WASAGAMING, Man. — Under the steady thrum of the rain, which has been falling all day and just won’t stop, Bob Nickel hops out of his truck. He surveys how the camper he’s been towing is resting, tilted on the uneven ground, its tires mired in muck. He bends down to rearrange a small structure near the rear wheel, built from damp wooden blocks.

WASAGAMING, Man. — Under the steady thrum of the rain, which has been falling all day and just won’t stop, Bob Nickel hops out of his truck. He surveys how the camper he’s been towing is resting, tilted on the uneven ground, its tires mired in muck. He bends down to rearrange a small structure near the rear wheel, built from damp wooden blocks.

"This is going to take a little bit of fiddling around," Nickel says. "You’re welcome to stay and watch."

<p>MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS<p>
Bob (left) and Randi Nickel set up in the rain at Wasagaming Campground.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Bob (left) and Randi Nickel set up in the rain at Wasagaming Campground.

With his wife, Randi Nickel, calling out directions, Bob gets it right on the next try, hauling the camper straight up on the blocks. Their portable home thus level, the couple begin to set up their campground home.

They raise the camper’s awning, to offer a patch of relief from the rain; their kitchen tent will stay stowed until the weather clears up.

"It’s an adventure," Randi says cheerfully, as the rain streaks patterns across her waterproof jacket.

That sums up the spirit at Riding Mountain National Park, on the brink of the long weekend: waterlogged, but determined.

<p>MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS<p>
Randi and Bob Nickel in full rain gear after setting up their trailer for the long weekend.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Randi and Bob Nickel in full rain gear after setting up their trailer for the long weekend.

It’s late Thursday afternoon. Throughout the Wasagaming campground, near the south shore of Clear Lake, a handful of camper trailers and RVs are already slipped among the trees, part of the vanguard of visitors expected here for the long weekend. There are no tents, though, which is why Randi was skeptical when a Free Press team drove up.

"When you first came, I thought you had a tent, and you wanted help to set up the tent," Randi says, and chuckles. "I was going to say, ‘Oh sweethearts, I think you should just go home.’"

Usually the Nickels, who live in Brandon, don’t come out for the May long weekend: it’s too cold, Randi says, though they’ve taken their camper out in all sorts of conditions.

Still, this year they decided to book in for at least four nights: some of their friends are setting up at campsites nearby, and besides, Randi says with a shrug, Sunday is supposed to be nice.

<p>MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS<p>
Fresh snow dusts kayaks at the marina on Clear Lake in Wasagaming in Riding Mountain National Park on Friday.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Fresh snow dusts kayaks at the marina on Clear Lake in Wasagaming in Riding Mountain National Park on Friday.

But what is there to do around camp until then, in this kind of weather?

"Oh, we can have a great night," Randi says. "I’ve got my stew in the truck, my husband made some good Calgary red-eye stew last night, and we’re going to be having it with our friends in the trailer, and we’re going to play games all evening."

Play games and watch the Thursday evening snow fall?

"Yeah," she says brightly. "We’ve done that before."

Welcome to spring in Manitoba. It’s not always even comfortable, let alone warm, but one has to make the most of it.

<p>MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS<p>
A flooded site at Wasagaming Campground.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

A flooded site at Wasagaming Campground.

Still, this is not the May long weekend that anyone wanted. A vicious winter gave way to a miserable spring, wind-whipped and pummelled by rain. A slew of provincial campgrounds are closed due to flooding. In Minnedosa, 50 km south of Riding Mountain, volunteers frantically fill sandbags as the Little Saskatchewan River bursts its banks.

And in Wasagaming, where seasonal businesses started opening this month, residents and regulars braced against the chill, while looking hopefully to the summer ahead. After all, they point out, spring weather is never a safe bet. Some years, young restaurant staff jump in the lake after their shifts; this year, the water is still glazed by thick crusts of ice.

Murray Wiebe, who owns a construction company in town, can’t remember a worse spring than this.

"We shouldn’t have tuques on in May," Wiebe says, as he walks his dogs along the icy boardwalk Friday morning.

<p>MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS<p>
Murray Wiebe walks his dogs along the Clear Lake boardwalk in the morning after fresh snow overnight in Wasagaming in Riding Mountain National Park on Friday.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Murray Wiebe walks his dogs along the Clear Lake boardwalk in the morning after fresh snow overnight in Wasagaming in Riding Mountain National Park on Friday.

Yet even if it doesn’t feel quite like the edge of summer yet, the mood around town is, above all, optimistic. Sooner or later, the weather will get better. The regulars are already coming back, heading to family cabins, or rentals they booked as much as a year ago; and that, says longtime Wasagaming business owner Teen Gowler, makes for a happy weekend.

