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.
September 20, 2012
The conversation of climate change and its possible effects on our world and our future often hinges on millimeters of sea level rise and half degrees of temperature increase—little enough, perhaps, to make it all sound irrelevant if you’re already a skeptic, or by no means an emergency, anyway. Yet, little by little, ice is melting, storms are getting worse, deserts are expanding and islands are going under. In 2005, a hundred residents of Tegua, an island in the Torres group, turned off the lights, closed their doors and sailed away for good. It was reported as the first known instance when a modern community was abandoned to rising sea levels—though people have questioned what role global warming really had in the abandonment. Now, more islands, coastal cities, low-lying farmlands and wild wetlands are looking at a future growing grimmer by the year. Here are a few ideas of things to do and places to see before climate change swamps the party.
Walk on the beaches of Tuvalu. While standing on the sand and staring across the world of water that surrounds this Polynesian island group with roughly 10,000 people, climate change suddenly seems a force far beyond reckoning with—for predictions that the seas will rise by a full meter or more by 2100 plainly spell doom for a place like this, whose highest point stands no more than 15 feet above sea level. The island is already famous for its very inadequacy as a sustainable nation. There is not enough freshwater to drink, and there is virtually no economy. Now, sea level rise seems to be gnawing at Tuvalu’s wispy, sandy figure—and at its future. Although climate change doubters have accused islanders in Tuvalu of seeking economic gain by exploiting their predicament—and maybe even exaggerating it (islanders have threatened to sue nations of the developed world for reckless carbon emissions)—some scientists say that Tuvalu, and other islands like it, can count their days. Take a walk on this beach while you can. Other islands to visit while they’re above water might include Vanikoro, Kiribati and the Florida Keys.
Snorkel on a coral reef. Throughout the world’s tropical oceans, coral reefs are dying. Bleaching and diseases are destroying these rich sites of micro- and mega-organisms. Ocean acidification—caused by CO2 absorption into the sea and characterized by dropping pH levels—is also having severely deleterious effects on coral and could render some marine regions downright corrosive to certain materials by 2050. As of 2011, according to the environmental news source Grist, 75 percent of the earth’s coral reef environments were deemed to be threatened, while 20 percent were reported already dead—their busy, subsurface communities, occupying just 1 percent of the seafloor but home to 25 percent of marine species, gone silent. The timely correlation to rising global temperatures, plus the rapidity of the phenomenon, leaves little doubt that humans are at fault. Put on your masks and fins and jump in—soon.
Taste the fine wines of the Napa Valley before they turn to plonk. While midocean islanders might have to take to lifeboats as climate change unfurls, winemakers may also have consequences pending. In the Napa Valley, some bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon sell for more than $1,000—but a report in 2006 by Southern Oregon University climatologist Gregory Jones predicted that by the year 2050, this most esteemed of American winemaking areas could be too hot to grow premium wine grapes. Jones has said that just a 2 degree Celsius increase by 2050 could place the Napa Valley at the “upper limit of its capability.” But Jones recently told this reporter during a phone interview that the distinction between a fine wine and a mediocre wine is a nuance only detectable by, perhaps, 25 percent of wine drinkers.
See a polar bear. The intrigue and mystique of the polar bear, to say nothing of its camouflaging properties, are so embedded in a world of floating ice that we may wonder just how this greatest of carnivores could live anywhere else. In fact, it may not be able to. While the polar bear is no stranger to munching berries and shoreline grasses, such bruins always take to the ice again at first freeze to resume the blubber hunt. But the ocean’s northerly ice cap, year by year and acre by acre, is disappearing. This summer, for instance, the Arctic sea ice shrank to less than half of its what it was 40 years ago. For the polar bear, extinction is the worst possible, and perhaps likely, outcome—while speciation is another. This could leave the earth without the polar bear but create a new one—a hybrid between Ursus maritimus and its close cousin, U. arctos, the brown bear. Already, the two have been observed mating and producing fertile offspring in the wild. This may be great news. Nonetheless, you may want to go see a wild polar bear while you can—before the great white bear turns brown.
Hike through the woods in the Everglades. The Everglades is among the world’s wild areas most threatened by climate change. A three-foot increase in sea level will flood much of this forested wetland, stealing precious habitat from the indigenous cougar subspecies, the Florida panther, and the local black bear. What’s more, millions of Floridians are looking at serious consequences of climate change. The entire coast is considered extremely vulnerable to the expected sea level rise, which may be accompanied by inundating storm surges during hurricanes. Florida’s highest point is only 345 feet above sea level, and about 10 percent of its coastal zone could be swamped by seawater by 2100.
Kayak the streets of Venice. The future of Venice is nothing but a watery one—though it’s unclear whether the city will prosper or just go under. In 2009, residents held a mass mock funeral for their town when the declining population hit a benchmark low of 60,000. And while an expensive sea wall could save this city, already a gray urban swamp teeming with gondolas and aquatic taxis, some people—call them curmudgeons or realists—are talking about abandoning it. Exacerbating matters is the fact that Venice is sinking and has been for centuries. Four hundred years ago, occasional high tides washed into the streets. By 1900, high waters were washing over St. Mark’s Square at least a half dozen times annually. In 1996, the city flooded 99 times. Today, monuments and buildings are considered threatened by saltwater intrusion, many first floors have been vacated and thriving tourism on the order of 20 million visitors per year seems to be replacing the resident community itself. But it all spells good times for kayak rental companies—and this is at least one vacation you have plenty of time to take. Other cities that could be swallowed by the sea include New York City, Houston, Bangkok and New Orleans.
