Challenge Revisited

View from Southend campground

Prince Albert National Park

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.

Dock at Aubrey Island

Thousand Islands National Park

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)

Snails hanging out to dry

Fundy National Park

Best day: Hiking the Iceline Trail in Yoho National Park
Worst day: Driving for many miles in the wrong direction in North Dakota, because every direction in North Dakota looks the same

Most memorable experience: Being woken up by wolves in Prince Albert National Park
Craziest experience: Being questioned by police in southern British Columbia

Time spent in Tim Hortons: I’d rather not think about it

Monoliths on Île Nue de Mingan

Mingan Archipelago National Park

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.

Coastal Hiking Trail

Pukaskwa National Park

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.

Climbing a rock glacier

Kluane National Park

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.


Glacier National Park

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.


Pacific Rim National Park

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.


But don’t poke these jellyfish

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.

Poke nature.

From Coast to Coast


Long Beach at Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim and Gulf Islands National Parks

There’s something in the water on Vancouver Island. Or maybe something in the air. You feel, as soon as you step off the ferry, that you can breathe just a little more freely. Everything moves just a little more slowly there, and everyone seems just a little more relaxed.




In short, Vancouver Island was probably the best place I could have chosen to finish my trip. During the week I spent on the Island, I hung out in Tofino’s best bakery, tried (and failed) to see all the way to the top of an 800-year-old Douglas fir in Cathedral Grove, and explored the tiny alleys of downtown Victoria. And, of course, I visited my last two parks.

One of the Island’s most remarkable features is the rainforest that covers much of its surface. Most of us have seen pictures of temperate rainforest, of the towering coastal redwoods in California or the western hemlocks and Sitka spruces of coastal British Columbia. These giants grow only in localized regions where precipitation is abundant and temperatures rarely dip below freezing. Temperate rainforest, therefore, has always been a rare ecosystem. It’s estimated that it originally covered less than 1/5 of one percent of the earth’s land surface.


Temperate rainforest

But these rainforests are now one of the world’s most threatened habitats. Globally, almost 60% of coastal temperate rainforest has been destroyed by logging and development. On Vancouver Island and British Columbia’s South Coast, less than 42% of the original old-growth forest remains.

Pacific Rim National Park Reserve protects a small portion of the Island’s unique rainforest habitat, including some areas of old-growth forest. The park’s most famous feature is probably the West Coast Trail, a daunting, 75-kilometre hike that includes bridges, cable cars, and close to forty ladders. Constructed in the early 1900s to allow rescuers access to the area’s many shipwrecks, the Trail has been ranked among the world’s best hikes.

But I didn’t go there. After spending almost four months on the road and having done my fair share of backpacking, I decided to save the Trail for another time.


Sea star (Pisaster sp.)

Instead, I visited Long Beach. The Long Beach unit, a stretch of white sand backed by a strip of mossy rainforest, is the park’s most popular section and a bit of a playground. I spent a couple of very relaxing days there, walking along the beaches, poking the giant sea stars and anemones in the intertidal zones, and wandering along the rainforest trails.

I tried geocaching for the first time, too, which is basically a treasure hunt for adults. All you need is a GPS unit (I borrowed one from the Kwisitis visitor centre) and the coordinates of the various caches in the area. Once you reach a set of coordinates, you start turning over rocks and looking under fallen logs until you find the prize. If you’re like me, you try to do this in a subtle way so that passersby don’t notice you rooting around in the undergrowth for no apparent reason.


Initial GPS-related confusion

The prize isn’t anything very big. Geocaching, you will find, is more about the search than the reward. In Pacific Rim, what you’re looking for is a camo-patterned Tupperware container that holds a logbook and a number of small, random souvenirs left by previous geocachers, including unwanted pennies and small, plastic toys.

I signed one of the logbooks, right beneath a couple who were apparently on a geocaching honeymoon. I decided that it was a fun way to spend an afternoon. But I haven’t yet created my geocaching code name or logged my find online. I guess I wasn’t taking it seriously enough.


Saturna Island

I left Pacific Rim when it started to rain and headed down to the Gulf Islands, a cluster of small islands in the Strait of Georgia between Vancouver Island and the mainland. In 2003, Parks Canada created Gulf Islands National Park Reserve from patches of land on several of the islands, which are mostly only accessible by private watercraft.

I took a ferry to Saturna, one of the least developed islands that I could reach. About 350 people live on the island, and the place feels entirely tranquil, even at the height of tourist season. The national park owns roughly half of the land, including much of the uninhabited interior forest.


Wild Thyme coffee house

There isn’t a whole lot to do on Saturna, and most of the island can be seen in less than a day. But for me, it didn’t matter. I camped at Narvaez Bay and ate breakfast at the café in town. I sat on the rocks overlooking the water and read through my diaries from the last four months. I reflected on everything I’ve seen and done this summer.

