Archaeological evidence suggests indigenous people settled on the Canadian Prairies around 11,500 years ago. Indigenous oral history tells that they have been caretakers of the region since time immemorial, living off the land and following the migratory path of the bison across the Prairies. The survival of the indigenous people depended on the bison—food, clothing, tools, shelter, and later, trade, were all derived from this animal.
Today, out on the grassy, open terrain of FortWhyte Alive, guided tours take visitors to five lakes, through forest, wetlands and prairie landscape populated by a 30-strong herd of plains bison. A more-than-250-hectare environmental, education and recreation centre, the attraction is located 20 minutes southwest of downtown, within Winnipeg’s city limits.
On a blustery day, the bison huddle together, facing the wind with heads down and eyes closed. “While most other species turn their backs to inclement weather, this hardy creature, the largest land animal in North America, is like a motivational poster for facing adversity head on,” says Kalyn Murdock, the centre’s tourism and events coordinator. This resilience and strength is echoed by those who first hunted it. “The bison grow thick, incredibly insulating furs in the winter that help protect them from the wind and the cold and the most insulated part of their body is their heads,” adds Murdock.
Featuring a network of self-guided trails, the centre offers a Bison Safari that ferries visitors deep into the prairie on a passenger bus, while the A Prairie Legacy: The Bison and Its People tour, available July through August and to groups of four or more year-round, takes visitors out to explore the land, the culture of Manitoba’s indigenous people and its wilderness. Fox, raccoons, mink and muskrats roam the land, but it’s the bison that take centre stage. The guided tour journeys through millennia, offering insight into the lives of indigenous people. Participants learn the art of teepee-raising and hand-held spear hunting, as well as sod house construction, a method used by early European settlers. Also explored is the culture of the Métis, a people whose ancestry is a blend of these cultures.
The tour wraps with a voyageur canoe ride on Lake Devonian, where you’ll learn about early transportation and the fur trade before settling in for some fire-roasted bannock and a hot cup of wild bush tea in the centre’s cozy replica sod house.