The Outside Blog

Adventure : Exploration

Exploring Canada’s Extremes

Want to get off the tourist-beaten track? Then look no farther than our northern neighbor, where a string of five national parks—with shifting ice and steep-walled fjords—peer over North America’s 49th parallel.

These Canadian preserves stretch from Newfoundland to high above the magnetic North Pole, offering stunning views and incredible access to the wild. But beware: these are regions where wildlife reigns supreme and humans submit to Mother Nature. 

We start with the southernmost of the parks, Gros Morne, and end with Quttinirpaaq, at the tip of the continent to the north. This is what you’ll find if you follow the trail less traveled.

Gros Morne 

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Location: Newfoundland
Miles from the Arctic Circle: Roughly 1,200 (south)
Best Time to Visit: May through October
Getting There: Deer Lake airport is less than an hour's drive. Alternatively, a ferry from Nova Scotia docks at Port aux Basques, about four hours away. Because public transportation near the park is very limited, you'll have to have a vehicle to get around.

Sheldon Stone, of Parks Canada’s Western Newfoundland and Labrador Field Unit, knows 697-square-mile Gros Morne National Park is different. “This is not the landscape that people expect for eastern Canada,” he says. “It’s bigger, wilder, and surprising.” The park was even classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the late 1980s.

Challenge yourself by tackling the Long Range Traverse—an unmarked, multi-day backpacking route that requires excellent navigation skills and mental toughness. (Be prepared to get cold and wet.) But you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking views of arctic highlands and the park’s huge lakes.

Must see: Stone suggests the Tablelands. “It’s a big, barren mountain that looks like it belongs on Mars, but it’s surrounded by dense, green boreal forest.”

Torngat Mountains

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Location: Newfoundland and Labrador
Miles from the Arctic Circle: Roughly 560 (south)
Best Time to Visit: Mid-July through mid-August
Getting There: Arrive via chartered boat or plane from Goose Bay, Nain, or Kangiqsualujjuaq (which is in Nunavik, northern Quebec).

With no direct roads connecting it to a larger hub, Canada’s newest national park (established in 2008) is also one of the hardest to reach. Gary Baikie, Parks Canada’s visitor experience and product development manager, has been traveling here since 1981 and argues that the Torngat experience is worth the considerable effort involved in getting there. “Torngat includes spectacular views of the dramatic fjords and barren mountains that rise thousands of feet out of the Atlantic Ocean,” says Baikie. “Wildlife, such as polar bears, roam freely on the coastline, and visitors experience an arctic ecosystem that meets a southern one.”

Travelers seeking out this remote, above–tree line beauty should enter the Torngat Mountains with flexible plans and an open mind—which means being prepared for mercurial weather. Making the most of the park also means utilizing the local wisdom. “The absolute best way to explore the Torngat Mountains is with the Inuits from the area,” Baikie explains.

The Torngat Mountains Base Camp, which is all-Inuit staffed, provides everything from “Bear Guards” for warding off those predators during hikes to a memorable hospitality crew. Because the park is home to both black and polar bears, Torngat Mountains National Park requires visitors to register before exploring the region, as well as to take part in a mandatory bear-safety briefing. The park staff strongly recommends hiring an armed Inuit Bear Guard (visitors aren't permitted to carry their own firearms). 

Auyuittuq

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Location: Baffin Island (Nunavut)
Miles from the Arctic Circle: 0 (the Arctic Circle passes through this park)
Best Time to Visit: Early spring or late summer
Getting There: Even though it’s the most accessible park in the Nunavut territory, traveling to Auyuittuq requires serious planning. Depending on ice conditions, the park can be reached over snow or by boat via Pangnirtung Fjord (from Pangnirtung) or North Pangnirtung Fjord (from Qikiqtarjuaq). When ice is breaking up midsummer, the park is inaccessible.

Polar guide Sarah McNair-Landry lives on Baffin Island. Boasting the largest uninterrupted cliff face in the world (Mount Thor) and world-renowned Mount Asgard, this park is a mountaineer’s dream, she says. Mountains named after Norse gods tower over the valley, and the park offers something for adventurers of every stripe: from hiking up the valley system, to traversing the Penny Ice Cap, to climbing one of the impressive peaks. 

