Cross Canada Driving Tips

Having completed a successful cross-country trek by car, I feel it appropriate to share my new found Canadian-roadtriping knowledge in the form of a few helpful hints and tips.

1. Go. It’s easy. Seriously, it seems far to go all the way across Canada, right? Sure, but it isn’t that far from Vancouver to Calgary, or from Calgary to Winnipeg, or from Winnipeg to Toronto. Each of those sections are reasonable two day drives. Rule 1 – break it down, don’t drive to far in a day, enjoy yourself. As you get towards the end, you’ll be thinking “is that all?”

2. At least two drivers. Minimum. Otherwise you will fall asleep and your passengers will die.

3. Pack light. Sure, bring everything you think you need, and be sensitive to how much room your vehicle has – but remember, you will drive past countless wal-marts and Canadian-Tires. So, if you forgot something, you can pick it up on the way without paying through the nose.

4. Rest Areas make great campsites. If you arrive late and leave early. Sleeping at rest areas, in the car, is by far the best way to go if you’re trying to make time.

5. Carry plenty of water. 20 liters or so. This way you don’t have to worry about running out, keeping your water bottles full all the time. The extra weight will mean you’ll burn a bit more fuel, but since most of Canada is flat, the speed you drive at will have much more of an effect. Also, if you carry plenty of water you could potentially repair a broken hose, fill the cooling system with water, and limp to the next town- avoiding a nasty tow bill.

6. Don’t drive so fast. Driving fast means you get tired more quickly, means you burn through gas, means it’s more difficult to pull over if you see something interesting. Also – with the money a speeding ticket costs, you could have rented a motel and had a shower, and you wouldn’t smell so bad. Think about that, speedy.

7. Speaking of showers – get wet! Often! If you pass an inviting lake, jump in it. Bring towers. Bring bio-degradable soap. Or, stop at provincial or federal campsites posing as campers – use their showers then run away. While your at it, you can marvel at the German tourists in their rented motorhomes. Don’t laugh – they get more Vacation time than you ever will.

8. Eat light. You are mostly sitting. Drink club soda rather than pop.

9. Don’t forget your coffee thermos, and the key safety rule – he who rides shotgun is not allowed to sleep.

10. Failing 9, Superstore has a Redbull copy called “redrain” at 1/3rd of the price.

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Cycling in Vancouver

Cycling in Vancouver

Both yesterday and today I’ve been taking advantage of Vancouver’s various cycle paths to put a good deal of enjoyable kilometers under my tires. It’s hard to compare Vancouver cycling with cycling in Toronto, but I can put it this way – in Vancouver, I actually look forward to getting on my bike.

In Toronto, getting on a bicycle means crashing over gaps in the poorly maintain roads – not that Vancouver’s are perfect, but the lack of freeze thaw makes things easier. In Toronto, being in a bike lane means constantly having to anticipate a door prize – Vancouver does have some of these death-trap bike lanes, but for the most part you can ride on traffic-calmed streets that are actually set up for bicycles to go through. I tend to think of Vancouver’s bike routes as “bike highways”, although you can’t actually go that fast on them.

But, aside from all these planning and weather differences – the real reason cycling in Vancouver is an order of magnitude more enjoyable is simply that there is more to see. An hours cycling in Vancouver can take you up Commercial drive, down the central valley greenway to Science World, along the downtown seaside bike route by Yaletown and the West End, past English Bay, Lost Lagoon, and then twisting around the Stanley Park Seawall back to the West End. Sure, Toronto has some nice places, but they don’t repeat, don’t all tie together with the geological nice-ness of Vancouver.

Sure, Toronto has the Don and Humber Valleys, which can provide a good half-days cycle each – but getting to them from anywhere you might live means trekking down dangorous and poorly maintained city streets. Bloor Street this summer was in a state of disrepair that would embarrass a third-world dictator – and this means you can’t ride fast enough to not be an obstacle to traffic. Neither does it help that most major streets in Toronto connect to high speed freeways, which changes the pace of driving in general away from a tempo at which bikes can be anything but a nuisance.

People in Vancouver lead charmed lives. And it’s not like they don’t take advantage of it – everywhere I’ve been today has been chalk full of people, all sorts. The Beaches, the bike racks, the walking paths, there are folks out everywhere. And yet, as I sit in the shade near the Second Beach concession in Stanley Park, nothing feels crowded. The opposite of the fireworks then. No, but even the fireworks at Kits beach last night were not really crowded – the rain kept too many Surrey-ites away for that.

It’s often said that Vancouver isn’t any “fun” – that we have a real shortage of festivals compared to other “World Class” cities (whatever “world class” means, anyway). To remedy this there are some new events happening – yesterday I spent a bit of time at a free music festival in Crab Park, and also stopped to listen to a few songs at the South-Asian music celebration festival at Plaza of Nations. Both of these events were extremely poorly attended. Now, this might be because they were poorly advertised, or just because they were lousy events – but I have a feeling that poor attendance to events like this might have something to do with the fact there are plenty of things to do on a sunny Saturday in Vancouver other than go to a mediocre free concert.

