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week 39-43: northern ontario, ottawa

thunder bay

the sleeping giant

Amy: From Minneapolis, we blasted straight to Thunder Bay to see my sister Britt. She and her boyfriend Colin just moved into an apartment big enough to host my family, so everyone is convening here for an early Thanksgiving dinner. It's nice to have a home base for a few days - comfy bed, kitchen, warm shower, couch and some much needed family time. On Friday morning, my parents flew in. Britt and my dad unintentionally wore matching outfits (lol).

After breakfast, we hiked around Centennial park, then visited the Bluffs where we got a great view of the sleeping giant across the bay and all the changing leaves.

Ready for some brews, we headed to the new Lakehead Beer Company for dinner. They were hosting a big Oktoberfest celebration that night, including a sausage throwing and beer-stein-holding competition. I tried to sign Britt and Colin up for the first game, but the fam voted me and Colin in instead. Against all odds, we beat about 15 other teams and won the contest!! We got a swag box including free beer and a T-shirt. Woot! The beer stein holding competition was harder than it looked - I bowed out first, followed by Bill. Britt put up a good fight, but Colin was the last man standing out of our group. A memorable evening.

The next day we walked around the pier and downtown, then made our thanksgiving feast. Colin’s mum provided two of her farm-raised chickens for the meal, which ended up being deliciously juicy. Bill cooked all the veggie dishes and I did the stuffing and gravy, and we had ourselves a huge family dinner!

bill: we are finally back in ontario! but still a long long way from home. it is so refreshing finally being back in a familiar landscape; driving over the canadian shield and its thousands of lakes, granite cliffs, and the changing leaves of the fall boreal forest is a welcome change from the wastelands of south dakota and west minnesota. it is good to be home. first impressions of northwest ontario; it is actually remarkable how little ontario changes over the massive sprawl from the northwest to southeast, basically anywhere north of the ottawa valley looks a lot like thunder bay, or cochrane, or sudbury, etc.

i have always wanted to go to thunder bay and check out the city and some of the nature around it, but it is a staggering 16 hours of driving from ottawa, so it has never made the cut as far as ontario based vacations go. first stop: britt and colin’s place. they have an apartment downtown with a beautiful view of the bay and the peninsula that wraps around it; this is called the “sleeping giant”; the indigenous peoples of the area described the massive cliffs as taking on the silhouette of a giant laying on its back. thunder bay is pretty much exactly how i expected it to be: it is basically sudbury, but a little more beautiful with the lake and the giant and all, but a pretty small, hardy, industrial type place with a young college-going crowd, with all the kinds of amenities that low cost of living brings to young people, like art shops and cool bars etc. nice place.

my new annual thanksgiving dish: roast cabbage, brown butter, extra old cheddar (stolen from the menu at salle climatisé)

kakabeka falls

Amy: Kakabeka Falls is a must-see in Thunder Bay. The falls are impressive - a huge rushing cascade of water bigger than most of the waterfalls we saw in the states. We had planned to begin hiking the sleeping giant tonight, but bad weather made us rethink our plans. Instead, we stayed in, made dinner and watched the lightning show from the comfort of Britt’s apartment.

sleeping giant

the sea lion

Amy: In the morning, the weather had cleared, so we drove the hour out to Sleeping Giant Provincial Park to hike to the knees of the giant. On the way up, we stopped to see the Sea Lion, a natural rock arch that used to resemble a lion (until a big chunk broke away). The first part of the hike was long and flat, hugging the shore of Lake Superior. The second half climbed pretty steadily up to some panoramic viewpoints, eventually ending at the highest point of the giant. Sheer black cliffs dropped a dizzying 250 metres below us. It was too windy to stay at the top for long. All said and done, it ended up being a BIG day - over 20 km and it took us 6+ hours. Longer than expected but a day well spent.

bill: the giant is made up of a massive escarpment, with the tallest cliff faces in ontario. standing on top of it and looking down is very impressive, and also extremely windy. there is a formation at the knees called “the chimney” where 250m of vertical cliff wrap around into a chimney on all sides, it is hard to do it justice with pictures. very cool. hiking the giant has been a bucket list item for a while so it is cool to finally see it.

the chimney


Amy: The next day, we decided it was time to keep moving. The drive along the north shore of Lake Superior was breathtaking. Endless blue waters, rocky shores occasionally giving way to white sandy beaches, and spectacular sunsets - at Neys and Pukaskwa parks.

bill: after spending 4 or 5 days in tbay with the family, we said our goodbyes and started heading south. lake superior is the biggest freshwater lake in the world, so big that it may as well be an ocean. the north shore has sandy beaches covered in driftwood with rolling waves, it almost feels like being on the shores of the pacific northwest, very surreal for ontario. there are a number of provincial parks along the north shore, protecting what is known as “the group of seven path”, as many of the most famous paintings of canada were painted here. neys is one of those parks, so we stopped in to have some dinner and watch the sunset over the water.

