Summer: Time to get feet wet, hands dirty and a taste of nature

bobmcdonald-190.jpgBy Bob McDonald, Quirks & Quarks

A disturbing sight on the highways these days is children in the back seat of the family van, watching movies or playing video games on a flat screen hanging from the ceiling, when the real action is happening outside the windows.

If you are planning to journey this summer, whether a local day trip, across the country or internationally, it's a great opportunity to get a perspective on nature, up close and personal.

During the trip, have more than a road map on board. Bring along a bird book and have the kids identify birds on the wires along the side of the road. A plant book and rock guide for hikes, and information about the regions you will be traveling through with more than what the tourist brochures tell you. 

Did you know that Canada's boreal forest, which covers 60 per cent of our land, is the largest intact forest on the planet?

The Prairies might seem flat and monotonous, until you realize that is it the floor of a huge inland sea that ran from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian Shield and split our country in two, millions of years ago.

In Alberta, you can find remains of dinosaurs that lived on the edge of that sea.

And speaking of the Canadian Shield, the granite it's made of is some of the oldest rock on Earth, a huge slice of original crust of the planet.

In Banff, one side of towering Mt. Rundle looks like a layer cake, while the other side is a smooth slope from bottom to top. You can see how the ground was tilted upwards by unimaginable tectonic forces, which are pushing the North American continent westward at about the rate your fingernails grow.

That force is coming from a huge crack running down the centre of the Atlantic Ocean that is spreading apart, pushing the continents away from each other. Imagine that - a mountain in Alberta is being pushed up by a crack in the floor of the Atlantic.

When you stop at a scenic site, don't just take a picture of the view, then move on to the next one. Take a close look at the ground around you. Why do the rocks look the way they do?  Is that a chipmunk scampering among the underbrush, and what's that strange-looking bug over there?

Go down to the water's edge and turn over some rocks to see who's living under them.

Look at the way the water in a river flows around obstacles, making whirlpools and eddies. The same thing is happening to the air as your vehicle runs down the highway. You can actually see the pattern of that airflow when you return to the car and look at where the dirt has accumulated. The dirt often builds up where eddies form in the air.

If your travels take you to other countries, ask yourself, how do they deal with crowded conditions, water, food, air pollution and energy compared to the way we deal with them in Canada?

Of course, there are always science centres, planetariums and museums to visit, but often the best show is happening right by your feet. 

This will be my last column until September, so have a great summer, and take a close look at what's around you, no matter where you go, even if you stay at home. Get a little dirty and watch nature's movie play out before your eyes. (And don't forget to listen to our summer repeats on CBC Radio, or download the podcasts from our webpage.)