Paddling in a Ghost World
The tumultuous, rolling waters off british columbia's haida gwaii lead to eerie totems of the past
DESPITE THE NORTH PACIFIC storms circling off the coast like jets in a holding pattern, our guide, Gord Pincock, is doing his best to see us through our eight-day kayak expedition in British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Islands, also known as Haida Gwaii. For the past three days, six of us paddlers from the United States and Japan, plus Pincock and his assistant, Suzane Couture, have been pinned down on a sheltered beach waiting for a weather window to open and let us continue to SGang Gwaay, an island at the southwestern tip of the 180-island archipelago. SGang Gwaay was named for the sighing sound made when 40-foot storm surf rolls across a reef, but this is a wonder that Pincock, who has been paddling in Haida Gwaii for half his life, doesn’t want us to experience—this and something called “clapitus.”
Clapitus, he tells us, occurs when a large wave bounces off a cliff face and collides with the wave behind it, turning the sea into an aqueous trash compactor. It is hell on small craft: A 20-foot wave rebounding off a wall will head back to sea as a ten-footer, but when it butts heads with the next 20-footer the two will merge into a mountain of confused hydropower. The feeling aroused in the paddler as this bastard child of fluid dynamics first buries him and then sends him free-falling into the trough is, at best, one of exhilarated consternation, and at worst one of cotton-mouthed terror. The problem with clapitus is that it doesn’t stop. It runs its violent routine over and over again, until you flee far enough offshore or battle through it into a safe harbor.
Pincock, a solid, agile, ruddy-faced 38-year-old British Columbia native, first encountered clapitus on a scale he had previously experienced only in a recurring nightmare. “The swell was 30 feet,” he explained as we gathered around the campfire at a deserted Haida village site on Kunghit Island about five miles north of SGang Gwaay. “The mountains, the color of the sky—everything—was exactly as it had been in my dream. I was thinking to myself, ‘This time, you’ve really done it.'” Exhausted, seasick, and terrified, Pincock suddenly found himself surrounded by porpoises. Buoyed by the encounter, he surfed and submarined his way into the cove he’d been looking for. “Once I made landfall,” he said, “I didn’t leave my campsite again for five days.”
Lying 50 miles off the B.C. coast and 40 miles south of the Alaska border, Haida Gwaii resembles a disembodied wing flying west into the Pacific Ocean. We’re paddling the southern end of this chain, through Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site. Nearly 5,000 people live on Haida Gwaii, and just less than half of them are directly descended from the islands’ original inhabitants, the Haida people, a tribe of seafaring warriors whose ferocity, mobility, and naval daring have drawn comparisons to the Vikings.
The Haida’s reputation isn’t well known south of the border, but their canoes, longhouses, and cedar totem poles represent a high point in North American art. It is because of these poles—the Angkor Wat of the Pacific Northwest—that we wait so patiently for a shot at SGang Gwaay. Cedar is exceptionally durable, but in Haida Gwaii—essentially a moated rainforest clinging to the shoulders of the snowcapped Queen Charlotte Mountains—a typical pole stands only about 150 years before it falls over and is consumed by moss. SGang Gwaay’s village of SGang Gwaay ‘Ilnagaay (aka Ninstints) contains the most famous and most intact of these poles—more than two dozen still stand—and the island has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Haida have survived against all odds, despite having their numbers reduced in the late 1800s from more than 10,000 to fewer than 600 in one generation of warfare and a biological holocaust of smallpox and influenza that came with the fur traders. As the Haida’s numbers have rebounded to about 2,000, so has their art of pole carving. Six poles were raised in the village of Skidegate on Graham Island in 2000, and dozens more have been carved since the Haida began the monumental task of cultural reclamation initiated by native artists in the fifties and sixties.
In 1985, after a long battle that pitted logging interests and the B.C. government against a coalition of Haida and other concerned preservation and environmental groups, Gwaii Haanas was made into a 138-island national park preserve. As such, it has been saved from the clear-cut logging that has razed forests in much of northern Haida Gwaii. In the park, the forest primeval still grows unchecked. There are cedars roomy enough to live in and spruce trees with more than a thousand growth rings. The deer and black bears, not to mention the killer whales, seals, and sea lions, have little fear of humans. There are no trails and no signs. In Gwaii Haanas, it is clear that nature rules and you are only a visitor. It’s an easy place to disappear.
