We are at the Princess Hotel in Tobermory, Ontario. Roman has a head cold. We are all covered in mosquito bites after a vicious swarm overtook us in a rural Ontario campground. Even so, we are well-rested and content. The sun is glinting on the lake outside our window, and we are looking forward to exploring this little tourist town. We took a ferry here after driving for hours and days across Northern Ontario from Manitoba. The highway was lined with forests and jutting red-brown rock, and occasional stretches of Lake Superior whose shore we were skirting.
How did it all begin?
We left Calgary on July 1, 2017. The months, weeks and days leading up to our departure were a whirlwind of wrapping up jobs, school, our pets, our house, our possessions. There was so little time for it all – for the planning and preparation of the trip – because the hours were eaten up by the regular stuff of our everyday lives. Roman and I both worked full-time, and I was also completing a part-time Master’s degree. There was the regular cleaning, cooking, and laundry to get through, and the kids had their own school activities and after-school commitments. In our everyday lives, we had only small windows of time, usually in the late hours of the day when we only had energy for watching Netflix. The planning happened in Roman’s head, mostly, because my own head was occupied with just getting through the day to day. We talked about the Canada road-trip over the kitchen table and threw around ideas. We talked about cruise options and countries we wanted to visit, but most of our talk was loose and hypothetical. I did not like to commit to a particular plan; I wanted to research and think it over later, read about it online, always putting off final decisions (I am always like this, indecisive until it’s too late). Luckily, Roman did the research, read the blogs, looked at cruise sites and travel sites, and mapped out our options.
On that first morning in July, we drove east from Calgary and hurtled through the prairies. We stopped in Medicine Hat on Canada Day to see the world’s biggest tipi and take a walk through a forested city park. It was hot – over thirty degrees Celsius. We kept driving east and stopped for the night in River Park Campground in Moose Jaw, one of the oldest campgrounds in the area. We pitched our tent and made dinner on our portable gas stove. In the morning, we rented a canoe and paddled around the river for an hour, watching ducks and enjoying the breeze.
From Moose Jaw, we drove to Winnipeg, where we’d booked a Holiday Inn downtown for two nights. This is the pattern we’ve kept throughout our road trip: a day or two of driving, followed by at least one drive-less day to rest and perhaps explore a new city. This keeps us all sane over so many kilometers.
In Winnipeg, we spent the day walking through the city centre. We followed the winding riverwalk to The Forks, stopping by the Manitoba Legislature along the way, and visiting the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. The museum was well worth it, but had difficulty holding the kids’ attention – they were more interested in the tricksters on bikes and skateboards in the nearby skate park. During our walk, we also saw the apartment building where my grandparents used to live near the Fort Garry hotel, and I briefly recalled my childhood growing up in this city. I have vague memories of running back and forth between my house and my friend Boris’ house, and hours spent on Super Nintendo and Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles.
That evening in Winnipeg, Roman took us all to an escape room called Enigma Escapes. This was a first for all of us, and it was wildly fun. We were given a mission – to find the lost jewel of Zanzibar for the British Museum – and together solved a series of clues to open locks, reveal surprises, and finally solve the puzzle. It was pricey, costing nearly $100 for the four of us, but to this day it is the activity that the kids hold above all others.
We left Winnipeg in high spirits planning to camp again that night. Our plans were loose – we were driving east. We passed from Manitoba into Ontario, and this was the farthest east that any of us had driven. The prairies began to shift to forests and tiny, empty-looking towns, through First Nations reserves, and most of all, through an endless, rolling wilderness.
The thing about Northern Ontario is that there are stretches of nothing for great distances at a time. This is not so different from the Prairies and the West where we are from, yet perhaps the unfamiliarity of this land threw us off. Driving down the highway, we never knew when the next town would be, where the next campsite was, where the next gas station was, or even what the end-point looked like. If I were to do it again, I would plan this part of our route more carefully. We could avoid moments like driving up to a deserted field in the middle of nowhere and having Google Maps announce: “You have arrived at your destination!” (we hadn’t).
Then there was the time we were turned away from the tiny town of Wawa, Ontario in which every motel was inexplicably full. That night, we came very close to running out of gas trying to make it to Sault Ste. Marie, driving down a dark, empty highway with the gas light on for many nail-biting kilometers. We made it just in time.
Our original plan was to continue down the highway from Sault Ste. Marie through Sudbury to Toronto, but this was getting to be a long, dreary drive. When a client of Roman’s recommended we change course and head to Tobermory, a beautiful lakeside town, we adjusted our route. We took a two-hour ferry across the lake to Bruce Peninsula, where we had booked a room in the historic Princess Hotel. This quaint town’s streets are lined with tourist shops – most notably a giant candy store and ice cream shop, and an excellent pirate-themed fish n’ chips joint. It’s a lovely, peaceful place to spend a day.
Tomorrow morning, we set off towards Toronto, with a quick stopover on the shores of Lake Huron for a dip in the Great Lake.