Living

13 Amazing Things To Do Outdoors In Western Canada (Including A Bit Of Florida… In The Prairies)

Having lost the ability to hop on planes and trains during the pandemic, many of us finally began to appreciate the beauty in our own backyards.

(Photo: Anton Van Der Merwe, Action Media Projects)

For more great escapes, read our sister piece: 6 Great Ways To Appreciate The Outdoors In Central And Eastern Canada

Cycle on a car-free stretch of highway

Among the many oddities of 2020, there was this: A 24-kilometre stretch of one of Canada’s most breathtaking highways was made off-limits to cars. Parks Canada, which oversees the Bow Valley Parkway running through Banff National Park, reasoned that hikers would not be able to maintain safe distancing on the narrow trails in Johnston Canyon, which is accessed from this road. To manage the crowds, it quietly closed the parkway to vehicles.

But word got out, and a paradise for cycling sprang up on a mountain highway. On sunny days, the parkway is now home to a parade of cyclists of all kinds: kids on their first pedal bikes; retirees on decades-old bikes; para-athletes on handcycles; climbers riding with their ropes; and people towing pets and toddlers in trailers. One day, I passed a man spinning his legs far above everyone else as he looked down from his penny-farthing.

As a long-time fan of riding here, I welcomed them all. This road is where I first fell in love with cycling more than a decade ago, with my husband. He loved this road so much that when he was hospitalized with cancer in 2013, he asked me to get our bikes tuned up so we could ride the parkway as soon as he was better.
He didn’t get better. After he died, this was the first place I came with my bike, hammering the pedals and crying.

Every time, I’m gobsmacked by the beauty around me. The road climbs and dips along the valley’s contours, hugged in turn by meadows and forests of aspen trees or fragrant pines. Snow-tipped mountain peaks keep watch on the elk, deer, black bears and grizzly bears I’ve seen as I glide by.

But I almost quit this road: Car traffic had grown heavy, and tour buses passed uncomfortably close. Drivers veered onto the shoulder to snap photos of wildlife without a thought for the cyclists behind them. After one too many drivers refused to grant me any extra tarmac, I wondered if I was done here.

Then, COVID-19 changed everything—which was mostly bad, save for this one small thing. Cycling the parkway has been an escape hatch from the heaviness of the last year and a half. Out here, there are no dings from computers nor cries over online school. Instead, birds chirp above the satisfying hum of bicycle tires on smooth pavement.

I don’t believe there’s a silver lining to the tragedy of the pandemic. But this car-free stretch of pavement running through the Rockies is a shining example of something made better. —Christina Frangou, Banff, Alta.

A photo of two grizzly bears on the shore of a river

(Photo: Diane Selkirk)

Spot grizzlies in the wild

It takes my eyes a moment to adjust—the sun is glinting off the river’s surface and all the motion I see seems to be water. Then I catch a flash of red and realize what I thought were river currents are salmon swimming upstream to spawn. I’m mesmerized. British Columbia exists because of these fish. In hatching, the fry feed the birds. In death, their nutrients feed the forests—growing the great trees. In this moment, they feed the bears. A mama grizzly has come around the bend. Behind her are her three second-year cubs. Fluffy and gangly with youth, they fish with the laziness of comfort and abundance.

Jessib, our guide from Tweedsmuir Park Lodge, tells us it’s a good year on the Atnarko: The salmon are plentiful. The bears continue upstream. Jessib retrieves the anchor and our little boat is swept around the next bend, where the aptly named Mount Stupendous comes into view.

As a travel writer, I scour the world for wonders so other people can find them. This year kept me close to home, a place I didn’t think could surprise me. But then we spot another bear—face comically wet, fish in mouth. In normal years, Jessib’s boat is filled with tourists. This year, it’s locals.

“I had no idea it could be like this,” I tell Jessib, keeping my voice soft, the way he taught us, to not startle the grizzly. —Diane Selkirk, Bella Coola, B.C.

A photo of pink clouds in a blue sky

(Photo: Omayra Issa)

Take in a Prairie sunset

Spring in Saskatoon keeps you waiting. Warm weather seems at once imminent yet distant. One cool, quiet evening this past April, I noticed the sun doing its slow dance downward toward the horizon from my window. That time, it was a pink fuchsia with yellow and red undertones. I quickly took out my camera. Since the pandemic made it impossible for me to see most of my loved ones, sunsets have become my connection to the world.

Prairie sunsets are stunning, breathtaking and commanding. Each one is unique in its colours and has its own personality.

