Occupying the northern half of the North American continent, Canada has a land mass of 9 970 610 km2, making it the second-largest country in the world after Russia. From east to west, Canada encompasses six time zones.

Because of the harsh northern climate, only 12 percent of the land is suitable for agriculture. Thus, most of the population of 30 million live within a few hundred kilometres of the southern border, where the climate is milder, in a long thin band stretching between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans.

Climate: Canada is divided into seven regions, each with a very different landscape and climate.

1. The Pacific Coast Bathed by warm, moist Pacific air currents, the British Columbia coast, indented by deep fiords and shielded from Pacific storms by Vancouver Island, has the most moderate climate of Canada's regions.

Vancouver Island's west coast receives an exceptional amount of rain, giving it a temperate rain forest climate. Although it does not contain the diversity of species of a tropical rain forest, the island's west coast does have the oldest and tallest trees in Canada: Western Red Cedars 1300 years old and Douglas firs 90 m high.

2. The Cordillera From British Columbia to just east of the Alberta border the land is young, with rugged mountains and high plateaus. Signs of geologically-recent volcanic activity can be seen in Garibaldi Provincial Park in southern British Columbia and at Mount Edziza in the north.

The Rocky Mountains, the Coastal Mountains and other ranges, running north to south, posed major engineering problems for the builders of the transcontinental railways and highways. Canada's highest peaks, however, are not in the Rockies, but in the St. Elias Mountains, an extension of the Cordillera stretching north into the Yukon and Alaska. The highest point in Canada, Mount Logan (6050 m), rises amid a huge icefield in the southwest corner of Yukon, the largest icecap south of the Arctic Circle.

The British Columbia interior varies from alpine snowfields to deep valleys where desert-like conditions prevail. On the leeward side of the mountains, for example, a rain-shadow effect is created, forcing Okanagan Valley farmers to irrigate their orchards and vineyards.

3. The Prairies To drive across the Prairies is to see endless fields of wheat ripening under a sky that seems to go on forever. The plains of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba are among the richest grain-producing regions in the world.

Yet, even here are surprises. If you leave the road at Brooks, Alberta, and drive north, you descend into the Red Deer River Valley. Here, in desert-like conditions, water and wind have created strange shapes in the sandstone called "hoodoos." The same forces of erosion have uncovered some of the largest concentrations of dinosaur fossils in the world.

4. The Canadian Shield A huge inland sea called Hudson Bay extends into the heart of Canada, and wrapped around this bay is a rocky region called the Canadian Shield. Canada's largest geographical feature, it stretches east to Labrador, south to Kingston on Lake Ontario and northwest as far as the Arctic Ocean.

The Shield is considered to be the nucleus of the North American continent. Its gneiss and granite rocks are 3.5 billion years old, three-quarters the age of the Earth. Scraped by the advance and retreat of glaciers, the Shield has only a thin layer of soil that supports a boreal forest of spruce, fir, tamarack and pine.

The region is a storehouse of minerals, including gold, silver, zinc, copper and uranium.

5. The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Lowlands Southern Quebec and Ontario, the industrial heartland of Canada, contain Canada's two largest cities, Montreal and Toronto. In this small region, 50 percent of Canadians live and 70 percent of Canada's manufactured goods are produced.

The region also has prime agricultural land, for example, the Niagara Peninsula. The large expanses of lakes Erie and Ontario extend the number of frost-free days, permitting the cultivation of grapes, peaches, pears and other fruits.

The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence region is sugar maple country. In the autumn, the sugar maple leaves, Canada's national symbol, are ablaze in red, orange and gold. The sap is collected in spring and evaporated to make maple syrup and sugar, a culinary delicacy first prepared and used by the Aboriginal North American peoples.

6. The Atlantic Provinces-Appalachian Region New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland are the smallest Canadian provinces, and were the first to be settled by Europeans.

The Grand Banks have been called the "wheat fields" of Newfoundland. This shallow continental shelf extends 400 km off the east coast, where the mixing of ocean currents has created one of the richest fishing grounds in the world. Once thought to contain a virtually inexhaustible supply of fish, the Banks are now considered a vulnerable resource that must be wisely managed.

The Atlantic provinces are an extension of the Appalachians, an ancient mountain range. Much of the region has low, rugged hills and plateaus and a deeply indented coastline. Agriculture flourishes in the fertile valleys, such as the Saint John River Valley, in New Brunswick, and the Annapolis Valley, in Nova Scotia.

Prince Edward Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence has a gently rolling landscape with a rich, red soil. This fertile island is Canada's smallest province, making up a mere 0.1 percent of Canada's land mass.

7. The Arctic North of the tree-line is a land of harsh beauty. During the short summer, when daylight is nearly continuous and a profusion of flowers blooms on the tundra, the temperature can reach 30oC. Yet the winters are long, bitterly cold and dark.

The Arctic is no longer an inaccessible frontier. Inuvik, in the Mackenzie delta, can be reached by road, and every community is served by air. Most have electricity, stores and health services.

North of the mainland is a maze of islands separated by convoluted straits and sounds, the most famous of which link together to form the fabled Northwest Passage, the route to the Orient sought by so many early explorers.

Canada's climate is characterized by its diversity, as temperature and precipitation differ from region to region and from season to season. While it is true that in the extreme north temperatures climb above 0oC for only a few months a year, most Canadians live within 300 km of the country's southern border, where mild springs, hot summers and pleasantly crisp autumns prevail at least 7 months of 12.

The seasons dictate the look of the land: according to whether the natural environment is in a state of dormancy or growth, Canadians may be alpine skiing...or water skiing.