Posts in Nature

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.

Time for New Brunswick: Part II

Spending time with friends in St. Andrews by-the-Sea, catching low tide on Minister’s Island and camping beside the world’s longest covered bridge in Hartland, New Brunswick.

And so the journey back west commences. After getting off the very long and stressful ferry ride from Newfoundland to North Sydney, NS, we figured we would drive about halfway to St. Andrews, NB or at least call it quits whenever we burn out. We managed to “nap” briefly on the boat but an upright chair isn’t really the ideal place to get a good night’s rest. On top of barely sleeping, we arrived in port much later than we were originally set to because of the weather but were still feeling ambitious. My ambition ran out in Moncton but Justin had enough to drive us all the way to St. Andrews, where we were lucky enough to get to stay at a friend’s cabin for a few days.

Generic Van Life New Brunswick Part II St Andrews Deck
Beauty view from the deck of the cabin in St Andrews

The town of St. Andrews is considered to be a “historic resort town”, where east coasters and others have been vacationing for years. The buildings are old and beautifully maintained while all having lovely, unobstructed views of Passamaquoddy Bay within the Bay of Fundy and its crazy tide. The Algonquin Hotel in itself could probably be deemed its own resort town with its huge stately stature and triple-digit price tags. Being back on the mainland brought clear skies and much more comfortable temps so we were able to sit back on the patio and drink beers in the glow of the warm sun.

Generic Van Life New Brunswick Part II St Andrews Street
The pretty streets of St Andrews

After going to Hopewell Rocks and experiencing first hand just how drastic the Bay of Fundy’s tide change is, we weren’t surprised to hear about Minister’s Island. It’s an island that is only accessible during low tide when cars can drive across the ocean’s floor along a sandbar (or rock bar, more like) to reach it. In the late 1800s, the former president of the Canadian Pacific Railway bought the land and decided to make it his summer home island. Everyone’s got one of those, right? You can also walk down to the bathhouse, which was essentially a series of pools created during high tide where folks relaxed and got salty.

Generic Van Life New Brunswick Part II Ministers Island Bathhouse
The bathhouse on Ministers Island

We would have loved to go through Maine but sadly our US visitor visas are pretty well maxed out. That’s not to say that the drive through Canada wouldn’t be beautiful, but the allure of cheap gas and even cheaper beer is always quite tempting. After some much-needed Oceanside relaxing and catching up with friends, we were back on the road and heading toward the Québec border. We got word of a bad storm hitting Eastern Québec that night so we took the opportunity to get some work done at a café in Fredericton and check out the world’s longest covered bridge in Hartland. Although the title piqued our interest, this bridge wasn’t exactly something on our bucket list. That being said, it was actually pretty cool. It’s a single lane bridge that spans 391 m/1282 feet and kinda makes you feel like you’re in a secret tunnel. Maybe not what the architects intended in 1898 but who’s to say.

Generic Van Life New Brunswick Part II Hartland Bridge
Hoppin on that covered bridge

Westbound and down is the name of the game for the next while as we make one more stop in Toronto before heading to the west coast for the winter. We’ve had an incredible summer and have no plans of slowing down until we reach Vancouver Island.

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?!

Generic Van Life Cape Breton Highlands Road
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!

Generic Van Life - Cape Breton Ingonish
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.

Generic Van Life Cape Breton La Bloc Beach
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.

Generic Van Life - Cape Breton Lookout Point
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.

Generic Van Life Cape Breton Highlands Port Hood
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.

Generic Van Life - Cape Breton Kayaking
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.

Crazy Tides in New Brunswick

Walking on the sea floor at Hopewell Rocks while the Bay of Fundy’s tide rolled (more like sped) in and out in Alma, New Brunswick.

With Québec in the rearview mirror, we crossed into the Atlantic time zone and our first province of the Maritimes: New Brunswick. We were on a mission to get to the Bay of Fundy so only a brief pit stop was made in Edmunston to top up the gas and admire how lovely-ly the landscape was changing from central Canada. Things started to get really hilly and lush since we were still fairly inland from the coast. Driving through NB, you’ll notice two things: first, all the signs are completely bilingual. Personally, we think that all of Canada should be like that since it helps people from all over the country feel unified and you might even pick up a few things on your daily drives. To clarify, NB is the only officially bilingual province so they’re required to have all signage in English and French by law while other provinces aren’t required to do so. Anyway, the second thing we noticed is that there were a lot of road signs with claims about being the potato capital. Ok, those are some pretty great awards and titles to have but we all know that despite McCain‘s prominence in the potato world, PEI holds that crown. “Potato country”, “French fry capital” and “world famous potatoes” were all proclamations made on roadside signs that contributed to this potato propaganda. Although I’d need to see the official documentation to back these statements up to truly believe them, all the talk about potatoes and fries made us realize that we were going to feel right at home in New Brunswick.

