April 22, 2013
Americans love Canada. Year after year, Americans polled by Gallup indicate that they have a strong affinity toward Britain, Germany, Japan, France and India. But Canada consistently scores higher than any other place. In 2013, 90 percent of Americans polled said they have a “favorable” impression of our neighbor to the north. Only 6 percent gave an “unfavorable” rating. Americans’ love of Canada may be easy to explain: Canada is friendly, safe, familiar and mostly English-speaking. Its cities are sophisticated and modern—especially Vancouver, at the edge of both mountain and sea, and Montreal, known largely for its 17th-century architecture. Though many travelers are true adventurers with an appetite for the strange and foreign, it may be Canada’s very lack of the exotic that so appeals to the majority of Americans.
But perhaps Canada’s greatest virtue is its wilderness—some of the finest, most unspoiled land anywhere. The wild Canadian Rockies resemble their counterpart peaks to the south, but they are less trammeled, less cut by highways and more extensive, running as far north as the lonesome Yukon. In the rivers of western British Columbia, salmon still teem, as lower-48 Americans can only imagine from black-and-white photos from a century ago. Far to the east, the cod-fishing communities of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia are quaint and cozy, with an irresistible Scandinavian charm. Canada’s wildlife, too, trumps America’s. Between grizzly bears, black bears, cougars and wolves, large predators roam virtually every acre of the nation, whereas the lower 48 states have been hacked into a fragile patchwork of preserved places. There are elk, caribou, bison and moose throughout Canada. Indeed, the nation’s wild creatures and places embody the Wild West that America conquered—and that’s before we consider the polar bears, all 15,000 or more of them living along Canada’s Arctic coast and Hudson Bay. Indeed, Canada’s far north is like no other place. Tundra studded by thousands of lakes and drained by long and wild rivers makes for a canoer’s and fisherman’s paradise.
Here are a few adventure travel ideas to bring you into the best of Canada’s wild country:
Fly Fishing for the Labrador Brook Trout. Many American anglers know the brook trout as a dainty sliver of fish, speckled beautifully with blue-and-red spots and worm-like vermiculations. It’s a fish as pretty as it is little, happy to bite a fly, and often grossly overpopulated in the waters to which it has been introduced throughout America. But in eastern Canada, the brook trout—actually a species of char—is comfortably at home—and big. The species originated in the streams and lakes here, and nowhere else do brookies grow so huge. Brook trout as large as 15 pounds or more have been caught throughout eastern Canada, but Labrador is especially famous for its consistently bulky specimens. The Churchill River system—both above and below the 245-foot Churchill Falls—boasts large brook trout, and lots of them. So does the smaller Eagle River system, among other drainages. Local lodges and guide services offer packaged trips based around river fly fishing, in case you need a soft pillow and someone to cook you dinner each night. More rewarding, if more challenging, can be to go yourself. Other species to expect while pursuing big brooks include northern pike, lake trout, Arctic char and, in some river systems, wild Atlantic salmon. As you hike, watch for bears, moose, eagles and other iconic creatures of the American wilderness. Canadian, that is.
Cycle Touring Newfoundland. Rocky shorelines, small winding roads, villages hundreds of years old, mountains, cliffs, clear waters and fjords: Such features make up the eastern island of Newfoundland, one of Canada’s most beautiful islands. With its international airport, the capital city of St. John’s makes an ideal starting point for a cycling tour of the Avalon Peninsula. Though just a small promontory on Newfoundland’s south side, the Avalon Peninsula features a great deal of shoreline and enough scenery and culture to keep one occupied for weeks. Place names like Chance Cove, Random Island, Come by Chance, Witless Bay and Portugal Cove embody the rugged geography’s happenstance, blown-by-the-wind spirit. However early North American explorers may have felt about landing upon these blustery shores, for travelers of today, the area is a renowned gem. On the main body of the island of Newfoundland, cyclists also find magnificent exploration opportunities along the north-central coast—a land of deep inlets and rocky islands for hundreds of miles. Another touring option takes travelers from Deer Lake, near the western coast, northward through Gros Morne National Park, the Long Range Mountains, and all the way to the north end of the island, at L’Anse aux Meadows, the site of an excavated Viking dwelling. Camping in the wild is easy in Newfoundland’s open, windswept country—and even easier in the wooded interior. But note that distances between grocery stores may be great, so pack food accordingly. Also note that the folks here are reputably friendly, which—in Newfoundland—can translate into moose dinners in the homes of strangers. Pack wine or beer as a gift in return. Not a cyclist? Then get wet. The coast of the island offers a lifetime’s worth of kayak exploration. Want to get really wet? Then don a wetsuit and go snorkeling. The waters are clear and teeming with sea life and shipwrecks.
Hiking in the Canadian Rockies. Though the mountains are rocky, the trout streams clear and the woods populated by elk, wolves and bears—you aren’t in Montana anymore. The Canadian Rockies are much like the same mountain range to the south—but they’re arguably better. Fewer roads mean less noise, less people and more wildlife. A great deal of the Canadian Rockies is preserved within numerous wilderness areas, as well as the famed Jasper and Banff national parks. Cycling is one way to access the vast reaches of wild country here—but no means of motion is so liberating in this rough country as walking. So tie your boot laces at Lake Louise, often considered the queen attraction of the region, or in the town of Banff itself, then fill a pack with all the gear and food of a self-sufficient backpacker and hike upward and outward into some of the most wonderful alpine country of Alberta, and the whole of North America.
