In his new book, The Great Canadian Bucket List, Robin Esrock give 115 fantastic reasons why Canada is worth exploring. Here’s one of them.
Canyoning, or canyoneering as it is known in the United States, combines aspects of hiking, climbing, rappelling and, where applicable, not drowning. The goal is to ascend or descend a canyon, through pristine wilderness like that found around Mont-Sainte-Anne, Que. Although relatively obscure, canyoning is a popular activity in the summer, with various routes open to all ages and fitness levels. I’ve slid down canyons in Costa Rica, where our guide held everyone back so he could “dispose of” a poisonous snake in our path. New Zealand, Colorado, France – the activity isn’t unique in itself, but if we return to the winter ski slopes of Mont-Sainte-Anne, we can find something truly original.
Marc Tremblay’s Canyoning Quebec is the only place in North America where you can attempt ice canyoning, and it’s just the sort of unique activity our Great Canadian Bucket List demands. Tall and stringy, Marc is an accomplished spelunker, the kind of guy who gets his rocks off squeaking through caverns underground. He enjoys introducing people to the joys of canyoning, and is a pioneer of doing it in snow and ice. He tells me to dress warmly. Drowning is the least of my concerns.
We meet at the ticket office of Mont-Sainte-Anne, where I’m kitted out with ropes, crampons and a backpack. “The most dangerous things on this trip are crossing the highway and avoiding the snowmobiles,” says Marc reassuringly. This from a guy who can spend days exploring dark, dangerous caves. We hike over to the highway, wait for local drivers hell bent on creating roadkill, and continue along a snowmobile path where Marc’s assistant, Genevieve, keeps watch over a blind hill.
Once we enter the woods, we’re in a magical world of snow and ice. A stream flows, barely, carving ice structures along its edges. During the summer this path will be full of hikers, but in winter it belongs to us. Farther down, Marc helps me with my crampons, shows me how to loop my figure-eight hook, and ropes me up to practise my descent. “Keep your legs apart, watch out for the crampons, and just ease your way down,” he instructs me calmly. Child’s play, which is why even children can do this.
I have to watch my harness, though, which has a tendency to trap testicles, initiating a Michael Jacksonesque falsetto.
We continue downstream until we come to the edge of a 40-metre cascade. In summer, you’d descend down the same spot, showering in the flow of the cascade. On this overcast day in February, I hear water barely descending beneath a spectacular frozen formation. Nature has burned ten thousand giant, icy-white candles, and I’m about to lower myself down among the hardened wax.
Crunch! The sharp teeth of my crampons dig into the ice as I do my best to avoid breaking the frozen stalactites. Once I’m over the lip, I stop to admire the view. Limestone caves would take millennia to form these sorts of structures, but out here in winter, every day produces a different show. Goosebumps sprout like mushrooms on my neck. I eventually lower myself to the bottom, where Genevieve unhooks me. I greet her with the one-syllable word I’ve used many times while researching my book: “Wow!”
I can barely recognize the waterfall when I see photos taken during the summer. It may be half the height of the falls I descended in Costa Rica, but there’s a different exhilaration and challenge in winter climes. A unique experience worthy of our national bucket list.
Excerpted from The Great Canadian Bucket List by Robin Esrock. © 2013 by Robin Esrock. All rights reserved. Published by Dundurn Press (dundurn.com).
IF YOU GO
The canyoning rendezvous point is located at the main inside ticket booth of the ski resort (the information centre), at the foot of the mountain.
The best time to go is mid-December to March. Allow four hours for the adventure. The cost is $96 a person, $85 a person in groups of four or more and $69 for children under 18.
Q&A: HOW THE BUCKET LIST WAS MADE
What does a South-African-turned-Vancouverite know about Canada? Quite a lot, it turns out. Robin Esrock tells Travel Editor Domini Clark what he’s learned from travelling to every province and territory.
How much time did you spend on the road researching the book?
The experiences were pieced together over a period of five years, including an 18-month stint where I visited or returned to every province and territory. I still had to time to jet off to places like Portugal, Papua New Guinea and Anguilla, which was a great contrast to the boreal forest, lakes and tundra.
How did you decide on the list?
Each experience had to deliver a moment I’d never forget the rest of my life, and neither will you. It had to be a unique experience you can only do in Canada. I’ve been to over 100 countries on six continents chasing similar stories, so was constantly thinking: “Have I seen that anywhere else?” Yes, you can dogsled in Greenland, but not with a legend like Frank Turner in the Yukon countryside.
Which province or territory surprised you the most?
Canadians tend to write off the Prairies, but experience-wise, I didn’t expect Manitoba and Saskatchewan to be so rich. New Brunswick is easily the most underrated province in Canada.
I find some of the Ontario picks dull. Were you trying to make the West Coast look better?
Ha! The other provinces will always be more fascinating than your own. There was so much to do in and around the major cities in Ontario, and so many obvious choices, that I’d be crucified if I left them out. But I managed to unearth some weird and wonderful items that I hope teaches an old Ontarian new tricks.
You’re from South Africa. Was there a moment during your travels when you felt ‘Canadian’?
Most of this book was a journey to find out exactly what “Canadian” feels like, as both an immigrant, and for Canadians themselves. I developed a powerful bond with the country, its people, creatures and landscapes, which is something I think all Canadians need to discover for themselves.
Canadians can be reluctant to explore their own country. Any words of encouragement?
You wouldn’t believe the bounty of bucket list experiences we’re sitting on. We’re a massive nation, 13 countries in one. Before you start looking overseas, look around your own country, province, city or town. You’ll find experiences that stack up against the best of the world. Trust me, I looked.
This interview has been edited and condensed.