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Into the Canadian wilderness

Vast, diverse and wild, planning a trip to the world’s second largest country can be bewildering, but whatever journey you take in this magical land, breathtaking experiences are guaranteed. Our special feature takes you from the Atlantic east to the prairies of Saskatchewan and out to the wild west of the Yukon, revealing a little of Canada’s complex culture.

Into the Canadian wilderness
Image: Getty

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LAND OF EXTREMES

Life on Canada’s Arctic frontier, the Yukon, is deeply entwined with its timeless landscape of glaciers, mighty rivers and dominating mountains. Once the target of the gold-rush stampede, this little-known region of myth and legend will inspire and mesmerise. Words by Sarah Barrell

The bears saw us long before we saw them. In fact, it wasn’t until we climbed down the mountain to a shouting, arm-flapping reception from one of our group who had a video camera trained on the slope, we realised there’d been bears at all. But there they were, two of them, pictured clearly in the lens: black, sizeable and not more than a couple of feet from where we’d been walking.

Welcome to the Yukon, home to more residents with fur, feather and fin than people. And what people there are — just 34,000 of them — are surrounded by a territory equivalent in size to the combined states of California, Arizona, Delaware and West Virginia.

That boils down to a lot of land with very few people, and this has always been the spell of the Yukon: a wild, unspoilt corner of Canada, still seen as frontier country by many. Until the late 1800s it was barely known to the world; populated and controlled largely by the powerful Tlingit First Nation and a handful of gold prospectors. Avoiding Tlingit attack, braving mosquito-ridden summers and surviving brutal winters, a tenacious few did end up finding gold here, on a swampy tributary of the Klondike — a remote arm of the mighty Yukon River that rumbles across the top of North America from the Pacific Ocean to the Bering Sea. Their record-breaking finds started a gold-rush stampede, drawing thousands of people to this lost world, from as far away as Manchester and Manhattan.

The very wilderness that punished early pioneers is what brings visitors to the Yukon today. Wilderness hiking trails, ice climbs, mountain biking, raft and canoe routes — you name it, the Yukon has thousands of miles of it. But ‘flight-seeing’ tours — aboard a shiny 1950s-style float plane, Cessna or helicopter — are perhaps the favoured way for visitors to get an all-encompassing perspective on the Yukon’s mammoth landmass.

And, not wanting to miss out, I did just that before setting off into the Kluane National Park for my bear hike. Part of the largest internationally protected wilderness area in the world, this national park is crowned by the 19,550ft-high Mount Logan, Canada’s tallest mountain. We fly over the reserve’s iconic peaks, and unfathomably huge glaciers — 100km-long rivers of ice spilling through deep valleys into the world’s largest non-polar ice fields.

Here, shattered plates of ice lay scattered at the foot of towering bergs, like the scene of some primordial accident. Seen from above, cruising at 11,000ft, it’s as if I’m watching the unfolding of some creationist story — as if life has not yet begun. But later, down on the ground — my bear-blindness notwithstanding — it’s clear to me that life is thriving. Amid mountains that rise like hostile, iron-dark walls, we find sheltered meadows of wildflowers: chandeliers of purple lupin; wild roses spread like lace across the ground; brilliant bursts of buttercups. There are even clutches of blush-pink larkspur, a flower usually associated with the Pacific coast, reminding us how close this boreal wilderness is to the ocean, albeit cut off by razor-sharp mountain ranges.

Literary service

Like any self-respecting frontier, the Yukon has its legends — from pioneer stories embellished with gold dust, to the rhyming verses of Canada’s most cherished poet. Known as ‘the Bard of the Yukon’ and ‘Canada’s Kipling’, I’d never heard of Robert Service, a poet whose words are carved into the consciousness of the region’s school children, despite having been written over a century ago. I journey to Lake Laberge, just outside the Yukon capital of Whitehorse, a lake immortalised by Service’s poetry.