Generic Van Life - New Brunswick Tides Alma Boats
A fish boat out of water in Alma, New Brunswick

After zooming through Fredericton and making an unsuccessful attempt at getting some Sussex Ginger Ale in Sussex, we settled into a forest road campsite just outside of Fundy National Park for the night. It was a beautifully treed area that had this mystical sort of haze floating around that made it look pretty magical. Our goal was to get to the Hopewell Rocks for low tide bright and early the following day so it was the perfect spot to get a good night’s sleep before having to wake up at the asscrack of dawn.

Generic Van Life - New Brunswick Tides Fundy Campsite
Our magical looking campsite outside of Fundy National Park

On the way to Hopewell, we went through Alma, which is a cool little seaside town where we got our first view of just how crazy the tide really is. Huge fishing boats were completely out of the water and you could walk out at least 100’ beyond them. Once we got to the park, we could see people exploring the exposed sea floor way out beyond the steps to go down. We climbed down and checked out all the seaweed and flowerpot rocks that make the place so famous. The flowerpot rocks are also really good indicators of how much the tide changes – at 9AM we were walking at their bases and by 1PM, they were starting to get submerged.

Generic Van Life - New Brunswick Tides Hopewell Rocks Low Tide
Low tide at Hopewell Rocks

We walked out about 1km/0.6mi and the sand started to turn into quicksand-like mud. I wanted to feel just how sticky it was so I crossed into some and almost lost a shoe. It’s clear that those areas are where the tide line usually hangs out since it’s so much wetter than the sand closer to the cliffs. I found it really interesting how little sea life there was other than seaweed but I suppose with a tide that aggressive, it would be hard for little creatures to survive. It’s very different than a lot of west coast beaches where you dodge crabs and mussels as you walk out.

Generic Van Life - New Brunswick Tides Hopewell Rocks Seafloor
Walking on the sea floor of the Bay of Fundy
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The aftermath of the mud quite visible on my shoes

We stayed until an hour before high tide and the fluctuation was drastic. People were no longer allowed on the beach simply because there’s nowhere to walk; the beach completely disappears and gets filled in with water. Apparently a lot of ignorant people have gotten stuck from walking too far and not being able to find enough dry land to get back. The unique thing about the Bay of Fundy is that with the tide changing so quickly, it transforms the look of all the towns that it touches in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia alike. People can even rent kayaks at high tide to explore the rocks that they were just walking alongside on the formerly dry sand.

Generic Van Life - New Brunswick Tides Hopewell Rocks High Tide
One hour before high tide at Hopewell Rocks. Note the kayaks

I’m going to refrain from subjecting any of you to the fun/Fundy jokes and just say that we had a wicked time in New Brunswick and that the Hopewell Rocks…rocked! Ouch, sorry. After leaving the park, we booted through Moncton to head toward the Confederation Bridge to Prince Edward Island and hit up our first island in a while and take Clemie further and further east.

Top 5 FREE Camping Spots in Canada

In no particular order, here are our top 5 favourite FREE camping spots in Canada (so far…)

ARDEN CREEK – Port Alberni, British Columbia

Generic Van Life - Top 5 Best Free Camping Spots in Canada

Secluded waterside camping at its finest. A 40-minute drive from Port Alberni on a well maintained logging road gets you to the Alberni Inlet where you can tent or vehicle camp in a beautifully wooded area with picnic tables and a vault toilet.

Everything you need to know here: http://www.genericvan.life/full-camping-directory/listing/arden-creek/

ALEXANDER BAY – Glovertown, Newfoundland

Generic Van Life - Top 5 Best Free Camping Spots in Canada

With gravel pits aplenty in Newfoundland, finding one with a view is just an added bonus. Just off of the Trans-Canada on a dirt road is the former settlement of Alexander Bay; now a lovely gravel clearing on Boatswain’s (First) Pond.

