A desert expanse or sky-high icebergs? Solitude among the trees or immersion in Indigenous cultures and festivities? There is a country that promises all of these possibilities for travellers and it is our own. This year’s Hidden Canada list focuses on 10 diverse locales from coast to coast – including one particularly exciting spot way, way up north
Manitoulin Island, Ontario
The world’s largest freshwater island is a hub for learning about Indigenous cultures
Manitoulin Island boasts 2,766 square kilometres of land teeming with wildlife and thick forest in Northern Ontario. The largest freshwater island in the world, Manitoulin includes another 108 interior lakes, some large enough to house their own islands.
It is a paddler’s dream. But my family is not here to canoe or kayak. We’ve come to learn about Canada’s Indigenous culture from the place that, in Ojibwe, means “spirit island.” With six Anishinaabe reserves, Manitoulin welcomes tourists via art shows, accommodation and immersive cultural activities, including multiple powwows (with the biggest one in Wiikwemkoong over the August long weekend).
The goal of this particular kind of hospitality, says Falcon Migwans, a heritage interpreter with Great Spirit Circle Trail, an Indigenous-led tour company and activity centre on the island, is to teach visitors how to “live with Mother Earth rather than on her.”
We start with a three-hour hike along the Cup and Saucer trail, a winding – and in some places challenging – path set in 12 kilometres of dense boreal forest. Our guides Tyrone Debassige and Paul (Salt) Taibossigai perform a smudge ceremony, a cleansing smoke bath, for our group at the trail’s entrance. The ritual is meant to purify the body, spirit, personal items or even a space. My kids, aged 10 and 7, take the task very seriously, using care to thoughtfully wave the smoke over their heart, mind, eyes, mouth, ears and even their baseball hats. We then offer dried tobacco to the spirits of the earth.
After a rugged climb to the top, some 70 metres high, complete with a couple of steep inclines requiring us to grab branches to haul ourselves up, we’re rewarded with a panoramic view of the escarpment’s cliffs and rock ledges – and with a snack. Our guides unpack cedar tea, homemade berry jam and bannock, a traditional type of scone. As we eat, they share stories from Indigenous history, explaining that the rock ledges along the escarpment in front of us are believed to be tip of a fishing spear used by a trickster character from Anishinaabe mythology.
We cap the day with a dip at the base of Bridal Veil Falls, a 20-minute drive away. At 11 metres tall, the waterfall is impressively forceful yet the pond below perfectly calm for swimming. The kids quickly don their water shoes to climb the rocks and take a walk behind the falls.
The next day, we’re at the Circle Trail headquarters, tucked into a thickly wooded area where we immediately spot three blue jays. After another smudge ceremony, Tyrone teaches us how to make bannock and cedar tea over an open flame. The kids get their hands messy mixing the dough. They also clip their own cedar branches from nearby trees to brew the tea. (Pro tip: After boiling cedar clippings for three to five minutes, put half an apple into the water to sweeten the flavour.)
We then sit around a fire pit where Falcon leads us in a drum circle. Before he does, he explains the symbolism of the drum, sharing a story about a fierce battle between warring tribes and how a 10-year-old girl survived by hiding in the river’s waters, using a straw for air. While hiding, a vision directed her to give a drum to the tribes, that doing so will end the war. The drum has since remained a symbol of peace.
We retreat to our cabin, situated at the edge of a dense forest on the Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation reserve, along the shores of the North Channel. Outside our window we spot a fox and skunk in a standoff. After several minutes staring each other down, the fox trots off to the delight of my animal-loving daughter. My son, meanwhile, is disappointed there wasn’t an “epic” battle. They immediately want to go play outside.
After just two days on the island, my city kids have become fully rapt with Manitoulin. Places where you can learn about Indigenous culture are becoming more available across the country, but Manitoulin stands apart as a curated experience that draws in the whole family, helping us see where Indigenous culture fits into our own lives and how it’s a part of what makes us Canadian.
