It’s been an amazing few months travelling around British Columbia researching for the 2016 edition of the Rough Guide to Canada. It’s been exhausting, frustrating, hard work made a privilege thanks to exploring the jaw-clanging beauty of this huge province. Researching for a guide book means a life on the gallop, you never really have time to explore or to take a breath, always going on to the next place, and the next. Spending your days in a blur of checking attraction and museum opening times, room inspections and switching hotels every night, endlessly checking in and out. But although I was bone tired, I always had moments of heart-soaring happiness thanks to the dazzling wild nature of the province. Early in my trip, I had to pull over to see if I wasn’t hallucinating at this green-blue lake on the Sea to Sky Highway to Lilooet, that looked for all the world as thought has been photoshopped, all ready for a spread in a guide book. Continue reading →
Even the relentless drizzle of west coast rain couldn’t spoil the thrill of spotting bears on the beach just 20 minutes away from the surfers and ice cream shops of Tofino. Their coats shaggy in the downpour, twice a day as the tide rolls out, they come to feast on the seafood that’s trapped beneath the rocks. Continue reading →
They come dashing through the water, their shiny white bodies flashing in the sunlight, cutting a streak through the greeny-blue gentle waves. Beluga whales. One, two, a dozen, maybe more, swimming with their gunmetal grey new-born calves in the millpond stillness of the Hudson river at the mouth of Hudson Bay. This is Canada’s Great White North, Churchill in Manitoba, where this morning I saw a polar bear lumber past at the side of the road as we left the little airport. I don’t know it yet, but tomorrow I’ll see the Aurora Borealis shimmer for the first time. I’ll cry tears of joy and hold my friend’s hand tight as the sky pulses green and purple above us in the velvet-black of the night sky.
This feels like an enchanted place: far away from the modern world, impossible to reach by road, only accessible by train or plane, sketchy phone signal and scant internet. A refuge, in fact, and it’s here for a few weeks in the summer that you may be lucky enough to see a polar bear and her cubs as you stroll on the beach. And it’s also where you can strap on a life jacket, push a kayak into the water and paddle out to see belugas whales swim right up to you and playfully nudge your oars.
They’re mischievous, these whales. They want to play. I push myself hard, thrashing my paddle fast through the water, speeding across the shallow waves to try and catch a pod a little further out beyond the harbour. For a brief moment they join me, one on either side, rushing me along making me part of their pod for a few tantalizingly short seconds. I know already these are moments that I’ll run and re-run in my head for the rest of my life. Nothing to the belugas and everything to me. I laugh out loud, whooping with glee before my arms tire and I rest my paddle. But the best is still to come: two juveniles, seeing that I’ve stopped, race towards me at breakneck speed, darting under my craft, creating a white water wake. I shriek like I’m on a roller-coaster and lift my paddle to ride the beluga-made wave. The sun begins to set and I paddle off into the gloriously gaudy peachy-pink sunset.
Magic hums in the air here: polar bears doze on beaches, haunting lights dance in the sky and glittering white whales wait to play with you in the rosy waves…
I stayed in Churchill as a guest of Tourism Manitoba and the Lazy Bear Lodge, but as ever my words are 100% my own. More info: . Lazy Bear Lodge [Official Site] . Travel Manitoba [Official Site] Images thanks to Jenafor Azure at Blue Sky Mush [Official site].
We had to wait for the all-clear before we could leave the arctic crawler. Our guide, rifle loaded and cocked, walked out onto the rocks and scanned the area making sure it was safe for us to explore. Once out there, I crouched down on the pebble-grey rocks, flecked with coppery lichen and picked a handful of the shiny jet-black blueberries which lay tucked under the sparse sprigs of greenery which somehow grew on the barren land.
“Polar bears eat this,” I thought to myself, as the tart sweetness of this most determined Canadian berry flooded my mouth, “I’m tasting what they taste.”