And it was during one of these moments of reflection that I heard the whales. I was sitting out on East Point, watching the seals lounging on the rocks offshore, when I started hearing strange rushing sounds, like air being let out of a pop bottle. Soon after, I saw people running across the point toward me. When I looked back toward the water, the seals had disappeared. I caught a glimpse of one of them in a shallow pool of water enclosed by the rocks. Its head was just above the surface, and it was completely motionless.


Orca (Orcinus orca)

Then the orcas came around the point. There must have been thirty or forty of them. Some of them came within ten metres of the shore where we were standing. They were moving quickly, but they seemed almost playful – several of them breached the surface and performed elaborate flips in midair. The noise, of course, was the air being expelled from their blowholes.

The whole episode probably lasted fifteen minutes, and then they were gone. Everything was calm and silent again. The seals slowly reappeared. People drifted away.


East Point on Saturna Island

I, too, went on my way shortly after that. And what I remember most vividly now is not the whales themselves, but the people.

I remember that there were several children watching, and they were terribly excited, running back and forth across the rocks. But the adults were no less enthused. People were scrambling across the rocks to keep the whales in sight, and pointing and exclaiming whenever one breached the surface. They were running and laughing and chatting with complete strangers. Nobody cared about anything except taking in this incredible natural phenomenon.


Mount Warburton Pike

And so I ended my trip with a wonderful reminder that we all still retain the fascination with nature that we see in children. I think we all still love the wild outdoors in an open, childlike way. Sometimes, it just takes thirty killer whales to bring it out.

So Should You Go?

If you’re looking for rugged adventure on Vancouver Island, the West Coast Trail is probably your best bet. In general, though, these parks are better suited to relaxed vacationers than to hardcore backpackers.


Mussels at Winter Cove

Gulf Islands, it must be said, is clearly still a young park with minimal infrastructure. Most of the islands are not easy to get to unless you have your own boat or kayak, and ferries can be fairly pricey. I heard from someone on Saturna that tourism there has taken a turn for the worse since the American economy tanked in 2008.

But if you want to see some of Canada’s last old-growth rainforest, or if you want to get away to a place where you can simply soak up the sun and the beautiful views, I can think of few better spots than these two parks.

And when you arrive, just remember to keep your eyes and ears open. You never know what you might find.

The Stats:


Long Beach

Pacific Rim National Park Reserve

  • Year founded: 1970
  • Location: West coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia
  • Area: 512 km2
  • Park map: here
  • What I paid to camp: $35.20 (Green Point campground)
  • Time spent: 2 nights

Gulf Islands National Park Reserve


Sunset at Narvaez Bay

  • Year founded: 2003
  • Location: Strait of Georgia, British Columbia
  • Area: 62 km2
  • Park map: here
  • What I paid to camp: $9.80 (Narvaez Bay campground)
  • Time spent: 2 nights

A Hearse, Two Cops and a Mango

P1030445Until recently, I’d never spent much time in British Columbia. But I’ve heard wonderful things about BC, about the cities and mountain ranges, the coast, the islands, and the Okanagan. And as British Columbia is to be my home for the next few years, I’m certainly hoping to have memorable experiences here.

The first night I spent outside of a national park in BC did not disappoint. It wasn’t memorable in exactly the way I’d been anticipating. In fact, it might have been the most bizarre night of my summer. But I definitely won’t forget it any time soon, and I feel it would be unfair not to share it with you.

I promise you that everything you’re about to read actually happened.

I arrived in this particular town in southern BC after dark. I’d found a website for a private campground that seemed to be located on the outskirts of the town’s industrial park.

When I found the campground entrance, I was surprised to see that the owners, who’d gone to all the trouble of creating a website, had not bothered to construct an official sign. Instead, they’d opted for this advertising strategy:


I drove in.

The campground wasn’t so much a campground as an empty field with a few parking spots mowed into it. There were some electric hook-ups for RVs and a dilapidated trailer with bathrooms. There didn’t seem to be an office building anywhere. It was very dark.

I parked by the bathroom trailer and noticed a man making his way toward me, carrying a lantern. He introduced himself as Wayne. I asked him where the owners were and he pointed me toward an RV parked in one of the campsites.

“This is a great place!” he told me. “And they’re really good guys. But if one of them asks you to drive him into town to get more booze, just tell him you’d rather not. I’d just rather they not drive alone with a woman, that’s all. But don’t worry! You’re going to love it here!”

As I was heading toward the RV, Wayne called me back and asked me if I’d seen his yellow Cadillac hearse. I hadn’t. Apparently, he’d driven out from Surrey to go fishing in the mountains in his prized hearse that he’d fixed up. Sadly, he’d driven over one too many bumps on the mountain roads and done something bad to it that I think involved springs. From what I could gather, the hearse had been sitting in the campground for about ten days while he tried to patch it up. He didn’t mind, though, because it was such a great place.

