Staffed by seasonal workers, they were all professional, knowledgeable and hardworking, but, more importantly, they exuded passion and a love for what they were doing, particularly the excursion guides.
The lodge is cosy, warm and comfortable, with a nice dining area.
The only thing I hated was the use of dead animals as decor; I want to see polar bears and grizzlies out in the wild, not with their skins pinned across the walls. I hate to think that I was inadvertently supporting trophy hunting.
Churchill travel information: What to eat
There aren’t many options for dining in the town but we found it to be plenty for the length of our stay.
We enjoyed the food served at Lazy Bear Lodge. They have an extensive menu with plenty of veggie options, and dinner specials, which change every evening, included Canadian elk, buffalo and Arctic char. Service will of course vary as most staff are seasonal, but those who were there during our stay were friendly, polite and a great help in entertaining Theo while we finished our food!
Gypsies is a great place to pick up a picnic lunch or a no-frills meal, and is famous for their donuts. Managed by the charismatic Fred, highflying corporate Montrealian turned small town friend to everyone, his sense of humour and generosity make every visit here memorable. He rented us his beaten up, barely-working pickup to get out of town in search of polar bears. We found bears, but had to ditch the ride; sorry, Fred! Read the story here.
Churchill travel information: Currency
Churchill travel information: Language
Churchill travel information: How to get around
A vehicle isn’t essential here, but I recommend having one, at least for part of your trip (or make friends with someone who does!).
We went off by ourselves in search of bears twice and I’m so pleased we did! We didn’t disturb them at all because we weren’t in a huge tundra buggy, there was no fighting for the best view with dozens of other tourists, and we were able to take our time and observe these magnificent creatures just doing their thing on our watch rather than having to stick to a schedule.
If you’re lucky to have the right conditions to witness the spectacular Aurora Borealis, you’re going to want to get off the main strip in town. We hitched a ride with some new friends to the beach, away from the light of the town, and my goodness it was worth it!
Churchill travel information: Climate and best time to travel
The best time to travel will really depend on what you want to see and do during your visit. October is prime polar bear season because they travel through Churchill on their way back out onto the ice. During the Summer months, Belugas come into the shallow waters to breed. It is possible (but by no means guaranteed) to see bears, belugas and the Aurora Borealis in one trip; this is why we travelled in August.
Churchill travel information: Other useful info
All excursions can be booked through an operator (I recommend Lazy Bear Expeditions). This includes cultural tours of the town and Cape Merry, guided tours to the Prince of Wales Fort, dog sledding, wildlife watching (polar bears, elk, arctic foxes, arctic hares, sea birds, seals and more), beluga whale watching from a zodiac, kayaking with belugas and snorkeling with belugas.
Please note all excursions are season and weather dependent.
Lazy Bear Lodge also operates an Aurora alert system, allowing guests to opt in to receive a call to their room if the Aurora is visible overnight.
re you looking for the ideal ecotourism destination? Somewhere committed to both environmental and social sustainability? Look no further! I’ve asked some of the top travel bloggers out there for their input on their favourite eco locations.
Kahang Organic Rice Eco Farm, Malaysia
My family and I stayed at a rice farm in Malaysia recently, which was a beautiful place to relax in and an excellent eco-friendly accommodator to support. KOREF (Kahang Organic Rice Eco Farm) is a “leisure farm”, so it is not a place to work hard on farm chores, but rather learn a bit about farm life while having some fun. There are many activities visitors can choose from, including rice planting or harvesting, bamboo rafting, kayaking, a water obstacle course and jungle trekking. KOREF also has a sustainable fish farm, which guests can learn more about and even try to catch and release some fish.
Another activity was wonderful for cultural understanding. Visitors can choose to visit an Orang Asli village in the nearby rainforest, with an excellent guide who works closely with KOREF staff. We did meet the beautiful people there, and were very grateful for the experience.
KOREF is and organic farm at heart, and they use their own food as well as locally-sourced produce for the delicious meals provided to guests. KOREF also provides free filtered water from a fountain to everyone, and separates their rubbish for recycling. Unfortunately, this is uncommon from what we have seen in Malaysia.
We loved staying there and getting a taste of farm life in such a beautiful setting. It is a great destination for kids with all of the activities on offer, and the fun and stress-free ways they help people learn about farming. School groups from cities in Malaysia and Singapore arrive often to get a very different view of life!
Initiated in the late 1960s as an ecotourism project, Las Terrazas is a UNESCO biosphere reserve about an hour west of Havana, in the Cuban countryside. It is a lush complex with dense foliage, tropical swimming holes, waterfalls and 18th century abandoned coffee plantations. Although you can see Las Terrazas in a day, this is a place that merits more time to truly experience it.
The town has something for everyone. Bird lovers will appreciate that Las Terrazas is home to almost half of Cuba’s endemic birds. The nearby Sosoa Botanical Gardens maintain a collection of rare orchids. There is a selection of trails led by students at the biosphere that take you through the local flora. For the more adventurous, there is also a thrilling canopy tour which whizzes you over six lines extending over lakes, a forest and much more.
