Canadian National Parks III: The Other Side of the Mountains

iStock / Kluane National Park is reachable by the famous Alcan Highway and is in Yukon Territory.

Steve Russell

Don't forget: Bears have the right of way in Canadian national parks

Our neighbor to the north, where the Indigenous Peoples beat us to the splendidly descriptive term First Nations, is celebrating 150 years as a nation-state. As part of that celebration, Parks Canada—what we call in the U.S. the National Park Service—is offering free passes to all visitors to Canadian National Parks. They have a credential called the Discovery Pass that works for admission to all the parks, and it’s free this year.

Since all three nation-states that occupy North American real estate have both Atlantic and Pacific coasts, there is much to see, and much more to take in than could be done in a year…or several…. But the free admission seems reason enough to concentrate on the Canadian National Park System.

We started with the parks up near the Arctic Circle because they are the ones that require the most advance planning. Then we moved on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, because the U.N. had determined they are the patrimony of not just Canada but also of the world. A mostly contiguous and easy-to-reach set of gems where geology tells the story of the continent and wildlife abounds are clustered in the Canadian Rockies.

Now we continue with UNESCO sites outside the Rockies, starting with Kluane National Park and Reserve, located in Yukon Territory and still very much in the mountains, including Mount Logan, Canada’s highest, and 17 of Canada’s 20 highest. In Kluane, sights to be seen include glaciers calving.

Kluane is reachable by automobile up the famous Alcan Highway, designated in Yukon Territory as Highway 1. Your logical base of operations would be historic Whitehorse, the largest city in the Yukon because it’s the only city in the Yukon. Whitehorse appears in the Guinness Book of World Records as the city with the least air pollution in the world.

Sightseeing in Kluane is by air (“flightseeing”), by water on pristine alpine lakes or on the whitewater of the Alsek River, or by hiking. Many of the spectacular hiking trails in Kluane were originally used by the Southern Tutchone First Nation, whose aboriginal land is included in the park. The park website notes that the Southern Tutchone retain a right to hunt and fish in the park, so that Indians will not be mistaken for poachers.

In a major concession to modernity in a wilderness park, Kluane offers designated areas for motorboating and snowmobiling.

For those interested in an odd Canadian custom noted earlier in this series, Kluane contains two sets of red chairs. They come in twos, close enough to each other that I always flash on the bathtubs in the Cialis commercials.

Farther away from the left coast, Nahanni National Park is well worth a look. There are wild rivers still cutting though rock on the surface and an impressive array of limestone caves below. The park is aboriginal territory of the Dehcho First Nation, a people that invite you to take in Nájljcho, known to the settlers as Virginia Falls. It’s a drop on the Nahanni River twice the drop of Niagara Falls.

Like most UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Nahanni was already known to Native peoples before the colonists showed up. They called it Nahʔą Dehé, and it’s safe to say they did not visit by float plane. In our times, your choices are a chartered float plane or to enter the way the First Nations people did—on trails that, unlike many of the trails farther south, never got paved or turned into railroad rights of way. Most flights depart from Ft. Simpson, Northwest Territories, population slightly north of 1,000. Parks Canada maintains a list of licensed operators.

While there are other locations where you can catch a flight, Ft. Simpson really makes sense because if you are staying overnight, you need to register at the park office in Ft. Simpson and “de-register” when you get back. The safety factor in this process is obvious.

While on the subject of safety, I’ll repeat myself again in this series on Canadian national parks: Bears have the right of way. Do not approach them. Make a lot of noise when hiking, and chances are a properly alerted bear will not approach you. Study the Parks Canada recommendations for bear safety. They appropriately title the link, “You are in bear country,” something to remind us that the bears are not in human country.

River trips and camping require planning beyond the scope of this article. It’s possible to just fly in for a quick look at Nájljcho/Virginia Falls, but it hardly seems worth the trouble unless you are collecting photos of the most spectacular waterfalls on the planet.

Moving a little bit south but mostly east from Nahanni, straddling the border of Northwest Territories and Alberta, is Wood Buffalo National Park, the largest park in the Canadian system. If birding is your passion, you should not miss Wood Buffalo National Park, which lies under several major flyways and contains the northern terminus of the annual journey of the endangered whooping crane. The southern end of the crane’s journey is the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, so both the U.S. and Canada are protecting nesting areas. The major surviving flock is called Aransas-Wood Buffalo.

I am not a birder, but I feel privileged to have observed and photographed these beautiful animals. I like to tell myself they have returned from the brink, because the population has been slowly rising since the low of 15 in 1941. In 2011, the population had recovered enough to quit counting every individual bird and estimate the number left. The current estimate is 250. That sounds a lot better than 15, but if you visit Wood Buffalo, it might be worth your while to photograph a whooping crane while you can.

Wood Buffalo is also home to the largest surviving herd of its namesake animal, technically “wood bison.” This is the other sub-species of American bison, and it used to be common in most of Canada. The conservation status of the wood bison is “near threatened.” The original reason for establishing the park in 1922 was to protect the last few surviving wood bison, which, like the whooping crane, have slowly rebounded when humans started paying attention to conservation.

Enter Wood Buffalo from the north at Ft. Smith, Northwest Territories, or from the south at Ft. Chipewyan, Alberta. Both are about the same size as Ft. Simpson and both offer hotels, restaurants, grocery stores and laundromats—all the comforts you would seek on a long road trip.

Our next destination protected both by UNESCO and by Canada is a road trip from Ft. Chipewyan to Rocky Harbour, Newfoundland—more than 4,000 miles, and the shortest route dips back down into the United States. There is a way to keep the route in Canada and make a short stop that’s very heavy on science.

