My best friend K and I had often talked about going to Canada together when we were older. We were both excited at the prospect, but in the end K beat me to it. She left school the year ahead of me and went over there without me. I was insanely jealous, but most importantly, even more determined to go.
I’m generally a shy person. Those who know me well, know that this shyness eases off with extensive acquaintance, until I’m a rather loud, though generally amiable person who likes to talk about myself. But with strangers, I barely utter a peep unless conversation is hauled out of me under great duress. So it came as something of a shock when I announced to my family that I was going to go to Canada on my own. I’d made up my mind and that was it. That up-grade on the flight to Toronto lulled me into a false sense of security, because when I landed at the airport and tried to negotiate my transit to the city centre, I felt exceedingly out of my depth and in fear of the 6 weeks that lay ahead of me before my return flight from Vancouver.
In the ensuing years, I’ve learnt to pack for my travels in a much more organised and frugal manner, minimising not just wasted space, but avoiding those items that really aren’t necessary at all. Ever. In Canada, my backpack was about 24kg. If anything helps to illustrate the enormity of this misjudgement on my part, then I will tell you this: I’m 5’5″, and at that time I weighed 55kg. I was unable to stand up straight with it on my back, and getting it onto my back in the first place was a challenge in itself. One of my biggest ‘giggle-to-myself’ memories of that time in Canada was when I got off the train in the village of Niagara Falls, and sat down next to my backpack on the platform in order to clip the straps round my waist. What ensued was a rather comical vision of me rolling around the platform in circles, unable to thrust my body and its load onto my two little feet. In the end, I required the helping hand of a man who couldn’t stop laughing, to lift me up off the ground.
Toronto was my temporary home for 2 weeks, during which I ate countless subways and pizza slices thanks to my inability to cook; something which I’ve only just started to master some 9 years later. It was the first place that I got sunburnt, and it still remains to this day the worst sunburn I have ever sustained in my life. Following the obligatory visit up the CN Tower in order to stand on glass thick enough to hold more elephants than you would ever care to see standing on one spot, I headed out to the Toronto islands, wearing mistake number 2: flip flops. Nobody who seriously likes to walk, wears flip flops. By the end of the day wandering around those beautiful islands, my feet resembled an extra in a zombie movie (ie. lots of blood and fluid oozing out of places where they really shouldn’t be oozing out of), and on top of that, I started to feel the effects of my inadequate sun protection. The blisters that formed across my shoulders were like bubble wrap. Large and fluid filled, if you squeezed one, the fluid would rush into the neighbouring one and bulge out in a rather gross fashion. If serving no other purpose, they atleast gave me a topic of conversation when meeting new people. Lesson number 1: use adequate sunscreen and top up regularly!
The aforementioned trip to Niagara Falls led me to witness the first of many ‘wonders’ that I had ogled over in guidebooks. There are many lists of ‘wonders’ these days. Wonders of the ancient world, the new world, the natural world, etc etc. With so much tourism, it doesn’t take much fodder for some new book or journalist to make up a new list of ‘wonders’ in an effort to get people to visit somewhere new ‘before they die!‘ Frankly, I have my own list. It has evolved over the years, changing and adapting to my new found perspective on the world, but at the inexperienced and untravelled age of 19, Niagara Falls was at the top of my list. The tacky commercial quarters leaves a lot to be desired, but if you can shut out the noise and clammer of the 100s of other tourists around you, then the natural beauty still inspires much awe. It is the location where I saw my first racoon, and I remember watching her foraging amongst the rubbish with her babies in tow, when everyone else around me was watching the rather pathetic fireworks display that they insist on doing most nights in an effort to light up the falls after dusk.
