When Bob Linde headed north — way north — to Dawson City in the Yukon Territory, he was prepared for a rustic experience. After all, it was Canada, the land of hunting and fishing trips, and Linde, like many Americans who have never been north of the border, had only a vague sense of what to expect.
But when Linde embarked on the Great River Journey, a 375-mile wilderness safari via the Yukon River through the subarctic landscape, he was struck by the stark beauty of the tundra, the friendliness of the locals and the plush digs at each day’s end.
“I expected to be roughing it,” says Linde, a 46-year-old acupuncturist from St. Petersburg, Fla. “But this was topnotch lodges, fancy food, good wine and a midnight sun that was pretty rocking; I went to the extreme Canada, and it was a nice introduction!”
In fact, just about everything in Canada is extreme: Only Russia boasts more real estate than Canada’s 6.2 million square miles, and no other country in the world can claim as much coastline. With that much geographical space, outdoor adventures of all sorts abound, from surfing alongside a coastal rainforest to paddling among icebergs.
Yes, it can get cold. The average January temperature in Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut in the far north, is nearly 30 degrees below zero. And Quebec City receives 150 inches of snow each winter. But Toronto lies on the same latitude as Cannes in the French Riviera, and the average daily summertime temperature across much of the country is in the 70s to low 80s, making it a warm-weather playground for outdoor enthusiasts.
“These wide-open spaces are full of travel adventures with Canadian people and their stories,” says outfitter Celes Davar of Manitoba’s Earth Rhythms. “Laughter, songs and colorful language accompany your adventures, providing experiences that will inspire you, teach you revered customs and traditions, and reconnect you to our planet.”
Coast to Coast
In September 2009, Beth and Bob Swift-Hill traveled from their home in Calgary, Alberta, to spend five days cycling in British Columbia’s warm and lush Okanagan Valley. Traveling with DuVine Adventures, the couple learned that parts of the area are actually an extension of the Sonoran Desert and that it’s known as the Napa of the North.
“The Okanagan Valley left us surprised and thrilled,” says Beth, 48, recalling the hilly vineyards, and the surprising sights of desert and glacial lakes that she and her husband saw while biking up to 26 miles per day. “It was a close-to-home adventure in a region of Canada that we wanted to get to know.”
Jody Lambuth, her husband and their adult children were also attracted to Canada’s western coast. In August 2006, they spent six days kayaking among the Broken Group Islands and along the shoreline of Vancouver Island. “None of us had ever kayaked before, so it was a totally new experience,” says the 56-year-old Lambuth, who lives in Des Moines, Iowa.
One morning, the family awoke to see whales gliding out to sea; at night, pleasantly tired from paddling past the coastal rainforest into secret coves and near towering peaks, they’d watch the sun set over the ocean before gathering around the campfire.
Over on the Atlantic coast, there are plenty of activities in the Maritime provinces. Chris Harter, 49, of Monterey, Calif., took eight family members sea kayaking in Newfoundland two years ago, where they saw a full moon.
Mountains, Forests and More
Between Vancouver to the west and Prince Edward Island in the east, Canada is a vast landmass with geography more varied than that of its neighbor to the south. From west to east, the Canadian Rockies and their blue-green lakes and rivers give way to the prairies of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and eventually the pine-studded, rolling hills of Ontario and Quebec.
Perhaps the heart of the Canadian Rockies is the adventure town of Banff, Alberta, where skiers speed down the slopes near Lake Louise in the winter, hikers and mountain bikers venture into thousands of miles of pristine wilderness in the summer, and cavers rappel 60 feet into a nearly two-mile-long underground labyrinth year-round.
Since avid hiker Sue Lee of Eagan, Minn., returned from a weeklong REI Adventures camping trip to Alberta and British Columbia last September, she’s been replaying the sights and sounds: snowcapped peaks, emerald lakes and the trumpeting of elk. “I wanted to get off the beaten path, and the Canadian Rockies were spectacular,” says Lee, 58. “Seeing the mountains, the lakes, the glaciers and forests — photos just can’t capture the beauty compared to being there.”
Natalie Foisy, a 38-year-old medical worker in Timmins, Ontario, recently took her 13-year-old son and two colleagues canoeing and camping more than 400 miles north of Toronto with local outfitter WildExodus.
“The biggest surprise for me was the hidden secrets of the boreal forest I’ve lived in all my life,” says Foisy, as she recalls picking wild mushrooms, canoeing to a beaver dam, singing with loons, calling for wolves and tracking a moose. At night, they bunked in luxury tents with queen-size beds and electricity at a resort featuring indoor restrooms and running water.
“Given the tranquil setting and remote location,” she says, “it was just awesome.”
In neighboring Quebec, those seeking an easy and affordable getaway can cross-country ski the Laurentians (a gentle mountain range just north of the St. Lawrence River), rock climb in the Swiss-like region of Charlevoix, or raft one of the province’s 130,000 rivers.
