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.

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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Never Been to Hecla? You’re Missing Out — 12 Fun Things to Do on Your Visit

By Lori Janeson

Hecla Island is one of Manitoba’s best-kept secrets. Hecla Grindstone Provincial Park, the vast wilderness preserve that encompasses the entire island, is arguably among the 10 best provincial parks in all of Canada. And the whole shebang is less than two hours’ drive from Winnipeg in good weather.

You could spend a week on Hecla Island and adjacent sections of the mainland and still not see everything that this northwoods paradise has to offer. In the interest of your schedule, what follows is an abbreviated list of things to do and see on Hecla. Plan right and you can hit most or all in the course of a long weekend.

1. Hecla Village (Self-Guided or Guided Tour)

Hecla Village is an early-20th century Icelandic fishing village that’s been restored to relatively good health through the tireless efforts of Hecla Grindstone Provincial Park staff.

The site now features “six stabilized buildings — a church, school, community hall, a period home, fish station and the partially completed boarding house,” according to the park’s website. Several others are “stabilized,” meaning they’re not in danger of collapse, but not suitable for tourists to enter either.

 

“You can take a leisurely self-guided walk around the village. Some buildings are open to the public, though it’s imperative that you heed any posted warnings and observe closing times.”—Lori Janeson

 

For more information, consider a guided tour. Check the website for current tour times.

 

2. Hecla Village Scenic Drive

This leisurely forest drive includes more than just Hecla Village. It passes through several kilometers of beautiful wilderness, hitting a variety of ecosystems along the way.lori janeson fawn on grass You’ll wind up in the village, but be sure to take your time and have your camera handy for unexpected sights (bald eagles, big game) along the way.

3. Grassy Narrows Marsh Hike

Speaking of big game: Grassy Narrows Marsh, one of the most popular hikes in Hecla Grindstone Provincial Park, is probably the best place on the island to spot elusive moose.

“Viewing towers and blinds have been strategically situated for close observation of wildlife, including waterfowl, pelicans, hawks, terns, rare western grebes and Hecla’s largest mammal, the moose,” says the park’s website.

4. West Quarry Trail

Eager for a more vigorous walk? Try the West Quarry Trail, a 10-kilometer excursion that visits a disused limestone quarry and abandoned fish camp. The level of preservation is nowhere near what you’ll find at Hecla Village, but it’s definitely worth a stop to catch a glimpse of New Iceland’s nearly forgotten way of life.

5. Lighthouse Trail (Gull Harbour)

Like lighthouses? Then the Lighthouse Trail, near Gull Harbour at the very northeastern tip of Hecla Island, is an absolute must.

6. Golf at Lakeview Hecla Resort

Hecla Island isn’t all rustic, all the time. Lakeview Hecla Resort, the most upscale property on the island, has an 18-hole championship golf course that challenges even the most confident swingers. The course obviously isn’t open during the winter, but it tends to get going soon after the snow melts and the ground dries. In June, when afternoons seem to stretch on forever, there’s plenty of time for uncrowded tees.

7. Swimming at Gull Harbour and Sunset Beaches

Yes, you can swim in Lake Winnipeg. No, you probably don’t want to try it in early June, when you might run into the stray ice chunk left over from the spring breakup.

If you visit in August or early September, and the air temperature is sufficiently warm, hit Gull Harbour or Sunset beaches for a quick dip. After a long day of hiking, biking, or kayaking around the island, there’s nothing better.

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