TAC 33 Index
I went to Canada with high expectations. After all, I had read in TAC29 that it was a wonderful place, so it must be true. Graeme Semple's plaudits were just the latest in a long line of reports from visitors who had come back besotted with the awesome grandeur. And this is the country where The Rough Guide says the waiters refill your coffee cup "till you beg them to stop." I knew I would like it: my fear was that I would find the experience so unsettling that I wouldn't want to return home. To my surprise, quite the reverse was the case: Scotland has a lot going for it.
Or, more precisely, there are some significant things which Scotland doesn't have. Real forests for example. The worst excesses of Forestry Commission or Phil Collins' blanket forestry pale into insignificance with what the original Genesis guy has done over there. Because these forests are natural, there are no rides, no fire breaks, no tracks made by the planting vehicles, no variation, no sky, no air. Longfellow was here: "This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight." I am not denying that forests are magnificent places and important in the grand ecoscheme of things; but, on the Canadian scale, they do not constitute a comfortable domain for a day-trip walker. They just go on and on. (Like TAC's pole debaters -Ed.) True, there are fine peaks beyond, but these are the realm of the longdistance weightcarrying backpacking Townsend-types. Mere mortals find themselves "climbing, forever trying, to find a way out from the wildwildwood."
Moreover, the forest is full of wild beasties, in particular full of vicious mosquitoes. I have had my share of grim midge-ridden days in Scotland, the sky blotted out by malevolent swarms and with exposed skin covered in black smears. I remember days where you claimed that the dark lumps in the porridge were wood ash, even though you were cooking on a gas stove. But these mosquitoes penetrate your clothes, feasting on your flesh through thick shirts and trousers, and I suspect they would bite through steel for a mouthful of fresh blood. Our big mistake was to buy a repellent containing citronella rather than DEET - a substance so environmentally incorrect that it has been phased out in everything but mozzy sprays. You could see why it was still needed there: taking the lemon-scented green option did not seem to have much effect at all.
Mosquitoes, while unpleasant, were not life-threatening and nor, as far as I know, were the six-inch-long, juicy white slugs; but the psychological damage they inflicted was severe enough. A further disincentive was that the water was not drinkable. I have drunk, and enjoyed, and taken for granted, gallons of water from Scottish burns and never once suffered ill effects. (Ian Mitchell rests his case.) But Canadian water is laced with many nasties, most notably giardia. Having read graphic descriptions of its effects, this was not a risk I was willing to take. The answer if you're going far is to buy a water filter (one advert for a filter included a very explicit illustration of a duck emptying its bowels into a stream - lovely), or to invest in a bladder. No, it's not that North Americans are born with crucial organs missing - these bladders are soft plastic water carriers which can be slung round your person, or even incorporated into your rucsac.
So, bugs of various sorts can cause you problems, but the real issue with which you have to come to terms is the larger-scale wildlife. The tourist offices are bedecked with scarlet-edged guides on the dangers of elk, cougars, moose, bison and of course bears. One common thread of advice is to avoid looking these creatures in the eye, so London Underground commuters won't have problems there.
I was keen to get the bear business into perspective. It seemed likely that the warden service would overstate the danger to cover themselves against litigation and maybe to keep folk off the hills. There is plenty written on the topic and I found helpful advice in the wonderfully opinionated guidebook Don't waste your time in the Canadian Rockies, by Kathy and Craig Copeland. The Copelands said that they would change plans if warned that a grizzly was in the area, but would just be extra-cautious if black bears had been sighted. The first neutral witness we met was similarly reassuring. The bus driver in Banff (who turned out to be a Nordic ski instructor who knew the guy we know at Waymark Holidays) had experienced over thirty encounters with bears without a problem. However, I wasn't sure this was the whole story, and for this reason didn't share my account of a former colleague who, while tree-planting in the far north, saw a companion treed and eaten by a grizzly. I strongly suspect that if I'd told him this, it would have been topped with any number of similar horror stories.
The key to safe trail walking is not to take the bear by surprise, and to achieve this you need to make a lot of noise. The feeble, tinkling bells which are sometimes suggested are of no use at all. For any impact, you need something like a Swiss cowbell, ideally with cow attached, so you could leave that to distract the bear while you made your exit. Not having had the forethought to bring a suitable bovine, we fell back on talking constantly and loudly (yes, I did find this difficult) or shouting the recommended cry of "yoho" at regular intervals (our cricket-loving Ed might prefer to substitute "Heyhoe" here). This was surprisingly wearing and made me feel quite uncomfortable. I hadn't realised how important the elements of quiet and mental relaxation were for me in the experience of walking. Anyway our noisiness worked, as we did not encounter any bears on our walks, though at different times we saw four from the car - two of them very close. All seemed unperturbed by our presence and showed no signs of hostility.
Perhaps the scale of the country is such that the rewards which its mountains hold are not available to the unfocused short-term visitor. The views on the flight back, of the Rockies, the prairies, Hudson Bay and Baffin Island, helped impress upon us this sense of scale. The sea-ice was melting into indescribably beautiful patterns, only perceptible from an aerial view, and I felt privileged to see them. A few hours later and the view was of Abyssinia, and Beinn Ime, followed by a gentle homecoming over familiar peaks and terrain. The only downside was the scar of the path up Ben Lomond, surely visible from the moon before long. Maybe this is the price we pay for the casual accessibility of our hills. Even the longest Scottish "long walk in" is only a matter of hours. However, if it's cheap and plentiful coffee you want, go to Canada.
TAC 33 Index