Posts in Adventure

Get us to the Coast!

Just kidding, Interior BC is ridiculously nice. We took our time getting across the province and found some really incredible camping spots in Jaffray, Salmo, Keremeos and Chilliwack, British Columbia.

In the interest of engine stress on Clemie, we decided to take the Crowsnest Highway again to get from Alberta to BC. Highway 1 through Golden and Kamloops is crazy beautiful but has more tricky mountain passes and we got word that the Coquihalla between Merrit and Hope had recently had a snowstorm so bad that it had to be closed – yikes. We took it as an opportunity to find new spots along the way that we didn’t check out last time. We passed through Fernie to get to a wicked spot near Jaffray called Suzanne Lake. It’s a secluded recreation area with plenty of trees and a lake with a mountain view. Being November, it was a bit chilly but this would probably be a super cool place to swim and boat in the summertime.

Generic Van Life - Chilliwack Suzanne Lake
Suzanne Lake was an amazing find! Can’t beat lakeside mountain views

BC is absolutely killin’ it with the free recreation areas. It’s so refreshing to be in a province that actually wants you to get outside and enjoy your public land. They’ve established many of these free user-maintained recreation areas that make for perfect dry camping spots and even spoil you with an outhouse. It’s wonderful how easy you are to impress when you live in an 80 sq ft van with no running water.

Generic Van Life - Chilliwack Outhouse
Admit it, this outhouse is probably in a nicer location than your house

After squeezing in a workday in Cranbrook, we geared up for the mountain pass we had been dreading: The Salmo Pass (Kootenay Pass) between Creston and Salmo. Our engine was in much healthier shape this time around but it’s still a bit nerve wrecking when you’re going up a steep uphill for what seems like an eternity. Signs at the bottom warned of slush and snow which seemed far off in the midst of mild temperatures and a misty rain. You can feel the air temperature drop as you ascend and suddenly everything – including the road – was covered in snow. Reaching the summit was nothing short of beautiful but turned the stress onto the brakes for the way down. We always just put it into low gear and tag along with the transport trucks to play it safe and thankfully it paid off. If you’ve done this drive and can’t understand our sentiments, it’s probably because you weren’t driving a vehicle that weighs over 10 000 lbs and pulls to the right.

Generic Van Life - Chilliwack Kootenay Summit
The Kootenay Summit in early November was definitely snowy

We made our way north of Salmo to another recreation area called Erie Creek where we came face to face with a logging truck on a narrow dirt road. We had to reverse all the way until we were in a spot with enough room for the truck to pass – as always, I was very happy Justin was driving and not me. Once we got to the spot, we had a beautiful rainforest-looking campground all to ourselves with a neighbouring creek rushing by. It then began to rain consistently until morning but hey, you can’t win ‘em all.

Generic Van Life - Chilliwack Erie Creek Salmo
Woods life rules

We kept on cookin’ through Castlegar and Osoyoos before heading to another great BC recreation area near the Similkameen River in Keremeos. The drive the next day through the Hedley-Princeton area all felt very familiar but the mountain passes that followed seemed to take us by surprise. We took the Crowsnest Highway in the summer heading east and must have blocked out of our memories how steep and winding the road is around Copper Mountain and Manning Park. Anyway, it wasn’t anything too crazy and was beautiful everywhere you looked although our poor ears didn’t know what to think with all the elevation changes.

Generic Van Life - Chilliwack Tunnel Keremeos
Pretty cool spot to camp in Keremeos amongst the mountains and Ashnola Creek

When we reached Hope we were disappointed to hear that forest fires and rockslides had closed off access to the Skagit River area. With some hesitation after reading several cautionary tales, we headed toward Chilliwack to make our way up a mountain to a BC Hydro recreation area called Jones Lake. We heard the road was rough and required 4×4 but after doing a bit of research, it seemed like our only challenge would be the steepness. And steep it was. To access the recreation area, you have to drive 9 km (5.6 mi) up a mountain where the first 3 km is all super steep switchbacks. A little intense but all in all, not too bad on the way up. By the time we reached the lake itself (actually called Wahleach Lake), we had forgotten about the drive altogether and had to pick our jaws up off the floor from how beautiful it was. A large lake surrounded by trees and mountains would be our backyard for the night.

Generic Van Life - Chilliwack Jones Lake Beach
Just try and tell me this isn’t beautiful

We spent the night on the west tract of the recreation area and saw no one but a couple of Hydro workers leaving the site in the evening. In the morning, we explored the other side of the lake and parked on a beach to have our coffee. It seems there are a handful of interesting A-frame cabins on the east side of the lake where other people put up with the steep drive to spend their summers. Having no one around made the whole place feel very surreal and made us super stoked to get to experience it. Vanlife has brought us to so many amazing places off the beaten track that we probably wouldn’t have otherwise been to.

Generic Van Life - Chilliwack Jones Lake Coffee
A pretty glorious spot to have our morning coffee

After a magical morning of sunshine and mountains, we got ready for the somewhat dreaded drive out. Remembering how steep the way up was, we knew the downhill was going to be pretty intense. The smell of burning rubber wasn’t so distant so we tried to give the brakes a break (ha) on a couple of the plateaus within the last few km’s of the mountain. Despite being in low gear and doing all the things we were supposed to, when we got to the bottom, the brakes were straight smokin’. Yup, our brakes had caught fire while struggling to hold back a very heavy van from dive-bombing straight into the surrounding forest. We were more so laughing than stressing and gave the van a chance to cool down before going any further. Somewhat luckily, there were huge puddles everywhere so driving through them a few times helped to sizzle down the steam.

Generic Van Life - Chilliwack Jones Lake Mountains
We had Jones Lake all to ourselves

That’s probably not how most people in the area started their day but it was just another day in the life for us and didn’t stop us from thinking that Jones Lake was totally worth it. Moving right along, we made a stop in Abbotsford to gym and shower before making our way into Vancouver and officially reaching the west coast yet again. With double digit temperatures and not a flake of snow on the road, we undeniably felt relieved to have made it back across the country in one piece. The plan now is to spend a couple weeks in the Vancouver area before making the last leg of our journey for the year onto Vancouver Island. We started 2018 off in Mexico and are so lucky to have gone to all of the places that we have and not completely lost our minds (maybe just a little).

 

From a Breakdown in Brandon to the Mountains in Banff

Nothing like breaking down on the side of the highway at night when it’s freezing out. We had a minor setback in Brandon before zooming through the prairies to reach Calgary and lust over the mountains in Banff and Canmore, Alberta.

Where did we leave off? Oh right, we were on a mission to drive through the prairies as quickly as possible. Leaving Thunder Bay that morning and making a few stops along the way, we were making great progress by reaching Brandon by nightfall…that is, until we started smelling burning rubber and saw smoke coming from under the hood. Fun! Truthfully, we haven’t had a breakdown in quite some time so we weren’t all that surprised. Naturally it was below 0 temperatures and the wind was violent when we had to pull over along the Trans Canada and check out the situation. It seemed that one of our belts had snapped, which was shitty news since we had just replaced them not long ago. Thanks to my dad’s suggestion, we kept our old belts just in case and thought we’d be in the clear by swapping the broken one out with our old one. Nope. After several attempts to get the tension right, we realized that the unit it was wrapping around was ceased and was just continuing to smoulder and smell gross. The question now wasn’t as much about how we were going to replace this part as it was about identifying what the part even was. With no help from CAA (we’re mad at you, CAA), a kind stranger pulled over on the side of the highway asking if we were alright and offered to tow us to a nearby gas station. That’s one great thing about being in the prairies – people are super nice and everyone has a truck. Long story short, it was an air pump (or smog pump), which is a part added in these older vehicles to help reduce emissions but virtually does nothing by today’s standards. In knowing that leaving the belt off would do nothing but increase our horsepower, we threw the broken belt in the trash can and got back on the road.

