Weeks 33-34 (21st Sept-9th Oct) – Toronto

After Algonquin, we spent our final few weeks in Canada in Toronto, where Peb had lived for 3 months before. Toronto is one of those cities that looks immediately impressive as you approach it—a distinctive skyline with the CN tower rising out of the haze. We headed straight to the Blue Jays vs. Red Sox game in the impressive Rogers Arena, which amusingly looks like half a baseball. Even in the upper tier, there isn’t a bad seat in the house! Sadly, the Jays lost, but it was exciting for my first MLB game nonetheless.

The following day, we continued the sports theme and went to the Maple Leafs pre-season game against the Ottawa Senators in the Air Canada Centre, a converted art deco postal sorting office, now a very cool venue. Not knowing much about ice hockey, we enjoyed the spectacle of it all—the songs blasted over the tannoy mid-play and the obligatory punch-ups. We were also happy to see the Maple Leafs win!

A few days later, we met Faye for the Blue Jays vs. Yankees game. We sat on a pillar as our seats weren’t together, and the atmosphere at the game was electric! After a tense start with 6 innings of no scores, Peb’s favourite player, Martin, broke the deadlock, scoring a home run too. We went on to win 4-0 and the stadium almost erupted!

For our few weeks in Toronto, it felt like we lived there. We managed to get a free gym pass to work out (well, Peb worked out while I lazed in the steam room), and stayed at a Husky where it seemed more than a few people were living in their cars. We went to the cinema a few times, found our favourite local food places, and spent most days in “the office”.

As well as my editing, Peb started writing articles for a supplements website and I started writing articles for a travel website. With more Starbucks per person than anywhere else in the world, plus free Wi-Fi, an abundance of plug sockets, and free refills with rewards cards, it wasn’t just us. The green mermaid is chock full of people on laptops, having business meetings, or surrounded by piles of books. Amusingly, some people seem to think it’s a library and don’t even buy a drink.

We also spent time in the city, navigated the underground city entirely via the PATH (28km of underground malls), had a wonderful hot chocolate from a chocolatier in the pretty Distillery Historic District, saw Casa Loma (their only castle, a mere 100 years old), and relaxed at Woodbine Beach on the incomprehensibly big Lake Ontario. We visited the areas Peb used to live, and Peb got mobbed for his muffin by a resident black squirrel.

Of course, we went up the iconic CN tower. As well as the obviously great views of the city and lake, there’s a breezy outdoor sky terrace and a knee-trembling glass floor. Although the sign said the glass could hold up 14 hippos, it was disconcerting nonetheless—especially with some people jumping on it!

On game days, we watched the Blue Jays in Boston Pizza, and the NFL season had started so we watched simultaneous Panthers and Blue Jays games. We went to our final Jays game, the penultimate home game of the season, against the Rays, which we won 10-8. We also got given a practice ball and got it autographed by Colabello.

Our luck with autographs didn’t end there. I may not have mentioned, but we’ve developed a bit of a comic book obsession while travelling. We were happy to discover Toronto’s Silver Snail has a coffee shop in it, and were happened to meet the Snail’s owner, who gave us a free 1st edition Captain Canuck comic as we’re English. Not only did the store help to publish the comic, but by chance the comic’s artist came in to the store just at that moment and signed it for us!

With our time in Canada almost up, we caught up with our buddy Faye, who we met in Vancouver and had seen across the entire country. She was flying home and we were heading to America, so we had a farewell dinner in Wahlburgers, the restaurant of the famous Wahlburgs. One thing that’s been really nice about our travels is that we’ve made some new friends.

We spent our final scorching day after 3 wonderful months in Canada at Niagara Falls, the force and beauty of which is indescribable. The spray off it is so immense that we got drenched even before we’d done the “Journey behind the falls”, which took us to a viewing platform behind and underneath the falls—incredible! We saw a couple of garter snakes coiled up together beneath the falls, some shower. We had a final dinner in Boston Pizza on Clinton Hill, a Disney-looking town of bright lights and big signs, and watched the Blue Jays’ first playoff game. Then we had a final beavertail watching the falls lit up at night, starting, of course, with the red-white-red of Canada.

Week 32 (13th-21st Sept) – Algonquin

After leaving the cities, we stocked up and headed back west to Algonquin Provincial Park for 9 days camping in the forest (I should mention, “parks” in Canada are huge, wild, natural places, not the tidy, preened type we get in England). Algonquin is the oldest provincial park, having been created in 1893 to protect the forest and beavers, a place free of hunters and trappers.

