Canada is a very big country. Most of it is empty. Unpaved, if you will.
I spent four months travelling across this country, through both the paved and the unpaved parts. And while I still can’t claim to know it well, I can tell you with authority that Canada’s best cinnamon buns are found at Pearl’s Café in Waterton, Alberta, while the best spot to camp for free is a little pull-out on the north shore of the Saint Lawrence River near Baie-Comeau, Québec.
Over the past few months, I have dipped my hand in two oceans, swum in the world’s largest lake, climbed mountains, canoed down a river, kayaked alongside a seal colony, and hiked for several hundred kilometres.
Here, at last, is a summary of my trip:
Days on the road: 119
National parks visited: 30
Provinces visited: 10
Territories visited: 1
Technical breakdowns: 0 (thanks, Tim)
Emotional breakdowns: 1 (there was a bad night near Barrie, Ontario)
Nights spent in Tim: 6 (including an unpleasant one near Barrie, Ontario)
Time spent in Tim Hortons: I’d rather not think about it
And now my summer is over, and I am stationary once more. Three weeks ago, I arrived in Vancouver and moved into my current home.
It was the little things that caught me off-guard at first, like not having to pack up all my belongings every morning. Remembering to shower regularly was a bit of a struggle. Selecting outfits from my dramatically expanded wardrobe was overwhelming at first. I spent the first week camping in a tent in my own backyard, because sleeping inside felt too stuffy.
But now, my life has mostly returned to normal. I wear colours other than grey and brown, and I cook food with spices. I even sleep in a real bed. And yesterday, after gaining some distance from the whole experience, I went back and reread my initial blog post for the first time.
What I wanted from this summer, more than to visit as many national parks as possible, was to discover what it means to be Canadian. That was a tall order, perhaps, and I don’t know that I’ve found a very compelling answer.
But if I had to name something that defines us, other than hockey and multiculturalism and forests and double-doubles, I would probably choose distance.
Distance can be a wonderful thing. It’s the reason we have such incredible natural spaces. It gives us the opportunity to escape our busy lives and to disappear into uncharted territory. Not everybody has that.
But distance is a mixed blessing. This is not an easy country to know. When I asked people to guess how many kilometres I’d travelled, they mostly had no idea (just a hint – there are 7,000 between Newfoundland and the Yukon). Many of us rarely leave the cities we live in because the distances to everywhere else are so vast.
We have an incredible national park system in Canada. Our parks protect dozens of unique ecosystems and many plants and animals that are rarely seen elsewhere. And most of us don’t know them at all.
I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that I met more international tourists in the parks than I did Canadians. To some extent, this is to be expected; we all have a tendency to ignore what we have in our own backyard. It is also true that many of the parks are difficult to access, particularly for those without personal transportation. And Parks Canada has only recently begun to appeal to people with limited camping experience by building tipis and oTENTik tents for visitors without gear.
But if we value our parks, and if we want our children to value them, then we have a responsibility to support them and to learn about what they offer firsthand. In 2012, the Harper government slashed the Agency’s budget, and across Canada, the parks are now trying to do more with less.
The mandate of Parks Canada is, first and foremost, to protect the ecological integrity of these natural spaces, and secondarily to promote public engagement. This is not an easy balance to strike. Throughout the summer, I struggled to weigh the benefits of public accessibility against the need to maintain pristine wilderness. The conclusion I’ve come to is that, if we don’t visit the parks, we forget about their value. And if we forget about their value, then our government responds in kind.
So go to them. Feel the ocean breeze in Cape Breton Highlands and jump into the turquoise water in Bruce Peninsula. Laugh at the prairie dogs in Grasslands and admire the bears in Waterton Lakes. Go to them, and see for yourself why they matter.
I will leave you with a request that one of my undergraduate professors made to his students on our last day of class. I remember it because it was so simple and so evocative. He wanted us to understand that you can’t appreciate nature or learn about it just by looking at pictures or watching TV. You have to be in it. You have to touch it.
He asked us to poke nature. And that, in short, is what I ask of you.