Generic Van Life - Banff Canmore Justin Russian Hat
Here’s a photo of Justin in a Russian hat to deflect the attention from the stress of a breakdown

We had a nice rest area scoped out in Broadview, Saskatchewan but once we arrived well after midnight, the gate was locked and we felt a second hit of dejection. Our bodies were also very confused after driving through two time zones in one day (Sask doesn’t observe Daylight Savings Time) so we pulled into a nearby truck stop and hunkered down for the night to prepare for another long day of driving to follow. After a surprisingly quiet sleep, we got back on the highway and jetted through Regina, Swift Current and Medicine Hat before finally making it to Calgary and getting a chance to slow down for a few days and hangout with friends and family. Making the two long days of driving worth it was getting to meet Justin’s mom’s two new kittens that could put a smile even on Ebenezer Scrooge’s face.

Generic Van Life - Banff Canmore Kitten
KITTEN!!!!!

With some major stroke of luck, we had clear skies and warm, sunny days the whole time we were in Calgary, sitting comfortable in double digit temperatures for over a week. As anyone who lives in their vehicle knows, that makes life much more pleasant for sleeping and pretty much just being alive in general. Even with the warm days, we were so bogged down with a huge workload that we spent most of our time behind our computer screens. We did, however, get to spend plenty of time with Justin’s brother’s puppy who doesn’t look like much of a puppy anymore but is still just as wild. Is it showing that I have major pet fever?

Generic Van Life - Banff Canmore Banjo
Grown up Banjo, one of our favourite buds

With so much time spent working, we took an overnight trip to Banff National Park to give ourselves a mini vacation and recharge a bit. If you’ve ever seen a postcard of Canada, it was probably taken in Banff. It’s Canada’s first National Park and is absolutely gorgeous from every direction. No doubt the Rockies are pretty epic the whole way down, but there’s something special about Banff. We started by driving through the foothills to Kananaskis Country and making Lake Louise our first stop. We’ve both been to Banff before but never at this time of year; October is shoulder season and is known to be the quietest month of the year. This was great news for us because the volume of tourists can often get a little out of hand when you have to time every photo just right in order to not get someone else’s family in the background.

Generic Van Life - Banff Canmore Mt Rundle
Mt Rundle, Banff’s most iconic mountain

Unfortunately the weather was a little overcast and grey but Lake Louise still glimmered with its vibrant blue-green waters. The canoes and kayaks had been put away for the season and were replaced by a bit more than a dusting of snow on the mountains and surrounding grounds. Despite the cooler temperatures and not-so-sunny skies, there were still bare shouldered brides and busloads of foreigners all checking out the Albertan staple. Moraine Lake, another photoshop-looking mountain lake, is usually the next stop but access was sadly already closed for the season.

Generic Van Life - Banff Canmore Lake Louise
Lake Louise looks too beautiful to be real

On a whim, we decided to go on the Banff Gondola since there’s a special rate for Alberta residents (who can turn down a deal?) and we figured it’d be one of the only times where we’d actually get our own cable car and not have to wait in line. As cheap as I am (I prefer economical), this was worth paying full price for. The ride up Sulphur Mountain gave us an awesome view of the mountains but the view from the top was kind of mind blowing. There’s a fairly big building where you get off the gondola with a gift shop and restaurant and all that jazz, and the start of a 2 km (1.24 mi) walking trail – which is pretty much ALL stairs – that takes you to the Sanson’s Peak. At the summit of the mountain, you have an incredible panoramic view of the entire park and the town of Banff nestled amongst the towering peaks.

Generic Van Life - Banff Canmore Sulphur Mountain Lookout
Amazing view of the mountains from Sanson’s Peak
Generic Van Life - Banff Canmore Gondola Walkway
Pretty epic walkway up to Sanson’s Peak from the Banff Gondola on Sulphur Mountain

With the quick change in elevation, things got majorly cold so we were happy to return to ground level and find some good food after working up quite an appetite. Another praise to shoulder season, we were able to find free parking downtown where we could stroll around Banff Ave and the other animal-named streets without having to shimmy through hoards of tourists. We had some pretty tasty BBQ and cocktails at Park Distillery and left downtown with full bellies and lighter wallets. We headed into Canmore for the night, which is the neighbouring town outside of the National Park boundaries where a lot of people who work in Banff live (which, I might add, is like 95% Australians). We parked in a designated RV parking zone in downtown Canmore that was clearly a very popular spot for travellers and vehicle dwellers alike. We had the best time in Banff and lucked out being able to end the night within walking distance of a bar for a nightcap (or two…).

Generic Van Life - Banff Canmore Banff Ave
A rare sight…downtown Banff not swarmed with tourists!
Generic Van Life - Banff Canmore
Not a bad view to wake up to in downtown Canmore

On our way back to Calgary, we stopped at Elbow Falls in Kananaskis and marvelled at how low the water levels were. Normally a pretty majestic waterfall, there was still a solid stream going but it was surrounded by dried up riverbeds that you could walk right on to. Sadly, they say the area really hasn’t been the same after the 2013 flood but in any case, it still is pretty.

Generic Van Life - Banff Canmore Elbow Falls
Elbow Falls in Bragg Creek surrounded by dry riverbeds

Keeping our eyes on the forecast, we spent our last couple days in Alberta starting our winter prep for the van. We bought a roll of Reflectix and made insulating panels for all the windows and sealed off any gaps. We tied up some more loose ends repair-wise and very reluctantly, traded in our cassette player (it was hardly working) for a newfangled stereo. Clementine is slowly making her way into the 21st century but still boasts plenty of 80s charm. Snow was on the ground when we left Calgary so we knew it was time to move and hopefully get as much of our mountain driving done before the weather starts to turn in BC. We had our fair share of cold weather last year in Alberta but escaped it by going south; this year, we’re staying in Canada and hoping to do everything we can to comfortably winterize. Stay tuned for a blog about winterizing tips for vanlifers – you’ll never cherish wool socks so much.

Generic Van Life - Banff Canmore Reflectix
Cutting our Reflectix to size for our window panels. Liquor bottles always make good weights.

Autumn Leaves Turning to Snow in Northern Ontario

Going through all 4 seasons in a matter of days in Toronto, Sudbury, Manitoulin Island and Kakabeka Falls, Ontario.

After leaving the East Coast, we blasted through Québec making only one overnight stop in beautiful Yamachiche in order to spend Thanksgiving with family in Toronto. Lucky for us, the soundtrack of the Kavanaugh hearings made our drive go by pretty fast since it sounded like we were listening to a (very long) scene in a movie. By the time we got into eastern Ontario, we were noticing that the leaves were slowly starting to change colour and that as soon as the temperatures started to dip, autumn would be in full swing. In other news, coming as music to the ears of Canadian vanlifers everywhere, Planet Fitness has started to expand its presence in the country and is making a nice dent into Southern Ontario. We grabbed our routine shower (and a work out too, I guess) at the new PF in Kingston and headed to the Lennox & Addington Dark Sky Viewing Area for the night. As our luck would have it, the clouds began to get really dark and heavy on our way there and it ended up rainy and overcast for the rest of the night so we definitely got a good view of how dark the sky was, but sadly it was not lit up with stars.

