Though the name makes it sound mammoth and official the Trans-Canada Highway is a national highway that isn't in a hurry. Finished just 20-odd years ago, it's one of those old-fashioned, ever-changing roads: a mere two lanes -- for the most part -- that follow historic routes blazed by voyageurs, fur traders and railroad men through small-town and rural Canada.

Our journey last summer along the western half of the highway was a rolling lesson in Canadian history, natural resources and industry. It was also a lesson in life styles -- the Canadians we met were invariably gracious and always had time to give away. This is a region designed for dawdling.

The Trans-Canada spans the North American continent -- 4,860 miles from St. John's in Newfoundland, to Victoria, British Columbia. Between those two points it hugs the Great Lakes, runs arrow-straight across Canada's midwestern prairies, twists up and down its western mountains and links cities such as Calgary and Winnipeg. The highway is assigned various numbers in the east but is consistently labeled No. 1 in the far west -- with the entire route marked by a maple-leaf insignia.

Authorized by the Federal Parliament in 1949, the road was officially completed in 1962 when engineers rammed it through Rogers Pass in the Rockies. Not until 1965, however, did the final paving of segments in Newfoundland make it possible to drive all the way across the country on a single route.

We were only half that ambitious, following the highway back east after a summer spent hiking and writing on the West Coast. We got on it at the beginning (or end, depending on how you look at it) in Victoria and left it about 35 miles past its midpoint, in rural Ontario, to reenter the United States at Sault Ste. Marie.

We generally drove 200 to 300 miles a day and stopped wherever the maps or travel brochures indicated an opportunity to learn about Canadian history, culture or wildife. So we kept a lookout for museums, historic sites and natural areas.

After leaving Victoria on a brilliant morning, we made our first stop at a historic Indian site on Vancouver Island: Petroglyph Provincial Park, near Nanaimo. The park is devoted to a collection of Indian petroglyphs -- drawings carved into rock faces as long ago as 2,000 years. The petroglyphs depict a mythical sea wolf (half sea serpent, half wolf), fish, crustaceans, sea horses and killer whales. One rock, crowded with what appear to be practice designs, seems to have served as a sketch pad for the artists and shamans of the Salish people who came and went over the centuries.

Further south, about halfway between the towns of Nanaimo and Duncan, lies the old coastal logging port of Chemainus. Just off the highway, the town is a living record of the island logging industry's fluctuating fortunes over the last 100 years, in a setting that boasts "the longest stretch of lumber production" of any in North America.

Although a new sawmill was opened last year to replace the one that shut down two years earlier, the town has become best known for its annual July Festival of Murals depicting historic scenes. British Columbia artists are commissioned to paint the murals on the walls of houses and shops, and more than 15, all of high quality, are already complete.

After walking around the town's main streets, we stopped for tea and delicious scones topped with Devonshire cream at a large old frame house called the Willow Street Teahouse. The hostess directed us to the harbor, where workmen were readying the brigantine Spirit of Chemainus for its fall launching. (The ship will ferry visitors across the Strait of Georgia from Expo 86 in Vancouver City to Chemainus on day-long cruises.) She also bird colonies on Bare Point,across from the harbor. On a cliff top whitewashed by bird droppings, double-crested cormorants and herons coexist in the branches of dead trees. We also saw occasional eagles in the Douglas firs behind the point and red-footed pigeon guillemots in the rocks below -- an unusual combination of bird life that has made Chemainus a favorite site for ornithologists.

Still on the first day, we visited the British Columbia Forest Museum Park near Duncan, which interprets the rugged early days of the logging industry that still dominates Vancouver Island. The sprawling compound of museum buildings, model logging camp and mill, and nature walk is connected by a steam-driven railroad that carries visitors between highlights at three miles per hour.

That night a 2 1/2-hour ferry ride across the Strait of Georgia brought us to Vancouver, a city in preparation for its role as host of Expo 86. (The route of the highway is interrupted by two bodies of water -- the Strait of Georgia, between British Columbia and Vancouver Island, and Cabot Strait, between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.)