This dynamic place isn’t quiet, due in large part to its brutal climate. The blustery weather that can torment area visitors has ripped away shelters (McNair-Landry says the gales whipping through the park’s Windy Lake campsite have snatched away a number of tents over the years), and high glacial melt in midsummer turns brooks into roaring rivers.

You’ll safely enjoy the park’s incredible beauty if you do your homework ahead of time. That means reading up on local resources, including the park’s visitor-information package, and considering exploring the region with a guide. 

Sirmilik

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Location: Northern Baffin Island (Nunavut)
Miles from the Arctic Circle: 509 (north)
Fair-Weather Friendly: Early spring or late summer
Getting There: Iqaluit, the hub airport Nunavut, offers flights to the communities of Pond Inlet and Arctic Bay. From there, local outfitters can assist with boat or snowmobile travel into the park.

The fifth-largest island in the world, Baffin has ample room to support two of Canada’s national parks: Auyuittuq and Sirmilik. In the latter, slow rivers of ice traverse the park’s 8,571 square miles. 

Visitors to Sirmilik are brought into close proximity with polar bears, so sighting one is not uncommon. The park also offers explorers the chance to observe narwhals and seabird colonies in season. Addressing the park’s diversity of wild inhabitants, Garry Enns, external relations manager in Parks Canada’s Nunavut field office, has this to say: “Wildlife-viewing in and along the park’s edges will give anyone taking the time for this trip an entirely new understanding of what ‘wild’ really means.”

Because the park is so isolated, each visitor is required to attend an orientation that includes information on polar-bear safety. Here, awareness is key: make sure you review the polar-bear safety brochure the park gives out before entering it.

Quttinirpaaq

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Location: Northern Baffin Island (Nunavut)
Miles from the Arctic Circle: 1,113 (north)
Fair-Weather Friendly: Late May to mid-August
Getting There: Fly to Resolute Bay from Iqaluit, then charter a flight to the park. If you aren’t looking for an extended stay, traveling aboard an ice-breaking cruise ship will afford you a taste of the park.

Fittingly, the Inuit name for this remote Canadian park means “on top of the world.” Here, expect wildlife—including arctic wolves, hares, and Peary caribou—to approach closely and without fear of humans.

Harsh weather is another reality. “Very few visitors really understand the meaning of ‘weather permitting’ until they’ve been caught in a fog that threatens to stay for weeks—maybe months,” says Enns. “Anyone planning a trip to this area must allow extra time.” 

Because any emergency help is far away, you have to take the time to slow down. Bring topo maps and a GPS. Decisions that are usually of little note in other areas (traveling when visibility is low) can turn into a life-or-death situation in a place this remote.

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Alaskan Road to Nowhere

Forge your way through 495,000-acre Chugach State Park and the 1.9-million-acre Kenai National Wildlife Refuge on a 500-mile pilgrimage through the Last Frontier.

Packing List: Rubber boots and rain jacket, fly rod, bug spray

Highlights: Acclimate to your moose-heavy surroundings in Anchorage with an 11-mile run or hike along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. Then head south in a high-clearance vehicle. (Most of the roads are good, but the best side trips will require something rugged.) An hour away you’ll find the Alyeska Resort and its 50-mile maze of mountain-biking trails (full-suspension bike rental with pads and helmet, $100).

In Seward, stay at the Exit Glacier Lodge, where the staff packs bag lunches for early-rising fishermen and stores their catch in a giant freezer (from $159). If you want to go for the big boys—halibut and king salmon—head out with Crackerjack Sport Fishing Charters ($350); if fishing isn’t your thing, go for an all-day ice-climbing lesson on four-mile-long Exit Glacier ($185).

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On the way to Homer, pitch a tent along the Sterling Highway at one of 45 sites at Quartz Creek Campground. Bank-fish for rainbow and Dolly Varden trout, or drive four miles east to Cooper Landing and sight-fish in the Russian River for sockeye salmon. In Sterling, stop to test the Blind Cat moonshine at Highmark Distillery.

At the end of the road in Homer, hop a water taxi across Kachemak Bay to your own remote cabin—complete with woodstove and minimal kitchen—and set up camp for the 
next two nights. From there, launch a kayak to paddle among orcas, sea lions, and humpback whales ($395 per person for two nights). 

