I have to be brave.
Expedia.ca asked me to share some of my favorite destinations in Canada. I tend to travel to “destinations” in the offseason because I get them all to myself, but I don’t mind sharing them with a few fellow adventurers, too. :)
Visibility outside my window is shrouded, filled with white flakes and low clouds. This scene pulls me into what most would consider an unlikely place — back to the road, exploring and traveling through Canada. Roughly half my Canadian tours happened in the winter months, a time many folks consider an off-season for the northland. But I’ve always considered winter prime time to travel.
That’s because I get the beauty all to myself.
Cape Breton, Nova Scotia
Cape Breton Highlands National Park, a tract that runs east and west across the northern end of the island, is made of forested land that rises abruptly from the ocean, sinks down into lakes, and is cut through by rivers running to the sea. In winter, it’s reminiscent of those old-fashioned Christmas cards; undulating land dotted with historic Acadian villages, Scottish fishing communities, and herds of wild horses — all blanketed with a layer of white.
One of those outposts is Ingonish. Its 1,900 people claim Ski Cape Smokey, Nova Scotia’s highest elevation ski area, as their local hill. And it’s as local-feeling as they come. Run completely through volunteer efforts, the locals who mill about the lodge and slopes make winter come alive with their vibrant smiles and deeply-accented conversations. And its snows can run deep and light, despite its position along the edge of the Atlantic.
It’s the combination of scenery and culture that make Ski Cape Smokey one of the most memorable ski areas I’ve visited in North America, and the quiet winter landscape of the larger Cape Breton region a favorite place to visit.
|Photo: Ski Chic-Chocs|
Traveling northwest from Nova Scotia, I found myself in another corner of the continent that juts into the ocean, another place that was remote and scenic and jovial, but this time it was Quebec, which — other than Montreal — feels like you’ve left the continent altogether and hopped the pond to Europe. Or, at least, old-fashioned Europe: tiny farmland towns deep in traditional ways, with church steeples cutting the skyline and neighbors who all know each other.
|Mid-season in the Chic-Choc village I stayed in.|
My destination was the Chic-Choc Mountains, inland from the Gulf of St. Lawrence and making up part of Gaspesie National Park. I was going to meet up with my Quebecois-speaking friends for a week in the backcountry, but up until then, I knew nothing of the place.
What I saw captivated me; western-like peaks with an average of 23 feet of soft snow each winter.
How had I, a traveling skier, not heard of the Chic-Chocs before now?
Simply put: because it was located in a remote corner of the east, rather than Colorado. But its terrain was very much up to par, just dropped a few thousand feet in elevation. It was steep, with chutes and bowls and above-treeline terrain covered in a base so deep that our avy probes sunk all the way in, then our arms — and still no hard layer or ground impact — just light, soft snow.
I love these kinds of personal discoveries. I spent the week communicating in super-broken French, 85% of the time not understanding anything but the laughter and shouts of joy erupting from untouched turns in an otherwise quiet backcountry. Nights were spent driving to St-Anne-des-Monts for the Auberge Festive Sea Shack, a decidedly under-25-and-very-Quebecois hostel and tiki bar on the coast.
“Festive” is precisely how the week-long experience plays out in my mind.
Jasper National Park, Alberta
And my first Canadian love. This is where I came face-to-face with the meaning of “grandeur”; it’s where I first laid eyes on the electric blue of rock-floured rivers, where my feet first touched a glacier, and where I realized that Canada was a land where humans were visitors in an otherwise wildlife-owned territory.
I revisited this place year after year. Sometimes when it was green and buzzing with life. Most times, it was the off-season and still. New snow added a brilliant new layer on top of summer-baked glaciers, waterfalls slowed in their rush, partially choked with ice or completely still. And the best part: no humans.
The entire western portion of Canada is like that. It’s bigger than anything I have the power to comprehend, and each region does “big” in its own spectacular way.
Western Kootenay Region, British Columbia
This is where I decided to call home. It’s riddled with miles-and-miles long lakes surrounded by glacier-smothered peaks. Their waters are deeply aqua, taking on the color after accumulating massive amounts of snowmelt and glacial runoff. Summiting any one of the mountains shows off a 360-degree sea of apexes, interrupted by lakes and nothing else.
Towns such as Nelson and Revelstoke are bigger centers in the region, but villages and hamlets are the name of the game here. The region is populated by folks who are eccentric and friendly, artistic, and deeply passionate about being outdoors.
This sparse population is good for us locals. We live along the “Powder Highway,” taking its name from our deep, dry winters. The low population and unending peaks mean there’s an untouched surplus of skiable snow all winter. Even our front country ski areas — Whitewater and Revelstoke Mountain Resort — see loads of snow that never gets tracked out.
Sea to Sky Region, British Columbia
|Just north of the Sea to Sky Highway, but continuing in the same visual vein: Joffre Lakes Provincial Park in Pemberton, BC|
For the Cabot Trail in the east, there’s a counterpart in the west. From Vancouver to Squamish and on to Whistler — the Sea to Sky Highway — and north still to Pemberton, the drive captures views of mountains so intense, my jaw dropped involuntarily. The Coast Mountains create a barrier along the Howe Sound at the southern head of this highway. Mountains bubble up in the sound, too, creating islands navigated by oversized ships coming in to port, kayakers, and divers. A spongy ground somehow supports dense trees with moss that runs halfway up their trunks.