I took to photographing them to anchor myself, and to find belonging in the middle of the Canadian Prairies.

I started last year, when Black Lives Matter protests were ringing across the Prairies and the world. My photography felt urgent. It felt like an act of survival: searching for beauty to make space in a place that doesn’t make space for my Blackness.

The Prairies are constructed in the public imagination as a white space, inherently non-Black. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Prairies have always been a space of Indigeneity and multiplicity, and Black people have been here for more than 200 years. Black and Indigenous relationships here go back several centuries.

I take pictures of sunsets against the backdrop of the isolation that comes with living in a place that doesn’t claim me. As a Black woman on the Prairies, when I stop to photograph a sunset, I know I am engaging with the landscape and imprinting myself on it. I take pictures of sunsets deliberately, to seek out joy in a hostile place.

I take pictures of sunsets to help me breathe.

I am a Black woman in Saskatchewan. It can be hard to breathe.

A Metis Elder from Red River, Man., is the person who taught me how to be present with sunsets. I met her years ago at a mutual friend’s house. Every evening, she sits by her large window and watches the show. Immobile, she focuses on the variations in the sky. At first, I didn’t understand why she sat there, her gaze unwavering.

Eventually, I understood she was simply taking it in. So I started to take it in. That opened a new world of wonder and quiet gazing to me. It felt like a gift.

When I witness Saskatchewan sunsets, I wonder how it would feel to do the same in Arlit, Niger, where I grew up. Built to house workers who extract uranium from the soils, Arlit is a small artificial town tucked in the middle of the Sahara Desert, where the camels undulate up and down the landscape. It is far from here, but just like the Prairies, the skies are infinite and open.

My photographs portray poetry. They are conscious efforts to reclaim my space, pleasure and presence. In this pandemic, prioritizing beauty in itself is
resistance. My pictures are proof that I did that, even after the sun has completely set, leaving only remnants in the sky. —Omayra Issa, Saskatoon

An Asian woman in a forest green swimsuit standing on a beach

(Photo: Serena Renner)

Swim in the ocean—every single day

February 3, 2021, was my 72nd birthday. I had come down to Kitsilano Beach to do yoga and I saw some people go into the water. For a few months, I saw many groups doing it, and they seemed to have a lot of fun. Little did I know that one day, I’d say, “No, I’m going to try it.”

As soon as I dipped into the water, it was a shock. But when I came out, the heat came from inside, burning hot. Anything that comes from inside is so powerful. I was addicted. I’ve come every day since. It doesn’t matter if it rains. I take my umbrella and go into the water anyway. It’s delightful. You feel like the whole world is wrapping around you because all water is connected. —Cecilia Garcia, Vancouver (as told to Serena Renner)

A photo of a woman paddling a river in an inflatable kayak

(Photo: Bob Armstrong)

Kayak through Manitoba’s countless lakes and rivers

On a bright afternoon last August, my wife, Rosemary, and I paddled our kayaks along the base of Manitoba’s Steep Rock cliffs.

We’d driven the two hours north to Steep Rock before, but had never seen the cliffs like this, up close and personal from water level.

We needed a fresh perspective to replace the gloom and uncertainty of the pandemic. Our recent purchase of a pair of inexpensive inflatable kayaks offered just that.

In addition to the Steep Rock cliffs—a white limestone shoreline that, on a sunny day, feels more Mediterranean than Manitoban—our kayaks also let us explore a sea of grass and cattails in a Lake Winnipeg shoreline marsh near the beach town of Gimli. They placed us in classic Canadian Shield settings of granite-rimmed islands in eastern Manitoba’s Whiteshell Provincial Park. They allowed us to observe families of geese, sunbathing painted turtles, semi-submerged prehistoric-looking snapping turtles and curious white-tailed deer along Winnipeg’s meandering Seine River.

But cliff paddling stuck in my memory because it brought me back to a once-in-a-lifetime adventure: our six-day West Coast sea kayaking honeymoon.

It was an unforgettable experience, with pods of orcas, awe-inspiring Pacific swells and sea cliffs rising from the depths right beside our boats. It also set up an expectation: that paddling had to be an epic adventure, involving great expense and long journeys.

