Canada is awesome, but vulnerable too

On the Alcan Highway

The classic Western Canada road trip

By Jennifer Humphries

There’s nothing like a monumental road trip across Canada’s west to focus the mind on what it means to be Canadian.

I didn’t want to make this very big trip. While I’m passionate about nature and was keen to visit some storied national parks, I wanted to do it in shorter bursts: fly west, rent a car and see selected destinations. But I acquiesced to my husband’s pleas. The trip was his “forever dream” and he wanted to do it with me.

I’m glad I agreed. Our 12,000-plus-kilometer, six-week summertime journey was filled with memorable moments.

Peyto Lake in Banff National Park. Photos: Jennifer Humphries

Canada’s national parks are treasures. We hiked at Kluane National Park in the Yukon and traversed Rogers Pass which snakes through four mountain parks on the way from Revelstoke to Golden, BC. We camped at Banff, Waterton Lakes, Grasslands and Pukaskwa National Parks. We got kitted out with bear bells (which we used) and bear spray (which, thankfully, we never had to use). We took bracing hikes to glorious views. In Banff, the mountains, glaciers and turquoise lakes were stunning. In Waterton, the mountains, post-burn forest and waterfalls were majestic. Grasslands was very different but special – rolling grass prairies, cacti, vast vistas topped with huge skies, prairie dog colonies, songbirds and birds of prey, badgers and bison. Pukaskwa on Lake Superior combines classic Group of Seven landscape with the beautiful starkness of a Colville painting.

We travelled the historic 2,200-kilometer Alaska Highway (also known as the Alaska-Canadian or Alcan Highway) from its easternmost point at Dawson Creek, BC as far as Disaster Bay, Yukon. It goes much further, to Fairbanks, Alaska. Built in only eight months in 1942 to serve as a wartime supply route, the Canadian section was transferred by the US to the federal government in 1946. More Second World War  history is found at Watson Lake, once the site of a large US Air Force presence. We stayed at the Air Force Lodge which has been restored by the German-Canadian owners to its war-era look, though happily with modern comforts.

Before our departure, I’d been reading Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian. Visiting historic places such as Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in Saskatchewan illuminated the deep connection of Indigenous groups to the land and its animals, and how much this connection was disrupted by colonization. The Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg explores this issue and others such as apartheid and the Holocaust in a deeply moving way.

The 20 campsites at Grasslands National Park; our tent is in the centre of the photo, beside our car (black, with two bikes on the roof). In the distance, upper left, are the iconic Parks Canada red chairs.

Chilling, too, was the evidence of climate change. Kluane Lake is shrinking because so much of the glacier that feeds it has melted back and now flows in a different direction. A huge section of the lake has become a dustbowl. Athabasca Glacier has been retreating for years, and the melt rate is steadily increasing. Soon glaciers may no longer be accessible or visible from the Icefields Parkway between Banff and Jasper.

Incursions of mountain pine beetle are obvious on mountainsides. Some forests are completely brown. A substantial amount of forest has been clear-cut,  a practice that continues. In Grasslands National Park, we took a guided hike entitled “Going, Going, Gone” to learn of Parks Canada’s efforts to save threatened species in the plant and animal world.

Our glorious country needs our protection. We knew it already, but seeing these impacts drove it home.

Jennifer Humphries is co-chair of the Environment Committee of the Glebe Community Association. The committee welcomes new members. Contact: Jennifer and her husband John have decided that their next big road trip will be by electric car.


See Parks Canada’s website for details about all of Canada’s 46 national parks and 171 historic sites: Canadian Geographic offers this insightful article on Grasslands National Park, including how ranchers and Parks Canada are working together to save this fragile ecosystem, much of which has been converted to farmland to the detriment of humans and numerous species:

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