Generic Van Life - Northern Ontario Pointe Yamachiche
Pointe Yamachiche is a nice little nature reserve on the St. Lawrence River and is a prime bird watching spot

With another return visit to Toronto, we spent a week hanging out with friends and family and sleeping in inconspicuous alleyways around the city, as everyone does when they visit home. We were lucky enough to have multiple family Thanksgivings and an ever-popular Friendsgiving filled with tons of food, booze and good times. Not to brag, but we also got a beautiful new countertop that Justin’s uncle made for us with some extra plywood we had from the new table – upgrade!

Generic Van Life - Northern Ontario New Countertop
Our snazzy new countertop made from extra plywood

We had already experienced a taste of the cold to come while in Newfoundland and even in the evenings in Toronto but were not at all expecting the heat wave that was to come as we left. Picture this: it’s early October, Alberta has already had over a foot of snow, people are putting their winter tires on and Toronto reaches 27°C (81°F) for two days. What the?! As abnormal as it was, we tried to enjoy it while we could knowing that the north would be much colder. We hopped on the dreaded highway 400 and the temperatures started to dip as our km’s climbed. We boogied through toward Sudbury and stayed at a boat ramp near Killarney that was painted with reds, oranges and yellows. The craziest thing about fall is that it doesn’t last very long – the leaves change colour and if you don’t enjoy them right away then you’ll be stuck looking at them on the ground as soon as it gets cold. If you live in a place that doesn’t really experience autumn (say, the desert or in recent years, Calgary), then you should make it a point to travel somewhere that does to see the leaves at least once in your life. Northern Ontario is an awesome place to do it along with the eastern US.

Generic Van Life - Northern Ontario Killarney Ess Narrows
We arrived in the dark and woke up to beautiful fall leaves everywhere!

We made our necessary stops in Sudbury for an oil change and to see the Big Nickel and headed to somewhere I (Olivia) have always wanted to go: Manitoulin Island. Generally people from Southern Ontario take the ferry, The Chi-Cheemaun, from Tobermory to visit the island, but if you’re coming from the north, then you can drive right on from Espanola. I’m sure the boat would be amazing but driving required a lot less planning. Speaking of planning, although we rarely plan much, we definitely did not plan for our Sudbury errands to take as long as they did so we ended up on the island much later than we would have liked. Sadly the change in seasons always goes hand in hand with a much earlier night sky. Our main destination was to check out Bridal Veil Falls. We got there around 5PM and it was pissing rain and starting to get dark. Somewhat reluctantly, we parked the van and made our way down the steps when it seemed that the rain had started to let up and there was all but the calming sound of a roaring waterfall below us. When we made it to the bottom, we realized that something special was going on; the river was chock full of salmon swimming upstream to spawn. There was no one else there, the rain had stopped and a mob of big ol’ salmon were so close to us that we could touch them. We were even able to walk behind the falls and watch the salmon attempt to jump up them. Magical!

Generic Van Life - Northern Ontario Salmon Spawning Manitoulin Island
See all those black things? They’re salmon!!
Generic Van Life - Northern Ontario Sudbury Big Nickel
Equally magical, here I am holding Sudbury’s Big Nickel

Sadly we didn’t have much more daylight left to enjoy the rest of the island so we headed back up to the van when the rain began to teem again as soon as we got inside. Even though we only scratched the surface on all the beauty that Manitoulin has to offer, we felt a pretty warm welcome. We spent that night on Goat Island, a neighbouring stepping stone for getting to Manitoulin, before continuing our journey north. The drive through Sault Ste. Marie and Batchawana Bay was littered with full, colourful trees that decorated the shores of Lake Superior. I always have to remind myself that Superior is, in fact, a lake and not the ocean since its “coast” feels so much like the seaside and its waves can really rip. Driving around the American side in Minnesota was breath-taking but much more commercialized with tons of rental cabins and inns spread around the north shore while the Ontario side is much more rugged and undisturbed. Both absolutely gorgeous, but each with its own vibe.

Generic Van Life - Northern Ontario Lake Superior - Road Side Turn Out
The shores of Lake Superior always feel so ocean-like

Continuing on our way, we had to make a stop at Chippewa Falls to take in just how aggressive and raging they were with the river levels so high. We’re talking sweep-you-away-to-neverland rapids that showed no signs of calming down. It had been raining pretty much non-stop since we got north of Barrie and that was made clear with how many road washouts there were in the northern part of the province and by these insane waterfalls that looked like they’d take no prisoners. Justin has done this Northern Ontario drive many times before and had never seen them even remotely like this.

Generic Van Life - Northern Ontario Chippewa Falls
Chippewa Falls were ON FIRE!

Doing a bit of waterfall hopping, we tried to spend the night at High Falls in Wawa but unfortunately the road had been washed out. Although it wasn’t that late, it was starting to get dark so we had to act fast on where we wanted to sleep and decided to keep heading north toward White River. Within half an hour of being back on the road, it started to snow. The first squall we hit only lasted a few minutes but the second one was much more relentless and was accompanied by a pitch-black sky. The snow was coming directly at us and looked like white laser beams in the glow of the headlights. We managed to get to the boat ramp we were headed for fine but the snow kept on going. It wasn’t sticking much since it was still about 2-3°C (36°F) but we woke up to the surprise of not being able to see out the windows. It was time to dig out the snow brush and hope our tears wouldn’t freeze while we cleaned off the van.

Generic Van Life - Northern Ontario Snowy Van
Not the craziest snow fall ever, but enough to make us want to get the f out of Ontario

The rest of the drive around Lake Superior just got more and more beautiful but had fully replaced the colourful leaves with more of a winter wonderland look. The small mountains and cliffs looked nothing short of majestic with a layer of bright white snow and tons of icy pine trees. We made our way past Thunder Bay to Kakabeka Falls to spend some time relaxing and drinking homemade wine with Justin’s relatives while it continued to snow outside. On the morning that we left, we had the intention of getting to Winnipeg before driving through the completely snow-covered Kenora area and finding ourselves in a full-blown snowstorm while entering Manitoba. This wasn’t looking good but like the rain clearing in Manitoulin, the snow seemed to completely stop once we reached the Winnipeg city limits and the prairies showed themselves in all their true, non-snow-covered glory. We were in a race against the weather now and wanted to get to the West Coast before things got any worse. Unlike last time when we spent two weeks driving through Manitoba and Saskatchewan, we were ready to do what most cross country travellers do and bomb through the prairies. It feels like it’s us versus winter now and we’re hoping to come out on top!

Generic Van Life - Northern Ontario Neepawa Snow Hills - Superior
Things were pretty snowy around Neepawa, ON

Reaching the End of the Continent in Newfoundland

Boating into Clementine’s final province via Port aux Basques before spending some time in Rocky Harbour and Gros Morne National Park. We took our time driving across the island and checked out Terra Nova National Park before visiting Justin’s family in St. John’s, Newfoundland Labrador. The island must have really not wanted us to leave by treating us to a 23 hour ferry ride back to the mainland.  