It’s still a wonderful place abundant in wildlife, and Peb camped here ten years ago so he was incredibly happy to return. Our campsite, Lake of Two Rivers, was beautiful—situated at the edge of a big lake halfway across the 56-mile park. Not only had we arrived at a great time to see the blooming autumn colours of the park’s maple trees, we found numerous adorable chipmunks running around the campsite, and at night time, so far away from the city lights, the sky looked like a massive dome of stars from the lake.

After the extensive heatwave, we were a little shocked by the sudden drop in temperature, as the first few days were cold and it rained torrentially, but we went for a few walks around the nature trails and bogs anyway to look for moose, which Algonquin has more of than people. We didn’t find any, despite going out almost every day to the marshy areas where they’re often seen. In fact, one day we even met the CEO of the park, which is probably statistically less likely than seeing a moose!

Some mornings we went out at sunrise to look for them, which despite being fruitless in terms of moose, did provide us with an unbelievably spectacular sunrise over the lake. Not to mention, one morning a beaver put on a little display for us up close. We saw some amazing dams and lodges built by beavers, and one entire pond created by them—clever little critters.

There were a few hot days and we took the dinghy out on the lake over to a little island in the middle. On the nights, we had roaring campfires and s’mores (a sandwich of crackers filled with marshmallow and chocolate, wrapped in tin foil and cooked on a fire). With time to relax, I sewed new seat covers for our van and pressed some red maple leafs. All in all, a lovely week in beautiful surroundings.

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.

Weeks 23-29 (2nd-24th Aug) – The Canadian Rockies

North of Vancouver, we took the stunning Sea to Sky Highway, winding through mountains to the right and glacier blue sea to the left. We stopped at the pretty Shannon Falls, and the Sea to Sky Gondola, taking us almost 3000 feet above the amazing scenery to a cafe, nature trails, and a scary suspension bridge. We happened upon the National Lumberjack games and watched an axe-throwing competition, take that health and safety!

We spent a day in Whistler, though the ski resort looked a little different to the famous snowy pictures, as it was still roasting! We cooled down at Alta Lake and camped at an RV site with amazing views over the valley, and George stayed in an awesome tee-pee. The drive from Whistler up to Lilooet was mixed—the winding roads through the valleys were picturesque, but the 35 degree heat made the van feel like a microwave, and George felt a tad travel sick. The drive from there through Cache Creek and Kamloops was dull and dusty, more like Arizona than Canada. The scenery finally picked up near Valemount, where we were lucky enough to spot two black bears walking down the side of the highway! The drive to Jasper was incredible, past glacier blue lakes and the tallest peak in the Rockies – Mount Robson.

We stopped in Jasper and met up with Faye, spending the afternoon at Maligne Lake. We unsuccessfully tried to find Spirit Island, George unsuccessfully tried to row the dinghy, and we saw some mule deers successfully lick the remains of lunch off the picnic tables. From Jasper to Banff, the Icefields Parkway goes right through the Rockies, and is probably the most beautiful, breath-taking drive in the world. We stopped at several impressive waterfalls, walked on the astounding Colombia Icefield—as thick as the Eiffel Tower is tall, and saw the postcard-famous view of Peyto Lake.

We stayed in the pretty town of Banff for the next four days, spending a day at the stunning bright-blue Moraine Lake, made famous by the old Canadian 20 dollar note. Nestled in the Valley of the Ten Peaks, it’s pretty cold up at Moraine, but me and Peb took the dinghy out and climbed a big pile of rocks for the world-famous view. On the way back down, Peb had to rescue a few people who fell in the drink.

For George’s birthday, we headed out early to the beautiful ice-blue Lake Louise and went on a horse-riding trek from Brewster’s Stables around Lake Louise, and got to take our horses through the river. I was little wary, not being a horse rider, so when my horse started stamping his hoof in the river, I asked the leader whether he was thirsty. She quickly dismounted saying, “That or he wants to roll!”. Thankfully, he just wanted to wash down all the flowers he’d eaten. We went up the Lake Louise Gondola to look for grizzlies, had a cuppa in the famous Fairmont, and spent the afternoon enjoying the heat in our deck chairs by the lake. For dinner, we had steak and DIY-fondue-breaded-mushrooms in the amazing Grizzly House in Banff.

Sadly, George had to leave us, so we spent a few hours checking out Calgary (disgustingly hot and not much to see), then said our farewells at the airport. With no specific timeline to cross Canada, we debated whether to stay in Calgary, or continue our journey east, then promptly headed back to Banff for “a few days”. Those few days turned into 14…

We stayed at Tunnel Mountain campground and chilled out. Faye was also in Banff so we hung out, watching the Blue Jays in Boston Pizza pretty often and the NFL preseason. We admired the glacial Bow River, looked down on Banff from Mount Norquay, saw Bow Falls and the Hogwarts-looking Fairmont, and discovered “Beavertails”—flat donuts covered in toppings, Canada’s best creation since maple syrup. Despite it being 30+ degrees the previous week, winter had set in in Banff, with a high of 6 and a low of -3. In Banff, it snows every month of the year, and sure enough it started snowing on the mountains just above us in August!