Ned Cathers, pilot of the little boat taking me across it, registers his amazement at my ignorance to the poet with the slight raise of an eyebrow, just visible under his broad-brimmed hat. Ned has the rugged features of a man who has spent decades facing the Yukon’s elemental extremes: bone-splintering Arctic winds and searing boreal sun. He is, by contrast, an easy conversationalist. On the 20-minute trip to his homestead, Ned recalls lines from Service’s comically creepy poem The Cremation of Sam McGee, which features the lake:

The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Labarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

For all his northern spirit, Service was an Englishman, transplanted to Canada in the early 1900s, travelling across the north-west on the trail of the Klondike gold rush. Service’s background is exemplary Yukon. It’s hard to find anyone that actually originates from here; most residents are drawn from across North America by mining, government jobs or, like Ned, the call of the wild. Tucked away in Canada’s remote north-west corner, bordered by the Arctic and Alaska, you don’t just happen to find yourself somewhere like the Yukon, you very much choose to come here.

Ned’s homestead, Cathers, is accessed only by lake, which means walking or skating across in the winter, boating in the summer, with periods of isolation in the spring and autumn when the lake’s half-frozen surface can be treacherous. This, of course, doesn’t deter visitors — quite the contrary. We moor up on a bright, shingle beach, backed by poplar trees whose leaves flicker in the sunshine like tinsel. It’s hot but the wind is fresh; a reminder of how cold it must get during the long, dark days of winter. But Cathers’ simple wooden cabins welcome as many guests then as they do in summertime; many of them repeat visitors, drawn to the strange beauty of boreal winters, charmed by the homestead’s rusticity. And its huskies.

Wilderness retreat and sled-dog kennel, Cathers is home to 60 huskies, which are surprisingly silent until they sense the approach of Ned’s daughter, Jennine. Then all hell breaks loose. And a couple of dogs, too, as they shuck their chains and tear off around the grounds, raising clouds of dust and an even more frenzied clamour of yelps and barks. It doesn’t take long for Jennine to bring the dogs to heel. It’s clear that she is, for want of a better term, alpha dog. In winter, she harnesses teams for sled-safaris that follow lake and forest trails and include overnights at the homestead or out on the ice in traditional trapper-style tents. Out of season, the dogs are trained for sledding or run as hiking companions, as four of them are today.

It’s strange to see a husky pack without tug lines, but they look sweetly official with their brightly coloured canvas panniers, low-slung like on western trail horses and packed with tents, food and supplies. We stride into the mountains through spruce, poplar and pine trees, crunching over beds of fragrant spruce cones; the dogs’ tails just visible ahead of us through the tall grasses. They boomerang back every few hundred yards, panniers flapping, to glimpse Jennine, before vanishing again into the bush or down to the lake to cool off.

Whitewater graft

From mountains to Schwatka Lake. A few days later I get the chance to row with Paddlers Abreast, a team training for the Yukon River Quest, dubbed ‘the world’s longest annual canoe and kayak race’: 460 miles of almost continuous paddling between Whitehorse and Dawson City.

Paddlers Abreast are a powerful-looking bunch, their ranks comprising those who have either survived breast cancer or who row in remembrance of loved ones who have died from the disease. I’ve rarely met such a collective of fun-loving, determined souls. A determination that makes itself apparent when we’re faced with the rapids at Miles Canyon — whitewater that dashed the rafts of 19th-century prospectors en route to the Klondike goldfields, and gave the Yukon capital its name, Whitehorse. We paddle through, as if battling quick-drying cement, emerging to cheers from hikers on the canyon above us. I can’t feel my arms or draw breath, although the rest of the team are sitting back as if on a pedalo ride.

At Whitehorse’s High Country Inn, with the team after training, we dine on a near-midnight sun-soaked terrace. Locally brewed Yukon Gold beer sits well alongside oversized moose burgers and mountains of sweet potato fries. Traditional Yukon cuisine caters to hearty appetites but finer dining is also increasingly available. At the Aurora Inn, in Dawson City and the Raven Hotel at Haines Junction, I find innovative, refined dishes made from local wild game — caribou, moose — and superb sock-eye salmon. A few days later, at the Takhini River Lodge, just outside Whitehorse, chef and cookbook writer Michele Genest serves me pioneer-era staples of home-smoked Arctic char and sourdough.

