Posts in Travel

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

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.

Mainland Nova Scotia

Basking in white sand beaches on Nova Scotia’s south shore in Hubbards and Chester before exploring the beautiful historic town of Lunenburg. We also watched the sunset over Peggy’s Cove and spent a night in Antigonish before hitting the Canso Causeway in mainland Nova Scotia.

After departing PEI, we were on a new mission to collect a very special antique from a family member in southern Nova Scotia. It was a 150+ year old spinning wheel used by Justin’s grandmother and great-grandmother for years to make yarn. We made our way down to Hubbards to see it, but not before grabbing a bite of donair on the outer rings of Halifax. If you’re American, you probably don’t know what I’m talking about but Halifax donairs are pretty famous and boast a wrap-sandwich-thing like no other – especially in the realm of drunk food. The secret is in the sauce, which has condensed milk in it, giving it a sweet taste as opposed to the usual heavy garlic of a shawarma or gyro. If you’re in Halifax, it’s practically your duty to at least try one. That being said, they’re not my favourite (womp womp woooomp) but at least I did my due diligence as a tourist. Also, do yourself a favour and tie up your hair before eating one – sauce in the hair is inevitable, no matter how proper you are.

Generic Van Life - Mainland Nova Scotia Antique Spinning Wheel
This spinning wheel was used for over 100 years in Justin’s family to make yarn

Saucy hair in tow, we made our way down to Hubbards, about half an hour outside of Halifax to meet up with Justin’s first cousin once removed (we spent way too long studying cousin charts to learn that that’s what your dad’s first cousin is to you to not use the term). We drove by some pretty gorgeous sandy beaches like Queensland Beach that made us question if we were in Nova Scotia or Florida. Seriously, these beaches were very different than the usual rugged and rocky coastal beaches. Another interesting thing is that although these are ocean beaches, most have a freshwater lake beside them. Pretty cool. Once we got to Hubbards, we disassembled the spinning wheels and realized just how big it was; the wheel itself was about the size of our bed. Luckily we didn’t have to transport it all that far.

Generic Van Life - Mainland Nova Scotia Hubbards Beach
Soft sandy beaches in Nova Scotia?! The south shore was a real treat. This is Hubbards Beach

The East Coast hospitality continued as we spent the evening drinking beers on a private beach while the sun was setting and enjoying the last couple weeks of summer. We woke up the next day and checked out Hubbards’ farmers market that was filled with an interesting mix of people of all ages. Although not a place we had ever even heard of, we totally understood why Justin’s first cousin once removed (sorry, had to) has spent 20 years there. A small enough town for everyone to know your name but still with unique events going on all the time.

Generic Van Life - Mainland Nova Scotia Hubbards Farmers Market
Lots of folks hanging out at the Hubbards Farmers Market

After leaving the market, we drove through more beautiful seaside towns like Chester and Mahone Bay that made us lust over south shore Nova Scotia. Sid, Justin’s dad’s cousin, took us to Lunenburg, which is a town out of a postcard. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage site and played a big role in Nova Scotia’s history. It’s now the home to the Bluenose II schooner that was unfortunately out at sea the day we were on the wharf. The town is full of colourful buildings and amazing boats from all over, really similar to the coastal towns of Scandinavia in Sweden and Denmark. We walked around all the hills, popping in and out of cute little shops and eventually having a bowl of chowder while overlooking the ocean. Does life get any better than this?!

Generic Van Life - Mainland Nova Scotia Lunenburg Dory
A couple of yellow dories in the Lunenburg Harbour

After another open-ended goodbye, we set out to Peggy’s Cove to see one of Nova Scotia’s most iconic sites. Driving along more of the south shore was absolutely breathtaking and made for some pretty spectacular scenery. The views didn’t stop when we got up to the lighthouse where the rocks turn into smooth almost white boulders and the land opens up to beautiful, open coastline.

Generic Van Life - Mainland Nova Scotia Antique Peggys Cove
Post card Nova Scotia at Peggy’s Cove

As the sun started to set, we did our best to avoid moose on the road by boogying through Truro and New Glasgow to a gravel pit not far from Antigonish. Here we were close to the causeway to cross onto Cape Breton Island the next morning and do the Cabot Trail. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to visit downtown Halifax but seeing how much we enjoyed the south shore, I’m sure we’ll be back again.

