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North of the border, nature still untamed

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Think of Canada, and vast mountain, valley and ocean vistas flash to mind, punctuated with images of grazing moose, lumbering bear and breaching whales.

Often, though, the relationship between travelers and all that great nature is not entirely natural. Glaciers and sea life frequently are viewed from the crowded decks of cruise ships plying the Far West's Inside Passage. The seascapes of Nova Scotia are glimpsed from behind the thick glass of motorcoaches. The majestic Rockies whiz by in a blur outside tourist trains.

There is a far wilder and accessible Canada that many U.S. travelers know nothing about. Throughout the country, from the Maritime Provinces in the East to the flat river plains in the middle and mountain and island expanses in the West, adventure outfitters have emerged to bring visitors into the untamed heart of the country's wilderness areas.

Canadian Outback Adventures, for example, takes guests rafting on white water north of Vancouver to see the highest concentration of bald eagles on Earth -- 500 to 1,000 sightings a day.

Expert and novice equestrians can join Manito Outfitters summer horseback excursions through Saskatchewan's Great Manitou Sand Hills, the largest virgin aspen parklands left in Canada. Or, skip the saddle sores by riding in the outfitter's wagon -- you still get to join in the nightly campfires and stories under the stars and sleep in a covered wagon.

In New Brunswick, Day Adventure Centers across the province book more than 100 day activities, from guided hikes to whale watching excursions, trail rides and whitewater kayaking. You show up (no reservations necessary), consult with the staff, then pay and head off for a program that includes all equipment, guides and often a light lunch. You can even book campground lodgings, each of which is separated by a scenic drive designed to highlight the prettiest routes through the province.

Butterfield & Robinson lets you have your culture and sweat it, too, on seven-day walking trips across Newfoundland, including participation in the L'Anse aux Meadows festival, which celebrates the 1,000th anniversary of the Viking landing on this tiny area at the northern tip of Newfoundland island. The trip also includes a boat ride in Gros Morne National Park, where you'll motor through a gorge flanked by 2,000-foot cliffs.

Want more of a rush?

How about heli-rafting with Rivers and Oceans, a Vancouver Island company that transports you and your assigned raft to a series of white water and lake expanses deep within some of British Columbia's most pristine glacial lands?

Or load up your llama and join Strider Adventures for hiking and camping excursions into B.C.'s North Cariboo or Rocky Mountains, meandering along expanses of woodlands, lakes and craggy summits.

Sweetening these experiences is the fact that Canada is an unqualified bargain for U.S. travelers. The U.S. dollar has risen to nearly 1.5 times the value of the Canadian dollar.

"Our U.S. bookings have zoomed thanks to the exchange rate," says Jamie Corbett of Canadian Outback Adventures, based in Vancouver. "Most of us Canadian companies have not raised our prices to match the exchange rate, so you really do get $1.50 worth of trip for $1 here."

Canadian Outback Adventures makes its trips especially affordable by having potential guests fill out a questionnaire describing their dream trip -- and what they can afford to spend for it. "Then we work with the client, from solo travelers to big groups, to nip and tuck the dream into the budget," says Corbett.

Customizing trips and offering multiple activities to meet the interests and inclinations of patrons seems a hallmark of Canada's newest adventure outfitters.

Canadian Mountain Holidays, for example, uses a helicopter to transport guests to remote wilderness areas around British Columbia where they can decide from day to day whether they want to be mountaineers scaling steep ridges or to leisurely stroll along glaciers and flowered meadows, with the helicopter doing all the climbing. Accommodations are at alpine lodges, with sun decks, whirlpools and saunas.

In the Maritimes' Prince Edward Island, pedaling and paddling share the spotlight as Outside Expeditions guests cycle from inn to inn for two days, then paddle between lodgings in sea kayaks for three days, with gourmet dining each night.

You don't even have to get wet to dive 12,500 feet into the ocean to see the rusting hulk of the Titanic, which lies 368 miles off New-foundland in the North Atlantic. Last year, a federal appeals court cleared the way for Zegrahm Deep Sea Voyages to run Titanic-viewing dives (at $35,500 per person) in two-passenger mini-submarines. The court threw out a suit to block tourist dives, filed by the company that owns the salvage rights to the wreck.

ElderTreks makes exploring the Pacific Northwest's Queen Charlotte Islands a breeze on hiking and sailing trips around these wild forested ocean isles, often called Canada's Galapagos. Sailing around the inlets and small islands, participants (age 50 and older) see tufted puffins, herons, bald eagles, seals and whales, and explore the culture of the Haida Indian nation, whose members have lived, hunted and fished on the islands for thousands of years.

