If you’ve been keeping up with our travels, then that means you’ve read part one and part two of our cross-Canada journey. We’re currently into our eighth day of driving from Victoria B.C. to Toronto, moving my daughter Justine across the country for grad school. We’re feeling a tad punch-drunk with the distances. But we’re in the home stretch now; we’re in Ontario, but Ontario is huge.
We’ll also have to fumigate the Chrysler Pacifica Pinnacle Hybrid — it’s redolent of camping, B.C. wildfires, and road food — before returning it to Mississauga later this week, but it was all worth it.
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Day eight: Ontario
There’s no defined line where prairie ends and rocky forested Canadian shield takes over, but almost. From the Trans-Canada highway, we approach what could be the very wall of trees that our friend in Saskatoon recently said demarcates where her shoulders unconsciously relax when going the other way. Soon after, we cross into Ontario.
Here, the quality of the grandly titled Trans-Canada quickly deteriorates. It feels like more bridges and bits of road are being repaired than any province west of here. That’s good of course but, for us, it means extra hours simply sitting and staring at chaps in hardhats holding signs that say they’re “SLOW.”
Today’s trip to Atikokan, Ontario (don’t worry; we’d never heard of it before yesterday either) totals 580km. After yesterday’s drive of just 270km to Winnipeg, it feels desperately long.
Moreover, we’ve both caught what will eventually be published in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as Stupid Torontonians’ Distance-Shrinking Syndrome. It’s a combination of false hope that you’re close, buffeted by the foolish desire to power through, just because you’ve crossed into Ontario. From Ontario’s border, you still have over 1,900 km before arriving in Toronto. And lucky for us, the regular and seemingly random halts for roadworks help crush that hope, if not the desire.
In short, Ontario’s, like, big.
A suite of audio novellas by master sci-fi author Ted Chiang passes the time, transfixing us for hours. The Story of Your Life sounds like adaptation of the 2016 Oscar nominated film, Arrival, about a language professor who learns to speak with aliens who visit Earth. Justine checks her phone; yes, this was adapted for that movie. She checks her bag; a USB key there contains that movie, albeit pirated. Millennials. Tonight, we’ll watch it in the tent, exhausted, after traveling nearly as far as the aliens.
At 6 p.m., the Dawson Trail campground is another half-hour drive from Atikokan, where we shop for groceries. So, it’s remote but beautiful here, still 200 km west of Thunder Bay and at least 1,500 km from home.
Our campsite, booked at the last minute, has its own private beach with a narrow strip of sand on a shallow lake. However, unlike the southern part of the province, the heat and humidity here have broken. It’s sunny and a refreshing 17 degrees, but windy, so a dip in the lake would be masochistic for any but the most hardcore (or stinky).
I’ve become a more adept camper, learning from Justine. She’s been pitching tents like a pro with friends around much of southern Vancouver Island to remain sane throughout the pandemic. This evening for instance, she assembles her bike and does a quick but vigorous ride before creating superb coffee, then helping me whip the tent up for Movie Night. She uses a practical self-disappearing French press with fresh ground, fair-trade B.C. coffee so good it would cause a bigger riot in Toronto’s Corso Italia than two World Cup victories. I would’ve been content to stir Nescafé and whitener with my index finger. Gen Xers.
Day nine: More Ontario
Today we’ll drive nearly 900 km to Sault Ste Marie (aka The Soo), our longest day of the ten we’ve planned. Like yesterday, it’s regularly punctuated with surprise roadwork breaks. We’re scheduled to stay overnight with friends in The Soo but my texted ETAs are regularly updated with news of longer waits. I also hadn’t planned for the Eastern Time zone, which adds an hour to an already embarrassingly late arrival.
My best advice: accept that Ontario’s vast and enjoy the odd view. Between Thunder Bay and The Soo, the Trans-Canada regularly treats drivers to hilly views of rugged islands in Lake Superior that could be the Gulf Islands between Vancouver and Victoria (and not just because there’s a layer of smoke overhead). A chain of gas stations sells utility-grade fried chicken; don’t buy it.
Feel free to ignore my advice; after all, I did. After buying, eating and immediately regretting the fried chicken, I attempt to make up time, challenging the dynamics of the Pacifica’s drive chain.