After a relatively smooth 7-hour ferry ride, we had finally touched down in our final province, Newfoundland. Despite the moose warnings, we drove through the evening to find a good gravel pit to hunker down in for the night. If the weather wasn’t so undesirable, Newfoundland would be a vanlifer’s paradise. Hundreds of gravel pits and tons of crown land make the boondocking possibilities endless. Despite knowing that there were a lot of spots around, trying to find them in the dark isn’t always easy. One technique we use is to study the satellite view on google maps and try to find what looks like a clearing; the other half of the battle is figuring out if it’s vehicle accessible once you get to it. After some dead-end leads, we finally settled into an old mining quarry just outside of Deer Lake and caught some shuteye before continuing on our way across the island.

Generic Van Life - Newfoundland Gros Morne
Clemie beside the Gros Morne itself – AKA one really old mountain

Our first stop was to take Clementine to Gros Morne National Park. We went to Gros Morne for the first time last year while we were still living in Toronto and searching endlessly for a van. We had a rental car and fantasized about how nice it would be if we could be doing this in our hypothetical van. Fast forward a year and here we were. It was awesome to visit again and have our home with us this time. We spent a few hours walking around Rocky Harbour and Lobster Cove before taking in the gorgeous views of The Tablelands from Norris Point. We did the Western Brook Pond Tour last year so didn’t feel the need to do it again but if you’re visiting for the first time, it’s a must. Maybe the next time we go we’ll do the hike (ambitious).

Generic Van Life - Newfoundland Norris Point
View of the Tablelands from Norris Point

We spent our second night just outside of Terra Nova National Park at an amazing spot we found called Alexander Bay. Sometimes you take a couple blind turns on a dirt road and end up at the best places. Other times you just end up on someone’s property and you’re being chased with a shotgun (just kidding). After a peaceful night’s sleep, we made our way to Blue Hill in Terra Nova and trekked up to a pretty cool lookout point from the highest peak in the park. Had it been the spring, this would be the perfect place to check out the icebergs.

Generic Van Life - Newfoundland Terra Nova Blue Hill
View from Blue Hill in Terra Nova National Park

Once we got to town, we got a chance to catch up on a bunch of work and spend some quality time with family around Conception Bay South and St. John’s. We even got a personalized lesson on how to replace our brakes so we not longer have to pay quadruple the price at the shop – thanks Uncle Don!

Generic Van Life - Newfoundland New Brakes
Brakes 101 with Uncle Don

We also got a chance to check out The Rooms, a massive museum in St. John’s that happened to be having a pretty cool Mary Pratt exhibition. We learned about Newfoundland’s role in the war, lusted over one day exploring the Torngat Mountains in Labrador and contemplated if highly detailed paintings of salmon filets were actually just grocery flyers.

Generic Van Life - Newfoundland The Rooms
Pretty sweet view over St. John’s from The Rooms

One of our most important plans for our time in Newfoundland was to take Justin’s two grandmothers that still live on the island out for a trip in the van. One of them is named Clementine and played a big role in dissipating the fear in the family associated with hearing your (grand)son is leaving his apartment to drive to Mexico in a van older than he is – hence the name of our van. Anyway, we decided to take them to Cape Spear, which is the easternmost point in all of North America. As a surprise to no one, it was crazy windy and didn’t exactly make for perfect picnic weather so we drove along to Petty Harbour where we had some lunch and warmed up a bit. I’d say give it a year and the Nans will have their own van ;).

Generic Van Life - Newfoundland Nans in the Van
Talk about #NanVanLife

On our last weekend in the province, we spent the day with Justin’s dad and stepmom going on a little Avalon Peninsula roadtrip. We made our way to the lovely seaside town of Brigus and admired the quintessential colourful houses perched upon rocky hills despite the rain and heavy fog that the locals are oh so familiar with. We checked out the first English settlement in Canada in Cupids before having lunch in a super rad old building in Carbonear.

Generic Van Life Newfoundland Brigus Sailboat
Some anchored sailboats in Brigus

The standout, however, was a tasting at The Newfoundland Distillery in Clarke’s Beach. They put themselves on the map with their seaweed gin but blew us out of the water with all six of their craft sprits. Using all local ingredients, from juniper to bake apples (cloud berries), all of their spirits were delicious and along with their charcuterie options and beautiful branding, it made for a pretty great afternoon. No, we don’t own shares in the business, we just really, really enjoyed it.

Generic Van Life Newfoundland Distillery Tasting
Bring on the tasty spirits at the Newfoundland Distillery

After spending our last days eating fresh cod and pulled moose (yes, moose), we squeezed in lots of family time before saying our goodbyes and making our way off of the remote island that Justin calls home. Newfoundland is a pretty special place to visit and is full of unexpected surprises and some hilarious town names. We didn’t get a chance to go this time around, but we’ll certainly add getting a beer at the Dildo Brewery to our list for next time. After doing some calculations on the extortionate amount of money we spent on gas getting across the island (gas ain’t cheap in NL – especially for guzzler like Clemie), we decided that it would save us time and money to take the Argentia Ferry back to Nova Scotia. If you’re unfamiliar with the NL ferries, you can either take the Port aux Basques ferry for 7 hours and drive about 9 to get to St. John’s, or you can take the Argentia ferry, which is only over an hour’s drive from town but boasts a 16 hour boat ride – on a good day. The catch is that the long Argentia ferry only operates in the summer so we were lucky enough to book the last ferry of the season (September 22 in this case). We decided that we’d drive down the night before and spend the night at Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Seabird Reserve before catching the ferry the next day. Unfortunately, this was a bit of a bust. First, most of the birds had already started their journeys out of the cold so the stars of the show were majorly lacking. Second, it was terribly cold and windy and there was a storm brewing on the horizon – perfect for a sail! Not.

Photo taken from NL’s website to show how Cape St Mary’s is supposed to look

And so the Argentia ferry saga begins. We received multiple storm warnings and weather alerts and were notified by Marine Atlantic that our ferry departure would be delayed a few hours until the waters calm down but we were still to be there at the original check-in time. No big deal, it was an overnight ferry anyway, right? Long story short, a 16 hour ferry ride turned into a 23 hour journey with 5 metre (16.5’) waves and hoards of water splashing over the front of the boat. These weren’t rock-you-to-sleep waves, these were startle-you-in-the-middle-of-your-sleep-cause-you-might-die waves. Ok, I never thought we were going to die but it sure was disconcerting to be woken up to the sound of a rogue wave crashing into the side of the boat. Aside from that, the boat itself was pretty swanky and felt more like a Vegas hotel than a commuter ferry. Being cheap and booking last minute meant that we didn’t get a room so we made ourselves at home in some comfy recliners and “enjoyed” the ride. The boat was massive and had all the essentials on board: an arcade/casino, a buffet, multiple restaurants and lounges and even a designated rum bar. Got 16 hours to kill, might as well spend it drinking and gambling, right?

The MV Atlantic Vision looks more like a cruise ship than a ferry

Once we got closer to Nova Scotia, the water calmed, the sun came out and all was well. We docked without a hitch and were super stoked to hop in the van and be on land again. Exploring Newfoundland was a huge milestone for us and marked a complete cross-country roadtrip across Canada. I think people are more surprised by the fact that Clemie has made it to more cities than most people since she’s no spring chicken. Sure, we’ve spent a lot of money on gas but for the places we’ve been able to go, it’s beyond worth it. As the weather is starting turn, it’s time to start heading west in hopes that we won’t get our fair share of snow like we got buried in at this time last year.