Drive to the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec, Parc National de Miguasha. Mapquest makes the distance—when driven on main highways—to be more than 3,000 miles. Quebec is the beating heart of Francophone Canada, so if French throws you, just pretend you are in New Orleans.

There is a catch to this side trip. Miguasha is a national park, but it’s a Quebec National Park. I could have understood a First Nations National Park, but I’d thought Quebec was a province of Canada.

Live and learn. Apparently, the Québécois people are as underwhelmed by Canada’s 150 years as a nation-state as many First Nations people are. Therefore, admission to this Quebec National Park is not free in celebration. If you have any interest in paleontology (or maybe circa 50 species of wild orchid in season), you should pay the entrance fee for all the reasons UNESCO recognized Parc National de Miguasha.

There is a lot of science going on in the national parks of Canada, but Miguasha is focused like a laser on paleontology. The UNESCO World Heritage designation is based on a cliff along the southern coast of the Gaspé Peninsula that contains the most extensive fossil record of the Devonian Period—popularly, the “Age of Fishes”—in the entire world.

The fossils that are the reason for the park are not just varied but also of very high quality for illustrating the status of vertebrate animals that were the last to be confined to water—lobe-finned fish, known among the science guys as elpistostegalians. While discovery of the fossil cliffs that allow scientists to read the evolution of the Devonian Period is said to date from 1879 and the Geological Survey of Canada, archaeology in the area documents Micmac hunting and fishing going back hundreds of years. So, as with so much in the Americas, it depends on what you mean by “discover.”

Miguasha is a tiny park in relation to the parks in the west. The guts of it are the Natural History Museum and the cliffs. Research is active on the fossils and proceeds around educating visitors. Most of the management of Miguasha is directed to the preservation of the fossil cliffs, threatened by coastal erosion and by too many humans loving them too much from too close.

Whether or not you have visited the French fossils, you have another 1,000 miles to Rocky Harbour, Newfoundland, and Gros Morne National Park. The basis for the UNESCO designation is that the park contains visual evidence of continental drift, “where deep ocean crust and the rocks of the Earth’s mantle lie exposed.” There is plenty of laboratory evidence for the geological theory of continental drift, but the formations are seldom so easily identified on the surface with the naked eye.

The Earth’s mantle being pushed upward by continental drift results in the area of Gros Morne called The Tablelands. These spectacular formations can be hiked with a guide, or you can acquire a map for $3 Canadian at the visitor’s center ($5 for waterproof) and hike it on your own.

Also, there’s an app for that called Explora that’s available for free download in the App Store for the Mac or Google Play for Android. Parks Canada claims it’s “like having a tiny park naturalist in your hand.” There are also scenic drives to view The Tablelands.

Gros Morne is a huge park, more than you can see in one day, and some things just must be reported with no comment. Western Brook Pond is a freshwater fjord—a narrow lake gouged by a glacial ice sheet, which then melted. There are many freshwater fjords to visit within the park, but Western Brook Pond’s claim to fame is that it enjoys the highest purity rating available to natural bodies of water.

A modern source of this incredibly pure water is the highest waterfall in Eastern North America, which feeds the clean and cold Western Brook Pond. It’s called Pissing Mare Falls. I am not making this up.

If Bear is the animal that most represents several of the western Canadian national parks, the animal playing that part in Gros Morne is moose. Black bear are present, as well as caribou, lynx, two species of foxen and three species of whale that will put on a show for visitors in season. Still, moose are not common in most of the U.S., and there are few better places to observe Bullwinkle and his family.

Those reasonably fit can climb the park’s namesake mountain. The sea caves are spectacular viewed from land or from the sea. There is much to see and do in Gros Morne, but there is another attraction administered by Parks Canada that most American Indians would want to see after coming all the way to Newfoundland.

It’s at the other end of Newfoundland, more than 200 miles to St. Lunaire-Griquet, the gateway to L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site. What makes this a UNESCO World Heritage Site is the location. It’s where archaeology destroyed the myth of Christopher Columbus, the genocidal, slaving gold-seeker that the Tainos had the misfortune to discover in the Caribbean in 1492.

Norse sagas and First Nations stories agreed that white people attempted to colonize Newfoundland, had a falling-out with the Natives, and were run off. There are other alleged Norse sites, but L’Anse aux Meadows is universally recognized as having been a working colony, including both men and women, that was inhabited for more than 500 years before Columbus.

The sagas credit Leif Erikson with the attempt to colonize and with extensive trade with ancestors of the Inuit and the Algonquin. It is unclear to Indians why a barbarian like Columbus is celebrated for something he in fact never accomplished.

The modern historic site is a recreation of the Norse colony at the original location. Some of the artifacts are on display. Indian tourists can take the light point of view and watch the costumed college students play Viking, or the heavy point of view and come away with a clear understanding of the evidence that shows Columbus to have been beaten to this continent at least once.

It’s good to remember that oral traditions on both sides claim there was more than one settlement. These would be the same oral traditions given little credence before the physical evidence was uncovered at L’Anse aux Meadows.

With all due respect for the opinions of Quebec and the First Nations, Canada is an interesting nation that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific just like the U.S. and additionally includes the fabled Northwest Passage through the Arctic, now uncovered by climate change.

The Canadian park system is celebrating 150 years by waiving fees. Those parks are doorways to outdoor sports of every kind. In this series, we’ve seen historical evidence of Indian trade routes turned into pathways for gold seekers in the west, and a colony in the east that antedates Columbus by 500 years.

All of this is worth doing, and you can wait until next year and pay full price if you choose. Just remember: The bears always have the right of way.