Adventure guide to Canada
It’s the world’s second-biggest country, it is incredibly easy to get to – and get around – and it's chock-full of adventures for all ages. Whether you’re after huge hikes, exciting paddling, some of the world’s best MTB trails and ski terrain, epic climbing, brilliant family camping, or want to see some of the planet’s most iconic animals in the wild, Canada is where it’s at for AG Outdoor readers.
YOU KNOW YOU'RE in adventure heaven when every day exploring a country can be kicked off with hot pancakes and maple syrup for breakfast, and (quite often) be finished with freshly caught wild salmon and a cold beer for dinner. Okay, maybe that’s a slightly (quirky?) personal view but I reckon that, after many years of experiencing some of Canada’s best adventures, these two meals offer perfect book-ends to what are always memorable days in the wilderness.
The best thing is, Canada is only one flight away from Oz – to Vancouver, the capital of British Columbia (BC). This province is the most popular with Aussie adventurers, and is worth a story all of its own, but don’t dismiss the others; the Yukon Territory, Alberta, Northwest Territories, Quebec and Newfoundland are also chock-full of outdoor destinations. It won’t really matter which one it is – they all take you into some of the most amazing landscapes on the planet (think: old-growth rainforest, high mountains, remote islands, immense waterways and the arctic), so there’s no chance of disappointment – just a guarantee of huge doses of fun.
Keen multiday trekkers will find all they could wish for and more on Canada’s many trails. From single-day helicopter-assisted hikes up in the high peaks of the mountains, to retracing the historical routes of both shipwreck survivors and surveyors chasing riches during the goldrush era, the incredible variety of the walks and the terrain you move over sees Canada firmly at the top of global trekking bucket lists.
In terms of the ultimate Canadian trekking experience, it is hard to beat the 75km West Coast Trail (WCT), a moderate-to-challenging seven- to nine-day trek along the southwestern coastline of British Columbia’s Vancouver Island. It follows the route of what was an old rescue track that authorities (and survivors) used when there was a shipwreck off the wild west coast of the island.
Tombstone National Park, in the Yukon, is the site of a massive caribou migration each year.
This trek is a world-rated favourite and with good reason: over the course of the West Coast Trail you’ll traverse all terrain types, from long, sandy beaches to dense rainforest and rivers, through to root-filled tracks, old (and new) duckboard sections and more than 70 (yes, 70!) ladders. Wildlife encounters are possible as well; black bear and cougar are in the region (be bear aware on the trail and at camp) and if you’re lucky you may spot orca or whales and dolphins frolicking in the Pacific Ocean when you’re at camp. Speaking of which, most campsites are located on beaches, right beside the mighty Pacific, and are spacious and well set up with toilets, etc.
The track is uber-popular so you need to book well ahead if you’re going independent (for guided treks, check out World Expeditions’ nine-day WCT experience, see sidebar). You will need to be able to carry all your food, clothes and shelter(s) in your packs, so expect these to weigh around 25kg. For your efforts, you gain a lifetime memory of having experienced one of the world’s greatest walks.
Of course, the WCT is not the only multiday trek in Canada. For those with a bit more time (and in season from early June to September), head to the northwest of BC to the Yukon Territory and tackle the five-day, 53km Chilkoot Trail. This retraces the route used by, firstly, the Tinglit indigenous people, then by fortune-seeking gold-hunters in the late 1800s, lured by the siren call of the Klondike Gold Rush.
The Chilkoot starts across the border in Dyea, Alaska, travelling through low-lying coastal forest, before re-entering northwest BC and climbing high above the tree line into starkly beautiful alpine tundra through the Coast Mountains before crossing over the (often snow-covered) Chilkoot Pass (1074m) itself. From the lofty heights of the pass, trekkers make their way down through subalpine forest over the next two days toward the finish point of Bennett, on the shores of the lake of the same name. The trek is tough but the landscape is sublime – as are the campsites nestled alongside the route’s many lakes (this writer woke up at Lake Lindeman camp to see a moose grazing in the lake’s shallow waters). You will also come back with a massive appreciation of those gold-seekers who, by Canadian law (to lessen the chance of deaths from being underprepared for the harsh conditions) had to carry an Imperial ton of gear over the pass with them. It’s an amazing story and an equally amazing trek.
