Planning ahead

Decades ago, Dianne and I traveled three months through Europe armed with little more than a Eurail pass and knapsack full of clothes. Our itinerary was determined by what felt good and where the next train ran. Serendipity ruled.

That’s changed.

This summer, we will be doing a four-month, trailer camping trip through Canada, motoring from Vancouver Island on the Pacific to Newfoundland on the Atlantic. We plan to camp principally in national and provincial parks along the way, and with Canadian national parks celebrating the country’s 150th anniversary with free admission, campgrounds will be even more crowded than normal.

To get a decent site (or get any site at all) we have to book campsites the minute reservation windows open. That means blindly planning a detailed, 122-day itinerary months in advance.

So much for serendipitous travel.

Canada camping reservations

Sometimes it pays to not listen to the experts.

I asked members of an A-frame Facebook group how far in advance we should reserve RV park campsites in Canada this summer. One Canadian camper suggested that he never made reservations and was always able to get a site.

Well, that may be true if one doesn’t mind that the only campsite left is immediately downwind of a pit-toilet.  But we have our standards.

I spent hours studying campground maps and photos trying to find perfect sites, which we reserved the instant reservations opened.

Others obviously are doing the same thing. In many cases, I went back online an hour after reservations opened and found those campgrounds had few unreserved sites left.

As for camping between parks, my Canadian expert suggested that if we can’t find space, we should just ask locals if we can camp in their yards.

With that in mind, we’d appreciate it if those of you living in the Great White North would give us your addresses. We’ll need a restroom and showers, and the gray water dumped from our sink should do wonders for your petunias.

Canada Plan

Beginning June 21st, Dianne and I will begin a three-month camping escapade across Canada in our tiny, a-frame trailer.  We’ll be spending 102 days on the road, bunking in an 84-square-foot trailer and since we don’t have a bathroom onboard, we’ll be using nothing but public restrooms (called washrooms up there).  Should be interesting after all of that good Canadian beer.

Due to a little hand surgery, we’ll be starting our Canadian adventure in Radium Hot Springs instead of Vancouver Island.  After one night there, we drive to Lake Louise and begin our long slog across the largest country on the continent. We hope to learn more about our neighbor to the north and search for an answer to that perplexing question of just why are Canadians so gosh darn friendly and polite.

While we will hit a few cities along the way, most nights will be spent in national and provincial park campgrounds.  We already have prepaid reservations at most for specific nights at specific campsites.  We can only hope no breakdowns interfere with the schedule.

The journey will reach its easternmost point on Newfoundland.  From there it will be back through Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to Maine followed by a long slog back home.

As Jimmy Buffett once pointed out, the worst experiences make the best stories.  Hopefully we’ll have only dull but happy experiences to report at trip’s conclusion.

Blame Caputo

A few years ago, I was perusing the travel section in a Barns & Noble store when I stumbled upon “The Longest Road,” a book whose cover featured the image of a trailer being pulled down the pavement.

Written by Pulitzer Prize winning author Philip Caputo, the book tells the tale of a trailer-camping trip he took across America.  We had just recently purchased our own camping trailer, so of course, I bought the book and quickly read it from cover to cover.

The account of his trip got me to thinking that maybe Dianne and I should do something similar.  After all, we’re both avid campers and veterans of extended journeys.

Before we met, she and a girlfriend traveled for five months across North America in a Jeep Wagoneer.  About the same time, my step dog, her owner and I spent seven months exploring the western U.S. in a VW camper van.  After we got married, Dianne and I embarked on a three-month trip vagabonding around Europe and over the turn of the last century, I spent four+ months at sea on an around-the-world cruise.

Now, as a retired nurse and a freelance travel journalist, we have the time and temperament to tackle another long trip.  Inspired by Caputo, we quickly hatched our plans.

  • Caputo went from Key West, Florida, to Deadhorse, Alaska.  I decided that a sea-to-sea journey across Canada would be our goal.
  • Caputo pulled a classic Airstream trailer with all the amenities.  We would bunk in a smaller, folding trailer that doesn’t have a bathroom.
  • Caputo, who largely traveled without advance reservations, camped in RV parks.  We loathe RV parks, preferring instead to find nature-engulfed sites in national and provincial parks where advance campsite reservations can be vital.
  • All travel narratives, I was assured by a fellow writer, must involve a pilgrimage.  Caputo’s was a mission to find out how the United States, peopled by every race on earth, remained united.  Our mission will be to discover why residents of the Great White North, peopled by every race on earth, remain so darn friendly and polite.