Grand Manan, New Brunswick
Famed for fishing and whale watching, the charm of this island in the Bay of Fundy often turns visitors into residents
Our saviour appeared dressed in a backward ball cap, a baggy muscle shirt and a pair of battered sneaks.
It was 11 p.m., and for the past hour, my husband, our two kids and I had been standing at the edge of the pier in North Head, just across from Grand Manan’s ferry dock, bouncing a pair of rods into the ocean far below. Our fish-obsessed son, Charles, was desperate to land a squid – he’d talked about nothing but fishing for the entire 15-hour drive east from Toronto. So, earlier in the day, we’d driven all over the island in search of a squid jig, a lure with a jagged rim designed specially for squidly beaks.
An hour in, we hadn’t so much as spotted one of the ghostly creatures. That’s when Shane pulled up. Within minutes, he’d souped up Charles’s rig using an old house key he had in his pocket. Now, he assured Charles, the squid would be on it “like a buzzard on a gut-wagon.”
Sure enough, on the next drop, there was a mighty tug. Shane handed the rod to Charles, who gleefully reeled in an ink-spurting invertebrate, thereby achieving nine-year-old-boy nirvana.
The rest of us found our own versions of bliss during our week-long stay on Grand Manan, a tiny island at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy that lies closer to the coast of Maine than to mainland New Brunswick. It’s the kind of place where you feel at home the second you step off the ferry. No wonder half the locals we met had gone to Grand Manan with the intention of staying for a day or two but never left.
For me, the highlight was spending an afternoon aboard the Day’s Catch, a lobster-fishing-cum-whale-watching vessel operated by Peter Wilcox, owner of Sea Watch Tours. Wilcox, whose family came to Grand Manan during the American Revolution, went to university on the mainland, but returned to take over his dad’s business (despite a violent case of seasickness he has since conquered). Even for Wilcox, our tour was a banner day on the sea. Within an hour, he had brought us alongside a trio of humpbacks, whom first mate Durlan Ingersoll identified as Rooftop, Halfmoon and Tether by the markings on their breeching tails. We spotted finbacks, the world’s second-largest species; relatively tiny minkes; even a pod of rare white-sided dolphins, who raced along next to the boat frolicking and generally showing off (though the birders on board could barely tear their binoculars away from a flock of great shearwaters gliding along beside us on the other side of the boat).
For my husband, the pinnacle came on shore, when we descended into the basement of Special K, a lobster-fishing outfit near the ferry dock, to pick out a quartet of pound-and-a-halfers for dinner one night. Lobster-fishing season ends in June, but Special K had 40,000 pounds of the crustaceans chilling in giant cement tanks, ready to be shipped to New York and China. Ours didn’t make it more than a few minutes down the road, where their final stop was a giant bowl of melted butter and garlic.
My seven-year-old daughter, who dreams of being a paleontologist, found heaven on a rocky beach, where the ebbing tide had revealed thousands of surf-smooth stones in every colour. There was something almost meditative about stooping low over thousands of rocks, deciding which ones were worth lugging back home to Toronto (the answer: many, at least 20 pounds worth), while my son and husband caught tiny, cranky green grabs and sea eels left exposed by the retreating water.
We returned to that beach every day. On one trip, we met a teenager named Ben Spicer, whose full-time job was picking black, slimy nori off the rocks to be dried and shipped to sushi joints in Toronto and New York. As my kids helped Spicer and his girlfriend, Chantal, stuff seaweed into burlap sacks, Spicer said he’d once moved to the mainland, but he didn’t last. “Grand Manan is like a leech – it sticks to you,” he said. “You can’t just forget about this place.”
By the end of the week, as we headed back on the ferry with some humpbacks along to bid us farewell, I knew exactly what he meant.
Despite being bundled up in three layers of semi-pervious clothing and a toque mid-June, I am island bound. Quirpon Island to be more specific, on the windswept North Atlantic just off the main island of Newfoundland. The destination: Quirpon Lighthouse Inn.