Trekking in Canada doesn’t have to mean lugging your pack and heading off into the wild for a week or more. There are loads of day-hike options, from the west coast to the interior and to the eastern provinces. For those basing themselves in BC, heli-hiking is a brilliant option, with BC-based Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH) one example of lodge-based adventures. Based near the Bugaboos mountain range in eastern BC, this company covers any and all mountain-based adventures, including heli-hiking day hikes, via ferrata, rock climbing (some of Canada’s most iconic rock routes are located here) and lodge-to-lodge multiday treks. The best thing is, after all that time in the mountains, you get to come back to some pretty nice digs each night, as well as some awesome food.
For those adventurers looking to the east, a brilliant self-guided trek is Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula Traverse, a 10-day sample of the best of the Bruce Trail, Canada’s longest (and oldest) footpath at an impressive 890km. Opt for World Expeditions’ self-guided traverse and you get the extra benefit of having your gear transported between inns (your accommodation on this trip) so you just have to carry a backpack and concentrate on enjoying the coastal cliffs and pristine beaches along the way. The route follows the UNESCO World Biosphere reserve of the Niagara Escarpment, so great views and enjoyable trekking is pretty much guaranteed.
On two wheels
There is no one spiritual home of mountain biking – the sport is too diverse in its disciplines for that – but if you ask any keen MTBer where there dream trip would be, British Columbia would be one of the most popular answers. And it’s easy to see why; Vancouver’s famous North Shore, with its steep, loamy trails mixed with any number of crazy timber-based jumps and platforms, winding through dense rainforest, is globally acknowledged as the birthplace of freeride mountain biking.
Since the heady days of a young Wade Simmons and Brett Tippie “getting air” off some amazingly high ramps built among the towering trees of the North Shore Forest, “the Shore” itself has not so much mellowed, but relaxed a bit and now offers trails for riders of all skill levels. The best thing – besides the sublime riding, of course – is that the North Shore trails are right on Vancouver’s doorstep; leave early in the morning from your city accommodation and you can pack in some of the most memorable riding you will ever experience, and come evening you’ll be back dining in one of the city’s many top-notch eateries while you plan another day’s assault on the trails.
The perfect weekend cabin. Enjoying the isolation and gigantic landscape that is the Northwest Territories, at Little Doctor Lake.
Travel further north of Vancouver and you reach BC’s other spiritual home of MTB: Whistler Blackcomb. From a once ski-only resort, Whistler is now acknowledged as one of the world’s premier MTB trail centres, thanks to the 1998 opening of Whistler Mountain Bike Park. Since its opening the bike park has grown immensely, as have visitor numbers; more than 100,000 riders visit the park each season, taking advantage of the 47-plus trails that cover a total distance of more than 250km. The trails range from green-rated beginner through to challenging Black Diamond runs, so it is really just a matter of picking your poison in regards to which trails to ride.
As well as days on the trails, Canada is also a brilliant destination for longer-distance riding, whether it is MTB-based bikepacking through BC’s Cariboo-Chilcotin region, cycling a Rail Trail with the family, or a more relaxed sojourn (think: riding from winery to winery over the course of a few days!) exploring different parts of Canada and seeing just how much the country’s landscape changes between the west and its eastern coastline. Speaking of which, for keen cycle tourists, Prince Edward Island, off the east coast just above Nova Scotia and adjacent to New Brunswick, is cycle touring heaven (and easily accessed via vehicle). The Confederation Trail, which is part of the immense Trans Canada Trail, runs from end-to-end on the island, and offers 435km of fantastic cycle routes.
Whether you go long or short, the cycling here is brilliant – and ideal for families as well, with the ability to hop from accommodation to accommodation relatively easily. You can do it independently or jump aboard a guided cycle adventure (see sidebar) but either option will see you come home with some great Canadian cycling memories. If we had a dedicated magazine covering all the cycling adventures on offer in Canada, we’d still not have enough space, but these destinations mentioned are well worth consideration for your dream trip.
To enter a marine environment that borders on the other-wordly when it comes to the amount (and variety) of wildlife, the rich indigenous culture and simple epic-ness of the experience, look no further than Haida Gwaii, off the northern coast of British Columbia. This archipelago – often dubbed Canada’s Galapagos, owing to their isolation and resultant unique land mammals and plants – comprises more than 200 mostly uninhabited islands and is battered by the Pacific Ocean’s tides and wild weather conditions. The islands are located within the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Maritime Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site. The islands are also home to the Haida (First Nations) people, and contain a number of historical and cultural sites, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of SGang Gwaay Llnagaay (Ninstints). In short, if it isn’t already, it should be near the top of your bucket list.