If anything goes wrong out here, there is no cell-phone coverage, and many areas are blind to radio reception altogether. To get to Rose Harbour, the site of an abandoned whaling station on Kunghit Island at the southern end of the park, where Pincock keeps his kayaks, we flew from Vancouver to Sandspit, in the northern part of the Queen Charlottes, then traveled in a van 20 miles over logging roads, followed by more than 100 miles in a Zodiac. A friend who made the trip on a rough day said, “It was like sitting in front of a fire hose for four hours.” At that point, the journey has only just begun.
Access & Resources: Haida GwaiiGord Pincock and his company, Butterfly Tours (604-740-7018; www.butterflytours.bc.ca), offer eight and 12-day, all-inclusive guided trips for US$1,170 to $1,690 per person. Moresby Explorers Limited rents kayaks and provides transportation to and from points throughout the park. A one-week single kayak rental with transportation to the park starts at $223 (800-806-7633; www.moresbyexplorers.com). Paddlers traveling independently in Gwaii Haanas are required to make advance reservations ($10 per person) by contacting Tourism British Columbia, 800-435-5622; www.hellobc.com. Once visitors arrive at the park they must pay a user fee ($38 covers six to 14 nights). Call…
ROSE HARBOUR IS AN odd place. The first thing that catches your eye in the sheltered cove is a pair of rusting boilers once used for rendering blubber from sperm, gray, and humpback whales. Closer inspection reveals a rocky beach littered with bone fragments and shards of metal from exploding harpoons. Beyond this wreckage are the furnaces. Until the 1940s, Rose Harbour had been a slaughter ground for whales. Today its calm waters feel like a sanctuary.
Only a handful of white people live in the village now, those who went back to the land in the seventies and stayed. In 1978, a small consortium of them bought 166 acres on Kunghit Island and homesteaded. The Rose Harbour Whaling Company, as the group is called, predates the creation of Gwaii Haanas and owns the only private land within park boundaries. Only six people remain.
The land and sea provide most of what Rose Harbourites need, but money for the outboard, the radio phone, and the children’s clothes has to come from somewhere. As the watery path to Haida Gwaii is taken by more tourists, Rose Harbour has turned increasingly to a service economy: If you need a shower, a room, a kayak, or a meal, Rose Harbour has it all.
Because of the manic-depressive weather, kayakers paddle these waters the way a mouse negotiates a kitchen patrolled by cats, darting furtively from one hiding place to another. It requires considerable patience—something that three days under a wind-battered, rain-beaten tarp will test. Witnessing a bald eagle execute a flawless barrel roll is a wonderful reward for being still, but not enough to keep restlessness from driving me into the freezing water—suitless and maskless—to dive for sea urchins.
On the fourth day the wind dies down enough to allow us across Houston Stewart Channel, the southern gateway to SGang Gwaay. We paddle five miles around the south end of Moresby Island through dense fog. We might as well be paddling through clouds. There is no other sound but the rhythmic dipping of paddles and the muffled roar of the surf breaking up on Adams Rocks a mile away. These moss-covered rocks are all that lie between us and SGang Gwaay. At the end of Louscoone Inlet, a craggy, tree-lined cove, we spot five of the largest and rarest birds in Haida Gwaii: sandhill cranes. Even Pincock has never seen so many in one place. It’s deemed a good omen and we camp there.
The skies clear during the night, and the following morning, squinting in the unfamiliar sunshine, we pack the kayaks for the one-and-a-half-mile paddle to SGang Gwaay. Today the sea is glassy and the waters around Adams Rocks seethe quietly as puffins hurtle back and forth like bumblebees on speed.
Circumnavigating SGang Gwaay, we feel the Pacific swell beneath us, but it’s only four to six feet today. We tie off to knobs of bull kelp and fish for greenling, rock cod, and maybe a salmon.
