There’s more to see at Riding Mountain National Park than just nature. The park has a long history stretching back over a century. Before Riding Mountain was declared a National Park, there was a labour camp for German prisoners-of-war (POW) established along the shores of Whitewater Lake. The camp operated during World War II from 1943 to 1945 and was located about 300 km northwest of Winnipeg. The camp consisted of 15 buildings and contained 440 to 450 prisoners.
The decision to carry out a POW labour project in this area was the result of a shortage of firewood between the winters of 1942 and 1943. The Canadian government decided that they could free up Canadian men for war services if they used German POWs as replacement labour for logging. The majority of the prisoners were former members of the Afrika Korps who were sent to Canada after being captured in battles such as the Second Battle of El Alamein in North Africa.
Whitewater was the only prisoner-of-war camp in North America that was not surrounded by fences or barbed wire. Because it was so isolated, the Canadian government assumed that no one would be able to escape. The area is surrounded by thick trees, swamplands, and during the summer; mosquitoes. During the months from November to April, prisoners would have had to deal with the dark, cold, snowy Canadian Winters.
Members of the Canadian Veterans Guard served as guards at the camp and treated the prisoners fairly. The prisoners had relative freedom to explore the surroundings and befriend the locals. Many of these citizens were of Ukrainian descent and are believed to have sympathized with German prisoners because the German army wanted to defeat the Soviet Union. As a result, the town’s prisoners drank at the local bar, dated local women, and participated in town dances. The prisoners were even allowed to have pets at the POW camp, including one prisoner who tamed a black bear!
The camp was closed at the end of 1945 after the war ended and a surplus of firewood was reached. The remaining prisoners were transferred to other work projects across the country, and buildings and facilities were auctioned off and removed from the park.
Today the area has been turned into a backcountry campsite. The site of the camp is flat and grass-covered. The trail to the campsite follows along the original road that was used to transport prisoners to the site during the 1940s.
Today, there are very few remains left from the POW camp. The most obvious of these are the concrete blocks that stick up above the grasslands. I walked through the woods that surrounded the camp, along the nearby creek, and past the shores of Whitewater Lake. Besides the concrete blocks, the only other evidence of this area’s past that I found were a few pieces of metal scraps and an old cut tree stump.
This area is also known for its elk herd. While I tried to sleep, I could hear the elks make their haunting bugle sound all night long. Hearing the elk screech was a chilling reminder of the horrors of the past, which had to be endured by the Canadian Soldiers overseas during WW2.
Click play to Listen to an Elk Bugle
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Latitude: 00.00000, Longitude: 00.00000