The trip across Canada started about as far west as Canada goes: Beach Drive in Oak Bay, Victoria B.C., where my older daughter lives.
On the morning of Monday, August 16, roughly 7 a.m., I rose, walked 150 metres from my daughter’s home, past a new parked Chrysler minivan, and jumped into the Pacific Ocean. I stayed in this leafy paradise for two nights after passing the days helping my younger daughter (who lived across town) discard what no longer sparked joy and pack for a nearly 5,000 km drive. After four years of living in beautiful Victoria, she’s going to grad school in Toronto. You’ve most likely heard of the school, but the name’s about to change to … something else.
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Our ride? As hinted above, a new Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid Pinnacle in the fabulously named Velvet Red Pearl colour. It’s new but not quite shiny or sparkling. When I picked it up in Vancouver on Friday, the 13th — yes, I know — it was already crowned with a thin veneer of freshly fallen ash, courtesy of the relentlessly dry weather fueling wildfires that the entire Pacific Northwest’s endured all summer. That ash had settled over a just few hours.
On that particular Friday, you could taste the acridity in Vancouver’s air and see the brown everywhere. Indeed, during that morning’s early flight from Toronto, what few views the smoking wildfires granted of the mountains were ugly. Normally pristine white ranges now looked a tray of week-old merengues in a Glasgow pensioners’ pub. Over here in Victoria, the air was clearer but the public mood, still anxious.
Back to the Pacifica: Within, is an unabashed rolling daycare, bearing with more swag for small passengers than a Rosedale matron who hasn’t seen her grandkids since before lockdown. The trim name, Pinnacle, says it all. We’ll talk about its assorted goodies anon over four parts and ten days of driving. For now, fasten your seatbelt for part 1 because the family trip starts now, leaving Swartz Bay on the ferry to the B.C. mainland.
Day one: The mountains
Normally, we’d sit outside on the ferry deck during the crossing, to avoid Delta-variant spreading zealots but, on this day, it was finally raining! It was too hard and windy to last on the deck longer than a few seconds. Thus, masked, we sat inside for the 90-minute trip.
Mapped, this day’s route from Victoria to Osoyoos B.C. looks like the ECG of a Leafs fan during his team’s annual victory over Montreal: lots of erratic up and down representing, in this case, by mountain passages. With so many ranges, lakes and sweeping turns, the 400-ish km trip from Tsawwassen, the ferry terminal well south of Vancouver, to Osoyoos is truly beautiful.
It’s just that you need to be able to see it. For the first three hours of today’s six-hour drive, we saw little more than our flying windshield wipers (automatic!) and the bright red brake lights of other drivers. The unloaded ferry further crammed the already constipated highway bypassing Vancouver.
Imagine how petty you’d feel when, for months, the province, the country — the whole news-watching world — has been praying for rain and all you can do is whine, “Why couldn’t it hold off one more day?”
That the rain was a disturbing brown sludge didn’t improve the gloomy mood. A significant move to a new chapter in life always brings up ambivalent feelings; today’s were extra complicated. For weeks till now, both of us had been grappling with the low-level anxiety that comes with knowing you’re driving into an emergency zone. All those what-ifs: We could be sent off course, sent back, or much, much worse. How do first responders cope? Well, most times, these anxious experiences resolve themselves into a boring equilibrium. Till that time though, we’d have been happy with plain Librium.
We passed some time with the radio. Whether laying out the navigation or laying down some smooth yacht rock, Chrysler’s Uconnect infotainment system lost the satellite signal several times in the more remote mountain passes. But that’s to be expected — closer to the towns and cities it was impeccable.
Ironically, the weather, traffic, and mood all improved after going beyond Hope, B.C.
We turned onto Highway 3, a south-westbound alternative to the more popular Trans-Canada. On the ground, the smooth road was so empty it felt like we were breaking lockdown. Above, the skies were clearing gradually, coquettishly teasing us with the odd view of a mountain peak.
The hybrid battery was long since down to a 1% charge. Lasting only around 50 km on pure electric drive, the Pacifica Hybrid is a sensible choice for urbanites who plan well and don’t plan to commute far. Finding and booking a charging station near a restaurant patio that serves good pork BBQ and local craft beer is a lot of work — too much planning for the likes of us. And when there’s no charging station available at destinations? Unless you park near an outlet overnight, you won’t be able to juice this plug-in hybrid. (Extension cords aren’t recommended for a host of reasons, safety high atop the list.)
But the Pacifica Hybrid runs nearly 800 km more on a full tank of gas. Range anxiety doesn’t hold a candle to wildfire anxiety.