Today, the Haida sites are guarded during the summer by an organization called the Haida Watchmen, whose job it is to make sure they are treated in a respectful manner. It’s considered an honor, particularly for the watchmen who guard Ninstints. The village was evacuated in the late 1800s after smallpox wiped out all but 30 people. Nearly half the remaining poles here are fire-scarred because, according to local legend, once the village had been reduced to a mass grave, members of an enemy coastal tribe braved Hecate Strait, the shallow, storm-prone channel that separates the islands from the mainland, and set fire to the village in an act of posthumous revenge. In the 1950s, anthropologists carted off many of the finest surviving poles; you can find them today in museums around the world.
On this sunny August afternoon we look at what collectors and time have left behind. Bleached like bones, the fixed and staring faces of eagles, ravens, killer whales, frogs, bears, and beavers—heraldic crests of the previous inhabitants—gaze back at us from a forest of 40-foot poles. Their deftly carved features are exaggerated and intimidating: Tongues loll, nostrils flare, teeth are bared, but these expressions seem more the effects of rigor mortis than of the ferocity of life; this is a place of ghosts.
Back at our camp on Louscoone Inlet, a culture away, two doctors—an uncle and nephew from the States—discuss the relative merits of kayaking and motoring. Marty, the uncle, waxes eloquent on the joys of paddling, while his nephew, Jay, extols the virtues of the BassMaster motor. The uncle counters with the cardiovascular benefits of paddling for yourself. “Frankly,” says the nephew, “I’d just as soon go to the gym for two hours and then jump on my Jet Ski.” You can almost see the lightbulb go off: “That’s it! I’ll bring a Jet Ski up here. Then I could see everything.”
Pincock is listening to all this—it is impossible not to because we are sitting in the midst of a profound, Edenic silence. He crouches down to stir a pot on the fire. “It wouldn’t be worth the trouble,” he says, chuckling mirthlessly. “You’d be dodging too many bullets.”
Alone Among the Dunes
The Canadian Sahara can be reached by floatplane, but it’s way more fun getting there by boat
Access & Resources: Lake AthabascaTo reach the park by canoe, paddle one of two major rivers that flow into Lake Athabasca: the William or the MacFarlane, or charter a floatplane. But be sure to have a contingency plan worked out with your pilot in case of bad weather. Churchill Canoe River Outfitters can arrange canoes, guides, and other services (877-511-2726; www.churchillrivercanoe.com). For more park information, call 306-439-2062; www.serm.gov.sk.ca/sask parks/IE.
THE SECOND TIME I RUN into Jean Graham, she still thinks I’m crazy. After five hours in a van dodging semi trucks freshly loaded with radioactive yellowcake from the uranium mine at the end of northern Saskatchewan’s Highway 905, I am once again at her dilapidated oasis of gas and essentials where river meets road. The last time I was here, three years ago, I had arrived by canoe. Five college-bound teenagers and I had just muscled 50 miles up the Johnson River, and Jean, the 53-year-old owner of the Johnson River Lodge, was amazed—she had never, ever heard of anyone ascending the waterfall-riddled Johnson. I explained we had 300 more miles to paddle, and that a ride 20 miles north to the Wollaston Lake bridge would help tremendously. She was shocked, but handed me the keys to her pickup truck, telling me to just leave it at the river; construction workers would drive it back. This is northern Canada: Dishonest people neither live nor travel here.
The second time around, she’s less surprised. Our shuttle driver needs gas. “You’re doing what?” Jean asks as we fuel up and John Stoddard, my paddling partner, wanders about the ramshackle compound of cabins, old cars, and odd hunks of metal. “We’re headed to Lake Athabasca…” I begin. “By canoe? This time of year?” she interrupts, rolling her eyes. “You really are nuts.”
It’s early September and the leaves have already turned orange, but we’re planning to canoe nearly 330 miles in less than a month. We’ll start at Hidden Bay, paddle across Wollaston Lake, run the Class I-III rapids of the 170-mile Fond du Lac River, and then head west into Lake Athabasca. There, stretching 60 miles along the southern shore, lies our goal: the surreal desertscape of Athabasca Sand Dunes Provincial Wilderness Park, one of the most northerly sets of major dunes in the world. No roads lead to them, and the handful of park visitors reach them by chartering a floatplane. I’ve been paddling canoes with John, a full-time NOLS instructor and part-time carpenter, since we were kids growing up in Wisconsin; between us we’ve logged more than 250 days on remote Canadian waters. The route is straightforward, and with 150 pounds of food, seven pounds of French-press coffee, a slew of books, and several bottles of scotch, we are well provisioned.