Local ingredients such as high-bush cranberry and spruce tips (the spiky tips of spruce tree fronds) give her sauces, salads and dressings a distinctive boreal flavour. Michele takes these ingredients with her on heli-ski trips, dehydrated and packed for gourmet dining on the mammoth glaciers of Mount Logan. It’s becoming apparent that if you live in the Yukon, you do things in extremes: extreme cookery, biking, paddling, sledding. It’s a notion confirmed at the Yukon Arts Centre the following day.

“When I first came here from Ontario, I thought: what drugs are these people on?” says Arts Centre CEO Al Cushing. “But after a few weeks, seeing what the light does, especially in the summer, how it changes the landscape, I thought: ah, I get it.” Al presides over a permanent collection of pan-Yukon art — from gorgeously embroidered First Nation mukluks (moccasins) to colour- and light-soaked landscapes by the likes of Ted Harrison and Ava Christi: otherworldly sub-Arctic scenes, lit by the Northern Lights and midnight sun.

Culture and landscape in the Yukon are wholly intertwined; the terrain informing everything from its art and its food, to its people. No one that came through the Klondike fields in those
early gold rush days seems anything other than eccentric, defiant, determined — and in many cases, desperate. And this spirit lives on in ‘the colourful 5%’ — as local artist Jim Robb’s once christened the Yukon’s modern-day, eclectic characters. But today, I would wager, that percentage is more like 95.

 

DANCES WITH BEARS

Discover enlightening isolation deep in the Canadian Rockies, where Alberta’s wholesome capital, Edmonton, contrasts with the wilderness of Jasper National Park and its grizzly bears. Words by Ben Lerwill

I’d been singing for four hours straight. Occasionally, when the views had been really epic, I’d even attempted jubilatory high notes. Received wisdom has it that grizzly bears only turn violent if startled at close quarters, so — hiking alone through the Canadian Rockies — I’d taken that advice to heart.

Awed by the valleys and hulking peaks of Jasper National Park in Alberta, I was doing my bit to inform any eight-foot-tall predators I was in the area. My situation was an odd one, in that I really wanted to see a bear but absolutely did not want to see a bear. As a consequence, if the local fauna wasn’t previously acquainted with the Rolling Stones’ back catalogue, it was now.

By the time I found myself serenading wildlife on secluded mountain passes, I’d become accustomed to this western province’s Canuck clichés (“Maple syrup with those pancakes, sir?”) and immense, jaw-dropping scenery.

The two facts most often voiced by travellers in Canada are that it’s a) virtually impossible to dislike and b) outlandishly big. Alberta is just that. It represents under 7% of the total Canadian landmass and its cities are dwarfed by the likes of Toronto and Montreal, yet it’s still considerably larger than every single nation in continental Europe. The province is wealthy too — oil and cattle being the main meal tickets — and it draws large numbers of tourists, the bulk of whom visit Calgary and ski-mecca Banff National Park.

My own trip was centred on a city-and-outdoors combo, heading first to Edmonton — the capital of Alberta, despite being smaller than Calgary — then on to Jasper National Park.

Before my arrival, I’d seen pictures of a back-country lodge on Amethyst Lake — ringed by Tolkien-esque peaks, and a five-hour hike from the nearest road. Minutes later, I’d made a reservation. I couldn’t wait to meet Jasper.

Festival city

Edmonton enjoys a healthy rivalry with its nearest neighbour, I learn on my first day. “We don’t tend to make a fuss like they do in Calgary,” a coffee-shop worker tells me. “Down there, a local could win a spelling bee and the papers would all be ‘wow!’. Things are different in Edmonton, though — it’s something in the culture. We’re not so shouty.”

Ironically, at that moment, just steps away, several hundred people were being entertained by an open-air assortment of clowns, shrieking stuntmen and chainsaw-jugglers. In truth, Edmonton has a fair amount to shout about. It’s not an especially bustling city — a natural green space 22 times larger than New York’s Central Park winds through its centre — but it hosts more annual festivals than anywhere else in Canada.

I’d arrived bang in the middle of its International Fringe Theatre Festival, the biggest and oldest of its kind in North America, and one that, to judge from the noisy hoopla on its plazas and concourses, embraces street theatre as much as on-stage drama.

