Lori Janeson: What’s the Big Deal About Hecla Island?

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Unless you live in Manitoba, it’s very unlikely that you’re familiar with Hecla Island. That’s okay. You’re the one missing out.

Hecla Island is an irregularly shaped teardrop of land in the northwestern section of Lake Winnipeg’s southern lobe. Connected to the mainland by a single causeway, it’s completely given over to Hecla Grindstone Provincial Park — one of the province’s most popular weekend getaways.

Longtime resident Lori Janeson succinctly explains why Hecla Island is so great: “For a relatively small island, Hecla has everything: historical sites, endless outdoor recreation opportunities, surprisingly diverse ecosystems, upscale resorts, and a unique culture oriented around Lake Winnipeg.”

Lori, her husband, David Janeson, and her fellow Hecla residents aren’t rushing to let the whole world know about Hecla. They’re happy to maintain the island’s unhurried, uncrowded vibe — by and large, it’s what drew them there in the first place.

But they’re also happy to share what makes their little slice of heaven so memorable. If that means a few more tourists wander up their way, so be it.

Where Is Hecla Island?

Hecla Island isn’t at the end of the world. It’s roughly two hours north of Winnipeg by road, weather permitting. It’s basically a straight shot north on Manitoba Highway 8, across a narrow causeway. The road to Hecla passes popular Lake Winnipeg beach towns like Winnipeg Beach, Sandy Hook, and Gimli. If you have time for a picnic lunch, check out Camp Morton Provincial Park, a bit more than halfway there.

“I always tell visitors to enjoy the ride up,” says Lori Janeson. “There’s so much to see on the shores of Lake Winnipeg.

First Nations, Vikings & Tourists: Hecla Island’s History

Hecla Island has a long, long history. Though the island wasn’t a major center of permanent habitation for the Anishinabe first peoples, it did occupy an important, even sacred place in the Anishinabe culture. Several ceremonial sites remain on the island, each a powerful reminder that those who live on the island today walk on the shoulders of giants.

The first Europeans to settle Hecla Island came in the 1870s, primarily from Iceland. For a time, Hecla was part of a semi-autonomous colony known as New Iceland. Today, more than one-third of all Canadians of Icelandic descent call Manitoba home; their ancestors’ way of life is memorialized at Hecla Village, one of the island’s most popular attractions.

The Icelanders’ subsistence economy has long since given way to tourism and recreation, but Hecla remains a special place for many who continue to make their home in the area.

Lori Janeson’s Guide to Outdoor Fun on Hecla Island

“Hecla Island is practically paradise for active tourists,” says Lori Janeson. Here’s just a small sampling of the outdoor activities she recommends:

  • Hiking Grassy Narrows Marsh: Grassy Narrows Marsh is the island’s best place to glimpse big game, including moose. Check out the wildlife viewing tower for best results.
  • Kayaking Around the Island: Lori Janeson, an avid kayaker, loves introducing newcomers to the sport. The placid waters between Hecla and the mainland are perfect for a lazy paddle.
  • Swimming in the Lake: In late summer, the lake is plenty warm enough for swimming. Just remember to bring a towel — the breeze off the water gets chilly once you’re out.
  • Biking Trails and Roads: Traffic rarely overwhelms on Hecla, even at the height of the summer tourist season. Careful bikers can get dozens of kilometers under their belt simply by circuiting the island’s roads. This is a great way to see more of the area’s surprisingly diverse ecology.
  • Golfing at Lakeview: Hecla Island has an 18-hole championship golf course at Hecla Lakeview Resort — an unexpected and welcome find in an otherwise rustic land.

Things to Do on the Mainland

Every good Hecla Island trip must come to an end. (That is, unless you love the place enough to start looking at real estate on Hecla. That’s a whole different story.)

Leave some wiggle room in your itinerary to see a few sights on the way out.

“Hecla Island isn’t a self-contained destination,” says Lori Janeson. “There’s a lot to see on the mainland, and on nearby minor islands in Lake Winnipeg. The broader Interlake region [between Lakes Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Winnipegosis] is absolutely rife with things to do and places to see.”

Here’s a sampling of sights to hit within an hour or two of Hecla Island:

  • Viking Park, Gimli: Gimli’s Viking Park is…well, let’s just say it’s worth a stop. The centerpiece is a gigantic Viking statue — an echo of the Paul Bunyan statues littering central North America.
  • Pine Dock: It’s remote, and it’s in the other direction from Winnipeg, but that’s kind of the point. Located on the narrows between the north and south lobes of Lake Winnipeg, Pine Dock is worth the drive.
  • Hnausa Beach Provincial Park: The small town of Hnausa has a tidy little beach that’s great for a quick stop or longer lounge.

Hecla in Any Season

Most outsiders think of Hecla Island as a summer destination. To be sure, it’s nice to visit when sitting on the porch doesn’t require five layers — and, at least in theory, when the water’s warm enough for a quick dip.

“We definitely see more tourist activity [on Hecla Island] in July and August,” says Lori Janeson. There’s a smaller spike in late September, she adds, during peak autumn color season.

