In June, I packed up my life, crammed it into a Nissan Sen­tra, and left Hamil­ton

Or how to drive half­way across the coun­try on a bud­get

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - RHIANNON RUS­SELL

In June, I packed up my life, crammed it into my Nissan Sen­tra, and left Hamil­ton. The des­ti­na­tion: White­horse, Yukon, 5,500 kilo­me­tres away. I’d done the drive be­fore, back in 2014, when I moved to White­horse for a job at one of the lo­cal pa­pers.

That time, I drove with my dad. This time around, I was pick­ing up a friend in Sudbury who’d fin­ished her school year and was head­ing home to White­horse for the sum­mer. I’d been work­ing in Hamil­ton for the past year as a free­lance jour­nal­ist, but now I was mov­ing back up north to make White­horse my home base. Be­cause she and I had both driven across the coun­try be­fore, and be­cause we were both on a bud­get, we de­cided we’d head there di­rectly, fit­ting the trip into seven days while camp­ing along the way.

Here’s how we did it.

Day 1: Hamil­ton to Sault Ste. Marie — 8 hours

First things first: The week prior to leav­ing, I had my car looked over at the shop to make sure she was in good con­di­tion. The day prior to leav­ing, my en­gine light came on and, slightly pan­ick­ing, I brought her back to the shop, where the me­chanic fixed a dam­aged valve. Yes, her. My car’s name is Betsy, and she car­ried me and my dad to White­horse in 2014. Then, in 2015, I drove her back home to On­tario. I’ve racked up the miles in the three years that I’ve had her, and I was more than a lit­tle wor­ried that, be­cause my two pre­vi­ous jour­neys had gone smoothly, that this time around, I was due for some me­chan­i­cal trou­ble.

The drive out of south­ern On­tario was un­event­ful: it was hu­mid and traf­fic along the 401 was slow. But once I got north of Bar­rie, things got more pic­turesque: chunks of Cana­dian

Shield be­gan to ap­pear, grow­ing more fre­quent as I drove by Parry Sound and on to Sudbury, where I was pick­ing up my friend, Stephanie.

Af­ter I gassed up in Sudbury, the en­gine light went on again. What?! I imag­ined my car break­ing down on the very first day of this trip, be­fore we’d even got­ten out of On­tario. When I picked up Steph, I filled her in on the re­pairs I’d re­cently had done — how was it pos­si­ble there was some­thing else al­ready wrong? We de­cided we’d push on to Sault Ste. Marie and fig­ure out what to do when we got there.

From Sudbury, that was about a three-and-half-hour drive. Steph took over the driv­ing, and I ate a salad I’d packed that morn­ing. We had a cooler in the back seat in which we stored some snacks: these sun­flower-seed-but­ter-and-oat cups I’d baked, crack­ers, licorice, some veg­gies, and an in­dus­trial-sized bag of ket­tle chips from Costco that my mom had given us. Betsy hit a mile­stone shortly af­ter we left Sudbury: 100,000 kilo­me­tres on the odome­ter.

That night, we stayed at a KOA camp­ground about five min­utes north of Sault Ste. Marie. It was clean and quiet — we had a few RV neigh­bours but we didn’t see any other ten­ters. Steph picked up a salad at a gro­cery store for din­ner. I bought some bell pep­pers and ap­ples for the days to come. At the camp­site, I ate a cou­ple of sun­flower-seed-but­ter cups for din­ner. (When road-trip­ping, my usual healthy eat­ing goes out the win­dow. I sub­sist on mostly snacks, pre­fer­ring to forgo meals and graze through­out the day.) WORTH A VISIT: The Big Nickel — This over­sized tribute to Sudbury’s mining his­tory is some­thing to see as you drive by the city. WHERE WE STAYED: Sault Ste. Marie KOA, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., 705-759-2344

Day 2: Sault Ste. Marie to Thun­der Bay — 8 hours

We de­cided we’d stop in Wawa to­day to have the car looked at. It wasn’t emit­ting any strange noises, but we fig­ured it was bet­ter to have it checked out now, be­fore what­ever was wrong got worse. About 50 kilo­me­tres out of the Soo, we stopped at Cana­dian Carver, a on­estop shop on the side of the high­way that sells gas, food, and stereo­typ­i­cal Cana­dian sou­venirs. It also of­fers cof­fee for cash do­na­tions. We made sure to fill up here; it’s the last spot to get gas be­fore Wawa, 150 kilo­me­tres away.