We drove the Bow Valley Parkway numerous times to look for wildlife, returned to Lake Louise to walk around the lake and made friends with some ground squirrels, and watched a herd of elk wander around our campsite. We also spent another day on the Icefields Parkway, so good it’s worth doing twice, this time stopping at the pretty Waterfowl Lakes and Bow Lake. One evening, we hung out in a car park (not as strange as it sounds) as it’s known for coyotes. Pretty quickly, we found ourselves stood 10 feet from one. He watched us for a while, then headed off. Surprised how big and how grey he was, a little Googling confirmed we’d actually been face-to-face with a lone wolf! Finally, the time came when we sadly had to leave Banff. It was hard to leave the Rockies—undoubtedly the most beautiful natural environment we’ve seen on this trip, and probably ever. As a farewell, a Big Horn Sheep, who had been otherwise elusive, popped up alongside the highway to see us off.

Week 22 (27th July-1st Aug) – Vancouver Island

Contrary to what the name suggests, Vancouver Island isn’t a small island off Vancouver, it’s almost the size of the England! We got the ferry across to the island’s pretty seaside capital, Victoria, and stayed in a beautiful apartment that looked out over a small cove. From the garden, we watched several resident seals waiting patiently for leftovers from returning fishermen.

Victoria is the place for wildlife, and at Fisherman’s Wharf, an adorable Disney-looking floating village, we handfed a wild seal and an otter with her babies. We also went on a Prince of Whales whale watching tour, which despite being freezing, was incredible as we saw two humpbacks and a pod of 25 orcas in their natural environment.

We took a road trip north through wonderful alpine scenery that looked like driving through Christmas. Vancouver Island is beautiful and looks like the Canada you see in photos. We had a lovely few days in the postcard-pretty Telegraph Cove, an adorable fishing town of wooden buildings connected by decking, and set around a little cove. Upon wandering around the cove, we caught a whiff of a barbeque at the local pub, the Saltery, with the best salmon I’ve ever tasted. Then we enjoyed a campfire in our picturesque campsite nestled in the forest.

We spent a wonderful day sat on deck chairs in the cove watching bald eagles soar above us, and went out in our dinghy at the unspoiled Bausa cove, ending the day with another epic campfire to salute the halfway point in our travels.

We had a final night in Victoria, which is lit up spectacularly at night-time, particularly the striking Queen Victoria Building. Then we got up at 4am to see a beautiful sunrise on the ferry back to Vancouver, watching seals pop up and swiftly back down. We had a final drive through Vancouver, ending it in style by getting jump-started at the ihop as Peb had left the lights on.

Weeks 21-24 (1st-27th July) – Vancouver

For the first time ever, we lived the same day twice. No, not Groundhog day—the International Date Line. We left Tokyo at 7pm on 1st July and woke up in Vancouver at 10am on 1st July. After a grilling by the Canadian authorities, we saw our first Canadian emblem—a real Mountie called Roy who was in the airport as it happened to be Canada day. Awash in a sea of red and white Vancouverites, we got the SkyTrain monorail to our hostel C&N Backpackers, which we initially managed to walk past as it’s cleverly disguised as an antiques shop.

When we planned our world trip, “following summer” was somewhat of an influence, and we assumed that by the time we got to Canada we’d catch a pleasant summer into autumn. What we hadn’t anticipated was that Vancouver would be experiencing a heat wave when we arrived, and not expecting 35+ degree days, our hostel had no air con, so we spent most of our time sat by the window in the “living room” to catch a slight breeze. After seeing the Canada Day fireworks in the harbour, we experienced our first jet lag of sorts: Canada’s night was Japan’s afternoon so we found ourselves asleep in the day and awake all night.

Our 3 weeks in Vancouver were up and down. We’d planned to buy a campervan for the rest of our North American road trip, so most days were in spent in pursuit of that. In an actual Groundhog day fashion, most of our days in the sweltering hostel involved perusing Craigslist for vans, Peb trying to find work and working out at the Andy Livingstone field while I edited, calculating what we could afford and spending more than we wanted to staying in what was somehow the cheapest hostel in Vancouver, trekking out on the SkyTrain and buses to Greater Vancouver, in the blazing heat, to see numerous unsuitable vans.

One particularly bad time, we ended up at a dusty crossroads in the middle of nowhere when someone’s poor directions landed us on a bus almost to the American border, and with no Canadian phone contract or map, we resorted to trying to call the seller from a casino. Finally, so lost and late, we gave up and got back to the hostel at 10pm, having wasted an entire day.

