Weeks 24-31 (25th Aug-12th Sept) – Calgary to Montreal

Upon leaving Banff, we headed straight into a traffic jam. To avoid it, we took a gravel side road and were lucky to encounter some mustangs, one of whom was heavily pregnant and another had foals. On theme, we headed back to Calgary and caught up with Faye to watch a cow-riding rodeo at Stampede Park, see a summer bobsleigh competition at Calgary’s Olympic Park (with much Cool Runnings singing), and enjoy another Luge. Luge-ing is so much fun, we really need one in England.

We left Calgary with much better impressions of it than the first time, and drove east across Alberta through endless prairies, oil fields, and pylons. We stopped in Medicine Hat, a town made entirely of retail parks, then entered the somewhat desolate state of Saskatchewan, seeing only scrubby fields and hills for hours. Strangely, we saw an antelope—who knew Canada had those?—and a coyote. We discovered that we could camp for free at the Husky petrol station travel centres, most of which had nice diners and free WiFi, so we got across the country in comfort.

We stopped in Moose Jaw and Regina, the capital “city” (they call these places cities, but they’re pretty small) of Saskatchewan. Not only was it somehow less pretty than Calgary, we got eaten alive by mosquitos, there was no free parking, and nothing to do. We saw the Rough Riders stadium then promptly left. We stayed overnight in Grenfell, a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. In the middle of the night, Peb woke me abruptly to say that the Northern Lights were outside. I thought he’d gone a little mad, but he was right! We watched them dance in the sky for about five minutes before they vanished.

The following day, we drove into the state of Manitoba and stayed in Brandon, another small city, where we spent the night trying to sleep in a crazy thunder and lightning storm, as the heat wave had followed us across the country. The thunder sounded like gunshots right outside the van and the lightning flashed constantly for hours as the rain pelted down. We stopped in Portage-la-Prairie, where the mall looked eerily post-apocalyptic, complete with posters of the murdered and missing. Then we headed on to Winnipeg, where Peb’s friend kindly offered us free tickets to the baseball with him and his kids.

So for my first ever game, we watched the minor league Winnipeg Goldeyes vs. Fargo Red-Hawks. It was awesome! Despite the Goldeyes losing badly, we got to meet four of the Goldeyes players beforehand, and after the game a Red-Hawks player gave me a ball and signed it, along with three Goldeyes players. We spent a day checking out Winnipeg, which was way more alluring than we’d expected. We saw amazing bison, a garter snake, and cuddling prairie dogs at Fort White Alive, and admired the beautiful St. Boniface cathedral in the French quarter.

After a small cable fire in the dashboard that had us leaping out of the van on the side of the highway in a cloud of smoke, we checked out Lake of the Woods and Kenora, finally crossing into Ontario, where the scenery became pretty and rugged again. The highway down to Thunder Bay is well known for moose, so we got up early for our drives and got a glimpse of a beaver eating breakfast in a play area and a red fox strolling along, but no moose. In Thunder Bay, we even saw a muskrat eating a herb garden, but despite hundreds of moose warning signs, we still saw none.

We stopped in White River, home of the original Winnie the Pooh, where a bear cub was rescued from poachers by a lieutenant and named Winnie after his hometown Winnipeg. He loved her, and when he was sent away to WWI, she went to London Zoo for safekeeping, where the staff fell in love with her too, as did A.A. Milne’s son Christopher Robin, and thus she inspired the famous stories. As it was still ludicrously hot despite being October, we went for a swim in the picturesque Katherine Cove in Lake Superior, which is so vast it looks like the sea. We stopped in Ste. Sault Marie, a town that’s half-Canadian and half-American, separated by a bridge over the river.

As we drove on, we saw lots of Amish people, something we’d never seen before, and I had lots of obligatory Big Things photos, as Canada has Big Things too. Finally, we arrived in Canada’s capital, Ottawa, which was nothing like I’d expected. No skyscrapers, not even a huge city. We walked around pretty Parliament Hill, but it was still ridiculously hot, so we went to Britannia “beach” on the Ottawa River to cool down. River beaches are a new concept to me, but with no sea for miles, it’s a useful idea. With no Husky travel centres in the cities, we discovered that Walmart allow free camping in their car parks, good on them.

Still in the midst of the heat wave, we drove through Quebec. Despite road signs in English and French across Canada, in Quebec they hadn’t extended the same courtesy so we got pretty lost trying to find a highway rest stop. When we found our way to Montreal, which is sprawling compared to Ottawa, the traffic-jammed drive through the outskirts almost cooked us. Did I mention we have no air con in our 1985 van? When we finally got into the city, we found expensive parking, confusing one-way systems, and nonstop traffic, so retreated to the suburbs.

We spent some time at Mont Royal Park, enjoying a great view over the city from the Chalet Mont Royal’s patio—very French. Unlike France, Montreal has loveable rogue raccoons in the park, and every night the locals head up there to feed them. The raccoons are so domesticated, they drink out of bottles and sit on people’s laps. We got to watch one little lady roll around on her back and chase her tail, much like a kitten, then after dark about 10 of them turned up and mobbed us, which was incredible as they’re one of my favourite animals!

To avoid the parking issues, we got the subway into the city for a day to sightsee. We had a local speciality, the Montreal smoked meat sandwich and traditional Canadian poutine (gravy and cheese chips), delicious. We attempted to navigate the world’s largest underground complex, 30km of tunnels linking malls, museums, and cinemas, but ended up above ground twice. Then we took a stroll around the very Parisian and aptly named Old Montreal, complete with Notre Dame and numerous beautiful buildings, the Montreal you see in photographs.

On our final day there, it took us 2 hours to get out of the city thanks to permanent traffic, tons of road works, poorly-designed one-way systems, traffic lights at every junction, and some of the worst driving I’ve ever seen. I mean so bad that we even saw two cars crash then not even bother to get out and check their vehicles for damage. Montreal is very pretty, but in the end we were exasperated by how difficult it was to actually see the place.

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