Sunday 4 October 2009

Canada, land of empty spaces and vast distances

Canada is overwhelmingly big. The distances and emptiness are awesome in the truest sense of the word. I knew this on some level, but it wasn't until I tried to explore some of it with my family that it began to sink in. Subsequently I did some digging online that gave me an even stronger sense of just how empty it really is. I learnt about many remote places and how hard they are to visit. Eventually I even found an excellent graphic illustrating how most of Canada is uninhabited, which you can find at the bottom of this article.

A week "in Gaspé"
At the start of September, my parents came to visit for a couple of weeks. We decided this was a great opportunity to explore a bit of Canada together, so set aside a week for what would be our biggest trip yet since moving here - exploring the Gaspé peninsula. We got to Quebec City fairly quickly and had a pleasant overnight stay there. In the morning we stopped for a brief look at Montmorency Falls, then crossed back to the peninsula and headed upriver along the Route des Navigateurs.

View Gaspé Trip in a larger map

Our journey took us past plenty of beautiful little villages and farming communities along the way and enjoyed stopping for picnics and photographs. But after a long day's driving, we only got as far as Le Bic, just barely inside the Gaspé region. It dawned on us that with only seven days available, the only way to get around the peninsula would be to drive for long periods every single day - which wouldn't leave us much time for sightseeing. So we adjusted our plans to be less ambitious.

We camped the next night in the gorgeous Le Bic National Park (see left), where we hired bikes and had some lovely walks. The next day, rather than continuing along the north coast, we cut across the peninsula, and stayed the next two nights at the very strange castle-hostel Chateau Bahia. We used this as a base to explore the Restigouche region on the south of the peninsula. Alex and I spent a day kayaking down the crystal clear Matapédia river and we visited more seaside towns, such as Carleton-sur-mer. Then it was time to start heading back towards Montréal, which we did via a lunch stop on the US border at St Leonard in New Brunswick, and an overnight stop in Magog in the Eastern Townships (which were unfortunately rather wet). We arrived back in Montréal on the seventh day, having had a great holiday. We'd driven 1,781 kilometres, or 1,106 miles! For more details on the trip and some photos you can check out Mrs Alex's blog (ask me for the link) - plus I will be putting up photos on Flickr at some point.

Thinking about visiting the wilderness

The trip to Gaspé was a real eye-opener to me. I'm keen to explore Canada, and especially to see some of the more "wild" parts. What I'm beginning to realise is that in a country this big, that's just not so practical. The Gaspé peninsula is relatively "local" for us - yet it needs half a week just to get there and two to three weeks to enjoy it properly. I've spent several evenings browsing the map of Canada on Google Maps, clicking places that look interesting - and every time I look at the logistics of how to get to these places, I am amazed at just how inaccessible much of the Canadian wilderness is. I suppose that's why they call it wilderness!

For example, while doing a bit of Google earth exploring, I discovered Lake Manicougan, a perfect crater lake, apparently not too far from here. Maybe that could be worth a visit? I then read an account from a couple who went kayaking there and realised just how huge and far away it is. It's a mere 1,071 kilometres (666 miles) from Montréal. The last 85km of that is on unfinished roads, and when you get there, there are no facilities. So in theory that would be possible for us, if a little awkward - but like the Gaspé trip, it would take over a week to do it justice. When you have limited vacation days in a year, such epic quests would burn up your leave in no time!

Here's another example. My Lonely Planet 2009 calendar on the "Canada" page shows a picture of a beautiful mountain reflected in a lake. The caption reads "Mount Magog, reflected in Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park" (see right). I couldn't even find this mountain on Google (most of the hits are for another with the same name in Utah). When I did find the page about Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park I read such encouraging words as "No roads penetrate this unspoiled wilderness, with trails providing the only land access" and "Visitors are reminded that the park is a wilderness area, without supplies or equipment of any kind". I don't think I'll be visiting there soon then!

