One woman's mission: Explore every national park in Canada
Monday, October 1, 2018, 1:09 PM - Humans are naturally curious and here in Canada, exploration is an important part of our national identity. From the depths of the Atlantic Ocean to commanding the International Space Station we have made our mark, showing the world that for Canadians exploration is limitless.
Park bagger Marlis Butcher is an environmental conservationist, writer and photographer with a goal to visit all of Canada’s national parks.
She has been to 46 of our country's 47 parks, including some of the most remote locations in the Arctic. She is writing a book tentatively titled, "Discovering my Country and Myself Through the National Parks of Canada."
Join us each month for a new adventure as we highlight the achievements of a celebrated Canadian explorer as part of our Canada Uncovered series.
In 2016, she was one of the first people ever to visit Canada's newest national park, Qausuittuq, in the high Arctic.
Marlis has fallen off mountainsides, lost her way in snowstorms, been threatened with hypothermia, been stalked by cougars and has left behind trails of her own blood.
The Weather Network sat down with the park bagger to talk about some of her adventures.
MISSED EPISODE 1? CHECK OUT Canada's untold stories of limitless adventure, here
Image courtesy of Marlis Butcher -- Qausuittuq National Park, Bathurst Island, Nunavut
WHAT EXACTLY IS A PARK BAGGER?
A park bagger is someone who is visiting all of the national parks in Canada.
The terminology bagger is originally from munro baggers in Scotland -- people who tried to climb all of the munros. Mountain climbers eventually took over that terminology and called themselves peak climbers. And so since I'm trying to visit all of the national parks, well my game, my name, so I chose to call myself a park bagger.
WHERE DID YOU GET THE IDEA TO VISIT ALL OF THE NATIONAL PARKS?
I’ve always wanted to visit all of my country. See the country, see what it’s all about and visit all of the provinces. Going into provinces often times got me into parks.
About 10 years ago I discovered that I had seen about half the parks and I thought, 'oh I should really see the rest of the parks,' and it became an obsession.
Parks Canada, their mandate is to preserve and conserve the best of our country and so, yeah let's go and see it.
HOW MANY PARKS HAVE YOU VISITED SO FAR?
I’ve been to 46 of the 47 parks, including some of the most remote parks in the Arctic, some that are very difficult to get to.
HOW LONG DO YOU STAY IN EACH PARK FOR?
Some parks like Point Pelee, you can visit it in a day. Other parks, well it depends what I'm doing in the park.
I try to do that what is most appropriate in the park. So, I might be canoeing, I might be mountain biking, I might be backpacking, or flying in and doing day hikes.
HAVE YOU HAD ANY EXCITING WILDLIFE ENCOUNTERS?
Travelling in Auyuittuq National Park on Baffin Island and in Quttinirpaaq on Ellsemere Island I saw the skulls and antlers of peary caribou all over the place, but I didn’t see any peary caribou that were alive. I was really beginning to wonder if they really exist.
Marlis pictured above with peary caribou remains in Quttinirpaaq National Park, Ellesmere Island, Nunavut
Then a couple of years ago I was one of the first people, first visitors in Qausuittuq National Park on Bathurst Island in the high Arctic, and sure enough there we saw the peary caribou, and it was absolutely awesome. They didn’t have any fear of us, they just wandered by us, periodically gazing up. They were grazing, and we we're going click, click, click with the cameras and it was really exciting to see them. That was truly a neat opportunity.
WHAT DO PEARY CARIBOU LOOK LIKE?
They're only about a metre tall at the shoulders, so little guys. One of the reasons they are so rare and endangered is because of their food source. They pretty well live off of lichens and mosses up in the Arctic.
Partially, they're saying because of global warming, there is ice now forming over the mosses during the wintertime. Unlike snow, they can't hoof through the ice. So, in the wintertime their food source is not accessible anymore.
Image courtesy of Marlis Butcher -- Peary caribou in Qausuittuq National Park, Bathurst Island, Nunavut
Muskox populations have really declined also for the same type of reason.
