A greeting from Montreal, North America’s only bilingual city and it definitely feels a bit different from elsewhere in the country. Whilst you still have the same companies and food options etc. the people are a little bit ‘different’. As a German woman at my hostel summed up better than I could: “On the West coast Canadians are amazingly welcoming, they really go out of their way to make you feel comfortable even in quite small ways. But when I got to Quebec… it was like being in France”.
Canadians are awesomely friendly and agreeably laid back but I guess I have quite enjoyed not having to deal with 10-15 “How are you doing today?” conversations per day which don’t go anywhere and can get a bit trying!
However, that’s one of the very few things I could say about Canada which isn’t overwhelmingly positive as it joins my recent trips to Iceland and Norway as one of the ‘best’ countries in the world to live in and it’s not bad looking too. My flight in would have to rank as the best long haul one I’ve ever done as after flying over the Icelandic desert we continued over the iceberg covered Greenland coast before reaching Canada. 2 hours over Northern Canada revealed the harsh landscape of treeless tundra and thousands upon thousands of lakes. We then hit the snow-capped Rockies before the clouds cleared above the Pacific and the beautiful city of Vancouver. I knew it was going to be good.
After taking the ferry from the mainland my first activity was hiking the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island. The top rated hike in the world for the last 17 years on Besthike.com, they only let a limited number of people do it and after I’d missed the booking date online I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it. However, after meeting a Swiss army vet in my hostel in Victoria (capital of British Columbia) we decided to take a risk and serendipitously we found a ride to the start of the trail and the park rangers let us start the next day. It’s 75km long but takes around a week due to the nature of the terrain you hike through. It was originally founded for shipwreck victims and the trail veers between the fog covered coastline and one of the few areas of temperate rainforest in the world. There are signs up everywhere saying it’s only for experienced hikers and you have to sign a disclaimer as you have to battle huge tree roots and logs, deep mud, car sized boulders on the beach, hand pulled cable cars, scary suspension bridges and nearly 100 ladder sections which being afraid of heights I did not enjoy much. The unique beauty of the landscape coupled with the nightly whale watching and camping on the beach will not be forgotten any time soon.
My biggest fear about the outdoors in Canada was the threat of bears and predictably I saw one within 25 minutes of hiking! It was a couple of hundred metres away but later on one came within about 30m of us on the beach and despite making as much noise as we could to scare it off it really didn’t seem to care, taking a couple of minutes to slowly make its way back into the forest. I always made sure I hiked with other people and put food in bear lockers or hanging from a tree. There are certain things you’re advised to do if you meet a bear like make noise but as when a wasp is buzzing around you and might sting you, you’re acutely conscious that if a bear wants to break you in 2 pieces there’s not much you can do about it. A guy got eaten in Yellowstone this Summer and whilst I somewhat got used to it there is a definite air of tension when you’re in the countryside which I’ve never experienced before.
That said, conquering that fear was definitely worth it as I continued the adventure in the Alberta Rockies. I did several day hikes around Jasper and climbed the awesome 3000m Cascade mountain near Banff which gave out incredible views of nearly 100km and was quite scary as there’s no path just a 7hr scramble up the mountainside. However, the undoubted highlight was cycling The Icefield Parkway or the much prettier French version of Le Promenade des Glaciers. A certain entry in the 10 Greatest Driving Roads, 1001 Things to Do Before You Die etc. lists on the internet it’s a 250km route in the Rockies so named because the road weaves between the glaciers in the high Rockies. Geographically it’s an amazing area as it’s one of the few places in the world where water drains to 3 different oceans called an Hydrological Apex and the glaciers have formed huge U shaped valleys and incredible rock layering to admire. There are campsites dotted en route in the pine forests by the bright blue glacial lakes and streams and with jaw dropping scenery the entire way I found myself stopping all the time for photo breaks. Well, that and the fact it was very tough physically, with a fully loaded bike, going over two 2000m passes and the scary descents down the other side meant I got a real felling of achievement when I finished.
