Friends of Riding Mountain National Park celebrating 35 years

·4 min read

Friends of Riding Mountain National Park is ringing in its 35th anniversary with a series of educational activities to celebrate the great outdoors, especially its namesake.

Serving 23 seasons with Friends of Riding Mountain National Park, chief administrative officer George Hartlen has seen many changes over the years as the non-profit has taken root and grown its place in the community. The organization is a non-profit separate from Riding Moutain National Park that generates its own funding and maintains separate operations from the park, along with hosting educational activities for visitors.

“We are always changing and evolving just as the park does,” Hartlen said.

Friends of Riding Mountain National Park began in 1987. At the time, national parks and historic sites across the country were establishing co-operating associations to assist in different research objectives, educational programming and grassroots initiatives within the Parks Canada system.

“We have definitely had our ups and downs during the 35 years that we have been in existence,” he said. “We’ve always maintained our mandate, which is to make sure people understand the importance of the park, why the park exists, the role that our visitors and users have in keeping the park going and how they can have a role in the park.” Celebrations for the 35th anniversary kicked off on April 9 and special events and activities will be taking place to mark the milestone for the rest of the year.

The Friends Learning Centre, a home base for the organization, is situated in the oldest facility in the park — a log building erected in 1927 as a forestry reserve branch office that predates the park by six years. The cabin was designated as a “recognized” heritage building by the federal heritage building review office in 1985.

Riding Mountain National Park is an exciting location to be based out of, Hartlen said, because visitors can explore the townsite of Wasagaming, or venture through the backcountry where they will likely spot wildlife. On any given day one can look out the window and see a bear, deer or fox walking down the street. Since 2018, the non-profit has experienced a time of upheaval due to restorations, renovations and COVID-19.

“After two years of being fully immersed in the pandemic, just being able to operate a little more regularly and being able to offer activities that are larger in gathering [size] are nice,” Hartlen said. “[We’re] celebrating, as a non-profit organization in the ever-changing world, that we’ve been able to exist for 35 years.”

Volunteers, staff and board members have stayed motivated during these trials and tribulations out of a shared passion for the park. “The motivation really comes from where we are. We love this location, we love the park. It is a relaxing location.”

The non-profit has grown from seasonal to year-round operations over the last three decades thanks largely to the hard work of the Friends board, volunteers and members, Hartlen said. Volunteers help supplement the work of summer students and staff and keep the organization going year-round, while members provide financial support, and volunteers and the board drive the organization forward.

Friends of Riding Mountain National Park is looking at expanding its services in the coming years, including introducing more year-round programming as the COVID-19 pandemic ends. The non-profit’s educational programming is continually changing to meet the needs of visitors, Hartlen said. Staff have changed summer programming in past years to include a mix of activity-based programming.

Speaking personally, Hartlen said, every visit to the park is an opportunity for a new experience.

“Spring is the rebirth, the park is opening up for the season. Summertime, it’s a full-blown tourist destination and you can see the [vibrance] come alive and it’s fantastic. [In] fall, all the colours up here are spectacular, it’s more relaxed [and] peaceful again. Winter is for skiing and snowshoeing and it’s just amazing,” Hartlen said. “One location can be a different experience 365 days of the year.” Rebecca Gray will be giving a talk on “Mental Health 101” on May 7 from 2 to 3 p.m. The session will explore helping someone experiencing a mental health crisis and how to maintain mental wellness. Admission is by donation.

“A lot of it is just that connectedness to the great outdoors and to walk away from our computer screens and to walk away from the stresses of everyday life and use nature as a way of relaxing and becoming fuller individuals,” Hartlen said. “We’re always looking for new opportunities to connect people to nature.”

For those looking to volunteer with or become a member of Friends of Riding Mountain National Park, check out the website friendsofridingmountain.ca or the organization’s social media to learn more. Information about trail conditions, events and wildlife sightings are also available.

» ckemp@brandonsun.com

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Chelsea Kemp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun

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