Downtown Edmonton is a template of clean corporate towers and broad pavements. In contrast, most of the festival was taking place in the outlying red-brick quarter of Old Strathcona. There are no hard rules about what makes someone warm to a particular neighbourhood, but when I’m confronted with root beer stalls, old-fashioned streetcars and a vegetable oil-powered Ferris wheel, I’m pretty much won over.

Edmonton first came into being as a remote trading post, before expanding in the 1890s with the arrival of the railroad, and Old Strathcona is the one part of the city where the buildings still reflect this late-Victorian heritage. That it is host to several of Edmonton’s 40-plus festivals is no surprise. By mid-afternoon, around the theatre venues, families chomp on green onion cakes as hip young things throw shapes in the DJ lounge. Later, I stroll among a pleasing mishmash of bookstores and buskers on Old Strathcona’s tree-lined main drag, Whyte Avenue.

Wisecrackers still see Edmonton as something of a hillbilly town or simply just a gateway to Jasper, but having strolled its neighbourhoods, it’s clearly a destination in its own right. And if its restaurants and full-to-bursting bars are anything to go by, today it beats to a modern drum.

The city has some solid visitor attractions — notably a sparkling new art gallery and a ‘living history’ museum at Fort Edmonton Park — although for sheer scale and chutzpah, my vote goes to the titanic West Edmonton Mall. I’d been told not to miss a trip here, and understood why when I turned up, wandered past a couple of dozen clothes shops, then heard people hurtling around a 165ft-high triple-loop roller coaster. Part shopping mall, part crazed wonderland, it has the world’s largest wave pool, largest indoor amusement park and, next to a live seal habitat, a full size-replica of Christopher Columbus’ ship, Santa Maria. There’s a bungee jump, Chinatown and an underground aquarium. The 800 shops barely get a look in.

Pensioners were slow-skating around an ice rink to The Eagles. Heavy metal was blaring out at a glow-in-the-dark pitch ’n’ putt. And even before midday, a neon-encrusted double-storey casino was half full. In its own way, the whole thing was mesmerising; a gargantuan indoor paean to North American capitalism. On another level, however, the great outdoors had never seemed more appealing.

Ride ’em cowgirl

The four-hour drive from Edmonton to Jasper National Park was typified as an open-road car journey where the country music stations fade in and out as the miles roll by. Burger-bar suburbs gave way to prairie, then forest, before a soft blue ribbon of peaks eventually appeared in the far distance. An hour later, as I battled to keep at least one eye off the scenery and back on the road, the Canadian Rockies filled the windscreen.

Ringed by slopes, the small town of Jasper is home to fewer than 5,000 people. As I arrived, one of its main events, a rodeo, was kicking off, so I headed straight to the arena. As a Brit, there’s something entertainingly foreign about watching all-action cowgirls hurtling round barrels on horses, and seeing men named Rowdy and Colter attempt to ride bulls — “2,000 pounds of suicide sirloin”, as the announcer puts it. It was an absorbing show.

In Jasper, though, the rodeo is more than just a pumped-up spectacle. Founded by ranchers in the 1920s to encourage the breeding of horses tough enough to cope with mountain trails, it has deep roots in the local culture. And when I got my first clear view of the surroundings the following morning, it was clear how important it must have been for settlers to develop methods to negotiate the terrain. The mountains are beautiful, but wild. Until the second half of the 1700s, no non-native traveller had so much as clapped eyes on them.

When they came, the first waves of European explorers to the Canadian Rockies braved the brutal topography in search of pelts (mainly beaver), which were sold in their tens of thousands annually. The industry was incredibly lucrative, and until around 1870 was almost exclusively the reason people ventured as far as Western Canada. Histories of traders and trappers, of desperate men paddling upriver and portaging over ridges, still hang heavy here.

It was only after the fur trade declined that ‘travelling gentlemen’ began arriving in numbers, lured by the promise of spectacular mountain pursuits. It was in this spirit I met local guide Ryan Titchener — a bona fide back-country badass — later in the morning. He was taking me up into Tonquin Valley, where I’d be spending three days at a lake lodge before making my own way back.