The Rest of the Trip

After Edmonton we continued along the Yellowhead highway into Jasper National Park. At the park entrance we had to pay 19.60$ if we planned on stopping at all. I felt this was a bit absurd, since it encourages people to drive straight through without stopping.

The mountains through the park are impressive, but in a quieter way than the mountains around Banff. What struck me, however, was that the landscape was no more dramatic than the plains of Saskatchewan.

We looked into taking the Jasper Tramway way up, but the cost is 28$ per person. We probably could have done the hike to the top in a few hours, but we weren’t in the mood. (Road trips don’t really put you in a hiking mood).

Seeing Mount Robson for the first time felt a bit, well to be honest – American. The mountain is easily visible from a highway pulllout which features an interpretive centre and a cafe. It’s a bit, easy.

Still, the Park is great, and I’d like to go back to camp there, and spend some time hiking, getting out of the valleys accessible by roads.

Speaking of camping – the site were we stayed was 14.85$ which needed to be deposited in an envelope because there was no one around to collect it. Which meant I didn’t have exact change so it felt more like a donation of around 14$. However, technically we were meant to pay another 8.85$ to have a campfire with the provided wood. What?

Anyway, the park is worth seeing – especially for the icefields parkway between Jasper and Banff (which we didn’t travel on). Hopefully someday I’ll find an excuse to travel on that road. Dave – fancy a little camping road trip?

Town Update: Edmonton

Town Update: Edmonton

Edmonton is a big rich oil town. The buildings are tall, the streets are clean. Downtown has a proper “downtown” feel. And the mall downtown, unlike the suburban mall featured in my last post, feels clean and new and spacious. When we visited there happened to be a street performer festival happening. I don’t care much for most street performers, but I did for some reason enjoy the duo that were performing specifically for children.

There really isn’t too much to say about Edmonton. It’s a big town, not much character that I could see in a short visit. There is a nice river valley right next to it, so in terms of nature it has Toronto licked. And, I suppose it’s quite close to the Rockies – about 4 hours on the Yellowhead Highway.

Special Update: West Edmonton Mall

Since seeing the commercials on television as a child, I’ve been intrigued by the West Edmonton Mall. It seemed like the logical extension of the mall model – increase size until a theme park fits inside. However, in reality the mall is much less impressive. While it very well might be one of the biggest malls in north America, it doesn’t have the vastness, height, or expanse of the Eaton Centre mall in Toronto, or even the mall portrayed in Fast Times at Ridgemont high. Most of it feels like the crappy mall in your home town, just a lot more of it.

Some of the speciality areas are worth seeing, however – the Deep Sea adventure area, which used to be home to the Submerines (which now sit idle), is detailed, features a pirate ship, and frankly is up to Disney Standards. Since it was designed as a Submarine ride, and the water is clear, there is much to see underwater. Really what they should do is make the whole area a swimming pool.

The indoor rollercoaster was perhaps the biggest let-down. Firstly, it is not in the mall proper – it is in “Galaxyland” a theme park which is “in the mall” in the sense that all the entrances to it are off the mall, but it is not “in the mall” in the sense of being surrounded by stores. This confused me, as I remembered as a child pictures of a rollercoaster actually in a mall, but they might be false memories. “Galaxyland” is by far the most ugly amusement park I’ve ever seen – absolutely everything is painted in puke purple, yellow and green. Also mascot of the park is a yellow alien with purple dots, thus looking like an ill child – and this is a good metaphor of what I looked like after riding the main roller coaster – even hours later my stomach still feels off. The G forces created by this ride were far stronger than I believed possible in such a small space – the ride is far more stomach churning than say anything at Vancouver’s Playland. Although, that may have something to do with the fact we sat backwards in the rear car – something I’ve never seen on a proper coaster before, and something I would recommend avoiding.

Town Update: Saskatoon

Saskatoon is a small city, more the size of Nanimo than Winnipeg. But, it felt alive – the streets had people, and shops were not all borded up. It even has an American Apparel and Lululemon downtown, and two Starbucks. You can hang out in the park down by the river, and according to the cute girls I met at the ice cream stand, that’s all there is to do on a summer’s afternoon in Saskatoon.

While the update may not reflect it, I liked Saskatoon. It wasn’t as spread out as other prairie cities, and it had people in it.

Town Update: Winnipeg

Winnipeg feels like a big town with less money in it than in the past. The town felt entirely empty – we spent over an hour searching for a decent looking restaurant. In fairness, everyone was out of town the day we were there at the Winnipeg Folk Festival – where we probably should have been but the 60$ per day tickets scared us away. We eventually did find a nice Greek restaurant, but I never got in touch with the person we meant to stay with that night, so at eleven we took off and pointed the car towards Saskatoon.