I was up in Aulavik National Park on Banks Island last summer on a canoe trip in the Thompson River, the northerly most navigable river in Canada, and we saw muskox every single day. But, we had four or five days in the high 20oC, up to 30 degrees one day and we just saw those muskox lying in patches of snow left over from the previous year trying to cool down. So, their populations are also diminishing.
WHAT IS IT LIKE WITNESSING THE POPULATIONS DECLINING?
It's uncomfortable for us as human beings to go up to the Arctic expecting cold and you come prepared for cold, and you get temperatures in the high 20s, low 30s and it's uncomfortable for us. You see the animals up there, with their big shaggy coats and there is nothing they can do. It’s really unfortunate to see that.
Image courtesy of Marlis Butcher -- Elk in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
We saw Arctic wolves pacing alongside of the river going crazy with mosquitoes and they couldn't get into the water because the water was so full of silt and soil. The permafrost was defrosting and dropping into the river.
ARE YOU HOPING TO RAISE AWARENESS AROUND GLOBAL WARMING AND THE IMPACT ON WILDLIFE?
Primarily what I’m doing now is, I want to share the park experience with other people who can’t necessarily visit themselves, or maybe would like to, so give them some inspiration.
So, part of that park experience is seeing what is happening to the environment, but it's also the good things, the fun things, the neat things to see up there. The history, the archaeology. It is super interesting and I’m trying to share that park experience with other people.
TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOUR BOOK. WHAT'S THE WORKING TITLE?
I’m writing a book about my adventures in the park. It's tentatively called Adventures in the National Parks of Canada and I’ve got one chapter per park sharing that park experience. So, each chapter is a standalone chapter, a standalone story about what it’s like to be in the park.
It's about the experience. So, what is it like to paddle down that river, or down to the other end of the lake and get stuck in a storm and have to shelter halfway through without any equipment? What is it like to go mountain biking in one of the parks, what is it like to go backpacking and carry 60 pounds on your back? That’s what I’m sharing.
Marlis pictured above enjoying a picnic by a glacier in Quttinirpaaq National Park, Ellesmere Island, Nunavut
I’m writing as I go to each park. I’m keeping copious amounts of notes, a very thick journal for each park I travel to. When I get home in the wintertime, usually that's when I get to writing the chapters on each park.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE PARK OR REGION OF CANADA?
Despite the fact that I’m always drawn back to the Arctic because it’s so interesting, I’m so comfortable and I just love our eastern forests. I refer to our forests as 'friendly forests.'
They kind of shelter you and protect you. And there’s nothing in forests here in Eastern Canada that is a threat to human beings.
One of my favourite things is going on a hike just by myself down this trail that is totally overgrown and nobody has been down it for a longtime, and coming out on the Atlantic Ocean and there's nobody around. It's hot outside and I'm all mosquito-bitten, and one of my favourite things is to just strip down and go for a swim and cool off. That's got to be one of the best things, the best experiences.
Marlis pictured above at the southernmost point in Canada -- Point Pelee National Park, Leamington, Ontario
CAN YOU RECALL A SCARY EXPERIENCE IN ONE OF THE PARKS YOU WERE IN?
In Auyuittuq Park on Baffin Island we started a backpacking trip. We were a group of 12 people and we started outside of the park and it took us about seven days, a week or so I would say to get to the centre of the park. The plan was go to around the east side of Mount Fleming, but we could not go that route because of landslides and ice slides. It was closed off, so we had to make up our own route to go around the other side of the mountain. There is no trail, no path, we were just making up our route.
There was this one moraine, about a three-storey high moraine. We were walking along the top -- it’s a glacial feature, full of loose sand, stones and boulders. We were walking single file on this thing and I was having a chat with the guy in front of me. And I did something I wasn’t supposed to do. I was a little bit too close to him. He came to a sudden stop, which left me coming to a stop with both feet on the same rock, and the rock gave way.