Cape Breton Highlands

Exploring Nova Scotia’s gorgeous Cape Breton Island where we spent a day doing the Cabot Trail through Ingonish and Chéticamp before sea kayaking around Port Hood, Nova Scotia.

Although it’s been up for debate and later concluded that John Cabot did not, in fact, make his first Canadian land break on Cape Breton Island, the province still loves to name things after him while embracing an increasingly prevalent Scottish heritage. Why bother fact checking when the place is this beautiful?!

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There’s the money shot!

After crossing the causeway in the AM, we decided to do the Cabot Trail counterclockwise and start off heading from Baddeck to Ingonish. The few mountain lookout points were lovely, but just weren’t as spectacular as the photos and magazines lead us to believe. As usual, we took our time and stopped at just about every vista point where we soaked in the sun and questioned if we were really in Canada. By the time we reached Pleasant Bay, we finally got to see what all the hype was about. The Western part of the island put all the magazines and postcards to shame – it was even more beautiful than we had imagined. If you’ve ever seen photos of the coasts of Ireland and Scotland and thought you’d never get a chance to see them in person, just hop on a plane to Nova Scotia instead!

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The National Park has some pretty beautiful spots

We stopped at La Bloc Beach within the Cape Breton Highlands National Park for some lunch where we had an amazing view of the cliffs and a constant battle with the wind. There’s something pretty amazing about a place that is so rugged and powerful making you feel so peaceful and calm. You really need to take a minute to admire the natural beauty of the area and rejoice that it’s protected land.

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Lovely lunch spot on La Bloc Beach

As we finished the loop, we drove through some of the small towns outside of the National Park, like Chéticamp, and thought about how amazing it would be to wake up to that view every morning. Luckily for us, we can wake up to a different view every morning and have the freedom to abandon ship when the weather is bad. We stopped in Belle Côte for some fish and chips and set out to find a sleeping spot for the night. We had stopped at a lookout point not far from the restaurant that gave us a glorious view of the winding coastline but decided to seek out a spot that was a little more sheltered from the emerging winds. We kept on through Mabou, where we found a nice riverside spot right across from the harbour.

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Home for tonight? A lookout point near Belle Côte

After a good night’s sleep, we headed toward Port Hood where we’d be meeting with a friend’s mom in Judique. One of the best parts about travelling is phoning in all of the local connections you’ve got around the country. It’s so nice to catch up with family and friends and be shown around by a local. In this case, we got to experience East Coast hospitality at its finest by being taken sea kayaking from someone we had never even met before. The gesture for people to open up their homes and their schedules to share their town with you is pretty special.

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Hanging out beachside in Port Hood

While Justin had some kayaking experience, I had never been in one before so we took a casual cruise around the ocean-fed pond where we skimmed over thousands of fresh mussels and oysters. Just like in PEI, we scooped them right out of the water and ate some of the freshest oysters around, #spoiled. After a lovely day on the water, the eastern hospitality continued with a delicious home-cooked meal and an apple crumble made from apples as local as they get – hand picked right from the backyard. With our bellies full and an early morning reservation looming, we packed up and set out for North Sydney, where we’d be taking the ferry to Newfoundland the next morning.

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Kayaking like damn pros

With everything from white sand beaches to a roaring rocky coastline, Nova Scotia slid right into my favourite provinces list pretty quick. The East Coast of Canada in general is super underrated and is somewhere every Canadian and tourist alike should add to their itinerary. Next stop is Justin’s homeland where we go just about as remote as it gets with a 7 hour boat ride as our next commute.

Bringing our New Home to our Old Home in Southern Ontario

Walking alongside the rapids of Niagara Falls before returning to our former home of Toronto, Ontario. All while squeezing in some TLC time for Clemie amid camping trips in Port Elgin and Kawartha Lakes, Ontario.

After border crossing #487354, we were home, sweet home and ready to catch up with friends and family all around southern Ontario (whoever’s keeping the border crossing tally might be a tad hyperbolic). We were stoked to spend some time with friends in Niagara Falls before heading to Toronto and were lucky enough to have a hookup with Niagara Parks for all kinds of complimentary passes to the good, non-cheesy attractions (shoutout to Brandon and Bev 😉). We spent a day being tourists doing the cable car over the whirlpool, walking behind the falls and indulging in some kids entertainment at The Fury.

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View from the cable car going over the Niagara Gorge

The next day, we did the White Water Walk and got splashed by the most dangerous rapids in the world. That’s right, these are Class 6 rapids and are completely off-limits to rafters or paddlers because they’re that nuts. The limestone in the rocks give the water a beautiful, ultra-saturated teal colour that looks like a sea of cotton candy. If you find yourself in Niagara Falls, skip the wax museums of Clifton Hill and walk over to the gorge – in my opinion, it’s one of the most beautiful parts of the whole area. We didn’t bother with the Hornblower (the bigger, badder and crazier version of the Maid of the Mist, which is now the New York side’s attraction) because it was hot as hell out, the line was way too long and we had our share of plastic poncho-wearing for the day already.

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Getting up close and personal with Class 6 rapids

It had been 10 months since we left Toronto to move to Alberta and it felt a little surreal to be back – mainly because we brought our entire house with us. As always, it was great to spend time with friends and family and catch up on some work and van maintenance. We managed to cross quite a bit off of our list including rerouting our sink drainage, making a new table and sealing a couple chips in the windshield. It was nice to be parked at my parents’ house where tools and running water are plentiful. And of course, parents love to feed ya! With full bellies, we headed to MacGregor Point, an Ontario Provincial Park on Lake Huron, for a camping trip at our second paid campsite in 6 months. Yup, ever since we installed our solar system, we’ve only paid for two campsites since March. One in Tofino because we pretty much had no choice and this group camping trip that was planned months ago. How many people can say they’ve only paid one hundred and fifty odd bucks in rent in 6 months?? Fees aside, it was a really nice campground that felt like we were alone in the woods, which is generally preferable when camping as opposed to the all too common sardine can campgrounds where kids wake up super early and just scream all day. On our way out, we checked out the beach in Port Elgin where the crystal clear waters of Lake Huron make you feel like you’re somewhere tropical and do such a great job at making you forget just how damn cold it gets in the winter.

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The best part of our MacGregor Point camping trip was getting to spend time with this handsome devil (sorry human friends)

Not long after we returned to the city to get back to work, we were headed off on another camping trip. This time, we headed east about 2 hours north of Peterborough to do some boondocking on some of Ontario’s mythical Crown Land (public land). If you’ve ever tried to locate Crown Land in Ontario (namely southern), you’ll know exactly what I mean. Sure, the government website provides a map but it’s complicated and not very user-friendly. Truthfully, I think that that’s their intention since it’s unclear whether many of the spots are even accessible – especially with a vehicle. Anyway, deciphering maps and finding camping spots has become a regular part of our daily lives so we were game to give it a whirl. We found an amazing spot called Cashel Lake where a few other campers had already set up shop to enjoy the peaceful woods and pristine lake. We spent the majority of the weekend floating in the water with friends while soaking in as much of the non-city air as we could before heading back to Toronto. I even dug out my childhood fishing rods that became our new favourite tools and even helped to catch us dinner one night. Not bad for city folk!