Airstream trailers such as Caputo’s are crafted from aircraft-style aluminum and made for long hauls.  Ours, on the other hand, was fabricated from plastic and particle board that was glued, screwed and stapled together.  It was designed for weekend camping, not 10,000-mile continent-crossing escapades.

If things go wrong, and I’m sure something will, we’ll have Caputo to blame.

Heading North

The only thing worse than a strong head wind when towing a trailer is a strong side wind, and we’ve had to endure both on the first two days of our 102-day Trans-Canada Journey.

Of course, we haven’t reached Canada yet.  That won’t happen until Saturday.  It’s going to take us three days just to get to the Great White North, the first two of which took us from our home in Aurora, Colorado, north to Sheridan, Wyoming, and on west to Anaconda, Montana.  The winds have been howling the entire way, causing vegetation to bend over like the Hunchback of Notre Dame and flags to stick out like they’ve OD’d on Viagra.  The low-riding trailer has been following faithfully but our tow vehicle, a tall Nissan Xterra, has been rocking like a party van as it gets wind-buffeted down the pavement.

Hopefully, when we emerge from the flats and head into the mountains, things will calm down and I won’t have to keep white-knuckling the steering wheel to keep our progress on the straight and narrow.

RV Parks or Forest Service Campgrounds?

Some folks like commercial RV park campgrounds.  We don’t.

Last night we stayed in a highly rated RV Park near Butte, Montana.  It had all the amenities one could ask for – full hookups, level, pull-through sites, a picnic table and grill, clean restrooms with showers and free (but pitifully slow) Wi-Fi.  The staff was friendly, our site had grass and the nearest neighbor was a full ten feet away.  For folks who use their RV as a mobile motel, it was great, and nobody spoiled our fantasy of privacy by waving or stopping to chat as they walked by.

Tonight, we’re in a U.S. Forest Service campsite in the Kootenai National Forest.  Our site slopes a bit sideways requiring us to prop up one wheel to level the trailer.  We have to fetch water from a spigot 25 yards away and the restroom is a one-hole pit toilet located up the hill.   But we’re surrounded by nature in the form of trees, vegetation and wildlife, which the signs suggest may include those big, furry ursine critters.  The nearest neighbor is a John Elway pass away, and we have birds chirping with the occasional squirrel and chipmunk scurrying past.  Everyone who has walked by our site has either waved or stopped by for a brief chat.

Of course, it would be nice if we had even pitifully slow Wi-Fi, but with no cell service out here, even teens have no reason not to look up and admire their surroundings.

Finally, We’re in Canada, Eh!

After three days of driving north from Colorado, we finally made it to British Columbia.  We entered the Great White North at Roosville, the second busiest Canadian entry point from the state of Montana.  There was nobody ahead of us in line and nobody behind.  Apparently few folks go from Montana to Canada on a Saturday morning, and the border guard seemed grateful to have something to do.

We assured him we carried no guns, tasers, mace or pepper spray, and he didn’t ask about any beer, wine, meats or vegetables we might be smuggling in.  The whole border crossing took less time that it takes to clear a California agricultural bug stop.

We’re diving right into the Canadian way of life.  I set the Garmin to kilometres (yes, we’re even using Canadian spellings), which was great for monitoring our speed, but distances suddenly seemed incredibly longer.  I reset our indoor/outdoor thermometer to register Celsius, and we can no longer look at it and tell if we’re comfortable or not.

“It says it’s 25 outside.  Is that good or bad?” Dianne asked.

We filled up with fuel at the local Who-Knows-What gas station, sloshing in enough litres of fuel that if it were the same number in gallons, it would overflow the tank in our neighbor’s motor mansion.  And the final price in Canadian dollars would have made a good down payment on that motorhome.  Fortunately, with the favorable exchange rate, everything comes at about 30% off.

We’re now tucked away in our campsite in Kootenay National Park outside Radium Hot Springs.  There’s a fresh, 24-pack of Kokanee beer tucked away in the fridge and we’ve got a 120-volt electrical hookup, so we can run the air conditioner.  We just need to figure out if 25 degrees is hot or not.

