Canada Day at Elk Island National Park

Part of being a Canadian, at least according to the likes of Mowat & Atwood, is connecting with the great outdoors; the wilderness that often lies just outside our front doors, but continues to remain elusive. Sometimes, as Canadians, we are awfully quick to be self-congratulatory (mountains! multiculturalism! moose!) but I think it is for good reason. For me, that’s what this Canada Day weekend was all about; experiencing the pieces of our beautiful country that are easy to pass by, but are worthy of appreciation, & celebration.

laurenwithmaptourguideOn Friday, Brian & I visited Elk Island National Park. We started with a Bison Backstage Tour, where our guide, Lauren, took us behind the scenes to learn about the management side of bison conservation in the park. For those of you not familiar with central Alberta, one of the great ironies of Elk Island is that it is not famous for elk at all, but rather for being a leader in bison conservation efforts! It is also the only completely fenced national park in Canada. On the south side of Highway 16, approximately 200 Woods Bison make their home, while the larger, north side of the park boasts over 800 Plains Bison!

Lauren filled us in on some of the historical forces that caused bison to reach the brink of extinction just over 100 years ago.

Then, we were able to explore the handling facility where the bison are captured, carefully managed & tested, then sent to auction or to other conservation sites around the world. Because the Plains Bison herd grows by 40% each year, & has no natural predators in the park, this is a necessary practice. I found it especially cool that last year the park donated two bison to the Enoch Elder’s Food Bank.

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I drive through Elk Island quite frequently, & even stopped twice last fall to hike, but it had never occurred to be that there must be a handling facility on site, & I hadn’t given much thought to the care & effort that goes into managing animals as enormous & important as bison. If you are at all interested in the history & management of bison, I highly recommend this tour. They run all summer on Saturdays & Sundays.

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This is what happens when you try to transport bison in a stock trailer!


After the tour, we headed across Highway 16 to the south side of the park, where there is one of the park’s 11 hiking trials; the Wood Bison Trail. One of my goals is to hike or snowshoe every trail at Elk Island, so I was pleased that Brian had agreed to come along on one of these adventures. The Wood Bison Trail is ~16 kilometres long & loops along Flying Shot Lake.

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We set out around 2 o’clock & it took us just over three hours of hiking, plus a few breaks for geocachinggeocachewoodbisontrail to complete the trail. It was a beautiful day, & we combated the mosquitos with a few healthy doses of bug spray. tigerlilyyesTiger lilies, my favourite wild flower, were blooming all along the trail, & I couldn’t stop exclaiming over their beauty. The orange was incredible!
About 4 km in, we stopped so I could snap a few photos of them, grab some water, & take a bathroom break . . . just as a trail runner rounded the corner. I’ve never got my shorts up so quickly! It suffices to say he had a story to tell that night when he got home!

After some serious stretching, we drove back through the north side of the park hoping to spot a bison (we did!) & to kick back for a few minutes at the iconic Park’s Canada red chairs.

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Happy 149th birthday you beautiful country!

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Ocean Kayaking

We spent Spring Break 2016 on Vancouver Island. It was an awesome 5 days, & one of my favourite parts was kayaking the harbour with Victoria Waterfront Tours. We picked the two hour twestbaymaringvillageour, since neither Brian or I had ever been in an ocean kayak. (We are Albertans after all!)

We arrived a bit early & wandered around the Marine Village with floating houses. How amazing would it be to wake up & automatically be on the water?! It reminded me of house-boating in Shuswap, but much more permanent. The residents are obviously used to the curiosity of outsiders, as this little sign was posted to answer some of people’s most common questions.

We started our adventure at 9:30 by signing waiver forms, moving the rental car into the free parking area,  & getting outfitted in the proper gear. We each received a paddle, spray skirt, emergency throw bag, & a bailing pump. Nici, our fantastic guide, went through the emergency/safety procedures with us.

Then, she took us down to the upper dock to give us a short lesson on ocean kayaking. Nici explained the three most common paddle strokes (forward, backward, & stop) & had us practice each one. Then, we learned about how to use a rudder on an ocean kayak. I’ve only ever kayaked down the river & watched people practice kayaking in the pool, & never realized that ocean kayaks have a rudder to help stabilize them against waves & currents. The rudder is controlled by foot pedals inside the kayak, and by pushing the right pedal and paddling on the left, you can turn right, and vice versa. Finally, we practiced using our “holy crap straps” to escape from our spray skirts if we were to capsize, & carried the kayaks down to the water.

Because Victoria Waterfront Tours has a nice low dock, we were able to enter the kayaks easily, & were soon off & geocache kayakingpaddling into the beautiful morning.  Brian really wanted to check out a geocache on one of the islands in the harbour that Nici jokingly referred to as Bird Poop Island (it’s actually called Beren’s Island), so we paddled out that way. We could see an Inukshuk wearing a backpack that contained the geocache, but the tide wasn’t at a good level for us to get out, so we settled with a picture & saved ourselves the wet feet.

After visiting the geocache site, we paddled towards a lighthouse and headed for the outer harbour. Brian loved watching the Victoria Clipper Passenger Ferry that runs to the San Juan Islands. Nici told us that it takes about 1.5 hours to get to San Juan, & we looked up the costs after our tour. For $18 per person you can go across to Washington; heading across for a night is now on our list for our next visit to Vancouver Island. We also enjoyed watching the float planes take off & land practically over our heads. The harbour is definitely a busy place, & I was thankful we didn’t just rent kayaks. Nici knew where the float plane runways were, for example, and kept us out of trouble.

We paddled past several smaller islands, & learned that they all belong to the Department of National Defence, and disembarking on them is illegal. This dates back to the fear of a Japanese attack in World War II. Being a Social Studies teacher, I was fascinated by this information. We also paddled past some Navy housing, then turned the corner to Seal Island, with a breathtaking view of the Olympic Mountains.

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We took a break near Seal Island to eat our granola bars & watch the sea birds. Of course, we spotted a couple seals as well. Nici pulled a piece of Bull Kelp from the kelp forrest below, & we each sampled a leaf. It was actually pretty good, like a garden pea pod! She showed us how to make a Bull Kelp horn, & we had some fun practicing our warning calls.

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We headed back towards the inner harbour, happy & the tiniest bit sore. Coming along the rocks close to the Marine Village, we spotted a beautiful reddish coloured mink scampering along the boulders near the water! By the time we arrived back at the lower dock, carried the kayaks back up to the upper dock, & returned our gear, it was 12:30. Our two hours on the water went by in a flash!

We had a fun morning with lots of laughter. One of the best parts of the tour was that Nici took a camera with her, & took photos of us throughout the morning; this was much preferable to taking our phones out in the water with us.

I loved ocean kayaking & we will definitely be back for a longer paddle with Victoria Waterfront Tours on our next visit.

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