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Nothing like fishing from an inflatable pink donut
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And then eating the fish at our little shanty town

After returning home and tying up some loose ends with van repairs, we were ready to get back into “routine” and hit the road again. Saying goodbye is always bittersweet but our goodbyes are always more “until next times” than anything else. Leaving the city this time around was so much more relaxed than last time when we were about to fly across the country to move into our house that we hadn’t even seen before. We’re geared up and ready to hit the East Coast and can’t wait to cross some more provinces off our list!

Fishing our Way Through Northern Ontario

Entering the land of trees and lakes in Kenora, Sioux Lookout and Thunder Bay, Ontario.

The drive across Manitoba changes its landscape quite a bit as you approach the provincial line. Falcon Lake just set the tone for the rest of the rocky, tree and water-filled drive that was ahead. We crossed into Ontario and the Canadian Shield was real. For those that don’t know what that is, just picture lots of rock walls (aka the earth’s crust) that have been blown out for the road to go through. The Minnesota license plate boasts 10 000 Lakes but Northern Ontario has more than 250 000 so I’m sure you can imagine that there is no shortage of lovely views. We found a boat ramp on a quiet lake where we stayed the night with a few other Ontario vanners looking to catch some shut-eye. Ontario never really felt unique for me since it was all I knew as a child, but after spending so much time elsewhere in Canada, being back reminded me that it really is beautiful.

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Gotta love waterfront crown land. Our camping spot on Royal Lake.

The next morning, we were headed to a remote fishing camp near Sioux Lookout. On our way, we drove through Kenora, which was somewhere I truthfully didn’t even know existed but was absolutely gorgeous. The town was bustling with shops and restaurants in old buildings full of character and charm, while boats rolled into the marina and people walked about. In fact, it was so full of tourists that we had our first taste of bumper-to-bumper traffic in a while and it felt like we were in a much bigger city. We had a grocery run to do so we stopped in at No Frills, which was an absolutely madhouse – they were even out of bread. Out of bread!! It seems that more and more people are catching onto how beautiful Kenora is and are making it their summer destination and consequently, clearing the shelves of the soft, delicious goodness that we call bread. Anyway, we were lucky that Dryden, another town along the way, was more prepared for these circumstances and had plenty of loaves and hot dog buns alike.

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This photo doesn’t do Kenora justice but you can see it’s a pretty little waterfront town with plenty of boats, shops and restaurants

We made it to Sioux Lookout where we caught a boat in to portage over to Ghost River Lodges, a fishing camp on Marchington Lake run by Justin’s aunt and uncle. Many of the camps in the area are fly-in only so it was nice to enjoy a couple boat rides and get a feel for the surroundings. There are 15 lakes all accessible by rivers or small portages full of fishies and other wildlife. We stayed for a week and fished every day, eating awesome lunches and dinners of the freshest fish around. We even got a cabin with a flushing toilet AND a shower – luxury! Although we had major separation anxiety from the van, it was nice to get away for a while and live a different – equally challenging – lifestyle. We spent our last night hanging out with friends and family, drinking wine and eating homemade fish & chips. We even scored a whole bunch of home-dubbed cassettes that are pretty rad.

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Here’s Justin with a feisty little perch
Cooking up a shore lunch on a remote island. Talk about livin’ off the land!

The morning portage out was a little slow and fuzzy from all the wine the night before but we were anxious to be reunited with Clementine and get back on the road. Our next destination was Thunder Bay, where Justin has more family. We paid some visits and spent a few days relaxing and watching Mrs. Brown’s Boys with Justin’s grandma before seeing “the sights” that Thunder Bay has to offer. Ok, if you’ve been to TBay before then you know that calling them “the sights” might be a bit of a stretch. Basically, you’ve got a lovely view of the Sleeping Giant from Hillcrest Park and a stroll around the waterfront and marina. It seems that the city is slowly trying to put efforts into revamping the town to attract tourists and make it a little prettier. They’ve done a great job with the marina and hopefully that same love will creep up into the rest of the city but for the most part, it’s pretty dirty and not very exciting. Without hesitation, we both agree that TBay has been our least favourite place so far. I don’t want to dissuade anyone from going there but let’s just say (family visits aside), we were very anxious to leave.

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The Sleeping Giant from Hillcrest Park

Our foray into Northern Ontario marked our fifth province and the nearing of completing our even fuller circle by returning to Toronto. Although we’ve been so happy to be back in Canada and uncover all kinds of cool new places, the beckoning of cheap gas and groceries was calling. We decided to cross back into the states to get around the Great Lakes as opposed to driving through Ontario. If that confuses you, take a look at a map of Canada and see how huge Ontario is – we’ll cross 8 states in the time it would take to get down through Ontario. Luckily Thunder Bay is barely an hour away from the US border where gas drops by over $0.60/L and chicken breasts aren’t 5 bucks each…ah, what a magical place.

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BONUS PHOTO: Here’s me with a full stringer, pretending I single handedly caught them all

Following the Crowsnest through Interior BC

Snaking around hairpin turns in Osoyoos before venturing into the mountains on the Crowsnest Highway through Castlegar, Creston and Fernie, British Columbia. 

The time had come for us to veer away from the gorgeous Pacific coast that we had spent the last two months conquering and head into the interior, bidding farewell to the ocean for a while until we reach the Atlantic. From Princeton, we started on the Crowsnest Highway, which we’d be taking the whole way through to Alberta. Most people opt for the other route through Golden, BC to Banff, AB but that’s precisely why we didn’t – it gets crazy packed with tourists all summer and luckily, we’ve both done it before. The Crowsnest Highway is also incredibly beautiful and far less busy, which is great for us since Clemmie doesn’t exactly love going up hills. Anyway, we settled into another camping spot along the Similkameen River not far from Hedley and took cover as massive swarms of baby mosquitoes tried to gobble us up. I didn’t mind having to stay inside because after spending a week in the city, I got sick. Interestingly enough, neither of us have been sick at all since we’ve hit the road (even in the winter) and have been spending so much time outside but after a week of close quarters with lots of humans, it got me good.     

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It’s hard to find bad views in the mountains. This was our spot on the Similkameen River, between Hedley and Keremeos.

We carried on into picturesque wine country where it was 30°C/86°F and everything was in full bloom. If you’ve never been to Osoyoos before, do yourself a favour and go. It’s a magical valley within the Okanagan area that seems like it could be the setting of a Disney movie with lush greenery amongst a background of snow-capped mountains. There’s a killer lookout point as you leave town that gives a view of the whole valley and the switchbacks you just drove up to get there. This led us toward Anarchist Mountain (great name), where we camped a night at yet another one of BC’s awesome recreation areas called Jolly Creek. We had our share of struggles in the winter when it was so cold that we’d wake up with frost on our phone screens and our dish soap would be frozen but now that summer was coming into full swing, a whole new set of challenges were arising. We’ve got a small fan but with no airflow, it kinda just pushes the warm air around. The only cure for that is to sit outside in the heat and remember the times we nearly froze when running out of propane in the middle of the night in -30° and stop complaining.

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Could Osoyoos get any prettier?

The van didn’t want to start up the next morning which further solidified our inkling that the ignition timing was out of sync and the drive through the mountains would be a slow crawl until we could fix it in Calgary. With most of our day spent fiddling with spark plugs, we made a brief stop in Grand Forks before hunkering down for the night at a spot called Mud Lake. Because of the elevation, there was still snow on the ground even though it was over 30°C/86°F and sunny; for the first time ever, we had a snowball fight in shorts and sandals and it was something out of every Canadian child’s dreams.