Exploring this region by watercraft allows you to (excuse the pun) really immerse yourself in the surrounding environment. Due to its remoteness, the wildlife here is less bothered by human visitation than you’d expect, allowing you to get up close (sometimes too close; on one beach-landing in kayaks, this writer and his companions were greeted by a large black bear on shore). Along with black bears (the Haida black bears are acknowledged as the species’ largest due to lack of competition from grizzlies and a protein-rich seafood diet) you will also encounter orca, humpback whales, migrating salmon and bald eagles, just to name a few “hero” species.
As well as the amazing natural environment, visitors to Haida Gwaii will get the chance to learn about the Haida cultural history. T’aanuu Llnagaay (Tanu) is one of Haida Gwaii’s main historical sites, containing the remnants (25 buildings) of a Haida village. Your guides on a visit to this site will be Haida Watchmen, who are the cultural guardians of the region. There are Watchmen on other islands as well, including SGang Gwaay down in the southern section. Here, you can join a Haida Watchman guide and be shown around this island, the location of the last village to be occupied by Haida before they moved north in 1880 to villages on Graham Island. As well as the remains of Haida long houses, SGang Gwaay contains a number of memorial and mortuary poles, all carved with the crest of the deceased. It’s an amazing location in an amazing place.
Deep in the woods, exploring the Cariboo-Chilcotin region of BC.
Canada is nothing if not synonymous with river-based travel, whether by canoe or raft, with its many huge waterways initially used by First Nations and then European settlers as trade routes. The reasons for water-borne journeys here have changed over time, but the rivers of Canada have continued their timeless flow, now offering some brilliant adventures that take you deep into the country’s more remote and wild areas. The Yukon, the Mackenzie and the South Nahanni – any water-rat will know these iconic river names; each one of these is considered a world paddling icon, with the Yukon and the South Nahanni the easiest to access.
The Yukon River flows right past the Yukon Territory capital of Whitehorse (one of our all-time favourite adventure towns) and there are a number of guided options for those who want to tackle the famous journey downriver from Whitehorse to the famous gold-rush town of Dawson City. You can also hire canoes in Whitehorse and tackle the journey independently (see sidebar for guided and independent hire options). Whichever option you go for, you’ll have a blast; the trip is classified as Class 1 paddling, so it is pretty smooth-flowing (you paddle with the tide) and there are some brilliant riverside (and island-based) campsites along the way. Wildlife spotting and just enjoying the flow of this famous river are a couple of highlights.
For those after a more remote paddling experience, the South Nahanni River, in the Northwest Territories, beckons. This river is always present on “top 10 river journey” lists with good reason: it not only takes you through some of Canada’s most remote and spectacular terrain as it winds through deep canyons inside Nahanni National Park Reserve and the Mackenzie Mountains, but it offers some great land-based activities along the way, such as day hikes up to the tops of nearby peaks. It is also a bit of a challenge (most notably in a canoe; rafters less so) thanks to its intermittent rapids. Most guided adventures (both canoe and raft-based) kick off at what is a major highlight of the journey: Nailicho (Virginia Falls) drops 96m and is an incredible sight. From the falls, you follow the river down for around eight to 10 days, camping beside it each night, until journey’s end at the First Nations community of Nahanni Butte.
For family-based canoe adventures, it is hard to look past BC’s Bowron Lake Provincial Park (in the Chilcotin region of the province) and its world-rated Canoe Circuit. This circuit (book ahead; only 25 canoes are allowed on the circuit daily) is 116km, and takes paddlers onto six separate lakes (Indianpoint, Isaac, Lanezi, Sandy, Spectacle and Bowron) and can take around seven days to complete. For those with less time, there is a shorter canoe journey in the park – the West Side Trip – that sees you paddle from Bowron to Unna Lake. Whichever one you choose, you’ll be stoked; the views across the Cariboo Mountains are only bettered by the chance to spot some of Canada’s iconic wildlife, such as bears and moose, as well as camp at some brilliant lakeside locations along the way.
Oh, yes. We haven’t even mentioned the east coast of Canada yet and, once again, paddlers are spoilt for choice – especially in regards to sea kayaking. Newfoundland and Labrador boasts around 28,000km of coastline, along with a multitude of bays, fjords, rivers, lakes and inlets, and offers kayaking for any skill levels. As well as the majestic coastline, kayaking here provides the opportunity to check out icebergs (famous Iceberg Alley is found off the Newfoundland coast), beluga (and other) whales and the region’s birdlife.
