“Here!” yelled the muscular man from his outrigger canoe. We couldn’t see it, but this was what we came for. We all jumped blindly into the water and began swimming toward him. Suddenly, I found myself within reaching distance of a 12-foot-long whale shark.
It was scary and humbling and exhilarating. It feels cheesy to say that it was life-changing, but experiences like that really do change people.
First-hand encounters with the grand creations of nature are a reminder that there is an enormous world of splendour beyond the human-built environments where we spend so much of our lives.
From scrambling up a pre-installed via ferrata route in one of America’s most historic outlaw canyons to paddling alongside whales in the Canadian Arctic, here are six summer adventures suitable for people of all abilities that will help you remember that we live in a wild world of beautiful creatures and magical landscapes.
- Paddle among Manatees on Crystal River, Florida
Combine one of the fastest-growing watersports in North America with the most adorable marine mammals in the sea, and you have a serene and awe-inspiring natural encounter. Cruise down to the tropical town of Crystal River, Florida, to stand-up paddleboard (or kayak) among herds of the ocean’s gentlest inhabitants, the manatees.
No experience or equipment is required to enjoy the excitement of skimming along the surface of the crystal-clear waters of Three Sister Springs and Kings Bay just a few feet above these beautiful animals. The guides at Manatee Paddleoffer a free lesson with every rental.
Related article: Everything you need to know about travelling to see wild animals
- Scale Historic Box Canyon by Via Ferratain Telluride, Colorado
Telluride, Colorado, is best known as one of the most unique ski towns in the United States. Its rugged attitude is a testament to its wild west legacy as a rough mining town and the site of Butch Cassidy’s first major bank robbery.
Though the area is famous for skiing, climbing, and mountain biking, one of Box Canyon’s most stunning adventures seems to have slipped under the radar of outdoor lovers: its via ferrata course.
Via ferrata—which is Italian for “iron road”—is a system of ladders and ropes installed into mountainsides to make climbing safe and accessible for untrained adventurers who want the experience of climbing a mountain without the risk and time investment of learning how to climb.
The via ferrata was originally developed to move soldiers and supplies through the rugged Italian Dolomites during the First World War. Now the sport is gaining popularity as a safe way for untrained climbers to safely reach previously inaccessible peaks with professional guides.
While this may sound like a risky sport, it is in fact very safe. Guides are well trained, climbers are constantly attached to safety cables bolted into the mountainside to safeguard them from falling, and via ferratacourses are built to be accessible for people of all physical abilities.
- Learn to Surf … on a River
Learning to surf can be a daunting experience. California’s beaches are packed in summer and competition for good waves is enthusiastic. However, a more consistent and less competitive surfing option has quietly entered the scene.
River surfing has been growing in popularity in mountain towns around North America. In certain conditions, flowing rivers can create standing waves that are constantly rideable and much less crowded than popular ocean surf areas, making them perfect for learners.
Calgary, Alberta, has a small wave right in the heart of the city near the Kensington district. Surfers gather there each evening for a spirited after-work ride and to enthusiastically support new river surfers. Wave Wednesdays are the best days to come out, when some local surfers bring extra boards just to let interested newbies try it out.
Snake River in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, becomes a hot spot for local and travelling surfers in the early summer months. This river, however, is for experienced surfers only. Standing waves can also be found near Denver, Missoula and Montreal.
Related article: Wondering if you need special risk insurance?
- Kayak with Beluga Whales in Churchill, Manitoba
Beluga whales, or white whales, have adapted to life in the Arctic, and when the ice melts in summer they swim to warmer coastal areas. This summertime habit means boats and kayaks can get up close and personal with the Arctic creatures without venturing too far from the quaint coastal town of Churchill, Manitoba, in northern Canada.
Beluga whales are curious creatures that often trail behind paddlers or swim close enough to touch. Lazy Bear Expeditionsand several other Churchill-based guide companies lead beluga whale kayaking adventures safe for even the most inexperienced paddlers. You’ll be outfitted with a kayak, wetsuit, lifejacket, and neoprene booties before embarking on a three-hour-long tour with the sociable creatures.
For those who are (understandably) not comfortable paddling a small plastic boat just feet from a whale larger than a truck, whale-watching tours on boats are also available.
- Trek with Llamas in Taos, New Mexico
Multi-day treks aren’t just for the hard-core backpackers. Adventurers of all ages and fitness levels can comfortably hike and camp in New Mexico’s wilderness with an adorable companion to carry the heavy stuff.
Wild Earth Llama Adventuresnaturalist guides will take you on a single or multi-day escape into the rugged, desert wilderness of Taos or Santa Fe in the company of a lovable llama.
These gentle, curious, and well-travelled llamas accompany you and your fellow campers along the journey, carrying the necessities for an unforgettable Southern Rockies trekking experience.
In addition to hiking with a photogenic llama by your side (selfies are highly recommended), your guide will enrich the journey by teaching you about the local flora, fauna, edible plants, and cultural history, as well as wilderness survival skills.
- Zipline across Massive Underground Caverns in Louisville, Kentucky
Mega Zips—located beneath the city of Louisville, Kentucky—is the world’s only fully underground zipline. While other vacationers are shopping and dining aboveground, you can explore 17 miles of passageways beneath the earth’s surface in Louisville’s Mega Cavern.
The cavern is equipped with six underground ziplines and two challenge bridges offering hours of thrills that are suitable for anyone over the age of seven.
Other underground adventures in the Mega Cavern include the Mega Quest ropes course, Mega Tram tours, and the world’s first underground bike park, featuring more than 320,000 square feet of pump tracks, jumps, and banks. The temperature in the Mega Cavern hovers around 16 degrees Celsius (60 F) year-round—a refreshing escape on a sweltering summer day in Kentucky.
You may not be able to jet off to the Philippines and jump in the ocean with a whale shark this summer, but there are lots of great ways to experience nature’s majesty. There is no excuse not to. You only have to take the first step: choosing your adventure.
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