When a country decides to set aside large tracts of land for national parks, it says as much about the political forethought of a people as it does about the diversity of its geography. Canada takes its stewardship of the land seriously. It is the world's second-largest country, after Russia, has 20 percent of the world's wilderness areas, and boasts the world's longest coastline.
Since 1885 when Banff National Park was established, Canada has preserved more than 6 million square miles of wilderness. Two years ago the country pledged to create 10 new national parks.
My husband and I and our three children have been on our own mission. We are discovering North America through national parks, monuments, and wildlife refuges. We have journeyed to Oregon, Utah, California, Wyoming, Georgia, Florida, Montana, Colorado, and last summer to a little pocket of Canada - the Maritime Provinces.
The national parks in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick are slices of a glacial past: bogs, cool lakes, lazy rivers, shamrock green meadows, ragged cliffs of rock descending to the sea, and Acadian forests of red spruce, fir, maple, yellow birch, and pine trees.
The region shares not only a geological past but a cultural one. The Micmac Indians met the French in the 1600s, then the English, the Germans, the Scots, and Americans loyal to the British crown in the late 1700s. Remnants of this history are heard in the Gaelic music played by local musicians, found in the architecture, and seen in the endless potato farms of Prince Edward Island.
We docked into this former European outpost in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, a port town at the southwestern edge of the province. We arrived refreshed after a quiet night on the Scotia Prince ferry from Portland, Maine, forgoing the ship's slot machines for a good night's sleep. We drove north along St. Mary's Bay and past the town of Digby, famous for its scallops, before turning inland to Kejimkujik National Park.
We pitched our tent on a small point jutting into Kejimkujik Lake, a pristine body of water formed by glaciers thousands of years ago. On one side, our view was of a forest; on the other, of a beautiful blue-green lake.
Most of the 236- square-mile park is not accessible by car. Visitors hike or canoe this ancestral home of the Micmacs. The Mersey River runs into and out of the lake. And the park is dotted with 47 backcountry campsites. Some of North America's best pictographs can be seen only from the side of a canoe.
After setting up at our site, we followed a park path to a beach along the lake. We spread our towels on the white sand, and the children disappeared into the tall grass at the water's edge. My 8-year-old son returned with his hands cupped.
''Look, Mom,'' he said urgently, as if he were holding something precious. He opened his hands, revealing his catch: a miniature frog. My 11-year-old daughter joined him with a bucket full of water, sand, and frogs. ''This is frog heaven, Mom,'' my 5-year-old son said, grinning as he emerged from the reeds.
We learned Kejimkujik is a frog and toad sanctuary. It provides one of the best habitats for amphibians in North America. Later, park rangers asked us not to collect the frogs.
Even though we didn't embark on the full wilderness trek, we rented a canoe at Jake's Landing and paddled onto the Mersey. A loon crossed our path almost immediately, then dived into the water, emerging 100 yards away. We rounded a bend to find a muskrat swimming there.
Kejimkujik is in the southern portion of the province; its beauty is quiet and gentle. Cape Breton Highlands National Park in the far north of Nova Scotia is, by contrast, rugged and varied. It attracts far more tourists as well.
Guidebooks recommend driving the world-famous Cabot Trail clockwise. We drove counterclockwise so as to get off before dark.
We investigated two options for an overnight stay: a campsite on Ingonish Beach or the suit-coat formality of the Keltic Lodge there. The lodge is handsome, the golf course picturesque. Our fleeces didn't fit in. We pitched our tent.
The next day we bodysurfed in momentous waves. We hiked up gray rocks to a waterfall, fed by a freshwater stream that led to the sea. We walked around Warren Lake, looking for moose at dusk. We found blueberry bushes instead. Bush after bush was brimming with berries.
Undeterred in our moose hunt, my husband and sons rose before dawn the next day. They were met by good fortune: nine moose by the road, mothers and calves and a bull or two.
Since the following day was rainy, we set off for Neils Harbour, a small fishing village, where we had a generous and steamy bowl of clam chowder at the Chowder House, followed by cones filled with a flavor called Moosetracks that we came to love.
To celebrate our good fortune, we bought crab legs for $30 from the Rusty Anchor in Pleasant Bay for dinner.
Prince Edward Island
Once the only way to Prince Edward Island was by ferry. That changed in 1997 when an eight-mile bridge was built that connect s the island to New Brunswick.
We took the ferry from Caribou, Nova Scotia, across the Northumberland Strait to PEI, inspiring my 5-year-old to name the Maritimes ''ferry heaven.'' Along the way we listened to the twin fiddle and piano playing of brother and sister Neil and Sheila Cameron and fellow student Kate MacInnes. They performed foot-stomping renditions of old-time tunes. My children sat at the fiddlers' feet.
We drove off the ferry onto an island where it seems nearly every inch is cultivated. If the land hasn't given way to a town or a house, it is a potato field or a cow pasture.
I've heard PEI compared with Ireland. Potatoes, Ireland, OK. It's green like the Emerald Isle, but the green of PEI isn't as intense. And there are differences. The beaches are mostly red sand. The water in the Gulf of St. Lawrence is as warm as the waters off North Carolina in the spring. Lobster is the favorite food, and the sea is filled with two kinds of stinging jellyfish.
During our three-day stay, we sat on the beaches in the national park - a thin slip of land along the north coast - and read books and built sand castles. On our early morning runs along the dunes, we spied snowshoe rabbits nibbling clover. Red foxes sauntered across the road, unfazed by cars or people. We walked along boardwalks in the salt marshes watching blue herons standing stock-still and the endangered piping plover pecking in the reeds. Hoping to avoid crowds, we bypassed the amusement parks in Cavendish and even the Green Gables Heritage Site.
Our trip through the Maritimes became a pattern: parks with serene beauty, parks with dramatic landscape. PEI falls into the serene category. Fundy National Park in New Brunswick is drama - and extremes.
Our first evening there we walked for nearly a mile out to low tide. As the icy water receded from the shore dominated by red spruce trees, it revealed acres of smooth, polished stones. We hopped from stone to stone to stay out of the rivulets of water.
The watermarks carved into the surrounding cliffs were yards and yards tall. At high tide, water can reach the height of a four-story building.
Hence the extremes: The difference between high and low tide at Fundy can be 36 feet.
And the fog: One hiker we met told us he was eating lunch at his campsite at Point Wolfe near the sea, and by the end of his meal the fog had obscured his plate.
Similar to Cape Breton, there are two distinct environmental systems here: coastal and highland. The day after our walk out to sea, we kayaked on Bennett Lake up in the mountains and hiked in the woods.
My children dared me to swim across the lake. I took the bait, starting from the sandy beach and stroking out through somewhat choppy water. I was across in 20 minutes and stood in the muck at the other shore. Perhaps this was muck heaven, as my 5-year-old would say.