It had been a morning of excitement already out in the wilds of Churchill, Manitoba on the edge of the edge of the world. Where else could you enjoy a drive-by Beluga whale sighting? We’d bumped along through the pot holes and past the shoreline in the old school bus that our lodge used as transit and seen them from the road, their snow white bodies glittering in the sunshine as they swam through the waves.
Today we were on the hunt for the polar bears who’ve made this remote part of northern Canada famous around the world. Each winter between October and November, the bears lumber away from their sumer time habitat and back across to the pack ice to hunt seals. Every hotel room in the sleepy town of Churchill sells out as it becomes the ‘Polar Bear Capital of the World’ with fully-booked tundra vehicles heading off onto the ice for bear watching safaris. There are even mobile hotels which pitch up wherever the bears are, so visitors can spend a few days out on the ice, witnessing the beauty of the bears. More elusive in the summertime, but still possible to see, we were heading out onto the protected tundra in a giant buggy to see if we would be lucky enough to track any polar bears down.
“Let’s go and see something big and white and furry!” exclaimed our guide as we got on board. Furry and cute they may be, but the reality is they are wild animals–and potentially lethal ones at that. In a town like Churchill, living with bears, and all that entails, becomes second nature. For instance, all car doors are always left unlocked in town, if you spot a bear in the street you need to get away fast and find cover, so you can jump in any vehicle and call for help. Guides travel with rifles and ‘bear bangers’–firecrackers which hopefully will scare a bear off, as no one wants to have to shoot a bear. Churchill is proud of its record of no human deaths by bears since 1983 and takes its bear conservation very seriously.
We slowly juddered across the rocks in the massive arctic crawler, scanning the miles of wind-flattened landscape for bears. So often my heart would leap with excitement, there, a bear! A huge one, curled up by the… no, just a rock. And again and again, it was just a rock; the tundra makes perfect camouflage for the creamy-white bears, being, of course, all creamy-white glacier-formed quartz and scrub with patches of low-lying greenery. But then we saw one, a real bear, elegantly doggie-paddling across a small pond. We stopped the crawler and turned off the engine to wait and watch. As we did, our bear turned to look at us, his black nose and eyes clearly visible against his fur, before deciding we were uninteresting and resuming his dip. Fascinated and delighted, we watched him, before some twenty minutes later he strode out of the pond, fur dripping and shook himself, like an immense dog, before slowly walking away to a patch of rocks, and then he disappeared from sight, cloaked by the landscape.
That was our only sighting that day but I wasn’t sad; I felt like I’d witnessed something wonderful and rare. I’d seen this creature who belonged in a world of snow and ice sun himself on a warm August day. I’d watched the pleasure he clearly felt in bathing in the cool water. This whole vast tundra was his domain. This unforgiving landscape was his home, despite having a climate so harsh that even the trees only have branches on one side, so fierce are the icy winds. We were just privileged visitors that day, lucky enough to share a brief sunny moment with this rare and endangered bear.
It finally happened: I’ve been chasing the Aurora Borealis for years. Ever since I was a little kid I’ve dreamed of seeing those lights in the sky. I can vividly recall watching a cartoon about a little bear who skated under the northern lights. I couldn’t have been more than five but I remember thinking, “Woah: that looks amazing. I want to see that for real.’ Well – almost 40 years later I finally have.
See, my typical Northern Lights adventures involves driving for ages in a minibus, far away from any kind of warmth, coffee and civilisation wrapped up in chunky arctic-friendly clothing. Then my personal long, slow journey into disappointment: I freeze and feel my hopes fade away – and then, of course, the long bus journey home again, hoping my fingers won’t succumb to frostbite.
But not in Churchill. Manitoba. Oh no! Here at the edge of the edge of the world magical things just seem to happen with ease. That day we’d been dog carting (more of that in another post) at Blue Sky Mush and our hosts Jenafor and Gerald Azure had offered to pick us up and take us to see the lights. We got back at 10p.m., Jenafor was already there “They’re here!” she beamed.