On the wild side
Think Canada and think big wildlife; bears (black, grizzly and polar), moose, caribou, bison, wolves (timber and coastal), cougar, wolverines and whales are all rather sizeable – and they all call Canada home. For the wildlife buff, this place cranks it up past 11, especially as wildlife-based tourism is so well set up here, making the ability to get (relatively) up close and personal with some of the most exciting animals on the planet dead-easy.
Polar bears rank high on anyone’s must-see list and Canada’s northern Manitoba town of Churchill, nestled on the shores of Lake Hudson, is famous for its bear-spotting opportunities, with October and November the peak months. Massive tundra buggies take visitors out to watch for the bears as this largest of the species make their way to the shores of Hudson Bay in anticipation of the water freezing over, allowing them to hunt for seal offshore. It is an amazing experience and one the whole family can enjoy: Frontiers North is a local operator that offers children-focussed tours – they’d have to be the ultimate “show and tell” experience to relay to schoolmates back in Oz!
For whale spotters, both the west and east coast (and the arctic north) are goldmines; whether you are in a boat, yacht or down more at the marine giants’ level in a kayak, there are numerous tours of various durations that will provide the chance to spot any number of whale species (including orca).
But if there is one of Canada’s big-bopper animals that is most popular among visitors, it would be the grizzly bear. The “grizz”, as it is affectionately known by Canuks, is found throughout a fair chunk of British Columbia (which has the highest concentration of bear lodges), making this province the most popular with Aussie visitors after some bruin spotting action. The best time of year to maximise the chance of seeing them is around during the great salmon run (roughly September to November), when these fish return to spawn at their birthplaces – usually up the many rivers and creeks flowing into BC from the Pacific Ocean.
Staying at a bear lodge is an awesome experience, with different lodges offering different ways in which to spot the bears, ranging from dedicated bear-spotting stands to tracking bears on foot, or floating down waterways in dory boats, canoes or kayaks, looking for bears on the riverbanks. As well as bears, you will see bald eagles, (perhaps) the reclusive wolverine and even – if you really are lucky – a wolf. Even luckier would be if you are staying at a lodge in the Great Bear Rainforest (the world’s largest coastal temperate rainforest) and spot the ultra-rare (and fully protected; there are estimated to be only 500) spirit bear. This bear is actually a black bear with a recessive gene that causes its fur to be white or pale yellow in colour, akin to the gene that causes red hair in humans. This writer spent some time at the aptly named Spirit Bear Lodge in BC hoping to see one but came back only slightly disappointed; my time at the lodge – and its First Nations guides and staff, as well as the prolific black and grizzly bears – was truly awesome.
Not so disappointing for said writer was a bison encounter in the Northwest Territories, while travelling the Yellowknife/Great Slave Highway. Talk about a mobile roadblock; these huge beasts (Canada’s largest land-based native animal) are prolific in the NWT’s Wood Buffalo National Park, but you’ll also have a very good chance of spotting them on the verge of the major highways up in the north.
And there’s more…
The only bad thing when describing Canada’s adventure opportunities is just when to stop. As well as all this hiking, biking, paddling and wildlife spotting, there is a multitude of other activities on offer. From skiing (both resort and backcountry touring) to skidoo-ing, to climbing (both rock and alpine), to watching for the spectacular lightshow that is the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights), this immense country offers a huge variety of ways in which to get outdoors and enjoy what ranks as one of the world’s best adventure playgrounds.
Getting there: Air Canada has daily flights direct from Sydney to Vancouver, BC, as well as Brisbane direct to Vancouver flights three days a week. See www.aircanada.com.
When to go: You can visit all year round; this feature focusses more on spring-summer-autumn activities, but winter is huge in Canada for one very obvious reason (skiing anyone?), so it will depend on your chosen adventure.
More info: For all things Canada travel and adventure, see au-keepexploring.canada.travel.
World Ex goes great with Canada
Highly regarded Aussie adventure travel company World Expeditions has recently launched Great Canadian Trails, a specialist division of World Ex that, as the name suggests, focusses on providing adventure travellers with a mix of outdoor holidays in Canada. The trips range from multiday guided treks (with some self-guided options) and cycling adventures, through to some exciting mountaineering experiences and wildlife watching trips, and cover Canada from the west to the east. For more information go to www.worldexpeditions.com.
This article was originally published in the Nov-Dec 2016 issue of AG Outdoor.