The appeal of Canada -- for its affordability, proximity, safety and friendliness -- has not been lost on major U.S. outfitters as well. California-based Backroads offers 18 itineraries for hiking, cycling and kayaking excursions in the Canadian Rockies, Gulf Islands off Vancouver Island, Nova Scotia and Quebec.

Vermont-based Country Walkers has 15 departures for hiking excursions in the Canadian Rockies and Nova Scotia. Boston-based Elderhostel, which offers budget-priced learning adventures for travelers older than 50, includes more than 50 Canadian enrichment programs in its 2000 catalogue -- from explorations amid polar bears in Manitoba to studying marine life in the Maritimes' Bay of Fundy.

Natural Habitat Adventures, a Boulder, Colo., outfitter, offers a Noah's Ark of animal-watching on its nature tours by helicopter, Zodiac boat and tundra buggy, mingling with the polar bears or beluga whales of Churchill, Manitoba, and newborn seal pups on the polar ice of the Iles de la Madeleine, a 50-minute flight north from Halifax, Nova Scotia. (The popular annual February and March seal watch trips fill up as much as a year in advance, so it's not too early to book now for a 2001 departure.)

Minneapolis-based Wilderness Inquiry, which welcomes physically and mentally challenged individuals as well as able-bodied guests of all ages on its outdoor adventures, heads out in 17-foot aluminum canoes to explore Ontario's White Otter Wilderness Area, which abounds with timber wolves, black bear, lynx, caribou, loons, ducks, geese and other waterfowl. Also, consider the Sierra Club's hiking and camping excursion to the British Mountains at the northern rim of Canada's Yukon Territory. The autumn trek between the remote canyons of the Firth and Babbage rivers will find this Arctic netherworld in its glory with aurora borealis (northern lights), migrating Porcupine Caribou herd and prime blueberry hunting.

CONTACTING THE PROVINCES

Many provinces publish information booklets specifically geared to outside adventures or include adventure travel sections in their regular catalogues. A good Web site for finding adventure links around Canada is www.canadatourism.com. Following are phone numbers and Web sites for each province.

Alberta

* 800-661-8888

* www.explorealberta.com

British Columbia

* 250-953-2680

* www.travel.bc.ca

Manitoba

* 800-665-0040

* www.travelmanitoba.com

New Brunswick

* 800-561-0123

* www.tourismnbcanada.com

Newfoundland / Labrador

* 800-563-6353

* www.gov.nf.ca / tourism

Northwest Territories

* 800-661-0788

* www.nwttravel.nt.ca

Nova Scotia

* 800-565-0000

* www.explore.gov.ns.ca

Nunavut

* 800-491-7910

* www.nunatour.nt.ca

Ontario

* 800-668-2746

* www.travelinx.com

Prince Edward Island

* 888-734-7529

* www.peiplay.com

Quebec

* 800-266-5687

* www.tourisme.gouv.qc.ca

Saskatchewan

* 877-237-2273

* www.sasktourism.com

Yukon

* 867-667-5340 (not toll-free)

* www.touryukon.com

WHEN YOU GO...

Backroads

* 800-462-2848

* www.backroads.com

Butterfield & Robinson

* 800-678-1147

* www. butterfieldandrobinson.com

Canadian Mountain Holidays

* 800-661-0252

* www.cmhhike.com

Canadian Outback Adventures

* 800-565-8735

* www.canadianoutback.com

Country Walkers

* 800-464-9255

* www.countrywalkers.com

Elderhostel

* 877-426-8056

* www.elderhostel.org

ElderTreks

* 800-741-7956

* www.eldertreks.com

Manito Outfitters

* 800-665-4600

* www.ecocanada.com / members / manitou / manitou.htm

Natural Habitat Adventures

* 800-548-7555

* www.nathab.com

New Brunswick Day Adventures

* 800-561-0123

* www.tourismnbcanada.com

Outside Expeditions

* 800-207-3899

* www.getoutside.com

Rivers and Ocean

* Book through Butterfield & Robinson

* 800-678-1147

* www.riversandoceans.com

Sierra Club Outings

* 415-977-5588

* www.sierraclub.com / outings

Strider Adventures

* 800-665-7752

* www.pgweb.com / strider

Wilderness Inquiry

* 800-728-0719

* www.wildernessinquiry.org

Zegrahm DeepSea Voyages

* 888-772-2366

* www.deepseavoyages.com

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