Living le Vanlife in Québec

Cruising along the St. Lawrence River in Canada’s Frenchest province through Beauharnois and the gorgeous countryside of Kamouraska, Québec.

You often forget just how big Ontario is and how long it takes to even cut across the bottom to get to Québec. I remember many $15 Megabus trips to Montréal to take advantage of the 18-year-old drinking age and late night bars where the drive seemed to fly by but in this case, it felt like more of a crawl (am I ageing myself?). A big part of how draining it felt stemmed from the days getting noticeable shorter. It’s starting to get dark earlier and earlier and autumn will definitely be upon us soon. Let’s just hope this year we will actually get to experience an autumn and Mother Nature doesn’t just slam the winter button way too early again. Anyway, after a long day, we decided to skip Montréal and settle into the small riverside town of Beauharnois for the night.

Generic Van Life - Quebec Beauharnois
Camping fleuve-side in Beauharnois, Québec

Beauharnois is home to a pretty massive hydroelectric dam with an adjacent gravel lot fit for a nice overnight stay. It seemed to be a pretty popular spot for people to stay the night, as there were more than a dozen vehicles already parked along the river when we arrived. Some folks even had their fishing rods out and were trying their luck with some poissons in the river. After climbing out of some not-so-obvious potholes, we crashed pretty quickly and had some much-needed rest after a long day on the road. We also had the free entertainment of locals bringing their Jeeps and minivans alike to do some awful-sounding donuts in the parking lot. In the morning, most people had cleared out but a man in a van not so different from Clemie came over to chat with us and welcome us to the area. It’s always super nice to get a chance to talk with locals and not feel like you’re seen as vagrant bums, especially when you’re just doing a quick overnight.

Generic Van Life - Quebec Beauharnois Night Shot
Werewolves not pictured in this full moon Beauharnois photo

We decided to pass on reliving our school year trips to Québec City and bypass the gorgeous historic city since we still had a fair amount of ground to cover in order to make our ferry to Newfoundland. Following the St. Lawrence, we drove through the countryside and got a taste for what the rest of our drive was going to be like. Small mountains were starting to pop up and water views were never far away. We had a few Québec vanners tell us that Kamouraska is where we want to be when it comes to travelling through the province so that’s where we headed. We stayed at a beach where the river felt like an ocean and there was nothing but peaceful, rolling hills in the distance. In the middle of all this painting-like scenery is a microbrewery all on its own called Tête d’Allumette where we popped in to grab a couple beers to enjoy on the beach as the tide rolled out.

Generic Van Life - Quebec Kamouraska Beach
The beautiful beach in Kamouraska on the St. Lawrence River

Kamouraska gave us a definite East Coast teaser and made us all that more excited to travel through Atlantic Canada. After leaving the beach, we made a stop in Rivière-du-Loup to get some much-needed rations: cheap beer and canned maple syrup. Did you even go to Québec if you didn’t bring back the tastiest maple syrup there is?! French goods in tow, we headed into the Atlantic time zone where we’d be embarking on the last leg of our voyage across Canada.

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!

Lake Hopping the Great Lakes

Hugging the Great Lakes while battling traffic in Chicago, dodging semis in Indiana and lusting over “pond-pools” in Ohio before hitting the border in Buffalo, New York.

With the van pointed toward Toronto, it was time to boogey around the Great Lakes and knock a whole bunch of states off our list. Some might be wondering why we didn’t cross into Canada through Detroit and there are a few reasons; for starters, we had friends to visit in Niagara Falls, ON anyway so crossing through Buffalo practically had us at their doorstep. Second, we wanted to keep as much of the route to Toronto on American soil as possible because gas is a fraction of the cost ($2.95 a gallon in Buffalo versus $1.30 a litre in London) and of course, we wanted to boost up the tally of states we’ve driven through – duh!