The drive to Wawa is beau­ti­ful. The high­way skirts Lake Su­pe­rior and the views, com­bined with the walls of rock lin­ing the road, are in­cred­i­ble. Even if you don’t have car trou­ble, Wawa is a good spot to stop: there’s a Tim Hor­tons, and also a mas­sive pho­to­genic Canada goose. We stopped at the first garage we saw, but it only sold tires. An em­ployee checked that my gas cap was clean and se­cured prop­erly — if it’s not, that can cause the en­gine light to come on — then he looked at us in­cred­u­lously. “You’re go­ing to the Yukon? On those tires?” He peered in­side my car, packed to the brim with my be­long­ings. “It doesn’t look like you have any spare tires in there.” Steph and I as­sured him we did: five tires, in f act — my snow tires plus a spare in the trunk. We rolled our eyes as we drove away.

The Cana­dian Tire in town couldn’t slot us in for a few hours, and we didn’t want to waste the day. So we stopped at a GMC deal­er­ship and asked if the staff could plug my car into a code reader to de­ter­mine what was prompt­ing the en­gine light to come on. The di­ag­no­sis was a fail­ing sen­sor in the en­gine. We asked the ser­vice man­ager if he thought we should push on and hope it didn’t fail be­fore we got to White­horse, or stop to get it fixed in Thun­der Bay. “I say, seize the day,” he told us. “Go to the Yukon.” If it got worse, we’d be able to hear it, he said. The car would make a rat­tling noise. So we de­cided we’d just lis­ten closely and if any­thing sounded off, we’d get it fixed.

That night, we had plans to meet an old high school friend of mine for din­ner in down­town Thun­der Bay. The de­lay in Wawa cost us an hour and a half, so we didn’t ar­rive un­til about 8 p.m. We met my friend at In Com­mon, this cool veg­e­tar­ian-friendly restau­rant on Cum­ber­land Street. The food was de­li­cious: Steph and I both had bur­ri­tos full of black beans and sweet potato. I or­dered a beer from the lo­cal Sleep­ing Gi­ant Brew­ing Com­pany. Af­ter din­ner, we were both ex­hausted but we had about a 30-minute drive to our camp­site in Kak­abeka Falls Pro­vin­cial Park. We ar­rived by 10 p.m., just as the sky was get­ting dusky, and pitched our tent. WORTH A VISIT: Wawa’s Canada goose The peb­ble beach in Marathon — Stop in this small town and fol­low the signs for the beach, made en­tirely of large, smooth stones. It’s a good spot to stretch the legs and take in the view.

Terry Fox memo­rial out­side of Thun­der Bay — From this look­out, you also get an un­ob­structed view of Sleep­ing Gi­ant — a long rock for­ma­tion in the lake that re­sem­bles the pro­file of a gi­ant ly­ing on his back. WHERE WE STAYED: Kak­abeka Falls Pro­vin­cial Park, Kak­abeka Falls, Ont., 1-888-ONTPARK

Day 3: Thun­der Bay to Win­nipeg — 8 hours

It poured overnight, but thank­fully, we stayed dry. I’d just bought my tent a few months ago but hadn’t yet used it, so I was pleased it had held up. For break­fast, I ate the left­over half of my bur­rito and some ket­tle chips. North­ern On­tario is beau­ti­ful, but we were ex­cited for a change of scenery. Driv­ing from as far south as Hamil­ton makes you re­al­ize how mas­sive this prov­ince is. A friend from Sudbury texted Steph ask­ing if she was in White­horse yet, and we laughed. “We’re still in On­tario,” she replied. We stopped in Dry­den, where I got a slushie at a gas sta­tion. (Slushies are a road-trip es­sen­tial for me. I don’t drink cof­fee, but I find liq­uid su­gar very ef­fec­tive.) Steph spot­ted a moose to­day, stand­ing off in the trees at the side of the road.