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Sunshine and snow at Mud Lake

The next morning had me waking up dead sick but luckily we were on our way to Creston where we’d be visiting some family for some much-needed TLC and home cookin’. We stopped in Castlegar to trade in my oregano oil for extra strength Buckley’s before making the trek through the Kootenays via Salmo Pass. This was really hard on Clementine because it was the longest and probably the tallest mountain we’d climbed so far. Alongside the logging trucks, we slowly creeped up to the snowy summit where we had to stop for roadwork. Turns out there was a massive mud slide just a week prior where a couple from Saskatchewan got pushed off the cliff and had to find their way out of the mud and get airlifted out…YIKES. Anyway, we eventually made it to Creston (mud-free) where we spent a few days relaxing and chowing down on lots of fresh, local asparagus (asparagus tourism, anyone?).

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No shortage of bad views on the Kootenay Pass from Salmo to Creston

With some rest and lots of cold medicine, I was feeling alive again and ready to keep truckin’. We made a stop in Cranbrook to get some groceries and got caught in a vicious mountain thunderstorm that actually made the power go out at Walmart. You know it’s intense when even Walmart is down. Once it passed and order was restored in the universe, we made our way toward Fernie for our last couple nights in British Columbia. By this time, we’d been on the road for six months and had barely seen any wildlife aside from the usual suspects of deer and possums. Not far out of Cranbrook near Joffre, we had our first bear sighting. Unfortunately, it was dead on the side of the road with its tongue hanging out and was not at all pleasant to look at…neither was the smashed up car that hit it. We passed the scene of the crime and spent the night at Wapiti Lake where we camped lakeside to the soundtrack of elk mating calls. When we were exploring the forest a bit, we found a bag of deer legs dumped on the ground. This was pretty weird and creepy so we retreated back to the van and tried not to let our minds wander.

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When a lovely lakeside camping spot turns into…
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A creepy deer massacre!!

Fernie is a wicked little mountain town not far from the Alberta border. It’s a hotspot in the winter for skiing and snowboarding but is equally beautiful in the summer where sidewalk patios give way to a view of the snowy Lizard Range Mountains. The Three Sisters are a heavily photographed mountain chain that you can see clearly, right from downtown. After putting in some work hours at a café, we grabbed some Fernie brews and headed up Mount Hosmer where we’d spend our last night in BC. Hartley Lake is a small emerald green lake nestled among the mountain tops that made for an awesome camping spot. You really can’t beat mountain-fed lakes and the peacefulness that surrounds them. We spotted two beavers swimming around but when we walked around to get a closer look, the one we gathered was the male protecting the pregnant female started jumping out of the water to make some major splashes to scare us off. Ok beaver, it worked. We’ll keep to our side and you can keep to yours.

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Beautiful Hartley Lake on Mt. Hosmer, about 20 minutes away from Fernie

After a quiet night’s rest, we gathered our things to make our way toward Calgary, where we started our journey six months ago. Of course, Clementine didn’t want to go home and decided yet again, she didn’t want to start. She eventually got going after the usual fiddling so we were anxious to get to Calgary to catch up on the overdue repairs and tuning. Returning to Alberta was coming full circle from where we bought and renovated the van and it felt great to know we’ve made it such a long way. We’re stoked to keep heading east through Canada and check out tons of cool spots along the way. Keep checking our camping directory as we add new spots all the time!

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Bonus! Check out “The World’s Largest Truck” in Sparwood on your way out of BC. It’s definitely not small…

Surfing our Way Up-Island

Camping in Vancouver Island’s rainforests outside of Port Alberni before catching some good food AND waves around Ucluelet and Tofino, British Columbia.

Anyone who has been before knows that Vancouver Island has got it goin’ on. We’re hoping we can one day venture out to what’s truly considered “up-island” (Campbell River, Port Hardy, etc.), but for this leg of our journey, we were en route to the furthest west we’d be going in Canada.

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Cathedral Grove is a must-see stop on the drive to Port Alberni

After scouring around the BC Sites and Trails website, we found a few really awesome free campsites within an hour of Port Alberni. Bear in mind that even though they’re a full hour’s drive, they’re less than 30km (18 miles) away – AKA some rough dirt road driving. What has now come to be one of my favourite camping spots to date, the first place we checked out was Arden Creek. A surprisingly well maintained logging road brought us to a small opening within the trees where the very discreet road in made its way down to the water. There are four designated campsites, each with different scenery ranging from a rocky beach to a crystal clear river hidden by mossy trees. This place was downright magical.

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What a campsite! Arden Creek was wicked

We decided to stay there a few days while relaxing in the trees and watching the tide of the Alberni Inlet roll in and out like it was going out of style. Once we were ready to start trailblazing again, we headed to Nahmint Lake, another gem of a BC Recreation Area hidden among old growth hemlock trees. As beautiful as it was, the drive to reach it gave Clementine a run for her money. Potholes are one thing but this road had some majorly steep grades that were quite a challenge when you’re a 34 year old bitty that weighs well over 5000 pounds. Just when the engine got a break from hill climbing, the brakes got their share of stress on a not-far-from-vertical descent down the mountain that made us look forward to climbing it on the way out (not). On one rock, someone actually spray-painted “KEEP ‘ER PINNED” as a reminder to keep that gas going…thanks helpful Canadian vandals! Anyway, the spot was super nice and definitely delivered on being remote. With all the vegetation and wildlife around, there was so much life enveloping the van into its flourishing mossy grasp. If you’re looking to get your jungle fix without leaving BC, it’s well worth the steep rocky drive in.

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Our campsite at Nahmint Lake

Ultra scenic highway 4 led us through the mountains, by the wayside of picturesque Kennedy Lake and finally, back out to the ocean. The rain came down hard that day and created a misty haze in the trees that looked pretty cool and doubled as a free carwash that was much needed after the alternating cycle of mud and dust that was the Nahmint Lake drive. As the clouds cleared, we arrived in the small fishing town of Ucluelet where we ate some tasty fresh cod at a food truck called Jiggers and passed by a bunch of other vans on the same pilgrimage.

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Rainy days on Highway 4

Continuing on the tail end of highway 4, we headed into Pacific Rim National Park where we camped at Green Point for a few days. I’m proud to say that this was our first time paying for a campsite in months and on this part of the island, it’s well worth it because boondocking is next to impossible. With our newly acquired 2018 Discovery Pass in tow, we got to explore Long Beach and sleep under the familiar jungley trees from Nahmint Lake. The only downside was that the trees created almost complete shade so it was consistently chilly and not great for solar, but luckily every campsite had an electrical hookup to keep that fridge cold.

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Nahmint Lake is surrounded by huge hemlock trees among tons of other plants. Keepin’ it green!
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Tidal pools disguising themselves as tempting hot tubs

Unlike many other coastal beaches, Long Beach is nice and sandy and has tons of really cool tidal pools that look like mini tropical oases. This also makes it a great place to surf since the waves in this area are pretty reliable. As it turned out, the weekend we were there happened to be the Rip Curl Pro surfing competition so Tofino was bustling. We went into town to grab some Tofino Brewing beers and some tasty cured meats and cheeses at Picnic Charcuterie before making our way to Cox Bay to scope out the competition. When we got to the beach, we were greeted by a thick fog that made it hard to see what was going on 20 metres away but were pretty confident that not many people were out surfing. We ate, drank and were merry with all the other people on the beach before heading back to the campsite for the night.