Our first night camping in Canada

Our first night in Canada was at the Redstreak (not to be confused with “Red Stripe,” the Jamaican beer) Campground in Kootenay National Park.  Unlike American national park campgrounds, this one boasted eight different loops with varying amenities.  It reminded me of our Army Corp of Engineers campgrounds.

We had a 120-volt hookup onsite, but unlike some of the other loops, no water or sewer.  The bathroom, which had free showers, was directly across the street from our site.  Not only was that very convenient for those of us who don’t have an onboard bathroom, but it also allowed us to chat with fellow campers on their way to or from the facilities.

One woman from Vernon, British Columbia, was enamored with our U.S. and Canada state/province decal maps.  I explained that where we come from, all new owners are required to put them on their trailers to show where they’ve been.  Using our maps as a reference, she finger-drew where she and her husband had been on their Canada and U.S. adventures.

“We like traveling in your country” she told us, “because gas is so much cheaper.”

Another day, another province

Sunday morning, we departed Kootenay and headed toward Banff National Park in Alberta.  Less than 15 kilometres up the highway, we passed a grizzly dining along the roadway.  If that happened in Grand Teton or Yellowstone National Parks, traffic would have come to a standstill as folks poked cameras or their kids out car windows to get a shot.  The three cars ahead of us on the road didn’t even slow down.

While the campground seemed like Corps of Engineer sites, driving through the length of Kootenay National Park seemed like motoring through an American national forest.  There were a few scenic pullouts with interpretive placards, but nothing special.

We turned off onto the road to Lake Louise and were immediately greeted by something I’ve never seen in an American national park – guys in dayglow green jumpsuits directing traffic.  Seeing our trailer, the traffic coordinator motioned us forward.  But I was following Garmie (the voice on our Garmin navigator) who said we should turn left in 200 metres.

Now, I’m used to her saying things like “turn in 200 feet,” which is like right now, so I turned at the next intersection.  We proceeded up the wrong street to where it dead-ended.  I tried to save face by stopping at the corner gas station for a fill up.  Back on the street, this time I followed the guy in the dayglow jumpsuit.

Lake Louise has two campgrounds.  One is for hard-sided units only and has 120-volt hookups.  The other, for tents and canvas popup trailers, has no hookups and lies surrounded by a 7,000-volt electric fence, designed to keep the bears out.  We opted to live dangerously and reserved a site in the hard-sided section.

“Do you get many bear maulings here?” I asked the lad at the campground check-in booth.

“We don’t like to talk about that,” he replied in a dead-serious voice.

We’re not alone

After sitting on our butts for 1,200 miles, we decided our first full day at Lake Louise would be a hiking day.  We started out on a trail that parallels the river behind camp.

After a short detour through the tent campground (we wanted to see how the other half lives), we headed up the Louise Creek Trail to the lake.  We met only one other hiker on the trail, and he was carrying a can of bear spray.  So were we.

Just short of the lake, the trail passes by a parking lot where dayglow-clad attendants were directing traffic.  I chatted with one between cars.

“Saturday was the biggest day we’ve ever had up here,” he told me, “and Sunday was even busier.  Today looks like it will beat even that!”

We continued up the trail to the lake.  There, thousands of people formed a virtual human shield around water’s edge.  Armed with cameras ranging from iPhones to pro-grade SLRs, they shot selfies, they shot loved ones and they shot their groups.  No one appeared to be photographing the beauty of the setting.

A cacophony of human voices filled the air in a myriad of languages.  English was occasionally one of them.

We attempted to escape the Disney-worthy crowd by taking the two-kilometre route to the far end of the lake, but the trail proved to be a walking version of a downtown freeway during rush hour.

Rather than return the way we came, we followed the horse route back.  The trail was chewed up, muddy and reeked of horse puckies, but it was totally human free.  It made us appreciate the smell of equines.

We stopped at the towering, Chateau Lake Louise hotel in the hopes of quaffing a brew with a view, but we were turned away.

“Sorry, but with the rainstorm due in 40 minutes, we’re limiting seating to hotel guests,” the hostess told us in a very pleasant voice.

Rain in 40 minutes?  With at least an hour’s hike back to camp staring at us, we declined.  We raced back down the Louise Creek Trail faster than my hiking buddy, Mick, heading for a trail’s end beer.  If we’d met a bear on the trail, it would have needed to sprint to catch us.

Sixty-two minutes later, we reached our campsite safe and dry.  It never did rain.