If the first half of the trip was quite physically intense the 2nd half was MUCH easier. After meeting up with an old friend in Calgary I flew East to Ontario and pushed past the thousands of tourists to admire the voluminous yet graceful Niagara Falls as they flow from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. The popularity of the Falls amongst Mid Western tourists has led to the town becoming quite an odd place composed of rubbish motels and tacky wax museums/haunted houses but nearby Niagara on the Lake is a gorgeous alternative and a lovely introduction to the East of the country.
From Niagara I headed on to the country’s biggest city in Toronto; it’s home of the CN Tower, Drake and the Blue Jays and has an impressive lakeside setting. With approximately 150 languages spoken there it vies with London and New York as the most multicultural city in the world and my favourite aspect was just wandering the different neighbourhoods seeing all the different cultures and people. Finding strength in its diversity people do just seem to get along and to date they’ve largely avoided the domestic terrorism that Europe and the US has suffered from.
Canada has been one of the fastest growing developed countries in the world and it’s easy to see why so many people from around the world want to move there. Thanks to their huge reserves of natural resources the economy has boomed and it’s fairly easy to find work there. Arguably a more welcoming population than America and better public services too means that even with the long hard Winters it’s become a land of opportunity that few countries can match.
That said Canada definitely has social problems too; on arrival in Ontario I was warned by a couple of cops to look after myself as petty crime and the gang problems in America have crossed the border into the big cities. However, by far the most visible issue is drug addiction and homelessness. All major cities have big problems but similar to Seattle/San Francisco on America’s the troubled and homeless tend to drift to the West coast in Vancouver and Victoria. Largely this is due to the weather (no snow and much milder Winters) but also better public services and a slightly more tolerant population. In Vancouver they’ve taken over an 8x8 block area just outside the city centre and the sheer number of street people in certain areas is almost unbelievable, as in thousands in a small area. I’ve not quite seen poverty like it in the developed world and it left me feeling quite sad at how so many people have lost their way and we don’t have the means to help them find it again.
My final area to visit was French speaking Quebec and as alluded to earlier it does feel like being in a different country. Whenever I told a Canadian I had Quebec on my itinerary I was greeted with a roll of the eyes and a none too positive comment. The people have a reputation not a million miles from the French in Europe i.e. a bit superior to those around them. They’ve had a couple of independence referendums and in the mid ‘90’s came within 50,000 votes of seceding from the rest of the country. I went to see Didier Drogba make his debut for the Montreal Impact (MLS team) and it was quite noticeable how differently the anthem was respected vs at the Blue Jays game I went to. In Toronto it was similar to America with everyone putting their hands on heart and belting the anthem out with no sense of irony. In contrast in Montreal, everyone around me just ignored it and continued their conversations. The Quebecois flag is more visible than the Maple Leaf and their ambivalent view of being part of the country doesn’t go down well with the rest of the country.
That said there are lots of nice aspects of being in a more European cultural area with a much stronger sense of history and a slightly more refined arts and culinary scene compared to the rest of the country. In short, any culture which provides poutine to the world must be celebrated.
Having spent my last two Summers and the first half of this one cycling, hiking and camping outdoors the second half of the trip felt very easy, almost to the point where I felt a bit lazy. The quality of life felt very high in the glorious sunshine as I’d have leisurely mornings drinking coffee and reading then spending lots of money on good food in very comfortable surroundings before finishing the day drinking excellent microbrews whilst watching baseball. It felt very strange, almost like I was on holiday.
Despite spending 6 weeks in Canada looking at a map of the country I realised I only visited maybe only 2% of it and wondered if that was enough to get a decent view of the country. However, 75% of the population live within 150km of the US border for weather/agricultural reasons and getting around is either prohibitively expensive (up to £1000+ for flights in the Northern Territories) or simply wilderness and I did come to realise that you can only get a snapshot of Canada regardless of your trip length and ultimately I took nearly 800 photos so I think the ‘snapshot’ of this beautiful country came out pretty well.