When the sign for the Man­i­toba bor­der ap­peared, around 3 p.m., we grinned. Progress! As we drove to­ward Win­nipeg, the wind picked up and the trees lin­ing the high­way swayed. I could feel the car shift­ing as the gusts pelted it. We were in Prairie coun­try now: while in north­ern On­tario, the high­way had wound around the Cana­dian Shield, along the lake, and up and down hills, here the road stretched out ahead of us, vis­i­ble for miles. Green fields spanned both sides of the car, un­der­neath a wide blue sky.

That night, we booked a spot at the Win­nipeg West KOA. On the way, we stopped at a No Frills and picked up some pre-made salad mix. At the liquor store, I bought a can of Farmery Es­tate Brew­ing’s Blonde Cana­dian Pale Ale, brewed in Man­i­toba. The KOA was right on the side of the Tran­sCanada, and it was quite ba­sic but, at the very least, the lo­ca­tion was con­ve­nient. We made good time to­day, ar­riv­ing around 6 p.m., so once we set up the tent to dry in the sun — it was sop­ping wet from the night be­fore — Steph went for a run down a nearby ru­ral res­i­den­tial street and I swam in the camp­ground pool. Then we ate our sal­ads and crawled into our sleep­ing bags by 9:30 p.m. It’s sur­pris­ing how much sit­ting in a car all day, with lit­tle phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity, can tire you out. WHERE WE STAYED: Win­nipeg West KOA, Saint François Xavier, M.B., 204-864-2201

Day 4: Win­nipeg to North Bat­tle­ford — 9 hours

In the morn­ing, we hit the road by 8 a.m., and picked up break­fast to go at a Tim Hor­tons 10 min­utes down the high­way. (My go-to through­out the week was a bagel B.E.L.T. and large green tea.) To­day’s views con­sisted of f arm­ers’ fields stretch­ing off into the hori­zon, big blue skies and fluffy white clouds, and lots of flat high­way. We’d set­tled into a rou­tine by now, stop­ping every hour and a half or two hours to use gas-sta­tion bath­rooms. Steph would get an­other cof­fee. I grazed through the day again: a red pep­per, eaten like an ap­ple, ket­tle chips, and licorice. Road-trip­ping is fun, but it’s not glam­orous.

If you’re hun­gry for a proper lunch, York­ton, Sask., is a good place to stop. As we passed through the city, the sky dark­ened and it looked like we were head­ing into the heart of a prairie storm. It sprin­kled, but the wind seemed to blow the clouds off be­fore the rain could come down hard. We by­passed Saska­toon and pushed on an­other hour and a half to North Bat­tle­ford. Through­out, we lis­tened to a lot of coun­try mu­sic, both on lo­cal ra­dio sta­tions and on Steph’s iPhone — songs by Mi­randa Lam­bert and Kacey Mus­graves. It seemed ap­pro­pri­ate. By the time we ar­rived, the sun had come out again. We stopped at the lo­cal Wal­mart and bought our usual sal­ads, as well as some smok­ies. Tonight, we de­cided, we’d have a fire and roast them up.

At the David Laird Camp­ground, al-

so di­rectly off the high­way, I pitched the tent while Steph tried to get a fire started; un­for­tu­nately, our camp­site had a grill, not a firepit, so try­ing to get a good burn go­ing was next to im­pos­si­ble. The wood was a lit­tle damp, too. We man­aged to cook a smokie each over the brief flame, then I got des­per­ate and shoved in some newsprint, lit it on fire, then cooked a se­cond wiener. Steph went to bed around 9 p.m., and I fol­lowed her once I talked to my sis­ter on the phone. WATCH FOR:

Big grain el­e­va­tors and old barns. Driv­ing across the Prairies can be dull, but the im­pos­ing grain el­e­va­tors are one of the coolest sights. WHERE WE STAYED:

David Laird Camp­ground, North Bat­tle­ford, Sask., 306-4453552

Day 5: North Bat­tle­ford to White­court — 5.5 hours

To­day’s les­son: Some­times, when you’re driv­ing across the coun­try, things don’t go ac­cord­ing to plan. When this hap­pens, it’s best to try to re­lax and go with the flow — no sense cry­ing over spilled milk.