pukaskwa national park

bill: canadian national parks are very different from american national parks; the latter are the greatest hits, the big names, and have the super high tourist traffic and resources to support it. other than in the rockies, the big name canadian parks are mostly provincial, though there are a smattering of small national parks in random places around the country, mostly unheard of and not often travelled. pukaskwa is one of those; a small national park on the north shore of superior with very limited infrastructure, mostly just protected land with a couple hiking trails and beaches. thinking bigger days lead to bigger rewards, we did the only long 28km hike in the park through the dense brush on some extremely rough trail to get to a pretty mediocre lookout, but we did stumble on a black bear up very close (again, we forgot our bear spray). also amy got very scared of a hare that ran straight at her. after getting back to the van exhausted, we did one of the short hikes out of the campground which turned out to be way cooler and way easier. beautiful park, recommend stopping through to sit on the beach and watch the waves in near solitude.

the mediocre lookout in question

Amy: Our first big day was hiking the Mdaabii Miikna trail in Pukaskwa National Park. We got a great campsite, then set off intending to do a 20km loop. It started pouring on us halfway through, so we opted to turn around - in the process we somehow hiked 28km. After hiking in so many spectacular places with amazing views this year, this hike felt disappointing. The highlight of the park ended up being the beaches a short walk away from our campsite. We walked down after dinner and enjoyed the sunset over Lake Superior.

v scary bunny

lake superior provincial park

bill: i have wanted to do a canoe trip at lake superior provincial park for a long, long time, but it is just prohibitively far from ottawa so it has never happened. it turns out that the park is actually fairly small, with only a few portaging routes, many of which involve multiple portages over 1000m in length, which is no picnic. we set aside a few days to do one of these routes, but it has been dumping rain since we got back into ontario and the weather for the next few days doesn’t look any better. we rented a canoe and managed to get out on lake mijinemungshing while there was brief window of sunshine, which was beautiful.

Amy: Although we were staring down a pretty grim forecast, we opted to go on a canoe trip anyways. Our first afternoon was pleasant; we set up camp on a little island then paddled around the lake, enjoying the warm sun on our faces. By the time we got around to making dinner, dusk had settled and dark clouds were rolling in. In the middle of making dinner, the clouds broke into a torrential rain/hail storm. We (and the macaroni) got drenched. When the rain subsided a little, we stripped off our soaking wet rain gear and huddled in the tent. It rained all night and most of the morning, so we decided to pack up and head to Sudbury in the afternoon!

bill: if anything has been missing from this year, it has been canoeing. nothing brings peace to my soul like paddling on a lake in a canoe. i love canoe camping.


bill: we drove all the way down through the sault and wawa, stopping to check out the views along the way. at one point we stopped and looked out over superior to see massive overhead swells breaking on the points (at least 8 feet tall). maybe it is possible to surf in ontario given the right time and place! these waves were actually much too big and dangerous for us, but very cool to see it pumping so far inland!


Amy: Rain rain go away! It’s still raining so we checked out the Science North museum. Unfortunately less interesting for us - it was mostly geared toward kids. But the giant hanging whale skeleton was cool. Afterwards, we visited the Big Nickel (the world’s largest coin), a local microbrewery, then played some pool and watched some live music. Good time. 

bill: i love sudbury. a usual stopover before or after a trip to killarney, it is the biggest town in northern ontario. there are only a few bars here but they are good ones, and there is a fantastic vegan taco truck, which was our first stop. on saturday, we had some pizza at the laughing buddha. next door is a bar/music venue called “the townehouse” which is peak northern ontario dive bar; bottles of 50, free pool tables, dirty, dingy, and live music every weekend. and good music too; we saw this bluegrass band (the taft river stringband) on tour from wales that were absolutely incredible; young guys, incredibly tight, amazing pickers, high energy, perfect four part harmonies and sang half of their songs in welsh. very cool. nothing gets a bar full of drunks going like a good bluegrass band, pretty memorable experience. it also helps that it’s saturday tonight, as stompin tom sang, there’s nothing like a “sudbury saturday night”


Amy: After our Sudbury Saturday night, we pressed on to the cottage! Our first visit of the year We arrived and vegged out for 4 days straight. In that time, it did not stop raining. Grateful to have a proper roof over our heads and more than six feet of inside space. We ate some nice meals with my parents, hiked to see the lake’s abandoned school bus, and squeezed in a paddle when the rain stopped for a few hours. 