By the end of my trip to Canada, I had fallen in love with Alberta and British Columbia. I took the VIA Rail across the continent from Toronto heading west, stopping for a week in Jasper, before finally heading onwards to Vancouver. This train ride is where I learnt how popular the Scottish accent really is. Before the age of 19, the vast majority of my holidays had been in one of my most favourite countries in the world: Scotland. When everyone in that country talks in a similar way to you, it is hard to stand out from the crowd. In Canada, and in many countries since, my Scottish twang has won me all sorts of amusing attention, albeit that everybody outside of Scotland (and suprisingly many people within my current city of residence) thinks I’m Irish. I’m not. I’m Glaswegian. I might not live there anymore, but as far as I’m concerned, I couldn’t sound less Irish if I tried. In fact it has often been noted that my attempts at speaking in an Irish accent don’t sound Irish either. Either way, those 3 days aboard the train from Toronto to Jasper, and the subsequent overnighter from Jasper to Vancouver found me in my element. There is no better way to meet fellow travellers than travelling in the economy class of a sleeper train, where your seat is your bed, and your bed is a barely reclined seat with a standard VIA Rail blanket to snuggle under. The folk I met on that journey made the whole trip worthwhile, and did exactly what a good trip should do: it gave me some amazing memories that still make me smile (and if I’m very honest, in some cases cringe with embarrassment) to this day. Never again will I take the optional tour of the mail carriage…
If you go to one national park in Canada, I’d recommend Jasper. Every other mug will have followed the tourist trail to Banff, and missed out on this gem. It is beautiful, stunning, and yet has a fraction of the tourists that it’s neighbouring park has, leaving you to soak up the sights without feeling like being at a cattle market. I loved Jasper the minute I got off the train. I didn’t however, love the temperature. When I booked my holiday for the end of August, I had only considered the hot weather of Toronto, and hadn’t figured on the cooler weather of the higher altitude in the Rocky Mountains. I visited glaciers, ice bergs, mountain tops and glacial lakes in nothing but a t-shirt and a denim jacket. I spent a lot of that week feeling cold. The local elk population on the other hand were feeling hot. Randy and hot. When it comes to staying in a hostel out in the wilderness, it pays to heed the local warning of staying away from the elks during rutting season. I had booked a trip out to one of the local beauty spots (of which there were many: Maligne Lake, Athabasca falls and the Angel glacier to name but a few), that left early from the high street. I was staying out at the local youth hostel, a 50 minute hike from town. I set off early in the morning in order to be there for the 9am departure, and was lost in my own thoughts, hiking along the side of the highway, when a thunderous noise was followed by a fully grown female elk bursting through the trees just about 100 yards in front of me with a bull elk in hot pursuit. Startled, I quickened my pace, only for the female to change her direction and head straight towards me. My heart leapt into my mouth as I had visions of the bull charging me down in a fit of testosterone-induced rage. At 8.30am on what was supposed to be just another day on holiday, I found myself speed walking along the verge of the main highway with a bull elk to my left and a female elk to my right. By the time anybody else appeared in the vicinity, both elk had returned to their woodland lairs on opposite sides of the road. It was a close encounter that was both mesmerising and downright frightful at the same time. Within that week, I also saw a moose with her calf, several deer, and all sorts of other furry critters at various altitudes. I also came out in top-to-toe hives following a bite from a rather ornate species of mosquito. Jasper became the first of a very very long list of places I want to go back to.
On the western coast of southern British Columbia lies one of my favourite cities in the world: Vancouver. How can a city that is bordered by mountains, trees and an ocean as well as having a ‘Death by Chocolate’ restaurant, not be on anybody’s list of great cities? 1598 West Broadway, that’s all I’m saying! As I sit here today, I have crossed the longest and the second longest suspension bridges in the world. The latter is in South Africa, and the former is in North Vancouver (at the time of writing this is the case, anyway). My all-time highlight of this stay, and indeed of the whole trip, was getting to spend time doing love number 2: watching wildlife. Splashing out on a float-plane to Victoria on Vancouver Island, I suffered my 2nd worst sunburn (though worst facial sunburn) by bobbing about on the Pacific Ocean on a RIB watching scores of Orcas or Killer whales swimming around us. 3 superpods of about 60 whales each to be precise. 2hrs of brimming joy as these imposing creatures swam around and past us on their daily quest for food. I was so naive at 19, or maybe it was more a lack of common sense, but somehow I never fathomed in advance that when the sun is shining in a cloud free sky, it reflects off the sea and is even more capable of turning a normally fair-skinned lassie into a fresh-cooked lobster. I didn’t even need to open my mouth to attract attention that day.
Suffice to say, after 6 weeks, I didn’t want to leave. I’d hiked, I’d biked, I’d flown, I’d floated, and I’d choo-chooed. I’d seen elk, moose, whales, deer, racoons, and many more creatures. I’d got sunburnt, and covered in hives, and I met so many funny and/or weird people that all add to the memories. I came home with 24 rolls of film (digital cameras were still fairly new, expensive and a novelty at that time), and it cost over £200 to develop them. I bored my family and friends with the stories for months, and it became the starting point for what has now become my trademark phrase: ‘I’ve been travelling solo since I was 19…’