We spent the morning of our second day driving through rolling farm country to the foothills of the Canadian Rockies. It is here in these foothills that the Trans-Canada begins to follow the old Cariboo Wagon Road, a trail that linked the interior fur and minerals trade with the port towns. The road snakes and winds along the Fraser River Canyon, across the Rockies and down beside the Columbia River.

Climbing along the canyon walls, the highway passes Hell's Gate, a pass where a mammoth 1913 rock slide during railway construction so narrowed the river that sockeye salmon were unable to make their way through its torrent to spawn. The government subsequently built a series of baffles and bypasses inside concrete tunnels, a kind of fish detour, which can be seen from an overlook across the river. The overlook, accessible by air tram or a short hike, features an array of shops and food stands (an excellent salmon chowder is served).

As we followed the old Cariboo Route, with its signs warning of mountain sheep on the highway, we entered the sagebrush country of the Thompson River Canyon. The highway hugs the route of the Canadian Pacific Railroad here, and we were often accompanied by freight trains inching along the opposite canyon wall into and out of tunnels.

The CPR was -- and perhaps still is -- more important than the highway in Canada's social and economic history. British Columbia agreed in 1871 to join the country's confederation only on condition that the railroad be completed across the Rockies. While in the area we stopped at Craigellachie, where the last spike was driven in 1885.

We stopped for a three-day rest in the Canadian Rockies, a region of imposing blue-black peaks and bountiful wildlife that attracts skiers in winter, hikers in summer and strolling tourists year-round. On the drive from Banff to Jasper, we saw elk and mountain sheep without leaving the car. The weather was overcast, but even in the lowering clouds and occasional bursts of sunshine the mountains stood up distinctly -- a range that seems as many peaks as the waves in a sea.

One of the most surprising things about these Rockies is that, for all their lofty drama, they are relatively short mountains: Mount Robson, the tallest, stands only 12,972 feet high.

In Banff we went to a public pool built over a natural sulphur spring, one of several that originally put the town on the map. There, for less than $5 Canadian each, we rented suits and towels and lolled in the piping-hot water. Since Banff evenings are chilly even in August, the hot water was especially invigorating.

Abruptly, near Calgary, the Rockies give way to the prairies of Central Canada, and the scenery that was always changing -- from peak to valley to another peak -- descends into the tawny monotony of wheat fields and dairy farms. It was harvest time when we traveled, and the hard highway shoulder was jammed with slow-moving combines. They didn't impede traffic, though; the Trans-Canada engineers minimized tie-ups by adding a passing lane every few miles.

The prairies do have an oasis, however: the Cypress Hills in southwestern Saskatchewan, a 30-mile drive from the highway. So named because early settlers mistook the local lodgepole pines for cypress, these uplands are one of the highest points between Labrador and the Rockies. A vivid patch of green in the midst of an arid sagebrush sea, they were once fought over by Indian tribes, none of which ever gained a secure stronghold there.

The hills' commanding height was not lost on the Canadian government. Lured by the lucrative fur trade with the Indians, U.S. traders crossed the border from Montana to a notorious, wide-open Canadian frontier region called Whoop Up Country, where they sold firewater that inflicted misery on the local Indians. The lawlessness culminated in the Cypress Hills Massacre of 1873, when white wolf-hunters killed 20 Assiniboine Indians in retaliation for the theft of a horse. This spurred the formation of Canada's North West Mounted Police (now the Royal Canadian Mounted Police), whose purposes were to end the whiskey trade and extend Canadian sovereignty into the Northwest.

Two years later the North West Mounted Police had built a fort atop the hills and had begun suppressing the whiskey trade. Their commander was James Walsh.Walsh is a reconstructed National Historic Park. Its nearby visitor center houses a fine display of Plains Indian material.

Deeper into the prairies, we visited Buffalo Pound Provincial Park in the plains of eastern Saskatchewan, about 20 miles north of the highway near Moose Jaw. More than 1,000 years ago, the Indians used "buffalo pounds" to trap herds, luring them into a coulee with a decoy and then corraling them. The present pound, bordered by a ridge and the marshes of Nicolle Flats, shelters perhaps 100 head, descendants of the 700 which Canada purchased from Montana in 1906 for $200,000 in an effort to save the last Canadian buffalo from extinction.

