There are plenty of travel books out there highlighting amazing places to see before you die. Ironically, these bucket-list books can be quite boring to read. Sure, the destinations are awe-inspiring, but the guidebook-like descriptions don’t convey a sense of what it’s actually like to be there. Or they just contain one pretty panorama after another and quickly get forgotten in a coffee-table drawer.
The Great Canadian Bucket List (Thomas Allen) is different. One crucial thing sets Robin Esrock’s book apart: it’s full of accounts written by someone who’s actually explored these places. Out of the 115 items in The Great Canadian Bucket List, Esrock has completed a remarkable 105 of them—in the span of two years, no less. (Practical matters, like seasonality, prevented him from doing the rest.) What’s more, he doesn’t write about his travels like he’s penning a tourism brochure. The entry on Niagara Falls, for example, tells it like it is, tacky town, screaming kids, and all. But Esrock includes it for a reason: the dramatic natural scenery is undeniably spectacular by any global measure.
And he should know. The Vancouver-based travel writer has been to over 100 countries on six continents, in part for his television series Word Travels. But despite the bucket-list name, the book isn’t so much about sensational things you must do before you die, time and expense be damned. It’s more about one-of-a-kind travel experiences in Canada that are perhaps more accessible than the Taj Mahal to the average Jane who only gets two weeks of vacation a year.
“We definitely take Canada for granted,” Esrock tells the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. He notes that many Canadians look to Europe or Asia without first discovering what’s in their own back yards. For example, people travel halfway across the world to float in the Dead Sea, located on the border between Israel and Jordan, without realizing that they can do virtually the same thing in Saskatchewan. In his book, Esrock writes that Little Manitou Lake, 90 minutes southeast of Saskatoon, doesn’t quite have the glamour of the Dead Sea, but the nutrient-rich mud leaves his skin silky and shiny nonetheless.
Like Niagara Falls, some of Esrock’s Canadian bucket-list items are indisputably impressive: seeing the northern lights in the Northwest Territories, for example. But even here he doesn’t gloss over the reality of pursuing the dream. It took him 10 trips to the North before the fabled light show danced in his presence, including one two-week journey to Alaska “with 12 Japanese tourists looking glumly towards the sky”. In Nunavut, however, he was able to time his journey to bask in the midnight sun, something most people can only imagine. “Sleeping without night,” he concludes, “is an early afternoon nap that never ends.”
Many of the experiences in the book seem ordinary on the surface: going on a quest for Montreal’s best smoked-meat sandwich, for example, or strolling the Stanley Park seawall. But that doesn’t make them any less worthy of doing. One man’s seawall, after all, is another man’s midnight sun. “A bucket list doesn’t have to be so grand,” he explains. “It’s the things that are unique that you’ll tell great stories about. These are things that you’ll remember for the rest of your life.”
So where to begin? “You can start close to home and expand,” he says. “Just do a few things you’ve never done before.”
As the saying goes, the longest journey begins with a single step. Esrock’s book just might inspire you to take it.