bill: i love a cottage. a so distinctly canadian phenomenon, basically a second house owned explicity for the purpose of drinking beer. what a concept. we have basically followed fall down as we have been driving, and the leaves are just past peak here which was beautiful for the one morning of sunshine we had on the day we had to leave and finally commence our journey back home to ottawa.


bill: over the course of this trip we have gone a lot of reflecting on where home should be. originally we had set out to explore parts of the usa, especially the west coast as places to live and work, given that i could make triple the salary and not have to see the snow ever again, which overall seemed like a pretty good deal. but after having been to california and seen that triple the salary + triple the cost of living = a lateral move, there is definitely less financial incentive. add that to our experience of californian culture - everyone is weird and angry, probably because their cost of living is ridiculous and they have a housing crisis, a drug crisis, an extreme income inequality crisis, and an environmental crisis all going on at the same time. it all makes the sun and money of california seem much less worth it. sure portland and seattle are cool but it rains way too much, you may as well live in vancouver and not have to worry about medical bankruptcy. we love vancouver, but i have already lived there and i can't take the 9 months of straight rain.

we have also been reflecting on the value of our community, our friends and family, and the value that that brings to our lives, which you lose and is very hard to rebuild in a new place as an adult. on reflection, it actually turns out that ottawa is a pretty good place to live. before leaving we complained about the cost of living in ottawa, but by all reasonable comparisons as far as we have seen this year, it probably has one of the best cost to quality ratios of anywhere we have been. there is no surfing, but you can commute to work from a cottage half an hour outside of the city in the gatineau hills and go climbing after work, which is a pretty good compromise. it turns out that we like ottawa a lot more than we realized, and it is good to be home, if only just for a little bit. i won’t bore you with a day by day of my life in ottawa for two weeks, but we saw a lot of people we love, and here are some pictures of places here i like:

i am aware that most of these are bars

Amy: There truly is no place like home. I can be there to celebrate milestones with the people I love. Housewarming? I'm there. Bachelorette? Let's go. I can eat lunch with my Grammie, and share some treats with my Nana. I can go to the climbing gym on a Tuesday night. I can read a book and do a puzzle with my parents at the lake. I can catch up with friends over pizza or a visit to The Third. Travelling is fun and exciting, but also stressful and tiring. Being in a familiar place with people who love you is a comforting salve for a weathered spirit.


bill: back to where we started. full circle. the van has successfully completed a whole lap of north america. a total of 33,000km. we are very proud of this old girl for getting us all the way around without any major issues (at least no problem i couldn't fix myself). we fully expected to have some major breakdowns and issues along the way, but she did us very well!

all tucked in and ready for a well deserved rest

Amy: Packing up the van was like closing a really good book. Sad it’s over. Grateful to have experienced it at all. Content with how it all played out. And a lingering feeling that my universe is a little bigger than when I started. 

We had such a good time with so many enduring memories, it’s hard to wrap my head around the fact that it’s over. The van was the space we rested our heads every night, cooked all our meals, played crib, drank beer, jammed to our favourite tunes, sheltered from bad weather…it’s been our home and it’s sad to leave. 

But, looking back at the last 10 months, I feel nothing but happiness and gratitude. We did a lot, and it was all possible because of the van. She got us around the whole continent with essentially no hiccups. Because of that, we were able to see everything we wanted, and experience more than we ever could have imagined.

Despite our countless adventures, the van trip ended at what felt like the right time. The weather was turning cold and wet. Little projects have accumulated. Seeing new sights is becoming routine. I’m missing my family, friends and creature comforts (and comforting creatures). It's time. I’m content. Satisfied. Ready to turn the last page and close the book. 

Reflecting on the story of our year so far, I’ve reached some obvious, and some not-so-obvious, conclusions about life and how I want to live it. The world is big - and I want to see more of it. Nature is weird, wild and beautiful - and I am happiest wandering down a trail with the sun on my face and a snack in my hand (very important). People are strange, but so am I - a smile, a nod and some kindness can get you out of almost any pickle. There’s no place like home - Canada and Ottawa are very pleasant places to live. Time is worth more than money - three weeks of vacation is not enough to live a fulsome life. Even though many of these conclusions are tropes and generally understood facts of life, I feel like I understand the meaning behind it all a little better now. 

we have been collecting stickers from every place that we have been, here is a tour of our collection

bill: it is really bittersweet putting the van into storage. this has been our home for 10 months now, and by home i really mean home. it is hard closing this chapter of our lives considering it has probably been the best chapter yet. it is especially hard not knowing when or if we will ever be able to get back in the van and take off again.

but unfortunately it is getting too cold to live in a van in canada right now, so while we still have time we are off to our next destination: japan!

here is this week's video:

1 Comment

Joel Graham
Joel Graham
Nov 15, 2023

RIGHT ON Billy Dagg! Next step .... hair cut! Thanks for sharing a most excellent adventure!




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