamphlet 1976.
Manitoba Naturalist Society Bulletin Volume 2, Number 12 September 1978.
Nature Manitoba Mantario records – various meeting minutes, grant proposals, provincial lease agreements.
Tom Walker (1925-2014) article in Nature Manitoba Newsletter, July-August 2014