We don’t expect to start drinking and reading so early on, but the morning of day two, four-foot waves on 100-mile-long Wollaston Lake force us to crash-land on a tiny speck of reindeer moss and granite. Twenty-four hours later, the weather breaks, and we safely reach the headwaters of the Fond du Lac River. Flowing in and out of shallow lakes, the river follows a fault line between hard granite and soft sandstone formations through roadless, boreal-forested crown land.
Only a handful of people have ever paddled this river. Revered canoeing author Sig Olsen wrote of his 1963 trip, “If this place, I thought, should ever become a national park, the scene might become world famous.” Fortunately, it hasn’t. Except for evidence of the Chipewyan and other tribes who have lived here for centuries—a few well-used campsites and the odd trapper’s cabin—the river is almost exactly as it was in 1796 when Canadian explorer David Thompson and two Déné guides ran it for the first time. They almost perished lining up what is now called Thompson Rapids.
Our experience at Thompson is not so dramatic. We portage the first four-foot drop, then decide to take our chances with the rest of the Class III rapids. Despite my frantic draws, we plow into a series of standing waves that knock my paddle out of my hands. I manage to recover it, and just downstream we reach Manitou Falls, where we sign the unofficial registry—a notebook in a rusted-out coffee can lodged in a rock cairn with a handful of entries dating back to the 1970s.
We paddle on. Days blend together and we settle into familiar patterns. Then, as is the case with many expeditions, variables beyond our control take over. Northwesterly winds and an annoying mishap (I fall and fracture a tooth while scouting a rapid) delay us. To ensure our safe and timely arrival at the dunes, we leapfrog a short section of Lake Athabasca by floatplane, which we find at Stony Rapids, a Fond du Lac settlement and one of the only towns for hundreds of miles.
By any measure, Athabasca Sand Dunes Provincial Wilderness Park is a strange place. Imagine a small Sahara Desert on a desolate Caribbean coastline. Now remove the palm trees and add a conifer-forested, subarctic environment inhabited by moose, bears, and wolves. Finally, plop it all down on the shore of a massive lake. Local legend has it that a presumed-dead beaver, tossed there by a giant, formed the dunes by kicking up sand. In reality, the 8,000-year-old dunes are the result of retreating glaciers, northerly winds, wave action, and forest fires. They ripple snakelike across the landscape, towering hundreds of feet above the William River, one of two major waterways that flow into Lake Athabasca.
We begin battling with the lake on the western edge of the park. To reach our floatplane pickup on the MacFarlane River in 12 days, we will have to paddle 60 miles along the southern shoreline, camping on the beach as we go. Paddling on Lake Athabasca is a bumpy, touch-and-go affair. Its massive size (3,120 square miles—roughly as large as Rhode Island and Delaware combined) and lack of sheltered bays or islands allow Arctic-born storms to pummel the shallow, exposed southern shore.
Our drill is to wake early, check the weather, and decide if we should carve through the surf and get soaked or remain on the beach and stay dry. Often the decision is easy and we lie low, exploring the dunes by foot. Because the park is only ten years old and hard to reach, traces of humans are rare. Broad expanses of desert pavement, a delicate carpet of pebbles on which a footprint will remain for decades, often detour us.
As we poke our way down the coast, winter begins to arrive and snow flurries become more frequent. We jury-rig our tarp and sail for an afternoon, celebrating John’s 28th birthday with the last of the scotch and a perfectly baked devil’s food cake. We arrive at our pickup a few days early with barely enough food. But we don’t want to leave. The simplicity of life on the trail has finally overtaken us and we are just learning how to enjoy the big lake. Midafternoon on our last day, a pack of wolves rambles by only a hundred yards away. They howl, then pause for a long look at us before disappearing. We understand. We are in their backyard, and it is time to move on.
