Part 1: Ottawa, Ontario to Jasper, Alberta
15,000 kilometers in six weeks. A rambling road trip from Ottawa to Dawson City in the Yukon was the idea for our “Canada 150 Cross-Country Adventure.” Accommodation? A vintage Canadian-made Boler trailer, all 13 feet (4 meters) of it, towed by a 2012 Volkswagen Tiguan. This was to be home for two adults (my partner Susan and me) and our two young nieces (Lily, 8 and Rosemary, 10) for the first section of the trip. After 10 days on the road followed by a week in Jasper National Park, we’d put the girls on a plane home, and the two adults would carry on camping.
Granted, compared with most other trailers on the road, our Boler is ridiculously small. But it’s packed with many of the “mod-cons” that were available in the 1960s. A two-burner propane stove, for example, a three-way fridge (electric and propane), a sink with occasional running water, a floor… a door.
Okay, truth be told, it’s not really equipped with much. No toilet, no shower, no air conditioning, no wi-fi, no satellite dish, but it keeps the rain and the bears out! And the Boler’s cosy four-seat dinette converts to a 46-inch “double” bed for grown-ups who like each other (which we do!), while the couch transforms into a bunk bed for two kids. Additionally, we’d added solar-power for lighting and a fan for those hot summer nights off the grid.
We connected with the girls and their parents in Sudbury (equidistant from our home and theirs in Niagara). We’d camped with our nieces in the Boler before, and they were super-keen to see Canada and the Rockies. It would the longest they’d been away from mum and dad (the ability to text home helped!) and we were thrilled to have them along.
And so our adventure formally began. July 29, 2017.
After an entertaining visit to Sudbury Ontario’s “Science North,” we said goodbye to the parents and headed to Pancake Bay Provincial Park on the shores of Lake Superior for our first experience en plein air. A fabulous park, terrific swimming, beautiful scenery, we ended up staying there an extra day having managed a grand total of about 200 kilometers from Sudbury (not rushing would be the key to success for this adventure!).
The next day, duplicating our relaxed pace, we stopped at Lake Superior Provincial Park after a mere 118 km down the road, then hiked in to the Agawa Pictograph Site where Mishipeshu, the great water lynx, resides. On a rock overlooking the vast lake we waved at kayakers navigating its clear blue waters while enjoying a tasty lunch packed by Susan. Well, you just don’t want to leave, so, you know… we didn’t.
Setting out late next morning after a morning dip, it was a 322 km drive to Rainbow Falls Provincial Park, where we succumbed to the lake’s charms yet again. The park’s Rossport campsite is beyond beautiful, suggesting a quintessentially Canadian landscape reminiscent of a Tom Thompson painting. If you’re lucky you can camp right at the water’s edge (and come on in: the water was fine!).
The sunset, the stars as dusk turns to night; you can lie on the rocks and explore the heavens with a welcome breeze keeping the bugs at bay. What a life!
In the morning the girls took off to explore the rocky shore. After I tracked them down, we met a Thunder Bay couple who presented each of them with a prized regional delicacy: the famous Persian. I tell you, Tim’s could make money on these baked delights…
The hugeness of Ontario is, I think, not appreciated until you drive across it. Check out a map: getting out of Ontario from Ottawa takes you almost half way to the Pacific coast. But after the city of Nipigon, you leave the beauty of Superior’s north shore and it’s pretty much all trees to the Manitoba border.
We stopped at the wonderful Terry Fox memorial just outside Thunder Bay, and would recommend a visit and some personal reflection if you’re in the area. The memorial is located near the point where Terry was forced to abandon his cross-country run. Such a young guy; so full of heart.
Taking a break from the endless trees in Vermilion Bay, the Middle of Nowhere Coffee Roastery offers a fine sandwich and great coffee should you be inclined. Don’t blink, though. You’ll miss it. Finally, after a night at Aaron Provincial Park, Manitoba was within reach, along with the dramatic descent into Prairie flatlands. What a contrast!
We had already planned a stop in Winnipeg to visit the new Human Rights Museum and enjoy a hotel shower and a big bed. Staff at the Manitoba Welcome Centre recommended the Humphry Inn and it proved a great choice. It was inexpensive, clean and tidy, and conveniently located near the museum, the Forks National Historic Site and other downtown Winnipeg attractions. Hotel staff even found a place for us to park our Boler. (Everyone loved the Boler!).
