During the 1970s when I started hiking on the Waskahegan trails, one of my favorite areas was the Ministik Sanctuary. On a few occasions when I was camped in the area with Panuq, my large Malamute, I would be awakened very early in the morning to a YEEOWL which I was never sure if I imagined or really heard.
In those days Al Oeming had his Game Farm operating in the Ministik area and nearly every farmer and acreage owner in the area had young people who had worked at the Game Farm at one time or another.
Local people told me that it was common but quiet knowledge among them that nearly every year a cougar or two would slip out of captivity into the crown land between Elk Island Park and Miquelon Lake. The cougars were never heard about again as they apparently never caused any trouble at any of the farms in the area because game was plentiful. It was likely one of these cougars that I would have heard in the wee hours of the morning.
On a number of occasions when I was camping alone in the area and sitting by my campfire having my tea in the evening, Panuq would sit twenty or more feet from the fire facing the dark of the forest and growl. I never thought anything of it at the time but there was likely a cougar hanging around that only he was aware of. It was only later that I mentioned it to some of the local people.
If it was, indeed, a Game Farm cougar, it would have had exposure to humans and perhaps was curious about our presence. Maybe it thought that I might have a spare haunch of meat to throw to it—as they did at the Game Farm.
Traces of settlement
There is a tall chimney in the area. I enjoyed exploring around it and speculating about what existed there many years ago. The cabin had burned down, leaving the chimney as a reminder and a landmark. Trees had grown through the old bed-springs and further back in the area were signs that suggested the presence of a barn and feed, likely a haystack.
South of the cabin at the edge of what would have been the shoreline of Ministik Lake were remains of a pier or some such structure that suggested a boat or a canoe would have been tied up there.
Another exciting discovery was that along the wide trail leading through the woods northward from the cabin there were smooth rocks lining the trail indicating to me the presence of a woman at the cabin. When I first saw it, there were still traces of what was likely whitewash on the rocks suggesting that efforts were made to beautify the area and perhaps make the trail more visible in the dark.
That trail may have led to another important structure—the outhouse.
My all-time favorite ski tour was in Ministik Sanctuary. I would ski from the correction line to the old fire tower and then ski hard back to the road, taking advantage of the difference in elevation for a speedy return run.
When it was determined that a shelter in the Wanisan Lake area would be desirable, it was naturally Stan Skirrow who scouted around and selected the location.
The location he chose was ideal for several reasons: It was not too distant from a road, it had a fairly open aspect and a great view, and it was favoured by wildlife. Wildlife naturally gravitate to location like these and use them as rest areas, because for one thing, these areas are relatively free of insects.
location is on Crown land and so a lease agreement with the Alberta Government was
duly worked out and signed.
arrive with some help
major stipulation of the lease was that we had to erect two outdoor toilets—one
for each gender. We were unable to convince the government that one unisex
toilet would do nicely. The law required two toilets, period. This was
notwithstanding the fact that participants of any group, whether hiking or
skiing, would simply drop back briefly and avail themselves of the cover of
bushes to answer the call of nature along their way.
arrangements were made with a school group who made a project of building two
lightweight sectional toilets for us. The group also delivered and erected them.
for the shelter were also obtained as a project. The Canadian Army secured them
in the Alberta foothills and delivered to them to the lakeshore.
we still needed to float the logs across the lake to the site. This was my
first involvement with the Wanisan project. A work party led by Stan Skirrow,
as I recall, and comprising high school students with a boat, was formed to tow
the logs across to the shelter site. The floating logs were contained by a boom
and several of the boys set off with the boat to tow the logs across.
immediately developed engine trouble and spent much time trying to get the
motor going. They finally gave up and proceeded to row the boat, towing the
across, they were met by the rest of the gang who immediately hauled the logs
ashore and stacked them. I cannot remember the names of any of the others who
were present that day.
turned to autumn, and on a Friday evening after work, a work party assembled to
pour the footings for the proposed shelter. I am guessing, but the half-dozen
of us present would likely have included Stan Skirrow, of course, and probably
Stan Peters, Jim Drouin, and Vince DeJong. I regret having no photos or listing
of names of those present.
plan was to take all the materials across the lake by canoe. Into the canoe
went the bags of ready-mix cement, the shovels and lumber, miscellaneous tools,
and the wheelbarrow in which to mix the cement.