The artists in the colony live in town and their workshops are in their homes. People are welcome to enter their homes and watch them work, browse their creations and possibly purchase some very nice and authentic pieces of art. There is a little coffee shop in the area, Café de Maria, that bills itself as having the world’s best coffee. With advertising like that and at about .40 cents a cup, you have to try it.
The local Hotel Moka sits on a hill-top with a beautiful view overlooking the forest and the small village. In keeping with the eco-friendly theme of the location, the hotel has a tree growing in the middle of the lobby and serves only locally grown produce. The two must-try restaurants in town are vegetarian and delicious!
Tasmania is a nature lover’s paradise. This small island, about the size of Ireland or West Virginia, is home to vast wilderness and completely unique ecosystems compared to the rest of Australia, complete with endemic animal species and subspecies not found on the mainland. So precious are Tasmania’s varied landscapes — from verdant rainforests to mountains to white-sand beaches — that around 20% of its landmass is World Heritage listed. And that’s without mentioning its quaint country towns, impressive local food scene, and wealth of convict-era sites and ruins testifying to a rich, if often dark, colonial history.
Unsurprisingly, Tasmanians are increasingly embracing sustainable tourism. But few places boast the eco-friendly credentials of a certain private nature reserve in Tasmania’s northwest by the name of Mountain Valley. Situated on some 61 hectares, this reserve is run by a husband-and-wife team with a passion for wildlife and conservation. To protect the vulnerable habitats and fauna on site, they’ve signed schemes agreeing that their property can never be logged or degraded. It’s also a release area for rehabilitated wildlife — and a one-of-a-kind, no-frills accommodation option, complete with 1970s-style log cabins.
With old growth forests, caves and even a glowworm grotto, Mountain Valley is a haven for wildlife. Wild echidnas, wombats, platypi, possums, Tasmanian native hens, pademelons, spotted tail quolls and the sadly endangered Tasmanian devils all call this place home. Lucky guests may even just find a few local critters on their very doorstep.
Iceland is a wonderful eco-friendly destination and one of the world leaders in sustainability. The nature of Iceland is so pristine and clean that it is almost impossible to wrap your head around how pure things are there. While tourism is on a major rise there, the country is doing everything it can to cater to this tourism boom in a sustainable and ethical manner. Nearly 100% of Iceland’s electricity comes from renewable energy, which is remarkable and a model that every country should aspire to follow and achieve. Another thing I loved about Iceland, Reykjavik in particular, is how easy it was to find vegetarian and vegan options. You don’t necessarily associate Iceland as being meat-free, but the options are there in masses. You can rent a bike with ease in Reykjavik, too. I think Iceland is a country that really sets the benchmark for clean energy and spectacular nature.
In Indonesia, just a boat ride away from Bali, in the paradise island that is Gili Meno, you can find the Eco Hostel Gili Meno.
Gili Meno is a small island that can be walked in 1 hour and the Eco Hostel is conveniently located by the seaside in front of Turtle Point, where you can snorkel with turtles.
The Eco Hostel is an incredible place that is all built around the logic of sustainability and eco-tourism.
You can sleep in bungalows by the beach on just a simple mattress or in the fantastic Treehouse, while the concept of dorm-room is taken to another level by letting you sleep in hammocks that can be zipped from the inside to avoid mosquitos nuisance in the night.
The toilets are composite toilets and the showers are half salt water and half spring water. Everything is built out of wood.
There is a bonfire area by the beach and in the morning people wake up before sunrise to enjoy the majestic natural show in the communal area.
It is a place that you will never want to leave, once you get used to the slow pace of life and to the chess challenges with the young Indonesian boys working in the hostel.
Wisconsin offers unique travel destinations and was home to environmental legends, John Muir, Gaylord Nelson, and Aldo Leopold. Travel Green Wisconsin certification recognizes businesses that have made a commitment to reduce their environmental impact. Here are just a few.
Wilderness On the Lake is an upscale resort in the Wisconsin Dells, “The Waterpark Capital of the World”. The dells offer indoor and outdoor waterparks, live entertainment, thrilling attractions, and awe inspiring natural beauty!
Door County Bike Tours is an eco-friendly way to experience Door County, “the Cape Code of the Midwest” – a peninsula between Green Bay and Lake Michigan – where you can watch both a sunrise and a sunset over the water! It offers cherry orchards, art galleries, wineries/breweries, five state parks, 19 charming communities, fish boils, and 11 historic lighthouses!
The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore consists of 12 islands and coastline on Lake Superior, hosting a unique blend of culture and nature including sea caves, nine historic lighthouses and shipwrecks. Discover each island’s story via tours, kayaking, and hiking. They host endangered plant species, important nesting habitat, and one of the greatest concentrations of black bears!
The Harley-Davidson Museum, in Milwaukee, isn’t your typical museum. The interactive displays provide a unique experience, exhibiting more than 450 motorcycles and artifacts on a trip through time. It was the first museum to gain the GREENGUARD Indoor Air Quality Certification and has an ongoing process for environmental improvements.
