When I was 17 years old, my friend convinced me to watch a movie called One Week. The basic plot of the movie is a teacher in Toronto discovers he has cancer, and decided that in order to deal with the treatment, he first has to discover who he really is. That leads to him going on a road trip across Canada, and tackling some pretty intense existential crises along the way.
Watching that movie got me thinking two things. The first is that while I’ve done my fair share of international travelling, I hadn’t actually seen much of my own home country. And the second thought I had was the following: despite being an immigrant myself (I came to Canada when I was three years old), I’ve always considered myself to be a Canadian first and foremost. Still, growing up, I always felt like I was always hovering on the edge of what it meant to truly be Canadian, whatever that means. So, what better way to figure out what that means for myself than by going on a road trip and seeing what this beautiful country has to offer?
When I was younger, my parents and I had done trips out to the east coast, but it wasn’t until this past summer that I finally made the trip out west with my best friend and my girlfriend. We drove from Toronto all the way to Vancouver and back.
Now, you may be wondering why it's taken me so long to write and post this. Well, I think that one reason as to why I waited was because it still hadn’t sunk in that something I had done something that I had been dreaming about for almost six years. It hadn’t sunk in that I had driven 11,459km (the equivalent of driving from Toronto to Dubai, and then another 459km or so). It hadn’t sunk in that I got to touch the Pacific Ocean, or that I was able to see the breathtaking beauty that are the mountains in Jasper and Banff. Truth be told, it still hasn’t entirely sunk in yet, but it’s getting there.
I think part of why I waited to write is also because I wasn’t entirely sure how to properly express just how wonderful a time I had during those 25 days without too much exposition. Something like this, no matter how much you read or how many pictures you view, you won’t entirely understand unless you do it yourself. Casey Neistat, the YouTuber, said, “experience does for the soul what education does for the mind.” I completely believe in that.
Before I get to the actually writing about the trip, I first need to tell you about the whole preparation process.
If there’s one thing that my girlfriend, Iryna, will tell you, it’s that nothing makes me happier than a well-formatted spreadsheet. Since this was our first long-distance road trip together, we figured that the best way to approach this was by breaking down the trip day-by-day. This meant figuring out the route and distances between our destinations, our accommodations, and the sights we wanted to see along the way. After doing much research, we figured that the most cost effective way of driving was to get a rental, and make sure that we had full coverage and roadside assistance for anything that might happen along the way. More on this later.
The next part was figuring out accommodations. We quickly realized that hotels, motels, and Airbnbs would be far too expensive to stay in for 25 days straight. That alone would have added up an extra $3,000 to our overall budget, and that wasn’t something we were willing to do. So, when Iryna came up with the idea of Couchsurfing, I was a little hesitant at first. However, after our first night with our first host, I was sold.
The best part with Couchsurfing is a couple of things. First, we didn’t have to spend a dime, and second, we got to see things in each place we otherwise would have missed. By staying with locals in their homes, we a truly immersive experience. And third, we made new friendships along the way, something we also would have missed out on had we gone with the hotel/motel/Airbnb route. When we weren’t Couchsurfing, we spent our nights camping out (mostly in Jasper, Banff, Radium Hot Springs, and Dinosaur Provincial Park.
And now, with both my lengthy introduction to why we wanted to travel and our a brief dive into our preparation process, I bring you my Cross-Canada Road Trip experience, starting with
I never truly appreciated just how big Ontario is as a province. Growing up, I’d see all these maps in which they’d overlay Canadian provinces over whole sections of Europe, to give you a sense of just how large Canada is, and subsequently, the entire world.
We started off at my house in Newmarket, a little north of Toronto. We packed up the rental car the night before, and early in the morning, we set out onto the open road. Our plan was the reach Pancake Bay, just north of Sault Ste. Marie, but the weather took a turn for the worse. It started to rain so hard that we had to cancel our camping plans and find the closest and cheapest motel inside of Sudbury. We found a place for $60, which given the price, wasn’t much. Let’s just say the $60 covered the cost of four walls, and not much else.
The next morning, we drove our way through Ouimet Canyon on our way to Thunder Bay. While we did spend most of our day driving, we did manage to get in some quick pit stops to see just how beautiful northern Ontario really is. Two things I took away are that 1. It’s very rocky, and 2. It’s very prone to rockslides. I can’t count how many times we were stuck in a single line waiting for construction crews to clear the roads ahead.
Our stop in Thunder Bay was brief, but great. Because we were travelling, we wanted to keep our expenses to a minimal. Due to our budget constraints, we decided to try Couchsurfing our way across Canada. I was a little hesitant at first when my girlfriend brought up the idea, but after our first night with Chris in Thunder Bay, I was sold.
Chris is an awesome dude, who lives with his girlfriend, and their Boston Terrier/Pug mix named Jake. We met a lot of really adorable animals along the way, but I think Jake might have been my favourite. We reached his place at around 10pm, and what shocked me was that it was still fairly bright outside. When we asked Chris about this, he said that it’s because Ontario is such a large province, and that realistically, it should have two separate time zones. Driving from the border of Manitoba to the border of Quebec is close to 35 hours. Because of that, and just how large Ontario is as a province, the sun rises and sets much later in Thunder Bay than it does in Toronto. That was when it really hit me; just how large Ontario is, and in comparison, Canada as a whole. That night I went to sleep thinking about how in the grand scheme of things, I’m fairly insignificant.
We left Thunder Bay and Chris early the next morning. We had a long 10 hour drive ahead of us, and we wanted to see as much of it while we could.
Our next stop was Steinbach, a small place about 40 minutes southeast of Winnipeg. On our way there, we drove through Kenora, which if you ever have the chance you should absolutely visit. We needed a break to stretch our legs, and when the waiter at the restaurant we were at told us about a beach close by, we jumped at the opportunity to cool off. This is where both Dave and Iryna quickly learned that while I may be a bit of a beanpole, I am immovable (at least in the water). Kenora was a beautiful small town that had serious cottage vibes and some of the friendliest people.
After we left Kenora, we drove across the border into
When we were leaving for the trip, there was one thing I kept hearing; that if you have a dog, and let it loose, you can still see it running three days later. I genuinely thought that that was simply hyperbole, that Manitoba can’t actually be that flat, but I was wrong. Manitoba really is just that flat.
After seeing the beauty that is Northern Ontario for two days straight, it was a little refreshing to be able to see straight across into the horizon. We drove straight to where we’d be spending our third night, Couchsurfing with an incredible couple - Beck and Anth. They described themselves as “granola,” and had the most adorable rescue bull terrier, Poko. They made us bison burgers for dinner, and we spent the night talking about our respective travels. They told us all about climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, and Machu Picchu in Peru.
The next day, after numerous hugs and an extended goodbye from Poko, we set off on our eight hour drive into Saskatoon.
Once we crossed the border into Saskatchewan, we drove straight towards our next destination - Saskatoon. Initially, I had only expected to be mildly impressed by the place. A small town in the middle of the prairies didn’t seem all that exciting, but funnily enough, Saskatoon soon became one of my favourite places along the road trip.
We messaged our next Couchsurfing host, Thomas, and told him that we might be a bit late as we were going to be getting dinner with some people that had messaged Iryna online. When we reached the bar, the three of them waved us over to their table, and introduced themselves - Riley, Jane, and Chris. As we ate, we got to know them fairly well, so much so that Jane invited us out to brunch the next morning.
After dinner, we met up with Thomas at his house. He told us that he wouldn’t be there in the morning when we left, as he had to be at work for 4am (he’s the guy that chases down hot-air balloons). After a long day of driving, we immediately crashed.
The next morning, we met up with Jane and had what I think might be the most delicious brunch I’ve ever had and will ever had. If you’re ever in Saskatoon, you need to visit Poached - it’s absolutely incredible.
After we said goodbye to Jane, Riley messaged us saying that he got off work early, and wanted to show us around. We picked him up at the house he shares with Jane and Chris, and he took us to two incredible places. The first was the Saskatoon River Beach. For a hot summer day, it was the perfect way to unwind. The current was strong enough that we were able to just sit and drift down the river a little bit. The second place he took us to was the Saskatoon Berry Farm, which has the most delicious perogies and cheesecake (it’s a farm run by Ukranians).
We had initially planned on leaving Saskatoon by 2pm to each Edmonton in the early evening, but we were having so much fun that by the time we said our goodbyes and hit the road, it was already 6pm.
The drive to Edmonton was one of the more memorable ones. Iryna was wiped out, and was napping in the back, and Dave had already done quite a bit. So it was me driving, and Dave being my DJ to keep me awake and alert at the wheel. Sometime after we crossed the border, the sky turned pitch black. In the mountainous horizon, we saw bolts of lightning arcing across the sky. I still don’t understand how Iryna didn’t wake up, what with Dave and I literally yelling, “did you see that one?! Oh man dude that’s so freaking cool!” every few seconds.
I had hoped that because we were driving into the storm, our extremely dusty car would get a decent cleaning. The funny part is that the front of our car did, but the back half was even dustier. How it remained that way is beyond me, but by the time we reached our destination, we were too tired to care.
We didn’t reach Edmonton until 11:30pm, and by the time we got to our next Couchsurfing host, it was already well past midnight. They were gracious enough and welcomed us into their home. It turned out that our host, Courtney, was actually in Alaska, and her roommates were the ones that we would be staying with for the night. They were all young, in their early 20s, and since housing has become something that is increasingly unaffordable, they eight or nine of them had gone in on a mortgage for that house together. They had a unique system, in which everything was for everyone to use and eat unless otherwise specified. It had a warm, communal feel to it.
Waking up the next morning was a little tough. After a long night of driving, I was beat. Iryna woke up the next morning to a small, fluffy yet extremely grumpy looking white cat walking all over her face. It’s name was Roy, but she referred to him as the furry little asshole that woke her up. There were people studying in university, working on small farm projects, and a girl from Australia who during her travels across the country, found this group and decided to stick with them.
We didn’t stay in Edmonton long. I wish we had gotten more of a chance to see the city, but the three of us were eager to get to the next part of our trip - camping in Jasper and Banff.
On the way to Jasper, we got pulled over, and Iryna got her first ever ticket for speeding. After we calmed her down, I took over driving, to give her and Dave a break. We didn’t actually reach the campsite until much later, because on the drive in, we kept having to stop to get out of the car and just take in the sights.
There’s not much to talk about when it comes to Jasper and Banff, or least, there’s not much words can do when the best way to experience it is to actually see it. We spent two days in Jasper, one night camping and one night in a hotel (we were desperate for a hot shower and access to a laundromat), one night in Radium Hot Springs, and two nights in Banff. We drove through the Columbia Icefields, saw Lake Louise, the Athabasca Falls, and hiked through the Johnston Canyon. We were cold, soaked, but far from being miserable. There’s something about the sheer beauty of the mountains that removes any sense of worry or misery.
If you ever have the opportunity, this is one place in Canada you absolutely cannot miss out on. And with all National and Provincial Parks in Canada being free to the public in 2017, there’s no excuse not to go and see them.
Driving into Vancouver was one of the more memorable parts of the trip. We had driven through the Alberta-BC border when we were going from Radium Hot Springs back into Banff, but from Banff to BC, there’s nothing quite like it. Winding our way through the mountains and finally making our way into the city was wonderful. The only thing I would have changed would have been the time spent driving. Going back to the spreadsheet that we had created, it looked like it had taken us close to 11 hours, but it was worth it.
Like all the other places we were visiting, we decided to Couchsurf. We stayed with this dude, Alex, and it was absolutely wonderful. Alex is this sort of free-spirited, hakuna matata kind of guy, and not only did he let us stay with him for 5 nights, he actually took some time off to show us around the city. The first day, we wandered through Stanley Park, and then later around Kitsilano. We spent the next two days adventuring around the downtown core, hogtown, and Grandville Island, and by the third day, we decided that we needed a mental and physical break, so we caught an afternoon movie.
While we were there, we also did three day trips out to Squamish and Whistler, one to the Lynn Canyon Park, and one to visit Wreck Beach down by UBC. What we had really wanted to do was visit Vancouver Island, and drive up to Tofino, but for that we would have needed at least another week to do it justice. We’re saving that for the next time we’re there.
Not only did we get to meet Alex, but we actually got to meet some of his closest friends, and they were so incredible that we’re still in touch. When Alex moved back to Toronto in October, we met up with him again, and it was so good to see him and hear about his travels and how he managed to get back to the city by hitch-hiking.
We didn’t really want to leave Vancouver, but we knew we had to. I remember Iryna and I sitting on the beach contemplating how we could potentially move to a city like this (Dave, Alex, and Brittany were in the water), and how for the first time we had both felt like this place so far away from where we grew up felt like home to us. Vancouver, for all it’s faults, is a wonderful and beautiful city, and a place I had always wanted to visit.
When we finally left, we said our goodbyes, and began our journey back. Our first stop would be in Radium Hot Springs again for a night, before we drove through to Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta
Dinosaur Provincial Park, which is about 40 minutes south of Drumheller, is absolutely beautiful. However, when we went, we were being attacked by mosquitos 24/7. No amount of bug repellant seemed to work, and I’m getting itchy just thinking about them. We had planned to stay there because the Perseid Meteor Showers would be happening at that time of year, and we figured what better place to view it than among old dinosaur fossils. No amount of natural beauty was worth the torture we had to endure, so we ran back to our tents and slathered after bite to soothe our freshly bitten skin.
We visited the Tyrell Dinosaur Museum, and to be quite honest, it puts the ROMs dinosaur exhibit to shame. It was so cool being able to see into the workshop where scientists were trying to delicately uncover bones and fossils from the dirt.
The last thing we saw in Alberta before we left was a township of 28 people called Wayne. At one point, it was home to over 2,000 residents during the coal mining boom, but now it’s a tourist attraction due the Last Chance Saloon (which surprisingly had a delicious burger). Definitely worth checking out.
On our way back, we drove through Regina, and stayed with a German guy named Sebastian. His company had brought him over, and had paid for his apartment, and because he didn’t know too many people in Regina, he was using Couchsurfing as a way to meet new and interesting travellers.
We spent the night talking about our various trips, and he showed us photos of his travels throughout Iceland. We immediately added that to our travel bucket list.
When we first drove through Manitoba, we didn’t actually go through Winnipeg. On our way back, however, we wanted to rectify this, and so we stayed with this absolutely lovely girl, Akech. She was working that night, so we met up with her, and she gave us the key to her place. Because she was so nice and trusting, we decided to do her a small favour, and do some cleaning up for her (taking out the garbage, doing her dishes). It was a small apartment, but it felt really nice to know that there were people out there who still had enough faith and warmth in their hearts to blindly trust people like that.
Finally, we were back in our home province, but still incredibly far from being home. We powered through the last two days, flying through Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie, and a little bit before 9pm, we pulled into my driveway. I don’t think my parents were expecting us to be back so early, so when we rang the doorbell, they were pleasantly surprised. We spent the next three hours just unpacking the rental car and taking long hot showers. It felt good to be home, but there was still one day left. We still had to return the rental car, and I still drive Dave and Iryna both home.
It really didn’t sink in that we had driven over 11,500km over the span of 26 days until the following week. When you’re so caught up in the moment doing things, sometimes you don’t realize what’s actually happening until you’ve had a second to just sit back and reflect.
That trip was one of the best things I’ve ever done, and I’m so glad I was able to do it with the two people that I love most in this world. People asked me, “but didn’t you get into fights?” and that surprised me. They had this expectation that three really close people can’t travel without getting into fights and stop talking for a few days, and that’s never been the case with my friends and I. I figure, if you think that that’s going to happen, then you’re not nearly as close as friends as you think you are. If I had know that would happen, I wouldn’t have done the trip. I mean, what’s the point of travelling and seeing one of the most beautiful countries in the world if you’re not happy?
And I was happy. I think the happiest I’ve ever been. It was the perfect antidote to what we had experienced in India and Brussels only a few months early. It was the perfect way to spend my summer, and the perfect way to get to know my best friend and my girlfriend in ways not possible otherwise. It was the perfect way to get out of my own head, and to begin to think in new ways by meeting new and extremely interesting people. It was the perfect way to experience Canada in an extremely small time frame, and I wouldn’t change a single thing.
Canada turns 150 this year, and all National Parks are free to enter. If you have any vacation time, don’t use it to go abroad. Use it to discover the natural beauty in your very own backyard. I promise you that you absolutely will not regret it.
Below you will find a slideshow of some of our favourite photos taken during the trip. If they look a little compressed, it's because they totally are. If you want to see the full, high-res versions of them, you can click here. If you want to see more, or follow along, you can find Iryna online here and Dave online here. You can also read this in the August 2017 issue of Desi News over here.