Everything you need to know here: http://www.genericvan.life/full-camping-directory/listing/alexander-bay/

HARTLEY LAKE – Fernie, British Columbia

Generic Van Life - Top 5 Best Free Camping Spots in Canada

Nestled in the mountains just 30 minutes outside of Fernie, Hartley Lake is a beautiful emerald-coloured lake surrounded by spruce trees. There are a couple gravel clearings for vehicles and many hiking and ATV trails around in an otherwise perfectly remote setting.

Everything you need to know here: http://www.genericvan.life/full-camping-directory/listing/hartley-lake/

CASHEL LAKE – Gilmour, Ontario

Generic Van Life - Top 5 Free Camping Spots in Canada

Grassy crown land on a crystal clear lake. Pick a spot on the grass or in the woods and enjoy the peaceful surroundings of this nicely maintained area perfect for swimming, boating and fishing.

Everything you need to know here: http://www.genericvan.life/full-camping-directory/listing/cashel-lake/

NAHMINT LAKE – Port Alberni, British Columbia

Generic Van Life - Top 5 Free Camping Spots in Canada

It’s a rough road to get in, but totally worth the trek. Camp beneath old growth hemlock trees in BC’s rainforest. You’re also steps away from a rocky beach on a quiet freshwater lake.

Everything you need to know here: http://www.genericvan.life/full-camping-directory/listing/nahmint-lake/

Canada is HUGE and full of gorgeous, unobstructed nature waiting to be uncovered (and respected 🤓). Be sure to let us know if you check out any of these spots and shed some light on your favourite free spots too by leaving a comment below. Happy trails!

Top 5 FREE Camping Spots in America

In no particular order, here are our top 5 favourite FREE camping spots in America (so far…)

BLACK CANYON – New River, Arizona

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You’ve gotta love waking up in a movie-like desert with Saguaro cactuses taller than you at your doorstep. Lots of wide open space in this BLM area where you can stay a day or even a week.

Everything you need to know here: http://www.genericvan.life/full-camping-directory/listing/black-canyon/

EL MORRO – Tinaja, New Mexico

Generic Van Life - Top 5 free camping spots in America

The only National Park Campground we’ve ever seen that’s completely free. Amazing views of El Morro National Monument and you’re only a short drive away from exploring the grounds in the morning.

Everything you need to know here: http://www.genericvan.life/full-camping-directory/listing/el-morro/

PADRE ISLAND – Corpus Christi, Texas

Generic Van Life - Top 5 free camping spots in America

Beware of high tides when camping on Padre Island’s sandy beach. As long as you’re parked far enough back from the shore, this makes for an awesome spot to drive right on the beach and set up camp. Only catch here is that you will have to pay the entrance fee to the National Seashore, BUT it is free with an annual parks pass (which is definitely worth it, I might add).

Everything you need to know here: http://www.genericvan.life/full-camping-directory/listing/padre-island/

LAKE CUSHMAN – Hoodsport, Washington

Generic Van Life - Top 5 free camping spots in America

One spot nestled in the woods at the foot of Mt. Washington with an awesome view of Lake Cushman. Part of the Olympic National Forest and not far from Olympic National Park.

Everything you need to know here: http://www.genericvan.life/full-camping-directory/listing/lake-cushman-overlook/

DIXIE NATIONAL FOREST – Leeds, Utah

Generic Van Life - Top 5 free camping spots in America

Winding desert roads take you up to several campsites overlooking creeks and the nearby town of Leeds. Can’t beat rugged desert camping.

Everything you need to know here: http://www.genericvan.life/full-camping-directory/listing/dixie-national-forest/

We only just scratched the surface on the plethora of amazing BLM and National Forest land that America has to offer. Let us know your favourite spots in a comment so we can check ’em out!

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.

Generic Van Life - Northern Ontario Kenora
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.

Generic Van Life - Northern Ontario Ghost River Justin Perch
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.

Generic Van Life - Northern Ontario Thunder Bay Sleeping Giant
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.

Generic Van Life - Northern Ontario Ghost River Full Stringer
BONUS PHOTO: Here’s me with a full stringer, pretending I single handedly caught them all

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!

Generic Van Life - Vancouver Island Seal Molting Gonzales Bay
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).

Generic Van Life - Vancouver Island Butchart Gardens Sunken
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.

Generic Van Life - Vancouver Island Jordan River
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