Travel, they say, is about the journey not the destination. But when it comes to taking part in a traditional transportation activity with an Indigenous owned business, you’ll discover it goes even deeper: connecting with the land is the focus of every trip. 

Whether you’re snowshoeing through the underbrush of a wintery boreal forest; canoeing along the abundant shoreline of the Salish Sea; or being pulled across the frozen tundra by a pack of exuberant sled dogs, each step, or paddle stroke, gives you a deeper understanding of the landscape where your Indigenous hosts have thrived for thousands of years. 

You’ll also learn about the ingenuity of traveling tools that have been tailored by the environment. From qamutiik (sleds) which are lashed together so they can ride smoothly over ice; to canoes that have been adapted for environments that include open sea, rivers and lakes; to snowshoes that have been perfected over a millennia of harsh winters, the continued use of these traditional modes of transportation is a testament to cultural resilience and resurgence.

Paddle the ancient waterways:

The Indigenous People of the west coast of Vancouver Island once found it easier to travel by water rather than overland across the rugged mountains that make up their coastal landscape. With West Coast Expeditions you won’t be paddling a traditional red cedar dugout canoe while exploring this vast ocean wilderness. Instead, nimble kayaks are used for multi-day expeditions in Kyuquot Sound, the Bunsby Islands or Mquqᵂin/Brooks Peninsula. Your guides will introduce you marine wildlife including sea otters, whales, bears and wolves, while base camp comforts include walk-in tents and hot showers.  

Canoes were once used for everything from fishing and hunting, to trade and transportation. With Takaya Tours, a guided paddle through the sheltered waterways of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, in North Vancouver, BC offers cultural learning in a replica ocean-going canoe. Guides will share traditional songs and legends while teaching you a few words of Downriver Halkomelem—the traditional language of the region. Kayak and SUP rentals are also available for those who want to explore the salt waters of Whey-Ah-Whichen on your own.

On inland waterways, heavy coastal canoes gave way to lighter, more portable, bark canoes. In BC’s Cariboo region, on the ancestral lands of the Secwepemc People, visitors staying at Siwash Lake Resort can get a sense of how it must have been to paddle through marshes and rivers in search of game or seasonal berries. Self-guided trips on the private lake give a water’s-eye view of an old beaver lodge and a variety of wild birds. As you paddle through the water lilies you may even catch sight of a bear. 

The People of the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee (Onondaga, Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Seneca, and Tuscarora) once lived in wilderness cities made up of dozens of enormous longhouses. Linked each other by the rivers and lakes of the Eastern Woodlands in Ontario, the birch bark canoe was a vital tool for visits between the communities. Six Nations Tourism gives modern visitors a chance to experience a version of this social side of canoeing with a three-hour guided river trip. Your journey will delve into the plants and animals of the Carolinian Forest, and offer a deeper understanding Haudenosaunee culture and history.

Once known as Kaniatarowanenneh, or the big waterway, the St. Lawrence has a rich Indigenous history. Robust trade canoes from several Nations once plied the waters where Mer et Monde Ecotours now offers single and multiday sea-kayaking expeditions, complete with ocean-side accommodation. Learn about the whales, seals and other marine life that inhabit the sheltered bays and open waters of this gorgeous region. Tours include expert instruction, meals and comfortable campsites. Activities range from whale watching, to beach cookouts, to night paddles in search of bioluminescence. 

Known as the “people of the bark” for their exceptional skill in making birch bark canoes, a visit to Domaine Notcimik in Quebec, gives visitors a chance to learn about the Atikamekw People, while experiencing their culture and territory. Sign up for a cultural package to get unlimited use of the boats, or book a stay in the accommodation and rent a canoe for an afternoon on Lake Kitikan. This family owned site offers a range of workshops, camping, lodging and outdoor activities and is great for families and groups.

Travel across the frozen landscape:

Indigenous People once sported hundreds of versions of snowshoes, suitable for all possible conditions and terrain. On the trails of Aurora Village, Yellowknife NWT, try the traditional wooden snowshoes used by the Dene and Metis People. Your guided walk includes lessons about local plants and animals and will give you a chance to learn a few of the survival skills needed to stay safe in the extreme cold. Once you’ve explored by foot—experience the thrill of dogsledding—one of the most important modes of northern transportation.

Made to mimic the paw prints of various animals—some snowshoes were round like a bear’s or oval like a beavertail—depending on the need. At Adventures Inuit, a trip to Nunavik will give you a chance to immerse in all the ingenuous designs developed to thrive in the north. Travel by dog sled will take you to a camp where you’ll build an igloo and can try traditional Inuit ice-fishing with a net. Along the way you’ll learn how dogsleds are built and about the unique northern dogs that pull them.

For thousands of years, the inuit used dogsleds to cross the harsh northern terrain. Because wood was scarce, the sleds were usually reinforced with bone or antlers—occasionally frozen fish wrapped in skins were used as runners. At Artic Bay Adventures on Baffin Island, Nunavut a multiday dogsledding expedition will deepen your appreciation for the traditions and cultures of the Inuit. Elders will tell you about their life on the ice floe and you’ll get a chance to help build an igloo and try traditional foods while traveling in this ancient way. 

While once primarily used for transportation and hunting—modern dogsledding is often about speed. Visit Wapusk Adventures, a racing kennel in Churchill, Manitoba and learn what it takes to get across the finish line at the front of the pack. After an opportunity to learn about Metis culture and history from your hosts, you’ll meet the dogs and then see how they are harnessed to a sled. As soon as they are ready to go you’ll experience the thrill of the dogs in action as they pull you across the northern landscape.


Diane Selkirk

Diane Selkirk

Diane Selkirk is a Vancouver, B.C. based travel writer who seeks to get beyond the bucket list and tell meaningful stories about the soul of a place. Some of her favourite assignments have been about topics where science, history, environmentalism or social justice intersects with travel. Her writing and photography for publications including BBC Travel, National Geographic Travel, The Smithsonian and The Globe and Mail has been recognized with numerous awards.