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The human history of eastern Canada is usually thought of as beginning in or around the 17th century with the arrival of European colonists -- or, from what we can guess about Viking settlements in Newfoundland, maybe as far back as the 11th century. But the clock actually turns back much farther than that -- beginning thousands of years ago, when Native American tribes fished Atlantic shores and hunted these hills. Even they were here for only a sliver of the long period of time required to create this place; situations like this call for the word eons. The rocks upon which you climb, sun yourself, and picnic are old -- staggeringly old.

Before arriving, then, it's a good idea to acquaint yourself with the natural history of the place. Armed with a little respect and appreciation for the landscape before you, you just might treat it more reverently while you're here -- and help ensure that it remains for future generations to behold for many years.

Rocky Road: Geology Of The Landscape

The beginnings of eastern Canada are perhaps a half-billion years old. You read right: That's billion, with a B.

At that time, deep wells of liquid rock known as magma were moving upward, exploding in underground volcanoes, then hardening -- still underground, mind you -- into granitelike rocks. Later, natural forces such as wind and water wore away and exposed the upper layers of these rocks. Their punishment was only beginning, however; soon enough (geologically speaking, that is), what is now eastern North America and most of Europe began to shove up against each other, slowly but inexorably.

This "collision" (which was more like an extremely slow-motion car wreck) heated, squeezed, transformed, and thrust up the rocks that now form the backbone of the coastline. Ice ages came and went, but the rocks remained; the successive waves of great glaciation and retreat scratched up the rocks like old vinyl records, and the thick tongues of pressing ice cut deep notches out of them. Huge boulders were swept up and deposited by the ice in odd places. When the glaciers finally retreated for the last time, tens of thousands of years ago, the water melting from the huge ice sheet covering North America swelled the level of the Atlantic high enough to submerge formerly free-flowing river valleys and give the coastline and places like Newfoundland their distinctively rocky, knuckled faces. (Inland, at Prince Edward Island, the boulders laid down tons of silt and sand in their wake; that's what the island is, basically: a big sandbox.)

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Once the bones of this landscape were established, next came the flesh: plants and animals. After each ice age, conifers such as spruce and fir trees -- alongside countless grasses and weeds -- began to reform, then decompose and form soils. It was tough work: Most of eastern Canada is a rocky, acidic place. Yet they persevered (as plants tend to do), and soon spruces, firs, and hemlocks formed an impenetrable thicket covering much of the coastal bedrock. Again, PEI was the exception: Mostly grasses, weeds, flowers, and pine trees sprouted up in the red mud and sand dumped here by the glaciers -- because such an environment is inhospitable to almost everything else.

As the trees and flowers and fruits became reestablished, animals wandered back here, too -- some now extinct but some still thriving today in the fields, hills, and woods of the region.

Eastern Canada's unique position -- it is near the warm Gulf Stream -- also bequeathed it plenty of marine (and economic) life: The current passes over the high, shallow undersea plateau known as Georges Bank, bringing an astonishing variety of microorganisms, and the marine life that follows, right to these provinces' doorsteps. Migrating whales make for a wonderful spectacle twice each year; seabirds travel similar passages, lighting upon the rocks and lakes of the region. And the waters teem -- though not as they once did: Two of the three species of striped bass in the Bay of Fundy have disappeared from overfishing -- along with fish, lobsters, crabs, dolphins, and a great deal more.

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Then there are the coast's tidal pools, that precarious zone where land and rock meet ocean; a closer look at these pools reveals an ever-changing world of seaweed, snails, barnacles, darting water bugs, clams, shellfish, mud-burrowing worms, and other creatures. Interestingly, the type of life you find changes in well-marked "bands" as you get closer to water; rocks that are always submerged contain one mixture of seaweed, shellfish, and marine organisms, while rocks that are exposed and then re-submerged each day by the tides have a different mix. It's fascinating to note how each particular organism has found its niche. Move it up or down a foot and it would perish.

What follows is only the barest sketch of some of the nature life you'll find in eastern Canada. For a real look at it, go see it yourself. Whether you explore the provinces on foot, by bicycle, by kayak, by charter boat, or some other way, you're almost certain to see something that you've never seen before. If you're attentive, you'll come away with a deeper respect for things natural -- not only here, but everywhere.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.