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By Day and By Night

Canada #24 Niagara Falls

The mighty Niagara River flows for just 58 kilometres, between Lake Erie in the south northwards to Lake Ontario. In that short distance it moves at an average rate of 2,400 cubic metres per second. Several islands interrupt the course of the river while churning rapids and whirlpools are visible evidence of the water’s power.

Forming part of the international border between Canada and the United States of America, the Niagara River is visited each year by more than 30 million people. They all come to see its world famous falls.

Niagara Falls, at the southern end of the Niagara Gorge, consists of three waterfalls – the Horseshoe Falls, the American Falls and the Bridal Veil Falls. Water moving at a speed of up to 65 kilometres an hour flows over the falls at a rate of 168,000 cubic metres per minute. A veil of mist constantly shrouds the falls and on sunny days brilliant rainbows enhance the spectacle.

Getting up close to the falls means getting wet. At the Journey Behind the Falls, yellow ponchos are handed out before visitors descend 150 metres in an elevator to a tunnel at the base of Horseshoe Falls.

Two portals are located directly behind the falls; the water roars as it rushes by on its downward course.

At two more observation platforms right at the base of the falls, the thundering water crashes down before continuing on its way through the gorge.

Tourist boats dwarfed by the massive gorge sail in a circuit past all three falls, sometimes almost hidden in the spray. From the American side comes the Maid of the Mist, her passengers bedecked in blue ponchos, while on the Canadian side passengers on the Hornblower catamarans wear red.

Even with ponchos on everyone is damp, but no one minds as exhilaration and excitement overtake all other feelings.

When daylight fades, the falls take on a different personality. Illuminated in a parade of colours, the water glows in an intensity which deepens as the sky darkens.

Later in the night fireworks play over the falls in celebration of this masterpiece of nature. The brilliant bursts of light are the perfect finale to a day spent visiting the Niagara River.

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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.

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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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.

Surprise!

Canada #13 Whistler

Mention Whistler and visions of a winter wonderland bustling with snow sports enthusiasts come to mind. But with more than half of the annual three million visitors, including us, coming in the summer months, Whistler in early summer is just as busy.

The centre of the village is packed with day trippers and holiday makers and the shops and restaurants are crowded. It’s the mountains people have come to see though, and the only way to get there is on the Whistler Village Gondola which travels five kilometres to the summit of Whistler Mountain. Gliding high above the tree-covered slopes for 25 minutes, the gondola ride allows everyone time to enjoy the spectacular views on all sides.

Mountain bikers also ride up the mountain, transporting their bicycles on a chairlift before hurtling down again at breakneck speeds.

At the summit a giant stone Inukshuk, created for the 2010 Winter Olympics, gazes protectively over the valley. From a height of 2,182 metres, Whistler resembles a toy village dwarfed by the Fitzsimmons Mountain Range.

The Peak 2 Peak Gondola Ride crosses from Whistler Mountain to Blackcomb Mountain in a journey of record-breaking proportions. The highest and longest of its kind in the world, with the longest unsupported span of 3.024 kilometres, the ride travels 4.4 kilometres over Fisher Valley. The bright red gondolas leave the stations on either side every 59 seconds, and cross paths high above the valley floor. At the highest point of 436 metres, Fitzsimmons Creek resembles a narrow silver ribbon draped between the trees.

Back on Whistler Mountain, the Roundhouse Lodge serves steaming hot chocolates, with peaks of whipped cream and marshmallows mirroring the surrounding landscape. Tiny chipmunks scamper between the tables searching for dropped crumbs.

The best view comes at the end of the day, halfway down on the return journey to Whistler Village.

As the gondola passes above, a mama grizzly bear guides two cubs along a narrow mountain track. The gondola continues on its way and, while our glimpse of the bears is fleeting, our excitement lasts much longer. Whistler really is full of surprises!

Hidden Wonder

Canada #12 Brandywine Falls

We heard it long before we could see it.

The rushing water of Brandywine Creek, tumbling in a flurry of whitecaps under the little covered bridge, was the first indication of what was ahead.

Lush greenery surrounded us on the forest trail and, even when we lost sight of the water, the sound of its haste was always in the background.

We came to a railway crossing and, for a few seconds, our attention was diverted. These were not the unusual vehicles we’ve seen on train tracks.

A little further along the trail, our steps quickened in anticipation as we caught glimpses of what was to come.

All was revealed when, around the next bend, Brandywine Falls came into view. As the surging water of the creek reached the edge of an ancient lava flow, it plunged 70 metres to the base of the basalt cliffs before continuing on its way into the Cheakamus Valley.

No wonder we could hear the sound of the falls!

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