Big Country

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Big Country

Words by Mr Ian Belcher

17 September 2014

Five Canadian adventures where both the beauty and the beasts will leave you breathless.

"Give me a good canoe, a pair of Jibway snowshoes, my beaver, my family and 10,000sqm of wilderness and I am happy." Grey Owl knew what he was talking about. The brooding, square-jawed adopted member of Canada’s Ojibwe First Nations people, who became an early conservationist, recognised the raw, soul-lifting power of the country’s vast pristine landscapes.

In today’s frazzled, permanently on-call world, his sentiments carry a new appeal. A week of fine food in Provence, or Renaissance architecture in Tuscany, is all very well, but sometimes you need something extra. A true adventure with big scenery, big wildlife and big skies: a thrilling blast of the great outdoors that puts a pep in your step, fresh air in your lungs and colour in your cheeks.

With some of the greatest national parks on earth, replete with epic mountains, wild surf-lashed coast (it has a longer seashore than any other country) and diverse wildlife – you need Canada. To make finding the best spots easier, we’ve selected five astounding landscapes that are sure to give you the space to breathe. From a glacially green lake in the Rocky Mountains to the Arctic Bay – swaddled by tundra and crawling with polar bears – to a wild and woolly island hammered by Pacific storms, we guarantee you’ll return recharged, reinvigorated, and re-inspired.


The Tatshenshini River and mountains at sunset, Yukon Robert Harding Picture Library

You expect a high-octane buzz when you raft this astounding 133-mile stretch of the Tatshenshini River. Bisecting the planet’s largest protected biosphere, it offers grizzlies, moose and wolves, along with the odd rush of boiling white water.

Yet over the 11-day expedition, organised by a local rafting company, you’re more likely to become a victim of scenic fatigue than savage wildlife or impossible rapids – your senses blunted by relentless beauty. As Mr Edward Glave, one of the first Europeans to navigate the river in 1890, wrote: “Its awe-inspiring influence no longer appeals to our hardened senses.”

He wasn’t exaggerating. As it surges through Yukon and northern British Columbia, the landscape becomes ever more divine until, just before the dramatic Walker Glacier, you reach one of Canada’s most amazing campsites: a chance to sip coffee you’ve brewed yourself over an open fire – hugely satisfying, trust us – and spend hours contemplating three snow-licked mountain ranges, 27 glaciers, the largest non-polar field on the planet and the junction of two muscular rivers, a ribbon of green and chocolate water. Expect a couple of eagles to wheel overhead.

Part of a Unesco World Heritage Site, the river has wildly evocative landmarks – Bear Bite Creek, Monkey Wrench Rapids, Stairway to Heaven campsite – rampant wildlife and not a human in sight. If you can’t find the inspiration for that difficult second novel here, you won’t find it anywhere.

Play: Nahanni River Adventures knows the North Canadian rivers better than anyone else, and offers brilliant guides, top-notch equipment and a huge range of summer trips.

The inside track: Take a head net. The Yukon mosquitoes are the insect world’s answer to the Airbus A380 – and they’re very thirsty.

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Wapusk National Park on the shore of Hudson Bay, Manitoba Jonathan Hayward/ The Canadian Press/ Press Association Images

Many places claim to be Big Sky Country: Montana in the US, Bolivia’s Altiplano, France’s Camargue. But if you want a true widescreen canopy of sky, head to Manitoba and the shore of Hudson Bay. Sometimes it’s pristine cyan, other times bruised and moody. Sometimes riddled with snow, at other times seething with the glow of the Northern Lights.

And it’s not just the sky that’s big – it’s the expanse of North Atlantic ocean and winter ice, the long, lush coastline dotted with enormous glacial boulders and its flat-as-a-pancake backdrop of springy tundra and distant boreal forest. In the short, sharp summer you can cross ancient beaches far from the sea, evidence of how the land has rebounded since the last Ice Age and home to 400-year-old Inuit stone circles. There are dwarf rhododendrons, bright yellow mastodon and lurid carpets of purple fireweed.

And, of course, there’s one other piece in this huge wilderness jigsaw: the wildlife. It’s equally impressive. As the winter ice melts, polar bears, fat from gorging on seal pups, swim ashore for months of fasting and foraging on land until the autumn, allowing you to stalk them on foot. For a waterborne thrill, swim alongside the thousands of beluga whales that congregate around the bay’s river mouths to moult, calve and feast on oily capelin. From the air they resemble handfuls of rice tossed into the tannin-hued shallows. Then there are the bald eagles with six-foot wingspans and one-ton nests, the millions of migrating geese and 500,000 caribou that pass through each November. The Manitoba sky maybe big, but it’s just the start.

Stay: The lonely yet cosy Seal River Heritage Lodge is a polished-up scientific research station 50 miles from the nearest building, complete with wood-fired stoves and caribou antler door handles.

The inside track: Visit in July or early August for the unique double bill of stalking polar bear on foot and swimming with beluga whales.

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Surfers at Chesterman Beach near Tofino, Vancouver Island Christopher Morris/ Corbis

Are you keen to witness the full, high-decibel force of nature? Then head to the west coast of Vancouver Island between November and March when around 20 megastorms smash into the wild, remote coastline after brewing across thousands of miles of unbroken ocean.