The Stonefield Historic Site, located along the Great River Road in Wisconsin’s Driftless Area, includes a re-created 1900s rural village, the State Agricultural Museum, and the homesite of Wisconsin’s first governor, Nelson Dewey who has a nearby state park.
These are just a select few of Wisconsin’s eco-friendly destinations! Explore the ‘Travel Green Wisconsin’ website and come take a look for yourself!
Germany is the ideal destination for the eco-conscious traveler. A country full of history, culture, fabulous cuisine, and beautiful landscapes, it has so much to offer, but it is impossible to be an economic leader and be ecologically oriented, right? Wrong!
The German government is making dramatic strides in environmental issues. Nuclear power is being phased out, and replaced by renewable energy forms. The Cogeneration Act requires manufacturing firms to utilize the “waste heat” created in their production processes. Rather than being demolished, old factories are often converted into cultural centers and tourist attractions, old wastewater facilities into bird sanctuaries, and military bases into wildlife habitats. Old buildings are also upgraded to meet new standards of efficiency, and re-forestation efforts have saved the Black Forest and cemented its status as one of the country’s greatest treasures.
But what is refreshing is that the German people embrace the environmental policies. Extensive recycling is legally required, but also widely practiced. Each home and public venue has a number of separation categories for trash, so that little more than biological waste ends up in the landfills. These separations were diligently applied in homes. Nosier neighbors even make a point to check on the recycling practices of others on the block!
But more surprising is that the separations are made in public as well. On the train, in the park, walking down the street, people visibly separate their disposable items into the correct categories, and take the time to put each in the proper bin. Watching this gave me hope!
Time for my contribution! There are so many wonderful places to choose from but this one deserves a special mention; Alex and I chose it as our wedding venue for good reason!
Guludo Beach Lodge in the Quirimbas National Park is an award winning ecotourism destination, with an ethos firmly rooted in social and environmental sustainability. The lodge was designed so that no trace would be left, and has been constructed using only local, natural materials. There is no running water or electricity, and yet it feels luxurious. Built and staffed by the local community, every decision was, and still is, made following consultation with the village residents. Located right on the beach, the setting is beautiful, the seafood is fresh and delicious, and there are numerous activities on offer to delight both adults and children. A percentage of your fee will go to the onsite charity, Nema Foundation, which has funded multiple wells, school meals and resources, ambulance vehicles, and construction projects. The staff are Guludo’s best asset and they will go out of their way to make your stay memorable. Certainly, we will never forget them or their bright smiles! Find out more about the highlights of this beautiful country here in my recommended two week itinerary, which will give you a taste for all that Mozambique has to offer. Thanks to Alex Miller for the photo, taken at our wedding.
icknamed the ‘polar bear capital of the world’, Churchill, Manitoba, is a bucket list destination that delivered on all its promises. When we decided we were going to Canada, this was the first location that was put on the ‘we must go here’ list and I meticulously worked out when would give us the best chance of seeing polar bears, beluga whales and the Northern Lights. I decided on the last week of August and left the rest of our Canadian adventure to fall into place around it. My forethought paid off and we were treated to incredible experiences with all three! Most tourists descend on the small town to witness the polar bears migrating back out onto the ice in October and November, a time when the number of bears passing through Churchill outnumber the human population, but they sadly miss out on seeing and interacting with the playful and curious beluga whales, so I recommend planning your trip for the summer months.
The whales started coming, bumping up against our kayaks and paddles, diving beneath us, and resurfacing on the other side.
We booked guided excursions with Lazy Bear Expeditions and stayed for five nights at Lazy Bear Lodge. Staffed primarily by young seasonal workers, I can’t recommend them highly enough. Everyone we met was personable, knowledgeable, helpful and made a huge fuss of Theo! My only complaint is that management wouldn’t let us wash Theo’s nappies. This is the first and only time this has been an issue; most places have offered money off laundry as a ‘thank you for using cloth’! The staff were great though and helped us find an alternative solution. We very rarely book packaged trips or organised excursions like this, but to get the most out of your trip to Churchill, it’s somewhat necessary. Polar trips are often this way as the threats of extreme weather, difficult terrain, few conveniences aimed at tourists and deadly predators put people off doing it alone; we found Svalbard to be the same, for example.
Churchill itself is a small town but is well equipped for its 800 residents. We were surprised that the Town Centre Complex houses a cinema, a bowling alley, a swimming pool, indoor and outdoor playgrounds, as well as various sports facilities, health services and a school. On the main stretch, there are only a few places to eat, including Lazy Bear Lodge Restaurant, which serves good food in a cosy environment, and Gypsy’s, a bakery and cafe with a friendly atmosphere. Stop into the post office to get Churchill’s polar bear stamp added to your passport, and I recommend a trip to the Eskimo museum to browse their collection of Inuit carvings, artefacts and artwork, learn about Inuit history and culture, and pick up locally-made gifts and artwork. Outings to the Prince of Wales Fort and Cape Merry also make for interesting historical afternoons, and offer picturesque views over the Churchill River and Hudson Bay.