I left Wayne and drove over to the owners’ trailer. I could hear a television on inside, but no voices. I banged loudly on the door and waited for a few moments.

“Someone at the door!” came a slurred voice at last. “Open the goddamn door!”

The door opened and an elderly man stepped out. I’d clearly woken him up, but he didn’t seem unhappy to see me. I apologized for arriving so late, and he told me that he didn’t mind being woken up by young, blonde women. His friend appeared at the door very soon after that.


This is where the owners lived. They offered to let me sleep on that couch.

Their names were Colin and Dennis, and they spent the next several minutes alternately assuring me that I was perfectly safe, and telling me that if anything happened to me, I should come to them for help. I tried to tell them that I wasn’t worried, but it was difficult to get a word in edgewise. They were both very, very drunk.

Eventually, I managed to communicate that I was going to set up my tent. They insisted on helping me. This was very well-intentioned, though neither of them knew how to set up a tent, and they were much too drunk to manage it even if they had. So we walked to the campsite across from their RV, and I started putting tent poles together while they mostly got in my way.

It was around this time that I first became acquainted with my next-door neighbour. As Colin and Dennis chatted to me about the guy they’d just kicked out for not paying two weeks’ worth of camping fees, we started hearing a woman’s voice in the trailer beside me. She, too, was yelling, though we couldn’t hear anyone responding. Colin told me he thought her boyfriend was in there with her.

Soon after, we heard a door open, and the woman came out. At this point, it became clear that the object of her wrath was us.

“Would you get the hell away from my trailer!” she shouted. “I can see you looking at me! I know you’re talking about me….”

“Ah, shut up, Christine!” Colin yelled back. “You’re scaring away our customer!”

I asked if I should move further away. Dennis assured me that I was fine where I was.


That’s Christine’s trailer in the background

“She just arrived a couple days ago,” he said. “She told us she’s got some anxiety issues. I don’t really know too much. But don’t worry. If you have any problems, you come to us!”

This went on for a while. Christine would go back into her trailer, slam the door, and then open the window and yell at us some more before coming back outside. She never approached us. Colin would yell back at her while Dennis assured me that everything was fine. I hammered my tent pegs into the ground as fast as I could.

Finally, I was all set up. Christine retreated into her lair, Colin and Dennis disappeared back into their trailer and presumably passed out, and I climbed into my sleeping bag and started to read.

All was calm.

A little while later, I heard a car pull up and a couple of men got out. They had a flashlight, and I could see them walking around outside. They seemed to be looking for something. A couple of minutes later, they stopped right outside my tent.

“Excuse me,” one of them said. “Can you please come out? It’s the police.”

I asked if it was really the police. They said it was. So I came out.

It was really the police. They told me they’d had a call from a woman who said that five people had surrounded her trailer and were threatening her. Apparently, they’d been walking around looking for five hooligans, and had managed to find me.

I’d never been questioned by the police before, and in a way, it was kind of exciting. They took down my name and phone number on a little notepad. They wanted to know what I was doing there. I told them I was camping. Because it was a campground. Then they asked me if I was going to attack Christine. I said I probably wasn’t, but that I wasn’t entirely sure that she wouldn’t attack me. They said they would check with her.

So they went over to her trailer, and a little while later, I heard them drive away. I sat up in my tent for a while, listening for footsteps or knives being sharpened. But everything stayed quiet, and eventually, I fell very soundly asleep.

I didn’t hear from Christine again. But the story isn’t over.

In the morning, I woke up early and packed up my tent. Dennis and Colin weren’t up yet, but I walked over to Wayne’s campsite to say goodbye. He was sitting beside his hearse (which was, in fact, very brilliantly yellow), eating breakfast with his chickens, which I think had come with him from Surrey. He had three of them. He let me pet them.


The hearse

We got to talking, and pretty soon, he was telling me about his past as a self-described junkie. He gave me step-by-step instructions for a great way to transform rocks of crack into something liquid that you can inject. I believe it involved water, lemon juice, vinegar, and heroin, though my inadequate knowledge of drug terminology prevented me from grasping all the intricacies of the process.

But then Wayne started telling me about his trip to India, where he lived for two and a half years. He visited one of the hospices established by Mother Teresa, and the experience turned his life around. He’s clean now, and he’s planning to start an organization that will help other addicts overcome their demons. The yellow Cadillac hearse was an integral part of this plan. I’m not entirely sure what role the hearse was going to play, but there is no doubt that Wayne is a man with a vision.

We talked for about half an hour (well, Wayne mostly talked and I mostly listened), and then I told him that I should be on my way. He bowed to me and told me that, in exchange for my gift of time, he had something to give me. So he walked over to the hearse, opened the trunk (do hearses have trunks?), and pulled out… a mango. I thanked him and we parted ways.


