This was a long day for us. Before departing Edmonton the kids needed to go visit Elk Island National Park with their Nan. It was funny as we had been to that park four years ago so we knew where to look for the bison. Yep, you go to Elk Island to see bison and not elk. Also, there is no island. Regardless it is a great park and the wildlife is easy to spot from the highway. We had brought the bikes to the park too for the kids to hone their skills. Fortunately, they did not crash into any buffalo. We spent a couple hours at the park and then really needed to be on our way as we had a 7+ hour drive ahead of us. The kids said goodbye to their nan (who had planned to meet up with us in the Yukon in a few days) and off we went.
For lunch, we took the kids to Wendy’s for their first “chain” fast-food of the trip. They got happy meals and for some reason, we substituted their drinks for Frostys. Paige then bought us a medium Frosty to share. Needless to say, I ended up eating half a medium frosty and 3/4 of a kid’s frosty twice. If my math is done correctly, that is enough calories to run a marathon.
The kids said goodbye to the yellow fields of the prairies as our next destination was Alberta. Our plan was to spend three days with Paige’s extended family in St. Albert (located just outside of Edmonton). Isabella and Julie were looking forward to meeting their cousins for the first time. Paige and I were looking forward to having a kitchen, adults to talk to and some space.
The drive from Lloydminster is a mere three-hour drive on paper. But why do a trip in three hours when you can stretch it into six? We were then lured to the town of Vegreville with a giant Pysanka (easter egg) you could see from the highway. We hopped into the FREE paddle-boats at the tourist information and got a 360-degree view of the egg. And then we had our best roadside meal of the trip at some taco place in the town (Loco Burro). Great marks for Vegreville all around! What a pleasant stop. However, the kids were beginning to piece together that the promised three-hour drive seemed longer. Julie is on the verge of being able to tell time.
Entering Saskatchewan, I always feel a weird sense of belonging since my parents were both from here. Isabella has been to the “Land of Living Skies” before but Julie had not. Thankfully both girls have now been to 5 provinces and there is no sibling rivalry.
I drove a decent chunk of the drive to Saskatoon from Yorkton (where we made a stop at Wal-mart to replace the bell that had broken off Julie’s bike). I love driving on the prairies; you just set the cruise control and stare ahead at the interesting clouds and occasional grain elevator. It was a long but pleasant drive.
We stayed at a hotel in Saskatoon. We’ve been staying at Best Westerns since they seem to always have exciting waterslides in addition to their free breakfasts. The kids took Mike to the pool within 10 minutes of checking it. I’ve somehow been able to avoid the hotel pools so far because of Mike’s FOMO.
We went to a Mediterranean restaurant as I am continuously trying to feed the kids enough vegetables. I thought that keeping away from the bad foods (fries, baked goods) was going to be the hard part but I have discovered that actually finding enough of the good stuff is harder. You can only eat so many cucumbers and carrots in the backseat and the side garden salad gets old quickly. I miss cooked veggies! Anyhow we had a nice dinner with vegetables included and then relaxed in the hotel.
We have been to Saskatoon before so felt less pressure to do everything. Instead we parked the car on the fringe of the University of Saskatchewan campus (where my parents met) and rode our bikes across the river into town. We spent most of the day at the Central Library doing research on prairie dogs. Animals seem to peak our eldest daughter’s interest more than any other topic. She read, wrote notes and then did her school assignment about prairie dogs with little complaining. It made our bike ride home more interesting as we examined the animals’ burrows and noticed things that we’d learned about. We are growing to love the “hang out in a library” stop.
We had trouble finding a lunch spot but eventually settled into an Afghan restaurant which the kids both agreed was their best meal of the trip so far. Our kids’ palates continue to make us laugh as it becomes more and more clear that they grew up in Toronto eating a lot of different foods. Isabella will not eat a cold cut but give her some shawarma and she’s good to go.
Later that evening we went to Fuddruckers which is a Saskatchewan memory from my childhood. Although the Regina outpost no longer exists, we were lucky that Saskatoon still has a location. It was exactly as I remembered it and we gave a silly name but Isabella told me she was embarrassed when she had to go to the counter and pick up Gummy Bear’s order! The girls made swamp water and the whole experience just made me smile and remember trips there with my great aunt and cousins.
We left Saskatoon the next day but not before a trip to the berry patch to pick Saskatoon berries. We literally picked a pail for which we were charged $11 and given 2 packs of candy and 2 freezies. Our Toronto perception of what things cost is being challenged in Manitoba and Saskatchewan! It got us in trouble when we ordered the $40 fish and chip meal which could have fed 8 adults!
Anyhow we finished our Saskatchewan jaunt with a trip to the Western Development museum outpost in North Battleford. Imagine a prairie pioneer village with all the requisite buildings : general store, blacksmith, church, schoolhouse, etc. I was fascinated by the grain elevator which you could enter and see inside.
Outside there were some First Nations elders teaching the kids things (and me). One group was smoking a bison right there and another group was teaching about wrapping babies in moss wraps. They also taught us about the teepees that were in the yard. All in all it was a great worldschooling day.