And we were backpacking, so I’m carrying 55 to 60 pounds on my back. I fell onto my back head down, feet facing up and I slid down that moraine. All I could see was the sky retreating away from me as I'm sliding down. I suddenly come to a stop and I guess a couple of rocks jammed into my backpack and I thought, 'OK I can’t touch the ground with my feet, I can’t touch the ground with my arms because the pack was too big.'
I could of unbuckled my straps, but if I did that I would have fallen the rest of the way down, because the straps were the only thing holding me in place.
So, I had to wait for the rest of the crew to make their way down the moraine to me. And of course as they were heading down, they were causing all of these little landslides and sandslides. Five of them came down and each one of them grabbed my arms and my legs and another one unbuckled me, and slowly turned me off of my pack. I had to get that pack back on my back. With that type of weight, I can't swing it onto my back myself, I need someone else to do it. Of course, we’re all trying not to slide the rest of the way down the hill.
I put my pack back on and climbed back to the top of the moraine and thought, 'OK, alright, I'm OK. No broken bones, no nothing. I’m OK.'
The pack took the brunt of the fall and we continued as if nothing had happened.
CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE TIME YOU WERE STALKED BY A COUGAR?
It was in Waterton National Park. My husband and I were hiking through the park on snowshoes, it was the wintertime. It was just before New Year’s Eve and we were a long ways away from the road. We were following the trails, they were snow-covered. And I'm in the lead coming around the corner and there were cougar prints in the trail, even though it's snowing heavily.
Image courtesy of Marlis Butcher -- Cougar tracks in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
We thought, 'OK, maybe we should stay a little bit closer together, talk a lot and make a lot of noise because this cat is nearby.'
The prints were fresh and it was snowing heavily. We made a lot of noise, kept talking and never did see the thing. We were quite happy about that and finished our hike.
When we got back to civilization, we went to speak with the park warden. I told him about the incident and he's there, 'And where were you looking?'
Marlis pictured above snowshoeing in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
I said we were looking around the sides and the bottom. And he said, 'well he was probably above you in the rocks looking down at you.'
DO YOU EVER FEEL THREATENED BY WILDLIFE?
It's not a matter of being afraid. You do everything, you prepare yourself, you train yourself. You learn everything about the environment that you can. You prepare yourself for all eventualities. Obviously, you can’t prepare for everything. At that point, you just go by instinct. Pay attention to your instincts about what's going on around you, learn what you can and cannot do, and back off when you need to back off.
Image courtesy of Marlis Butcher -- Peary caribou in Qausuittuq National Park, Bathurst Island, Nunavut
WHAT SEASON IS THE MOST CHALLENGING TO EXPLORE A PARK?
You can’t do anything about the heat. If your outdoors, you’re stuck with the heat. If you’re in a heavily forested area, the humidity will just suffocate you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
That’s why in the summertime down here in the south when it gets hot, I head north. I head to the Arctic.
Image courtesy of Marlis Butcher -- May Inlet in Qausuittuq National Park, Bathurst Island, Nunavut
ANY OTHER MEMORABLE MOMENTS YOU CAN SHARE WITH US?
Climbing up the Chilkoot Trail we were hit by a sudden storm, a windstorm, a rainstorm. The major climb is about a kilometre, 900 metres. An almost vertical climb with our backpacks on and everything.
The rain was just forcing its way through the backpacks. Everything that was not in plastic was getting soaked. So, we were carrying extra water now in our backpacks, climbing up this trail with massive, huge rocks. And every once in a while the wind gusts were so strong they pinned us to the rocks and nobody could move.
We got to the top and we were totally soaked, freezing cold. We saw the cairn that marks the Canadian-U.S. border and somebody said, 'do you want to take a photograph?'
And we said nope, we were all shivering like hypothermia was going to set in. We said we cannot stop, we must continue moving to keep our own body heat going and get to that next emergency shelter.
We made it and we were totally soaked. We got some hot soup, gathered all of the wet clothing, and was ready to move onto the next camp, which was unfortunately called Happy Camp, and it was a big mud hole, and full of water everywhere.
The tent was set up in mud and water. It was a miserable day. The next day the sun came out and it was perfect.