Chez Colin and Denis

On my way out, I realized that the campground I’d been heading to, the one with the website, was located 600 metres further down the road. I’d missed the sign in the darkness the night before.

But to be honest, I’m pretty glad I ended up where I did. In a strange way, I felt welcomed by BC, with its whole bizarre cast of characters. Christine, I suppose, might not have felt especially welcoming. But the mango was really, really good.

From Wildflowers to Avalanches

P1030328Glacier and Mount Revelstoke National Parks

I guess I wasn’t expecting a lot from Glacier and Mount Revelstoke National Parks. Though they’re mountain parks, located in the Columbia Range west of the Rockies, they are both quite small and both centered along the Trans-Canada highway. These are parks that most people only visit on their way to somewhere else.

Mount Revelstoke, I have to say, did not exceed my expectations. Mount Revelstoke itself is the park’s focal point, and it is notable mainly for its alpine wildflowers, for its history as a ski jumping destination until the 1970s, and for the fact that you can drive almost all the way to the summit.


Indian paintbrush (Castilleja sp.)

So, after doing a couple of short hikes around the base of the mountain, I drove up the Meadows in the Sky Parkway. I walked the short path from the parking lot to the summit. From there, I hiked the Eva Lake Trail, one of the park’s longer alpine routes. I took pictures of wildflowers, which were abundant, if a little past their best. I had a picnic on the shores of Eva Lake, where an old warden’s cabin has stood since it was built in 1928, its walls slowly disappearing beneath decades of graffiti. On the way down, I saw an angry marmot on a rock. And then I left. It was an entirely pleasant but unremarkable experience.

Glacier, however, was more of a surprise. Along with Banff and Yoho, Glacier is one of Canada’s oldest national parks, and its history is a testament to the vision and perseverance of the early railroad engineers.


Angry hoary marmot (Marmota caligata)

In 1872, Canadian Pacific Railway general manager William Cornelius Van Horne decided to build the railway through British Columbia’s uncharted Selkirk Mountains, without knowing whether a pass even existed through the treacherous mountain range.

The task of finding a mountain pass fell to Major Albert Bowman Rogers, a surveyor who spent two gruelling summers trekking through the Selkirks, apparently subsisting on little more than hard-tack and verbal abuse of his assistants. In 1882, he confirmed the existence of the pass that now bears his name. For this achievement, he was awarded a $5,000 cheque.


Old railway trestle pillars along Loop Brook Trail

It’s impossible to visit Glacier, a park known for its challenging trails and treacherous avalanche conditions, without marvelling at the courage and determination of the people who risked their lives there. That resolve in the face of the complete unknown is hard for me to fathom.

But I tried my best to do Major A. B. Rogers proud. In his honour, I decided to hike the Hermit Trail up to a small backcountry campground. The Hermit has the dubious distinction of being the steepest trail in a park full of steep trails. While the route is only 3.2 kilometres long, it includes a staggering 819 metres of elevation gain.

The first indication I had that this trail might be more than I’d bargained for was about fifteen minutes in, when I met a couple coming down. The woman asked me in a desperate sort of voice if they were anywhere near the end. The only advice she gave me was to pace myself.


American pika (Ochotona princeps)

I spent an hour climbing up through the forest into the subalpine. There were a few switchbacks here and there, to lessen the angle of the slope a little, but this is mostly not a trail that believes in switchbacks. It mostly just goes up really, really fast.

Shortly after leaving the denser forest, the trail levelled off a bit, and I started to feel quite certain that I was nearing the end. That was until I saw the cliff face in front of me.


Handy stone steps

The grand finale of the Hermit Trail is this climb up the Giant Cliff Face of Doom, which culminates in a series of several hundred stone steps. I know that there were several hundred stone steps because, at this point, I was counting my footsteps. Every fifty paces, I allowed myself to stop and catch my breath.

I did make it, eventually, though it took me almost two hours. But by the time I reached the top of the ridge, it had started to rain quite heavily, and I have to say that I didn’t fully appreciate the campsite until the next morning.

It turns out that Hermit is probably the most memorable campground I have stayed at this summer. It’s right up in the alpine meadow, backed by heaps of glacial moraine, with a stream trickling down through the wildflowers. Out over the edge of the cliff, there is an unobstructed view of snow-covered peaks.


World’s least discreet toilet

But the best feature might be the toilet, which is an open-air, forest-green throne located high up on one of the moraines, with an outstanding view of the whole area. Of course, this means that anyone camping at the site or hiking up the trail gets an outstanding view of the toilet. But that’s a minor detail.

I hung around the campground for much of the morning, both because it was beautiful and because walking seemed like an unpleasant thing to do. Sure enough, when I did make up my mind to leave, the way down from Hermit proved almost as arduous as the way up. Fortunately, I was forced to take lots of breaks by passing day-hikers, whose faces sank when I told them how much further up they had to climb.