Oh great, I thought – surely that means I’ll miss them again.
But no: a quick 10 minute journey to their place and I hopped out the van and looked up. I cried: I did. I wept like a baby when I saw them dancing in the sky, it took my breath away and filled my heart with pure wonder. It’s everything people say it will be and a little more amazing on top of that. It looks unreal: a green glowing flickering disco across the sky. It looks for all the world as though the sky was sighing in colour. You feel elated and fortunate, just so lucky to be standing there and able to see this natural wonder. I stood on their porch and stared and stared. Whenever I got cold – and I was only wearing a light fleece and a hat for protection!- I’d go inside the wood-fire lit warmth of their yurt.
To celebrate our trip, Jenafor had even made us a cake in the shape of a beluga – and yes, oh – so much to come about those shiny white whales. It may have taken most of my life to get to see them but they were worth the wait: and who knew I’d finally get to see them in the summertime with a slice of cake?
I stayed as a guest of Tourism Manitoba and the Lazy Bear Lodge. Gerald and Jenafor of Blue Sky were kind enough to host us. But as ever my words are 100% my own.
. Blue Sky Mush [Official Site]
. Travel Manitoba [Official Site]
There are dolphins in the sea and eagles in the sky; I whisper that to myself as I walk along the beach, my dog racing ahead of me chasing stones and dive-bombing the sand. On a day like today I need that mantra; I need to see the snow and the mountains and feel them break my heart with their beauty. I need to look out to the sea and believe that whales and dolphins are there – just out of sight. It’s hard being an immigrant. There; I said it. Immigrant – not expat – I don’t want to go ‘home’ I want this to be where I stay and make my life. I’ve fallen in love with Canada and oh, it is a capricious thing to have fallen for.
Today I spent five hours taking exams in reading, writing, listening and speaking… English. I have to pass to prove that I can understand my own language. A $300 piece of red tape to add to the rest. When my lawyer asked if I had taken the test I assumed they were joking but of course, lawyers don’t joke – not even good-humoured ones like mine – I’m glad Wildy are with me on this winding, confused, painful journey through the Canadian immigration system, I’d have become impossibly lost without them.
But yes, on a day when it feels that the hoops you have to jump through are just too high and too many you need a miracle and that is exactly what happened. Two pods of dolphins swam into the waters of False Creek – just outside my flat – this is, according to experts at the Vancouver Aquarium, very rare indeed. I watched them swim under the Burrard Bridge, past Granville Island and then head back – again and again. There were so many of us watching them in absolute delight from the beach, just as we thought they’d gone – back they’d swim again. Because it was a grey day, it was hard to see them but oh! when you did… it felt like magic could really happen. I watched a pod of five swim along, their skin glinting as they dipped in and out of the water. All this – just outside my front door.
Later at my desk, I looked up and saw an eagle swooping just beyond my 21st floor window; its wings stretching impossibly wide, circling against a backdrop of the mountains, their snowy tops peeking out from a wispy pashmina of mist. So bring on the endless forms and the crazy exams because there are dolphins in the sea and eagles in the sky.
I shot this rather shaky video – but oh! DOLPHINS!
I’d never imagined myself to be a birdwatching enthusiast before but like so many other things Canada has changed me completely. From my new-found love of leaf-peeping and attempts to develop ice skating skills to my enthusiastic embrace of drinking clamato juice cocktails – there is apparently no limit to what I won’t adore about Canada. So, now I’m a ‘twitcher’ – why else would I be floating down a river on a bluebird sky day in early February, gazing with delight into the leaf-less trees? My new rationale being that if the world bald eagle capital is just 45 minutes drive away, well – you hop into a car, right?
