January 24, 2009

Food for Thought in Canada

Another year is upon us. 2008 ended up being a very busy year for me, and I found myself in the final months of the year with little or no time to devote to blogging. In the true spirit of Resolution Season, I have vowed to set aside time once again when the interesting escapades in my life are worth recording.

One thing I have been meaning to record for many months now was my trip to Canada in the autumn of 2008. My first time to Canada, I wasn't entirely sure what to expect of it, apart from what I may have picked up in travel publications and online, and to my shame I had supposed it to be almost idential to the US in terms of its culture, people and so on. I was pleasantly surprised.

Something that is always desirable when travelling in another country for the first time is to see it through the eyes of the natives and not through the blinkered view of a tourguide. (no offence to the tourguides reading this :D). On this occasion, I was visiting my brother who had been living in the British Columbia and Alberta regions for about a year, and was well settled in with the locals and the Canadian way of life. During the two weeks I spent there, I was lucky to meet a good cross section of Canadians from many of the country's states. Common to all of them was a lovable roguish sense of humour and an inherent warmth and welcoming nature. On my own travels around the globe, I have met many Canadians before and my general impression of them was of a very chilled out people with a can-do approach to everything. However, most backpackers tend to be like this, so I was surprised to find that the average Canadian in his own land was exactly that also.

Of course, when you are just visiting somewhere for a short time, it's easy to view everything through the snap happy eye of a tourist, but I only had to look to my brother and his love of his lifestyle and surroudings at Lake Minnewaka, high in the moutains outside Banff. He seemed to love everything about this country and it was easy to see why.

I spent the majority of my visit in the Banff National Park, but also ventured into Jasper and Yoho parks at various times. Leaving the absolute mind-bending beauty of the Canadian rockies aside, these parks were a source of fascination to me for the sheer efficiency and strictness of how they are regulated. Parks Canada seems to be, in my opinion, expert at wilderness management. However, there are many Canadians who would disagree. So, I set about finding out something about when and how these parks came into being and what the Canadians really think of how they are run.

The Canadian Rockies National Parks are in their entirity designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and deservedly so. Parks Canada is responsible for managing and protecting close to 40 regions right across the country, including many national historical sites. It's remit is two-fold - firstly, to safeguard the ecological integrity of these protected regions, and secondly to facilitate the public's exploration, education and enjoyment of the parks. But however simple that might sound, it is a huge task, fraught with controversial issues and stumbling blocks. It is never going to be easy to act as the buffer between the unpredictable wild, and irresponsible and unthinking humans beings.

Canada's first national park was originally called Rocky Mountains Park, later to become known as Banff National Park, and the story behind how this park came into being is a fascinating one. Too long and interesting to detail here, it all hinged around three brothers who, when walking into the woods one day, discovered the hot springs not far from the town of Banff, and in the true spirit of entrepreneurship opened the first hotel close to the site called, naturally, Banff Springs Hotel. Subsequent to this important discovery was the creation of the National Park, as the Canadians began to realise that they needed to protect local resources such as the hot springs. As time elapsed and technology advanced, people also began to recognise the threat to the wildlife in the parks. More cars were appearing on the roads, more tourists were populating the beautiful regions of the country and human life started to have more and more of an impact on the wilderness of the country. And so, over time, more and more regions of the country were sectioned off into protected areas and called National Parks.

To the unschooled visitor, it seems the Canadians must be doing something right when you see with your own eyes species of animals that have long sinced disappeared from Europe. Probably the most thrilling aspect of my trip to Canada was catching stolen glimpses of the elusive wildlife. There is something magical about rounding a bend in the road late at night and coming upon a statuesque elk surveying the forest below.

On one afternoon, my brother took me to visit a wolf sanctuary located in the Yoho National Park, and this was something truly new to me. Entirely ignorant of wolves, I found this to be an extremely enlightening experience, as we learned about these mysterious animals and their social structure, which is so similar to our own as humans. I've since developed something of a fascination with them and I'm in the middle of reading a very interesting book called The Company of Wolves, which, if you are an animal lover, I highly recommend. Our guide at the sanctuary, however, was very critical of Parks Canada and their negligence in taking care of Canada's dwindling wolf population.
Before leaving the sanctuary, we were treated to something very special, as the five wolves we were visiting began to howl in unison, their ethereal harmonies rising on the air through the pines above us - truly beautiful. I had never heard anything like it before. The sound is with me still.

The part of Canada I travelled through on this occasion was one of the most awe-inducing places I have seen in the world, the majestic beauty of its peaks rivalling those of Patagonia. It was for me the perfect antidote to my busy noisy life here in New York. I left Canada feeling recharged both physically (after lots of spectacular hiking!) and mentally. I can't say it was easy to leave behind the pristine air and peace of Lake Minnewaka and arrive many hours later into the mayhem of Penn Station once again! That's just New York though, and I love it just as much but for very different reasons. Canada was an adventure and an unexpected eye-opener for me in many ways, and I am looking forward to going back at my earliest opportunity!

Thanks to the lovely Canadians I met while I was there and who shared their thoughts and experiences with me.

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