After a week of Summer Camp in the city with the girls, we were ready to get back on the road. Our destination was Riding Mountain National Park and arrived in the early evening. Daylight lasts so much longer here, we had plenty of time to set up our site and check out the town of Wasagaming which is actually located within the park boundaries. We were blown away as you could walk to the town from our campsite (about 1km away). And the town itself felt like a mini beach town from home. It was busy yet it didn’t feel overwhelmed like the beach towns back in Ontario. There was a “street” of commercial establishments, a pier, a nice beach and many quaint cottages throughout the town. There were no fences, no garish multi-level dwellings and no garbage anywhere. I guess there must be some sort of park bylaws limiting the type of dwelling that can be built. And there were ice cream parlours!
Onward to Manitoba! Before getting to Winnipeg we had to stop for two roadside attractions. First, we had to go to Kenora to view the larger-than-life Husky the Muskie. Like the Wawa goose, this was one of those childhood memories I needed to recreate. The underpass from the parking lot to the Muskie was flooded by the river so we had to run across the “highway”. Isabella enjoyed that part the most. We got the required picture and were back in the car. Closer to Winnipeg, we stopped at the longitudinal middle of Canada (96°48’35″W according to the sign). It was just off the Trans Canada Highway that had a couple giant Adirondack chairs (that seem to be all across the country and some needed washrooms). We stopped quickly as Paige and I just wanted to get to Winnipeg, do some laundry and dry out all our wet gear from Blue Lake. We were splitting Winnipeg up into 1 day at a hotel and then 4 days outside the city at Birds Hill Provincial Park. The kids were looking forward to this part of the trip as we had enrolled them in a week of summer camp at the University of Manitoba. Izzie was off to become a scientist while Julie was going to hone her gymnastic skills. Paige and Mike were going to do…….well, we had nothing planned for ourselves.
We were prepared for a long day of travel from Sleeping Giant to Blue Lake Provincial Park so we were on the road before 7am. Fortunately for us, the wildlife was on the move too! We saw a couple deer while brushing our teeth. Within our first 10 minutes on the road, Paigey achieved a lifelong dream of seeing a moose in the wild. Although I must say, she did misidentify it at first as a bird. Then I suggested it was a deer. As the jeep got closer, it started running down the road and voila a baby moose. Even the kids in the back got to see it, so check that one off the list!
We had some time to check out Kakabeka Falls on the west side of Thunder Bay. I remembered being terrified at walking the bridge that used to cross the falls. It was one of those metal see-thru bridges and the terror is seared into my memory (I’m terrified of heights). Fortunately, 30 years later it wasn’t that scary as there are robust planks that make the crossing seem like any normal bridge crossing. The kids were upset I wasn’t super scared. We did a quick hike, found some hares and watched the cascading falls.
Yep, that first night of camping in five-degree celsius weather was a cold one! Paige and I felt it. The kids on the other hand voiced no displeasure. But they followed my lead and took an early morning shower. For those who don’t know, some Ontario Parks showers are amazing. Great pressure with bloody hot water. Another check mark for Neys. After the showers, we lit a morning fire (Paigey and I haven’t done that in years) which put Paige and I in a more comfortable state. The kids went off to play at the beach.
We didn’t leave Neys early on Day 7. We decided to slow things down and took a bike to a trailhead. Finally figured out how to get Julie Tailgator sorted out so that she doesn’t lean the entire time while being pulled by her mother. We went on a small hike and I made a bad joke about me growing facial hair…..anyways the punch line is MOSStache. And the pictures are spot on. We then went to the visitor centre at the park (we always go to visitor centres if the park has them) and did some homeschooling. Julie learnt about rocks. For those that don’t know, Julie will tell you that “Amethyst is the purple one”. Isabella played with the animal pelts trying to determine which one was the softest. We went back to the site, broke camp for the first time and were back on the highway.
The drive to Sleeping Giant took a long time. We stopped for lunch and filled up on some camping supplies. Our butane is due to go out any day so we stopped at the “smallest” Canadian Tire in the country. Don’t know if it is true but they have a sign saying so in Nipigon.
Many stops later we got to Sleeping Giant after 5pm. Good thing the sun doesn’t set until 10:30. Our campsite was a split level (first time we had stayed at one of those) that Isabella had selected when Paige let her select some sites. We went for a quick swim and noticed the water was full of crayfish. I always thought they hid under rocks and such, but here they were in the clear water in the sand. Might explain why their carcasses were also littered all over the beach. Paigey caught some live ones for the children to see. I went swimming.
The kids slept well that first night as the swimming tired them out. They got up and dived into their morning school-work. I was skeptical at the number of worksheets Paigey had brought for them, but they sure do love the morning activity work. Izzy did a worksheet on Red foxes and was blown away when we saw a stuffed one at the park visitor centre later in the day.