The Inuksuk is an Inuit navigation tool
Following flooding this spring that caused extensive damage to the Hudson Bay railway line, Churchill was left even more cut off from the rest of the world, many people lost their jobs and the community now faces steep price increases in food, fuel and vital supplies. The disaster prompted artists from around the globe to travel to Churchill for the Sea Walls Festival, a conservation event that raises awareness about the importance of protecting our oceans. You’ll notice 18 vibrant, eye-catching murals painted in and around the town. Through this artwork, the artists highlight the impact of global warming and the fragility of our relationship with our environment. One of my favourite murals was that painted by artist Pat Perry on the side of Miss Piggy, a Commando cargo aircraft that crashed in November 1979 400m/440 yards short of the runway with no fatalities. We climbed up into the aircraft to admire both the eerie remains of the plane and Perry’s artistic vision, which portrays solidarity and the coming together of people when disasters that threaten communities strike, just like the extreme weather that has hit the Churchill community so hard.
On our first day, we were taken out on a zodiac boat with only one other couple, down the Churchill River and out into Hudson Bay. The boat ride itself was fun, bouncing over the waves with the fresh northern air awakening our senses. This trip was unlike any other whale watching cruise I’d done; I was used to running from port to starboard to catch the best glimpse of humpbacks and orcas on larger boats that take you out for a full 4-5 hours. I didn’t imagine that this would be such an intimate experience. White in colour when fully grown, with a dorsal ridge instead of a dorsal fin, and a bulbous head containing the organ used for echolocation, Belugas are among the most distinctive of whales. They are known to be very sociable and usually travel in pods of approximately 10 whales, although they can also congregate in much large groups. First, one pod came, followed by a second, and within minutes we were surrounded by a super-pod of 40+ whales. Curious, playful and within touching distance, the belugas appeared to smile as they rolled in circles next to us, inviting us to interact with them.
You can also book kayaking and snorkelling as additional Beluga watching excursions. Despite our best efforts, Theo wasn’t allowed on the kayaks (due to age-related insurance restrictions) so he stayed on the zodiac support boat with a lovely member of staff while Alex and I had a paddle. He was always within waving distance and continued to point out whales to me from his slightly higher vantage point, so this was a good solution for us all to be able to enjoy the excursion. Initially, the whales were shyer than they had been during our zodiac tour, and we were feeling a little disappointed. We were advised by our guides that the whales are attracted to noise so we could try imitating the clicks and whistles that earned them the nickname ‘sea canaries’. One lady in our group took this information a little too much on board. For the full extent of our time on the water she squealed, shrieked, caw-cawed and sung out of tune. We paddled away from the group, trying to put a bit of distance between us and the incessant racket, and to instead enjoy the tranquillity of being on the water. Lo and behold, the whales started coming, bumping up against our kayaks and paddles, diving beneath us, and resurfacing on the other side. We were greeted by mums and their calves, still a youthful grey, as well as larger males. It seemed that, on this occasion, they were also put off by the piercing shrieks of our tour buddy!
The increasing temperature of our planet is melting the sea ice earlier and thus forcing polar bears onto land for longer periods each season.
We always seek to explore destinations by heading off the beaten track and, despite the necessity of booking some organised tours, Churchill was no exception. We hired a car for the day, packed a picnic and drove off on our own in search of polar bears. There are only a few roads in Churchill and every one of them is a dead end; it is impossible to get lost or stray too far! Information on bear sightings is shared throughout the town so before heading out, I recommend asking for tips on where to go. A female bear and her two cubs had been spotted making their way along the beach, and a lone male had been seen further down the coast. Over the course of the day, we found several bears, all looking sleepy and completely nonchalant about our presence. During the summer, when the ice melts and polar bears make their way to land, they conserve energy and spend their time resting during a period of what has been termed ‘walking hibernation’. The increasing temperature of our planet is melting the sea ice earlier and thus forcing polar bears onto land for longer periods each season. The formation of sea ice is vital to the survival of polar bears as it provides a platform for mating during the Spring and hunting bearded and ringed seals. Over time, polar bears are getting lighter as they spend more time away from their hunting ground, and lighter female bears means fewer cubs. Underweight polar bears struggle to have successful pregnancies; a protective mechanism that ensures only bears fit enough to withstand pregnancy, labour, nursing and 6 months in their maternity den through Winter without food will carry cubs. Those that do manage to see their pregnancy through will birth smaller and more vulnerable cubs. Unlike the huge tundra buggies that provide a viewing platform for groups of tourists, we were able observe the bears’ natural behaviour from close range without disturbing them from their vital rest.