When we woke up at 5:30 a.m., ahead of our alarm, the tem­per­a­ture was 4C — the cold­est we’d ex­pe­ri­enced so far. We took ad­van­tage of the early start and hit the road by 6:30. Our morn­ing rou­tine — wash­ing our faces, get­ting dressed, tak­ing down the tent — was get­ting quicker.

To­day we had a longer-than-usual day ahead of us: nine and a half hours to Daw­son Creek, though we’d gain an hour as we crossed into the Pa­cific time zone.

A few hours later, we stopped in Ve­gre­ville, Alta., to take some pho­tos of the world’s largest pysanka, or Ukrainian Easter egg. We were mak­ing good time; by 11:30 a.m., we were cruis­ing along an Ed­mon­ton high­way when we heard a weird rat­tling noise. We looked at each other, think­ing the sen­sor’s time had come. Then I felt the tire go. Im­me­di­ately, I braked, put on my sig­nal, and moved onto the shoul­der. Sure enough, the front tire on the driver’s side was flat as a pan­cake.

As trans­port trucks whizzed by, we took ev­ery­thing out of the trunk to get at the spare: snow tires, my back­pack, sleep­ing bags, a blan­ket. Look­ing back, it’s funny how many tires we had in all, stacked on the side of the high­way, though it didn’t seem all that hu­mor­ous at the time.

We dis­cussed briefly putting one of the snows on, but I didn’t want to wear down the studs on just one tire. I called CAA (I’d rec­om­mend get­ting a mem­ber­ship, es­pe­cially if you’re driv­ing across the coun­try.) An hour later, the spare was on and we crawled to the near­est Cana­dian Tire, about 15 min­utes away.

“That guy in Wawa jinxed us,” Steph joked. Three and a half hours later — dur­ing which time I bought a large slushie from the gas sta­tion and she got a pedi­cure — we were back in ac­tion.

By this point, it was 4 p.m. and Daw­son Creek was still six hours away. We de­cided to ad­just our des­ti­na­tion for the day and set­tled on White­court, about two hours from Ed­mon­ton. I wasn’t thrilled we’d lost half a day, but I didn’t want to push it ei­ther — we did have an ex­tra day built in to our plan, af­ter all, in case we needed it.

As we ar­rived in White­court, the skies opened up and we ran to the gro­cery store in the rain. We got — you guessed it — salad mixes, then drove to Sag­itawah RV Park on the other side of town. As we ar­rived, the rain stopped but the mosquitoes emerged with a vengeance. Af­ter cloak­ing our­selves in bug spray, we ate our din­ner at the pic­nic ta­ble, still slap­ping at the pests. WORTH A VISIT: The world’s largest pysanka in Ve­gre­ville, Alta. WHERE WE STAYED: Sag­itawah RV Park, White­court, Alta., 780-778-3734

Day 6: White­court to Fort Nel­son — 9 hours

We awoke to a damp tent and hun­gry mosquitoes. Pack­ing up camp quickly, we hit the road around 7 a.m., and stopped at a Tim Hor­tons in Val­leyview, about an hour and a half up the high­way. Things were start­ing to feel more re­mote; we passed through small in­dus­trial towns like Fox Creek, where ev­ery­one ap­peared to drive a pickup truck. In Grande Prairie, we stopped only to get gas, then pushed on north­ward. The land­scape was start­ing to get hilly, with conif­er­ous trees stretch­ing off into the dis­tance.

By about 2 p.m., we ar­rived in Daw­son Creek, where the Alaska High­way be­gins. The 2,237-kilo­me­tre high­way, which runs through the Yukon to Alaska, was built af­ter the at­tack on Pearl Har­bour dur­ing the Se­cond World War to pre­pare against a pos­si­ble Ja­panese in­va­sion in Alaska. Even though we were still 1,400 kilo­me­tres from White­horse, it felt like we were in the home-stretch. We snacked in a plaza park­ing lot on car­rots and hum­mus from the cooler. I bought an Ari­zona green tea and an Aero bar from the gas sta­tion.

