WASAGAMING — For two former corporate workers from Calgary, the town of Wasagaming, located 100 kilometres north of Brandon on the shores of Clear Lake, is proving to be a dream come true.
Bree Andal and her partner own the iconic Sugar Shop candy store and Prairie Sun Jewelry and Apparel. Both businesses are located in the historic Scraces building, which was converted from a grocery store and butcher shop 20 years ago.
Andal and her partner gave up their careers in Calgary and bought the businesses at the beginning of the pandemic. It was their dream to live and own a business in Clear Lake, and the pandemic didn’t stop them from achieving it.
"It almost brought more Manitobans out to the park, which is what we want to see, instead of people spending that money going out to Banff or Ontario."
Even though sales remained steady during the pandemic, Andal said it was still a stressful time to be in business.
"People were a little bit at their breaking point with COVID. We still had an awesome year business-wise, but this year has been fabulous."
Andal said a big reason this year is proving so successful is that more people are coming into the park that didn’t during the pandemic.
"We’ve seen people coming out from different portions of Manitoba, we’ve seen [licence] plates from New York here, so we’re generating people. People are hearing about us and it’s so good to see … we’re very thankful to every person that walks through our door."
Another notable local business in the community is the Boardwalk on Clear Lake, a place people flock to for everything from ice cream to bug spray. Business owner Sandra Shwetz said the pandemic didn’t have much of a financial impact on it.
"The business stayed constant. We had an increase over the year before, even in the first COVID year."
This year is the 18th that the business has been serving sweet treats and necessities to visitors. Shwetz said the loosening of restrictions feels wonderful.
"It’s incredible not to be trying to marshall people from one place to the other with the rules changing every week."
The business removed the plexiglass it had installed to create more separation between customers and workers and, although staff still wear masks during peak hours, Shwetz is happy they can smile at people again. Tension was higher for everyone during the pandemic, even in a place known for holidaymaking happiness.
"It wasn’t as fun. I have the most fun job in the world, serving ice cream to people, [but] … their spirits weren’t as high as normal."
The best part of this year for Shwetz has been the return of beloved regular customers that stayed away over the past two years, erring on the side of caution for their health.
"We’re seeing some faces that we’d been seeing for 15 years and didn’t see for two. Now they’re back again."
Shwetz is happy to see her customers able to sit down and gather at the picnic tables and benches outside once more.
"That sense of community is much stronger this year."
Girlie Ponce, who hails from Winnipeg, visited the town recently with her extended family. They tried to limit their travel during COVID, and now she said they’re all happy to be able to enjoy everything Wasagaming has to offer.
"It’s just so nice here. It’s so cosy and quaint, with beautiful scenery."
Amber Hilstrom brought her family to the lakeside community from Estevan, Sask., around 293 km southwest of Brandon. She said it was their first time returning to Riding Mountain National Park in years.
"It feels great to be here."
The pandemic didn’t stop Sheldon, Darlene and Porter Rybuk, residents of Winnipeg, from visiting Wasagaming every summer. Last year they even came out twice.
Darlene Rybuk said things have definitely improved this year compared to the last two.
"Last year … quite a lot of restaurants and businesses were closed, which was kind of disappointing. So this year, it’s nice to see that everything is opening up."
While some competition from provincial parks is likely, especially after the Manitoba government announced free park access during the months of July and August, people from within the province and as far away as Texas are flocking to Wasagaming to enjoy a summer that’s much more relaxed than in past years.
Miranda Leybourne, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun