There's only one way to see Canada, and that is on a good, old-fashioned family road trip.
Just about every person I met while driving across the country last summer told me it was their dream to take that trip someday. Many others recounted their own nostalgic memories of making the trip when they were kids.
I was lucky enough to be doing it and also to be one of those people with fond memories. My parents drove me and my brother out West twice while we were growing up. I credit those trips for having sparked my love of travel and of this country. My two boys were about the same age that we were when we did it, so I thought this was the right time to show them more of Canada.
Our journey would take us from Montreal to Vancouver Island. Our motto was "Tofino or bust."
Over a little more than two weeks, the changing terrain of Canada unfolded before us like the chapters of a book. The buildup began in Chapter 1 as we traversed northern Ontario. The Prairie chapter introduced a new landscape. The tale hurried toward a climax in the Rockies, then slid toward its denouement on Vancouver Island. The drive home across America's interstate was our epilogue.
We didn't have a lot of time to get to the Pacific Ocean and back again, so very little was left to chance. Our itinerary was planned with military precision. If we arrived at a destination and it was raining, that was just too bad. We weren't sticking around to wait for the sun to appear. We had to reach our next milestone the following day to stay on schedule.
Chapter 1: Northern Ontario: How big is this country?
Our first stop was Sudbury, home to the giant nickel. It poured rain when we got there. Not a good start to our odyssey, but the sun shone the next day and it was clear enough that we could see smoke thinly pouring from the Inco Superstack that towers over the town.
It doesn't sound like a sight worth seeing, but the colossal size of the chimney dwarfs such world-class landmarks as the Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty. The only free-standing structure in Canada that is any taller is Toronto's CN Tower.
The drive out of Sault Ste. Marie along Lake Superior National Park is among the most scenic in the country. The views along this stretch of highway are stunning, with its rocky shores and cliffs lining the vast waters of the world's largest lake. The road's beauty was enhanced by the low sun that lit the landscape with golden light as we drove in the late afternoon.
After a night in the pleasant city of Thunder Bay, we drove a short while to admire the rushing waters of the mighty Kakabeka Falls, a natural attraction of which I was completely unaware before spotting a highway sign notifying us of its existence. It was just one of many such discoveries we would make as we explored the nation.
The drive across northern Ontario is long. It is punctuated by sights of extreme beauty, but there are long stretches of forest and lake that are so similar it becomes monotonous. As we drove, I remarked on the number of abandoned hotels and restaurants that died along with the popularity of road trips and the rise of chain businesses. I thought they would be a great subject for a photo essay someday.
Chapter 2: The Prairies: Yes, they really are flat
AS you leave Ontario and cross the border into Manitoba, the terrain gradually changes. The rocky scenery of the Canadian Shield -- with its plentiful bogs, ponds, lakes and ragged pine trees -- thins out.
Eventually, it disappears as if by magic, and you find yourself rolling across the flat prairie landscape with its distant horizons and big skies.
I've often heard people say how boring the flatness of the Prairies is, but it's usually people who have never set foot there. Spend some time in a field of yellow canola flowers beneath a blue sky with an impossible number of white clouds overhead and you quickly realize this landscape is as beautiful as any in the country.
In Winnipeg, we had dinner at The Forks. The national historic site is known as a place where different cultures have met over the centuries. In that spirit, I dined on perogy poutine, the perfect meeting of Ukrainian-immigrant cuisine and French-Canadian comfort food.
We learned about some of Canada's history in the rustic Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum in Brandon, Man., and we got another dose of history in the much glossier RCMP Museum in Regina, Sask.
We headed north to Saskatoon, a city that is too often overlooked by travellers, as it is off the main stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway. I'd like to say that we explored it, but we were there to visit family and never got beyond their backyard.
A mad dash across the border into Alberta took us into dinosaur territory, where we visited Dinosaur Provincial Park, one of the most amazing sources of prehistoric fossils in the world. At first, it all looks like rocks, but after some coaching from a guide, you realize just about all those stones under your feet are actually bits of fossilized wood and bone. We admired more complete dinosaur skeletons at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, one of Canada's most impressive museums.
Sorry, Calgary, but we had no time to visit. We had an early appointment the next day with the Rocky Mountains. Those snow-capped peaks shining in the distance were calling to us.
Chapter 3: The Rockies: Too much beauty for one day
When we drove into Banff National Park on Saturday, we discovered it was the last long weekend of the summer. This is clearly not a good time to visit the most popular national park in the country, as everyone is in a panic to do something before summer slips away -- and they all wanted to do it there.
The lineups to drive to Lake Louise and Moraine Lake were staggering. Cars were parked along the side of the access roads for kilometres as if they had been abandoned during a zombie apocalypse. The shores of the lakes swarmed with people like ants on a sugar cube.
Despite the long lines and crowds, the famed vistas were worth the wait. We enjoyed mesmerizing views of mountains, lakes and rivers all day as we slowly made our way through the Banff park into Jasper National Park. As for spotting wildlife, we weren't disappointed. Two black bears, numerous elk and a bighorn sheep were among the large game we saw on our drive.
Our plans to stay in Jasper were thwarted, as all affordable accommodation had been snapped up for the long weekend. We had to backtrack out of the park toward Edmonton, where we scored an overpriced hotel room in the town of Hinton. It worked out fine because we got to admire the gorgeous scenery at the eastern edge of the park and were treated to some close-up encounters with magnificent elk grazing by a lake at the side of the road.
The next day, we returned to Jasper for a bit of horseback riding, then ventured farther west across the Rockies into British Columbia and down into the Fraser Valley, where we slowly descended into the semi-arid landscape of sage and cactus around Kamloops. The scenery looks like it is lifted straight from the scenes of a cowboy movie, not something you'd expect to see in Canada.
After a night's rest, we took the long drive to the vibrant city of Vancouver, where we ditched our car and stayed in a downtown hotel for two nights. We explored the city by public transit and bicycle, hitting the usual tourist spots of Stanley Park, the Vancouver Aquarium, the Harbourfront and Canada Place.
Chapter 4: Vancouver Island: Take a deep breath
By now, we had driven many kilometres, seen many sights and packed a lot of experiences into a short time, but morale in the car remained high. The key to surviving this kind of trip is to not drive too many hours without stopping for a break and not over-schedule yourself with activities so you don't leave any time for discovery.
We got a break from driving by taking the ferry to the B.C. capital, Victoria. It is best described as cosy. Much of our visit centred around walks by the city's Inner Harbour, with the Gothic splendour of the vine-covered Fairmont Empress Hotel on one side and the grandeur of the provincial assembly building on the other. The harbour was busy with colourful sailboats and other vessels as well as the coming and going of noisy float planes ferrying passengers to Vancouver and beyond.
We boarded one of the boats in the harbour, a massive Zodiac operated by Prince of Whales, to go whale-watching. We sped out to sea bundled in red survival suits and orange tuques, both necessary because of the cold wind we faced while speeding across the frigid water.
After some fruitless searching, we eventually came across a pair of orcas hunting seals by the rocks of a small island. Our guide was excited that we'd see them devour something, but we never did get to see a whale eating a seal. We got close enough to see the tall fins of the whales and their distinctive white and black markings, and that was satisfying enough.
From Victoria, we made the long drive to Tofino. Anticipation grew as we drove the last stretch of winding road through forests and mountains to our end destination. At last, about an hour before sunset, we arrived at the gates of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve on the western shore of Vancouver Island.
We drove to Long Beach, possibly the most beautiful in the country, and waded across the wide, sandy flats in the golden light of a setting sun. Low patches of fog clung to the tall pine trees behind the beach. We let the frigid waters of the Pacific Ocean numb our bare feet. In the sand, we scrawled the number 6,324. That's how many kilometres we drove to get there.
The town of Tofino was delightfully laid back. Many of the people we spoke to told us how they had come there for vacation and never left. It was easy to see why.
The following morning dawned foggy and grey, but we had signed up for a surfing lesson. Clad in figure-hugging wetsuits and booties, we dragged our long boards to the beach and were instructed on the finer points of climbing up and catching a wave. The water was freezing, but the wetsuits did their job and it was hardly noticeable after a few minutes. After many attempts, with lots of falling and laughing, we all succeeded at standing upright on our boards, propelled by the waves beneath us. Mission accomplished. It was time to go home.
Epilogue: Going home
The next day was the beginning of our long trek back to Montreal. We pointed the GPS towards Seattle, then rocketed across the U.S. toward Chicago, crossing the border at Sarnia, Ont. Those days were not without adventures, but they paled compared to the experiences we enjoyed exploring Canada.
Although a few weeks of a road trip across Canada barely scratches the surface of what this country has to offer, it is a pilgrimage everyone should make. Now, when I or my kids see a news report about a tiny Saskatchewan community or read about the hometown of some hockey hero, we can see it in our mind's eye and know we've been there.
As for our plans to see the rest of the country, everyone's excited to be hitting the road again this summer for a voyage to Newfoundland and Labrador.
-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2014