On the way out of Daw­son Creek, we passed grassy fields, some dot­ted with cows and horses. We ar­rived in Fort Nel­son at the din­ner hour, lis­ten­ing to the only ra­dio sta­tion avail­able, which was play­ing heavy metal. Fort Nel­son is a small in­dus­trial town, home to about 3,900 peo­ple.

Our home for the night was an RV park called Triple G Hide­away that clearly catered to the re­tired mo­tor-home-driv­ing pop­u­la­tion: a yel­low cau­tion sign posted to a tree read: “SLOW. GRAND­PAR­ENTS AT PLAY.” The decor was kitschy and I liked it: the bar stools had sad­dles mounted atop them and the door han­dles to the on-site restau­rant were im­i­ta­tion ri­fles.

Once we pitched the tent, we drove back into town for din­ner at Bos­ton Pizza. We’d both been dream­ing of a hearty meal all day. I or­dered fish ta­cos and a peach bellini, while Steph had margherita pizza and san­gria. Af­ter a week of snack­ing, it all tasted es­pe­cially de­li­cious.

All week, we’d been go­ing to sleep early, but even we no­ticed the longer and longer days; we were get­ting closer to the land of the mid­night sun. WORTH A VISIT: Daw­son Creek’s Alaska High­way marker — A large sign bear­ing Cana­dian and Amer­i­can flags makes a good photo op as you start the drive up the high­way. WHERE WE STAYED: Triple G Hide­away, Fort Nel­son, B.C., 250-774-2340

Day 7: Fort Nel­son to Wat­son Lake — 6 hours

I don’t usu­ally sleep well when I camp, but this night was par­tic­u­larly rough. I tossed and turned, then woke up again at 4:45 a.m. and couldn’t fall back asleep. I crawled out of the tent, bleary-eyed, and stag­gered to the bath­room. The next night, we’d be stay­ing with Steph’s fam­ily in Wat­son Lake, Yukon, close to the B.C. bor­der, and I couldn’t wait to sleep in a real bed.

As we sat in the tent pack­ing up our sleep­ing bags, it started to pour. Thank­fully, it didn’t last long: when the rain pe­tered out, we quickly took down the tent and packed up the car. Af­ter a stop at the Tim’s in Fort Nel­son, we hit the road. To­day would be a shorter day — just six hours to Wat­son Lake — and a scenic one, pass­ing through the north­ern Rock­ies. We also planned to stop at Liard River Hot Springs Pro­vin­cial Park, about four hours from Fort Nel­son.

As we headed into the moun­tains, the fog rolled i n thick. It rained on and off. (When I did this drive with my dad three years ago, the weather got scary: rain, hail, light­ning, and then snow. This wasn’t near as bad.) Stuck be­hind a big truck headed up­hill, we crept along slowly. The fog even­tu­ally burned off, and as we drove into Mun­cho Lake Pro­vin­cial Park in B.C., we passed an open gravel area where some ma­chin­ery was run­ning un­der a white dome tent. There, we were sur­prised to see two moose am­bling around: a mom and her gan­gly baby. We pulled over to watch them; the baby was cu­ri­ous, check­ing out the piles of con­struc­tion equip­ment, while the mom seemed wary of us on­look­ers.

I re­mem­bered Mun­cho Lake be­ing beau­ti­ful and it didn’t dis­ap­point: jade-coloured wa­ter sur­rounded by moun­tains un­der a blue sky. We stopped at the Straw­berry Flats camp­ground to take some pho­tos. As we drove up to Liard, a black bear ran across the road. I hadn’t been to the hot springs be­fore, but I’d rec­om­mend a visit. Ad­mis­sion is $5, and once you park, you walk down a board­walk into the woods, all lush ferns and trees. There are open-air change rooms and bath­rooms on site. I was feel­ing pretty wiped to­day be­cause of my poor sleep the night be­fore, and float­ing in the hot wa­ter felt like such a lux­ury. As we walked back to the car, some tourists pointed out a moose and her baby through the trees.