Detour: Hop on a quick one-hour flight from Homer to Katmai National Park and Preserve for a guided tour and watch brown bears congregate on the tidal flaps to feast on running salmon ($675).

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The Culture Shock of Coming Home

We shuffled off the plane in Miami at 6:30 in the morning, our stream of passengers merging with other streams of passengers all flowing toward Baggage Claim and Customs. We entered a wider portion of the hall where large armed men held their ground in the middle of the crowd, scanning for people to pull aside and question.

“Wow, not too warm; not even a smile,” our daughter Molly noted.

“Pick up the ball! Pick up the BALL! PICK. UP. THE. BALL!” It took our son Skyler a minute to realize the uniformed man with the rearing German shepard was talking to him. Chagrinned he snatched up the soccer ball he’d been dribbling with his feet.

“Don’t worry Skyler. The dog just wanted your ball,” I said, pulling him closer.

We were returning home to the U.S. after a year living in Brazil. These returns are always an eye-opening jolt and, for me, a long, slow adjustment. It usually takes me a full year to reintegrate into life at home.

We managed to find all our bags, make it through Customs, recheck the bags and enter Security. There we stood one-by-one in the beam-me-up-scotty Imaging Station, our hands raised over our heads, while our bodies were stripped to their bones.

I wondered what our Brazilian friends from the small, rural town where we'd been living—a town where for many people the luxury of running water was erratic—would make of all this and the self-flushing toilets, and automatic paper towel dispensers.

As we were repacking and redressing (the TSA agents had even scrutinized our flip flops) we were put through not one but two episodes of shouted, “Halt! Everybody, Don’t Move…. Okay, you can go, just a drill.”

We were definitely not in Brazil.

“Whew, this is intense,” Skyler said. “Let’s get out of here, before they do another one.”

Things had gone smoothly, until we hit the First World. Then things began to go awry. Our flight out of Miami was delayed for maintenance, which was okay. We happily rounded up a breakfast of things we hadn’t eaten for a year.

"That’s what they don’t have in Brazil: muffins, whipped cream, and vending machines,” Skyler exclaimed seeing one for the first time in 12 months.

This is why it's worth all the trouble of leaving one's job, renting one's house, learning other languages, uprooting one's kids, and struggling through cultural adjustment: for this chance to pull back. And especially so our kids can get that perspective at young ages. But the return is hard.

What do you say to all your old friends asking, “How was it? I bet it was so fun.” I don’t know if I could really say living abroad is fun. Certainly it can be exhilarating. It's definitely stimulating, but it's also painful and hard. It’s more like giving birth to a child. Not fun, but so worth it. Worth if for the connections we’ve made with people so different from ourselves, culturally, racially, economically, socially; and the pride, and I hope the increased confidence for our kids, because of the obstacles we had to overcome.

So what’s the sound bite that will somehow encapsulate our hearts cradling the people of Penedo (our small town in Brazil), the quilt of sherbert colors, palms clacking in the breeze, horse hooves on cobblestones?

I settled on, “Well, it was really rich, and well, really hard, so I feel relieved to be back and—sad, too.” It was lame, but the best I could do. Then I’d flip the conversation.

There was still too much to say. It would take months to boil it down. So it seemed simpler to say nothing. Besides no one really wanted more than that ten-second sound bite anyway. We'd warned our kids not to expect lots of interest from their friends. It's both disheartening and understandable.

Home was so familiar, too familiar. Had we ever left? I resented it a little. I wasn’t ready for this huge experience that my family and I had just had to be reduced to a dream. As I rode my bike and drove around our Montana town in my car, I realized we couldn’t have chosen a foreign town more the opposite of home. Penedo’s hard surfaces and chute-like streets were met with Missoula’s sprawling-wide, leafy-soft avenues; Penedo’s bright oranges and pinks with Missoula’s muted greens; Penedo’s constant scraps of ricocheting sound with the quiet, steady susurration of Missoula’s water.

I kept finding myself thinking "here, there, here, there."