Canoeing the South Nahanni River. This tributary of the great Arctic-bound Mackenzie River system is considered the iconic wilderness canoeing experience of Canada and one of the most epic places to paddle on our planet. The South Nahanni runs 336 miles from the Mackenzie Mountains, through the Selwyn Mountains and into the Liard River, which in turn empties into the mighty Mackenzie. The South Nahanni flows for much of its length through the Nahanni National Park Reserve, a Unesco World Heritage site, and has carved some spectacular canyons through the ages, making for cathedral-like scenery as spirit-stirring as Yosemite. The region is practically roadless, and while hikers may find their way through the mountains and tundra of the South Nahanni drainage, the most comfortable and efficient means of exploring the area is probably by canoe. Most paddlers here either begin or end their trips at the enormous Virginia Falls, a spectacular cascade that includes a free-fall of 295 feet and a total vertical plunge of 315 feet—twice the height of Niagara Falls. Others portage around the falls on full-river excursions that can last three weeks. Serious yet navigable whitewater sections can be expected, though most of these rapids occur in the first 60 miles of the river before the South Nahanni lays out en route to the Arctic Ocean. Not a single dam blocks the way, and wilderness enthusiasts have the rare option of continuing down many hundreds of miles of virgin river, all the way to the sea.
Seeing Churchill’s Polar Bears. Americans killed off most of their own big bears—namely the grizzly—as they pushed through the frontier and settled the West. In Churchill, however, locals have learned to live in a remarkably intimate relationship with the greatest bear of all. Polar bears gather along the coast of Hudson Bay in great numbers each autumn as the days shorten and temperatures drop. As long as the sea remains unfrozen, the bears stay around, and sometimes within, the town of 800 people. The animals wrestle, fight, climb over their mothers, roll on their backs and soak in the low-hanging sun, and tourists love it. Thousands come every year to see Churchill’s bears. If you do, don’t go hiking. The bears are wild animals and may be the most dangerous of all bear species. Instead, book in advance and join a tour in one of the bear-proof vehicles called “tundra buggies” that venture from Churchill onto the barren Canadian moors, rolling on monster tires as paying clients lean from the windows with cameras. The bears often approach the vehicles and even stand up against the sides to greet the awed passengers. Long lenses may never leave the camera bag, and wildlife photography rarely gets easier than in the town rightly dubbed the “Polar Bear Capital of the World.”
Taste Wine and Pick Peaches in the Okanagan Valley. Between so much adventuring through field, mountain and stream, wine tasting may be a welcomed diversion—and, yes, they make good wine in Canada. The Okanagan Valley of British Columbia is the chief producing region. A sliver of fertile farm country about 130 miles north to south, the Okanagan Valley lies just west of the Rockies and about a four hours’ drive east of Vancouver. Crisp white wines—like Pinot Blanc, Gewurztraminer and Riesling—are the Okanagan Valley‘s claim to fame, while many wineries produce reds like Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir. The valley is also famous for its roadside fruit stands,where heaps of apples, pears, apricots, peaches and cherries may prove irresistible to those pedaling bicycles. Many farms offer “U-Pick” deals—the best way to get the freshest fruit. But what sets this wine-and-fruit valley apart is how the vineyards are planted smack in the midst of some of the continent’s most tremendous and wild mountains—a juxtaposition of elegant epicurean delights and classic North American wilderness that, perhaps, only Canada could offer.
February 12, 2013
A crisp, clear stream flows out of Cajas National Park on a 20-mile circuitous route down to the town of Cuenca—but few fish live in these wild waters. Yet the Quinuas River Valley it forms is a hot destination for sport fishermen. They come by the hundreds each weekend, mostly from Cuenca, seeking the most popular game fish in the world: the rainbow trout.
“What kind of trout live in here?” I ask a young man who serves me coffee at Cabana del Pescador, the campground where I have stayed the night. I am only curious how locals refer to the species Oncorhynchus mykiss, which is native to North American and Siberian streams that enter the Pacific but has been introduced to virtually all suitable habitat on earth. In Ecuador, the species first arrived in the 1960s.
“Normal trout,” he says.
I aim to catch a few fish today and have them for dinner, but I move on, up the road, looking for a happier place to fish. The pond here is muddy, surrounded by concrete and a chain-link fence. Trouble is, I won’t find much better. This valley, though populated by a few wild trout in the streams and lakes of Cajas National Park, is a busy center of aquaculture. Trout farming is generally considered a clean and sustainable industry, though it isn’t always pretty. For a stretch of seven or eight miles downstream of the park, nearly every roadside farm has a handful of concrete-banked pools on the premises, fed by stream water and swarming with trout about 12 inches long.