But adventurous visitors shouldn’t be put off by chilly air or snow. With crisp blue skies, pure air, and zero crowds, winter in Hecla is an otherworldly experience. Shallow Lake Winnipeg freezes early and hard; by early December, it’s ready for heavy use. There’s nothing quite like racing a snowmobile across the glass-flat surface of Canada’s sixth-largest lake. Just be sure to avoid the fishing huts that sprout up near shore — hardy locals know that Lake Winnipeg’s fish are hungrier during the winter, when the heavens temporarily stop raining nutrients.

So, don’t bother counting the days until June. No matter when you arrive, locals will welcome you to Hecla Island with open arms.

Why Hecla Park and the Surrounding Area Makes for Great Birding

By Lori Janeson

Birding is a wonderful way to learn about the different species and experience the great outdoors. The Hecla Park Manitoba Region is full of exciting destinations for experienced birders as well as beginners.

Here are some of the most popular and exciting bird watching sites in the area, sorted by region. Get ready to add to your life list.

Interlake Region

Lake Winnipeg’s white pelicans delight birders every year. The Interlake Region consists of Hecla Grindstone Provincial Park and Camp Morton Provincial near Gimli, and Birds Hill Provincial Park and Oak Hammock Marsh, near Selkirk.

Both Hecla Grindstone Provincial Park and Oak Hammock Marsh give birders ample opportunities to see birds with developed bird sites on trails that include blinds, lookout towers, benches, overlooks, viewing telescopes and informational signs.

 

“Birds Hill Park boasts as many as 200 bird species that include indigo buntings, clay-colored sparrows, horned larks, goshawks, red-tailed hawks, hairy woodpeckers and yellow-bellied sapsuckers.” — Lori Janeson

 

In all, over 300 bird species have been sighted in the Interlake Region, including birds that make many lifer lists, including snowy owls, bald eagles, short-eared and great gray owls and gyrfalcons. If you’re a birder, you’re sure to find a life list species or two.

Western Region

Although the list in this region is short, it doesn’t lack for bird watching attractions. Turtle Mountain Provincial Park is located close to Brandon. Turtle Mountain is a protected wildlife management area (WMA). Birds and wildlife are abundant. Whitewater Lake is near Boissevain and is a designated Canadian Important Bird Area (IBA), WMA and a recognized Manitoba Heritage Marsh.

Parkland Region

Over 260 bird species have been recorded at the Riding Mountain National Park close to Dauphin. The Swan River area has two active bird watching attractions in Duck Mountain Provincial Park and Porcupine Provincial Forests.

Resident and migrating birds nest, feed and rest in the region making nearly any season the perfect time to watch birds. Recorded bird species in the Parkland region include sandhill cranes, several species of owls and ducks, prairie horned larks, belted kingfishers, American white pelicans, rose-breasted grosbeaks and great blue herons.

Northern Region

The northern region provides opportunities to see a wide variety of bird species. Wapusk National Park near Churchill is a protected birding site and favorite resting place for many migratory birds.

Other favorite bird watching locations in the north include Grass River Provincial Park, Clearwater Lake Provincial Park and the Saskeram Provincial Wildlife Management Area.

Tundra swans, snow geese, ptarmigans, several owl species, Arctic terns, gyrfalcons and peregrine falcons are just a few of the many species you can see here.

Central Region

Bird species in the central region include American white pelicans, American redstarts, Tennessee warblers, great blue herons, sandpipers, least flycatchers and piping plovers. Visit the Delta Marsh near Portage La Prairie and Big Grass Marsh close to Gladstone for the best views.

Pembina Valley Region

More than 200 bird species have been recorded in this region near Morden. The biggest attractions by far are the golden and bald eagles that frequent the area. Vultures, chickadees, towhees, red-tailed hawks and woodpeckers are also abundant during the summer and migratory months.

 

Lori Janeson and her husband David are the owners of the Gull Harbour Marina on Hecla Island

Where to Stay on & Around Hecla Island — Campgrounds, Inns & Resorts

By Lori Janeson

Hecla Island isn’t as remote as some people think. If you really want, you can easily take a day trip up here from Winnipeg — it’s about two hours in each direction, weather permitting.

But driving four hours to experience one of Manitoba’s natural hidden gems doesn’t appeal to most travelers. Your trip to Hecla Grindstone Provincial Park will therefore likely involve at least one overnight stay.

 

“Great news: You have options. Several of them, in fact, right on Hecla Island itself, and more on the mainland nearby.”—Lori Janeson

 

Here’s a look at what to expect from each.

Gull Harbour Marina & Lighthouse Inn

Gull Harbour Marina is a full-service marina popular with year-round residents and seasonal visitors alike. Its property doubles as a small, homey family resort that’s recently undergone a thorough renovation to bring its guest rooms and amenities into the 21st century. New visitors rave about the place — it’s worth checking out, and maybe grabbing a bite at the full-service restaurant, even if you don’t spend the night here.