Breakfast at Hermit campground

As I sat eating ice cream later that afternoon, I decided that I might not be the next Major A. B. Rogers. But Hermit was certainly an unforgettable hike. And I think it was worth it. I’ll have to get back to you in twenty years when I go in for double knee replacement surgery.

So Should You Go?

Mount Revelstoke is a great place for young kids, people with reduced mobility, or anyone who might not otherwise be able to reach a mountain summit. It is very pretty, if not breathtaking. But I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to visit this park. There are many more rewarding destinations within an easy distance of Revelstoke.


Eva Lake

Those rewarding destinations include Glacier. I will caution you that the park is not very prepossessing upon first encounter. The old Glacier Park Lodge in Rogers Pass went into receivership last year and now sits empty and boarded up. The theatre in the Rogers Pass Discovery Centre still plays a short 1978 movie titled “The Snow War”, which will lead you to believe that modern avalanche defense systems involve a lot of sideburns and hand-drawn sketches on graph paper.

But Glacier is kind of fascinating. Although it is much more accessible now than it was, Rogers Pass still has an air of danger and adventure. This is a place where trains have derailed and people have been killed. It is a place where the highway closes regularly when avalanches threaten the road. It is a place where people have achieved the near-impossible.


Eva Lake Trail

And it is a place where I hiked the hardest 3.2 kilometres I’ve ever done.

The Stats:

Mount Revelstoke National Park

  • Year founded: 1914
  • Location: Columbia Mountains, British Columbia
  • Area: 260 km2
  • Park map: here
  • What I paid to camp: N/A
  • Time spent: 1 day

Wildflowers at Hermit campground

Glacier National Park

  • Year founded: 1886
  • Location: Columbia Mountains, British Columbia
  • Area: 1,349 km2
  • Park map: here
  • What I paid to camp: $9.80 (backcountry permit)
  • Time spent: 1 night

An Ode to Loneliness

P1030659I have spent most of this summer travelling alone. This happened partly by choice, but mostly because I didn’t happen to know anyone who was willing to take four months off from their life to eat trail mix and live in Tim. Surprising, I know.

Recently, I’ve been trying to remember how I felt about the prospect of solitude before I left. I know I was nervous about it. But I think the things I worried most about included falling asleep behind the wheel or having my engine burst into flames on a remote gravel road and not having the life skills needed to rectify the situation.

I know that loneliness occurred to me. I remember wondering how long you have to spend alone before you start forgetting not to talk to yourself in the company of other people. But I was too busy worrying about engine fires to dwell on it much.

Other people, though, have made me give it some thought. All summer, the most common question I have been asked after telling people about my trip is “Are you doing it all by yourself?”

At first, I was taken aback by how unusual people found this. Then, for a while, I became deeply frustrated by the question.

I got varied reactions when I told people that yes, I was doing it all by myself. A few people would congratulate me on being a strong, independent woman, though it was often done in the same doubtful tone you might use to congratulate someone who had downed four litres of milk without vomiting.

Some people were evidently concerned for my physical safety. They would ask whether I didn’t feel safer sleeping in my car with the doors locked than in my tent. They would recommend that I hike with bear bells and bear spray and whistles and big sticks, or that I just not hike at all.

Most people, however, just wanted to know whether I was lonely. And that was what frustrated me most. I believed, and I still believe, that the question was the kind of thing you would only ask a woman. I doubt that most men who travel alone have to field a whole lot of questions about whether it makes them feel sad. But women are expected to structure their lives around other people more than men are. Women are not supposed to be alone by choice. One woman told me, when I was leaving her campground, that she hoped I would come back someday with my boyfriend.

The frustration wore off, though. I know that people mean well. And we’re social beings. A lot of us don’t have much experience being on our own.

So now, when people ask me about travelling alone, I just try to explain what it’s like.

I will admit that it’s not always good. Being with other people tends to make you think about things that you might otherwise neglect. Other people, for instance, will encourage you to shower on a semi-regular basis. Other people tend to balk at eating unseasoned lentils and quinoa for days on end.

But I will say this. There is something incredibly liberating about waking up in the morning and knowing that every decision I make is mine to make. I can do anything I want. If I have fun, I have myself to thank. If I have a miserable time, at least no one else has to suffer from my poor choices.

I haven’t experienced many moments of my life as profoundly and vividly as I have this summer. It’s wonderful to be able to share experiences with other people, and I suppose that’s why I write. But part of the magic of waking up to the wolves in Prince Albert or seeing the Northern Lights in Saskatchewan or running into a lone caribou at the top of a mountain was the awareness I had of being totally alone. Of being alone and yet part of something alive and wild and ever-changing.