It wasn’t all bad though. We managed to get out of the city for my birthday weekend, to Coquitlam in Greater Vancouver. We went to Mundy Park, had a picnic with the turtles at Lost Lake, then cooled down from the 34 degree heat in an outdoor pool that looked like something out of a movie. We went to the movies, the mall, and ihop (the International Home of Pancakes).

Although the days in the hostel were frustrating, we were delighted when my mom and aunty H booked flights to New York to meet us for New Year! We also made a friend, another English sports-lover called Faye, who we hung out with most days watching the Blue Jays. Luckily, C&N had the Sports Network and I transformed from a baseball hater into an obsessed Jays fan. For a treat, we occasionally went to “London Pub” (our very un-English local), though venturing out of the hostel at night was an interesting experience…

C&N is on the edge of Chinatown, the modern-day slums of Vancouver. In the day time, it’s a smelly, crumbling, and litter-strewn area of town with some cheap souvenir shops. At night time, it looks a scene from Shaun of the Dead, taken over by a staggering number of drunk and/or drugged-up homeless people, needles scattered on the floor, ranting and raving at each other. The local police allow the drug-taking to continue to reduce the crime committed by the homeless community, a classic case of papering over the cracks.

It’s a shame, because Vancouver is ideally situated surrounded by mountains and water, and has some wonderful parts. Gastown is one of them, complete with vintage steam clock, adorable old fashioned street lights, and original Victorian buildings. The best part is Stanley Park, less of a “park” and more of a wilderness, almost as big as the city and surrounded almost entirely by water. There, I was overjoyed to see my first raccoons, a mom and her cubs, as well as my first beaver, black squirrels, bald eagles, herons, and starfish. We even got a display while eating our lunch on the seawall as a couple of local harbour seals kept swimming past us on their backs, sunbathing.

When we were starting to lose hope for our road trip, things came together. Another European couple had been road tripping around North America and were flying home that weekend, so needed a quick sale. Their retro 1985 Chevy was exactly what we needed, kitted out with everything we’d need, and they’d managed to live in it for a year, so we could too. Plus, the van looked awesome.

As a fitting farewell from Vancouver, Peb went for his final training session and happened upon a murder scene at the field. Thankfully, we were getting out. I finally saw a bit of “real Canada” at Bunsen Lake, a valley of alpine trees with a millpond lake and a bald eagle perched in a tree. Though, after three months in Australia, a country that is practically set up for nomads, we quickly discovered that finding camping in Canada wasn’t as easy. The first weekend, we went back to Coquitlam and “camped” in Mundy park car park for want of finding anywhere better.

It was Peb’s 30th and what he really wanted for his birthday was to see a bear, our favourite animal. After a bit of Googling, we chanced it at Minnekhada Regional Park. Before we’d even reached the park, Peb was shouting “Bear! Bear!” as wandering around a field of machinery was a black bear. We took a hasty walk up a path in the adjacent field, where the bear promptly crossed the path ahead of us, had a wade through the river, then wandered off into a blueberry field … because as Paddington taught us, bears love sweet things.

We took a walk a little further up the path, a popular spot for joggers and cyclists, and heard a splash. I thought it was an overweight duck, but it turned out to be another black bear coming to wish Peb happy birthday. At a humid 35 degrees, the poor furry creature was trying to cool down in the river. About 10 feet from us, he took one look at us, then promptly ignored us and continued to have a lengthy wash, even having a good old scratch under the pits. We stood in amazement, watching this bear have a bath, then listened to him huff off down the river. After that birthday treat, we took a stroll around Minnekhada, which smelt like Yankee Christmas candles, fir trees, and chocolate, and discovered the wonder that is Boston Pizza, a cool sports bar that does more than just pizza.

After a few days in the country, we headed back into Vancouver to meet Nick’s aunty George, who had come for a holiday. We stayed in a cool basement apartment in Kitsilano, the arty area of Vancouver, and for the first time in a month, it rained nonstop for George’s arrival, and was a chilly 13 degrees. Typical! Nevertheless, we walked to Granville Island, accidentally wandering through the middle of a film set in our rainbow of waterproofs, and in true English style, had a barbeque despite the weather.

Luckily, the weather picked up and we hired bikes (me and Peb on a tandem due to my Rottnest accident) and cycled around Stanley Park. At the seawall, we saw an eagle catch a big fish, then fed some adorable Douglas squirrels and some incredibly domesticated raccoons (big love for raccoons). We spent an afternoon at Jericho beach (nicer than the more popular Kits beach), and to end our time in Vancouver, we watched China’s impressive entry in the World Fireworks competition, which had smiley faces and hearts in it!