No matter what your ability, and no matter what your taste, Canada has an adventure tailored for you in accessible locations. From rank beginner to seasoned veteran you can find your thrills on the edge of, and sometimes within, city limits.
1. Ski Whistler
One of North America’s best ski resorts, perhaps best in the world, Whistler-Blackcomb – the principal venue for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games – contains nearly 200 longer-than-average marked trails and the highest vertical drop (1609m) of any ski field on the continent. Wander round the back of Blackcomb to Ruby Bowl and it gets even better. It has Whistler-Blackcomb’s best powder, falling in continuous steeps for more than 600m.
2. Killer whale watching
When salmon spawns in full swim along Canada’s west coast during August, a host of creatures follow hungrily behind, including pods of orcas. Whale-watching boats tail along viewing these beautiful animals, but the most intimate way to watch the so-called killer whales is from a kayak. The 250 resident killer whales cruise about picking off salmon as they head for the Fraser River near Vancouver. Orca downtime is spent rubbing bellies against the pebbly beach in Robson Bight, the only spot in the world where they are known to do this. Along the way you might also see Steller sea lions, Dall’s porpoises, bald eagles and perhaps even a minke whale, before you bed down to the sound of orcas swimming and surfacing past your tent. And, fear not, resident killer whales eat only fish.
3. Storm watch on Vancouver Island
Each winter, Vancouver Island’s west coast becomes a front-row seat to the most spectacular storms on the North American west coast. With nothing but the Pacific Ocean between the island and Japan, these well-travelled storms – driven here by a persistent low-pressure system in the Gulf of Alaska – roar ashore, bringing high winds and waves that pack a punch. Wander the beaches to experience the storms’ full fury, follow the aptly named Wild Pacific Trail for a cliff-top view, take a storm-watching tour from the town of Tofino or simply observe the action from the windows of your hotel room.
4. The Trans Canada trail
You would need at least a couple of years to hike the entire Trans Canada Trail which is well on its way to becoming the world’s longest recreational path. Beginning at North America’s most easterly point, the completed length is around 21,500km, half as long as the earth is round. If you walk at a decent clip of about 30km a day it will take almost exactly two years to finish. If you’re in a hurry, grab a bike or horse for this multi-use path.
5. Raft the Shubenacadie tidal bore
The Bay of Fundy gets the world’s highest tides, rising up to 15m daily. As a result of these extreme tides, a tidal wave or bore flows up the feeder rivers when high tide comes in. At the mouth of the Shubenacadie River in Nova Scotia this has led to the creation of tidalbore rafting trips, with powered Zodiacs riding the collision of water as the river’s outflow meets the blasting force of the incoming Fundy tides. Wave heights are dependent on the phase of the moon, and will dictate whether your experience is mild or wild. Be prepared to get very wet.
6. River canoeing/kayaking
Nahanni National Park Reserve, Canada’s first World Heritage-listed site, is a wild place that embraces its namesake, the epic South Nahanni River. Untamed and pure-blooded, the river tumbles more than 500km through the jagged Mackenzie Mountains, including a 125m drop over 200m-wide Virginia Falls. Paddling trips on the South Nahanni begin where planes can land, and for 188kms the river meanders placidly through broad valleys, and another 252km to Blackstone Territorial Park, first through steep-sided, turbulent canyons and then along the broad Liard River. Moose, wolves, grizzly bear, Dall sheep and mountain goats patrol the landscape.
7. Polar bears in Churchill
Churchill is on the bears’ migration route between winters spent hunting on the frozen bay and summers spent on land, and through October they pass by this Manitoba town. You can take day tours in purpose-built buggies, or you can stay in transportable ‘tundra lodges’. Where you hope not to see a polar bear is in town itself. Local authorities maintain a 24-hour vigil from September to November, with gunshots fired at night to shoo away any town-bound bears. Nuisance makers and repeat offenders are taken to cinderblock cells of an old military base, aka ‘Polar Bear Jail’, until winter.
8. Red-sided garter snakes
At the Narcisse Snake Dens the ground will be covered with thousands of snakes, awakened from hibernation by the warming air. The males emerge all together from deep cracks in the bedrock, where they have been sleeping in wriggling masses safely hidden from Canada’s frosty winter fingers. Once peak numbers are on the surface in early May, females emerge one by one over the course of several weeks, triggering frantic ‘mating balls’ where 100 males at a time furiously weave around any receptive female they find.
9. Wired for fun in Whistler
Stepping out into thin air 70m above the forest floor might seem like a normal activity for a cartoon character, but ziplining turns out to be one of the best ways to encounter the Whistler wilderness. Attached via a body harness to the cable you’re about to slide down, you soon overcome your fear of flying solo. By the end of your time in the trees you’ll be turning midair summersaults and whooping like a banshee. The 10-line course is strung between Whistler and Blackcomb mountains and operates in both winter and summer seasons. Another course runs a gentle web of walkways and suspension bridges for those who prefer to keep their feet on something a little more solid.
10. Toronto’s pillow fighting league
With a stable of female fighters and a rising profile it won’t be long before more people hear the cries of Boozy Suzy, Olivia Neutron Bomb, Carmen Monoxide and Eiffel Power. There are 22 registered fighters and these everyday ladies come from all walks of life to don costumes, masks and new personas before tearing each other apart with pillows in the ring. Home to the Pillow Fight League, Toronto walks the line between American cultural osmosis and staunch northern independence. Torontonians embrace both worlds with verve and open-mindedness: enlightened, multicultural and uniquely Canadian.
This article was updated in Jan 2012.