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  Majestic Madge

by Dave Yanko
Pickerel Point Beach at Spruce Campground, on the eastern side of Madge.
- courtesy Tourism Saskatchewan
Pickerel Point Beach at Spruce Campground, on the eastern portion of Madge Lake.

Camping in Saskatchewan on the Victoria Day long weekend in mid May can be dicey. Snow is not unheard of at this time of year, but nor is sweltering heat. And even if the days are warm, the nights are likely to be cool, especially in higher elevations.

Swimming is pretty much out of the question for all but dogs and ducks, and provincial park services are not always up to snuff because high-season staffing has yet to occur.

All that aside, spring camping in Saskatchewan can have its own special rewards, not the least of which is an up-close experience with spring itself. That's no small inducement for lovers of nature, especially those who live in a country where the coldest of four distinct seasons just passed.

The map of Saskatchewan lists it as "Duck Mountain Provincial Park." But people in Saskatchewan and western Manitoba know her as "Madge", the name of the primary lake in this comparatively small (148 sq. km) but popular provincial park located on the Manitoba boundary in southeast-central Saskatchewan. Madge was the first stop on our two-park, five-day tour.

Prairie golfers love the challenge of the hilly Made Lake course.
-- courtesy Tourism Saskatchewan
Prairie golfers love the challenge of the hilly Madge Lake course.

Named in 1904 after the wife of region surveyor Charlie Harvey, Madge Lake is a clear and shallow body of water surrounded for the most part by aspen forest but featuring an incongruous stand of coniferous trees on Spruce Island. Water spared the spruce from a devastating fire that ravaged the area in the mid 1800s. A few white spruce elsewhere in the forest somehow survived the flames and they're now competing successfully with the fast-growing but less hearty aspen that grew out of the ashes.

We tented in aptly-named Spruce Campground at Pickerel Point, the park's camping area located on the eastern portion of Madge. It was overcast and breezy when we arrived on the afternoon of May 15. Park staff advised us to choose a sheltered spot away from the shoreline on the pretty little peninsula containing all the non-electrified sites. But we couldn't resist the prime lakeshore site that faced west onto what would surely be a magnificent view of Madge, once the fog (and then rain) and wind subsided. The large and vigorous loon we watched as we huddled near the horizontal flames of our evening campfire later furnished an appropriately mournful soundtrack as we hunkered down deep into our sleeping bags.

I woke up to a sunny bird sanctuary; a symphony of melodic, shrill and rhythmic mantras emanating, I later discovered, from the reedy bay described by the other edge of our tiny peninsula. Duck Mountain, indeed. The wind and clouds were gone and the campground took on that engaging atmosphere that only a night's sleep and a beautiful morning can deliver. And then came the dogs.

A lab, a floppy-eared husky cross and another mutt of indeterminate origin quietly but energetically rushed our site, sending our leashed Gordon-setter cross into a vocal frenzy. I immediately released her into a spinning knot of butts and snouts and then re-focused my attention on the source of the English accent who'd been trying in vain to reel in the trio. (My friends at the parks branch would be steamed if I didn't mention pets are to be leashed at all times. However, there were only about five other parties camping in the entire non-electrified area and this was very early in the morning.)

In a more subdued fashion than the one displayed by our pets, we traded morning greetings and chatted about the park and the challenges of camping in early season. "We're used to it," the thirty-something man told me. He and his party from Regina, located about two hours southwest of Madge, are "extreme backwoods bikers", he explained. "We're used to all kinds of conditions," he added, with an emphasis on the word "all" that made me think winter camping and snow biking fell squarely within their repertoire.

The mostly-aspen forest is punctuated by the odd spruce stand that survived the devastating forest fire.
The mostly-aspen forest is punctuated by the odd spruce stand that survived the devastating forest fire.

Biking, but especially golf, are two of the most popular activities at Madge, largely for the same reason.

Duck Mountain Provincial Park is actually the most southerly island of natural boreal forest in Saskatchewan. Surrounded by cultivated agricultural land, the Duck Mountain Highlands rise 240 metres (about 800 feet) above the prairie below. The landscape is new, by geological standards. It was created some 10,000 to 15,000 years ago when the Pleistocene glaciers stopped cold in their tracks and melted, depositing like dumptrucks all the earth they gathered during their relentless southerly advance.

The result is an extraordinarily undulating landscape adorned by forest, lakes and bogs, and inhabited by many of the creatures one would expect to find only in northern Saskatchewan. The latter include moose, white-tailed deer, fox, mink, woodchuck, elk, and even bear, one of which my wife spotted as we first entered the park. Bald and golden eagles are occasional visitors, now that they no longer nest in the park. But grouse, ducks, geese, common loons, woodpeckers, barred and great horned owls, and even a handful of turkey vultures (rare in Saskatchewan) are common sights.

