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A little taste of “wilderness” in France - and what it means for Canada

In July, I spent a little time in Paris, France with a group of students from Canada. I’ve been to Paris and travelled through Europe over the years, but seeing the world through the eyes of teenagers who have not travelled extensively was quite revealing.

Since they knew of my passion for wilderness, they asked me to take them on an excursion to a ‘wilderness’ area near Paris. That was a tall order. Throughout Europe, finding intact wilderness is a challenge under normal circumstances. Most European countries are struggling to reclaim areas and ‘naturalize’ them. The kind of wilderness we know in Canada is not that common in much of Europe. It reminded me of the immense opportunity we still have in Canada to contribute to the world’s conserved wilderness before it gets gobbled up or like so many natural areas in southern Canada, requires expensive restoration.

That said, we embarked on a day-long hike through the Bois-de-Boulogne, a largely forested area within métro distance of Paris. It’s about two and half times the size of Central Park in New York City.

As a tiny island of trees surrounded by roads, buildings and train tracks, the Bois-de-Boulogne, on its own can’t maintain a population of wild animals that you might find in most of our provincial or national parks in Canada. Luckily in many areas of Canada we still have the opportunity to create big protected areas and to keep them connected together so they can sustain native wildlife species. . This is not the case in the Bois-de-Boulogne.

We did see many different bird species (most of which we could not find in Canada) and we saw people fishing in streams and lakes, which meant that there were likely fish stocked in them. But apart from your average urban wildlife, it was missing much of the diversity of life that one might expect when visiting a forest.

What it does provide, however, is an opportunity for an urban population to connect to nature without travelling for hours – much like projects such as Rouge National Urban Park will provide for people living in the greater Toronto area.

The young people I was travelling with all enjoyed the spelunking (cave exploration) and hiking along streams and resting by lakes in the Bois-de-Boulogne, but they also  came away with a new appreciation for what we have in Canada – and in some cases a real appetite to protect these special places.

Sometimes leaving Canada helps you get perspective on what needs to be done at home.