I’ve felt totally at ease for most of the time I’ve spent on my own. But the truth is that I haven’t spent long stretches of time without human contact. I’ve found that people aren’t afraid to approach you when you’re travelling alone. And they mostly don’t give you strange looks when you approach them, even if you look a bit like a vagrant.

In Newfoundland, I met a lovely couple who took me to their cabin and showed me how to fish. In a Tim Hortons in North Bay, I met a recovering alcoholic who now publishes his own periodical about the people he meets in his daily life (sometimes in the Tim Hortons in North Bay). In Thunder Bay, I ate fresh fish and chocolate around one of the most enormous bonfires I’ve ever seen. In Grasslands, I camped alongside a German family who had me over to their picnic table for dinner. I’ve met people who’ve toured me around cities, who’ve given me lifts, who’ve shared information and conversation and food and wine and, yes, showers.

Still, I have spent a lot of time alone. And in all that time, have I ever felt lonely? The answer is yes. Of course. I wouldn’t change that.

We all depend on other people to give us direction some of the time. But this summer, I only had myself. I’ve laughed and I’ve cried and I’ve been lost and exhausted and awestruck and completely content. And now that almost four months have passed, I guess I just know that I can do it. I guess I’ve learned what I’m capable of.

These days, I’ve come to hate my hiking boots. And I’ve come to hate the way Tim smells when I’ve had wet clothes in him for a couple of days. But amazingly, after all this time alone, I still don’t hate myself. And I’m not scared to be by myself. I think that’s probably worth something.

A Grizzly Tale

P1020876Waterton Lakes National Park

Grizzly bears used to live in Winnipeg. In fact, they used to roam across much of the North American plains, extending as far south as Mexico and as far east as the Mississippi River.

But as farmers and ranchers moved across the prairies in the mid-19th century, the grizzly population dwindled. Bear habitat was converted to farmland and bears were actively hunted, both for sport and because of the threat they posed to livestock.

Canada’s prairie grizzly population was extirpated from Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta as early as the late 1800s. Though they persist in Alberta, they are now confined to the Rocky Mountains. As a result, we tend to think of grizzlies as a montane species, though mountains were never prime habitat for them. Mountains are simply the territory we’ve left them.


Canada buffaloberry (Shepherdia canadensis)

In 2010, the Government of Alberta finally listed the province’s remaining bears as threatened under the Wildlife Act. This followed a major, province-wide census that estimated the number of reproductive adults at fewer than 1,500.

As it turns out, the designation doesn’t actually tie the province down to a whole lot of concrete actions. But it did cause the grizzly hunt to be suspended. And it has led to greater interest in accurate population estimates throughout the province.

Waterton Lakes National Park is one of the few places in Alberta where the grizzly population is actually on the rise. There are a few reasons for this. The park, itself quite small, is located in the very southwest corner of the province, and is contiguous with the much larger Glacier National Park in Montana. Grizzlies, which have very large home ranges and bare-faced disregard for international boundaries, likely travel freely throughout the region.


View near park entrance

Perhaps more importantly, Waterton Lakes is unique among the mountain parks in that its mountains rise straight out of the grasslands. This feature is what makes the park’s landscape so striking. It also means that this is one of the only places where grizzlies have access to prime grassland habitat.

Today, Waterton Lakes is the site of a pilot project testing a new method for estimating grizzly bear population size. I met up with Barb Johnston, a Parks Canada ecosystem officer, to find out more about it.


Natural backscratcher
Photo: B. Johnston

Early in the morning, Barb and I headed out along a couple of the park’s trails to have a look at some rub trees. These are trees that grizzlies have selected and which generations of bears will use to – well – rub against. To you and me, most rub trees look just like every other tree. But to the trained eye, a rub tree stands out. If you look closely, the bark on one side of the tree has been worn smooth. Tooth and claw marks often scar its surface. Sometimes, little trails have been worn into the vegetation around its base.

No one really knows how rub trees are chosen, but the bears really seem to like them. Wildlife camera shots show the bears standing on their hind legs, back to the tree, performing killer dance moves while rubbing.


Bear hair snared!

It is thought that the rub trees are some kind of communication tool. According to Barb Johnston, wildlife cameras in Waterton Lakes have shown many species approaching the trees to sniff around. Of course, it’s possible that the bears are just itchy.

Barb and her colleagues have decided to take advantage of these rub trees, and the method behind the science is brilliantly simple. Biologists locate rub trees and attach strands of barbed wire to them. The wire does not hurt the animals, but it does collect clumps of hair when the bears rub against it. The researchers periodically return to the trees and collect the hair, and then send it in to a lab to have the DNA sequenced. The DNA allows them to uniquely identify each bear, which means that they can then record every time an individual returns to a tree. Based on the number of new visitors compared to repeats, scientists can then derive an estimate of the total population.