Jasper National Park is around 40% larger than Banff National Park, has half as many tourists and boasts considerably more wildlife. “But we don’t want to let too many people know all that,” said Ryan, with a wry grin, gesturing at the unpopulated trail stretching ahead of us. Among Banff’s key selling points are easy international access and, in Lake Louise, the province’s showpiece sight, but there can’t be a traveller alive who’s felt short-changed by the epic mountain expanses of Jasper.

Towards journey’s end the previous evening, I’d driven past a nonchalant roadside elk and, thrillingly, a young black bear — a smaller, more common species than the grizzly — that had stopped, stared at the passing cars, then scampered back into the trees. Within an hour of being with Ryan, this wildlife tally now included three lynx and a golden eagle. Fauna in Jasper comes super-sized. “This is classic grizzly country,” he explained, as we wound through a spruce and pine forest to reach an open hillside trail. “The trick is just to stay calm. If they know you’re coming, they’ll be out of here.”

The miles passed surprisingly easily, as we walked and talked over the sweeping heights of the Athabasca Pass, then down towards Amethyst Lake. And four and a half hours after setting off, there it was, the breathless view I’d stumbled across in pictures: the lake itself and, above it, the devastatingly precipitous range known as The Ramparts; its snow-tipped summits spearing the sky. By the time we reached the remote lodge at its base, we were 14 miles from the nearest road. We’d passed just one other group of walkers.

I revelled in my time here. Tonquin Valley Backcountry Lodge, in situ for almost a century, makes wilderness isolation a joy — think wood-burners, cinnamon buns and hip flasks; no electricity, no phone reception. There are just six basic log cabins, and owner Kable Kongsrud imports everything by horseback. The only other guests were returning for their 13th and 26th times respectively. Even with what Kable termed “the frickin’ bogs and bugs”, the cosy, hill-hushed charm was utterly addictive.

The sense of being enclosed by nature was powerful. I walked out for an hour early one morning and, under hanging glaciers, saw four caribou swimming across a lake, antlers held high. By day, ospreys circled above the mountains and the nearby wildflower slopes revealed ground squirrels and hoary marmots. I read books, and watched other guests fish for trout. The national park was recently named the planet’s largest Dark-Sky Preserve — at night we sat out by a log fire, and as the embers died down, the sky became a boundless theatre of starlight.

Departure was tough. The hike back, however, was one of those uplifting experiences that feels unforgettable even as it’s taking place. My vocal cords were sorer than my feet when I finished
— courtesy of Jagger and Richards — but the sheer freedom of walking through a towering landscape in brisk August sunshine, a trivial speck moving through the grandest of scenes, was momentous. The ear-bashed grizzlies remained hidden, which was the cause of both relief and regret. How hidden I was, though, I’ll never know.

 

OCEAN DWELLERS

In Atlantic Canada, the provinces of Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick offer a tranquil way of life that revolves around the sea. A splash of crab and lobster fishing make way for a taste of oysters and a kayaking adventure. Words by Nicky Trup

“Do it, just break it in half,” Perry shouts over the noise of the wind and the engine, “Look, it’s easy.” And with that, our cheerful skipper snaps a live crab in two with his bare hands, before throwing it into a bucket. It is, he assures us, the quickest and most humane way of killing them.

I don’t know if it’s the slow rocking of the boat, the shot of moonshine I had before boarding, or the thought of breaking a live crustacean apart with my bare hands, but my sensitive stomach lurches and I’m forced to dash below deck to the bathroom to bring up my lunch.

We’d travelled out on the boat from Georgetown, on Prince Edward Island (PEI), to see how Perry, like his father and grandfather before him, makes a living. On our way out of the bay, he points to a tiny island where his family once lived but which now seems deserted.

Although we’re in high spirits, there’s something rather lonely about being out on this vast expanse of ocean. The sky is overcast, there’s a chill in the air, and we see very few other boats along the way. Once we’re on the open water, the only sign we’re not alone are the clusters of colourful buoys marking the location of lobster traps laid by other fishermen.

