A rink-size slab of limestone gently slopes into the waves of Sluice Box Rapids, atop Virginia Falls in the Northwest Territories. If you scramble down nearby gravel cliffs, following a faint trail through scrappy stands of black spruce and soapberry, you can tiptoe out to its slippery edge and trail your fingers in the surging froth. At your feet, the entire Nahanni River plunges into the abyss of Fourth Canyon. Quickly drenched by monsoon-like mists, it is not the chill that leaves one trembling. It is the proximity to nature, raw and elemental.
Thousands of kilometres away, off British Columbia's west coast, on the craggy southern tip of the Haida Gwaii archipelago, cedar mortuary poles stand in silence. Slowly but steadily decaying, they are returning to the soil of their birth, where the San Christoval Mountains sink beneath the Pacific. Here, in the stillness of SGaang Gwaay village ruins, one only has to listen carefully to hear the sounds of children playing by the water's edge, or the triumphant return of the whaler's canoe.
And this weekend, great waves of migrant birds will descend onto the sandy shores of Point Pelee in southern Ontario; flocks of grebes and gulls, canvasbacks and pintail. Many will continue north toward the magnificent but little-known arctic lands of Auyuittuq, Tuktut Nogait and Sirmilik, which are creaking to life with the approach of equinox. Honeymooners and March-breakers will wander driftwood-littered Long Beach on the exposed outer shores of Vancouver Island, while across the country Nordic skiers will float through Gros Morne's wind-stunted tuckamore forests in Newfoundland.
This is the stuff of our national parks.
"Canada! We have more square feet of awesomeness per person than any other nation on Earth," the beer commercial shouted over and over during last year's Vancouver Olympics, to a steady backdrop of national park scenes. And we all raised our glasses, for Canadians love their national parks. A 2010 Environics survey placed national parks alongside health care, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and our flag as the top four symbols of Canadian identity. Parks came in ahead of hockey, the RCMP and even the anthem. But, as much as we love our wilderness, it's possible we don't grasp – from a global perspective – just how great it is. "Parks Canada oversees one of the most extensive, best managed, and highly respected park systems in the world," explains Harvey Locke, former president of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and co-founder of the Yellowstone to Yukon conservation project. "It should be a fantastic source of pride for all Canadians."
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
In 1885, when John A. Macdonald set aside 26 square kilometres near Banff Hot Springs to protect the area from "sale, settlement or squatting," no one had a clear idea of what a national park was, or how one should be managed.
To the south, the U.S. Army had been called in to run Yellowstone. In Australia's newly created Royal National Park, native trees were being logged at a dizzying rate, mangrove swamps bulldozed over, amusement villages built, and invasive animal species introduced to enhance sport hunting.
Twenty-six years later, as the number of visitors to Banff (and four other nearby "scenic reserves") began to soar, the government established the Dominion Parks Branch to manage and protect these infant parklands. The man in charge – J.B. Harkin – was a visionary. His deeply held faith that wilderness could rejuvenate the human spirit changed the face of parks worldwide.
"Use without abuse" was the ideal he sought, a delicate balance between public access and protected environment. In the years ahead, he established preservation standards and helped draft the National Parks Act.
Words from that 1930 act still steer Parks Canada today: "The national parks of Canada are hereby dedicated to the people of Canada for their benefit, education and enjoyment, subject to this Act and the regulations, and the national parks shall be maintained and made use of so as to leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."
Foreign emissaries began arriving on Canadian shores to study Harkin's methods. By the time he retired in 1936, Harkin had built a system of 13 protected areas that touched nearly every province. Recognized internationally as the Father of National Parks, he remains little-known in his homeland. A 16-page booklet, containing excerpts from Harkin's notes, was posthumously published in 1957. The Origin and Meaning of the National Parks of Canada, a seminal and lyrical gem, closes with this: "Man is a restless animal. He is constantly changing the face of nature. Even the face of Canada has seen many changes in the last 50 years. What will it look like a hundred years from now?"
Today, Parks Canada protects 167 national historic sites, 42 national parks and four national marine conservation areas. It's one of the most extensive networks of protected sites in the world.
Canada is also taking its first steps toward marine ecosystem preservation with the creation of the first four National Marine Conservation Areas (notably Lake Superior and Gwaii Haanas). But for the country with the longest coastline in the world, we still have a long way to go: Less than one per cent of Canada's ocean area is protected.
There is a new understanding of protected areas as well. Parks were originally envisaged as islands of protection, a breakwater against the sweeping wave of development. But such "islands" have limited gene pools. Animals leak out, and invasive species seep in. Over the past 20 years, the importance of connecting these isolated preserves with unbroken wildlife corridors has grown clear.
In the decades ahead, Parks Canada needs to work in conjunction with provincial parks, conservation areas and land trusts if Canada hopes to achieve landscape-scale conservation goals.
Most importantly, the battle to keep parks inviolate is ongoing. "Claims for the violations of their sanctity are constantly being put forward," Harkin warned almost 100 years ago. "Passive goodwill does nothing. We need fierce loyalties to back action."
So with our inheritance comes a responsibility: To speak up, to protect and strengthen our shared legacy. Eight out of 10 Canadians live in urban centres, and a growing number have never visited a national park. The responsibility is more urgent than ever.
It can be easy, in our rush to experience the exotic, to miss the beauty that lies right before our nose. Travel anywhere on this planet, from the Himalayas to Antarctica, and you'll see postcards of Banff stuck to bulletin boards. Our national parks are the envy of the world. May they stay that way for another hundred years, and beyond.
Editor's note: The online version of this story has been corrected. The Nahanni River plunges into Fourth Canyon, not First Canyon.