Squamish, north of Vancouver, and the area around it is one of the most picturesque oceanside vistas I’ve seen; the town at night spills in golden light down from the surrounding mountains and into the blue curve that terminates Howe Sound. “The Chief” — a granite dome that breaks out of the forest cover — reigns over a boulder field. Wandering under the dark canopy that protects the massive boulders, seeing the moss running halfway up the old-growth cedars, I felt as if I’d stepped back in time. It felt as though a brontosaurus could very naturally lift its head from the fern-covered floor and I would take it as all part of the scene.
Shortly becoming independent and acting on my gypsy blood, I stumbled across a poem by Robert Service. One stanza, in particular, would haunt me for years:
There’s a land where the mountains are nameless,
And the rivers all run God knows where;
There are lives that are erring and aimless,
And deaths that just hang by a hair;
There are hardships that nobody reckons;
There are valleys unpeopled and still;
There’s a land—oh, it beckons and beckons,
And I want to go back—and I will.
The poem was written by a British-Canadian cowboy in the late 1800s and titled “The Spell of the Yukon.”
I couldn’t shake it. I wanted to go, but didn’t have any idea what to expect, if it was safe for me to go, or even if there were roads in service (I was young at the time). All I knew is that until I set my own eyes on it, I wouldn’t be satisfied.
I had that chance a few years ago on my way to heli-ski in Alaska. I decided to drive instead of fly so I could explore along the way. As I mapped out my route to Cordova, I saw the drive would take me right into Yukon’s capital, Whitehorse, and across a good chunk of unpeopled Yukon Territory.
My heart leapt.
If I could instill a feeling of magic in you, I would do it here. I crossed the border between British Columbia and Yukon deep after dark on a late March night. There was absolutely no light pollution, not even another car on the highway. The stars were as close as they’ve ever felt against the inkwell sky.
The reading on my car’s thermometer steadily continued its journey below freezing until it bottomed out at -17ºF. I’d never driven in such a desolate situation, but I was thrilled. I felt wild and uncaged. And then, something unnatural grew in that black sky.
It started indecipherably; just a white glow. I wasn’t sure if I was even seeing it. Being alone, my mind started coming up with insane reasons for it. I was in the middle of Nowhere, Northern Canada, and alone. If there was a place for extraterrestrials, this would be it.
But then it shifted. Everything clicked. I slowed my car and pulled to the shoulder, shutting down the lights. Fumbling for my camera, I switched into manual mode, set it to a long exposure, and rolled down the window. The cold rushed in and bit my skin, but the grin on my face spread to my heart and I took no notice.
The northern lights were spreading across the sky directly overhead. Dancing. Shifting. Weaving. Green with a tinge of purple.
That night, my first in the Yukon, I fell asleep while those lights danced overhead.
There’s a magic in exploring the regions of this great expanse of land north of the 49th parallel. There’s magic in the people, there’s magic in the wildlife, and there’s magic in the seasons — especially in the quiet ones when you have the whole land to yourself.
I don't hike for the love of burning quads, burning lungs, or a sweaty back hugged up against a day pack.
If anything, I'm a seer. Not in the prophetic sense; I'm talking about an addiction to visual stimulus. I get hung up on details in the most ridiculously minute way. If it were possible, I would inhale entire landscapes just so I could absorb everything they hold.
But, like most addictions, mine comes with a problem: I don't like seeing the same trail twice. And if it's a popular trail, one that’s been documented endlessly on Google’s image search, I don't want to be on it — at least not when it's in prime season.
Searching for new sights keeps my mind open. It helps me realize that adventure and scenic beauty aren’t designated to one kind of environment (e.g. the go-to mountains of Colorado) but are widespread, found in areas people might not readily consider:
Singletrack in northern Florida.
The historic mountain culture of the Appalachians.
The contrasting colors of land and sky in the prairies.
Backcountry skiing over the Atlantic ocean.
No, they aren’t “the classics.” But trails through these less-popular areas provide me a space to move through varied ecosystems, cultures and landscape. They offer connections between people and the subtleties — or grandeur — that make each region unique; that’s helped me see the appreciation people have for their corner of the continent.But truly “seeing” a place is nothing without fuel from the other senses.
Have you, for example, ever noticed how the sun bakes the morning dew off Florida’s fallen pine needles, filling the air with a warm Christmas scent? And how, in the rainy season, clockwork thunderstorms empty over the southland’s hammocks, lingering in muddy patches where wild boars stomp their grounds?
Or have you heard the insects clap in flight as you disrupt their place on prairie tallgrass? Their sounds are amplified in the afternoon clouds, thundering across the sky line. After summer’s storms finish feeding the grasslands, autumn’s wind brush against the stalks, moving them in formation like golden waves.
And what about the Atlantic Maritimes, where the Appalachian Mountains submerge below icy waters, shoring a legacy of explorers who tread a land once considered wild? If you look in its quiet folds, in the regions surrounding the whitewashed fishing villages, you’ll find the mountains of the maritimes still hold a salty breath of mystery. Or top off the Appalachian Trail with its International section, and you’ll pass through the system’s most remote and rugged region — the Chic Chocs — showing that the Appalachians do hold a candle to the rugged peaks of the west.
Because of my unquenchable addiction, I’ve held open the doors of perception and allowed North America to show me what she holds, no judgements. And she’s shown me, as I’ve traversed her trails over many regions, that she’s exquisite.