The thing that struck me most about Winnipeg was the kind of raw beauty of the place, many more of the old buildings have not been torn down compared to say, Vancouver. There is an area of town which seems to be trying to be like Gastown, but in terms of retailers and money it looks quite unsuccesful. Someone has built “luxury condos” down by the river, but where the speciality food shops should be there are fake storefronts for speciality food and clothing shops – encouraging retailers to move in. Unfortunately for the condo owners, I think tenants will have to move in first.

That would be all I have to say about Winnipeg, except that Winnipeg has another another town right next to it. Cross a modernist pedestrian bridge and all of a sudden you’re in the French Quarter, which didn’t feel run down, just classic. We immediately came across nice restaurants and coffee houses, and live jazz music. And, from across the river, you can enjoy the beauty of the Winnipeg skyline without being encircled by its ominous towers.

So, on the whole, a modest thums- up for Winnipeg!

Risk, Externalized

On the trans Canada, just cross out of Ontario into Manitoba, we came across the scene of an accident. At first we couldn’t tell what had happened – a truck was in the ditch with its windshield caved in, and debris was strewn over the road. It looked a bit like he’d hit a deer or a moose, but there was no evidence of an animal anyway. A bit further up the road, however, we saw an 18 wheeler with one bare rim, and a tire lying on the side of the road. It’s pretty obvious what happened – the semi truck going Westbound had a tire come off its trailer, the tire bounced and careened into the pickup going Eastbound. The closing speed of the pickup and the tire must have been between 150 and 200km/h, as the road speed limit is 100km/h.

The tire must have hit the pickup with a lot of force, because not only did it cause the truck to skid across the road into the ditch, it managed to collapse the front suspension such that debris from the lower front of the truck broke off and was strewn all over the road.

Now, it’s pretty clear what should happen. It’s someone’s responsibility to inspect the condition of tires on 18 wheeler trailers, or rather, its to some extent both the responsibility of the driver and the firm that provides the trailer. In a just world, if this trailer does belong to some major company, that firm should lose the right to rent trailers. Of course, if the trailer belongs to the driver, all the responsibility simply falls there.

Of course, there is also the possibility that all the safety precautions were followed and this happened anyway. If that’s true, then this is just a structural risk built into the system of trucking things everywhere – an innocent driver could be killed by a flying tire.

Marathon, Ontario

Marathon Ontario is the town my mother first lived when she moved to Canada at the age of 2 in the 1950s. Located on the northern shore of lake superior, it is a purely resource based settlement, beginning with a pulp mill in the 40s, and joined by several mine in the 1980s. The mill is still standing, and only shut a few years ago due to issues surrounding the liability of corporations for containers filled with mercury sitting in the lake.

The town has an old-world feel to it. The subdivisions, built in the 1940s and 50s, twist and wind to the contour of the hill on which the town is built, and the main building downtown is the legion hall. The town does have its share of modern suburbia to it as well – the opening of the mines in the 1980s brought growth which resulted in many big box stores. Now, most of those mines have shut down, and the mill as I previously mentioned, and it seems as a result everyone is working in retail. Everywhere we went was overstaffed, with hardly any customers. The town’s free museum even has three paid staff doing full time research. A flashing sign in the mall parking lot bleets “shop local means local jobs” – but this is only a half truth: without some money coming in from the outside (i.e. purchasing natural resources), the town has no reason to exist. Since the Mill has been mothballed rather than torn down, there is the possibility it could re-open, and with rising metals prices perhaps the mines will become profitable again, so it isn’t that Marathon is necessarily a dying town.

Ghost towns are interesting because they show the transiency of resource extraction as a basis for a human community, but they only show one side of that transiency – decay, loss. Any anxiety and uncertainty associated with the demise of a ghost town disappears retrospectively, and it downfall appears necessitated in advance. Marathon demonstrates something a bit more interesting – not just the past, the fall of a town, but the uncertainty itself. Not just the past, but also the to-come, the “who knows?”.

Day 4 Morning

Since we weren’t able to get ahold of Tyler in Winnipeg, we decided to cut our losses and move on. Waiting around trying to get in touch with Tyler was actually a blessing in disguise, we ended up seeing far more of Winnipeg than we otherwise would have, and it’s quite a nice city. Expect a fuller update concerning Winnipeg later today.

Last night we made it within a few hundred clicks of the Saskatchewan border, and we are coming to realize one thing – Canada is really small. Sure, it took two and a half days to drive to Winnipeg, but if we hadn’t spent so much time in Marathon we could have done it in two – and now we find ourselves barely two days from Barriere BC (an hour north of Kamloops, our final destination).

Not to say Canada isn’t very big, driving across you only see a tiny part of it – but it just isn’t that long to drive from Vancouver to Toronto.

I have photos from Thunder Bay to Saskachewan that I will post later today, and I should also have some comments on Marathon, Thunder Bay, Northern Ontario Camping, Winnipeg, and the Yellowhead Highway.