Barb Johnston collecting hair

I asked Barb why this technique is preferable to those used in the past, and she told me that tranquillizing bears and fitting them with GPS collars is the usual way to monitor bear populations. But that method is fairly invasive, and given the species’ status, there is a big push to find a more hands-off approach.

This is the third year of the pilot project, and Barb hopes to be able to be able to calculate a population estimate after one more season of hair collection. If the technique works, it will likely be adopted elsewhere in Alberta.

The 2007 population census estimated that just over 50 bears live in the southwest part of the province that includes Waterton Lakes. However, that census did not include any of the private lands east of the park where numerous bear sightings have been reported. Based on what she has found so far, Barb suspects that the actual number may be substantially higher.


Saskatoon (Amelanchier alnifolia)

Of course, the fact that grizzlies are doing well around Waterton Lakes is not seen as good news by everyone involved. Increasing bear numbers have led to conflicts with local ranchers, who are no longer allowed to shoot the bears that threaten their cattle. Barb spends her free time working with nearby landowners to resolve problems and change perceptions. One initiative involves raising money to help ranchers dispose of cow carcasses that would otherwise act as bear attractants. And Barb told me that in the last few years, she has started to see a shift in attitude. Landowners that once viewed grizzlies as a nuisance and a hazard are now inviting neighbours over to watch the bears that wander across their property.

After hiking for several kilometres through the forest and collecting hair samples from a handful of rub trees, Barb and I parted ways. She was off to help out with a bat mist-netting project south of the border in Glacier, an initiative that has been undertaken in anticipation of the spread of white nose syndrome, a deadly fungus.


Middle Waterton Lake

Waterton Lakes is involved in a number of conservation research projects, and as one of only two remaining park biologists, Barb has seen her job description expand dramatically. She is now responsible for all of the terrestrial and aquatic wildlife in the park, and is also trained to assist in any rescue operations.

These days, life as a biologist in Waterton is anything but monotonous.


Black bear (Ursus americanus)

So Should You Go?

To be honest, I didn’t see a whole lot of Waterton Lakes while I was there. Access to several of the park’s most popular day hikes was washed out during the floods in southern Alberta earlier this summer. As a result, this is probably not the best season to visit the park.


Along Crypt Lake Trail

But if there’s one thing you’re guaranteed in Waterton Lakes, it’s bears. You might not see grizzlies – they’re very shy – but if you drive along the Red Rock Parkway, you can’t miss the black bears eating berries by the side of the road. Now, I don’t recommend parking and watching the bears for long periods, as this is the first step toward habituating the animals to our presence. But if the bear population in Alberta starts to rebound, human perceptions are going to be an important part of the equation.

Waterton Lakes provides a unique opportunity for people to observe bears in their natural habitat. And it might just be opportunities like this that help to change the way we see them and the way we feel about living alongside them.


Crandell campground

The Stats:

  • Year founded: 1895
  • Location: Southwestern Alberta
  • Area: 505 km2
  • Park map: here
  • What I paid to camp: $43 (Crandell campground) + $ 10 fire permit
  • Time spent: 2 nights

Mountain Time – Chapter Three


Giant Steps

Banff National Park

Canada’s national park system was not created to preserve the country’s natural heritage for generations to come. It was not created to protect the ecological integrity of our wilderness.

It was created because Sir John A. Macdonald wanted British Columbia.

In 1870, Canada’s first prime minister promised British Columbians a railroad that would connect them to the rest of Canada within ten years. In exchange, the colony agreed to join Confederation.


As it turned out, building the world’s longest railway was no small feat. Over the following years, construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway progressed slowly, often delayed by political scandal and funding shortages. Early on, the CPR rejected the proposed route through the Rocky Mountains, which would have seen the railroad built through the Yellowhead Pass in present-day Jasper National Park. Instead, the company chose a much more difficult route through Kicking Horse Pass (in Yoho and Banff National Parks) and the uncharted Selkirk Mountains. The more southerly route was selected to avoid competition from encroaching American companies.

The railway was finally completed in 1885. The first passenger train from Montreal arrived in Port Moody, British Columbia in the summer of 1886. The era of transcontinental rail travel had begun.


Banff townsite

It was during the construction of the CPR that much of the Rocky Mountains was surveyed for the first time, and it was railroad workers who discovered many of the region’s famous landmarks. A CPR horse wrangler was led by Stoney Indians to Lake Louise in 1882. The following year, three railroad workers discovered hot springs in the Eastern Rockies, near the present-day town of Banff.

Canada’s first national park was created by the government around the Banff Hot Springs in 1885. Upon completion of the railroad, however, the CPR was strapped for cash and eager to bring in revenue by attracting adventurous passengers. It was the CPR that built the Banff Springs Hotel and Château Lake Louise. It was the railway that made Banff National Park the destination that it is today.