The pandemic taught us that those conditions don’t have to apply. Our kayaks were cheap tickets to discover countless lakes and rivers on short, accessible voyages. Fitting easily into the trunk of our car, they let us take to the water whenever we wanted. —Bob Armstrong, Winnipeg

A women's white feet in blue leather sandals on the sidewalk

(Photo: Katie May)

Take a leisurely stroll

Among sturdy elms and Queen Anne houses, across river bridges and along quarantine-quiet city blocks, an aimless wander gets me through most days. But I try not to take for granted any sense of calm I get from putting one foot in front of the other: I was born with cerebral palsy, which manifests in mild muscle spasms and a limp that makes me look unsteady. My mobility has long been tangled up in a complicated combination of gratitude and guilt. As far back as I can remember, I’ve been grateful to walk at all, but burdened by a belief I’m doing it wrong.

Well-meaning strangers have made it worse when, assuming I was hurt, they greeted me with “Are you okay?” No matter how polite, the question always jolted me. For years, I felt like I had to justify my movements. The privilege of a neighbourhood stroll isn’t lost on me, but for too long, the leisure of it was. Unexpectedly, my near-daily COVID walks forced a long-buried shame to the surface, so that I could finally begin to shake it off. For the first few months, I unconsciously kept my head down, as a play-by-play of my mundane obstacle course drilled through my brain. Clear that curb! Watch out for that janky patch of cement!

Soon, I got tired of trying to wish away my gait. It was long past time to accept the way I move through the world. Step by step, I started to look up instead of at the sidewalk. Every time I did, I caught the eye of someone who was clearly carrying a weight of their own. Now I keep my head up, and I walk on. —Katie May; Winnipeg

A white woman in a black swimsuit sitting on a massive, empty white sand beach

(Photo: Merissa King)

Find a bit of Florida in the Prairies

I moved to Manitoba in 2018, prepared for flat landscapes, cold winters, hot summers and friendly people. Within my first couple of years, all those expectations had become reality. Last summer, sad about cancelling my out-of-province travel plans, I began exploring my new home province during the pandemic lockdown. That’s when I discovered a place that I hadn’t anticipated: Grand Beach, a bit of Florida, right in the Prairies.

The first clue that I was in for a treat was the walk from the car to the beach. Towels, sunscreen and coolers in hand, my husband, Stephen, and I found ourselves on a trail that went over a beautiful grassy-topped sand dune. I instantly felt like I was transported to Miami’s sunny shores, a feeling that intensified as the pristine white-sand beach came into view.

We couldn’t sit in the dry Manitoba heat for long before jumping into Lake Winnipeg for a cool-off. A strong breeze made waves that enhanced the ocean vibe. I’m originally from Newfoundland and miss the ocean dearly—but, unlike the Atlantic, the lake water was a perfect temperature.

Following a refreshing swim, we walked the three-kilometre beach, enjoying powdery-soft sand on our feet and a beautiful view. At the end, we discovered another delight—a cute boardwalk filled with concession stands that reminded me of Southern California.

Pandemic restrictions forced me to have adventures closer to home, uncovering hidden gems in Manitoba that I otherwise might not have found time to visit and appreciate. —Merissa King; Winnipeg

An Michif napew man in a denim shirt and black pants standing in the forest

(Photo: Keisha Erwin)

(Re)discover a connection to the land

Early this year, I decided it was time to leave Toronto, where I lived for five years, and go home. I found 10 acres of land covered in poplar and spruce trees and co-inhabited by my relatives the apisimôsoswak, piyêsîsak and anakwacâsak (deer, birds and squirrels). It has a house with room for visitors and a shop slowly filling with tools that I don’t know how to use. The place is a few hours from Saskatoon, in the shared territories of my people, the Michif, and our other relatives, the nêhiyawak. I read once that there was an “encounter” nearby between my people and the North-West Mounted Police during the 1885 resistance.

I didn’t grow up in the bush, and, if asked, Saskatoon is where I call home. However, my ancestors had deep connections across what is now Saskatchewan, and we maintain relationships with territories covering much of the Prairie provinces. My goal is to be more intentional in my relationship with the land and to (re)discover a connection to places foundational to who I am as a Michif napew. In returning to my homelands, I am tending to the relationships my ancestors formed many generations ago. I have a lot of learning to do, from figuring out how to fix my tractor, to safely operating a rifle, to chopping enough wood to last the winter.