From Milwaukee in the early afternoon, we thought we’d be in the clear for getting through Chicago while avoiding rush hour traffic. Ah, how naïve of us. Because there’s no bypass highway around Chicago, everyone and their brother is crossing through the city. Now, we usually don’t complain much about not having A/C since driving with the windows down makes a pretty decent breeze, but being late July when the temperatures are soaring, the breeze is largely dependent on one thing: you need to actually be moving. Let’s just say that bumper-to-bumper traffic in 30°C/90°F made for a pretty sticky ride. We had no intentions of stopping in Chicago to explore at all, but we got a nice, slow-moving tour without even having to leave our van! I’ve heard a lot of people liken Toronto to Chicago and we could definitely see why – heck, their bridges must have been designed by the same buffoon who was responsible for Toronto’s crumbling Gardiner Expressway (and another reference from 2012 to illustrate how long this has been going on, just ‘cuz). One thing we noticed was that gas stations in Illinois offer a healthy discount on your fill-up if you get a car wash and man, are these Illinoisans (apparently the proper demonym) taking advantage of that because everyone was rocking a super shiny car. If only we could fit in a touchless car wash…

Generic Van Life - Great Lakes Chicago
Taken during a brief moment when traffic was actually moving

Once we finally inched our way through the city, we had another moment of naïveté thinking that traffic would now ease up. Little did we know that Indiana is the so-called “Crossroads of America” and it was no joke. Thousands of semis coming from all directions on top of the regular 5PM hustle and bustle we were now right in the thick of. Thankfully things thinned out after the turn-off to Indianapolis and we could breathe again. We cruised into Michigan and touched base at the only Great Lake that neither of us had been to. We squeezed in some shut-eye at a Walmart after a very long day of driving and headed for Ohio the next morning. After clocking in a work day in Toledo – which I might add sounds way too Wild West-y to be in Ohio – we stayed the night at the Harry Hughes Equestrian Centre and relished in the quiet sounds of birds and crickets that made us thankful to not be at another Walmart.

Generic Van Life - Great Lakes Harry Hughes Ohio
Grass > Parking lot. Any day.

The traffic around Cleveland was practically non-existent, which was refreshing after our drive the day before. As we went through smaller towns and residential areas, we noticed that lots of people in Ohio have these little pond-meets-swimming-pool things that are totally genius. They look like ponds with rocks and gradual depth but they’re filled with vibrant teal waters and some even have diving boards or floating docks, making me question if they’re chlorinated? Plus they’d seemingly easily freeze over in the winter and double as skating rinks. Please shed some light if you know more about these things and if our hypotheses are correct, then tell us why no one else in North America has these?!

Not my photo but these are what the “pond-pools” look like. Seemingly fantastic but we need to know more!

We made the very brief voyage through Pennsylvania before heading into the last state on our route, New York. New York marked the 28th state that we’ve visited on this road trip with Clementine and that was pretty cool. We can easily knock off a bunch of east coast states next summer and hopefully eventually hit all 50 (maybe a little ambitious about Hawaii but one can dream). We stayed in the North Harmony State Forest, which unbeknownst to us, was in the heart of Amish-ville. We often feel old school driving a 30+ year old vehicle among shiny white Sprinters but instantly felt pretty damn modern when a family went by in a horse and buggy.

Generic Van Life - Great Lakes New York Campsite
Who owns that cutting edge ultra modern camper van over there?!

After packing up and heading to Buffalo, we were on our way back to Canada once again and ready to pay a visit to Toronto, where we lived before starting our van journey, and my (Olivia) hometown. As we mentioned before, returning to Calgary felt like we were coming full circle after driving almost 50 000 kms in three countries but coming back to Toronto was completing an even bigger circle. America was very, very good to us and we’re bummed that we only get six months a year to explore it but as always, we were super stoked to be home.

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

Generic Van Life - Top 5 free camping spots in America

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!

Friendly Manitoba, Bienvenue!

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

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

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I never said Russell was a big town…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rest Area Tour of Saskatchewan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Generic-Van-Life-Camping-Spot-Elstow-Rest-Area-Saskatchewan-Van
Can’t complain about calling this home for the night!

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

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

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

Generic-Van-Life-Camping-Spot-Lanigan-Rest-Area-Saskatchewan-Van
Again, how is this a rest area?!

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