Flying Over Canada

Canada #20 Vancouver to Toronto

After trekking across Canada on the Canadian Trail, we took to the skies in a virtual flight across the country at Flyover Canada.

Strapped into our seats in a darkened room, we soared above the land in an eight minute video journey from east to west through the four seasons. With snow-covered mountains and never-ending prairies, deep blue lakes and tumbling waterfalls, the scenery was spectacular and the special effects almost convinced us we’d flown cross country.

A few days later we did exactly that in the opposite direction, on a five hour flight from Vancouver to Toronto. From our window seat, our bird’s eye view of Canada rivalled that tourist ride  in Canada Place.

We said goodbye to beautiful Vancouver with one last glimpse of the city, the water and those stunning coastal mountains beyond. We could see places we’d become familiar with – the white sails of Canada Place and the cleared green area at the top of Grouse Mountain.

We flew over more mountains, sometimes separated by shimmering blue lakes or narrow winding roads.

Later the mountains became more rugged and wild – could these be the famous Rockies we’d read so much about?

Soon the mountains were gone, replaced by broad flat farmland stretching to the horizon. From above the fields looked like giant geometrical puzzles, with different shapes neatly fitted together. We were intrigued by the circles and, although we asked later, no one could explain their purpose.

At one stage, we flew again over water and decided it must be one of the great lakes. The deep blue, dotted with tiny islands, contrasted with the green of the land, densely forested and jagged along the water’s edge.

Then came more farmland, this time worked in neat grid patterns edged with dark green stands of trees. The fields were split by long straight roads; we could even see cars heading in both directions.

Eventually Toronto came into view. It seemed to go forever; a vast sprawl of homes, shopping centres and rows of high rise towers with wide green spaces in between.

The city centre, defined by a long strip of skyscrapers, was dominated by CN Tower, a building we would come to know well. Beyond the cluster of towers we could see more blue – Lake Ontario, so large it merged with the blue sky on the horizon.

The next part of our Canadian adventure was about to begin.

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In the Right Place

Canada #19 Vancouver

The distinctive white sails of Canada Place are an iconic part of the Vancouver waterfront skyline and we quickly came to recognise them everywhere we went. From the Seabus on Burrard Inlet they stood out among the city skyscrapers, even when surrounded by cruise ships. At the lookout on Grouse Mountain, they were clearly visible on the waterfront. We could even see them from our 21st floor apartment in downtown Vancouver.

Close up the 30 metre high fibreglass sails are just as spectacular, but they are only one part of Canada Place. It’s the home of the Port of Vancouver and the cruise ship terminal, which can accommodate up to four huge ships at one time. Luxury hotels stand alongside the World Trade Centre and the Vancouver Convention Centre.

On the west promenade of Canada Place we went on a virtual trek across Canada, from ocean to ocean. The Canadian Trail consists of 13 sections designed to represent the 10 provinces and three territories of the nation.

Colourful glass plates embedded in the walkway list communities small and large, some well-known to us and others not familiar. We followed our own route through Canada, a few places we’d already been to and others we were yet to visit.

A mile-marker set into the pavement was another indicator of the distances we would cover on our Canadian journey.

This part of Burrard Inlet is an airport on the water, with tiny seaplanes continually taking off and landing. Even after seeing them in Victoria we were still entranced and stopped to watch as each one arrived or departed.

The trail ends at North Point with 360° views of the city, from the snow-capped mountains of the north shore to Stanley Park in the west, across Burrard Inlet to North Vancouver and east to the bustling Port of Vancouver.

We retraced our steps across Canada on the Canadian Trail and returned to the white sails of Canada Place. From our apartment to the waterfront those sails became our point of reference for our city explorations.

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Knowledge Gained

Canada #18 Grouse Mountain

Part Five

We made the most of our day on Grouse Mountain by taking part in every activity. As well as Breakfast with the Bears, we went to an Owl Interpretative Session, a Birds in Motion demonstration and a guided eco-walk.

Each time we discovered something new and, at the end of the day, we left with more than we came with. This is what we learned:

In the still of the night, a barn owl can hear the heartbeat of a frightened mouse as it tries to avoid detection.

A bald eagle reaches speeds of up to 160 km per hour when diving to snatch up its prey.

A turkey vulture uses its keen sense of smell to detect carrion more than a kilometre away.

Tiger swallowtails love to feast on the pretty purple flowers of the mustard plant.

Native azaleas and rhododendrons are much smaller and more delicate than their hybrid cousins.

Salamanders can live for up to 55 years in the still waters of Blue Grouse Lake.

Phil, our eco-walk guide, explained how the coastal First Nations peoples lived as one with nature. They brewed the bark and needles of the amabilis fir trees to make medicinal drinks.

Made from cedar, the traditional híwus Feasthouse on the shores of Blue Grouse Lake was a meeting place for family celebrations, gatherings and story telling through dance and music.

All of these new facts are fascinating, but what was the most important thing I learned?

I came away from Grouse Mountain knowing I never want to come face to face with a bear!

Patience Rewarded

Canada #17 Grouse Mountain

Part Four

We waited for a very long time before seeing hummingbirds on Grouse Mountain.