Peters and I paddled, and when we got to the building site, the others, who had
left and hiked along the lake while we were loading the canoe, already had the locations
laid for the footings. The forms were made quickly and the cement was transported
from the shore to the site.
this time of year the algae was very thick and heavy so we had to paddle out
past the algae to get clear water to mix with the cement. Several trips with
five gallon pails did the trick and soon the footings were poured in place.
the work was done, we sat by the fire and enjoyed our lunch contemplating the
beautiful evening for some time after the sun set. As the fire died down we
packed the remaining materials into the canoe and Stan and I set off across the
lake while the others walked back. We left the wheelbarrow inverted in the
canoe, with the handles sticking out forward and the wheel up. Then paddling
away, it dawned on us that this being autumn, it was hunting season. We grew
antsy about the possibility of some hunter walking along the lake and seeing
our profile in the water, mistaking it for a moose and taking a shot at us. We
paddled harder and talked loudly until we got to the other side.
winter the dimensional lumber was purchased and deposited at an access point at
the south west corner of the frozen lake. We would have to truck it across. The
cabin unit on the truck was filled to the top with the lumber.
Then on a Saturday morning, a work party assembled at the edge of the lake. Present were Stan Skirrow, Jim Drouin, Gene Miskiw, Len Black and his son Rob, who owned the truck, and a friend of Rob.
There was a brisk wind that day and snow was drifting constantly. We first had to shovel a long route through the snowdrifts to get the truck onto the lake. Once there, the truck was able to make way across the lake quite well and we all rode along, some of us on the tailgate.
the building site, we were unable to drive very close to the shore due to the
heavy snow and there again we had to shovel a narrow path to enable us to carry
the lumber to the site and stack it on some logs. The snow in some spots was
hip deep and the increasing drifting was creating little cornices which would
break off with our passing as the wind continued to pick up.
the truck was unloaded we discovered that we were unable to make way again without
the traction that was provided by the weight of the lumber. The hardpack on the
ice was not hard enough to support the truck. It offered too much resistance
for the amount of traction available on the ice beneath. Our old tracks were
filled in with hardpack that also offered too much resistance on the already
polished ice beneath. With some experimentation we found that the only way to move
forward was to scuff the snow out of the incoming tracks with our feet for a
distance, then get on the tailgate for ballast and take a run with the truck as
far as it would go. Then we would repeat the operation over and over. Eventually
we made it all the way back across the lake over a mile away where, once again,
we had to do some shoveling to get the truck off the lake.
whole operation took us a number of hours of hard work. Eventually we arrived
at Len Black’s place, tired and hungry. Pat Black, who was getting very concerned
as we were so long overdue, was waiting for us with a large pot of chili.
the following summer, 1976, serious construction of the shelter was undertaken.
Unfortunately, I have no photos or names of the participants other than a few
which show Stan Skirrow, Stan Peters and Vince DeJong at the site. Some
weekends my family and I camped there and did some work, sometimes with a
family friend, Gilbert Hemmes. The location has always been one of my favorite
places on the trail.
Whenever I worked at the site we would always take across by canoe anything required for the other side. Sometimes it was tools and whatever shorter lumber we could fit into the canoe, with plywood across the gunwales and then sixteen- foot lumber diagonally on top of that with our camping gear and a garbage can or two.
one occasion Stan Peters and I had an incredible load which included six inches
of plywood across the gunwales. We had some cement blocks in the hold for the
shelter foundation, which significantly added to the weight. We tried to
estimate the weight of the load including our own weight and were fairly
certain that it approached 1000 pounds. We had only three inches of freeboard
left and were happy to have calm water for the trip across.
the shelter was built, we had, for a time, a problem with horses taking refuge
in the shelter and creating a mess. So we had to bar the entrance against them.
winter hauling adventure
year, we were hauling boardwalk lumber by snowmobile to a location beyond the
shelter. A friend and I picked up the lumber and delivered it to the edge of
the lake, and we went back to Sherwood Park to pick up the snowmobiles and sled
so we could haul the lumber to its destination.
we started hauling the lumber across the lake we found that progress was very
difficult. Because it was such a lovely warm March day, the deep snow was wet
and sticky. We had so much difficulty trying to get off the lake that we decided
to give up. We were exercising the Law of Diminishing Returns. We knew it would
be much easier when the snow was dry, so there was no point in trying to do it
the hard way.
loaded sled was already partially buried in the deep snow. All we had to do was
throw on some more snow to camouflage it and we left it behind for the day. Early
the next day, we came back while the snow was still frozen and dry. We broke
the sled free, and away we went. That day we made several trips—with ease—until
we completed the job. We finished the day at the shelter, having our lunch in
For over forty years, Wanisan Shelter has been a treasured place on the Waskahegan Trail. Each year, since 2017, we’ve held of a Saturday evening hike and barbecue in the late spring. With a 5 o’clock start time, there are plenty of hours and many opportunities to see beavers and muskrats active on the ponds between the shelter and the Blackfoot Recreation Area. After the walk, we gather around the campfire to roast our dinners and tell stories about the trail.