Land ownership is tricky. It’s both an incredible privilege, one of many that I hold, and in conflict with collective, Indigenous understandings of our relationships and responsibilities to the land. To be clear, an individual buying the land is not land back in the way many aspire for. But it’s something. If you’re in the area, stop by for a visit. My place is the one with the “Métis & Cree Land” signs, in lieu of the “No Trespassing” and “Private Property” ones that my neighbours have.
—Justin Wiebe; Treaty 6 and Métis Territory (Saskatchewan)

A white woman on cross country skis being pulled by a husky

Cross-country ski behind a dog

Learning to skijor wasn’t a choice so much as a necessity. Early in the pandemic, I adopted a retired sled dog. Tacoma was born, raised and trained in an elite racing kennel: Running and pulling, pulling and running, was all he knew. Although the 1,000-mile races are behind him now, a 90-minute walk still hardly makes a dent in his energy. I soon realized that Tacoma needed more exercise than I could ever give him under my own steam. So as fall turned to winter, I bought a harness and a set of cross-country skis. Skijoring—roping myself to my dog and skiing behind him—would be the answer.

The term “skijor” comes from the Norwegian language, and it can refer to people skiing behind dogs, horses or even vehicles. But I can’t imagine putting either type of horsepower ahead of me: One 50-pound husky was intimidating enough. Tacoma is strong. In our early walks, he pulled me right off my feet more than once. The first time I ran with him leashed to me by a waist belt, his pulling knocked 10 minutes off my normally sluggish 5K time; 25 minutes later, I was pooped and he was decidedly not.

The idea of putting myself entirely in his power, with no way to brake except to beg him for mercy, was frightening. When the snow and ice came, my nerves soon faded, replaced by awe. I’ve tried a lot of different sports, but I’d never experienced anything like skijoring.

On a packed trail, it was an effortless glide, silent apart from the hissing of my skis over the snow. I braced my feet like a water skier in Tacoma’s wake. The resulting motion reminded me of sailing: that sense of tapping into a force greater than anything you could generate yourself and riding it through the wild world. Only now, Tacoma was the wind. When I called out “whoaaaa,” we’d ease to a stop. He’d turn, grin and throw himself in the snow.

There’s a joke that you’ll find on T-shirts for tourists in Alaska, illustrated by a cartoon of a fluffy dog butt: “If you’re not the lead dog, the view never changes.” And it’s true—I spent a lot of last winter looking at Tacoma’s rear end.

But the view did change around us. We started out on trails, but once the big lake just outside my front door had frozen solid, a whole new world opened up to us. Shadows and light played on the ice and snow. Every time I looked around, I saw something new.

I began skijoring for practical reasons, but the wonder and beauty it brought into my life were an unexpected gift in a long, strange winter. —Eva Holland; Whitehorse, Yukon

A photo of a Black woman in a black tuque and turquoise ski jacket in front of a ski chalet

(Photo: Déjà Leonard)

Snowboard (for the first time in ages)

Strapping on my snowboard bindings for the first time in 10 years evoked many of the same feelings I was grappling with nearly a year into the global pandemic: fear, uncertainty and a “I guess let’s see what happens” type attitude.

While I anticipated a fall or two, I didn’t expect to be reminded so deeply of my teenage years, when I first tried the sport. With every turn I made down the mountain, my confidence grew and I began to remember the feeling of freedom that snowboarding had once brought to my exuberant, optimistic teen self. During a time when finding happiness and hope was hard, the sense of joy I was suddenly experiencing was unsuppressible, and it sure felt good.

So much had changed since I had snowboarded last: I have a real adult job, I bought my first home and I started playing the drums again. But one thing hadn’t: I was very much still one of the only (if not the only) Black people on the mountain.

Realizing how much of a privilege it is to show up and feel like you belong—when I’m constantly reminded that I don’t—can be lonely. But it can also feel empowering. When society is not creating space for me, I’m still showing up and taking it anyway. —Déjà Leonard; Calgary

Sip malbec under giant cedars

In March 2020, confined to my apartment with my spouse and preschooler, I made an ambitious list to explore nature: hike Mount Finlayson, try snowshoeing at Dakota Bowl, catch a salmon off Ogden Point.

While I’d never call myself an outdoorswoman, being raised in coastal rural B.C. meant the nostalgic pull toward outdoor freedom was strong. But after a few exhausting family hikes on crowded trails, my desires took a different spin.

It started with my birthday in May and an orchard picnic in a rainstorm with two close female friends. We were like small-town teenagers again, desperate to sneak out, feel freedom and chug beer together in the bush (from a safe distance, of course).

Months of outdoor adventures followed. There were evening meetups at the cemetery, sipping malbec in travel mugs under giant cedar trees steps from the grave of Emily Carr. We dragged lawn chairs and propane heaters to schoolyards to laugh over Cheezies and LaCroix, and huddled under twisted driftwood on windy beaches to sample the latest local kombucha or microbrew—taking notice of nature shifting around us.

