Since our return to Britain in the last days of 2010, the question I’ve heard most has undoubtedly been “what’s Canada like?” or more simply, “how’s Canada?”
Needless to say, this is a tough question to answer. How to summarise a year’s worth of exploration, new experiences and adventures? And of course, not everyone really wants to know what you’ve been up to. So – what is Canada like?
Well, despite what Canadians might want you to believe, it’s a bit like the USA. The roads are wide and the trucks are big. But Canadians are friendly, polite and helpful (as I’m sure many Americans are too, before you start bristling. You just don’t tend to meet those Americans are border crossings and entry points).
Canada’s urban. We’ve cheerfully drunk endless pints of Molson Canadian in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Halifax and Calgary. We’ve even had nicer drinks in other towns. But Canada also does wilderness in a way unsurpassed by other countries, and unimaginable to many on this intensely-packed island. I certainly don’t subscribe to the scare-mongering right-wing cries of the Daily Mail that Britain’s “full” but it definitely feels that the roads and towns are busy. And for many of the Canadians we met in places outside the main cities (particularly during our jaunt to the wilderness hostels of the Rockies), it was unthinkable that there are few places in mainland Britain without cellphone coverage. Canadians really know how to do ‘getting away from it all’ and as a consequence, they have higher expectations of self-reliance for those who spend time outside the urban areas.
Canada’s hot, as we discovered during heatwaves in Montreal and Toronto. We had our first dip in freshwater at Lac Tremblant when the snow on the hillside belied the temperatures of over 30 degrees Celsius (and when the heat of the day tricked you into thinking the lac might be above 5 degrees, which it wasn’t). We’ve swum in fresh and salt water all over the country as Canada’s amazing water quality makes swimming in rivers and lakes positively inviting. We’ve reclined on the sand at Second Beach in Vancouver, soaking up some glorious rays. But Canada’s also cold, as we found during the days we spent snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and snowboarding. We’ve worn thermals and skiwear, hats and helmets to keep off temperatures of around minus 20, and heard tales from friends in Banff, Edmonton and Regina of temperatures dipping well below that. We’ve even crunched across snow in the middle of summer in the high alpine when climbing Black Tusk.
But most of all, Canada’s big. It’s the second biggest country on earth, comfortably the size of a continent, and it has the diversity you’d expect in a place that big. There are plenty of provinces we didn’t get to see: Labrador and Newfoundland; Prince Edward Island; Saskatchewan and Manitoba; and all of the northern territories and provinces. But we did see some of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, from our trips to Vancouver Island, out to the Cabot Trail and across the Rockies (a number of times). Sometimes I remembered to count the miles or kilometres but by the end of the year, we’d stopped being amazed by big distances and Dave had started saying things like “it’s not far, it’s only six hours drive”. I had to remind myself that spending a whole day skiing (during our last trip to Big White, Revelstoke and Lake Louise) followed by 5 or 6 hours of driving was bound to be tiring. More often than not, we encountered little in the way of traffic jams, so assuming we were able to navigate successfully (with our trusty Lonely Planet and tourist office maps, and occasional forays to Google Maps) the journey would take as long as predicted, and no longer. Wonder what the Daily Mail would make of that?
So, how’s Canada? Amazing, beguiling, beautiful, frustrating and inviting. Or, if you’ve only got 5 minutes – fine.