Canadians build the best bear hangs in the world- big, sturdy steel-and-cable rigs that tower over backcountry campsites. Good thing, too, because there are plenty of bears in the backcountry. And moose and wolves and other assorted wildlife. This nation is still the epitome of all things wild. A Canadian Royal Commission report on the economy alluded to the fact: “This is an immense country” where the “space enters the bloodstream,” and “wilderness remains a partner in the venture.” Canada has more lakes, rivers, and forests than any other nation, but that’s only the tip of the wilderness iceberg. There are glaciers to hike across and polar waters where you paddle around house-size ice cubes. On the Pacific side you can stroll slack-jawed through groves of neck-bending old-growth spruce, and near the Atlantic Coast dump sand out of your boots after traversing dunes with 40-foot troughs. “If Canada did not exist,” a casual observer once commented, “it would be in the interest of the United States to invent her.” Go see for yourself. They’re all just across the border, and each offers an experience that’ll have you singing, “Oh Canada!” -The Editors
Banff National Park
Banff is backpacking heaven, what with all the snowy peaks, turquoise lakes, and over 1,000 miles of trails. There’s enough here to keep you hiking for months, but if you need more, you can cobble together a larger trip by including the paths found in the other three contiguous Rocky Mountain national parks (Jasper to the north, and Kootenay and Yoho to the west). You can even take it a huge step further and link up with the trails in the three nearby British Columbia provincial parks (Mt. Assiniboine, Hamber, and Mt. Robson), which together form a World Heritage Site and one of the largest protected areas in the world. Whatever you choose to do, expect the mountains to ingrain themselves into your psyche. Adjectives like “majestic” are empty when it comes to describing the Canadian Rockies. There are three ranges overall, with the park located along the jagged Front and Main Ranges. In lower elevations you’ll see elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats in grassy meadows, and the occasional bear. As the elevation increases, you’ll travel through dense subalpine forests before entering windswept alpine meadows. Through it all, you’ll be surrounded by glacier-clad peaks and will overlook brilliant glacier-fed lakes and streams.
Getting there: Calgary, Alberta, has the nearest international airport, and from there you have three options to get to Banff, which is 80 miles (11/2 hours) to the west: rent a car; hop on a Greyhound bus to the town of Banff; or catch a ride with Brewster Transportation (403-762-6767), which will drop you off at the town of Banff, Lake Louise, or trailheads along the highway.
Trails: Over 1,000 trail miles give you plenty of options, but Skoki Valley is the quickest escape from Lake Louise. Twenty miles of trail cut through wide, flowered meadows, weaving between the peaks of the Slate Range. Find out how Deception Pass got its name, and then hike to Merlin Lake for a quick dip to cool off. For current bear warnings call the park office at (403) 762-1550, then reroute your trip to stay out of those areas.
Season: Plan to visit July through September. Park staff at the visitor centers in Banff and Lake Louise can tell you which trails are snow-free. Early fall is nice because there are fewer bugs and people on the trails, and spectacular visual treats like the larch trees in all their autumnal glory.
Permits and fees: Backcountry users must purchase a personal-use permit (C$5 per person per day; C=Canadian dollars) and a wilderness pass (C$6 per person per night). Some designated campsites can be reserved by calling ahead to the park, and the rest are allocated on a first-come, first-served basis.
Maps and guides: Must-reads include the park’s “Backcountry Visitor’s Guide” brochure; The Canadian Rockies Trail Guide, by Brian Patton and Bart Robinson ($14.95, Summerthought Publishing; 403-762-3919); and Classic Hikes in the Canadian Rockies, by Graeme Pole ($24.95, Altitude Publishing; 403-678-6888); Don’t Waste Your Time In The Canadian Rockies, by Kathy and Craig Copeland ($14.95, Wilderness Press; 800-443-7227). Gem Trek Publishing (403-932-4208) produces several 1:50,000-scale maps of Banff, including Banff Up-Close, C$9.95. Topographic maps and trip-planning info are available from the Friends of Banff by calling (403) 762-8918.
More information: Banff National Park, Box 900, Banff, AB T0L 0C0; http://www.worldweb.com/parkscanada-banff/index.html. Call Banff Information Centre, (403) 762-1550 or Lake Louise Visitor Centre, (403) 522-3833.
La Mauricie National Park
Fair warning: Don’t play the Most Beautiful Place Game with me, because I’ve been to the deep forests of La Mauricie National Park. This is the backpacker’s and canoeist’s paradise, with its classic Eastern woodland, forest floors carpeted with wildflowers in spring, and red-hued maple leaves in autumn. There are about 150 lakes here, with some waterways nearly 30 miles long-the highways to the backcountry. In the spring the loons call, and the white-throated sparrows sing “oh Canada-Canada-Canada” throughout the night. Look for bears at water’s edge and moose searching for breakfast. There’s a strong human history that extends as far back as 5,000 years. Look carefully and you’ll see evidence of Native peoples. You’ll also paddle in the wake of European trappers, traders, and loggers who were here centuries ago.
