Canada’s huge animals—shaggy musk oxen, half-ton polar bears and enormous brown bears—need to be big. Animals with more body mass in proportion to skin surface retain heat better in this place of long winters, where temperatures fall dozens of degrees below zero and ice and snow remain much of the year.
Other adaptations help too. Wolverines are not large but their fur sheds ice crystals. Arctic foxes’ special blood-vessel mechanism keeps foot pads warm so they seldom need to seek shelter but can sleep in the open, maintaining constant body warmth even when temperatures fall to –112°F (–82°C).
Caribou and polar bear fur is not only dense but hollow for extra insulation. Fish here can lower blood hemoglobin, slowing metabolism.
Snowshoe hares’ furry paws skim over snowdrifts; willow ptarmigans plunge into them headfirst, seasonally-white feathers making them invisible to predators. Other birds have blood circulatory mechanisms similar to foxes, controlling blood flow into legs, dilating and constricting the vessels as appropriate.
But most birds don’t stay through the dark, bitterly cold months unless they have special survival adaptations. They go south, and come later in spring and summer by the millions to court and nest, finding plenty of food then to raise families on both abundant water organisms and swarming insect hatches. All life then rushes to reproduce and raise young as quickly as possible.
Even plants adapt. They grow close to the ground, minimizing exposure, then appear all at once in dazzling spring carpets of bloom on the sides of some of North America’s highest mountains, amid some of the world’s most extensive glaciers and ice fields—some a half-mile (1 km) thick. Visitors come from around the world to view these breathtaking phenomena.
Canada claims the oldest continuous national parks service in the world, with 38 units covering over 75,000 square miles (194,250 km2) of mountain ranges, grassy plains, great rivers, and frozen tundra. The plan is to include every ecosystem represented in this vast subpolar region covering more than half the North American continent.
Best known is the spectacular cluster covering over 7,800 square miles (20,000 km2) in the CANADIAN ROCKIES, of which most famous is Banff, formed originally as a tourist spa around hot springs the government felt “promise to be of great sanitary advantage to the public.” Now millions of visitors come every year to see not only the fabled snowcapped mountains but the wildlife—grizzly bears, elk, mountain goats, wolves, moose, and eagles soaring over peaks known to aboriginal peoples as “the shining mountains.”
The Canadian Rockies are one of the world’s largest protected mountain landscapes. The designated natural region extends over some 69,480 square miles (180,000 km2), with the core U.N. World Heritage Site including BANFF, JASPER, KOOTENAY, and YOHO national parks and three provincial parks.
Jasper, just north of Banff, is larger and wilder. Shy, striking harlequin ducks nest on riverine islands. Grizzlies forage along highways in spring. Bighorn sheep rest alongside and sometimes on the sun-warmed Icefields Parkway.
Kootenay, just west, swept by fire in 1968, is recovering and cleared areas offer tender grazing for moose and elk. Yoho, just north of Kootenay, has similar fire-cleared grazing meadows, also Canada’s highest waterfall and a renowned quarry with fossil remains of 120 marine creatures resident here 500 million years ago.
Beautiful Glacier and Revelstoke are just down the road.
Other reserves elsewhere are equally spectacular with entirely different ecosystems.
A million or more of the world’s most interesting and rare birds nest in the rugged mountains and deep fiords of GWAII HAANAS’ islands in a national park reserve with the west coast’s largest breeding colony of Steller’s sea lions. Multihued sea stars light up low tides. Six kinds of whales feed offshore.
KLUANE National Park is a vast joint U.N. World Heritage Site with U.S. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska, together the largest subpolar ice field outside Greenland, surrounded by habitat where black and brown or grizzly bears roam among timber wolves, moose, small fierce wolverines, and nesting songbirds, all surrounded in summer by multicolored alpine wildflowers.
CHURCHILL is known as polar bear capital of the world, with the largest concentration of them anywhere, waiting for the ice to freeze in fall so they can go out and hunt seals. But Churchill also has great numbers of birds that come in spring from over the western hemisphere, some to nest, some en route north, all in dapper breeding plumage. Up to 3,000 pearl-white beluga whales visit the Churchill River in June, and just southeast is new WAPUSK NATIONAL PARK, with one of the world’s largest polar bear denning sites.
WOOD BUFFALO NATIONAL PARK, largest in Canada and one of the largest in the world, is home to lynx, wolves, bears, and in summer, in a tract of wild muskeg larger than Denmark, to rare and magnificent whooping cranes.
The last two free-roaming herds of plains bison still on their original range graze in Wood Buffalo and PRINCE ALBERT National Parks. Prince Albert is home as well to 10,000 nesting white pelicans and 235 other bird species. Fishers, three-toed woodpeckers, and others increasingly scarce elsewhere are still numerous in this wilderness.
GROS MORNE on coastal Newfoundland is known for its geologic record of tectonic events 1.5 billion years ago—but wildlife have found it hospitable, most swimming or trekking over winter pack ice: caribou, lynx, black bears, foxes—along with 235 bird species which fly in.
And, a splendid recent addition, the Muskwa-Kechika wilderness, part of more than 15,600 square miles (40,000 km2) of almost untouched high mountain ranges, deep rivers and valleys, with dense caribou, grizzly bears, and wolverine populations now to be safeguarded in the northeastern corner of British Columbia.
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