As we got closer to White­horse, my deep-rooted fear that my car would break down in the mid­dle of nowhere grew less in­tense. We’d made it this f ar. By 4 p.m., we ar­rived in Wat­son Lake, where we stayed with some of Steph’s fam­ily. (There are a few dif­fer­ent lodges and mo­tels in town; in 2014, I had an en­joy­able stay at the Air Force Lodge.) We each had a shower be­fore din­ner, wash­ing the sul­phur smell out of our hair, then sat down to a home-cooked meal: steak, game wieners, corn on the cob, salad, and po­ta­toes. Crawl­ing into bed — a real bed! — that night was the best feel­ing. We fell asleep around 9:30 p.m.

WORTH A VISIT:

Mun­cho Lake Pro­vin­cial Park — The views here are beau­ti­ful. The high­way skirts the edge of the lake, and there are a few spots to pull over and take in the view.

Liard River Hot Springs Pro­vin­cial Park — Af­ter you spend hours cooped up in a car, a soak in the warm wa­ter is re­fresh­ing.

Day 8: Wat­son Lake to White­horse — 5 hours

I woke up at 8 a.m. feel­ing well­rested and ex­cited. It was only about a five-hour drive from Wat­son Lake to White­horse. As Steph gassed up the car, I walked across the road to the Sign Post For­est, a col­lec­tion of city signs from all over the world. It’s a well-known land­mark along the Alaska High­way that be­gan dur­ing its con­struc­tion in 1942, when a U.S. sol­dier re­paired the di­rec­tional sign­posts, then added one that showed the di­rec­tion and mileage to his home­town in Illi­nois. The for­est has since grown to in­clude more than 75,000 signs.

Af­ter Wat­son Lake, the next Yukon com­mu­nity along the Alaska High­way is Tes­lin, a pic­turesque vil­lage bor­dered by Nisut­lin Bay and Tes­lin Lake. Here, we stopped for burg­ers and fries at the Yukon Mo­tel. When we saw some chil­dren come out of the gas sta­tion across the road with soft-serve ice-cream, we fol­lowed their lead. Then it was back into the car for the fi­nal stretch. It felt sur­real that we were so close, af­ter a full week on the road. Scenery be­gan to get fa­mil­iar: Marsh Lake, a glim­mer­ing body of wa­ter about 45 min­utes from the city, then the turnoff for the South Klondike High­way. As the White­horse city sign came into view, I pat­ted my car’s dash­board and we cheered.

WORTH A VISIT:

Sign Post For­est, Wat­son Lake — The “for­est” is worth a walk­through. It’s right on the side of the Alaska High­way.

Marsh Lake — This big lake is vis­i­ble on your left side, about 45 min­utes from White­horse. When it’s warm in the sum­mer, the beach here is pop­u­lar.

Rhiannon in front of the world’s largest pysanka in Ve­gre­ville, Alta.

Get­ting closer! Day 6: Mile 0 of the Alaska High­way in Daw­son Creek, BC.

At the Triple G Hide­away restau­rant, Steph and I asked a wait­ress to take a photo of us sit­ting on the sad­dle bar stools.

Our camp­ground at the Sault Ste. Marie KOA — Day 1.

Day 2: Stop­ping to take in the views of Lake Su­pe­rior.

Day 2: The Canada goose in Wawa.

Day 6 (top): Foggy moun­tains in North­ern B.C.

As beau­ti­ful as it ap­pears here, Mun­cho Lake in north­ern Bri­tish Columbia is even more gor­geous in per­son.

PHO­TOS COUR­TESY OF RHIANNON RUS­SELL

To get to Liard Hot Springs, fol­low this board­walk through the for­est. Warm wa­ters await!

Day 7: Wel­come to the Yukon!

PHO­TOS COUR­TESY OF RHIANNON RUS­SELL

Day 8: Wel­come to White­horse!

This is the Sign Post For­est, a col­lec­tion of city signs from all over the world and a well-known land­mark along the Alaska High­way.

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