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Published: October 6th 2010
When you think about Canadians you may ask yourself,
"Why are we the way we are?"
Well the answer is laying right under our feet, literally,
fact is, it's this land that shapes us.
There's a reason why we run off the dock instead of tippy toe in.
It's because that water is frozen. Six months a year.
And that frozen water brought on a sport that we can call our own.
This land is unlike any other,
We have more square feet of awesomeness per person than any other nation on earth.
It's why we flock towards lakes, mountains, forests, rivers, and streams.
We know we have the best backyard in the world,
and we get out there every chance we get.
Because it’s not just the great outdoors we're chasing, its freedom.
And this place gives it to us at every turn.
Here, we're free to chill out, free to unwind, and free to wind up…
You may not
ask yourself that at all, even if you are Canadian. But, before I’d heard that Molson Canadian beer ad, we’d already decided to put our travelling escapades on pause for a while to sample that very backyard. When
heard that, we’d already been studying in Canada for six months; the Winter Olympic hype was reaching a nauseous nationalistic nadir, and That Backyard - the reason we’d chosen to study in Canada (aside from the free tuition and generous living allowance) -- seemed as distant and unexplored as if we’d chosen to study in Chad.
It hardly ever rained in southern Alberta, so when it did - torrentially - on the day we finally got to set off and see that backyard, it totally spun me out. Adding to the adventure was the addition of our new baby girl, Mandalay, born one month previously, my mother who’d flown over to England to accompany us, and the task of unpacking our apartment into 4 categories; stuff to keep for our return in eight months time; stuff we’d need for our camping trip - some of which would hopefully double-up as our stuff for taking to Ecuador for half a year, and finally, my undisputed favorite - stuff to give or throw AWAY! You may read this and think how run-of-the mill it sounds. It was one of the most stressful experiences of my life. Where does all that bloody
stuff come from?
Despite it being late May, on the drive up to Calgary the torrential rain became a torrential blizzard. We’d booked a hotel for our first night in Banff to ease us into the trip, and met up with zee German family who’d flown over from Berlin. They’d be accompanying us on the outbound trip as far as Vancouver. We five had a Ford Windstar 3.8L minivan packed to the rafters with stuff (including our tent and bedding on the roof). They five had rented two brand spanking new Ford F350 double-cab eight-hundred- fifty-thousand-litre monster trucks which conveniently had luxury living quarters strapped to the backs.
On day #2 of our summer camping trip we all hiked up to the viewpoint of Peyto Lake, through two feet of snow. Looking down at that beautifully-blue frozen lake I considered that perhaps we were a tad early in the season for tenting in the Rockies, and made the decision we’d be better to double-back and head south instead of continuing on our northerly trajectory; giving summer a little extra time to arrive before we returned this way in a month’s time. Zee Germans were also on board; for,
despite their all-weather RVs, they hadn’t packed their snow shoes either, and so we all about turned, camping that night just over the snowless side of the Rockies in Revelstoke National Park.
Procuring alcohol in western Canada isn’t easy. The cost is bordering on extortion (unless you hail from Sweden) and if you turn up at a private campsite which offers hot spring baths, restaurant and gift shop, for example, asking for a beer; you’ll be pointed in the direction of the nearest town. This in most cases isn’t around the corner. Travelling with zee Germans, minus beer, is-a-problem.
Fortunately the kindness of Canadian strangers meant we were gifted at least enough beer to fight another day; learning a valuable lesson in the process. The same happy campers who threw us some beers also lent us a grill so as we had something to do with all the raw meat we’d brought, as our grill had disappeared during our packing escapades back in Alberta.
