Historic Sites of Manitoba: Oxbow Woods (RM of Portage la Prairie)
Prior to the construction of a railway to the Lake Manitoba shoreline at Delta in 1900, the only sensible means to get there, other than by boat, was to follow the levees along the edges of the former river channels that snaked their way through Delta Marsh. These levees formed when sediment carried by the water was deposited when the river overflowed its banks, and they provided a relatively high area in an otherwise low-lying landscape that enabled people to walk (or ride) to the lake. Early Aboriginal peoples probably traveled along what was later known as the “Fort La Reine Snye” (a snye is an archaic English word meaning a blocked river channel) to reach the shore, so they could process the carcasses of animals shot in the marsh and the prairies to the south. In the 1890s, people from the Portage Plains wanting to escape the blistering heat of summer would follow the same trail to arrive at what they called “Sun Burn ‘Em Beach” near what would later become the site of the University of Manitoba’s Delta Marsh Field Station.
Along the riverside trail to the lakeshore, travellers would have undoubtedly passed through forests whose trees grew up on these relatively dry levees. These gallery forests—forests associated with riverbanks—are rare on the prairies and, to the extent that many trees were cut as construction material and fuel in the 19th and 20th centuries, they are rare. It is unusual to find a gallery forest in southern Manitoba whose age precedes widespread European settlement. Yet it was the general inaccessibility of large areas in Delta Marsh that meant one such gallery forest survives there, largely intact, today. Known locally as Oxbow Woods because it occupies a large loop where the former river curved back on itself, the oldest oak trees in this forest started growing around 1850.
The tree species that occur in the Oxbow Woods vary depending on the wetness of the soil at any particular site. Willow and poplar are common in the wet areas whereas maple, ash, and oak are typically found only at dry sites. The species typically grow slowly and the number that die in a year is quite high, sometimes as much as 10%. This high mortality usually occurs during short episodes, such as fires caused by lightning strikes or blow-down during windstorms. (The wet soil means the trees are shallowly rooted so are easily toppled during high winds.)
There is limited evidence that Aboriginal people spent time in Oxbow Woods, in the form of projectile points and pottery fragments found there during archeological excavations in the 1970s. During the early 20th century, the area was owned by the Colin Inkster of Winnipeg. One of Inkster’s sons farmed and raised livestock in the woods, as indicated by rusty barbed wire that can still be found strung between trees, sometimes buried deeply as the tree grew around the wire. Old drainage ditches that were presumably intended to enable cattle to move around more readily are now overgrown with trees. There are numerous glass and rusty metal containers strewn around the ground in southern areas of the woods, probably the remains of a garbage dump left by the Inksters. Aside from these few small reminders, this small patch of forest is one of the few, largely pristine forests that survives on the prairies of western Canada.
Photos & Maps
This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 23 September 2018
Back to top of page