The Great Wide Open

Tim Querengesser

In Canada's northwest, uninhibited adventurers are giving "northern exposure" a whole new meaning.

On a warm summer day several years ago, George Walker was tramping alone through the mountain-strewn backcountry some 25 kilometres south of his cabin in the southern Yukon. It was an area so isolated, Walker says, that the area's big grizzlies might go a lifetime without seeing a human.

On this day, however, a bear did see one. And apparently, Walker wasn't to its liking.

As the several-hundred-pound bruin came crashing through the aspen forest, Walker did what years of outdoor experience had trained him to do. He held his ground, raised his arms in an attempt to look larger, and shouted at the animal.

Still, the bear thundered toward him, muscles shuddering under its chestnut hide, twigs shattering beneath its dinner-plate-sized paws.

Finally, just six metres and a single heartbeat away, the grizzly skidded to a standstill, sending up a plume of dust and leaves. Then it wheeled around and trundled off.

A veteran of numerous uneventful bear sightings, Walker found this incident traumatic. Even weeks afterward he was on edge, alarmed and mystified by the bear's aggressive behaviour. Seeking answers, he quizzed a local wildlife biologist. The biologist speculated that the bear had been old, perhaps with bad eyesight, and had mistaken Walker for prey - maybe a moose calf, or a caribou. Only when it was nearly on top of him did it discern his human form and clue in to his unnatural clothing and brightly coloured gear.

Walker said nothing, but he knew better. Clothing and vivid colours weren't part of the equation. On the day of the grizzly encounter, he'd been wearing what he always wears while hiking: nothing at all.

For Walker, a fiftysomething writer and photographer, being charged by a hungry bear was his worst experience trekking nude in the North. Almost everything else, he says, has been his best. Meeting him in a busy Whitehorse cofffeeshop - clothed, of course - I find him tall and athletically built, with a mustache and cropped salt-and-pepper hair that glows against his deep tan. He speaks of naked hiking with the conviction of a man discussing spiritual matters. You're more a part of the world when you're not wearing a whole bunch of clothing, he explains. It connects you to the wilderness so much. You get up in the high country, in the tundra, and have a light breeze blowing, and it's absolutely magical.

Indeed, Walker's unclad rambles provide him such fulfillment that naturism -- a term he prefers to nudism, to emphasize connections with the wilderness -- has become his obsession. Though Walker insists he's no crusader (his name was changed at his request for this article) he writes about nude hiking in the Yukon and Alaska, gives lectures on it, even maintains a website about it. And in summer, at least once a week, he does it, pulling on just socks and boots, slinging a camera strap across his bronzed torso, clipping a water bottle to it, and marching buck-naked into the hills.

Apparently, he's not alone. Walker tells me that, over the years, he's hiked naked in the North with a dozen different people. And that number, he says, is just the tip of the nude-hiking iceberg. I press him: Exactly how many Yukoners go backpacking undressed? From talking to folks, he says, my impression is there are hundreds.

I'm surprised, but perhaps I shouldn't be. The North, more than anywhere else on the continent, offers what naturists most desire: guaranteed privacy and stunning terrain. There's a jaw-dropping trail for every trekker, whether or not they're wearing pants. And moreover, people who inhabit the frontier tend to be individualists, tolerant of behaviours that depart from the norm. Wanna hike naked? Its your own damn business. So logically, as southern Canada's wilderness gives way to suburbs, its places up North rich in both open country and open-minded residents that become refuges for those who go outdoors au naturel.

Across North America, it seems, such people are skyrocketing in number. According to the American Association for Nude Recreation, the nudist-club industry in the US has doubled in the past three years, raking in as much as $400-million annually. Since 2003, 30 new nudist or clothing-optional clubs have opened in the U.S. and Canada. And there seems to be broad acceptance for nudism. In 1999, the Federation of Canadian Naturists did a survey that showed 2.7 million Canadians would happily go to nude beaches if they existed. Many of those who weren't interested nevertheless responded that they didn't care if others did.

Parts of Canada have long been in on the action. Vancouver's Wreck Beach is Canada's largest and most celebrated clothing-optional escape, welcoming nude bathers since the '60s. Also in Vancouver is a plethora of nudist clubs, like the 67-year-old Van Tan Club. And for those who think nudism is just for BC hippies, straight-laced Alberta has the Sunny Chinooks and the Helios campgrounds, family-oriented nudist clubs near Calgary and Edmonton, respectively.

In the Yukon, at Marsh Lake and Lake Bennett a half-hour drive north and south of Whitehorse, respectively people sunbathe naked all the time. Just south of the territorial border, in far northern B.C., Liard River Hotsprings also draws nudists, at least when it's not too busy. And, a de facto nude beach existed on tiny Ear Lake, within walking distance of downtown Whitehorse, drawing as many as 150 people on hot summer days until a gravel-crushing operation went into business there in the 1990s.