Our second solo outing was less successful but makes for a good anecdote:
Off we go in a hired beaten up old 4×4. We head out towards the research centre (which is worth a quick visit for a coffee and to learn about current projects) in the hope of finding cubs. There are a few glaring faults with the car, but we persevere (apparently we just have to “hit the dash” if it fails to start! In hindsight, this should probably have raised a few more red flags!) We take one of the smaller unpaved tracks towards the beach, constantly turning our heads like owls, searching for any sign of white against the greens and browns of the tundra. We veer slightly to avoid a large flooded pothole at a breakneck speed of 20mph, but no big deal, that’s what the 4 wheel drive is for. Uh, the 4 wheel drive doesn’t work and we’re now well and truly stuck in a muddy bog. Alex gets out to push and I slip into the driver’s seat. “1, 2, 3…vroooom!” Nada. A lot of revving, we’ve not budged an inch and now Alex is covered in mud, spat at him by spinning tyres. We swap. Great, now I’m muddy too and Theo is beginning to think that this looks like a great game! We all start searching for sticks to assist in digging out the tyres, now icebergs in a sea of mud. With no trees or large plants, it’s not really surprising that there are no sticks. We resort to using our hands. Now looking like we’ve had some sort of spa treatment gone wrong, we decide that digging our way out is not going to work. Obviously there’s no service on our phones as we’re in the middle of nowhere, so calling for help isn’t possible. The only option, bar huddling together in the back of the car for the night with no food, no warm clothing and very little remaining water, is to walk back to the main road and wait for rescue. Churchill has one rule: do not walk on the rocks. Bears can be hidden from view and appear only when you quite literally stumble across them. The road is surrounded by rocks and we can either climb over these rocks to the main road, or take the long way by following the track. We sensibly choose the latter and cautiously begin our trek back down what we later learn locals refer to as ‘Polar Bear Alley’. Clutching Theo and a can of bear spray with equal vigour, and with darting eyes and escalated heart rates, we quicken our pace. If it weren’t for the constant rendition of nursery rhymes sung at an eardrum-bursting volume both to deter any bears and distract Theo from the cold, we would be obvious prey. We thankfully don’t meet any bears and make it back to the road alive, where we sit and hope that someone will be along shortly. A car rounds the bend so we start waving. They slow, wind down the window and ask with puzzled looks “where on Earth is your vehicle?!” It’s not common for people to wander this far out of town due to the risk of becoming dinner, much less with a toddler and clearly not dressed or equipped for a hike, so this was a fair question. Recounting our tale, we bundle into the car and return to the town with the researcher and his visiting girlfriend. We’re greeted with exclaims of “you walked down Polar Bear Alley?!” and met with laughter when we proudly point out that we had bear spray; “You’re in polar bear country! I don’t go anywhere without my gun!” The car was rescued too and all was well. We had a fun adventure but next time, if the car has faults, we won’t be going out looking for polar bears…or we’ll just travel prepared for a breakdown!
I was fascinated by the ‘polar bear jail’ and would love to see research supporting its safe and successful use for both bears and humans. A former aircraft storage hangar, the inside of which only official ‘prison guards’ and ‘detainees’ can enter, is a designated holding facility for polar bears that venture too close to the town of Churchill. They are captured in large, can-like traps using seal meat as bait and transported to jail, where they remain for 30 days in solitary confinement, total darkness, and without food, before being taken back to the wild and left at a safe distance from the town. My feeling was that this sounded utterly horrendous but, on being grilled thoroughly, our guide reassured me that the procedure is as humane as possible, and that the bears are kept in optimised temperatures and given water. The aim is to ensure the safety of both bears and humans and to prevent bears associating humans with food; obviously if they cross paths, injury to both species increases. As Churchill sits on the migration route, the Autumn season sees hundreds of hungry polar bears passing right through the town, making Halloween a particularly scary time of year for the people who live here. Not feeding the bears is controversial; some argue that, if the bears are on land, it is not their typical hunting season so they do not miss access to food, and that humans have a responsibility to keep interspecies engagement to a minimum by not feeding wild animals, whereas others believe that confining hungry animals without food amounts to starving them. My view is that punishing the bears for following a migration route that has existed long before Churchill became a town, cannot be the best way to keep both species safe. While the model of a ‘polar bear jail’ is supported by research on operant conditioning, psychologists understand that this approach is relatively ineffective in teaching children, so I find it hard to believe that it would be effective in encouraging other mammals to change behavioural patterns that have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. Certainly, I find the use of tranquilisers for this purpose unacceptable. As someone with expertise in human behaviour but little knowledge about animal behaviour, I also had a lot of questions about the impact of being in ‘jail’ on the bears’ circadian rhythms (of course, during the summer the sun shines for long hours, but they are still kept in darkness), mating patterns, and the survival rates of cubs following release. These are unfortunately questions I am still searching for the answers to.
Lazy Bear Lodge operates a helpful ‘Aurora Alert’ system, whereby you can request to receive a phone call to your room at any time if the Aurora Borealis is visible in Churchill. We had studied the weather predictions and arranged to take a car down to the beach with another couple on the night that we thought would offer the best chance of seeing the infamous Northern Lights. Alex and I had sat by the window for a couple of nights, allowing Theo to carry on sleeping but feeling teased by glimpses of green against the black of night, and itching to get outside and away from the artificial light of the town. Ultimately we were grateful we waited until the best day to actually drag him out of bed; it was definitely a show worth seeing, and I’m sure he’ll understand when he’s older, although he was a little perplexed at the time! We wrapped him up in warm clothes and he curiously gazed at the bouncing colours filling the sky before tiredness won over and he happily nursed back to sleep. Patterns effortlessly shimmied from one end of the sky to the other, like leaves caught in a breeze, constantly changing form, colour and shape. A shimmering, twirling circle beamed down from above, marking our spot on the planet. We were in the centre of a dancing petticoat, our attention captured by the graceful ballerina performing pique turns above us. The colours float, then dart suddenly into a new formation. Utterly bewitching, the sight of the Northern Lights is a magic like no other.