The province is full of beauty and surprises, and this short boat ride is no exception. The island, in the northwest of Newfoundland, has a temperate marine climate, which means thick fog can turn into bright sunshine in mere moments, and so it does. It also means that a swift current in the Gulf of St. Lawrence can screw up your Zodiac landing when the pack ice and its massive chards (ice pans, or when larger, floes) from Labrador suddenly jam up your regular docking area beside the inn. And so it does.
“I hope you all don’t mind going for a bit of a walk,” says our Zodiac captain and co-owner of the Quirpon Lighthouse Inn, Ed English, after docking at an alternate spot. “Shouldn’t take you more than a couple of hours.”
While our bags are spirited away by an ATV, over the next few hours we traverse six kilometres of rolling hills and deep springtime mud. This is an impromptu hike in the land of awe. There are rocky outcrops and panoramic views of blue ocean. We also see icebergs, the smaller ones known as “bergy bits,” which are the size of a semi-detached two-bedroom home.
This part of the province is the stuff wanderlust-inducing commercials are made of, home to tumbling fjords, fresh laundry flapping in the breeze and one of the first European settlements of the new world, at L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site. (Its Viking village is the area’s second UNESCO World Heritage Site, right after jaw-dropping Gros Morne National Park.)
On Quirpon, there’s warm sunshine and wildflowers, emerald green moss, flowing grasses and a golden wash of sunshine warming the crisp Atlantic air. My shoulders relax, my smile widens, my allergies deepen. At the end of our hike is the island’s lighthouse, its namesake inn and outbuildings – plus offerings of tea and chewy molasses cookies.
With Newfoundland and Labrador positioned along what’s known as Iceberg Alley, the formations are one of the top three reasons people visit the province (whales and birds round out the list). Near Quirpon, the majority of the icebergs spotted float down a 1,000-kilometre stretch from the glaciers of western Greenland, arriving in Newfoundland in May and June each year. And while I’ve seen icebergs before, I’ve never seen them like this.
When the tide and wind combine, it’s amazing how fast icebergs move. We had started seeing some during our hike across the island, mere smudges on the horizon. But today, one day on, I pull open the blinds in my sunny clapboard bedroom, and one of those smudges now looks as if it is right outside my window. Scale is a funny thing out here. “You can see an iceberg in the distance that’s 50 feet high and it’s close,” English explains, “or it could be 150 feet high, and you’re only seeing the top 50 feet.” He says sometimes guests at the inn will ask if they can go see icebergs they’ve spotted “nearby.” “The deal I have,” he says, “is if we can get to it in 45 minutes, that’s fine.”
Finally, we get out on the water to see some ’bergs up close. “Researchers can actually go back in time and, by looking at the stripes in icebergs, see when volcanoes erupted, and when humans started smelting iron,” English says of the 10,000-year-old moving monolith we watch from our Zodiac. “You can actually see when the economy in the U.K. started to wane, because the smelting went down.” These icebergs tell tales from across an ocean. They are luminous and sculptural, with every shade in the blue spectrum represented. We putt-putt around one, the group of six smiling in quiet awe. It’s not every day you come into contact with pure majesty. While it may have taken some effort to get here, it is even harder to leave.
Whiteshell Provincial Park, Manitoba
To truly get away from it all, eastern Manitoba offers solitude in nature’s splendour
In this particular part of eastern Manitoba, on the southern edge of Whiteshell Provincial Park, a 2,700 square kilometre plot of wilderness, getting away from it all starts with the 4x4 all-terrain vehicle.
After parking my rental car at Falcon Trails Resort’s main cabin and checking in, I ask for directions to drive to my cabin in the woods. “Cars can’t get there,” a man working for the resort tells me. He loads my bags and groceries in the 4x4 and we rumble along a rocky path, up and down hills through the forest, occasionally catching sight of remote High Lake, for nearly a kilometre until we arrive at my eco cabin nestled among the trees. I unload my bags and the sound of the 4x4 vanishes as it drives back. It is the last sound of civilization I’ll hear for nearly a week.