More specifically head to the 3km-long, splendidly photogenic Chesterman Beach on the Esowista Peninsula. Its two perfect arcs of grey-blonde sand, backed by a narrow strip of forest and a glistening inlet, curl out towards Frank Island. As the wind roars and massive, white-capped barrels of surf roll ashore, the small island is scissored in half by the ocean, creating two separate islets: a temporary redesign courtesy of the weather gods. Small wonder the area – with laid-back, café-rich Tofino, Long Beach, Wickaninnish Beach and Cox Bay – has become a Mecca for both adrenaline-addicted surfers and storm watchers.

While the weather isn’t always furious, the coast is always wild. Backed by mountains, it has outcrops, estuaries, mud flats and creeks along with rugged cliffs, impassable headlands and mesmerising surge channels. And then there’s the forest. In Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park you’ll see Sitka Spruce more than 320ft tall and 800 years old, and gnarled cedars that have lived for more than a millennium. Black bears, cougars and deer roam the land while orca, sea lions, seals and migrating grey whales swim just offshore. To really savour its unique flavour, yomp the 47 miles of driftwood-covered beaches, cliffs, rivers and forests that form the West Coast Trail. You’ll rarely feel so alive.

Stay: Spend the night right on Chesterman Beach in the award-winning, family-owned Wickaninnish Inn with its driftwood furniture, Ancient Cedars Spa and storm watching packages.

The inside track: Make sure to carry some Canadian dollars if you’re going to hike West Coast Trail. At a point you can pay locals to float you across the river and buy some chilled beer – a welcome reward on the savagely wild hike.

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Fogo Island Inn, Fogo Island Alex Fradkin

The Flat Earth Society (really – google it), which believes the world isn’t a globe but, well, flat, regards Brimstone Head on Fogo Island as one of the earth’s four corners. A sign warns that you’re approaching the edge: “one false step could be your last”. And on days when mist, drizzle and clouds merge sea and sky, the eccentrics appear to have a point.

One of 7,000 islands off the easternmost province of Newfoundland and Labrador, Fogo is a savagely remote, gloriously romantic blend of springy grassland, low-level vegetation and hardscrabble rocks that rise to occasional high points or “heads”, offering widescreen views along its jagged coastline and island-speckled sea. Apart from the white or pastel-hued wood houses, it could be the Outer Hebrides. In summer you can whale watch, cycle and fish, but Fogo’s pièce de résistance is that from March to June it offers the best seat in the house to witness the massive floes heading down Iceberg Alley from Greenland to the North Atlantic – the exact route taken by the Titanic’s nemesis.

Amazingly, this extraordinary, sparsely populated wilderness now has a strikingly modern hotel. Fogo Island Inn, a four-storey, X-shaped minimalist structure, looms above the coastal rocks on stilts. Designed by Mr Todd Saunders, the architect responsible for the six thrillingly futuristic studios, built beween 2008 and 2009, which turned Fogo Island into a residential art venue. It’s a striking addition to the dramatic landscape: an architectural gem guarding the edge of the world.

Stay: Fogo Island Inn has 29 suites to go with its two-storey dining room and top-floor spa with alfresco hot tubs and corridors raked with ocean light. Built by locals, its warm interiors, from the furniture and colourful wallpapers to the quilts and rugs, were manufactured by Fogo craftspeople.

The inside track: Don’t miss one of the daily three-hour boat trips on the M/V Ketanja, which take in the Little Fogo Islands, along with puffins, razorbills, icebergs and whales.

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Moraine Lake and Valley of the Ten Peaks, Banff National Park, Lake Louise, Alberta Kennan Harvey/ Corbis

Lake Louise is used to year-round adoration. In summer, the 1.5-mile-long stretch of emerald water nestling beneath a towering wall of glacier-draped Rocky Mountains – composed of Huber, Victoria North and Popes Peaks – offers some of the planet’s most serene kayaking. Fast-forward a few months, when temperatures have plummeted and skis replaced sunscreen, and it freezes into one of the most memorable skating rinks on earth. Small wonder it has been photographed to death. It should perhaps be rechristened Lake Cara or Lake Kate.

Does Moraine Lake get jealous? It has every right to. Just seven miles away in Banff National Park, it has a more discreet, less showboating beauty. When fully fed by surrounding glaciers each June, its distinct blue water – a result of refraction off fine-grained silt in the water – offers pristine reflections of the Valley of the Ten Peaks.

And don’t forget Banff town itself. The gateway to the eponymous national park, wrapped around Tunnel Mountain in the Bow River Valley, is the home of artists, superb hotels and outdoorsy types – a hot spot for hiking, biking and skiing. It also offers one of the more remarkable golf experiences, with courses visited by moose, elk and bears. So by all means photograph Lake Louise, but save some space for shots of the Fairmont Banff Springs Fairways. They’re truly unique.

Stay: The famous Fairmont Banff Springs, known as the Castle in the Rockies. Styled after a Scottish baronial castle, the hotel is a national historic site and its construction in 1888, in the heart of the national park, kick-started tourism in the Rockies.

The inside track: For a memorable, alternative view of the local Rocky peaks, take a helicopter flight up to the Gloria Glacier, tumbling down Mount Assiniboine – the local answer to the Matterhorn. Alternatively, stay on solid ground – or at least reinforced glass – on the new Glacier Skywalk, 918ft above the void.

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