The following day I went in search of a replacement in the next town. Whilst scouring the shelves of a local hardware store a fellow customer asked if he could assist. This amounted
to me jumping in his car, him driving me across the town he recently called home, him giving me a replacement from his own house at no cost and him dropping me back at the location of my choice. Another few incidences of random kindness and general friendliness around the campsite led us to the conclusion that ‘these Canadians sure are a friendly bunch!’ But let’s stop it right there. Our time recently back in academia has re-indoctrinated us into examining something colloquially entitled ‘data’. And alas it was concluded we were simply ephemeral neighbors borrowing reciprocal companionship on the anonymous open road:
All those friendly Canadians we’d met were transient, far from either their origins of birth or the places they called home. In a sense they were travelers like us, and if you happen to meet travelers on the road they’re generally unrepresentative of their brethren back home. They come out of their shell, they’re more approachable, and a traveler’s camaraderie is formed and acculturated. Some of the older campers had been living this lifestyle for years. Their RVs resembled large buses or even small homes. Travelling was part of who they are, and friendly is what
they’d become. I guarantee they were right reticent recluses before they hit the road ;-)
In our perseverant attempts at chasing the trappings of summer we headed down to the Okanagan Valley, Canada’s wine growing region. In many cases the landscape is strikingly similar to southern California, the brochures claimed, and Jennifer concurred. But after hitting the wineries for a few days we decided to cut our planned time in the valley short as the weatherman promised more of the unseasonable rain which had punctuated our stay. Besides which, it was Thursday, which meant we could procure generously discounted ferry tickets; weather.com promised us an uninterrupted spell of summer if we continued our westward dash; and hotwire.com guaranteed us a warm bed and four solid walls upon our arrival in Victoria that night.
On the drive out we rode on the main artery across this vast land. On certain stretches one can drive without encountering a single anthropomorphic trace. Forests line either side of the road as far as the eye can see. But then city block sized chunks of lifeless gray wastelands starkly appear. More and more of these tree-waxed scablands come into view checker-boarding their way
to the horizon. Some show younger trees that have been replanted in the place of felled, with placards indicating when trees were harvested and replanted. I wondered if the trees were “harvested” the first time they were cut, or whether that term is only used after subsequent replanting. I wondered if any of the forest I’d seen that day hadn’t been touched by man. I wondered whether in the sheer vastness of Canada’s backyard any of this even really matters.
I had just finished TA’ing an economics of anthropology class some weeks earlier. Many of the Canadian undergrads had surprised me with their indifference to the monumental scale on which the forests are felled, or the tar sand oil is extracted from their own country. What irked them was that their richer brother to the south wasn’t giving them a fair price for their loot. In this arena Canada resembles a developing nation; selling its natural resources in their raw format for a pittance, the countries buying these resources then manufacture products which they sell for vastly higher sums, sometimes back to Canada.
Wisconsin, in the United States, was once part of what was once called the Northwest
Territories. It marked what the start of the uncharted and unknown was for Europeans at the time. It was a state, along with Minnesota, that was almost entirely forested. European settlers and their corporations came and cut down the forests, sending the timber floating off down the Mississippi to be sold cheaply in nations across the globe. Wisconsin is now renowned for its dairy industry, owing to the large number of cows that graze its vast fields of grass. The local baseball team in my wife’s hometown of La Crosse is called The Loggers. Having used up most of its own resources the US now buys the majority of its lumber and oil from Canada.
Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, was just the tonic we sought. For the duration of our stay it gushed with that first day of summer vibe. It is also very English, we read, but looking past the very colonialesque statue of Queen Victoria and the fish and chips and the pints in the beer garden - and they do sell crumpets at Victoria Safeways; the only thing that reminded me vaguely of blighty was that the streets were kind of windy-up-and-downy and not
arranged in that New World grid pattern. Anyway, regardless of its non-Englishness there is no doubting Vic’s charm, and that of its backyard - Vancouver Island -stretching north into infinity; definitely a candidate city for PhD 2013.
We’d treated ourselves to a hotel whilst in Victoria in order to fill up on some creature comforts after our first week of camping, and then headed northward up Vancouver island. Out on the east coast after our first night back in the tent the silence awakened me at around four a.m. I grabbed the cameras, snuck out of the tent, and walked down through the forest to the beach.
From this side of Vancouver Island you can see clearly across to the mainland, and if it’s possible to see for a thousand miles, this was the morning to do it. The sun struggled to penetrate clouds which coated the sky from horizon to horizon, swaddling everything in the gloaming. The sea was as calm and silent as if on a deserted island at the equator. Everything lay bare, nothing stirred. Being stripped of the usual sounds, visual stimuli and general chaotic distractions which usually bombard the daily existence, intimately tuned
me into the external environment. Nature dwarfed the ego, basking me in its being.