The resort is hidden on the southern edge of the park. Solar energy powers each of the Falcon Trails’ six eco cabins, while wood-burning stoves heat them. There are no TVs or radios in the cabins. There are, however, canoes and easy access to 20 kilometres of hiking trails, which double as cross-country ski trails in the winter.
I begin each morning chopping wood to load into my stove at night. After breakfast I hike, exploring the trails with a map I picked up at check-in. At night, I read by the fire.
The first couple of days, I itch for internet access. I want to scroll through Instagram and my Twitter feed as I always do when bored. But soon enough, being disconnected becomes a gift. Without the noise and distractions I’ve become used to, my head clears. I sit on my dock looking at the lake, thinking only of how beautiful the forest is.
One sunny day I walk through the woods and climb up to an outcropping of the Canadian Shield overlooking a massive lake. By now, I have settled into the rhythm of the place. I don’t think about what is happening on my phone or what I have to do next. I watch the wind on the lake. I listen to the birdsong. It has been days since I’ve seen another person. I don’t take a picture of the view because by now I have stopped carrying my phone with me, but I’ll never forget what it was like standing there, away from it all.
‘Are you driving it alone?” the cashier at the Inuvik Northmart asks me, her eyebrows reaching for the fluorescent lights above. The “it” she’s referring to is the 138-kilometre-long Inuvik Tuktoyaktuk Highway (ITH) in the Northwest Territories, Canada’s first all-season road to the Arctic Ocean. “It rained hard a couple of days ago, and the mud can be dicier than the old ice road,” she warns as she hands me my Coffee Crisp and two bananas. Then she tosses out a “Good luck, eh!”
I do feel lucky. Driving from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk, the hamlet past the receding treeline on the Beaufort Sea, I swish along one of the most expensive gravel roads on the continent. Each unpaved kilometre cost $2-million to build in a way that wouldn’t disturb the permafrost. And the scenery is unmatched, from the spools of water that make up the Mackenzie Delta; to Husky Lakes, the sacred fishing grounds of the Inuvialuit; to the world’s largest concentration of pingos, ground-covered ice cores that rise like conical volcanoes from the coastal plain. The adage “It’s about the journey, not the destination” comes to mind, maybe because the focus of my road trip is literally on the road – especially when my rental car goes sliding from shoulder to shoulder. (Good thing there’s hardly anyone else out here.) But when I get the hang of dodging waterlogged ruts, I’m no longer shy of the gas pedal, feeling more like an off-road racer than a weekend driver.
The ITH is more than a route through moody wilderness. It represents a lifeline that connects Tuktoyaktuk to the rest of the country year-round. Before the ribbon-cutting in November, 2017, summer access was by air or boat only; in winter, there was the ice road. Now, people can come and go as they please. For visitors, driving from Inuvik or adding this new stretch to their Dempster Highway treks for an oceanside finish, the expression “from coast to coast to coast” has taken on a new meaning.
With Inuvik’s delta long faded in the rear-view mirror, I scan the Barrenlands around me. Flying over the tundra, which I did almost 10 years ago, before there was a road, you would never have spotted a vixen and her three kits playing tag on the shoulder. You wouldn’t have noticed the scale of the pingos, which number some 1,300 on the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula and together make up the Pingo Canadian Landmark. A pingo can grow by about two centimetres a year; the tallest, Ibyuk, reaches a height of 49 metres. Thanks to the ITH, you come face-to-face with wildness; you become part of the brief Arctic summer, when fireweed lights up the roadside.
After two hours negotiating washboards and mud slicks, I pass Ibyuk and a sign that says “Welcome to Tuktoyaktuk – Land of the Pingos” before making my way to Kitti Hall. The community centre is the place to be on Saturday mornings, when cranberry pancakes with fixings such as scrambled eggs and sausages are served. Fuelled up, I head to the Point, the end of the road. Eileen Jacobson, a tour guide and lifelong Tuk resident, meets me by the giant highway sign that declares you’ve arrived at the Arctic Ocean. A few camper vans and tents dot the boulder-reinforced shoreline, which has become the hamlet’s de facto campground since the opening of the ITH.