A little explanation: half-way between Whistler and Vancouver lies Squamish, known as the Outdoor Adventure Capital of North America. You can hike, mountain bike, kayak, whitewater raft – everything. Ten minutes drive from Squamish is Brackendale, and as well as being a huge draw for enthusiastic types in North Face-branded clothing, it’s also where you’ll find the world’s greatest concentration of bald eagles, if you visit between November-February.
I’d visited Sunwolf late last year en route to Whistler and eaten a spectacular breakfast at Fergie’s cafe there. As well as dishing up quality rib-sticker brekkies, Sunwolf’s British owners Jake and Jess also have cosy cabins to rent along the Cheakamus River and host guided whitewater rafting trips and eagle float adventures.
It was a perfect day for a float along the river; after what seemed like endless grey skies and non-stop rain, the soft warm touch of sunshine on skin felt like a long-forgotten magic. And the sun was blazing down that morning. But it was cold on the river, so we suited up in the Sunwolf lounge in waist-high waterproof trousers and bundled up in scarves, mittens and hats.
Hopping into the dinghy without A) falling in or B) embarrassing myself, was surprisingly easy – my kind of outdoor adventure – all I needed to do now was sit back, listen to the soft splash of paddles on water and watch for eagles as Jake told us stories of the river and the Chum salmon which brings the eagles here in their droves. It’s a circle-of-life thing; beautiful in its complexity and simplicity. Each year the salmon come to spawn in the pristine glacial-fed waters of the Squamish and Cheakamus rivers where they – in turn – were spawned.
It’s incredible that these fish who spend their lives out in the ocean return ‘home’ to start new lives – and it’s also where they come to end their life too. After spawning, the salmon die and in turn become a necessary life-giving food to another species. In some parts of the world bears feast on the salmon, but here it’s the eagles who thrive and survive. For a few months, the river is becomes an all-you-can-eat sashimi buffet and the eagles the stretchy pants-wearing regulars.
I lost count of the number of eagles that we saw; mostly perched, presumably digesting huge meals, in the branches. Whenever one took flight the awe of seeing their impossibly wide wing span hit me every time. I may not be a fully fledged bird-spotting enthusiast but damn, I’m enthusiastic whenever I see a beautiful wild creature – especially in such jaw-clanging surroundings. Only the prospect of another meal at Fergie’s could cheer me after our trip was over. I really loved it: so peaceful, so much beauty and so many new things to learn along the way.
I travelled as a guest of Sunwolf but as ever my words are 100% my own.
Sunwolf – Rafting, Cabins, Whitewater rafting and Eagle river floats – plus – Fergie’s delicious cafe!
I’ve just come back to Canada after eight days away in the USA, visiting Arizona and Nevada. I woke this morning to misty grey skies and was never so glad to slip into a jumper. Turns out that sweltering, pavement-melting 42 degree heat and I do not get on at all! Just before I left I spent the afternoon cooing at the new life in Vancouver’s famous Stanley park.
Adorable fluffy goslings, guarded by hissing over-protective beak-waving Canada Geese, paddling little ducklings, all speckled and wobble-legged; the park is bursting with baby bird-life and I bet that if I pop along to the lyrically-named Lost Lagoon, the swans will have hatched out their cygnets by now too.
After gleefully photographing my way around the park, I spent ages walking through the riot of flowers that burst from every bush and tree. I’ve said it before: all that rain seems to be worth it if we get this joyful celebration of blossoms as reward.