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Thick fog swallowed up all of Cox Bay

Tofino is a pretty tourist driven town with gorgeous scenery in all directions that felt more like Australia than Canada. It’s an easy place to spend money but also a great spot to just walk around and take in the views. The next day, we rented some surfboards and wetsuits and spent the afternoon at Chesterman Beach surfing (or at least attempting to). Turns out the fog was too thick for the judges to see anything the day before so all the events were being jam-packed into one marathon of a competition on this final day of the weekend. Chesterman was much better suited for beginners so we happily got endlessly knocked over there. I mostly belly rode the whole time, which was super fun, but Justin managed to successfully stand up and surf the waves. Truthfully, the hardest part for me was carrying the damn longboard because it was double the size of me and super awkward. In any case, we had a great time in the water and were completely exhausted by the end of it.

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Tubular, bruh!

With one night left on the island, we managed to find a free spot near the local landfill (glamorous) that had a road as pothole-ridden as those in Mexico. To illustrate just how bumpy it was, we had an avocado in the banana hammock that got rocked back and forth so vigorously that it made guacamole on the ceiling – yum! We had a much-needed sleep before heading back to Nanaimo to catch the ferry to Horseshoe Bay where we’d begin our journey to the mainland and start heading east. Summer’s on its way and we’re stoked to be back in Canada!

Lower Vancouver Island

Starting our return to Canada off right by heading straight to one of our favourite places, Vancouver Island. We partied with friends in Victoria before making our way around Jordan River, Cowichan Lake and Nanaimo, British Columbia.

Hello Canada! We are back and ready to get all up in your business! Or, just drive across you while visiting friends and family and marvelling in your beauty. The ferry ride over was an A+ way to cross the border: beautiful scenery, a beer-stocked boat and the smoothest border crossing we’ve ever had. Like most humans, the border always makes me nervous even though we’ve done nothing wrong, but this one was so chill that the lady actually laughed when we bothered to claim some auto parts we were bringing back. Plus, no need to deal with that Peace Arch congestion that can take hours to go through. Also worth noting that Clementine is about 18’ long so we were able to pay standard vehicle price, which ended up being just $80 USD total for us all to cross – MUCH less than we’d pay in gas driving through Seattle to Vancouver and taking the BC Ferry to the Island. Win-win!

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Non-stop beautiful views on the ferry from Port Angeles, WA to Victoria, BC

The great thing about being back in Canada is that we know a bunch of people scattered far and wide so we can cash in on some valuable shower and driveway time. Isn’t that what friends are for after all? We spent a week in Victoria staying with a friend’s awesome parents (shout out to John and Ruth if you’re reading this 😉) and some old friends while catching up on work and enjoying the lack of rain that coastal BC can be known for. We even managed to get in some beach time at Gonzales Bay, where you can sunbathe and party at the foot of multimillion-dollar homes that you’ll never own. What a life! We also broke all the rules of stealth camping and had a party in the van while parked on a city street but managed to get away with no police visits or tickets and escaped with just a hangover. Success!

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There was also a seal molting on the beach

One place we checked out that wasn’t previously on our radar was The Butchart Gardens. Lucky for us, we were given a 2 for 1 admission pass so we took the opportunity to explore all the flowers that you normally just see on postcards. We didn’t think we were all that interested in flowers, until we visited. Basically, the area is an old limestone quarry that’s been converted into a dream-like sunken garden, along with Italian and Japanese gardens and a rose garden. Perfectly manicured greenery and flowers of every colour filled every direction, along with the highest concentration of extremely happy old people I’ve ever seen in my life. The place was packed – even when it started to rain and everyone huddled under clear bubble umbrellas so as not to miss any of the pretty floral views. They have some odd restrictions about not wearing period dress or cosplay but all in all, it was a pleasant surprise how much we enjoyed it (no, we weren’t planning to dress in cosplay even if it was allowed).

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The sunken garden was something out of a fairytale

I’ve mentioned the difference in gas prices before between the US and Canada but we were ever so fortunate to come back into Canada when Vancouver is experiencing the most expensive gas prices in North America. Currency conversion aside, we’re paying almost as much per LITRE ($1.62) as we were paying per gallon in some states ($1.99)…and there’s 3.78L in a gallon, so you can do the math. Anyway, we couldn’t let that stop us from continuing around the Island and heading to Jordan River. A popular surfing spot for people who actually know what they’re doing, the river meets up with the coast at a rocky beach filled with crabs and other tidal sea life. We camped right along the beach and enjoyed being back out of the city for a few days.

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No surfers around in the thick fog at Jordan River

Continuing toward Port Renfrew, we stopped at China Beach where we explored the woods and I failed massively at skipping rocks. In Juan de Fuca Park, there’s a botanical beach with lots of little sea critters and these crazy bonsai-esque trees that grow in all kinds of warped twisty directions. They almost end up growing into each other and carve interesting paths in the hiking trail, dictating which way you’ll walk around them. Sombrio Beach is another cool spot with the classic west coast rocky beach that the high tide can do such a good job at hiding. You can easily kill a couple hours flipping over a few rocks and seeing all the crabs scurry on to their new homes while playing the tough guy card and pinching their claws at you.

Generic Van Life - Vancouver Island China Beach
These twisty “natural bonsais” wrap their way around the park

We spent the next day exploring Lake Cowichan and the Cowichan River Park where we hiked around and watched crazy kayakers battle the river. These provincial parks have plenty of no overnight camping signs at trailheads and parking lots so we eventually circled around Cowichan Bay in hopes of finding a spot to camp for the night. Unfortunately, most of the more remote areas around here have become rich peoples’ houses so we went on a little further before stopping in a town called Chemainus. Turns out they’ve got designated RV parking spots around town where you can stay and enjoy a view of the ocean. We spent the evening at a park by the water with a boat ramp and relished in the definite start of summer with the sun not setting until well after 8 PM.

Generic Van Life - Vancouver Island Cowichan River
Watching people kayak counts as kayaking too, right?

One pitfall about Canada is that there are very few Planet Fitness locations where we can grab a shower…and maybe a workout if we’re feeling ambitious. We didn’t have any friends to phone up in Nanaimo so we racked our brains and took a different approach by visiting the pool. I’m normally not a fan of public pools at all but this place was $7 and had a wave pool, waterslides and a huge hot tub! After a long day of working, it was a fun and relaxing way to unwind…until a kid puked in the pool and everyone had to get out. Oh yeah, that’s why I don’t like public pools. Anyhow, we got all shampooed up and headed to a BC Recreation Area about 20 minutes away from Nanaimo and hunkered down for the night. This place meets up with the Trans Canada Trail so there were a few hikers and equestrian folk around since the area has lots of corrals and grassy land for the horsies to roam around. There was even a BBQ in one of the sites that seemed to be open for use.

Generic Van Life - Vancouver Island Nanaimo Bars
No trip to Nanaimo could be complete without a couple nanaimo bars

We’re now on our way toward Tofino and stoked to explore everything in between. Vancouver Island is a magical place and is FULL of amazing free camping spots that just take a little research to discover. Canada seems to be much less prominent when it comes to finding spots on websites like freecampsites.net (the bible) but by taking some time to dig around BC’s Sites and Trails site and talking to locals, the Island is full of great surprises.

Generic Van Life - Vancouver Island Butchart Gardens
Another Butchart Gardens photo because it was THAT magical