Nature in Canada is getting more awesome by the day

The ‘awesome’ word is unavoidable on Canada’s west coast. Almost every sight one sees is awe-inspiring, writes Damien Enright

Nature in Canada is getting more awesome by the day

Nowhere is as nice as Ireland outdoors when the weather is good. “It’s green and refreshing,” visitors say.

Yes, indeed. The air is moist, not dried out as in habitually sunny places, and the natives do not have that parchment-perfect skin one sometimes sees in the USA. I realise that this may also be caused by excessive central heating.

Anyway, after all the travels, I believe that in British Columbia I’ve found another sunny but green and refreshing place, also famous for its outdoors. I’ve written about Vancouver, the city: this week, it’s Vancouver Island, 90 minutes ferry ride and a world away. The towering skyscrapers of the Glass City were awesome. However, awesome also are the soaring Douglas firs of the island’s Cathedral Grove which somehow survived a forest inferno 350 years ago. Perhaps to call a natural ecosystem a ‘cathedral’ is sacrilegious, but there is a holy silence in the woods.

The biggest trees are 800 years old and 75m tall with a girth of 9m. (Awesome!) . However, there’s a macrocarpa in an old estate five minutes from my West Cork home with a girth of 9.5m. I’ve measured it.

‘Awesome’ is a word much used in Canada. Waiters — after the effulgent greeting and describing the menu items ad infinitum — cry ‘awesome!!’ when you say you’ll have the sockeye salmon (or whatever) and ‘awesome!!’ again when you pay your bill. They’re trained to do this, and to visit your table at precisely the moment you’re delivering the punchline to your dinner-time story. “Everything okay, guys?” They ask, twice visiting during the meal.

It is a fact that the ‘awesome’ word is unavoidable on Canada’s west coast. Almost every sight one sees is awe-inspiring. We’re left overawed and open-mouthed at the sheer grandeur of lakes, woods and mountains and, as I said, the man-made elements too.

I wrote a postcard (yet unsent) on a ferry the other evening: “Crossing between the islands in the late afternoon sun, blue sea, blue sky, dark green mountains and peaks white with snow. Canada, the Straits of Georgia, 22 May, 2017.”

The sun had been scorching all day. That morning, we had a breakfast on an empty beach on Sproat Lake, muesli and cold coffees we had bought hot at a ‘take-out’ the night before and left in their paper cups on the bonnet of the Ford Freestar that my son has converted into an as-required camper with comfortable bed and insertable cardboard templates to cover the windows and block out the light.

We made do with muesli and coffee because, when my wife turned to fetch something from the camper, crows swooped down from the trees and snaffled the butter and cheese, leaving only dry bread for our degustation. Thieving crows!

Crows are everywhere, and I’m told that if anyone goes too near the 6,000-strong roost of Vancouver’s infamous Burnaby crows in the nesting season, they descend in squadrons and draw blood.

State-owned Provincial Parks campgrounds usually have washrooms with hot showers. Sites have picnic tables and firebowls, and cut logs available at €5 for an evening’s-worth. With our fold-out seats to sit by the fire, huge trees above and lake water lapping nearby, what more could we want for €18 site rental?

That afternoon, on a fisherman’s wharf by the sea, we saw three harbour seals swimming below us like grey ghosts deep in the crystal water, then surfacing to observe us.

Great bulbous, toothpaste-tube-shaped creatures, white with dark spots, they looked at us with seemingly smiling faces and round, endearing eyes. Later, as if trained by some circus seal-master, they turned over and floated on their backs, parallel to one another, white bellies skyward, taking the sun.

Farther down the pier, we interrupted an otter. Without a sound, it slipped fluidly into the water and swam away. It was a river otter, not a sea otter. The latter species was so over-hunted for the fur trade in the 19th century that it had been all but eradicated from Alaska to California when, in the late 1960s, government scientists released 89 into BC waters, and the population, now protected by law, numbers 6,000 plus.

Their conservation does not please indigenous Canadians. First Nation people traditionally harvest shellfish while sea otters decimate them, crunching oysters with the ease and appetite of cinemagoers crunching popcorn. However, scientists say they eat sea urchins that destroy kelp beds that provide fish nurseries and extract carbon from the atmosphere.

Coincidentally, it was Canadian multinational Acadian Seaplants that bought our semi-State seaweed- harvesting company Arramara Teoranta in 2014. Now, the licence granted to Bioatlantis Ltd to harvest kelp forest habitat in Bantry Bay must be urgently reviewed.

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