We reach Perry’s buoys, decorated with a maple leaf, haul in the traps and get down to the business of sorting the catch, siphoning off rogue crabs and measuring the lobsters. We’re told to throw the very smallest back in, along with pregnant females. As I turn one over to check for tell-tale clusters of black roe, the expectant mother curls up her tale defensively, and threatens me with her nutcracker-strong claws. I gently throw her back, belly up so as to avoid knocking loose her precious load. The rest of the lobsters are then divided into ‘markets’ (big enough to be sold fresh) and ‘canners’ (more suitable for ).

I manage to avoid getting any fingers snipped off, but my queasiness is hard to kick and I barely manage a mouthful of the afternoon snack Perry rustles up — crab and lobster cooked the traditional PEI way, in seawater. He uses a gas stove hanging over the side of the boat because, he tells us, the law prevents him from using propane on board. What little I do manage to swallow is tender and pleasantly salty and by far the freshest-tasting seafood I’ve ever eaten.

As we head back to dry land I feel exhausted, and I’ve only spent an afternoon on the boat — Perry’s usually up and on the water before dawn every day. That night I sleep like a baby.

Heading inland

Away from the harbour, PEI feels like a step back in time. Here, in Canada’s smallest province, the pristine lawns, picket fences and quaint shop-fronts (even the Esso petrol station we pass has a hand-painted sign) are like the England of 50 years ago. Or, at least, as I imagine it was.

One clue that I have in fact travelled across the Atlantic, are the flags. Perhaps the lack of pride in our own is a uniquely British trait — the Union Jack seems to come out only on very special occasions — but as we drive through PEI I see dozens of red and white Maple Leafs raised outside the tidy weatherboard houses. And, almost as frequently,

I spot large wooden stars on the whitewashed walls. Their significance differs according to whom you ask — one local tells me they’re just a sign of welcome, but another says they’re a symbol of Acadian pride.

The Acadians are the descendants of French colonialists who in the 17th century settled in what’s now PEI, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, eastern Quebec, and Maine in the US — then known collectively as Acadia. When, less than a hundred years later, Britain colonised the area, thousands were deported, with some ending up in Louisiana, where they established the Cajun community. The Acadian flag — an adaption of the French tricolore with a star in one corner — is, I’m told, the inspiration for the wooden stars.

In Charlottetown, the province’s capital, there are more immaculate wood-clad buildings, this time painted in soft shades of red, yellow and grey. It’s achingly quaint, and as we walk through town our guide, Grant, stops often to wave or say hello to someone he knows. With a population of just 32,000, everyone in Charlottetown seems to know each other.

We make our way down to the historic waterfront, lined with yachts and fishing boats. The ocean is hard to avoid in PEI — and not just because it’s an island. For most of its inhabitants it’s not just a source of income but a place of recreation and a provider of food. If you’re not into seafood, this isn’t the place for you.

We arrive at Lobster on the Wharf, a restaurant and fish market, and head straight for the lobster tank. Inside it is the biggest crustacean I’ve ever seen, with a body the size of a rugby ball and claws that would take a finger off with ease. Despite this creature’s huge bulk, the restaurant’s manager, Steve, tells us it won’t taste as good as a smaller lobster — those with the juiciest meat weigh between one and two pounds, and this beast looks to be around three times that.

We manage to tear ourselves away from the tank and head into the dining room, where Steve gives us an oyster masterclass. To the untrained tongue the different varieties taste much the same, but we’re told each has a distinct flavour. Malpeques are PEI’s most common, with other types including Raspberry Point, Pickle Point and Colville Bay.

Having never tried it before, I find shucking quite tricky, as do around half of our seven-strong group who also fail to get a shell open first time. The trick is to slide the knife in by the hinge and cut along the edge of the shell before twisting to prise it apart. When I manage to get my oyster open, I knock it back with a squeeze of lemon. I’m surprised to find I like it, although I’m not keen on the slimy texture or the briny ‘liquor’ in the shell. Steve then insists we all try a shooter — a fiery combination of oyster, hot sauce and moonshine, mixed up in a shot glass. Not one for the faint-hearted.

Into the wild

Across the eight mile-long Confederation Bridge is New Brunswick, Canada’s only bilingual state. While the rest use either English or French for official purposes, both are used here, and around a third of the population is Acadian.