We were well pleased with the museum. The building itself is something to see, and the theme, of course, is timeless and universal. Clever and engaging exhibits enabled the girls to understand what it was about, basically proposing that people should be decent to one another. You can’t argue with that!
From Winnipeg, the decision for travellers heading West is to take Trans-Canada Highway 1 through Regina, Saskatchewan or head northwest on the Yellowhead Highway 16 towards Saskatoon. We didn’t see a sign for the Saskatchewan Visitor Centre (there’s usually one at every border crossing if you’re on a major highway) until it was too late, and therefore missed the opportunity to get some maps and all-important local knowledge. But we knew the Qu’Appelle Valley had a unique and interesting landscape so we took Hwy 1 and then exited toward a campsite in that region.
And what a storm we encountered — an absolute deluge — but the contrast between the foreboding sky and the sunlight on the fields was beautiful. This is country worth seeing, for sure – a mysterious, rolling topography completely unlike everything around it — but wayfinding to Echo Lake Provincial Park baffled our GPS, and signage was in frustratingly short supply. After a lot of zig-zagging we eventually found the park and settled in for the night.
The next day, Fort Qu’Appelle beckoned, with its wide main street (typical of Saskatchewan towns) and historic 1897 Hudson’s Bay general store. The Empire Pawn store (“Guns, Gas, Pawn”) caught my attention; it’s not a commercial combination you find in Ottawa…
From Fort Qu’Appelle, Highway 15 promisingly began as a smooth and well-maintained east-west route that parallels the Yellowhead. We wanted to see less superhighway and more rural Saskatchewan, and that we did!
I’ve got to tell you, though, Highway 15 let us down, degrading into one of the worst roads on our trip (and that’s saying something!). Abandoned homesteads, virtually no traffic on the road at all, long stretches without paved surface (one lasted for about 40 km). Dust, dirt, potholes, stones, rocks, ruts, yikes!… not Boler friendly! Shook the bejeezus out of us.
We stuck with it through Kenaston to Rosetown (south-west of Saskatoon). It was challenging.
I should mention that most of the time we were preparing our meals on the road. We’d stop at a supermarket or roadside vendor every couple of days, stock up on dairy, fruit, meat and vegetables; have breakfast and dinner at our campsite and lunch at a park or picnic stop. We cooked inside on our propane stove or if it was too warm, we had a portable Coleman stove for outside use. The nieces helped with setting the table, cooking and washing up. We each had our “duties” when it came to setting and breaking camp, and got quite efficient at it (although we rarely mastered the early departure!).
Overnighting in Rosetown at the aptly-named Prairie View campsite, I washed the poor Boler and tightened what screws and bolts I could find. The whole thing’s pretty much riveted together, however, so most Boler owners carry a supply of rivets and a riveting gun for fixes. Still, it was now making a clunky noise under braking, which was new. In the evening we played Canadopoly, as was becoming routine.
No proprietor at the site: “Just leave money in the box. Thank-you.” The sunset was spectacular; the moonrise equally so. We had a serviced site, there were showers and no biting bugs. Saskatchewan was redeeming itself!
From Rosetown, Drumheller, Alberta is directly west and only 400 km away. Several people we’d met on our trip had suggested a visit to its Royal Tyrell Museum, so the next day with the sun at our backs, that was our destination.
But as had become typical, we didn’t get too far before getting distracted.
The Kindersly and District Plains Museum is a step back in time to the settlement of Southern Saskatchewan. Here in this virtually treeless area, homesteaders established farms at the turn of the 19th Century, and what challenges they would have encountered! How to build a house without wood, for one…
Here at the museum, you’ll find an answer to that question in the form of a fully intact and furnished T. Eaton house, which we were able to explore room-by-room. Yes, back in the day you could actually order a house from the Eaton’s catalogue. Shipped by train, the entire dwelling would arrive ready to assemble (apparently the two-storey, three-bedroom “Earlsfield” was the most popular). I must say, it’s strange to explore a family’s house like this. Meals would have been served in the very kitchen you’re poking around in, and cooked on that stove; children were likely born in that master bedroom. They’re all gone now, I suspect.