Gull Harbour Marina’s amenities include:

  • Marina and Machine Shop: A full-service marina with a machine shop available for repairs. Water-sport enthusiasts can enjoy sailing and powerboating and rent fishing boats and kayaks.
  • Winter Storage: If you have a home in the area, this is a great place to safely stow your boat during the winter.
  • Restaurant and Bar: The full-service restaurant’s menu is built around the bounty of Lake Winnipeg. The bar is great for day visitors and guests alike. As you’ll read on the website, “Lil’ Viking bar is a perfect place to wind down a great day enjoying Hecla Island.” The facility has room for up to 120 — perfect for weddings, reunions, corporate events, and more.
  • Dinner Cruises: The property has a yacht that can be chartered for dinner cruises and other excursions out on the lake.
  • Private Cabin: The Inn offers standard guest rooms with waterfront views. Those with a large family or group can reserve a private cabin for roomier, private accomodation.

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Manitoba’s Hidden Gem: Why Hecla Island Is a Magnet for History Buffs

By Lori Janeson

Have you ever heard of Hecla Island?

If not, don’t feel too bad. Few Manitoba outsiders know of the place. Even some locals aren’t quite sure where to find it on the map.

That’s a shame. Hecla Island is a hidden gem — a true recreational resource for all. And it’s been that way for far longer than most realize.

Let’s take a walk back in time, through Hecla Island’s storied history of human habitation. We’ll start as far back as we know, with the Anishinabe people.

Hecla Island Before 1870

The Winnipeg Formation bedrock underpinning Hecla Island is more than 400 million years old. Formed at the bottom of a shallow sea, when the area that would become southern Manitoba was baking close to the equator, the porous shale and sandstone supports newer layers of limestone and till.

Things didn’t get interesting on Hecla until much more recently. Back in the day, Anishinabe bands used the island as a sort of spiritual nexus. It’s not clear that the island was inhabited continuously or even on a semi-permanent basis, but there’s irrefutable evidence of ceremonial use. Today, it’s possible to see the faint remnants of these sacred sites on various parts of Hecla Island.

The First Europeans: The Early Years of New Iceland

The first Europeans arrived on Hecla Island in the mid-1870s. They were Icelandic by descent, and they were scared: A massive volcanic eruption had forced them from their homeland, into a perilous ocean journey to an uncertain future in a new land. Their original habitation, in Ontario, was far from ideal, so many elected to travel deeper into the Canadian interior for a chance at  a truly autonomous life. Fittingly, they called their new home “New Iceland.”

As it turns out, life on Hecla Island wasn’t much easier. Though the Canadian government gave the Icelanders a carve-out from what was then the Northwest Territories — Manitoba was far smaller at the time — they faced famine and disease during their first years in New Iceland. Many died; others moved on. Due to poor recordkeeping, the true toll will likely never be known.

Hecla Island’s Heyday

As time went on, conditions slowly improved. Four distinct settlements sprang up in New Iceland, including Hecla Village — still very much visible today. The Icelanders learned to adapt to the region’s harsh winters and poor soil, relying primarily on the lake’s bounty to sustain them.

This was a fishing community through and through — one of inland Canada’s most successful outside the Great Lakes watershed. For decades, New Iceland sustained itself by feeding hungry Canadians. Life on the lake wasn’t glamorous, but it worked.

Hecla’s Decline and Conversion

The good times didn’t last, unfortunately. Like most stories of economic calamity, Hecla Island’s decline is attributable to a number of different causes, and there remains some debate among historians about the precise progression of things.

What’s beyond dispute: By the seventh decade of the 20th century, Hecla Island’s economy was in serious trouble, its very way of life under assault by faceless forces beyond the control of its inhabitants.

“But by the time the late 1960’s rolled around too many people were leaving the island, in large part because of a decline in the fisheries industry,” writes Leigh McAdam on her popular travel blog, Hike Bike Travel. “To save the community and to provide employment, the islanders banded together and petitioned the Manitoba government to make Hecla Island a park.”

Originally known as Hecla Provincial Park, the preserve opened to the public in 1975 — a remarkable turnaround given the island’s prior history. It quickly gained popularity with Manitobans eager for a truly expansive wilderness preserve on the shores of Lake Winnipeg.

In the late 1990s, Hecla Provincial Park expanded dramatically when the provincial government added a mainland unit, which covered the peninsula known locally as Grindstone.

The combined park, Hecla Grindstone Provincial Park, now covers more than 1,000 square kilometers. It’s worth noting that the other provincial parks on or near Lake Winnipeg at the time were quite small; even today, Hecla Grindstone Provincial Park is the largest contiguous preserve on the southern, more accessible portion of the lake.

Hecla Island Today

Today, Hecla Island’s economy relies primarily on tourism. Its top attractions all have some connection to the past, though.

 

“Hecla Village boasts a well-preserved remnant of early-20th century Icelandic-Canadian life, while the hiking trails that dot the park’s natural areas pass disused quarries, old fishing huts, rotting docks, and ceremonial sites used for hundreds of years by the Anishinabe people.”—Lori Janeson

 

Visitors to Hecla have a variety of lodging options, from the basic to the luxurious. The most popular are:

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