Cycling the seawall that wraps around the park or exploring its leafy centre is apparently the number one tourist attraction here in Vancouver. I can totally believe it; bigger than Central Park, yet feeling intimate with endless spots to enjoy a romantic picnic or a family day out, ringed with sandy beaches and blessed with excellent restaurants and home to my beloved Aquarium – there’s something for every budget – you can go to Stanley Park without a penny in your pocket and have a great day out or plan an action-packed day of treats. I’m writing this as I watch the pretty seaplanes fly over the park to land with barely a splash at nearby Coal Harbour; the trees are gleaming glossy-green in the sunshine (it’s Vancouver – four seasons of weather in one day!) and although I know the park will be packed with visitors, I can’t see a soul. I’ll check on the swans at the weekend and let you know if there’s any cygnet news…
The Yukon has fascinated me. I’ve waited to write about the Yukon Quest race because I just keep reading more and more about it, losing myself down a rabbit hole of myths, legends and impossible-sounding stories which turn out to be true. This is a race like no other: one thousand miles in bitter sub-zero temperatures following the route of the historic 1890s Klondike Gold Rush route between Fairbanks, Alaska and Whitehorse, Yukon. Just mushers, their teams of sled dogs and the bone-numbing cold and unimaginably vast spaces of the Great White North. On average it takes between 10-20 days to cover the route. Unlike other endurance races, there are only ten checkpoints along the way – some are more than 200 miles apart. The originators of the Quest decided to make it harder than other races, more ‘woodsman-like’ as they wanted it to be a race where ‘survival would be as important as speed.’
I was taking photographs at the start of the race. I lay in snow at the side of the track, I had my Canada Goose parka on; gloves, scarf, snow pants, I was well-wrapped up, but some 45 minutes lying in that snow, slowly feeling the cold bite at my face and fingers, made me look at these mushers with awe. To be that cold; to race through the day and night, frost forming on beards, eyelashes icing up, with no hope of a warm bed at the end – took courage that I couldn’t imagine possessing.
There’s a romance about the race for sure; I shared a lift into town with a couple from Vienna who’d come to Whitehorse to see the lights and had been bitten by the bug, “It’s highly non-technical,” enthused Peter Pollak, “It emphasises self-reliance, there’s no one there to pick you up, you have to take care of your dogs first and then yourself.” His wife, Mary, agreed, “We didn’t know about it before we came, but there’s something addictive about it. We’ve already planned to come back next year to follow the trail.”
I’ll come clean – before I came, I couldn’t imagine being interested in this at all. This has “NOT MY THING” all over it in neon letters, but I got excited by the atmosphere and found myself pulled in; I talked to the handlers, petted the excited dogs and chatted to a few of the mushers, like Christina Traverse who saw the Quest on TV and thought, “I want to do that one day”. This was to be her first Quest, but I saw on the site, that she lasted just 41hrs, 44mins before being retired from the race and hospitalised. I remember the trepidation – and excitement – in her eyes and I know she’ll be back again another year.
Brent Sass, a Quest regular, running his seventh race, came in third. He first got started after he saw a dog team, “I wanted to do that. One dog turned into five, turned into 10, then 25. The first time I did the Quest was scary; all the uncertainties of the trail and the obstacles ahead, you don’t know what you’re going to run into, but I enjoy it all, I thrive when the hard weather comes.”
The love of the mushers for their dogs was clear; the last musher to run spent time kissing, hugging and talking to each of his dogs, who were all excitedly pulling and jumping, desperate to get racing before stepping behind his sled and heading off into a thousand miles of snow and ice.
I looked at the stats and the times of all the mushers from this year’s race, there’s a section on the site where you can leave messages for them – there must have been thousands. School children who were studying the race who saw the mushers as their heroes (I found this amazing Yukon Quest maths sheet!), fellow dog-lovers, even relatives and friends leaving messages of love and support that had me welling up. I thought about how they must feel – anxious for their loved one but bursting with pride – imagining them far out in the snow with nothing but the sound of bootie-clad paws racing across the ice for company, nothing but 250lbs of packed equipment and provisions on their sled between checkpoints to keep them going. I saw wisps of straw fall as I lay in the snow, I imagined the dogs curled up on it, resting, and the musher, after massaging their feet, changing their booties, feeding and watering them, eventually curling up too, grabbing a few short hours sleep before pushing on again to that finish line.
I travelled as a guest of Yukon Tourism – as ever – my views are 100% my own.
