Date Archives August 2018

Friendly Manitoba, Bienvenue!

Brushing up on our bilingual skills in Russell, Neepawa and Winnipeg while camping lakeside in Sandy Bay, Manitoba. Oh, AND officially crossing the Longitudinal Centre of Canada!

Manitoba is the final prairie province we’d pass through before returning to Ontario. MB and Saskatchewan often get deemed the most boring provinces to drive through because, well, prairies…but they’ve actually got a lot more going on than your average wheat fields. Our first stop was not far from the western provincial line in a small town called Russell. We were sold on this town when we found out it had a park with FREE electrical hookups! We’ve only experienced this once before in Oklahoma and even though we have solar, it felt like such a luxury. It was particularly helpful this time around because the weather was total garbage and the grey, brooding skies weren’t doing much to keep our battery charged. The park was a nice grassy area with vault toilets, a water pump and lots of prairie dogs for neighbours.

I never said Russell was a big town…

It just so happened to be the start of the Canada Day long weekend so the crappy weather wasn’t exactly ideal but we still couldn’t complain that we had a nice quiet spot to relax for a couple days. Not long after we crossed into Manitoba, we were reminded how prominent the francophone community is in the province. For Americans that ought to be pretty strange to have all the signs written in two languages while struggling to give directions with street names in a not so native tongue. Personally, I went to French school my whole life and still get confused sometimes so Manitoba definitely kept us on our toes. Once Canada Day hit, we decided to make our way to a different spot for a change of scenery and with the naïve ambition that moving further east may help us to avoid the storm that was looming over our heads.

Generic Van Life - Friendly Manitoba Sunset Trees
These colourful sunsets made Russell real purdy

We left Russell knowing that a severe thunderstorm was in the works so we had to boogie if we were going to stay on the edge of it. Within about an hour and a half, reality hit and we got soaked – shocker. We drove slow and attentively followed our Google Maps directions when we realized we were going to be on dirt roads for the next while without hitting a town for a solid hour. Normally that wouldn’t be a big deal but that was also when we realized we barely had any gas. So to paint a picture, it was teaming rain, we were maintaining a pace slightly swifter than a snail and were just hoping that even in the 80s, they’d give these rigs somewhat of a reserve below the empty gauge. We decided to reroute and go a bit off track in hopes of making it to Neepawa to gas up before not being able to make it any further. It was a tense drive once we got back onto the paved highway and each km we drove felt like a relief in my mind while imagining having to hitchhike to the gas station with a jerry can. After a half hour detour, we reached Neepawa where the clouds seemed to clear, the sun popped out and the energy instantly switched gears. We got gas, ate a bag of roast chicken flavoured Lays and FaceTimed family and friends to say Happy Canada Day. Neepawa was like an oasis in the desert and it immediately changed our mood. It’s a cute little town with great energy and super friendly people that made us excited again to be heading to a beach that we could camp on in Sandy Bay.

Generic Van Life - Friendly Manitoba Clouds
I think something might be brewing…

The roads were drying up and even though I could see the water on my map, it was hard to believe these desolate farmlands would open up to a beach anytime soon. But, like a beacon of light, we saw a couple of RVs parked right along the sand and knew we made a good decision heading this way. There were a decent amount of folks there but it was far from crowded since the stretch of shoreline is fairly long and everyone had their own little zone. Despite storm clouds starting to build again, kids were swimming and people were outside drinking Molson branded beverages and eating poutine – ok, slight exaggeration but it was Canada Day. Anyway, the place is (somewhat comically) called Hollywood Beach and is right on the western shore of Lake Manitoba, about an hour northeast of Neepawa. Beachside camping certainly isn’t the first thing to come to mind when thinking of a prairie province but just like Little Manitou Lake in Saskatchewan, we were pleasantly surprised. The beach even had outhouses, which always come in handy even though these ones could have used a power wash…or two.

Who woulda thunk this would be in Manitoba!? Hollywood Beach was a great time.