Utterly bewitching, the sight of the Northern Lights is a magic like no other.
As a final excursion, we booked a dog mushing trip with Blue Sky Expeditions. Alex and I had previously enjoyed dog sledding in Svalbard, and thought that Theo would love it. During our outings by car, we had seen large groups of dogs tied up and abandoned outside in the middle of nowhere, and were concerned that they would become easy prey for bears. Unlike some of the other companies that sadly own these abandoned dogs, we were pleased to discover that Gerald Azure and his wife, owners of Blue Sky Expeditions, care deeply about their dogs and treat them properly. We were given a lot of information about the dogs and the history of dog mushing (as well as some delicious freshly baked treats!) and had a fun short outing with the dogs. Theo was beside himself with excitement! Feeding whiskey jacks (also known as Grey Jays or Canada Jays) was another highlight of this outing for him, and a great opportunity to see and interact with Canada’s national bird!
n 1872, Yellowstone became the world’s first national park. Last year, over 4.25 million people visited Yellowstone National Park, with roughly 25% of these visiting in July. The route we were taking across North America meant that we were going to be at the park for the last week of July, so I was understandably concerned that the hordes of other tourists would ruin this bucket list experience, not to mention how this level of visitation would impact the wildlife. While a lot of the ‘must see’ spots within the park were busy, we were advised by a backcountry ranger that most people don’t go off the beaten path, and many don’t even bother to get out of their vehicles, so it is still possible to come during the busy season and experience nature to the fullest. So, off we went, armed with bear spray, into Yellowstone’s backcountry hoping to escape the tourists.
Looking out into the canyon with the same view as the eagles is simply breathtaking.
Trout Lake in the Lamar Valley is a flat, family-friendly walk that takes you through a crunchy, dry forest (although I expect this is limited to the summer season!), perfect for stick-collecting and minibeast hunting, and down to the Lake, where we saw only one other family enjoying an afternoon of fishing. Wild flowers surround the water (at this time of year!), and you may see pronghorn, deer and bison passing through. The Lamar Valley is particularly famous for its two wolf packs, and of course bears may also be about, so keep your eyes peeled!
The trail from Pelican Creek to Yellowstone Lake is also easy terrain, picturesque, and relatively undiscovered. Look out for pelicans, eagles and osprey, as well as grizzly bears, and enjoy paddling, skimming stones and playing in the sand at the water’s edge.
The Clear and Ribbon Lake trail, passing through Artist Point and Point Sublime, was my favourite walk. This path takes you along the 366 meter-high grand canyon of Yellowstone, where you can appreciate the red, orange and pink stripes of the rock, contrasting with the bright blue and bubbling white of the Yellowstone River rapids below. Looking out into the canyon with the same view as the eagles is simply breathtaking and worth the extra hike beyond the point where most tourists stop, satisfied that they’ve taken a couple of decent photos. Of course, also in this area are the thunderous upper and lower falls, at 33 meters and 94 meters respectively.
Devouring a deer carcass, we were reminded that his might is not to be underestimated.
We were lucky to see grizzlies and black bears while in Yellowstone (I discovered that, confusingly and making it rather harder for an amateur bear spotter to correctly identify the species, black bears can be a variety of shades; we saw both black-coated and cinnamon brown-coated black bears). You can usually tell when someone has spotted a bear as all traffic grinds to a halt, people line the side of the road and cameras come out. We felt a little more adventurous, so on one occasion we took to the plains in order to see these amazing animals a little closer and without the noise from the road to spook them. There was certainly something exhilarating about running towards a cluster of trees that we knew had, a few minutes prior, devoured a large male bear, hiding him from view of other onlookers. We chose a rock to stand on, and watched from a safe distance as the formidable predator appeared from the shrubs. Devouring a deer carcass, we were reminded that his might is not to be underestimated; his cuddly exterior, reminiscent of many a child’s bedtime friend, merely an illusion. He rose and slowly started plodding towards us…time to retreat to another rock (you can see the rock we retreated from in one of the adjacent photos). It is of course tempting to get as close as possible to the wildlife (that, and the landscape, is probably what you have come to Yellowstone to witness), but please let me remind you that these are wild animals whose contact with humans should be limited, so do not feed the animals and stay a distance of 100 yards (91m) from bears and wolves, and 25 yards (23m) from everything else. Of course there are times when this isn’t possible: bison walk down the road alongside vehicles, for example. Be respectful, give them space, and don’t do anything stupid like get out of the car to say ‘hello’! You’re rolling your eyes, thinking ‘surely no one would do that!’ aren’t you? We saw people do just this, and others get within about 5 meters of a herd of bison just to take a selfie. Don’t be that person! If the animals don’t get you, the park rangers certainly will!