Connie Page of East Lansing, Mich., joined a Fjord en Kayak multiday excursion and explored the magnificent Saguenay Fjord with its sheer cliffs, sapphire blue water and hidden picnic rocks. “It’s one of the best places in the world to kayak,” says Page.
In Canada’s northernmost regions, adventurers seek out some of the country’s (and world’s) most spectacular sights: polar bears, 24-hour sun, caribou migrations, bowhead whales and northern lights.
Sharon Sittloh of Sonoma, Calif., was on her way to see polar bears when she stopped at Riding Mountain Lodge in Manitoba to hike among aspens, bison and great gray owls. “One morning it snowed while we were standing by a lake,” she says. “It was serenely beautiful and quiet — a compressed moment of time that was otherworldly.”
At the Arctic Watch Lodge, a cluster of modern yurts on Somerset Island in Nunavut (home to the world’s most northerly hotel), visitors can hike to waterfalls, mountain bike to frozen canyons, and paddle among icebergs and beluga whales, before retreating to dine on sushi and rest under thick duvets.
“It is undoubtedly one of the most extraordinary vacation spots in the world,” says Tim Goodsell, who has traveled there from Chicago five times and has become enchanted by the crystal-clear water, the open tundra and the beluga whales surfacing just beyond the bow of his kayak. “It’s a truly magical place.”
Those adrenaline junkies and nature lovers not already tempted by the thought of lung-expanding activities in untouched wilderness might also consider the bottom line: Canada can be a far more affordable alternative to active vacations elsewhere in the world, and even in the United States.
Sure, a place like Arctic Watch can be expensive (up to $10,000 per person per week), but overnight expeditions with Fjord en Kayak in Quebec are very affordable (beginning at about $300), and a full-day trail hike with Stan Cook Adventures is only about $100, including lunch. And for most outdoor enthusiasts who return from visiting our neighbor to the north, the experiences are worth every Queen Elizabeth–bedecked penny.
“Canada has a fierce and rugged beauty and a sense of place different from other wilderness landscapes I’ve experienced,” says Joanne Mitchell, an artist from Toronto who was particularly inspired by the Tablelands in Newfoundland’s Gros Morne National Park. “Watching the light change and the drama of nature unfold on the earth’s orange mantel thrust up a zillion years ago is truly mesmerizing.”
Hidden Canadian Gems
Each of the Canadian provinces and territories boasts unique outdoor adventures. Here, we’ve wrangled together a highlight from each.
Alberta: In Banff National Park, the Skoki Lodge is a cozy log cabin reached only by hiking or cross-country skiing a 5.5-mile trail; www.skoki.com.
British Columbia: There’s world-class surf to be found off Vancouver Island, and Tatchu Surf Adventures takes both beginners and experienced wave riders to some of the best waves; www.tatchuadventures.com.
Manitoba: Polar bear viewings near Churchill happen in July and August, not just in winter; you can also swim with the belugas and catch the Aurora Borealis with Churchill Wild; www.churchillwild.com.
New Brunswick: Cape Enrage, on the Bay of Fundy, has sheer cliffs ideal for rock climbing and rappelling; www.capenrage.org.
Newfoundland & Labrador: With the Moose, Mussels and Mushroom package from Mayflower Outfitters, adventurers can hike to the moose and hunt for wild edibles; www.mayfloweradventures.com.
Northwest Territories: Imagine waterfalls twice the height of Niagara and teal blue paddling waters — that’s the untamed Nahanni River. Canada’s Black Feather wilderness outfitter has been guiding river canoe trips here for more than 30 years; www.nahanniriver.ca
Nova Scotia: Every summer, the Gonzo Adventure Club stages the Not Since Moses Run, a 10K in which participants race across the ocean floor before the Bay of Fundy’s 49-foot tides come in; www.notsincemoses.com.
Nunavut: The Alpine Club of Canada leads breathtaking mountaineering trips on Nunavut’s Baffin Island. The largest island in Canada at nearly 200,000 square miles, Baffin is home to polar bears, caribou and arctic fox; www.alpineclubofcanada.ca.
Ontario: On Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay, Massasauga Provincial Park is accessible only by water and is one of the country’s finest canoeing destinations: www.ontarioparks.com.
Prince Edward Island: The best way to get around Anne of Green Gables land is by bike, and Tourism PEI offers a free guide to cycling the 221-mile Confederation Trail; www.tourismpei.com.
Quebec: While Mont Tremblant is known for its skiing, summertime brings via ferrata (climbing on fixed rungs), acrobranche (zip lining in the tree canopy) and myriad other adventures to the surrounding national park; www.tremblantactivities.com.
Saskatchewan: Few activities are more exhilarating than horseback riding through the windswept prairie, and La Reata Ranch leads some of the province’s most exciting trips: www.lareata.com.
Yukon: The remote Kluane National Park is home to ice fields, rich wildlife and plant life, and Canada’s highest peak, the 19,545-foot Mount Logan. Trek along glaciers and follow caribou on the unmarked Donjek route with Taiga Journeys; www.taigajourneys.ca