Before the rain hit again, a family further down set off some fireworks and it started to feel like a celebration. Unfortunately, within a few minutes, everyone got rained out and the fireworks were swapped out for lightning but it still lit up the sky in either case. The holiday Monday was a really lovely, sunny day and a bunch more people came out to play in the water and relax on the beach. The water was nice and warm and didn’t get deep until we were way out there which was helpful for an overdue wash (#vanlife, lol). There were, however, an absolutely insane amount of bugs. Mosquitoes, gnats and these tiny little green bugs that managed to come in through our screens and doors and made a home for themselves in the van. They almost looked like little baby sea monkeys that were essentially squatting in our home so had no choice but to vacuum them up until we could breathe again. Sorry (not really) if you’re one of those people that refuses to kill bugs but these were just out of control. On our final eve at the beach, a car pulled up to the van as we were eating dinner and wanted to make sure that we weren’t broken down or anything since we have an out of province plate. I’m used to the city where people are very often up to no good but this local farmer was genuinely just making sure we were ok and enjoying the beach – that “friendly” claim on Manitoba’s license plates really checks out.

Generic Van Life - Friendly Manitoba Storm Clouds
Check out these storm clouds from our spot on the beach – not exactly the daintiest

We got up early the next morning and set out for The Peg where we’d visit some family and indulge in a proper shower. Winnipeg is actually a cooler city than I was expecting and had a lot of character with old buildings and distinct neighbourhoods. We walked around Osborne Village and The Exchange before scoping out The Forks and its adjacent Market along the Red River. We lucked out with a clear sunny day and really enjoyed the big city vibe that Winnipeg had going on despite not being all that big (in comparison to say, Calgary). We had a really nice visit with Justin’s cousin’s family and spent the night there before anxiously setting out to my (Olivia) home province of Ontario. Although it hardly felt like I was going home per se since Northern Ontario and Southern Ontario are basically different provinces. Anyway, not long after leaving Winnipeg, we hit a pretty cool landmark: the Longitudinal Centre of Canada. This marked our halfway point between Vancouver Island and Newfoundland and reminded us that we still had a long journey ahead with lots more to see. It also confused us greatly because there is an exit off the highway with a sign that says “Landmark” that we thought would get us to the landmark itself but it actually just leads to a small town called Landmark. Haha, Manitoba was definitely full of great surprises.

Generic Van Life - Friendly Manitoba Winnipeg The Forks
The Red River from the Forks Market

The Rest Area Tour of Saskatchewan

Took the north route through Kindersley and Saskatoon before spending the day in Canada’s Dead Sea in Manitou Beach, Saskatchewan.

We’ve finally gotten to the part of the map where every Canadian has flashbacks to elementary school learning about Saskatchewan, its endless wheat fields and…that’s about it. The prairies get a bad wrap in the scheme of cross-country road trips and are often the zones people devote to full day drives in a hurry to get to Alberta or Ontario because they’re summarized in one word: boring. Well, we were on a mission to give Saskatchewan and Manitoba a fighting chance at stealing our hearts by giving ourselves two weeks to drive across them. To put that into perspective, it only takes about 11 hours to get from the edge of Alberta to the edge of Ontario so we were really going to be taking our time.

Generic Van Life - Saskatchewan Window View
These endless skies surely weren’t boring

Coming from our last campsite in Sunnynook, Alberta (necessary side note: this is very close to Hanna, AB – proud home of everyone’s favourite band, Nickelback), we immediately felt the difference after crossing the provincial line when the road turned into a pothole-ridden nightmare. In any case, we were ready to do some trail blazing in hopes of uncovering a sweet camping spot on some of Saskatchewan’s plentiful Crown Land. As we’ve mentioned before, when it comes to free camping spots, Canada as a whole is way under discovered in comparison to the plethora that is BLM land and National Forests listed in the States. With our government land maps in tow, we set out to find somewhere to camp for the night where we could watch the big sky light up with stars in the evening. After making a pit stop in Kindersley, we headed north to a small lake surrounded by federally owned land that seemed promising. Unfortunately, the only way to access it would be to drive through a farm field filled with waist-high canola crops. Bummer. Our next possibility brought us to a muddy lot that had been inhabited by a sea of pump jacks, which was certainly not what we had in mind. As much as we were still hopeful that there was a hidden gem of a spot somewhere in the area, there was an angry storm brewing in the distance so we swallowed our pride, headed back to the main road and made our way to a rest stop near a town called Harris.