Don’t miss out on this trio of premier paddling adventures
MAIN RIVER, NEWFOUNDLAND
Officially designated as a Canadian Heritage River last year, the 36-mile Main slices through Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula—a pristine wilderness of tundra, old-growth boreal forests, and grasslands. The first half is technical Class II-III whitewater. The grand finale is a nail-biter through a 14-mile, steep-cliffed gorge. The salmon fishing, black bear, moose, and caribou sightings, and frequent stops for scouting and portaging easily turn running the Main into a weeklong wilderness adventure.
SEASON: May and June.
DO-IT-YOURSELF: To reach the headwaters you must charter a floatplane (about $330 for two people and a canoe). Contact Parks and Natural Areas of Newfoundland & Labrador for permits, regulations, and services: 800-563-6353; www.gov.nf.ca/parks&reserves/default.htm. Guided Trips: Eastern Edge Kayak Adventures (709-782-5925; www.kayakjim.com) offers an eight-day trip for $760 per person.
SOUTH NAHANNI RIVER, NORTHWEST TERRITORIES
Tumbling through Nahanni National Park Reserve, the Class II-III South Nahanni River offers Grand Canyon thrills in an alpine tundra setting. In the shadow of the toothy 5,000-foot Mackenzie Mountains, the Nahanni snakes through 4,000-foot canyons and past fields of rare orchids. With highlights like 297-foot Virginia Falls (almost twice the height of Niagara Falls), numerous hot springs, and extensive cave systems, it’s no surprise the park was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.
SEASON: Early July to late August.
DO-IT-YOURSELF: The 220-mile canoe trip from Rabbitkettle Lake to the Liard River takes about two weeks. Reservations and registration are required; call Nahanni National Park Reserve (867-695-3151).
GUIDED TRIPS: Nahanni Wilderness Adventures (888-897-5223; www.nahanniwild.com) runs a raft-assisted canoe trip from Rabbitkettle Lake to the Liard River ($2,088 per person).
WABAKIMI WILDERNESS PARK, ONTARIO
Ontario’s 1.1-million-acre Quetico Provincial Park is a well-loved destination among avid wilderness canoeists. But double its size and remove 99 percent of the people, and you’ve got Wabakimi Wilderness Park, just 200 miles north of the Quetico. Established in 1983—and expanded sixfold in 1997—the park is rugged, remote, and accessible only by train, floatplane, or canoe. Including adjacent provincial wilderness parks, Wabakimi offers almost seven million acres of interconnected lakes and rivers, making it the largest wilderness-canoeing destination in the world.
SEASON: Late May to early September.
DO-IT-YOURSELF: A classic multiday trip down the Class II – IV Allanwater River and across various lakes begins with serious rapids and ends with placid water. The two-hour train ride in and floatplane out cost around $300 per person (canoe transport included). For information on permits call the park at 807-475-1634.
GUIDED TRIPS: For rental equipment and guided-trip information, contact Wabakimi WildWaters Canoe Outfitters (807-767-2022; www.wabakimi.com).
Lord of Your Own Fjord
Arctic pleasures in Newfoundland’s wet and wild Gros Morne National Park
Access & Resources: Gros MorneGros Morne National Park is open year-round. But to protect rock ptarmigan, arctic hare, and other sensitive species, access to Gros Morne mountain is closed from mid-May to late June. For park information, call 709-458-2417; www.parkscanada.gc.ca/grosmorne. For outfitted hiking and sea-kayaking trips, call Gros Morne Adventures (800-685-4624; www.grosmorneadventures.com).
WE HAD SET UP CAMP at dusk and gone in search of water when both of our flashlights went dead. Anywhere else, this would have been a mundane enough incident, but we were in western Newfoundland, where the spruce forest blotted out the remaining light like death itself. Our situation felt forbidding. It felt Arctic.
Forbidding had not been part of the plan. My boyfriend and I had come to 772-square-mile Gros Morne National Park strictly to relax, and that afternoon we’d loaded up on chocolate chips and declared our desire to spend four days toodling around the slopes of Gros Morne, Newfoundland’s second-highest peak and the park’s centerpiece. We chose the well-marked James Callaghan Trail, a ten-mile round-trip.
