(This is the text from my presentation to the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s Nature Talks series, which I delivered in Calgary on November 7, 2018 on behalf of Toque and Canoe. Text and images by Don Enright.)
I’d like to thank the Nature Conservancy of Canada for inviting me to speak on behalf of Toque and Canoe this evening, and I’d like to acknowledge respectfully that we are gathered on the traditional territory of the peoples who are signatories to Treaty 7, and the Métis People of Alberta.
Toque and Canoe is an award-winning Canadian travel blog founded here in Calgary by Jen Twyman and Kim Gray. We write about Canada for Canadians, and we highlight the experiences that define us and bring us together. Many, if not most of these experiences, from coast to coast to coast, are nature experiences: from the Great Bear Rainforest to the Cape Breton highlands to zodiac adventures in the High Arctic. I have been lucky enough to travel and write for Toque and Canoe a number of times since we launched in 2011, and those experiences have been some of the most memorable in my life.
The size and shape of my soul
I’ve traveled a lot and there are are handful of experiences that stick with me—there are trips that I look back on and realize they have changed the size and shape of my soul. All of those trips have been in nature.
Calgary naturalist Brian Keating put it this way in one of our articles: “There are bank accounts full of money and there are bank accounts full of memories, which is where the real wealth lies.”
We know what great travel memories are made of—not just through our own experiences, but through research on the subject, some of which has been done here at the University of Calgary. We know that people remember experiences that challenge them in some way, that deepen their relationships with their loved ones, and that change their view of themselves in the world.
You cannot stand under the prairie stars in June with the nighthawks booming overhead and be unchanged by it.
Nature does that. Nature travel changes our view of ourselves within the world. Some call it transformational travel: that feeling you have after a spectacular trip that you will somehow never be the same. That your relationship with yourself, and your understanding of your place in the universe have shifted, permanently. You cannot stand under the prairie stars in June with the nighthawks booming overhead and be unchanged by it. You cannot stand on the Fraser delta as 100,000 snow geese go thundering overhead and not understand where you fit in this universe as a single, tiny, earth-bound creature. No matter where you are among the complexities of your own life—no matter how addled or troubled or cynical or exhausted you feel, nature will centre you and calm you and gently help you pull your head out of your you know what when you need it most. This is the clarifying power of nature.
Every Canadian needs to watch whales spouting off the shore of the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island
There are experiences every Canadian should have at least once—transformative, grounding, purifying experiences. Every single Canadian should have the chance to go fishing in Manitoba in July and reconnect with the simple elements of rock, water, and wind. Each one of us should experience skiing in the Chic Choc mountains of the Gaspesie, see the sunsets of Saskatchewan, and paddle a lake in northern Ontario in early morning. Every Canadian needs to see the twisted mountains of western Newfoundland, and the midnight sun over the Yukon River. And every Canadian needs to watch whales spouting off the shore of the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island, knowing that there isn’t an automobile nor a cell phone connection for two days’ walk in any direction.
These are the things we write about at Toque and Canoe: this is why we exist—to try to connect Canadians with what is here in our own back yard.
I have worked as a nature interpreter since I was 19. And I have wracked my brain trying to find ways to connect people with nature, to make them understand that what we have is precious and fragile and finite. I have lectured and harped and educated and pontificated; I have put together slide talks and speaking tours and web pages and videos. And the older I get the more I understand that I need to simply shut up and take people outside. It has taken me a lifetime to come full circle to my young self—for me to backtrack to those days when i was a kid at the lake, or a student working in the foothills of Bragg Creek—when I was free to make my own connections with nature. When I simply got outside and stayed outside for days at a time, and listened and watched.
But it’s complicated. Here we are in 2018. The great Canadian summer holiday we used to have is becoming more rare. Do you remember the way we used to travel? When I was a kid we would pack the whole family, six of us, into a Galaxy 500 and hit the road, usually to northern Saskatchewn where our parents would set us free to become feral children for a few weeks, tumbling and carousing through the forest with cousins and aunts and uncles.
People don’t take those road trips as often anymore; people are less likely to cross the country with their children to see our national parks and our campgrounds and lakes. Why is that? Well, the kids have their day camps and classes and team practices and music lessons. And oh yes there’s also that inconvenient hollowing out of the middle classes. Now, depending on which side of the social divide you’ve landed on, you’re either jetting off to Sweden with the kids or you’re staying home and going to the Southland wave pool. Times have changed.
The older I get the more I understand that I need to simply shut up and take people outside.
So Toque and Canoe exists—we exist as travellers and writers and photographers—to gently tap on the shoulder of Canada and say Hey folks, remember this? Remember this spectacular nation we live in? It’s still here. Have you seen what Churchill looks like when the polar bears are gathering? Do you know what the wind smells like as it crosses the prairie south of Regina? Hey look, Canada. The Atlantic ocean is still thundering in toward you on the shores of Nova Scotia. The prairie crocus is still blooming off Highway 22 every spring. And you can still cannonball into the lake anytime you want in the Temagami, or the Whiteshell, or Waskesieu, or the Okanagan. Those experiences are there, waiting for you and your kids and your grandkids.
There is redemption in nature, and to see it, to revel in it, to step outside and roll in the moss and the snow and the prairie dust is our birthright as Canadians.
Step outside, Canada. Life is complicated. Let nature simplify it for you.