Now before I tell you about our journey, let me clarify something. When I say, ‘my’ son Chris, I’m not doing so in a possessive sense. I don’t own Chris. He’s not mine! I just helped bring him into the world and raise him to adulthood. His mom actually gave birth to him. My role in his arrival on the planet would require an explanation of human reproduction … which is not the point of this particular blog. So, for simplicity’s sake, I’ll just refer to ‘my’ son as Chris!
Chris lives in Red Deer, Alberta, and in July, he decided to drive home to Keswick with two friends for an extended vacation. He had taken a leave of absence from the oil drilling company he was working for. His friends flew back to Alberta a few weeks ago, leaving Chris to make the return trip on his own. The thought of him doing the drive by himself was weighing heavily on me (it’s a 36 hour drive), so, two weeks ago, I decided to join him. I had never driven through Northern Ontario or across the Prairies … I have been to the Prairies many times, but it has always been by air … and I thought this would be an awesome opportunity to do it. Cross it off my bucket list!
My decision, although spontaneous, was not without reservations. I have Parkinson’s, and I am prone to fatigue and I wasn’t sure how my body would handle long hours in the car. I was particularly concerned about my back where I experience a lot of tension and pain. What is more, one of the symptoms of Parkinson’s is a loss of balance, which affects my driving. I have to really work hard to drive my truck straight, which I thought might cause further fatigue … not to mention a few premature gray hairs for Chris!
And so, with reservations firmly tucked away in the back my mind (an opportunity to practice living in the moment), and a cooler full of healthy food, we departed at 8:52 am on Friday morning under clear blue skies.
We planned to make it to Thunder Bay on day one, about a 13 hour trek. This would give us a good shot at making it to Calgary by Sunday, so that I could catch a flight back to Toronto because I needed to be home in time to teach Monday evening. We also planned to switch off every hour, but this got trashed early on with Chris catching up on his sleep, and later, with me bowing to common sense and fatigue.
The clear skies stayed with us until Parry Sound, home of legendary hockey player, Bobby Orr, and then for the next two hours we drove under heavy, ominous cloud cover. We were hoping to avoid rain, but the weatherman had other plans and at Sault Ste Marie, the clouds opened up and the rain came down … at times, heavily. Undaunted, we continued on!
Just west of the Sault, we caught our first ground level view of Lake Superior (I have seen it from the air) and it was spectacular. Superior is both unbelievably beautiful and terrifyingly treacherous. It is the stuff of legend and many poor souls have lost their lives during her unforgiving storms. Gordon Lightfoot’s, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is a stark testament to her ferocity:
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy
The drive along the lake was truly awesome! It was everything I had expected. Clouds of mist boiling upwards from deep canyons, hilltops covered by thick low lying clouds, spectacularly rock formations jutting out into the lake and topography and vegetation that created a sense of being somewhere between the mountains and Muskoka. There were so many Kodak moments, my camera begged for a rest … and it’s a Sony!
The trip through Northern Ontario also took us through towns with familiar names, like Wawa, Blind River and Sioux Lookout, and places not so familiar, like Echo Bay and Kakabaka Falls. We also passed by signs directing travelers to remote locations like Chapleau, Armstrong and Red Lake.
Speaking of signs, the Ontario government apparently recognizes the challenges of the trip northwards, so they have posted warning signs along the highway:
“Fatigue kills — Take a Break”
When are advertisers and the government going to realize that fear-based advertising simply doesn’t work. If it did, people wouldn’t still be smoking. Perhaps they could try a more novel approach:
“Hey buddy, the wife and kids are fine. Pull over and have a rest.”
Or perhaps they could be more encouraging:
“If you can read this sign, you’re doing great. Keep going!”
Or maybe they could just be honest:
“We need your tax dollars, so don’t kill yourself. Pull over!”
But I digress!
Around dusk, we encountered some light fog patches, foretelling of conditions a little more unpleasant. After dark, the fog was quite heavy at times and slowed our trip considerably. It didn’t help that there were moose caution signs every few kilometers (we actually saw a bull moose) and it was after midnight when we rolled in to Thunder Bay.
Chris had arranged for us to spend the night with his cousin, Cassie … who was staying with another cousin, Colleen and John and their daughters, Katie and Emily … northern folk are very hospitable … and after a light conversation and tea, we hit the hay!
In the morning, Colleen treated us to an awesome breakfast and we were on the road again at 9:30, with plans to drive to Regina, Saskatchewan. It was roughly six hours to the Manitoba border and at least another ten hours to Regina, so we had our work cut out for us.
The drive out of Ontario was mostly uneventful, although we did stop long enough to dip our feet in Lake of the Woods, one of the most beautiful lakes in the world! Along the way I also decided that I’m going to make a list of all the amazing places in Canada that I’ve not yet seen, and I’m going to see them … the 1,000 Islands, Tofino, Yellowknife and Cape Breton, to name a few!
We crossed the border into Manitoba at 3 pm and after a short, albeit, refreshing, swim in Falcon Lake, we were on our way across the Prairies. For the first hour, we mostly drove through bush and then it opened up into the real prairies with miles and miles of fields on either side of the highway. This vast expanse of farm land is what inspired a former president of the company I used to work for to proclaim, “These prairies are flatter than piss on a plate!” I might describe it as the place where you can see a train from one end to the other … because we did!
After a brief picnic dinner on the picturesque Assiniboine River where we watched people fishing for pickerel, we continue westward. We crossed the border into Saskatchewan at 8:30 and dragged our tired butts into Regina at 11:30 (1:30 am Ontario time).
After a light meal in the hotel pub, we grabbed a few hours of restless sleep and were on the road at 7:15, estimating that it would be about seven hours to Calgary. After two hours of driving we were feeling quite hungry. We had run out of food, so we stopped at Tim Horton’s in Swift Current. I was scanning the menu trying to decide what I could tolerate when Chris spotted oatmeal. Thank God for Timmy Ho Hos … another great Canadian hockey player!
There’s not much to do when driving on the prairies, except point the car straight ahead, talk, read and listen to music. Chris has Sirius satellite radio and as we drove west, we listened to the sounds of Bob Marley, Mumford & Sons, Blink 182, Kodaline and Bruce Springsteen. It was awesome!
Throughout the trip, I had been feeling a little apprehension about getting to Calgary in time to catch a flight home on Sunday (another opportunity to practice living in the moment). I had checked both West Jet and Air Canada before leaving Keswick and while there were lots of options, I couldn’t book a flight because I didn’t know what time we would arrive. There was also the possibility that the flights would be full by the time we got there. I reasoned that, worst case scenario, I could spend Sunday night in Calgary and catch a flight first thing Monday morning. It would make for a long day on Monday (not to mention, more money), but what the heck!
Then we saw a mileage sign, saying 511 kilometers to Calgary, so Chris called West Jet (I was driving) and booked me on the 4 pm flight. Problem solved and apprehension dissolved.
Later, sitting on the plane, I had the opportunity to reflect on the trip. Other than the decision to visit unvisited places in Canada, there were no major epiphanies or spiritual aha moments. I had, however done what I had set out to do, and that was to accompany, Chris, my son, across Canada. And that was awesome!
Oh yes, and as for my pre-trip apprehensions, my back held up well, although I had an extremely sore left butt-cheek, and my driving held up reasonably well, although Chris didn’t get much sleep due to my frequent encounters with the alert strips … heh heh!
Have an awesomely trippy day!