The museum has many other interesting artefacts on display and is well worth your time. There’s an entire general store; vintage vehicles and appliances, clothes and farm implements. But we really did have to make some distance, so onward we pressed along Highway 7, which turned into Highway 9 at the Alberta border. Now the terrain was changing and what we initially thought were clouds on the horizon magically resolved into majestic mountain peaks. Wow! You’ll only see this amazing sight if you’re travelling overland.
Soon we were in Drumheller, where the region’s startling “Badlands” topography is other-worldly.
Actually, the geology here is similar to what we saw in the Q’uappelle Valley, only it’s on a much bigger scale, complete with hoodoos and all. The area was first exploited for coal mining, but soon enough, massive dinosaur fossils were discovered. Now its reputation for fossils is worldwide, and the museum is a destination for a steady stream of global visitors.
The girls thought Royal Tyrell was fantastic, as did we. Additionally, we traversed the Star Mine Suspension Bridge (a wobbly experience), visited the Atlas Coal Mine and climbed the 106 stairs inside the World’s Largest Dinosaur in downtown Drumheller. It’s a five-storey Tyrannosaurus Rex with a viewing deck in its mouth, and believe me, you can’t miss it.
Lunching at the Last Chance Saloon was an experience. Filled with wonderful old-timey artefacts, the place was a hive of activity. The bearskin tacked to the ceiling above our table quickly caught Lily’s attention. “How do you think it died,” she asked with a mixture of horror and fascination. I suggested she ask the server.
“How did it die,” she asked our tatoo’d and pierced server, innocently pointing up at the bearskin.
“Oh, him! Well, I kil’t him with m’bare hands” said the server as she deposited a massive juicy burger in front of Lily, whose expression had to be seen.
As I say, it was an experience.
Elk Island National Park was the next stop. Parks Canada offered free admission to all of its parks in 2017, so getting a spot without pre-booking was unlikely (we had already been disappointed at Pukaskwa in Ontario).
We did manage to snag a site at Elk Island, however, situated next to two young couples from Edmonton with a big radio and no camping experience at all. I watched as one of the guys aggressively attempted to chop large logs with a tiny hatchet: so much perspiration for a few bits of bark and woodchips! He was happy to be offered the use of our axe, with which he promptly almost chopped off his foot. Lord, that was close!
Elk Island is noted for its conservation efforts and is where you’ll find examples of North America’s largest and smallest terrestrial mammals: the wood bison and pygmy shrew. We were thrilled to encounter a herd of bison, but didn’t see any of the little fellers.
You may recall that in the summer of 2017, vast tracts of British Columbia’s forests were on fire. Jasper National Park, our next stop, was largely unscathed, but smoke was in the air. However, our campsite on the banks of the Athabasca River at the Wabasso Campground turned out to be a perfect spot. We had privacy; we were a two-minute walk from the river; we had some shade and we even had electricity.
During our stay in Jasper we did pretty much everything. This included a terrific two-hour rafting experience on the fast-moving Athabaska’s glacial waterways (wearing wetsuits, we all took a plunge in the 4-degree water!), a hike to (almost) the summit of Mount Edith Cavell, a mountain trail ride on horseback, Skytram and hike to the summit of Whistler’s Mountain, swimming in Edith Lake and celebrating of Lily’s eighth birthday. We also drove into British Columbia, so the girls could say they’ve visited every province west of Ontario!
It was great. It was hot! (sometimes 35-degrees). It was getting a little smoky as the wind reminded everyone of the fires raging west of us. But it was time to send the girls home.
It seemed to us that the girls loved exploring Canada. They handled big uphill hikes (they’re great hikers; real mountain goats), swam in some pretty cold lakes, marvelled at the dark night skies, endured some fairly impressive mosquito bites (both are sensitive; Lily got one on an eyelid which we all admired), they pitched in with campsite chores, slept well and ate a lot. They also took about a million pictures and we got really used to having them around.
Although I initially suggested simply giving them a sign saying “Niagara,” and putting them on the side of the road with their thumbs out (Rosemary was keen; Lily not so much…), we eventually decided to enlist the services of Westjet. We backtracked to Edmonton, therefore, and overnighted at an airport hotel before placing the girls in the care of Westjet’s “unaccompanied minor” program, which would see them safely to Hamilton, Ontario, and parents eager to have them home.
Then it was just me and Susan in a quieter, calmer, tidier, roomier, but somewhat less complete Boler.