As I sailed backwards through the air, landing in an undignified heap in a snow drift, I can’t pretend for a second that I felt surprised. I knew I’d fall off my sled. I’d told the others, ‘If someone’s falling off, it’s me!’ And I really wasn’t being self-deprecating. So yes, there I was, with the snow in my face to prove it. Wearily, I propped myself up on my elbows and watched my team of four gorgeous huskies disappear at breakneck speed, past our instructor, and off through the trees.
So now what?
It had all started so well; a beautiful drive half an hour from Whitehorse to the Sky High Wilderness Ranch to start our mushing adventure. We ate, family-style, around the table at the old-fashioned wooden ranch house; steaming bowls of chili with sweet juicy berries for afters. Our instructor Jocelyn was a veteran of the Quest. She’d battled her way 1000 miles in the punishing sub-zero cold with sixteen dogs, made it through the other side from Alaska to Whitehorse. All we had to do was a short 20 km with a team of four. A walk in the park in comparison. “Oh, I’m gonna fall off.” I said, as we walked to the dogs.
You hear them way before you see them; whining and yowling, yapping that high-pitched bark of pure excitement that any dog owner would recognise as the Noise That Spot Makes When He sees The Squeaky Ball. There were some 150 dogs up on the property at Fish Lake. That’s a lot of excited dog noise. Jocelyn showed us the basics of mushing, (put your foot on the brake. No, really. Put your damn foot on the brake) and then how to put harnesses on our teams of four dogs. We took up position behind our sleds, full weight firmly on the brake as Jocelyn attached the dogs to the sled. With a final admonition to take it easy, off we went. I timidly took my heel off the brake a little, the straining huskies jerked forward and I reflexively tightened my grip on the sled handlebar.
The dogs left in the yard howled their displeasure as we set off. The sleds hissed across the snow, the scamper of the huskies’ surprisingly dainty paws a pattering counterpoint to their excited panting. I know we went past snowy pines, along a track and on to a frozen lake – imagine! Mushing your own dog sled team across a frozen lake in the Yukon! – but I was so obsessively fixed on my feet that I almost saw nothing those first fifteen minutes. You see you’re balanced on two ‘skis’, with the brake in the centre. Lift your foot off one of the skis and then onto the brake, but then you have to work out which side to lean to balance it all out and, of course, where to put your foot back without falling off. I’m not great with this kind of thing. That’s why I knew I’d fall.
But I was loving it all the same. I had an epiphany around half an hour in, I was getting into the swing of it, if I leaned like that then I could go a little faster… this was easy! This was something I could get good at… this was – and then it hit me – this was the story of a lifetime! This English girl, who moved to Vancouver and then tried dog sledding, turned out to be AMAZING at it and entered the Yukon Quest, the most punishing race on earth. Of course, just as I was basking in the imagined glory of passing the finishing line, we went around a corner, I slammed the brake on too hard, parted company with the sled and well, you know the rest.
They had to send a snowmobile to find my team. As I made the humiliating climb into Jocelyn’s sled, frantically apologising all the way, she told me to not worry. It happened all the time. So I lay back and enjoyed the view; the stunning scenery, the excitement of the dogs and yes, admired their skill at being able to run and poop at the same time. We should all be so talented.
Realistically, I’m probably not going to enter the Yukon Quest, but I’m definitely going to give mushing another go. We caught up with my naughty crew 20 minutes later and I managed another hour or so without falling off. By the end my feet were painfully cold and my hands trembling from gripping the bar so hard. We’d done just 2% of what the amazing mushers of the Yukon Quest do. I have so much respect for them and their dogs and after just a short time doing it, I can see exactly why they do it.
Thanks to all at Sky High Wilderness Ranch – especially Jocelyn for being so patient and Ian for rescuing my dogs. I travelled as a guest of Tourism Yukon, however, my views are 100% my own.
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