It's the perfect setting for flatland mountain bikers to discover the true worth of those other 17 gears, and the park attracts the two-wheeling crowd from Regina, Winnipeg and beyond.

A quaint little marina near the main beach area.
A quaint little marina near the main beach area.

The same terrain that makes Madge a favorite among cyclists draws Saskatchewan and Manitoba golfers by the thousands every year. The 18-hole, grass-green Madge Lake Golf Course is the defining feature of Duck Mountain Provincial Park for many short-term visitors, as well as for many of the summer residents in the more than 300 cottages around the lake. In the prairies of southern Saskatchewan, the words "Madge" and "golf" are almost synonymous. As the rest of the park geared up for summer on this Victoria Day weekend, the beautiful, hilly, carved-out-of-the-forest golf course already was a hive of activity.

By design or default, Madge appears to cater more to older kids and adults than Greenwater Lake Provincial Park, where we spent the second segment of our Victoria Day weekend. This is not to say you should pass on Madge if you've got kids. It's a matter of degree: the amenities at Madge, largely but not only because of the predominance of the golf course, seem tilted in favor of the older visitor. The few swings, teeter-totters and the climbing apparatus on the playground near the beach at Pickerel Point Campground would fill quickly on a busy summer day too cool to swim. And I saw only three or four paddle boats when I took an early-morning stroll to the boat-rental dock on the other side of our peninsula. There are more than 300 camp sites in the near vicinity.

On the other hand, there's mini-golf, riding stables, tennis courts, baseball fields and a larger playground at the main Ministik Beach area only five minutes by car from Pickerel Point. If you're able to bring along the bikes, they'd be put to good use. There's a very nice biking/hiking trail (that forms part of the Cross Canada Trail) leading from the campground to the main beach area, and on into a wilderness hiking trail northwest of the beach.

If the kids prefer hiking and biking to paddling and swinging, there's more woodsy opportunities for them at Madge than Greenwater. Our son and daughter (at the time, 10 and 13, respectively) preferred Greenwater (there were a lot more kids around), while my wife and I liked Madge, in spite of the rust-tinted water (which we were assured is safe) and the early-season shortage of firewood. The washrooms were cleaned and stocked at least once per day, and the showers in our service centre were of the single push-button variety - adequate and passably warm, once the cold water was purged from the pipes (about three pushes). Groceries and treats were available at a concession, centrally located near the playground/beach area at Pickerel Point.

First came the carpenter ants, and then the pileated woodpeckers.
First came the carpenter ants, and then the pileated woodpeckers.

We spent an enjoyable two hours hiking on the Woodland Nature Trail and the bicycle trail into which it evolves. It's a wide trail through cheery aspen, white birch and balsam poplar, with the occasional stand of white spruce "Christmas trees" thrown in for good measure. Carpenter ants are busy at work at several points along the trail. We saw the sawdust evidence of their gallery construction at the base of a half dozen white spruces, and we listened in amazement to the surprisingly loud chop-chop-chopping of a pileated woodpecker who was making a meal of the construction workers.

The spring greenery was electric. The glistening new aspen leaves twinkled in the sunlight, and then changed hue and sheen on command of the breeze. The forest floor was bursting with new life that had yet to show any stress from insects, blight or drought. My video-gamester son plucked from the path a single new aspen leaf that had fallen victim to the wind. He held it out on the palm of his hand for all to see its perfection. Spring is hope. . . or great three-dimensional graphics.

A bonus for anglers – beyond the perch, walleye and northern pike found in Madge – are the rainbow trout stocked in small Jackfish Lake, located only 500 metres (540 yards) off the main park road (see Fishing Guide). A half dozen anglers were trying their luck from the shoreline when we checked out Jackfish on Saturday afternoon. Madge offers boat rentals, but you'll need your own boat or canoe if you want to get out on Jackfish.

If cabins, condos or hotel rooms are more to your liking than tents or campers, there's a range of fixed-roof accommodations (for up to 200 people) ranging from light-housekeeping cabins to fully modern rooms at the lodge, located right across the road from the golf course.

While Madge may be a particularly appealing vacation choice for folks wishing to hit the links, you certainly don't need golf clubs to enjoy this park. Madge is an elevated, undulating and verdant oasis of boreal forest plunked smack dab in the middle of the prairies. If you enjoy the North, this is the shortest way to get there.

For more information about Duck Mountain Provincial Park or to book a campsite using the online reservation system, click here.

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