We drive for several hours, following narrow, winding coastal roads until we reach the seaside resort of St Andrews, which sits on a headland just a few miles across the water from Maine. The town was established in 1783 by United Empire Loyalists — Americans who’d fled the country after being defeated in the civil war. Architecturally similar to Charlottetown but a fraction of the size, St Andrews has fewer than 2,000 permanent residents. The shops along the quiet main road aim their wares squarely at tourists — from seashell ornaments to maple syrup and bags of dulse, a purplely, dried seaweed eaten as a snack or used in cooking.

We’re using this pretty town as a base for exploring the province, and after a good night’s rest we set off for Deer Island in the Bay of Fundy. Nestled between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, the bay is known for having one of the world’s biggest ranges between high and low tide (46ft in places) and water that never gets warm, even on a sunny day like today.

When we arrive for our kayaking adventure, our instructor, Guy, asks if we’re all wearing the right shoes. “Sandals or rubber boots are best because your feet will definitely get wet,” he tells us. We look sheepishly at our feet — I’m wearing walking boots, which may just hold out against the water, but some of the others are in flimsy plimsolls. It’s too late now, though, and we jump into our two-person kayaks.

I sit at the back, steering with foot pedals connected to the rudder at the rear of the boat. Once my partner and I manage to synchronise our paddling, we cut neatly through the mirrored surface. Gliding silently across this calm water, this is a completely different experience from the frenetic excitement of the lobster boat.

Guy rides solo, guiding us around the small islands that populate the bay. A sinewy man in his 60s, he’s a teacher in Montreal for most of the year but spends the holidays here on the water, and it’s easy to see why. The bay is so enclosed it feels more like a large lake, surrounded by rocky coastline and huge spruce trees. Occasionally we pass a traditional fishing weir, made from a semi-circle of wooden poles connected by nets. Some of these have been deserted, their netting removed, the poles left broken by strong winds.

At the right time of year (from Juneto October) whales can be spotted in the bay, but today they’re elusive. We do, however, see seals basking in the sunshine on the rocks, and swimming — occasionally sticking their dog-like faces above the water for air.

Suddenly, there’s a flurry of excitement as a bald eagle is spotted, circling above the trees on the shore. When it disappears into their leafy canopy, we stop paddling and wait with baited breath for it to take flight for a second time. Guy points to the top of the tallest tree, where the huge bird sits, as if challenging us to look away. Finally, after what seems like hours, the eagle ends the stand-off and soars across the cloudless sky. With its razor-sharp beak and powerful claws, this bird could teach Perry a thing or two about killing crabs.

After the eagle has flown out of view, we sit for a moment, urging it to reappear, but the bird’s clearly decided showtime’s over, and we have no choice but to move on, paddling back to the shore in silence.

Canada’s gateways

A five-minute guide to the Canadian cities that receive non-stop flights from the UK. Words by Sarah Barrell

Toronto – gateway to Ontario
The main flight gateway to Canada has lately shed its pious ‘Toronto the Good’ nickname to become a hot spot for the film industry (due to its film festival) and design hotels. Downtown skyscrapers soon yield to classic wilderness. Head to Kingston and the city of Prince Edward in Ontario for the best food and wine, or north to a rustic cottage in Algonquin Provincial Park, Muskoka. Toronto is also a great base for a trip to Niagara Falls, just an hour and a half away.
Average flight time: 7h.

Montreal – gateway to Quebec and the eastern seaboard
The liveliest of Canada’s cities is a French-speaking cultural melting pot. Get a taste here of Quebec’s French colonial heritage, sitting comfortably alongside Montreal’s modern culinary and dance music scenes. The city is a great base for trips to the French colonial port of Quebec City (around three hours’ drive away), the Saguenay River’s fjords and the whale-rich St Lawrence Seaway.
Average flight time: 7h

Calgary – gateway to the prairies and the Rockies
The world’s largest rodeo celebrates its 100th anniversary here from 6-15 July, so this annual event should be the best ever. Head to Calgary Tower to glimpse the Rockies and travel beyond the city for glacier-crowned peaks, prairies and inland seas. Bordering Montana, Alberta has the Rockies; with skiing, hiking, camping and biking in Banff, Jasper and Lake Louise all within an hour of Calgary.
Average flight time: 9h

Vancouver – gateway to the west coast and the Rockies
Vancouver Island is a slice of rural Canada just a short ferry trip from the financial district, while vertiginous trails like Grouse Grind offer outdoor pursuits half an hour from the city. The Rockies are within reach: Whistler is a day-trip while other ski destinations such as Banff, Jasper and Lake Louise make great longer trips. Short flights north take travellers to the Haida Gwaii islands and the Yukon wilderness.
Average flight time: 10h.

