The Bois-des-Esprits ("Woods Where the Spirits Dwell") in Winnipeg is one of the largest pristine urban forests in Canada. It is home to a wide variety of plants and wildlife, including enormous oaks, aspens, beavers, blue herons, and snapping turtles. But it was nearly lost to housing developments.
The Campaign to Save Bois-des-Esprits
Based on a 2001 conceptual study funded by Western Diversification, which the City, Ladco Company Limited (a land developer), and SOS all participated in, it was proposed to create an interpretive center, walking trails, and canoe launches in and around the Bois-des-Esprits. The majority of the forest paralleling south St. Anne's Road was Grade A habitat— virtually undisturbed with a maximum sensitivity to disturbance.
The province owned 37% of the land, while Ladco owned 63% of the land. In the early 2000s, housing lots were selling at a fever pitch, and Ladco was eager to cash in on the planned south St. Vital neighbourhood of Royalwood.
On April 1, 2002, Ladco began bulldozing a huge swath through the forest to allow surveyors access to the site of an intended future bridge. SOS was incensed, as the site had not yet received approval for development. When informed by the City that they required authorization, Ladco's bulldozers were momentarily halted.
SOS, then led by president Bev Sawchuk, aimed to purchase the land to protect it from development, with a price tag pegged at $2.8 million. SOS met with the City, who agreed to contribute $1.6 million and challenged SOS to raise the remaining funds needed. SOS contacted hundreds of corporations and foundations across Canada, made presentations, attended many meetings, and launched a postcard campaign (including breathtaking pictures of the forest) in which members of the community were encouraged to indicate their support for the preservation of Bois-des-Esprits by mailing the postcards to the premier of Manitoba.
SOS was successful in raising $110,000 from the community, and Ladco contributed $213,000. By the end of 2003, 66 acres had been protected. Just over a year later in early 2005, City Council confirmed that the entire 82 acres had been saved from destruction, thanks also in part to a contribution of $930,000 from the Province.
Now that the land had been preserved, it was time to work on a management plan. Under president Tammy Rutherford, and in conjunction with the City of Winnipeg, Province of Manitoba, Ladco, SLMcleod Consulting, and HTFC Planning & Design, a massive study was undertaken to determine the quality of the land, identify sites suitable for trails, classify the ecosystems, and catalogue the wildlife in the forest.
The management plan was completed in 2008 (available here) and construction on a trail network began soon after. Care was taken in locating and building the trails to minimize the number of trees removed and avoid damage to nearby standing trees.
Residents of Bois-des-Esprits
Our urban forest is an oasis of biodiversity in the heart of a bustling city. Previous studies have shown that it contains 24 mammal species, 149 bird species, 25 fish species plus amphibians and reptiles, as well as 180+ different plants in 4 types of habitat: wetland, river bottom forest, upland forest and tall grass prairie.
This slideshow provides a glimpse of this biodiversity. Thank you to Peter Slusarenko for capturing these images!
In addition to the many living residents, the Bois-des-Esprits is also home to many wooden carvings.
The most popular of these has been Woody-Mhitik, a 3 meter-tall tree spirit, who graced visitors from 2006 until 2021. Learn more about Woody-Mhitik here.
Starting in 2010, Woody appeared to be sprouting friends; with city approval, local carver Murray Watson began to carve smaller tree spirits out of dead trees in the forest. The map below shows the locations of many of these tree spirits. See how many you can find!
Woods Where the Spirits Dwell
A poem by Jo-Ann Pethybridge
The forest whispers ‘come follow my trail’
Tall grasses wave welcome as we enter
Sun’s warmth softened by oak, aspen, and elm
All clothed in vibrant reds, oranges, greens, and golds
Fingertips of light dapple the pathway
An offering of leaves cushions our steps
Languid river wends its way through the woods
Shy turtles sunbathe on half sunken logs
Deer on hind legs forage for late berries
Squirrels, ducks, beaver, and geese all busy
While woodpecker’s rat-a-tat fills the air
Pungent scent of decay and renewal
Wafts from fallen trees beside river’s edge
There are guardians along the pathway
Gently and lovingly carved into trees
Birds and tree spirits, some ancient, some new
Pay homage to both the living and dead
We are in the Woods Where the Spirits Dwell
Senses alive, we breathe deep of the air
Marvel at the history and beauty
Feel blessed to have answered the forest’s call