In my next life, I dream of lobbying Congress to create a program to send every American teenager abroad, preferably to a developing country. It would change our relationship to the world, as individuals and as a nation, completely. Those kids would come back with a visceral understanding of why they’re so lucky to have been born in the U.S.—recognizing how precious is their ability to speak out without risking their lives; seeing how well the law works, mostly. But they’d see, too, that we’re not so different, nor are we "ahead"; that our breakneck speed might be breaking us down; that our touted 24/7 access to work might be sapping our energy and stealing time, time we could be spending with others, face to face, as families do every Sunday in Brazil. Those U.S. kids would learn that maybe we need to look a little farther afield before we claim the bragging rights some of us seem to cherish as Americans. They would be shocked, as I was, that we have Congressional leaders who have never left our shores, have never been issued a passport, but make our foreign policy.

Some of those kids would decide they never want to leave the U.S. again, that they’re in the place they love. Others might decide, like me, that the world is their home, and it’s both inexhaustibly big and very small; that it’s full of people just like them, trying to find their place, their role, their identities; trying to take care of people they love. Then together they could change the world.

I hope that my children will be able to see how they can fit into that larger world—one bigger than nations, broader than race—and feel comfortable enough in it to know they can jump and then look, because they’ll know they can cope when they land.

I think they will and when they do I hope they take me with them.

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The Outdoor Exchange: Never Buy Gear Again

If your friends’ lack of kayaks keeps spoiling your dreams of organizing flotillas in nearby lakes, weep no more: last week, a small group of New Jersey men formally quit their jobs to focus on The Outdoor Exchange (OX), a subscription-based gear closet.

The brainchild of outdoor enthusiast and startup veteran Dariusz Jamiolkowski, five-week-old OX gives subscribers access to a catalog of high-end, expensive gear. Basic subscriptions to OX (there are a few options, the cheapest of which is $100) allow users to rent one item per week. You can rent more items at 10 percent of each additional product’s value. OX recently started an Indiegogo campaign to boost its membership, and expects to be “fully operational” by July, after which point basic subscription costs will double. 

So far, most of the rentals come from New Jersey (OX is based in Fairlawn), but subscribers hail from California, Colorado, Florida, and even England. Jamiolkowski estimates the young company rents about 10 items per week, and he hopes to attract more than 1,000 total subscribers by the end of summer, mainly by preaching the company's cause at big events like the Philly Folk music festival and relying on word of mouth. 

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But while OX is still young (currently it only has a couple hundred paying members), it's run by seven business- and tech-savy teammates whose resumes are padded with names like Lockheed Martin and Novo Nordisk. Jamiolkowski officially left his position as Handybook’s vice president of finance in February after being accepted into startup incubator TechLaunch, while marketing lead Adam Hackett quit his day job on June 6.

That team has come up with a unique gear-sharing model. Unlike GearCommons—another peer-to-peer program that depends on its users to supply gear—OX stocked its warehouse full of gear by working directly with manufacturers and distributors. The majority of the 300 products in its inventory were provided by companies like Black Diamond, Hobie, Maverick, and Folbot, a foldable kayak manufacturer. It's a relationship that benefits both parties. 

“The issue (Folbot’s) having is that they have a great product, but it's hard for somebody who hasn't been in a foldable kayak to spend $1,200 on a foldable kayak,” Jamiolkowski said. “So we're putting butts in the seats for these guys. We're gonna get people to try the product and nine out of 10 people are gonna try it and say it was great, but one person is gonna end up purchasing the kayak...And our customers are going to be happy because they get to use a premium product at a low entry-point.”

The company is still working out some kinks, including how to streamline shipping costs. For New Jersey residents, OX will drop off and set up gear at trailheads within 25 miles of its warehouse for $20. But the idea of spending $100 a year on shared gear doesn’t sound as good if you have to pay an additonal $200 in shipping.

This week, OX began testing what its founder calls the Trailblazer Program. For a set $74 per year, subscribers can ship all their rentals for free within the continental United States. Ultimately, the team hopes to open local warehouses where subscriptions are most concentrated to help defray costs. 

You may be wondering, “What happens if the gear gets damaged?” Well, Jamiolkowski and his team have set up a system to incentivize good gear treatment. OX rates both customers and gear internally when products are returned. If a customer gets low enough marks, she can’t rent gear anymore. “In order for this to work, it's gotta work both ways,” says Jamiolkowski. “Have you seen Meet the Fockers? We're building the Circle of Trust.

“We have families to support and mortgages to pay for, but we strongly believe in what we're doing, based on everything we've done so far to build a very successful, not only business, but a community for outdoor enthusiasts,” he says. 

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