Halifax – gateway to Nova Scotia and Atlantic Canada
This year sees Halifax honour the centenary of the Titanic disaster with events across the city (see page 74) — it is the largest single burial site for the victims. Nova Scotia’s Kejimkujik, in the west, and the Cape Breton Highlands, in the north-east, offer moose- and bear-spotting, hiking and canoeing. Travel to New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island for a taste of Acadian, Celtic and First Nations cultures.
Average flight time: Just under 6h.

Best of the rest
Ottawa: See the museums and stately government buildings of Canada’s capital and a hub for trips to the peaks of Gatineau Park. Average flight time: 7h.
St. John’s: Gateway for Newfoundland and Labrador and Torngat Mountains National Park. Average flight time: 5h.
Edmonton: Air Canada uses the city as a gateway to Canada’s Northwest Territories and sub-Arctic cities such as Yellow Knife. Average flight time: 9h.

ESSENTIALS

Canada

Getting there
Yukon: Air Canada flies to Whitehorse (via Vancouver or Calgary). Air North offers connections across the territory and neighbouring provinces. British Airways flies direct to Calgary and Vancouver.
www.aircanada.com  www.ba.com www.flyairnorth.com
Average flight time: 11h.
Atlantic Canada: Air Canada flies daily from Heathrow to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Thomas Cook operates a weekly service from Gatwick to Halifax.
www.thomascook.com
Average flight time: 6h40m.
Alberta: Air Canada flies up to seven times a week between Heathrow and Edmonton. Canadian Affair has a weekly service between Gatwick and Edmonton, summers only.
www.canadianaffair.com
Average flight time: 8h50m.

 

Getting around
Yukon: Round-trip flights from gateway cities (Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver) are frequent. West coastal hubs in Alaska and British Colombia send cruise ships to the deep-sea port of Skagway, which has good road and rail access into Yukon’s vast interior.
Atlantic Canada: Renting a car is the best option. VIA Rail operates a train connecting Nova Scotia to New Brunswick, and Greyhound buses connect major cities in the region. www.viarail.ca
www.greyhound.ca
Alberta: Edmonton and Jasper National Park are separated by a straightforward drive of between four and five hours. Edmonton International Airport has various car hire offices. VIA Rail has a regular service between Edmonton and Jasper. Greyhound Buses also run.

 

When to go
Yukon: Boreal summers are warm (up to around 30C) with a maximum of 24 hours’ laser-bright sunshine on 21 June. Autumn comes a month earlier than the rest of Canada, with spectacular forest colours. It has a dry, sub-Arctic climate, so snow falls are not prohibitive but temperatures can drop to -30C, with a peak of 24 hours’ darkness on 21 December.

Atlantic Canada: July and August are the warmest months, with highs of 30C, but they’re also the busiest months. September and October are still warm, and offer just as good a chance of spotting whales around the Bay of Fundy. In the winter months, temperatures can drop as low as -11C.
Alberta: Summer visitors to Jasper arrive between June and September, peaking in July and August. Winter sports enthusiasts come from December to February.

 

Need to know
Currency: Canadian dollar (CAD). £1 = $1.60.
International dial code: 00 1.
Time difference: Atlantic Canada: GMT -3; Yukon and Alberta: GMT -7.
Red tape: Passport with at least six-months’ validity needed.

 

More info:

www.canada.travel
www.travelyukon.com
www.atlanticcanadaholiday.co.uk
www.myalbertaadventure.com

Yukon (Bradt Travel Guide) by Polly Evans. RRP £14.99.
The Rough Guide to Canada. RRP: £15.99.

 

Published in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)