After less than an hour of stumbling through the dark, Gros Morne served us its first bit of odd grace: A man carrying a flashlight, a cooler, and an umbrella came whistling toward us. He gave us his spare batteries and disappeared into the blackness.
The next day, we continued into the waist-high mosaic of springy conifers locally called tuckamore. The place was strung with lakes. Lakes fringed with raspberry and blueberry bushes. Lakes with moose thrashing and bellowing in the shallows. Lakes with woodland caribou grazing quietly on the shore like the polite Canadians they are.
We climbed the rocky trail toward the shoulder of 2,644-foot Gros Morne and entered a misplaced slice of the Arctic. The frigid currents off Newfoundland keep temperatures low enough that animal residents of intemperate spots like Baffin Island make this their southernmost home. An arctic hare the size of a collie hurtled toward me. Clearing the shoulder, we saw the park’s famous Long Range: green-topped plateaus edged by cliffs that plunge 2,000 feet into deep-blue freshwater fjords. Although some of these waterways are ten miles long and 500 feet deep, park officials are quick to point out they aren’t technically fjords, because their water isn’t salty.
On the mountain’s cloud-shrouded uppermost reaches, the mood was funereal. While the rest of the Long Range is gray granite and gneiss, Gros Morne is rose-colored quartzite. The light was pink and ancient, somehow dim and bright at the same time. The cairns marking the trail looked like early Christian crosses. We crunched slowly across the rock, as awed and quiet as monks.
Lunkers Lurk Here
Casting for big ones at Treeline Lodge on remote Nueltin Lake
Access & Resources: Treeline LodgeThe cost for a seven-day trip is $3,595 (all-inclusive) from Winnipeg. Treeline also runs two self-guided outpost camps on Nueltin Lake, Windy River and Nueltin Narrows ($2,295 for seven days). For details, call 800-361-7177 or visit www.nueltin.com.
WHEN I WANT TO see envy plastered on the faces of my fishing pals, I mention that I’m heading to Treeline Lodge on Nueltin Lake in the roadless Manitoba wilderness to catch trout and pike longer than my legs—on a body of water that’s longer than the drive from Los Angeles to San Diego. Then I add that the last time I went fishing on Nueltin I hooked a small pike and was about to land it when a monster fish appeared, chomping the smaller one sideways like a shark. In the ensuing pandemonium, the piscine beast released the tiny fish to attack my lure. After running around the bay, it streaked past the boat, where the guide deftly intercepted it with the net. Together we hoisted the three-foot-long pike into the boat, drenching ourselves with spray.
There’s no better place than Nueltin Lake for catching northern pike and lake trout, and there’s no better lodge than Treeline from which to launch a fishing expedition. The log outpost and its surrounding clapboard cabins sit atop a sand esker 300 miles from the nearest road. It’s so remote that it has its own private airstrip and flies its guests in each Saturday via charter jet from Winnipeg.
Sure, Canada has its share of outback fishing lodges, but Treeline is one of the few facilities that replaces the motors on its boats every year, and its registered Chipewyan and Cree guides are among the country’s best. In 1978 it instituted a catch-and-release policy (everyone fishes with single barbless hooks to facilitate the unharmed release of fish, although keeping a five-pound or smaller fish for daily shore lunch is permitted), making Nueltin the first lake in Canada with such a distinction.
After a day fighting pike, anglers can return to private, heated cabins for a shower before gathering at the lodge. First, cocktails are served around a blaze in the stone fireplace, the warmth enhanced by floor-to-ceiling lake views and the wolf-and-bearskin-rug decor. Then there’s roast turkey, prime rib, or grilled steak for dinner. Afterward, guests can check e-mail or catch up on the news, thanks to a stealthy satellite connection, or head into the midnight sun to hit a few golf balls on the lodge’s driving range. But most visitors choose to wind down the way I do: lounging on the deck and basking in the memory of the day’s action while watching the faint glow from a sun that never sets.
Get your feet wet in these undiscovered playgrounds
With more than 169 million acres of protected land, 12 times the coastline of the United States, and about two million lakes, Canada’s park system is one of the biggest and wettest on the planet. Despite its largesse, our good neighbor’s national and provincial park system is still growing. Here are a few of our favorite recent additions.
