The authenticity that we seek in our travel is what we want from the world. Western Canada delivers on two of our most intimate longings: the sense of adventure and the experience of nature, discovers Andrea Oschetti.
I am travelling the Northwest of Canada deliberately using four different modes; walking and cycling embody the slow, old ways of moving through the landscape: the train and the light plane are the fast and marvellous machines by which the modern world was able to open the Wild West.
Vancouver isn’t just the geographical gateway of my journey, but offers unique opportunities to experience the culture of the Aboriginal Canadians thanks to a diverse travel menu that is both accessible and authentic. By experiencing the traditional ways of the indigenous people, who for centuries lived in the places that I am about to visit. I am seeking to broaden the perspective of my travel experience.
One hour after I land at Vancouver International Airport, I arrive at the Sweat Lodge, a dome-shaped hut used by the indigenous people of North America for ceremonial steam baths and prayer. Its importance lies in the need to re-purify one’s self and reconnect with traditional ways of living. In the darkness of the lodge, Shoshoni elder Old Hand pours water on the hot stones and tells me: “the Sweat Lodge makes you think freely, it’s the place to become what you are, not what society wants you to be.”
The sweat ceremony is one of many authentic cultural amenities offered by Skwachays Lodge. Owned and operated by the Vancouver Native Housing Society, Skwachays is a new boutique hotel come art gallery, with themed rooms created by aboriginal artists. Located in central Gastown, one of the city’s most vibrant and historic neighbourhoods it offers an experience unlike any you’ll find in the business district and marina-side hotels.
On my second day in Vancouver I take a guided walk through Stanley Park with Candace Campo, a First Nations Shishalh of the Wolf clan, to understand the aboriginal relationship with nature, which is grounded in respect. Candace is an artist, a social advocate and an entrepreneur who started Talasay Tours, a business dedicated to teaching tourists about her heritage through cultural and eco-experiences on kayak and on foot.
A visit to the permanent collection of the acclaimed Haida artist Bill Reid (1920-1998) is the best opportunity to appreciate aboriginal northwest coast art in Vancouver. The temporary exhibition Box of Treasures particularly captures my imagination. It features masks used in the Kwakwaka’wakw potlatch ceremony, a celebration where dancers follow the rhythms of log drums and powerful singers, animating the masks and unfolding ancient stories surrounding the Man-Eater Birds, the Spirits of the Forest, the Chief of the Undersea, and other beings of the supernatural realm.
The parallel is singular, but in my meanderings around Vancouver I found the strongest similarity to the Aboriginal’s affection for nature in the city’s dining scene. Searching for the best places to eat, I met up with two young chefs, Alex Chen of Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar and Ron Shaw of Grapes & Soda. They cherish nature and value the benefit to health and taste of local organic farming and fresh products, like Candace Campo and Old Hand would. Alex and Ron lead the Vancouver trend: quality food from farm to table.
I leave Vancouver by taking a train to Banff and Jasper National Parks, the most breath-taking of Canada’s great outdoor attractions. The journey itself is a treat: this was the railway that opened up the West. The luxurious Rocky Mountaineer train service follows the old route to Banff, rushing past fast rivers, deep gorges and mountain passes. As I’m pampered with gourmet meals in the glass domed coach, I feel the same excitement as the prospectors, surveyors, missionaries, trappers, mountain men and other explorers of the wild frontier who travelled this route more than 100 years ago.
Off the train, I continue my journey on foot, slower, alone and self-reliant, embracing the philosophy that without challenge I cannot test my limitations.
I set off from Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, 100km south of Banff to venture northbound for 150km along the Rocky Mountain’s Great Divide Trail. It is a spectacular journey but unrecognised yet by the Canadian authorities. This is the natural continuation of the Pacific Crest Trail, which has experienced a recent spike in popularity after the movie adaption of Cheryl Strayed’s book, Wild. For many hikers this walk constitutes a dream: to hike a trail not simply off the beaten track, but before it becomes popular.
Over five days I cross several protected parks with well maintained trails and wilderness areas with unmarked tracks. I traverse great forests, climb over mountain passes, ford rivers, at all times immersed in wildlife. In the evening I set up camp, build a fire, and sit in silence in the majestic valleys of the Rockies, content with a deep sense of satisfaction.
My hike in the wild ends in style as I arrive at one of the original great retreats of the Rockies: the Shadow Lake Lodge. Built in 1928 as one of the network of huts designed to provide shelter for back-country hiking and riding parties, the lodge is accessible only on foot or by cross country ski via a 22km route. Unlike other backcountry lodges, no helicopters fly in here. It is also located at the heart of one of the most stunning landscapes that I have encountered on this trip.
I continue the “slow” part of my journey on two wheels, along the Icefield Parkway, one of the most spectacular roads in the world, stretching 232km from Jasper to Banff. I’m in good hands – Rocky Mountain Cycle Tours, operating since 1977, is possibly the most experienced local bicycle tour company in the area.
Together with five fellow riders, I travel in the shadow of majestic mountain ranges and gargantuan glaciers, stopping by turquoise lakes for impromptu barbecues prepared by our support team. We pose proudly for photographs next to road signs warning tourists to stay inside their vehicle if approached by a bear.
My final means of transportation is de Havilland Canada DHC-2 propeller-driven floatplane, known as “the Beaver,” that in the mid 20th century made it possible to connect the region’s most isolated corners to the world and today to visit the most pristine natural wonders.
TYAX Adventures uses a remote luxury lodge in the South Chilcotin Mountains – accessible from Vancouver or Whistler – as a base for guided adventures on foot, mountain bike and horseback.
The floatplane takes me and my mountain bike to a remote alpine lake deep in the backcountry. Assisted by a guide, I ride over three days along tight single track trails through spectacular mineral-rich mountains with fast and sandy descents. We spend the nights sleeping at Tayax’s fully stocked backcountry camps.
The outdoor opportunities on offer by TYAX will appeal to everyone with a sense of adventure. The atmosphere is different from the mountain bike tour, but the level of excitement is the same as I join a “flightsee” tour and land on a remote glacier in British Columbia. There, I accompany two glaciologists from the University of Victoria who are studying ancient weather patterns by analysing tree logs unearthed by retreating glaciers.
Standing on this remote glacier where only a handful of people have set foot is a true luxury, one of many such feelings I’ve had on this trip.
Skwachays Lodge: www.skwachays.com
Talaysay Tours: www.talaysay.com
Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art: www.billreidgallery.ca
Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar: www.boulevardvancouver.ca
Grapes & Soda: www.grapesandsoda.ca
Rocky Mountaineer: www.rockymountaineer.com
Great Divide Trail Association: www.greatdividetrail.com
Shadow Lake Lodge: www.shadowlakelodge.com
Rocky Mountain Cycle Tours: www.rockymountaincycle.com
Tyax Adventures: www.tyaxadventures.com