Still, the Yukon has no official nude beaches, no organized nudist clubs, and in a territory driven by tourism seemingly no governmental recognition of the rich niche market naturists might provide. Though 20,000 German and other European tourists dazzled by Jack Londonesque notions about the Yukon wilderness brought their comparatively liberal lifestyles to the territory last year, and though the Yukon Department of Tourism and Culture has a representative based in Frankfurt, Germany, to recruit more of them, the territory appears averse to cashing in on the nudism trend. Contacted for this article, the Yukon's director of travel marketing, Pierre Germain, confirmed that clothing-optional tourism just isn't on the governments agenda. That, say Northern naturists, is evidence even the most libertarian places retain backwards stereotypes about nudism as sexual, scandalous even sinful.

It's those anti-nudist stereotypes which (along with charging grizzlies) present some of the biggest challenges to naturist hikers. Indeed, the foremost concern of unclothed trekkers is running into non-nude hikers - "textile" hikers, as naturists disdainfully call them. Rusty Stevens, a veteran nude hiker from Quesnel, in northern British Columbia, totes a pair of shorts just in case but says happening upon non-nudists almost never causes problems. I've met people on the trail several times while hiking nude. Most just nod, say hello, maybe giggle a bit, then move on, he says. And I ran into one woman once who, when she saw me, said, "I wish I had the guts to do that." I told her, "Why not?" She thought about it a minute, then just took her clothes off. We hiked along together for about a half-hour.

More problematic than run-ins with people can be run-ins with the Northern environment. Though some naturists eschew even rucksacks saying they detract from the bare-skin experience its sometimes critical to carry protection against the rain and chilly Northern wind. Also bothersome can be flies and mosquitoes. Posting on one nudism website, an attempted NWT naturist discussed the challenges of going unclothed for five days beside a lake outside of Yellowknife. "Believe me," he wrote, "I went through a lot of bug spray, and burned a lot of skunky wood. And I had a boat that I used to retreat offshore when the bugs were bad."

A final challenge is finding hiking partners. After all, when you're at a dinner party, how do you spot a fellow naked hiker? George Walker occasionally finds ways around it. While speaking to hikers he doesn't know well, he treads carefully to see if they, too, shed their clothes. I'm very subtle about it. It normally comes out when somebody makes a comment that they were out hiking and adds: "It was so hot and sticky." I respond by saying, "Well, if you hike like I do, you wouldnt have that problem. I hike with nothing on." I've never yet have a person say, "Oh my God!" and freak.

There was a time, though, when Walker himself was uneasy about nude hiking. His baptism came during a sweltering solo trek near Chiliwack, British Columbia, more than a quarter-century ago. He took off his shirt, but was still too hot. Finally, he dropped his shorts. "As alone as I was in that valley, removing my shorts, though physically very comfortable, was psychologically rather troubling," he writes of the experience. "What if someone saw me?" Though his sense of unease eventually transformed into one of liberation to the point that, nowadays, he seldom bothers to go hiking if he can't do it nude - it took another breakthrough to feel at ease undressed around other people. A decade ago, in Germany, he happened upon a nude beach and had a revelation. If you see someone in a suit you have a stereotype of what hes doing, Walker realized. If you see him naked he's just another guy. That's the attraction.

Having become an outdoor naturist, Walker is now an indoor nudist as well. At home, he says, he lives unclothed, cooking, eating, cleaning and reading free from the tyranny of cotton or polyester. Allowances are made for more dangerous activities including that infamous example, frying bacon. Unexpected visitors are, for good reason, not something he enjoys. And even his wife sometimes struggles with his passion for being nude. "Occasionally, she's not as enthusiastic about it as I am."

Even Walker's vacation choices are dictated by his desire to be naked. He's taken clothing-optional escapes to various corners of the world - indeed, he's vowed to eschew clothed holidays from now on. Which might explain why he's so excited about next July, when Holland America's cruise ship the Amsterdam will leave Seattle and head north toward Juneau, Alaska, with hundreds of naked souls aboard. Called Fire & Ice, the expedition will be the first-ever naked cruise to the North.

Organized by Texas-based nudist tour-coordinator Bare Necessities, Fire & Ice has already sold nearly all of its 1,380 spots, according to the company's spokesperson, Karly Hand. She says while it's not certain Fire & Ice will offer nude off-ship excursions - Sightseeing? Shopping? River rafting? - the ship will feature panoramic windows, an outdoor swimming pool with a retractable glass cover, numerous nude-themed events, and a crew with no hang-ups about bums and breasts. And those worried about sailing to the frosty Arctic need not fret. The temperature on board, she says, will be turned up several degrees.

Walker was invited by Bare Necessities to speak to other nudist cruise-goers about naturism in Alaska and the Yukon this February, as the Costa ship Mediterranea sailed in the Caribbean. Giving a presentation while undressed - the stuff of many people's nightmares - was in fact refreshing, he says. So was the attitude of the passengers, who, he claims, are far more open and approachable than passengers on textile cruises. Among the cruisers, he notes, were at least five Northerners - two Alaskans, and three former Yukoners.

Unsurprisingly, when the Amsterdam comes steaming up the Inside Passage next summer, laden with undressed vacationers, Walker will be among them, naked as a jaybird - not as a crusader, perhaps, but as a guide, leading like-minded folks to the Northern lands he's come to love, not just with his heart but with his flesh.

Tim Querengesser is a Whitehorse-based writer. Additional files and reporting by Aaron Spitzer.