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Every Trail Has a Story: Heritage Travel in Canada

The diversity of fascinating content includes the ancient James Bay landmark the Wonderful Stone ; the mountain treks of naturalist Mary Schaffer Warren; the west coast observations of George Vancouver; practices such as dog sledding, warm winter camping and canoeing that allow for heritage insights; the trails of Dundas, Ontario; the exploits of missionary Gabriel Sagard; the recluse Louis Gamache of Anticosti Island; the abandoned gravesites along the coast of Newfoundland — to name but a few.

As historian Michael Bliss once said, We have to find a way to make history smell again. Author Bob Henderson brings the fragrance of the past into the present and invites us to imagine and participate. Like an enthused hummingbird too eager to land, Bob Henderson leads a wide-ranging tour of the vast garden of Canadian history and landscape. Once entrusted with the scent of intrigue we are invited to follow these stories and trails deeper, make them speak and inform our own travels and impressions. Here are stepping stones and touchstones, paths toward richer engagements via a storied and fabulous past.

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Enormous footprints in soft, muddy sections of the road dwarfed my size 11 boots. And then we began to see large piles of scat at regular intervals, full of undigested red berries.

At least we could take comfort that the bear seemed to be eating well. Still, the last thing we wanted was to surprise a grizzly on the narrow confines of the trail, hemmed in by brush. When their comfort zone is invaded they tend to charge by instinct.

Charter Shuttles

We were hiking into the wind and the rush of the river obscured the sound of our footsteps. We began to shout at intervals to alert any creature that might be up ahead. The wolf stood watching us, totally still, and its bottomless eyes contained all of the wild spirit of the North.

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From time to time willow ptarmigan erupted noisily from the silent underbrush, momentarily stopping our hearts. About an hour later we came across the freshest, largest bear prints yet, followed by an enormous—and very recent—pile of scat. My shouts, until then pathetic and warbling, took on a new ferocity.

Colin grabbed my arm and pointed, at the same instant there was a crashing in the bushes to our left. We continued to walk and to shout as we beat a hasty retreat from the area. The fresh tracks continued in the same direction; the front claws were dug in as though running, until they turned abruptly off into the bush. The bear had clearly been walking ahead of us when we frightened it off the trail and it doubled back downwind to get our scent.

The pass was true to its name—we could hardly walk a mile without coming across three or four of the curious creatures.

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With their poor eyesight, the caribou would approach in fits and starts, squinting and sniffing until they got downwind, when they would catch our scent and bolt. The pass spread out before us, a bowl-shaped meadow with a stream running through it and surrounded by stony snow-shrouded peaks.

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We spotted the tiny clapboard cabin maintained by a wilderness lodge back on the Barrens and, as is the custom in remote places, we detoured the metres off the trail to stop and exchange the news. The shack, however, was empty save for the angry chatter of a ground squirrel whose peace we had evidently disturbed. We paused long enough to eat an energy bar and continued on our way. Around a broad curving bend the bottom dropped out and we entered the valley of the Ekwi.

Close scrub alternated with many frigid river crossings: two that day and four the next. Each one got deeper, until by the end we were wading precariously through a bone-chilling, crotch-deep surge. The theme of the Ekwi was claustrophobia relieved by intermittent wetness. We made camp on the pebbly bank of a small tributary. I was absorbed in pitching the tent when I heard a lonely howl echo through the valley. Smiling because the sound set the atmosphere so well, I looked up in time to see a coal black wolf emerge quietly from the bushes just across the stream. Colin put down the cook stove and reached a slow hand for his camera.

We laughed and shook our heads at the foolishness of those who would tackle Canol unprepared, but at the same time we secretly wondered if we had done enough. I held my breath, afraid to shatter the moment.

Wanuskewin Heritage Park

When it took two hesitant steps forward as if to come into camp, Colin shouted reflexively and the wolf bolted into the bushes. The spell was broken. The night was clear and not too cold. We sat beside a driftwood fire, where I wrote my notes and sipped a ration of Scotch whisky. The backdrop—the barren spine of the Backbone Range—was so stunning as to seem almost unreal. That mental disconnect lasts until you step into one of the frigid, rushing rivers, and then it becomes all too real.

Lounging around?

Stan grinned his quiet grin. That night around the table, joined by fly-in hunters and camp guides, Stan entertained us with legends of Canol trips past. About the man who attempted an unsupported through hike from Mile with his dog, only to show up at Godlin with open, weeping sores all over his back.

He traded his camera for a flight out. About the party of ATVers who were turned back by the mighty Twitya River and who tried to sell Stan their remaining gear and vehicles. Their machines, new going in, were battered wrecks on the way back. He had lost everything swimming the Twitya and had walked for several days in that state. The road was overgrown and crowded with trees, but the walking was easy and the weather was in our favour.

We made one false turn crossing a broad washout, where we failed to pick up the road on the other side and went downhill instead of up. We paid for our impatience with a tiring two-hour bushwhack through spongy hummock and stream beds until we spotted a fallen telephone pole high up a desolate hillside and regained the trail. Lesson learned: when in doubt, drop the packs and scout the far side of any washouts.

Despite the detour, our two days through the Godlin River valley were some of the most enjoyable of the trip.

We had two nights of perfect riverside camping on broad boulder and sand beds. We carefully stowed everything that needed to be stowed in dry bags, strapped on our river shoes, and then took turns blowing up a boating tube from Canadian Tire.