The sky was almost clear when we stopped for an early supper at the main lodge of Manning Park, a family camping resort in the dramatic Cascade Mountains. We hadn’t planned, but got lucky. My daughter’s friend works here, giving nature presentations to city people. Important lessons like, “Please don’t feed the bears. We don’t want to have to shoot them later because you taught them to expect bread crusts from humans.” (Cue the traumatized weeping of a six-year old.)
Understandably on this first day of driving when, for an hour, there was ugly traffic even by a Torontonian’s standards, with untold climbing from sea-level towards the Great Divide, the Pacifica derived its worst fuel efficiency numbers of the entire trip. But the numbers were still really good, never exceeding 8.0 L/100 km. Have you ever dragged back umpteen boxes of books, camping equipment, and wardrobes of dense clothing across 5,000 km? (Swipe to see it fully packed.)
We finally rolled into Osoyoos B.C. around 8:30 p.m.; needless to say, very tired. It was two hours later than planned but we were safe, and the loaner Pacifica unscathed.
An irrigated patch of desert at the southern end of the Okanagan Valley, Osoyoos blooms into a bountiful Eden of luscious vegetables and fruits and, consequently, wine. Indeed, we stayed at a B&B nestled on a lovely vineyard and spent the evening sampling the local product.
Our hostess remarked upon our good fortune. Today was the first in weeks that the low-lying desert mountains forming a bowl around us weren’t hidden in a veil of smoke. We toasted that good fortune.
Day two: The mountains
The morning in Osoyoos dawned hopeful and clear-ish. We were facing at least an eight-hour route, the first half of which climbed north (and upwards) before joining the Trans-Canada, and gradually zigzagging westward to Canmore, Alberta, on the eastern edge of Banff National Park. We were also booked to visit friends there.
But the luck we’d been toasting the night before disappeared, literally, within an hour of the drive northwest. The route took us through the usually lovely Okanagan Valley. I’ve driven this road twice before and both times stopped regularly to marvel at the beauty. Today, smoke soon enveloped us, mixing with low-hanging clouds that refused to surrender any more rain.
The view was often limited to the traffic in front of us, the rest looking like a slow-motion dream sequence Sam and Frodo would suffer in Mordor (One does not simply drive a minivan into Kelowna). It was heartbreaking. The picture below, taken from the Pacifica cabin, doesn’t do the experience justice — and ‘justice’ isn’t lemot juste.
It got both better and worse. Later, the smoggy cloud-cover rose somewhat, exposing mangy mountainsides whose leftover burnt forests still stood, technically coniferous but no longer evergreen. They provided a blunt symbol for our ongoing inner worry. Huge helicopters dragging massive cables would fly back and forth between burning alpine patches and nervous mountain towns on evacuation alert.
Mind, our elusive luck could’ve been much worse. Part of the route driven, just the day before, was now blocked to traffic, and so was much of Highway 1 just west of where we would merge this very day. Without intending to, we’d deked around this day’s closures. You could also call it good fortune that, due to the shutdown in the opposite direction, we had next to no traffic blocking our way east.
Moreover, the skies cleared significantly by the time we merged with the Trans-Canada. The remaining fluffy clouds doubtless contained more ash than H2O but we could regularly see spiky peaks peeking between.
In the afternoon, we stopped at a roadside café amid the lonely handful of buildings hugging Highway 1 calling itself the town of Malakwa. The proprietor apologized for the ashen film covering the outdoor table. “There’s no such thing as a white cloth anymore,” she said, wiping, sighing, resigned.
We were already an hour late for our brief visit with those friends in Canmore. Then we crossed our first time zone, which magically subtracted an hour from the clock. Regretful texts that we’d be there at 7 p.m. instead of 6 p.m., Pacific Time, now had to be updated further to a deeply embarrassing 8 p.m., Mountain (and Pacifica) Time.
Consequently, we hurried through one of the most visually dynamic drives in Canada, perhaps the world. The Pacifica features a hardy six-cylinder engine which, when tested, is more maxi- than minivan. Still, with each climbing mile, we did enjoy progressively more stunning views, which fortified the easing feelings that come with putting emergency zones behind you.
Sometimes, non-events are good. Our journey around the wildfires was proving blessedly uneventful but for these stupefying vistas.
Finally, 9 p.m., Mountain Time: Our friends drove us to six restaurants, looking for one that could accommodate us. In a town of 15,000, the choices were diminishing. Canmore, Alberta’s enjoying a tourism boom. Housebound Canadians are desperate to get out and spend money.
Then, our luck re-emerged like that Three Sisters mountain range erupting upwards just south of town. The restaurant with space was among Canmore’s finest, and they featured my favourite Okanagan wine atop of their list.
Stay tuned for the part 2 of this cross-country road trip.