As I hop into Jacobson’s van, she pulls out a photograph. “That was our curling rink,” she says, indicating a long building. “The land it was on eroded into the sea.” The arena was lost after years of coastal erosion exaggerated by climate change, and when we pass the cemetery, she tells me it’s threatened with the same fate. But what dominates this community of some 950 people is a sense of optimism buoyed by the new road and the resulting influx of vacation dollars from travellers, who are greeted by houses that look on the bright side. There’s purple with pink trim, yellow with red gables, green like the Barrenlands and blue like the Beaufort – thanks to recycled paint donated by a company in Niagara Falls, Ont. Even when Jacobson tells me a doctor comes only once a month, she smiles. “We’ve got nurses, and with the highway we can always drive to Inuvik.”
She takes me back to the Point and drops me off at the visitor centre. Chunks of muktuk, or whale blubber, hang on a rope in the window. “It’s not real,” says Shania Noksana, who’s working at the centre this day. “But it looks like the real thing,” she adds, explaining that it’s made of plastic. When she was growing up, she loved spending time on the land, hunting and fishing. With the boost in tourism thanks to the ITH, she and her father see an opportunity to build on traditions with a business offering dog-sled tours to the pingos. “The road will make things better for the people living here in Tuk,” Noksana says.
I drive back toward Inuvik, leaving the Land of the Pingos behind. The raised gravel highway makes for a good pedestal, an elevated lookout on a diorama of gold-streaked sky and bright green hills. I’m hoping to spot a grizzly bear or a wolf, but instead I see a distant shimmer – Husky Lakes, glacier-blue mirrors speckled with tundra swans. When the hands on my watch nudge past midnight, the sun comes out from behind the grey upholstery of clouds. Whether the sun brightens up the journey or the destination is not for me to answer. What I do know is, it’s lighting the way for the new day ahead.
Its nickname might be Steeltown, but this city is overflowing with waterfalls
I hear the waterfall before I see it. The sound, like a tap turned on strong, is coming from about 400 metres away. Two minutes ago, I was in a parking lot on the side of a busy roadway. Now, I feel as if I’ve entered Alice’s Wonderland. Everything along this zig-zag path is a shade of green or brown: leaves, riverbeds, mossy rocks, wooden bridges. There are a few birds calling out and more butterflies than bugs. It takes me 20 minutes to reach the falls because I can’t stop stopping. Although they do it no justice, I snap photos and record video of the empty route anyway, knowing no one will believe me when I say that all of this is in Hamilton.
The province’s steel-producing hub is the perfect destination for those in the Greater Toronto Area craving green space. In 2001, the city’s boundaries grew to include several neighbouring towns, including Ancaster and Dundas. Now, more than a half-million residents strong, the city is still about 70-per-cent rural. You can drive for kilometres and see only parklands, local growers, small shop owners, big red barns and more than 100 waterfalls. (The Niagara escarpment, a UNESCO world biosphere reserve that cuts through the city, is responsible for most of them.)
Most people racing past the city miss it and it’s too bad: What Niagara Falls has in grandeur, Hamilton’s falls have in intimacy.
At the 41-metre-high Tew Falls, I hike to Dundas Peak, a cliffside overlooking the city, and encounter only a few teens on mountain bikes or perched precariously for selfies. At Webster Falls, families and seniors wander between picnic benches and views of the 22-metre high cascade. At Devil’s Punchbowl – a deep multicoloured rock gorge – most onlookers, between hushed whispers about the scene before them, nibble fresh treats from the bakery across the street.
But it’s Tiffany Falls that steals my heart. There are only six of us here, and the family of five closest to the falls is oblivious to the fact that I’ve arrived. While the parents relax in the mist, two of the children collect pebbles and the third slaps the water on the rocks impressing himself with the sound. It’s likely the quietest I’ve ever seen five people.