Ever since I saw Canada in an atlas at school, I was impressed by the size of Hudson's Bay. So being in Canada now, I wondered about whether it might be possible to visit Hudson's Bay. I scrolled around the map and noticed the Polar Bear Provincial Park, a nice green area on the south of the bay. On further investigation I found that "it has no visitor facilities, is reachable only by air, and special permission is required before visiting it." Looking back at the map confirmed it - no roads! Hmm, maybe not then!

It occurred to me that the Hudson's Bay Company (which is still trading today and is older than Canada by the way!) was built on harvesting the resources of Hudson's Bay - surely there must be some access to the Bay. This led me to learn about York Factory, which used to be their headquarters, but is more or less abandoned now, and only accessible by water or air anyway.

Through further investigation I found out about the James Bay Road, built to access Hydro Electric facilities built near the Bay in the 1970s. The James Bay Road is pretty much the only road access to Hudson's Bay (James Bay is the southern-most inlet of Hudson's Bay). Surprisingly, it's quite a well built road, but it will take you 27 hours to get all the way along it (from Ottawa), and for 381km there are no services or settlements! Here are a few interesting accounts of people who've travelled the James Bay Road - one, two, three, four. The roadside photo to the right is from another account for which I have unfortunately lost the link.

As you can see, I'm beginning to understand just how vast and undeveloped much of Canada is. I've also learned more about the vast emptiness of Canada from TV series such as the recent Channel 4/National Geographic series Alone in the Wild, where Ed Wardle survives on his own for 50 days in the wilderness of the Yukon. The History Channel/Five series Ice Road Truckers taught me about the ice roads in Canada's northwest territory, which only exist during the winter months as vital supply lines to communities and mining outposts in the far North, that are completely isolated for most of the year.

I could go on, but I won't. I have now realised that the only way to visit some of these places is to invest serious chunks of time - weeks if not months - in other words, not when you have a regular job. And you need a shedload of cash too - not just for transport and accommodation, but for vital equipment for survival! Here is a map showing many of these inaccessible places I've learnt about (click a feature for more info):

View Inaccessible Places in a larger map

So, just how empty is Canada?

As you can see this is something I've been thinking about a lot. But my curious mind then started wondering.. how empty is Canada? I had lots of fun playing with the population density table on Wikipedia, which you can sort in different ways; it turns out Canada has on average 3 people per square kilometre, compared to 31 in the US or 246 in the UK. Of 238 countries in the world, it ranks 231st lowest for population density, beaten only by the likes of Australia, the Sahara and Mongolia.

There's an oft-quoted statistic about how three-quarters of the population of Canada live within 90 miles of the US border. But I wanted to know more - which parts of Canada are uninhabited? Apparently this is quite a difficult question to answer, but eventually I came across a study by Statistics Canada that, in exploring different methods and representations, came up with a rather excellent depiction of "The Population Ecumene of Canada". Ecumene is a word of Greek origin referring to the "inhabited earth". Here is their map:

(click for a larger version or here to see the original in context)

In this map, the green parts are the main inhabited areas, the red spots are small pockets of civilization outside the main parts, and the white and grey parts are completely uninhabited.

I find this absolutely breathtaking. Huge extents of Canada are totally devoid of civilization. Most Canadian provinces have only a handful of settlements and the rest is totally undeveloped. What I find particularly interesting is that unlike Australia or the Sahara, there is still a lot of Canada that could be inhabited - just that it would cost a great deal to develop the necessary infrastructure to support it. A large part of Canada is made up of the Canadian Shield, which is covered by lakes, forests and is high in mineral deposits. Winters are tough but except for the far North, no worse than other inhabited parts of Canada. I think that perhaps the reason these places have not developed, is not anything about the land itself, just a lack of proximity to the existing civilized world, making supplies and trade difficult.

It's strange really. I guess that colonization of uninhabited land and creating new settlements isn't really viable in today's economic climate. I suppose this is what the rest of the world was like before we built our cities and transport networks. And I wonder if some time in the future, greater parts of Canada will become inhabited and enjoyed by ordinary folks, or whether it will always be mostly an unspoilt wilderness that only the intrepid can visit.