December 30, 2011
Just a few miles south, north and east of San Francisco, where I live, it begins. A vast unbroken range of wild country sprawls north into Canada, east across the desert and the Rockies and south all the way to Patagonia: mountain lion country. Also called the puma, cougar and dozens of backwoods names, the mountain lion, Puma concolor, is one of the most abundant yet elusive large predators in the world. Tens upon tens of thousands of them live in their enormous range, and California alone is home to about 5,000, though most of us would hardly know it if we weren’t told. I’ve hiked and biked throughout the state, covering vast distances of road and trail in mountain lion country. Along the way, I’ve seen a few bobcats, some black bears and many coyotes. I’ll bet that mountain lions have seen me. But in all that time, across all that distance, with so many of the cats tiptoeing through the woods and scrub around me, I have never seen even one mountain lion.
All of which is why it’s so amazing that people can reliably go to India and see a tiger. Just how many individuals of Panthera tigris still live in the wild isn’t entirely clear, but there aren’t many. Estimates place the count as low as 3,200 among all six remaining subspecies. Yet in Bandhavgarh National Park, many or most visitors touring the woods on the back of an elephant will see a Bengal tiger. Ranthambhore and Kanha National Parks are considered the next best places to see the animals, with Jim Corbett, Kaziranga and Panna National Parks all recognized as likely bets, too. (In the forests of Sasan Gir National Park, visitors may even see lions—the last of the nearly extinct Asiatic lions which once ranged from India to Italy but succumbed to human activity where leopards and tigers did not.)
How imperiled is the tiger? Scientists’ premonitions are dire when it comes to the tiger’s odds of going extinct at the hands—well, chainsaws and bullets—of people. In the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, for instance, home to 75 million people, there were 300 tigers in 2006, according to an annual census. In 2011, biologists estimated there were just 257. Meanwhile, organized multi-national groups have recently announced a very ambitious goal of spurring a two-fold increase in tiger numbers throughout Asia. It’s a promising turnaround from the days not so long ago when the Russian government actively and, sadly, successfully advocated for extermination of the now-extinct Caspian tiger. But I wouldn’t take any chances. See this beautiful cat while you can.
Not in the market for a plane ticket to India? Don’t want to deal with the crowds? Already seen your tiger? Then other thrills in big predator viewing are to be had, with almost 100-percent success rates in some places. Here are some good bets:
1) Brown bears of McNeil River Falls, Alaska. From June to September, several dozen of the world’s most powerful bear, Ursus arctos, may gather at once at this famed sprawl of waterfalls to feed on salmon. Visitors have the incredible opportunity to stand as close as several yards from the bears as the animals hunt, lounge, play and fight, seemingly oblivious to their admirers. This rare dynamic between bear and person is due to the tightly regulated arrangement that allows small numbers of people to come, with a guide, and do little else but stand in a designated perimeter on the river bank and watch bears. Want to go? Apply in advance. Note: the bears, which local biologists and guides know by name and appearance, have declined in number, possibly due to bear hunting being allowed near the viewing site.
2) Polar bears of Churchill, Manitoba. The bears are just as big as the browns of southern Alaska, but they’re white, almost 100-percent carnivorous and not opposed to stalking humans. In other words, don’t leave the the tank-like safari vehicles that roll through the frozen scrub here as autumn visitors plaster their faces to the glass. Outside, bears roam the tundra, waiting for the waters to freeze and seal hunting to resume. Polar bears aren’t just a tourist attraction here; Ursus maritimus is an accepted part of life for locals, whose town is dubbed the “Polar Bear Capital of the World.” In Churchill, there is even a temporary holding cell for trouble-maker polar bears, and residents reportedly keep all doors unlocked at all times in case anyone should need to dodge bears wandering the streets.
3) Great white sharks. On the set of Jaws, a very large—and real—great white shark unexpectedly destroyed a miniature diving cage. The footage of the shark, entangled in cables as it thrashed and tore the film prop to pieces before breaking away, was so thrilling to the film crew that they rewrote the script to make a place for the footage in the 1975 blockbuster, a movie that so impacted people’s fear of sharks that Jaws author Peter Benchley said later that he wished he hadn’t written the novel. Anyway, in the real world of modern great white shark tourism, the most feared inhabitants of the oceans don’t destroy cages. Rather, at the Farallon Islands, at Guadalupe Island, off Cape Town and in South Australia, the sharks swim gracefully around the cages, nosing out hunks of tuna and mammal flesh thrown from the boat while paying customers ogle through the bars.
4) Wolves of Yellowstone. In 1995, gray wolves from Canada were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park. Canis lupus, known as livestock-killers, somewhat fictionalized as man-eaters, had been exterminated viciously from most of the lower 48 states. Though wolf opponents, many of them big-game hunters or ranchers, decried the effort, the predators are back now, numbering 1,600 or more throughout the Rockies and Cascades. In Yellowstone National Park, about 100 wolves are consistently observed, especially in the winter months. To see the wolves of Yellowstone, visitors can drive through the park and watch out the windows as they go, or hope to see wolves while hiking in the backcountry. Anyone stands the chance of seeing a wolf or even a pack, but the likelihood is improved by hiring a guide.
5) Crocodiles of Northern Australia. One of the nastiest creatures on earth, the estuarine crocodile is the sort of animal one should want to see from a distance, a large boat or a vehicle. The animals kill and eat people with some regularity in Australia. The huge reptiles, which may reach more than 20 feet in length, were once hunted almost to extinction for their skins, but restrictions on the trade and a crocodile ranching business have allowed the wild population to grow. Today, crocodile viewing is a tourist attraction, with the region to see them being the tropical north of the nation. And while not every excursion will be a success, other encounters can happen when you least want them to. Use caution in croc country—and stay out of murky sloughs and swamps.