Minivans get little respect among driving enthusiasts and burly men. Three days earlier, I clearly wounded the pride of an Albertan F-150 owner who gave chase for twenty minutes on a two-lane highway to overtake us and regain his status as First Driver to the Next Town. But the Pacifica Pinnacle packs a 3.6-litre six-cylinder engine that eats up road like a bored middle-aged man on a bucket of gas station chicken. So, yes, I went fast.
And, yes, I got a speeding ticket just west of Wawa, Ontawio. (Sorry about that, it’s been a long drive.)
Guilty, I stammer a bit but politely answer the officer’s questions: the van belongs to Chrysler of Canada but I recognize that it’s my ticket; I’m writing about driving across much of Canada and can even show her that morning’s blog update.
After a few minutes on the computer back in her vehicle, the officer writes up a small charge with zero penalizing insurance points. “Different provinces have different speed limits,” she kindly instructs. “Watch out for them.”
And that’s it! Now, from Wawa, there’s still another 120 km to The Soo, but we’re so close, we can taste it. Or maybe that’s chicken residuals.
Back to School: Traveling across Canada in the 2021 Chrysler Pacifica Pinnacle Hybrid
Following the historic St. Lawrence River in a 2021 Dodge Durango R/T
When we arrive, the plug-in hybrid gets plugged in only for its second juicing since being picked up in Vancouver twelve days earlier. (See the earlier chapter regarding scheduling: this vehicle is a commuter family’s perfect mobile daycare; as a cross-country ride, the electric rage isn’t much help unless you’re hugely organized and take regular breaks.)
Unlike the past week of driving, it’s steamily humid here. We immediately miss this morning’s lake. Our friends are sanguine about the lateness, familiar with my utility-grade logistical prowess. The planned patio dinner with them and their children becomes late pizza in their backyard with beer and axe-throwing before dark. No one’s hurt. All sleep well.
Day 10: Yes, still driving through Ontario
We plan not to arrive in Toronto before 7 p.m., because the consequent traffic would only add a white-knuckled hour or two more behind the wheel anyway. So, we decide to leave at noon.
In the morning, Justine quickly assembles her bike and explores The Soo’s superb cycling infrastructure, riding past the massive locks between Lakes Huron and Superior to Whitefish Island.
Meanwhile, Janet and Paul show me around the town’s finest bakeries where warm donuts and butter tarts are sold out daily by 11 a.m. We justify the crullers and sweet mini pecan pies with a salubrious and educational walk around Algoma University behind their home.
Algoma’s main building is a repurposed residential school that operated as late as 1970. Today, it’s home to an Anishinaabe Studies program. On the other side of campus, some people are enjoying time, socially distanced, in a makeshift sweat lodge. I’m reminded that Justine will be studying at Ryerson, whose name is about to change.
The final day’s drive of 700 km feels short compared to its predecessor. In Blind River, there’s a takeout restaurant Paul recommends called Mad Mat’s Rockin’ Road Food. I recommend it too. It’s quick, inexpensive, and behind the restaurant, you can eat at a picnic table by the aforementioned river, albeit with sight.
Four hours later, we stop again in Parry Sound for a nature break and for what must be the only Jamaican food in on Georgian Bay. It’s filthy hot outside. Back on the road, we indulge ourselves with the Pacifica’s A/C. Having learned a lesson from yesterday, I’ve been driving civilly all day, mostly employing the cruise control, matching the speed of the traffic. Despite the A/C drain and often inexplicably halting holidaymakers, we render excellent fuel efficiency of 7.2 L/100 km.
As we approach Toronto, the number of jerks on the road expands exponentially like a fourth wave at an anti-vaxxer rally. The decision to arrive in Hogtown after rush hour (why isn’t there a drake hour?) proves sound. The long but pleasantly uneventful drive would’ve been hellish if we’d hit Barrie around 3 p.m. instead of 6 p.m.
After 13 days away, home at last: Not expecting us for another hour or even two, my wife is delighted when we roll in at 8 p.m. This is Justine’s first arrival home since January 2020 and we’ve all changed a bit and learned a lot. Before anything else, she hurries out to bearhug her mother.
Stay tuned for the part 4 (the final instalment) of this cross-country road trip.