Getting there: Fly into Montreal or Quebec City, then drive 2 hours (124 miles) to the park.
Trails: With so many lakes and portage routes, you could spend weeks in a canoe. A nice three-day loop starts on Lake Wapizagonke, the longest and most popular waterway in the park, jumps to Lake Waber, Lake Tessier, Lake Marechal, and Lake Caribou, which connects to Wapiza-gonke. Four miles of portaging is required. A five-day trip starts on Wapizagonke, continues on Lake Anticagamac, and then to Matawin River. Portage your canoe about 3 miles to Lake Cinq, and then choose whether to head back to Wapizagonke or paddle out on the southeastern side of the park via several smaller lakes.
Season: The backcountry is snow-free from mid-May to late October; biting bugs are less of a problem in early spring and fall. You can rent canoes at the day-use areas at Shewenegan and Lake Edouard from May through September, or outside the park. Don’t be put off by the car campers crowding campsites and picnic grounds at the two entrances.
Permits and fees: Canoe campers must register at one of the two visitor centers and pay C$14 to $18 per tent per night. Fishing requires a permit (C$8 per day).
Maps: The La Mauricie National Park map is available for free from the park.
More information: La Mauricie National Park, 794-5e Rue, C.P. 758, Shawinigan, PQ G9N 6V9; (819) 536-2638.
Pukaskwa National Park
Ask the park staff where Pukaskwa National Park (pronounced puk-a-saw) is located and they’ll tell you it’s on “the wild shore of an inland sea.” Quite an inspiring way to otherwise say the northernmost shore of Lake Superior, the largest body of fresh water in the world. Either way, this 725-square-mile park is a watery world that is home to seven major rivers, and hundreds of smaller lakes and streams. If you’re not a fan of paddling frigid waters (average 39°F year-round), you can set out on the 37-mile-long Coastal Hiking Trail. You’ll still make four river crossings, but the highlight is a stroll across a 120-foot-long suspension bridge that sways 80 feet above the White River. Rangers call it “one of the most dynamic experiences in the park.” As you pick your way across the rivers or follow well-worn animal trails, pause and consider the boreal forest and its waterways that were once a home, a source of livelihood, a highway for travel, and most of all a daunting obstacle to survival for aboriginal people and European trappers. When they plied the land, it was populated by reindeer (better known as woodland caribou), of which only about 10 remain. Few people are lucky enough to see them. But for the backcountry hiker there are plenty of moose, bears, otters, porcupines, and some 250 species of birds to keep you company.
Getting there: Pukaskwa is a 7-hour drive from Duluth, Minnesota, and a 5-hour drive from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, both via the Trans Canada Highway. Connector flights stop in Marathon, Ontario, a 25-minute drive away. A taxi service from Marathon can drop you off at the park, and Greyhound buses go through the town daily.
Trails: The Coastal Hiking Trail’s 37 miles demand a good fitness level, orienteering skills, and lots of patience. Despite continuous maintenance, the trail is often obscured by washouts or logs. The Coastal typically takes five days and four nights. You can arrange water-taxi services in the town of Heron Bay and get dropped off at trail’s end at North Swallow River camping area or picked up at a prearranged location along the way. The typical fee for the drop-off is C$200 for a group of up to five. The boat trip takes just over 3 hours. Park headquarters can suggest local water taxis.
Season: The average daily temperature in July and August is 59° F, but expect intermittent heat and sun. Bugs are abundant in the summer months, making September to mid-October prime for visiting.
Permits and fees: Backpackers on the Coastal Trail pay a backcountry-use fee of C$6 per group for registration, and C$5 per person per night. Camp in established sites only, which have pit toilets, bear poles, and tent pads. A mandatory orientation session at the visitor center provides information on bugs, bears, and trail conditions. Call in advance to reserve your campsite.
Maps and guides: The Friends of Pukaskwa produces the Coastal Hiking Trail Guide (C$2), which includes a map, a 1:100,000 interpretive map of the park (C$8.95), plus 1:50,000 topos (C$8.95 each). All are available at the park store or by calling Friends of Pukaskwa; (807) 229-0801, ext. 233; http://marathon.lakeheadu.ca/~friends/friends.html.
More information: Pukaskwa National Park, Highway 627, Hattie Cove, ON P0T 1R0; (807) 229-0801; http://parkscanada.pch.gc.ca/parks/ontario/pukaskwa/pukaskwae.htm.