Lake Minnewanka
Photo: K. Van Katwyk

The early history of the national parks is inextricably linked to the railroad. The CPR built hotels and tea houses in various places throughout Banff, Yoho, and Glacier National Parks. The parks were viewed primarily as a vehicle for a nascent tourism and sporting industry.

In 1930, Canada approved the National Parks Act, which dedicated the parks “to the people of Canada, for their benefit, education and enjoyment”. But changing values and increasing public interest in conservation led to an important amendment in 1988. Today, the Act states that the first priority of the national parks is the “Maintenance or restoration of ecological integrity, through the protection of natural resources and natural processes”.


Human-wildlife interactions

Still, the balance between stewardship and public access remains very fine, and nowhere is the tension between conservation and development more apparent than in Banff National Park.

With over three million visitors each year, Banff is one of North America’s most popular destinations. And although development of the townsite has been capped, there is no way to accommodate this vast number of people without an environmental impact.


Dusky grouse (Dendragapus obscurus)

For instance, various proposals to further develop the Sunshine Village ski resort have been put forth and withdrawn over the years, with negotiations apparently underway again as of last year. Beginning in 1981, the portion of the Trans-Canada Highway that runs through Banff was expanded from a small, two-lane highway to a four-lane, divided thoroughfare. Wildlife underpasses and overpasses have been installed in an attempt to mitigate the impact of this major barrier to animal movement.

During my visit to the park, I met up with Sarah Elmeligi, a PhD student at Central Queensland University who is interested in the interaction between humans and wildlife in Banff. She has focused her study on grizzly bears, one of Banff’s most charismatic and vulnerable species. Though grizzlies can demonstrate aggression to humans, they are mostly very shy. Human presence has proven very effective at pushing bears out of their natural habitat.


Berry season

Sarah told me that there are between 55 and 60 bears in the park. This time of year, when berries are ripening along many of the park’s trails, park policy is to restrict access to any of the trails heavily frequented by the animals. Only groups of four or more people are allowed in these areas, both for visitor safety and to reduce the number of people creating disturbances.

Sarah has put out wildlife cameras along several trails in the park, which are programmed to take photographs whenever any large animal (including humans) passes by. She is hoping to draw conclusions about the relationship between human and bear activity. For instance, if she can find some threshold number of people whose presence will drive a bear out of an area, that could help to inform management decisions in the future.


Wildlife camera

But Sarah is not only focused on bear biology. Though she believes in the park’s mandate to protect ecological integrity, she also recognizes the importance of allowing people to experience wild places. She explained to me that one of the core components of her project is a survey of user satisfaction. The questions she asks visitors will help her understand what people expect from their park experience and what degree of access restrictions they are willing to accept.

Sarah’s project is the latest manifestation of an issue we have struggled with since the national park system’s inception nearly 130 years ago. What is the role of national parks in Canada? To what degree does our responsibility to protect trump our right to enjoy?


Sarah (centre) and her volunteer crew

The way we think about parks has changed a great deal since Sir John A. Macdonald set aside 26 square kilometres back in 1885. But it is difficult to visit Banff these days, with its traffic jams and overflowing parking lots, and not to wonder whether we’ve gotten the balance exactly right.

So Should You Go?

I guess it depends what you’re looking for. There are a lot of wonderful things in Banff. It’s popular for a reason.


Johnston Canyon
Photo: K. Van Katwyk

I experienced two extremes in Banff. My friend Kristin and I hiked Johnston Canyon, one of the park’s most popular short hikes. The canyon is dramatic, but walking up the trail was a bit like being on a conveyor belt, with line-ups of people waiting to take photos of the waterfalls.

The trail was easy and well-manicured, and it would make a good first wilderness experience for someone new to hiking. But I had the distinct impression of experiencing something that had been engineered to meet my needs. That’s not really what I look for in nature.

When I met up with Sarah, however, I joined a group of volunteers who were hiking the Paradise Valley trail to take down some of her wildlife cameras. The trail is relatively long, and it is one of those with an access restriction currently in place. As a result, we saw very few others on the trail, and it felt remote and truly wild.


Paradise Valley

If you skip the most popular spots in Banff, it is still relatively easy to have this kind of experience. But even here, there was a part of me that wondered whether Banff is just a place I should avoid. I couldn’t help but think that maybe this park is saturated. Maybe I should do what little I can to reduce the footprint of three million people by first removing my own.

I’m not going to tell you not to go to Banff. But if you want to go and contribute to something worthwhile, Sarah Elmeligi is still looking for volunteers. To get involved, visit her blog at


Paddling down the Bow River


The Stats:

  • Year founded: 1885
  • Location: Eastern Rockies, Alberta
  • Area: 6,641 km2
  • What I paid to camp: $43.00 (Two Jack Main campground)
  • Time spent: 2 nights