It would be neglectful to write a piece on Yellowstone without mentioning the well-known sights. They are, of course, famous because they are truly spectacular, but they are far from the only things going on in Yellowstone’s 3500 square miles. Yellowstone is one of only 6 active supervolcanoes across the planet and has one of the highest concentrations of geothermal activity. As a Brit who has spent her life living in a country relatively safe from natural disaster, seeing the geysers and hot springs in Yellowstone was one of only a handful of personal experiences where I could really see, hear and smell the unbelievable force of our planet. When you stand below a 60 meter eruption, you feel very powerless and you become aware of fragility of the human race at the hands of the Earth. We stood in the middle of three geysers in the Upper Basin (Old Faithful: a cone geyser and the most frequently erupting geyser in the park, Grand: a fountain geyser and the tallest predictable geyser, and Castle: the largest of the cone geysers and the oldest geyser in the basin) as they simultaneously shot into the air; frenzied jets of water, clouds of steam and the resultant rainbows creating a 360˚ light and water show. The geothermal areas at Mammoth Hot Springs, Old Faithful, and the Norris Geyser Basin, where you’ll find the world’s tallest geyser, Steamboat, are all boardwalked, easy to navigate and showcase a wide variety of hot springs, pools and geysers. We also enjoyed the slightly less frequented 0.85 mile loop boardwalk that starts at the vast Sulphur Caldron (it smells just as its name suggests!) and passes Mud Volcano and Dragon’s Mouth Spring.
There are several options for accommodation in the park, as well as countless alternatives just outside each of the park’s five entrances. We were travelling in an RV, and spent half our time at Bridge Bay campsite and half at Fishing Bridge RV Park. Fishing Bridge has the luxuries of full hookups, showers and laundry facilities, but both were equally clean and had enough space for each tent/RV, including a firepit and picnic table. Before Theo arrived, I had only ever camped in remote backcountry, but the ease of having toilets and laundry facilities a short walk away was ideal with a toddler, particularly as we use cloth nappies/diapers! That said, we passed many backcountry spots that I silently earmarked as perfect family campgrounds so I hope we’ll return in the future for a more remote experience!
ever have I been to a place where the whole population is so mindful about taking only what they need from the planet, and the people’s connection to the land and sea is so evident through their art, mythology and way of life. Beautiful Haida Gwaii, meaning ‘Islands of the People’, is an archipelago of approximately 150 islands off the west coast of British Columbia. With only two paved roads, one conveniently passing through all the main towns on Graham Island, and one through Sandspit on Moresby Island, these islands are remote, and travel to Gwaii Haanas (‘Islands of Beauty’) National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site is by air or sea only. Perhaps the best way to see Gwaii Haanas is by multi-day boat trip of at least a week, but if your time or budget does not stretch that far, it is possible to do a day trip and spend your remaining time exploring the many beaches, hiking trails and cultural sites accessible by road.
Given how isolated the islands are, the unpredictable weather (expect rain, high winds and big waves) and a (very welcome, in my opinion!) lack of resort-style kid amenities, this may not be the first place you think of for your family holiday, but I urge you to reconsider. We have just spent an adventurous week on Haida Gwaii, where Theo was in his element. We flew from Vancouver to Sandspit and then hired a car to enable us to explore the islands as far the paved and logging roads would allow. There are many options for accommodation; we decided to stay near Tlell, just inside the boundaries of Naikoon Provincial Park, in a self-catered guesthouse. This option is perfect for families as we were able to cook our own meals and had more than enough space for the three of us.
Theo is at an age where hikes of up to 15km/10miles are manageable and enjoyable for us all. He’ll happily walk a fair amount of this, but we use a sling or back carrier when he wants a break. This also maintains our sanity after we’ve chased him heading back the way we’ve just come along a trail/down a hill/to the edge of cliff for the umpteenth time! We did several beautiful hikes on Graham Island, including Spirit Lakes, a loop trail that can be done with a member of Gwaii Haanas staff as a guide, and Tow Hill, a 122m/400’ hill formed from lava eruptions approximately 2 million years ago. The trail at Tow Hill is well-signed for both the summit and the surge channel known as the ‘Blow Hole’, it offers beautiful views over North Beach and the lava rock beach directly below, and a number of plaques provide written information about the significance of the area to the Haida. North Beach was the location of Theo’s first driving lesson. On a wet, misty day, the beach was deserted so we allowed him to sit behind the wheel of our Jeep (on Alex’s lap). ‘Brum brumming’ is his favourite activity of late but this, of course, had previously been restricted to when the engine is off. “Left, left, left!”…”No, not that far left, right!” we laughed/yelled as the ocean and then rocks alternated into our line of sight. I think it’s fair to say that he might need a bit more practice at directions and steering control before we let him loose anywhere other than miles of tightly packed sand, shared only with a few eagles and a small shipwreck!
The smells, sights and sounds of the rainforest are best when unfiltered by human presence.