During these outings, I noticed other women were having their own versions of the same experience: seniors in walkers at outdoor book clubs, young women having samovar tea parties and middle-aged moms plunging into the frigid ocean just to feel alive. Clearly, a global pandemic was no match for the bonds of female friendship.

For my second pandemic birthday, I returned to the orchard with my friends. This time, there was no rainstorm, only the warmth of spring sun in the still life of apple-blossom trees and fields of violet camas, bluebells and daisies. Our comfort in one another was newly lit with the hope of vaccination appointments and of life opening up again—but this moment, and this new ritual, we vowed to keep. —Sarah Petrescu Fernandes; Victoria

Two people skate on a lake with the Rockies and blue sky in the background

(Photo: Brianna Sharpe)

Skate on wild ice

There is a sacred window of time in southern Alberta when the days are cold enough to freeze our lakes solid but the snow hasn’t covered them up yet. This past winter, that window seemed to open so much wider, and we jumped in wholeheartedly like never before. Perhaps uncoincidentally, this was also the year that I became a full-time stay-at-home parent. We live rurally, in a 900-square-foot A-frame, so I began to appreciate the phrase “cabin fever” in a way I haven’t since I lived in a dog-food shed in bush Alaska. (But that’s another story.)

From late November to mid-January, we were out early almost every Saturday morning, “chasing wild ice” as the locals call it. My kids learned to skate with the Rocky Mountains as their backdrop. The muscle memory of a decade of figure skating lessons kicked in as I gleefully spun, bunny hopped and crosscut my cabin fever away. In a year that was defined by my domesticity, those frozen expanses offered me space, quiet and movement. Wild ice is exquisitely untamed; there’s no admission fee, no park attendant to tell you if the ice is safe, no guardrails. Everything this past year has been about guardrails, so to glide through a landscape that seemed to go on forever was deeply restorative. My body felt like mine again, not beholden to making breakfast or cleaning bathrooms. Sometimes the ice was black enough that I could see my own reflection, and I liked what I saw. After we each skated our own circles for a while, our family felt even closer when we came back together. —Brianna Sharpe; Cochrane, Alta.

A woman in an indigo t-shirt and red pants walking down a road

(Photo: Brian McAninch)

Take a (virtual) hike

To distract myself from isolation—after my husband, a military pilot, deployed during the pandemic—I sought virtual adventure, walking what equated to the English Channel’s width from my home in northern Alberta.

I borrowed the idea from my grade 8 teacher, who had our class run the 7,821-kilometre distance of the Trans-Canada Highway. Three times weekly, we jogged around a lake across from our school, our distances tallied and marked out along a classroom map. Completing that project wasn’t important. It was the process I enjoyed, mentally ticking off each lamppost I ran past.

Twenty-six years later, I use phone apps to track my kilometres. I enjoy walking, but I need a goal to go regularly. I gave myself two weeks to complete the 34-kilometre Channel crossing.

To supplement my hikes, I explored tourist sites online, and read articles about other Channel crossings, including one about a 16-year-old girl from New Hampshire who recently spent 14 hours swimming across it.

Excitedly, I shared achieving my goal online, prompting conversations with friends I haven’t seen in months because of COVID-19 restrictions.

After I completed the Channel crossing, I treaded through woods near my house to emulate the 42-kilometre Inca Trail in Peru. At night, I read travel blogs about altitude sickness experienced by trekkers walking to Machu Picchu.

Amazed at how quickly the miles added up, after the Inca Trail, I tackled the 135-kilometre Hadrian’s Wall in England, built by Romans to protect their empire.

By coincidence, a friend was walking Spain’s Camino de Santiago from Lethbridge, Alta. He added me to an online group of others around the world doing similar challenges—another Inca Trail traveller made her excursion circling her backyard while locked down. A 90-year-old woman climbed 12,388 feet, a mock hike up Japan’s Mount Fuji, using her stairs. An Ontarian, undergoing cancer treatments, struggled with each kilometre but completed a 1,000-kilometre “Icelandic expedition.” Our posts inspire and encourage one another.

Now addicted to virtual travelling, I’m currently working on the 805-kilometre Camino myself. After, I’ll do Italy’s 500-kilometre St. Francis Way.

I never thought walking alone in my neighbourhood would connect me to the world. —Kelly-Anne Riess; Cold Lake, Alta.