"You can never count on May long weekend being perfect weather, so I think everybody that comes is already gearing up for one or two rainy days," Gowler says.

"We’re a hardy bunch. We’re going to take what we can get." –Teen Gowler

"Everybody’s just eager to get out of their homes and up to the lake, and get some fresh air and get their cabins open. We’re a hardy bunch. We’re going to take what we can get."

It’s Thursday night, and though the wide street that runs past Clear Lake is quiet and largely empty of vehicles, one spot is bustling: TR McKoy’s, the Italian restaurant that Gowler co-owns with her husband. Diners fill up the tables, tucking into pizzas or the restaurant’s signature curried chili cream penne, which is beloved by its regular guests.

<p>MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS<p>
"You can never count on May long weekend being perfect weather," says TR McKoys owner Teen Gowler.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

"You can never count on May long weekend being perfect weather," says TR McKoys owner Teen Gowler.

Of all the family businesses that dot Wasagaming’s main strip, this is one of the oldest. Gowler’s husband, Trevor, grew up in town, where his parents have long owned a souvenir shop and a charming log cabin theatre. In 1990, the couple started their own restaurant in the log cabin complex; they raised their own children in town, part of Wasagaming’s fabric.

So the May long weekend is always like a homecoming, Gowler says, as she glides between tables, greeting old friends. Folks come up to their cabins on the Friday night, crank up the heat and promptly swing by TR McKoy’s for dinner; they’ll always say how they’ve been craving their favourite dishes all winter. Even late snow can’t take that warmth away.

"This is just a different year, I think," she says, with a shrug. "We need a bit of warm weather to get that ice melting."

<p>MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS<p>Fresh snow dusts docks that are still beached on Clear Lake in Wasagaming in Riding Mountain National Park on Friday.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Fresh snow dusts docks that are still beached on Clear Lake in Wasagaming in Riding Mountain National Park on Friday.

And truth is, there’s reason to look ahead to this summer, more than the last. In 2021, the restaurant opened for the season just before Mother’s Day; they were open for only an hour before they learned they had to stop indoor dining due to COVID-19. The restriction lasted for nearly two months, a good chunk of their short summer season.

Then there was the contact tracing, the inter-provincial travel quarantines, the unpredictable shifting restrictions — Gowler shakes her head. It was a lot to deal with, she says. But now, she imagines this summer with the dining room packed again, filled with first-time day-trippers and old lake-going friends, like normal.

A short walk up the street, one of Wasagaming’s newer business owners echoes those sentiments. At the Whitehouse Bakery, Karlin Krieger and his sister, Kaylah Turner, aren’t too worried about the bitter start of the season: after all, Krieger says, the cold weather makes cabin-goers even more likely to pop in for a warm breakfast, so it works out for them either way.

"It’s weird to think it might snow on May long, and it’s uncommon that it would be ugly for the first few weeks before May long," Krieger says, chatting beside a counter stocked with pastries and the bakery’s famous cinnamon buns.

"But people still want to come to their cabins. It’s a little bit different, but it’s OK. It’s not the end of the world."

<p>MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS<p>
Folks brave snow flurries to go to the Whitehouse Bakery and Restaurant in Wasagaming in Riding Mountain National Park on Friday.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Folks brave snow flurries to go to the Whitehouse Bakery and Restaurant in Wasagaming in Riding Mountain National Park on Friday.

The siblings have been around this place long enough to know. They grew up around Wasagaming, coming to the park every year with their parents, who also owned a business in town.

After their parents sold, the siblings decided that they wanted to buy a Wasagaming business of their own: in 2019, they found the perfect opportunity in the Whitehouse.

Their first year running the bakery, which has been a Wasagaming staple since the 1930s, was a "complete rollercoaster," Krieger says, with all the all the usual ups-and-downs of learning a new business.

Then came two years of COVID-19, and ingredient shortages and restrictions; this season will be the first, they hope, that goes something like normal.

"I always say, a bad day at the lake is better than a good day at home." –Karlin Krieger

"It’s exciting, because for the first time the things we’ve planned for the off-season, we get to see through," Krieger says.

And sure, the season is starting off less with a bang — and more with a shivering whimper. That’s not a problem. The weather will get better, but even if it doesn’t, there’s a mantra Krieger lives with, uttered in the same spirit that will bring people from across Manitoba out to the woods or the lakes this weekend, wherever they’re not flooded, wherever they are able.

"I always say, a bad day at the lake is better than a good day at home," Krieger says.

<p>MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS<p>
Empty adirondack chairs on the main strip in Wasagaming.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Empty adirondack chairs on the main strip in Wasagaming.

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.