Saguenay Fjord, Quebec
A summer playground reminiscent of Norway is just a few hours’ drive from Quebec’s biggest cities
The Saguenay Fjord snakes inland from the St. Lawrence River for 105 kilometres, a spectacular region of glacier-scored cliff walls, some as high as 350 metres, plunging into waters. Charming old world villages hug both shores. It’s like a small swath of Norway, but only two hours northeast of Quebec City. One of the world’s longest fjords, it’s also a little-known summer playground with great hiking, climbing, fishing, sailing, cruising and kayaking for everyone from beginners to extremists.
In the small city of Saguenay I cross over to the fjord’s north shore where I check into an igloo-shaped glamping dome in the woods with a fjord. “Even our accommodations are part of the adventure here,” Marcel Savoie tells me. He’s the creative character who converted a former youth camp into the class-act Parc Aventures Cap Jaseux, a remote one-stop private park for a roll call of outdoor adventures. The other funky digs on site include tree houses and spheres suspended in the forest canopy.
Most of the fjord’s two coastlines are protected within Saguenay Fjord National Park and among Cap Jaseux’s activities is a family-friendly via ferrata fjord-wall climbing route and three separate tree-top obstacle courses that include zip-lines and a tangle of aerial rope bridges to conquer. The courses range from the kid-sized “Bambino” to an exciting and challenging route for ordinary folks as well as North America’s only extreme forest course that would challenge Cirque du Soleil performers.
I set off one early morning to explore the south shore along the scenic Route du Fjord, which follows both sides of the fjord. Baie-Éternité is a bay on the south shore that is the park’s epicentre and jumping off point for many activities. I tackle the via ferrata of the Giants, a thrilling three-hour secured climbing route where I clip into safety steel cables to climb up and along the fjord’s 200-metre rock wall, passing over cable bridges, ladders and crossing an 85-metre suspension bridge, all with spectacular panoramas across the fjord. Far below, tiny kayaks paddle along and small shuttle boats hopscotch passengers, bicycles and luggage along the length of the fjord, a perfect service for multiday hiking and biking adventures.
The next morning I explore the fjord’s north shore, starting with breakfast – including the area’s fabled wild blueberries – in the postcard village of Sainte-Rose-du-Nord. Then I walk a three-kilometre forest trail to Halte du Beluga, an interpretive centre within the national park overlooking a popular beluga whale gathering spot in July and August when dozens can often be seen. The fjord’s waters, as well as the St. Lawrence River at the Saguenay’s mouth, are part of the Saguenay-St.Lawrence Marine Park, a National Marine Conservation Areas protecting large numbers of whales attracted to the area’s rich food supply. We waited and watched, but spotted no belugas and simply enjoyed the view.
The days full of adventure are matched with equally entertaining nights. On my first night in my clear-roofed dome I watch stars glitter across the dark night sky until I fall asleep. But on my last night, clouds move in. I listen to rain above me and witness a dramatic lightning show that had me feeling like I was sleeping in a Thunderdome.
Spectacularly scenic with a wide variety of active adventures, cool accommodations and the added bonus of Francophone culture and cuisine leave me feeling like I’ve just spent the weekend in an exotic far-flung destination.
Broken Group Islands, British Columbia
Paddling through this archipelago reveals the region’s rich history and ecosystems
Paddling through choppy water off the west coast of Vancouver Island, I don’t hear the powerboat approach until she was almost upon us.
“Hey, do you guys want some fish?” the skipper says. One of four fiftysomething women aboard the small runabout, she explains they’ve caught more seafood than they can eat.
Shortly into a four-day sea kayaking excursion with Wild Root Journeys, our group of mostly novice paddlers still has plenty of food stashed in our hatches, but it’s hard to turn down freshly caught salmon and prawns.
“Don’t let them be too generous,” owner Silke Hockemeyer shouts over the wind as lead guide Agnes Seaweed Wisden heads off to secure the bounty to her bow.
This is good advice when visiting the territorial home of the Tseshaht First Nation, where the gift-giving tradition of potlatching – meaning "to give away" in Chinook jargon – remains alive.