By late 2002 (barring any bureaucratic snafus), British Columbia will be home to 14,579-acre Gulf Islands National Park, which will gather several existing parks under one umbrella, increasing the protected area by about 50 percent. To experience this surprisingly Mediterranean climate, gather seven friends and charter a stately 46-foot yacht for a week of swimming with harbor seals, diving in search of rare six-gill sharks, and sailing among the 14 scabrous islands.
OUTFITTER: Cooper Boating (888-999-6419; www.cooperboating.com).
PRICE: weekly charter for eight costs $3,100, crew not included.
The new Stikine River Provincial Park in northwestern British Columbia combines with Mount Edziza and Spatsizi Plateau Wilderness Provincial Parks to form a 2.7-million-acre paddling extravaganza. One 12-day trip starts in Smithers, where you take a seaplane to Happy Lake in Spatsizi. Then canoe west for five days along the upper Stikine toward a hot meal and warm bed in your own small log cabin at Laslui Lake Lodge. From there return to the river for seven days of whitewater canoeing.
OUTFITTER: Spatsizi Wilderness Vacations (866-847-9692; www.spatsizi.com).
PRICE: $1,800 per person.
It’s three times the size of Texas but has fewer people than Northampton, Massachusetts. Auyuittuq (say “I-you-we-took”) and Quttinirpaaq (just say it fast) were both raised to national park status in April 1999 when Nunavut became Canada’s third territory. The two parks, totaling 14 million acres, offer mountain and tundra hiking across roaring glacial streams. Nunavut will soon add five or six more territorial parks, not to mention an additional 4.7-million-acre national park, Wager Bay, north of Hudson Bay, where polar sea kayaking is the sport of choice. The 5.4-million-acre Sirmilik National Park, on the northern tip of Baffin Island, certainly falls into the “untouched” category, and is another spot to sea kayak through deep fjords, then stretch your legs hiking and exploring hidden lakes.
OUTFITTER: Polar Sea Adventures (867-899-8870; www.polarseaadventures.com).
PRICE: $1,775 per person.
Not to be outdone by its backwoods brothers, Ontario will add 61 new provincial parks this year. The Great Lakes Heritage Coast will stretch across 1,800 miles of Lake Superior and Lake Huron coastline, protecting 2.7 million acres from Thunder Bay to Port Severn. Sea kayak the remotest stretch, a 118-mile, 14-day paddle from Hattie Cove to Michipicoten Bay. En route, hike up to the base of 100-foot Dennison Falls, a favorite hideaway of Canadian paddling legend Bill Mason.
OUTFITTER: Naturally Superior Adventures (800-203-9092; www.naturallysuperior.com).
PRICE: $1,200 per person.
Quebec has bolstered its already bountiful outdoor cachet by adding three new parks in two years: Parc National des Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie, Parc National de Plaisance, and the 141,344-acre Parc National d’Anticosti, at the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River. Sea kayak along 300-foot limestone cliffs on the northern shore of Anticosti Island, and look for blue, fin, humpback, and minke whales. All park activities are run by Sépaq, the province’s government parks division.
OUTFITTER: Sépaq (800-665-6527; www.sepaq.com).
PRICE: $1,000 per person.
—Ryan Brandt and Dan Strumpf
Mapping Canada’s Coolest Spots:
West Coast Sea Kayaking
1: Gwaii Hannas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site
Canoeing the Far North
2: Wollaston Lake
3: Fond du lac River
4: Athabasca Dans Dunes Provinvial Wilderness Park
More Premier Canoe Trips
5: Nahanni National Park Reserve
6: Wabakimi Wilderness Park
7: Main River
Backpacking Out East
8: Gros Morne National Park
9: Nueltin Lake
Canada’s Newest Parks:
10: Gulf Islands
11: Stikine River Provincial Park
12: Mount Edziza Provincial Park
13: Spatsizi Plateau Wilderness Provincial Park
14: Auyuittuq National Park
15: Quttinirpaaq National Park
16: Wager Bay National Park
17: Sirmilik Naitonal Park
18: Great Lakes Heritage Coast
19: Parc National des Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Riviére-Malbaie
20: Parc National de Plaisance
21: Parc National D’Anticosti