At an elevation of 1,100 metres, the hummingbird monitoring station on the mountain is the highest in British Columbia. In a program designed to gather scientific data on hummingbird populations in western North America, the birds are banded, released and observed in their natural habitat.

We gained a new appreciation for the work done by members of the Hummingbird Monitoring Network after standing near the hummingbird feeders for what seemed like hours.

Eventually our patience was rewarded when two birds arrived. They darted to and fro, constantly flying to the feeder and then taking refuge in the surrounding trees before returning to the feeder again.

Even with our cameras on fast motion settings, it was difficult to get clear images of these tiny birds. With careful timing and plenty of good luck, we managed to capture a few nice photographs.

It was worth the wait to see hummingbirds on Grouse Mountain.

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Showtime!

Canada #16 Grouse Mountain

Part Three

Grouse Mountain isn’t just about bears and beautiful views.

At the Lumberjack Show, we were transported to a Canadian lumberjack camp where fierce rivals Johnny and Willie took part in a competition. The winner would be declared the champion lumberjack for the day.

Using impressive skills handed down from one generation of timber workers to the next, Johnny and Willie competed in axe throwing, sawing and wood chopping.

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They duelled on a rolling log and raced each other to the top of a 20 metre high pole.

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Split down the middle, the audience took sides. We cheered enthusiastically, wildly encouraging Johnny when he won and good-naturedly regaling Willie with loud boos when he prevailed.

We all held our breath when a “tourist” accidentally joined the competition. After finding his way to the top of the pole he balanced precariously, often teetering as if about to fall before leaping off and safely ziplining down to the ground.

Who won the competition? I don’t remember.

I was too busy declaring myself the winner of the lumberjack selfies!

“Look Ma. I got me a lumberjack or three!”

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With apologies to Denzil and Miriam, to whom I promised there would be no more vertigo-inducing photos.

Sky High

Canada #15 Grouse Mountain

Part Two

Who would have thought we could go even higher once we reached the summit of Grouse Mountain? Not us!

We rode the Peak Chairlift to the top of the mountain, gliding silently above the tree-covered slope for fourteen minutes.

At an altitude of 1,231 metres, the city of Vancouver lay spread out below us and the waters of Burrard Inlet sparkled in the afternoon sun.

We envied the paragliders their uninterrupted views as they soared over the forested mountain.

Then we spotted the Eye of the Wind!

The world’s only wind turbine with a viewing deck may be perched on top of the mountain, but its foundations are embedded 15 metres into the rocky surrounds. We were happy to ride up in the elevator as it rose 65 metres to the glass viewpod. The turbine is fully operational, but on this calm day the massive blades, just metres from the pod, were still.

With uninterrupted 360° views, we could see over the forest to the snow-capped Pacific Ranges and across the Strait of Georgia to Vancouver Island. Mt Baker, in Washington State, was clearly visible on the horizon.

We didn’t need to take to the air like those paragliders to see these unforgettable views – we just needed to go sky high!

There’s a Bear in There!

Canada #14 Grouse Mountain 

Part One

After our fleeting glimpse of grizzly bears at Whistler, it was guaranteed we would see bears on Grouse Mountain – we’d booked a date with them!

We met our first bears at the base of the mountain, in a beautifully detailed wood carving.

Once on board the Skyride gondola we quickly rose up over the forest where early morning mist clung to the treetops. At the top of the mountain, we emerged into brilliant sunshine.

Bear tracks led away from the Peak Chalet uphill to the Grizzly Bear Habitat. We took note of other wildlife we might meet, and hoped that a cougar wouldn’t cross our path.

As if they knew we were coming, Coola and Grinder were waiting outside, enjoying the sunshine in the grizzly bear habitat.

While they munched on chunks of sweet potato, our wildlife ranger Natasha told us how both bears were found in 2001 as tiny cubs, orphaned and starving. They were brought back to health at Grouse Mountain, where they live as close to a normal life as possible in their spacious enclosure, complete with a stream, large pond and forested hideaway. In winter, the bears hibernate inside their comfortable den.

We watched entranced as the bears devoured their breakfast.

Our breakfast was served inside the Grizzly Lookout Café. Leaving the bears to theirs, we enjoyed a delicious buffet which included pastry bear claws and gingerbread bears.

Later in the day, at the end of a nature walk with ranger Phil, we returned to the Grizzly Lookout and he told us more about the bears and their life on the mountain. They have never been tamed and still have all the instincts of wild bears – bad luck for unwary squirrels who manage to get over the fence!

In the 17 years since the bears arrived on the mountain, scientists have studied their habits and lifestyle, gaining knowledge they’ve used to aid bears in the wild. With the help of infrared cameras placed inside the sleeping den, scientists have discovered that hibernation is not a state of deep sleep, as had always been thought. Instead, the bears become dormant, sleeping often but moving around several times during the day, sleep walking for a few minutes or stretching and turning in their beds. Scientists now believe bears remain active to retain their condition over the winter months.

Phil ended his talk on a positive note. Rangers and scientists are hopeful that, with what they have learned from caring for Coola and Grinder, they will be able to return other orphaned cubs to the wild. Long after Phil had gone we continued watching the bears as they splashed in the pond, using sticks like toys and watching us watching them.

On Grouse Mountain, we saw much more than a glimpse of these beautiful bears.