We went spent the rest of the day exploring the park and surrounding area. We were realistic and knew the hike to the sleeping giant formation was outside our abilities. So we picked a shorter one to a pebble beach that the kids loved. We saw butterflies and took a wrong turn that delighted the children as they had to scramble up some boulders to get back on the trail. They no longer let Paige and I lead the way on the trails.
We also discovered Silver Islet, a tiny hamlet at the end of the peninsula. It was one of those hot days where you dream “If only we could find an ice cream place …..” and then one appears out of nowhere. The kids had Superkid ice cream which is their new favourite flavour thanks to Aunt Sil’s Ice Cream joint in the Soo.
The entire time we were at Sleeping Giant we had no internet access and attributed it to the remoteness of the park. It was one of the reasons we seemed to stumble upon things these two days. Turns out there was a big internet outage in Canada that we were blissfully unaware of.
To set some context, you first need to know that I try to walk 5km each morning before the kids wake up. So there I was, walking outside the steel mill in Sault Ste Marie at 6am when a Jeep rolls to a stop alongside me. The window rolls down and a woman leans out and yells: ”Hey was that you taking over the gym this morning?”. I momentarily blank but then clue in and admit that yes, it was me. She then apologizes for her son being such a jerk and kicking me out of the gym. I shrug my shoulders and tell her he will be a great Pokemon champion. For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, you obviously don’t play Pokemon Go.
Anyways we left the relatives early in the morning having received a download of the key lookouts on the drive ahead of us. We said our goodbyes and were on our way with the bikes tightly secured. Our first stop was Chippewa falls where the kids got to hike and use the washroom. This was going to be one of those days with multiple washroom stops. We then stopped a further down the highway to eat some world-famous apple fritters at the Voyageurs’ Lodge near Batchwana Bay. There is an entire rack full of individual fritters waiting for people to grab. There must have been 100+ sitting there and we watched a procession of cars stop to pick a couple up. For the first time in our lives, Paige and I did the sensible thing and bought one and shared it. We ignored the sign that said there was no tax charged if you purchased six. We only needed the one, they were ginormous.
Driving from Timmins to Sault Ste Marie was a longer drive than we had expected (about 6.5 hours). There were not a lot of stops along the way but we did manage to stop at the Watershed Drainage Divide this time (after missing it on the way north). It is pretty awesome to think that rivers and lakes north of this line feed the Arctic Ocean as opposed to the Great Lakes.
Other interesting sights along the way include a population of white moose near Foleyet. They are not albino – they just carry a recessive gene that makes them very light in colour. I kept my eyes peeled thinking that white moose might be easier to spot than brown ones. I had no luck with white ones either.
We drove through the childhood home of my friend Kandice, a tiny hamlet called Wharncliffe and we were reminded just how small of a place it is -wow. The drive’s highlight for the kids was the Big Loonie right outside Sault Ste Marie.
The “Soo” has always been a place where Michael’s relatives spoiled him with elaborate Italian meals – this was no exception. Michael’s aunt Silvana made a delicious homemade pasta with meatballs and sausage. Luckily the kids had swum in Sil and Ernie’s pool before dinner because, afterwards, we were all in a food coma!
After getting new haircuts the next morning, we visited the Sault Ste Marie Locks which is a National Historic Site. The Historical site was partially closed but the kids still managed to find a tent with National Parks workers and collect their first “dog tags”. We suspect that they will collect many more of these as we continue west.
Whitefish Island is also nearby which is an island with a unique location between Lakes Huron and Superior. There is a rich fishery at the St. Mary’s Rapids and we even saw fishermen standing on the breakwater casting into the rapids. This island has an unfortunate history whereby it was taken from the Frist Nations who had treaty rights to the island and was only returned to their ownership quite recently. The hike around the island was full of birds and animals but we had to turn around when the boardwalk was flooded -causing lots of excitement.
We finished our time in the Soo with a meal at Auroras and some movie watching with aunt Sil. The girls also loved watching cousin Aly put on her make-up each morning we were there. Now we have at least 5 camping days ahead of us so I guess we’ll test out all the gear and hopefully we did not forget anything important. Also, let homeschooling begin!
The kids were up at the crack of dawn on Day 2 to play with some of my cousin’s toys they had seen when they fell asleep the night before. After prying them away from the Groovy Girls, they descended upon the kitchen for a “dream breakfast”. There were 8 different options of breakfast cereal available for us to choose from. It was like a kid’s version of an omelet bar. I ate Apple Jacks (I didn’t know they still existed) while the kids ate a mixture of cereals. Good start to the day as all the eating and playing had us leaving a little later than expected.
Before leaving Lively I made sure those bikes were buckled in tight. I was tired of stressing over them falling off so took my time to find the “optimal” configuration. I did such a good job, I took pictures so that I would remember how to replicate it.
We also realized after day 1, that our packing strategy needed to be tweaked. It was just too much effort to bring each of our luggage down from the roof each night. What we needed for the future was a grab bag of a small set of clothes for each of us together. Also, putting toiletries in the trunk was also idiotic. For the most part, we want the trunk to be storage and we need to be able to grab any gear we need from the back seat without doing all the Jenga.