The border crossing at International Falls, Minnesota is about as inconspicuous as an international crossroads can get. Nestled into a series of industrial buildings and a web of railroad sidings, the small booth seems right at home. The border guard, who was just a little to perky for 6:00 AM, smiled and asked me where I was headed. I said I was going to Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. “Geez, Louise, what for?” It’s a rather long story, but I’m traveling to all 59 National Parks in the United States and I’m on my way to Acadia National Park, via Cape Breton. “Holy smokes. Hey are you the bearded guy on the van?” In a sense, yes. “You got room in there for one more?” Uh….stammer, stammer. “Just kiddin, eh. But I’m jealous. Now git.” Living in Michigan, I have crossed into Canada many times. I’ve never been told to ‘git’.
The first thing you notice when you enter Canada, is well, nothing. A few different stores, the traffic lights seem to be a different shade of red and green and the speed limit is so slow you just accept that at some point you will end up in jail. Then there’s that whole miles versus kilometers nonsense that any speedometer can translate. But for the most part – at least on the surface – it’s the USA with more Tim Hortons.
For those of you who have never driven across the top of Lake Superior, from Ft. Francis to Thunder Bay, to Ste Sault Marie, I can sum up the overall experience in a few words. A glorious time-warp. A combination of being off the grid, obviously at peace with nature – or at least you’ve called a truce – and not having more than a single Walmart for every million square miles of population. I passed billboards that were last changed when Kennedy was President. I drove through small towns and villages with people that looked at me as if I was one of the first settlers. But across that mighty stretch, there was beauty everywhere. At times what I was seeing around each bend was more magnificent than the last. A seemingly unending string of postcards waiting to be captured and sold at the local Circle K. The beauty was relentless and I found myself stopping every ten minutes, turning my drive into an all day meander and a bit of the night affair.
As I rolled into Pukaskwa National Park on the northeastern shore of Lake Superior, it was pitch black. No lights, the dead of night. For just a moment I stopped on the narrow blacktop road leading into the campground and turned off my headlights. I couldn’t see my hand in front of me. While I don’t mind the dark, I do like my hands and this was a darkness that you rarely encounter, so the headlights returned. Five minutes later, I spotted something about fifty yards ahead in the middle of the road. I couldn’t tell what it was, but it was sauntering down the middle stripe like it owned the damn thing. Finally, it was close enough to recognize as a wolf. A wolf was walking the yellow line directly in front of my now stopped van. In shock I watched as it hesitated in front of my vehicle for a moment and then passed within foot of my window and disappeared into the inky black night. If the window had been down I could have pet him. But then the hand I professed affection for a few sentences ago may well have been eaten. Or at best nibbled. I still can’t believe a wolf strolled by my door. That’s going to leave an indelible impression.
Camping in parks, as I have been doing, requires you to occasionally interact with fellow travelers. For the most part – and this is my own assumption – people in parks tend to share a few traits. For instance they like being outdoors. They like to travel. They appear to be rather fond of large pickup trucks and Subarus, which seem diametrically opposed. They like bonfires. And in this particular campground, they like weed. Unknowingly into this cannabis-fest I drove, finding its source parked but two small spaces to my left in the form of a minivan and two young French Canadians. This is the exact transcript of our conversation, which took place with headlamps glaring into my eyes, temporarily blinding me, but causing no concern from the headlamp’s baked owners. Hi guys, how’s it going? “English…no…French…oui…oui…uuuuhhhh…errrrrr…hahahahahah…sorry, must we goodnight.” As my eyes began to water and Snoop Dog lyrics suddenly rambled through my head, I bid them a fine evening and walked back to my van. I slept like a baby.
For the next fours days I traveled across Canada, passing through Sault Ste Marie, Sudbury, North Bay, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec, Riviere du-Loup, Grand Falls, Fredericton, Moncton and New Glasgow. Every day was filed with grand vistas, tiny diners with great food, great weather and good people – like Reny. When I stopped for gas and coffee early one morning, I asked the young ladies behind the counter where I could find a good breakfast. It was Thanksgiving in Canada and the chances of finding something open were slim. Both answered in unison, “Across the street, eh.” Canadians really do say eh by the way. A lot. “Our aunt owns it. Tell her we sent you, eh. Maybe we’ll get a referral fee.” This followed by laughter. I paid my tab and drove across the street to a tiny little, unassuming building – more like an old house – and waked in. The dark haired, ruddy faced gentleman who handed me the menu reminded me of an old, scarred hockey player. I asked him what a Denver omelette was. “It’s when we use bacon instead of ham, eh. I make a good Denver omelette. Two cheeses for you.” And off he went. His only customer was happy. When he returned a while later with what looked to be a perfect omelette, we struck up a conversation. Have you lived here all your life? “Oh yeah. I’m French Canadian. Born and bred.” Is there weed in the back? This is what I thought but didn’t say. “Where you heading? Is that you on the van?” I explain my journey and what we hope to accomplish and he says, “I was a scout, yeah. We had a great scout leader here. Took us camping all the time, eh. One time a snow hut collapsed on a guy. Almost killed him. Dug him out with shovels.” As it so happens, that actually happened to me about ten years ago. When I told him the story he just kept shaking his head. “Could have died, yeah. You could have died, yeah.” Reny was a good man and I was lucky to meet him.
Five days and about three thousand miles later, I crossed over onto Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. If I had to make that same drive across Canada tomorrow I wouldn’t hesitate. I saw more beautiful landscapes than I could describe in a dozen posts. I was fortunate to meet wonderful people at virtually every turn – and a few of them even spoke English. I discovered why Tim Hortons is an institution and had my coffee cup rinsed by a gal in Moncton, without even asking her to do so. “Oh just doing my part to make your day a little better. Yeah.” That kind of sums it up.