Sharing wealth and navigating the seas surrounding the Broken Group Islands is one of the longest unbroken traditions in Canada. This archipelago of nearly 100 scattered isles and rocky outcrops inside Barkley Sound looks like untouched hinterland, but archeologists say the region has been inhabited for more than 5,000 years and was once one of the continent’s most densely populated spots north of Mexico before colonization. The 106-square-kilometre area received protected status in 1970 and is now one of three separate regions of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve along with the neighbouring surfers’ paradise of Long Beach and well-trodden West Coast Trail.
The combination of rich cultural history and natural beauty is what first attracted Hockemeyer, a lithe woman in her mid-30s who has spent the past decade guiding commercial sea kayaking trips up and down the B.C. coast and last year launched her own ecotourism company here.
“This feels like home,” Hockemeyer says. “This is my calling, taking people out into the wilderness and helping them come out of their shells. There’s nowhere I’d rather be.”
It’s easy to understand why. We spend our days gliding through calm, crystal-clear lagoons teeming with starfish and hopping between islands while spotting seals, porpoises, deer, black bears and bald eagles. We scramble through the bush on Benson Island to find ancient red cedars as thick as silos and a sea cave that spits back incoming swells with an explosive roar that suggests a dragon is hiding inside. We try without success to spot a mysterious, two-metre-tall face carved into the cliffs of Reeks Island that was discovered only a few years ago and we feast on meals seasoned with wild bull kelp and sea asparagus.
The nightlife is also surprisingly lively for such a remote location. Many tidal pools are home to bioluminescent phytoplankton that glow turquoise in the moonlight when disturbed by, say, a tossed stone or the sweep of a paddle. I can't resist the temptation to dive in on our final night, which creates an aura that's like a personal aurora borealis.
Campfires are also usually permitted below the tideline even during peak wildfire season, and so swimmers who brave the chilly water at night can warm up beside one afterward. Just as they've likely done for thousands of years.
It takes some effort to get there, but the scenes from this viewpoint atop a mountain are almost too good to be true
‘You can do this. You’ve got this.” There was no lack of self-motivation in my inner dialogue as I stared up at the top of Whistlers Mountain in Jasper. Snowshoes were strapped to my feet, and beads of sweat formed on the back of my neck. I had been warned about a false peak, and that there was still more to climb after getting to that point. But first, I had to get to that point.
To arrive at the start of the snowshoe hike to Whistlers Peak requires a seven-minute ride on the famed Jasper Skytram, taking passengers to the tram’s upper station at 2,263 metres elevation. Most stop here, take in the views of Jasper National Park, the Rockies and the small town below, and maybe have a bite to eat before heading back to ground level. But for a few weeks each spring, while it’s warm enough to operate the tram but there’s still snow on the top of the mountain, intrepid visitors can rent a pair of snowshoes from the shop in the station and conquer the mountain – and any self doubt.
I was thankful to have had a big, smoked-meat-filled lunch at the newly opened Maligne Canyon Wilderness Kitchen, because while not technically challenging, and only 1.2 kilometres long, the climb is still demanding. There’s a steep incline before getting to the false peak, and then there’s still more to go. But along the way, remarkable views for days.
The wind came and went, both comforting and chilly, as I propelled myself up, up, up. Although my motivational chant was said only in my head, I could have shouted it. On this afternoon in early April, I was alone climbing the mountain. I had the Rockies to myself. At one point, I sat on a rock and took it all in – these mountains, an iconic symbol for this country, a stunning representation of the power of nature.
And then, my rest was over. I had more to climb, and it was worth every step.
Great Sandhills, Saskatchewan
An expanse of sand dunes reminiscent of the Sahara sits in the middle of Canada’s breadbasket
The Saskatchewan Pool grain elevator in Eatonia, Sask., is more well-maintained than most; I’ve pulled over again – 43 kilometres north of Leader, 42 km south of Kindersley, and 194 km northwest of Swift Current – to take a picture. During my four-hour drive from Calgary, I’ve stopped at every weathered wood grain elevator I’ve come across, each emblazoned with the name of the town in which it stood. Once called the skyscrapers of the Prairies, they’re now mostly abandoned. I don’t spot a single person in the cluster of houses and drive-in across the street, even on a Saturday afternoon in August. I find Prairie road trips one of the best ways to unwind, the open, uncluttered highway moving almost straight through brilliant gold fields of wheat, flowering canola and aging barns collapsing in on themselves.
