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
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.
To get to Liard Hot Springs, follow this boardwalk through the forest. Warm waters await!
Day 7: Welcome to the Yukon!
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.