A seal broke the surface of the ocean about a mile to my right. I thought whether he shared my sentiments as he popped his head above the water to take breath. A flock of Canadian Geese came silently floating past, seemingly oblivious to my presence there on the beach. An eagle flew overhead, bearing straight towards the mainland. I wondered how long it would take to reach there. I wondered what was there and not here. I wondered what it must be like to possess such freedoms, and felt intensely liberated simply envisioning how that may have felt.
A dissonant screeching broke the spell; two bald-eagles clashed in flight, stirring me from my vigil. I grabbed a camera and captured a blur. They dropped something ten feet in front of me; a fair sized crab, legs fruitlessly serving the shell of a body that had been almost entirely exhumed. I was annoyed I hadn’t been able to catch their tussle on camera. I thought it was about time I headed back to bed. We had a self-imposed schedule to keep and I didn’t
want tiredness holding me ransom later that day as we drove across Vancouver Island.
I decided to sleep in the minivan as I didn’t want to wake anyone on my return to the tent. As I bedded down on the backseat I thought of how, despite our ability to alter, manipulate and destroy almost every entity of this planet, just how un-free we are allowing ourselves to be.
Climate change is a physical biological phenomenon. Yet the environment isn’t an entity beyond the person; it is constantly interacting and evolving within the parameters and challenges set by our culture’s current excesses and at the same time that very same culture evolves within the parameters set by the constantly evolving and pointedly degrading environment. On this planet, what one does ultimately affects us all, yet at the same time what the individual does is framed by the culture in which they live and it is that dominant global culture that needs to change. Realistically this isn’t going to happen of its own accord. So it will be left to the environment to force culture’s hand. Hopefully culture can keep up with such changes. Hopefully Mother Nature shows us more
compassion than we’ve shown her.
After breakfast we headed up to Englishman River Falls. A perfect example of how understated many perfectly wonderful natural attractions are in North America due to the sheer number variety and grandeur of many other better marketed ones. The next stop visited was an example of why national parks are needed to protect token portions of the planet from our cultures rabid consumption of all that lies before it.
An old growth forest - perhaps a couple hectares of showpiece protected forest sadistically named after the guy who decided to preserve this tiny patch - not before his company had cut down the several hundred million acres of similarly virgin forest surrounding it. Thousands of people stop at Cathedral Grove in MacMillan Provincial Park everyday in the high season for a glimpse of how the planet ‘used to look’ before we began harvesting it. Sadly this genre of attraction is only set to become more commonplace and more demanded as we mourn and reminisce that we which have consumed and lost in some kind of devastative nostalgia fetish.
Later that day we bought a Sockeye Salmon from a “first nations” man at the
side of the road for $15. He fished it out of a cooler in the boot of his car; caught that day, he said, by his brother in the river flowing just behind him. This small stretch of land was part of an Indian reservation, giving the people here exclusive right to the ‘resources’. Salmon are fast becoming an endangered species even in the vast Canadian backyard. I thought of how this man’s ancestors had perhaps lived off the salmon here for 15,000 years. And how this somehow made the purchase more moral, and dare I say more ‘authentic’ than a frozen store bought farmed specimen.
Of course, nobody actually owns the rights to a wild salmon despite claims to own land, bought, stolen or inherited. Man has no more rights to a salmon than a salmon has rights to man. What is certain is that man would be at a loss without the salmon. The same cannot be said about the salmon’s loss of man. We keep them and they keep we.
Tofino is the end of the road heading west and our destination on the Pacific side of Vancouver Island. We paid a whopping $52 a
night for a camping spot overlooking the beach, but what a spot it was; we barbequed our Sockeye and popped open a bottle of chilled Okanagan Valley bought Pinot Grigio to wash it down with. You can’t put a price on that. And I’d be a hypocrite not to admit that that salmon was well and truly owned!
Next morning we drove into town to enquire after a whale-watching tour. Rival advertising promised a thirty-minute scenic plane ride above the islands dotting this beautiful coastline for less loonies. I could see more square feet of awesomeness this way. And so it was, Kiva and I squeezed into that little plane with Heiko and Marina. The propellers roared their effort through our headphones as we bumped along the water picking up speed, skipping and skimming the last few waves until the plane hauled itself free, transporting us up to an eagle’s eye view of the best backyard in the world. From here she sure tastes like the real thing.
To be continued…
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