Up the road, after passing a half dozen possible fishing sites, I pull in to one called Reina del Cisne, at kilometer 21. It is a restaurant and sport fishing “club,” as the sign tells visitors. I have coffee—Nescafé, as always—inside. When I am finished, I ask if there is an opportunity to fish here, and the teenage waiter beckons me to follow. “It’s 50 cents to rent a pole,” he says. “Then, we weigh the trout, and you pay $2.25 per pound.” The biggest fish in the ponds out back are more than ten pounds, he tells me.
He pulls one rod from a heap of several dozen—a broomstick-like pole with a stout line tied to the end and a silver barbed hook at the tip. He quickly mixes up a bucket of bread dough to use as bait, drops a hunk into a shopping-style woven basket and hands me my tackle.
“What kind of trout are these?” I ask, still fishing for local lingo.
“Salmon trout. They have red meat,” he says. He adds, “Good luck,” and returns to the restaurant.
For an angler who has fished in the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada and Alaska and New Zealand, this is a sad comparison, and I feel a strange desire to either cry or laugh hysterically. This would make a perfect opportunity for kids, but I know what real fishing, in real waters, is. Here, I have three ponds to choose from—two of them rectangular, concrete basins, the other a muddy, oval-shaped pool 30 feet across with grassy banks. I flick a piece of dough into this most natural-appearing of the options. Several trout dart from the murk as the white ball vanishes in an instant. I bait my hook and fling it into the middle of the pond, slightly embarrassed that I am participating in what locals advertise as pesca deportiva—or “sport fishing.” A similar flurry of fish attack and strip the hook. I re-bait and try again and this time hook instantly into a feisty rainbow. I drag it in and onto the bank, whack it cold with a stick and drop it in my basket. One down, and in another five minutes I have a second fish. I could take more but, frankly, this isn’t fun or engaging. A year ago exactly I was cycling around New Zealand, casting flies at wild trout six times this size and immeasurably more thrilling to catch—wary, elusive, picky and beautiful. The challenge of enticing one to strike made success an accomplishment. Best of all was the experience of being there, fish or none, standing in crystal clear waters surrounded by green meadows and the tall peaks of the Southern Alps. Indeed, fishing is largely about interacting with the environment, and if one catches no trout on an expedition into the mountains, something else is still gained.
But no matter how big a fish one may pull from a concrete-lined pond, using dough balls for bait, the experience feels as hollow as shopping in a supermarket. While I’m here, I hope I might tangle with an eight-pounder, but no such beast shows itself. I wonder if perhaps they tell all guests that giant trout live in these ponds to encourage business. But back inside the restaurant, my hosts show me the de-boned meat of a 14-pounder caught the day before. The meat is thick and heavy and a delicious-looking salmon red. I ask what the trout eat. “Natural food,” owner Maria Herrera tells me.
Down the road, at kilometer 18, I visit a government-run fish hatchery. I roll down the dirt drive, across the stream on a wooden bridge and up a short rise to the facility. I introduce myself to two men in yellow slickers, ankle deep in a muddy concrete basin full of thrashing foot-long trout. The station director, Lenin Moreno, tells me that more than 8,000 adult fish live here. He and his colleague, Ricardo Mercado, are currently trying to get an exact head count in a tank swarming with, they guess, about 300 fish. They take a break and show me to the laboratoria—the hatchery. In the trays and tanks of this covered, concrete-walled facility, 1.3 million juveniles are produced each year and sold to aquaculture operations in four provinces, Moreno tells me.
Outside, they show me a rectangular basin teeming with huge rainbows, green-backed, red-sided beauties that remind me of the two-foot-long giants of New Zealand. Visitors may come here to buy these trout, Moreno tells me. The fish go for $1.50 per pound.
I ask if the meat is red like salmon. “No—it’s white,” Moreno tells me. “But at the fish farms they feed the trout pigment.”
This doesn’t surprise me. The rainbow trout I grew up on were generally white-fleshed fish. Only occasionally on family camping trips as we cleaned our catch would we discover with excitement that the trout had natural pink meat, which tends to be richer and fattier than paler flesh. But in Ecuador’s many fish markets, I have not yet seen a trout fillet that wasn’t colored like salmon, and I’ve suspected all along that this attractive color (which I’ll admit has drawn my wallet from my pocket more than once) was artificially induced. I recall seeing the fillet of a trout caught in New Zealand just outside the outflow of a Chinook salmon farm that was clearly affected by such pigment—probably either synthetic astaxanthin or canthaxanthin, both used in most commercial salmon farming operations (and the latter of which may cause retinal damage). The trout had presumably been eating pellet feed that escaped from the salmon pens, and the meat was partially colored, patchy red and white like a tie-dyed shirt. Yuck.
I poached my farm-caught trout in cheap Chilean Sauvignon Blanc at my hostel in Cuenca, just off the main street of Calle Larga. The meal was fine and exactly what I had been aiming for when I plunked that ball of dough into the pond at Reina del Cisne. But the fish didn’t quite taste up to par. Because although pink-fleshed trout are a sure catch in the mountain fishing ponds of Ecuador, something else, less easy to describe, native to places like Montana and British Columbia, may evade you with every fish landed.