I’m on my way to the tiny town of Sceptre, “village of murals” (population of 99, as of the 2009 census), and its Great Sandhills Museum and Interpretive Centre. I’m hoping for a preview of the more than 1,900 square km of sand dunes in southwestern Saskatchewan, in townships 13 to 16, ranges 19-25 west of the 3rd meridian, before visiting them. With a historical village, wildflower gardens and 11 unique room displays depicting Prairie life, the seasonal museum is worth the visit – the knowledgeable local museum staff are eager to show me around, expanding on the stories each room has to tell.
A photocopied map to the dunes is free with the $5 admission. I climb back into the car and follow instructions: Turn right at the “wildlife viewing area" sign onto the gravel road, follow the curve to the right, turn left at the white sign with black writing. The sand dunes are just past the cattle gate.
Trundling over the gate, the terroir suddenly changes: rolling farm fields give way to clumps of aspen and birch, and the gravel under the tires turns sandy, churning up clouds of fine dust.
I turn into a tiny parking lot, one that could accommodate maybe a dozen cars, if everyone parked strategically. There is only one other family there, reading the information boards that divide parking and pathway.
The narrow path, worn into the natural fescue, lined with sagebrush and alive with crickets and dragonflies, leads to a large sand dune. It looks as if I’ve stumbled onto an abandoned set of a surf movie. Walking up the slope, the sand is talcum soft, the kind you might feel between your toes at the most luxurious beaches. I take off my shoes and explore, peering over the edge at the native grasses, juniper and cacti. The family I saw in the parking lot has brought crazy carpets and is tobogganing down the steepest slope, then clambering back up in the 30-degree heat.
These sandy landforms are believed to have been deposited by retreating glaciers during the Wisconsin glaciation tens of thousands of years ago. (The province is also home to the similarly sized Athabasca Sand Dunes, situated in the northwest corner, along the edge of Lake Athabasca. These ones are far more accessible.)
The dune I’m on is far from the largest; I can see dramatic waves of sand to the south and east, and scan through binoculars to see more gold rising in the distance. I’m on the northernmost edge, beside Boot Hill, so named for the late John Both, a rancher who cared for the dunes for 57 years. Both nailed a pair of old boots to an archway built at the top of the rise, inspiring dozens of visitors to follow suit.
Far from any major towns or highways, the landscape is silent except for the sounds of crickets and low wind, which causes the dunes to constantly shift and migrate. From a mid-dune vantage point, it’s easy to believe you’re in the middle of the Sahara, with swells of rippling sand so vast – some stand 15 to 20 metres high – that it’s hard to gauge the distance between each dune and even the crests within them. A network of rolling trails makes for an uncommonly tranquil hike.
Walking to the next dune, past wild roses and dusty silver sage, there is evidence of animal life, tracks that were perhaps left by mule deer or pronghorn antelope, which I had pulled over to observe grazing in farm fields on the way in.
The Great Sandhills Ecological Reserve is popular among birdwatchers, home to grouse and partridge, burrowing owls and loggerhead shrike. Much of the area is used by local ranchers to pasture their cattle. There are two substantial lakes in the region, Big Stick and Crane lakes, but the area is so vast, I don’t come across them.
Having worked up an appetite, I head back to my car and stop at the Big 10-4 Drive-in in nearby Leader for a burger to fuel the drive home. The teenager who extrudes my towering soft-serve ice cream is only the second person I’ve spoken to today. I take the smaller highways back, savouring the silence and searching for more Prairie skyscrapers to capture as the sun sets before they too succumb to time and elements, absorbed into the surrounding fields and grasslands.
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