Generic Van Life - Saskatchewan Colourful Sky
HUGE skies just outside of Harris, SK

Now, a rest area is not really what we had foreseen for our cool campsite discovery but when we arrived, we realized that rest areas in Saskatchewan are not like rest areas anywhere else. In the US, they’re generally paved parking lots with vending machines and air conditioned bathroom buildings while in Canada, they’re often small roadside turnouts with an outhouse or two. In Sask, they’re pretty much campgrounds. Huge grassy areas with outhouses, fire pits and picnic tables and even clearings within the trees for little private campsites. At this point, we were asking ourselves why we didn’t just come here sooner. We even found a few small prickly pear cactuses in the bush that made us question if we were really in the prairies or had somehow been transported to a secret realm in Arizona. We had a super peaceful night’s sleep and even got to admire that big, colourful sky that we knew was waiting for us.

Generic Van Life - Saskatchewan Prickly Pear
Say what? Who woulda thunk there’d be cactuses in the prairies

The next morning, we hopped on the highway and hit the big city, Saskatoon (using the term “big city” rather lightly). Justin had driven around Saskatchewan many times but being my first time, we opted to go through Saskatoon instead of the capital city of Regina because quite simply, it’s nicer. We settled into a café in the Riversdale neighbourhood to get some work done before taking a stroll around and seeing what the city is all about. This neighbourhood is definitely in the eye of its gentrification and has opened up to a bunch of cool shops and restaurants on its short stretch of street. Scattered amongst older, grittier buildings and storefronts, it’s close to the Central Business District and the Saskatchewan River. We grabbed a bite at Picaro, because everyone knows Saskatoon is known for its tacos… Jokes aside, they were actually really tasty and the space felt like it could belong in a much bigger city.

Generic Van Life - Saskatchewan Saskatoon Ave C
♥ how cute, Saskatoon ♥

With our bellies full, we ventured over to the Broadway area across the river, which to our dismay, seems to close down around 5PM. Definitely a drag but it seemed like another cool spot to check out if we pass through again. Overall, Saskatoon is far from a bustling city but surely has some interesting pockets to explore amid their adorable street signs decorated with bright red hearts. Based on our experience at the rest area the previous night, we opted to check out the next rest area along the Trans-Canada Yellowhead Highway instead of finding a stealthy spot in the city. About half an hour east of town near Elstow, we arrived at another grassy field that was again, more of a campground than a rest area. Score!

Can’t complain about calling this home for the night!

With all that city life the previous day, we switched gears and set out for the beach. The beach is certainly not the first thing I think of when it comes to a day in Saskatchewan but with Little Manitou Lake in the distance, it turned out to be a really cool surprise. The lake is considered to be Canada’s Dead Sea, as it’s 3 times saltier than the ocean and half the salinity of the actual Dead Sea. Basically what that means is that it’s extra gross when you get water in your mouth BUT it’s super easy to float. Turns out that there’s a whole little beach town around this lake that’s got a burger joint, beach bar and a bunch of lakeside cabins. It’s far from soft white sand but it was a great place to spend a 25°C/77°F day and the best part about it was that the bathroom building had hot showers so we left cleaner than we came. Any vanlifer knows that you take full advantage of these opportunities because they’re often few and far between.

Generic Van Life - Saskatchewan Manitou Beach
Manitou Beach was an awesome surprise – definitely worth the stop if you’re passing through

Continuing on our rest area tour of Saskatchewan, we found another spot near Lanigan that continued to perpetuate our finding that rest areas are where it’s at when travelling through the province. Unfortunately, I seemed to develop a not so nice case of hay fever and the amount of grass we’d been around was not agreeing with my newfound allergies. We decided to stay at this spot for a couple days and following WebMd’s orders, I stayed inside and got up close and personal with allergy pills and eye drops – fun!

Again, how is this a rest area?!

For our last day in S-K, we were really looking forward to spending the day at Good Spirit Lake Provincial Park on what Maclean’s Magazine calls one of Canada’s best beaches (feel like I need a citation there but the article is no longer up on their website) but mother nature changed our plans by pissing rain so we headed into Yorkton and had a boring work day courtesy of A&W wifi instead. All in all, we had a nice time in Saskatchewan even though it didn’t end up being the Magellan-like experience we had ambitiously anticipated. On our venture back west, we’ll take the Highway 1 across and spend some time exploring the underground tunnels in Moose Jaw as we cruise along with endless trains filled with potash.