WASAGAMING — For two former Calgary corporate employees, the town of Wasagaming, located 100 kilometers north of Brandon on the shores of Clear Lake, turns out 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 20 years ago was converted into a grocery store and butcher.
Andal and his partner gave up their careers in Calgary and bought the businesses at the start 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’s almost brought more Manitobans to the park, which we want to see, instead of people spending that money going to Banff or Ontario.”
Even though sales have held steady during the pandemic, Andal said it’s still a stressful time to be in business.
“People were kind of at their breaking point with COVID. We still had a great year commercially, but this year has been fabulous.”
Andal said a big reason this year is proving so successful is because more people are entering the park who didn’t during the pandemic.
“We saw people coming from different parts of Manitoba, we saw [licence] New York plates here, so we’re generating people. People hear about us and it’s so good to see…we’re so grateful to everyone who walks through our door.”
Another notable local business in the community is the Clear Lake Boardwalk, a place people flock to for everything from ice cream to insect repellent. Business owner Sandra Shwetz said the pandemic hasn’t had much financial impact on her.
“Activity has remained constant. We have had an increase over the previous year, even in the first year of COVID.”
This year is the 18th that the company has served treats and necessities to visitors. Shwetz said the easing of restrictions was wonderful.
“It’s amazing not trying to bring people together from place to place with the rules changing every week.”
The company removed the plexiglass it had installed to create greater separation between customers and workers and, although staff still wear masks during peak hours, Shwetz is happy to be able to smile at people again. . The tension was higher for everyone during the pandemic, even in a place known for holiday bliss.
“It wasn’t as fun. I have the most fun job in the world, serving people ice cream, [but] …their morale was not as high as usual.”
The best part of this year for Shwetz has been the return of beloved repeat customers who have stayed away for the past two years, erring on the side of caution for their health.
“We’re seeing faces we’ve seen for 15 years and haven’t seen for two. Now they’re back.”
Shwetz is happy to see her customers being able to sit down and congregate again on the picnic tables and benches outside.
“That sense of community is much stronger this year.”
Winnipeg native Girlie Ponce recently visited the city with her extended family. They’ve tried to limit their travels during COVID, and now she said they’re all happy to be able to enjoy all that Wasagaming has to offer.
“It’s so nice here. It’s so cozy and scenic, with beautiful scenery.”
Amber Hilstrom brought her family to the riverside community of Estevan, Saskatchewan, about 293 km southwest of Brandon. She said it was the first time they had returned to Riding Mountain National Park in years.
“It feels good to be here.”
The pandemic hasn’t stopped Winnipeg residents Sheldon, Darlene and Porter Rybuk 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 few restaurants and businesses closed, which was a little disappointing. So this year, it’s nice to see everything opening up.”
Although some competition from provincial parks is likely, especially after the Manitoba government announced free access to the parks during the months of July and August, people from within the province and from as far away as Texas flock to Wasagaming to enjoy a much more relaxed summer than in years past.