We looked down at the herd from a low tower that overlooks interpretive trails and a boardwalk over the marsh. From various vantage points it is possible to view up to 40 species of waterfowl, which thrive in "prairie potholes" like the Flats. (Such potholes are habitat for 80 percent of all North American waterfowl.) We followed the boardwalk through bullrushes teeming with insects into the managed marsh, diked to maintain a variety of constants: deep-water habitats for diving ducks, gravel bars for resting white pelicans and double-crested cormorants, nesting islands for Canada geese. The ducks scattered en masse over the marsh at our approach.

As we continued our journey we realized that the place names of Canada may outdo even our own for piquancy. In addition to the Whoop Up region, there are towns along the highway in Saskatchewan with names such as Antelope, Gull Lake, Swift Current, Rush Lake, Moose Jaw, Qu'Appelle, Indian Head, Pilot Butte and Whitewood. And we also noticed that their road signs read differently from our own; they are models of restraint and rationality. Our favorite was one posted occasionally in national forests: FIRE PERMIT IS REQUIRED FOR ALL BURNING EXCEPT COOKING AND WARMTH.

Just north of Winnipeg, Manitoba, another national historic site, Lower Fort Garry National Historic Park, served as a meeting place for Inuit, Northwest Indians, voyageurs and the Hudson Bay Company during the 19th century. The fort is authentically maintained in its original condition, with a museum of artifacts from the Northwest trade with the Indians. Tribal breastplates, ivory carvings and tools made from sandstone and caribou antlers fill the wall display cases. When the trade diminished in the mid-19th century and the region fell on hard times, friction arose between the European and mixed-blood settlers, and the government built the fort to keep the peace.

Roughly 150 miles to the east, just beyond Kenora, Ontario, the Trans-Canada divides for a couple of hundred miles, reuniting for awhile west of Thunder Bay. We followed the local advice and took the southern, lakeshore route for its scenery. The road is winding, however, and one evening a fog drifting up from the lake made progress slow and tense. We had to watch out for wayward moose, which blunder onto the highway and cause accidents. The scenery was rewarding, but cautious travelers might want to check with the weather service before choosing between the two routes.

Our major stop on this stretch of road was the centennial museum in the western Ontario town of Atikokan. Housed in a barnlike log building, the museum is rich in voyageurs' material. The legends beneath beaver felt hats and wooden oars describe a life of arduous monotony. Fourteen-man crews would beat 40 strokes a minute to move 40-foot canoes carrying as much as two tons of cargo a mere six miles an hour -- when the waterways were calm. They kept this up 15 hours a day and were allowed only two meals.

We spent much of our last day on the highway driving along the edge of the world's largest freshwater lake. It was a fine, sun-soaked day, and the highway wove among so many inviting beaches and roadside parks that we made multiple stops.

At Lake Superior Provincial Park we walked a nature trail that interpreted the boundary between the southern deciduous St. Lawrence forest and the northern coniferous boreal forest.

At Agawa Provincial Park, we crept out onto a tilted lakeside ledge to see a smooth rock wall covered with pictographs. Whereas petroglyphs are carved in stone, pictographs are surface paintings: Here at Lake Superior, Indian artists used red ochre mixed with fish oil or animal fat. Stepping past life preservers and loop-nets kept at the ready should anyone slide into the lake, we craned our necks to make out animal images on the rock face. The masterpiece was a large, horned beast with spines on its back -- the mythical Misshepezhieu,which legend holds causes storms on the lake by lashing its serrated tail. Some of the pictographs around the lake's cliff-lined shore are thought to be 400 years old.

Although unplanned, the pictograph stop framed our trip with Indian images at either end. This was fitting. Not that Canadians treated "their" Indians all that much better than we in the United States did; the same pattern of uprooting tribes and confining them to reservations prevailed in each country. But because what passes for progress has spared much of western Canada, less of the country's past has been effaced. As Americans driving along the main artery of a nation with one-tenth of our populationand a landscape that appears far less disturbed than our own, we had the sense of being on a road not taken, of traveling through an alternate North America.