North Beach shipwreck
Our favourite hikes were those off trail. The smells, sights and sounds of the rainforest are best when unfiltered by human presence. One afternoon, we were exploring the logging roads by car, looking for a trail to stop at, when we came to a dead end of what can only be described as a ‘tree graveyard’. We felt saddened to see the immense cedar trees reduced to huge piles of debris, and understood the Haida’s long battle against the occurrence of logging on their islands. We scrambled over the wreckage towards a river, in the hope that this would lead to Yakoun Lake. The river took us through the forest, moss covered trees once again towering above us, to a bay on the lake. We navigated a river crossing by walking along fallen trees and jumping across rocks, and worked our way to a spot where we could see the full expanse of water and the mountains surrounding it. We found a canoe and paddle tied to tree and hoped that the owners wouldn’t mind if we borrowed it. Sadly, we weren’t on the lake long before the rickety boat started filling with water, so we made a swift return. Thankfully we had enough time to enjoy the colours of the approaching evening from the water before turning our attention back to our return walk and keeping an eye (and ear!) out for bears!
Wildlife is in abundance and we were privileged to have close encounters (thankfully from the car, not on foot!) with at least half a dozen black bears during our time on the islands. Hiada Gwaii black bears are the largest subspecies of the American black bear, and have evolved to have larger jaws, molars and skulls than their mainland cousins, thanks to their crunchier diet of crustaceans and molluscs as well as salmon, berries and plants. We also had frequent sightings of bald eagles, ravens and other birds of prey. Sitka black-tailed deer were introduced to the islands in the late 19th century and can now be seen around every bend. They are largely responsible for the lack of ground-level vegetation and wild flowers in the forests, so are now under management in an attempt to restore balance to the natural ecosystem.
Evidence suggests that the Haida have lived on the islands since the end of the last ice age. Prior to European contact, the considerable Haida population was spread over dozens of villages. Outbreaks of smallpox and tuberculosis following the arrival of Europeans reduced the population to approximately 6-700, all of whom congregated in two villages that still exist today and are home to the majority of the remaining Haida: Skidegate and Old Masset. The Haida Heritage Centre in Skidegate houses artefacts and artwork, and is well worth a visit. There are six totem poles located at the centre, and you are welcomed into the carving house where artists work on others as well as canoes. During our visit, Jim Hart, Haida chief and master carver, and his team were working on a 30’ pole for the new hospital in Queen Charlotte, which aims to welcome all its patients, visitors and staff. When completed, it will feature an eagle and a raven, representing the two clans of the Haida, a nurse, and a watchman. Totem poles traditionally tell a story or illustrate a family crest, and are raised outside homes in order to identify who lives there, at significant locations, or for particular celebrations. They typically depict a mixture of animals and mythical creatures. We were lucky to meet several highly regarded artists during our stay, including Jim Hart and Ben Davidson, who were happy to explain the stories and inspiration behind their work. Take the time to stop in the many art galleries and studios to appreciate the unique Haida style and learn more about their culture, but don’t expect to be taking any artwork home with you unless your budget stretches VERY far. The Heritage Centre is also committed to preserving the Haida language, which is unlike any other in the world, Haida traditions, such as the potlatch, a gift-giving feast and opportunity to discuss important community business and celebrate social occasions, and is the location of many cultural celebrations.
The carving house at The Haida Heritage Centre
Magical Haida Gwaii is where the fairies of your childhood stories live.
Gwaii Haanas is a ‘must’. Jointly run by Parks Canada and the Council of the Haida Nation, it is the only park in the world that offers protection from ‘mountaintop to seafloor’. Unless you have your own boat, kayak or seaplane, you will have to approach one of the tour operators to organise your trip. The zodiac boat trips can be choppy, windy and wet and can take a number of hours, depending where in the park you want to visit, so may not be the best option for younger travellers. For this reason, we opted for a seaplane, which we shared with 3 others, thus bringing the cost down (it actually worked out cheaper than a boat!). Theo sat up front with the pilot and loved it! Gwaii Haanas contains approximately 500 identified Haida heritage sites and is abundant in flora and fauna. There are no established trails, but you are free to walk within the park as long as you remain respectful of the cultural significance of the area, as well as the delicate ecosystem. The most popular sites to visit are popular for good reason and, with a limit of 12 people at a site at any one time, everyone is able to experience the wilderness of Gwaii Haanas without feeling crowded by other tourists. The totem poles and longhouses in Nang Sdins Llnagaay (Ninstins) on SGang Gwaay (Anthony Island) are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The remains of other villages can also be seen at K’uuna Llnagaay (Skedans), T’aanuu Llnagaay (Tanu), Gandll K’in Gwaay.yaay (Hotspring Island) and Hlk’yah GawGa (Windy Bay). Windy Bay celebrates old with new and is the location of the 13 meter legacy pole raised in 2013 to celebrate the 20 years of joint management of Gwaii Haanas. Theo had a wonderful time splashing in the hotsprings on Hotspring Island, while Alex and I enjoyed a relaxing soak with a beautiful view of the surrounding islands.
The purple and blue mist enveloping the hills, the carpet of moss that creeps up the trees, the tales of mythical creatures and the life of the forest; magical Haida Gwaii is where the fairies of your childhood stories live.