MANITOU BEACH, SASKATCHEWAN -- Debbie Farago remembers her mother taking a month to spend in this town that's about halfway between Regina and Saskatoon and far away from anywhere you might imagine vacationing. She didn't come for the water sports in the lake, because there aren't any, or for the scenery, because there isn't much to hold your eye. In fact, Manitou Beach, on first glance, seems more like a place people would want to escape. It takes a minute to traverse the length of the beach... if you walk slow. The one beachside bar, Mike's, is dark and gloomy. A beach volleyball court alongside Little Manitou Lake keeps young people busy late into the night with a singular activity in this tiny town of 300.
When you drive up, you might wonder yourself what you are doing here and just how long you will spend. Not that it seems foreboding, dangerous or derelict. There just isn't much here and what is in place doesn't have visual appeal. Even the lake, the primary reason to visit, is murky and vacant.
Stick around, though, and after a day or two of exploring you discover that there's much beneath the surface -- in a literal and figurative sense. Farago is among those who say they've witnessed the difficult-to-explain phenomenon of a 22-kilometre-long lake that is unlike any other in North America. It was carved out by glaciers and the bottom of its bed has springs that shoot up minerals from within the earth. There's magnesium, potassium, silica, iron oxide, calcium and sulphate amid this lake's alchemy. Years ago, while suffering from eczema, Farago's mother came to the area in the middle of Saskatchewan and dipped herself in the water for hours each day. After her visit, her irritating skin condition had healed.
"She knew the lake would help. She had eczema all over both of her shoulders and after a month it was gone," says Farago while joining a conversation at the Village Perk, a cute, colourful coffee shop and bakery that's the one business in Manitou Beach that wouldn't look out of place in a big city.
Residents insist there's magic in the waters of the lake, which spins out enough salt to play with the human body like a carnival ride. Similar to the Dead Sea, Little Manitou Lake is so dense swimmers can float without effort; drowning is near impossible. Proponents also insist this lake can heal and they have centuries of historical evidence to cite. Members of the prairie First Nations, including the Cree, believe the waters can cure diseases such as smallpox. They have dipped the sick into the lake and hailed the results.
More recent fantastic stories include rumour of a gangrene sufferer who sat in the water religiously for 12 hours a day for more than a week. According to more than one resident, the water healed his ailment and saved him from amputation.
Karen Worobec, who works at the Village Perk and also owns Burger Buoy, a fast-food stand that serves delicious homemade burgers, credits the water for healing an infection in her leg.
In the 1930s, Little Manitou Lake was almost as popular with American and European tourists as Banff. It was nicknamed the Carlsbad of Canada, because its properties were similar to the Czech spa city of Carlsbad, or Karlovy Vary. A synagogue was built to serve the many Jewish visitors who travelled from overseas or eastern Canada. But railroad and highway infrastructure forced a change in vacation patterns, and Manitou Beach hasn't recovered.
"People in Saskatoon, one hour away, haven't heard of this place but we've had people from Europe come in here," Worobec says while sitting by a window seat in the Village Perk, overlooking the lake. "They plan their holiday around coming here. Their doctors recommend mineral waters for health reasons."
While the lake has had its abundance of claims of miraculous cures and a smattering of European visitors, it's short on tourism. Earlier this year, Vacay.ca named Little Manitou Lake as one of the 12 Best Places to Travel in Canada for 2012. It was given that distinction because of the surreal experience its water offers and the fact the area's primary tourist operation, the Manitou Springs Hotel and Mineral Spa, had successfully re-opened in 2011 after the provincial health department ordered it to close a year earlier. A ruling forced the spa to upgrade its water filtration and piping system. The hotel's general manager, Eric Upshall, who doubles as the town's mayor, insists the health department ruling was unnecessary because it did not take into account the unique quality of the lake waters.
A member of Saskatchewan's provincial parliament for 13 years before becoming Manitou Beach's mayor, Upshall said the addition of chlorine -- due to another government mandate -- led to a handful of bathers in the spa suffering mild skin rashes. The spa went through numerous tests during its closure to ensure guests would not incur any skin irritations and its pools, which first opened 25 years ago, would not lose the medicinal aspects that have brought them notoriety.
"We believe in this place so much, in the potency of the water," says Upshall, who is refreshingly frank when it comes to the challenges of building a tourism industry in the middle of the Canadian prairies and attempting to do so by pitching the curative powers of mineral springs that haven't been scientifically proven to heal. Mineral spas are hardly rare these days. Every region has several. Two hours away, Moose Jaw boasts a much more luxurious hotel that advertises a mineral spa but as Upshall points out the Manitou Beach springs feature waters that have a significantly higher concentration of minerals than any other spa in the country. With 180 grams/litre of minerals, Manitou Beach obliterates the standard of 1 gram/litre that many mineral spas contain.