Two kids, four wheels and 4,500 kilo­me­tres to Nanaimo

Ad­vice from a par­ent who drove across the coun­try with a cou­ple of tod­dlers — and lived to tell the tale

Vancouver Sun - - TRAVEL - BY KATIE MUN­NIK

It didn’t seem like a good idea, but we did it any­way. Two kids, two carseats, two mildly fraz­zled par­ents with too much stuff crammed into one beat-up sta­tion wagon, driv­ing from Ot­tawa to Nanaimo for a sum­mer on the coast.

“ Oh, you’re so lucky!” en­thused the friends. “ It will be so beau­ti­ful — a fam­ily ad­ven­ture to re­mem­ber!”

The in-laws live on Van­cou­ver Is­land, and we’d al­ways planned that, at some stage, we would drive out for a vacation in­stead of fly­ing. Show the kids the coun­try and all that. But I had imag­ined it would be a trip much like the one my own par­ents took me on when, as a young teenager, I spent what seemed like cen­turies in the back seat of the car, plugged into my Walk­man, watch­ing the grain el­e­va­tors go by.

I didn’t imag­ine the trip with tod­dlers.

To be fair, my daugh­ter is al­most four years old. But my son is just scrap­ing 18 months, and he re­ally is too young for such a long jour­ney. Nev­er­the­less, the com­bined forces of job loss and an im­pend­ing move to the U. K. made it clear to us that a pro­longed visit with the grand­par­ents was in or­der.

There are times like this when travel is a ne­ces­sity rather than a de­light, so we needed to learn how best to do it as a young fam­ily to­gether. We had plenty of time to make the trip and that made driv­ing seem doable. So we did it.

We went slowly: Twelve days — Ot­tawa to Nanaimo. That gave us plenty of time to stop for bath­room breaks and also for longer stretches to shake off some of the road and re­mind our­selves that we were on an ad­ven­ture. We aimed to drive no more than six hours in any day, and we made a point of break­ing each day into man­age­able chunks.

In On­tario, you do that by look­ing for stat­ues: Big Joe Muf­feraw in Mat­tawa, Sud­bury’s Big Nickel, Wawa’s Canada goose and, in Kenora, it’s Husky the Muskie. I hear there’s a gi­ant curl­ing stone in Thun­der Bay, though for the most part, we aimed for an­i­mals. And, yes, these stat­ues are most def­i­nitely built for tourists, but that’s no rea­son to avoid them. Kids like to know what’s com­ing up next; Win­nie the Pooh is a much bet­ter an­swer than White River.

On­tario takes a long time to drive through, so we de­cided to take a week­end driv­ing break in Win­nipeg, where an old room­mate of mine lives. The kids were ready for a change — and so were the adults.

We started with the Forks. At the junc­tion of the Assini­boine and Red rivers, it’s billed as Win­nipeg’s “ ur­ban oa­sis”— an assem­bly of restau­rants and ho­tels, at­trac­tive water­front walk­ways, an indoor mar­ket with food, artists and buskers, great park spa­ces and her­itage at­trac­tions, in­clud­ing a his­tory path high­light­ing 6,000 years of lo­cal his­tory. Per­haps more vi­tal for my kids, there are also sev­eral an­cient rail cars, one of which houses a candy store. We spent the morn­ing ex­plor­ing ev­ery­thing and get­ting hands sticky with cin­na­mon buns. My daugh­ter fed Canada geese at the river’s edge. My son loved the trains as only an 18-month-old boy might. The Forks got an A+.

But there is more to Win­nipeg. Be­tween long meals and naps, we walked through the streets and tried to get a sense of this prairie city. Win­nipeg feels like Canada — the grand old train sta­tion down­town, the dried vomit on the side­walks out­side the trendy new lofts in the her­itage build­ings, the gra­nola stores and funky artist en­claves, the leafy and pre­ten­tious pock­ets and the spread­ing sub­urbs, too.

Win­nipeg is small in the midst of a large land­scape, just like the rest of us. It made for a good stop on our long road trip.

Driv­ing out of Win­nipeg and across the Prairies, you be­come aware of how big the sky gets in be­tween the clouds. Cars be­gin to go faster in this land­scape. On­tario felt eter­nal, but af­ter Win­nipeg, you can do a prov­ince a day with­out need­ing a third Tim­mies break, even with tod­dlers.

Our next long stop was in Cal­gary. It in­evitably felt slicker than Win­nipeg. It’s big­ger, brasher and taller. And, in some ways, it is a harder stop with kids. There were a cou­ple of restau­rants that turned us away be­cause of the mi­nors in tow. But the zoo made the stop worth­while. The Cal­gary Zoo is on St. Ge­orge’s Is­land on the Bow River. There is some­thing very mag­i­cal about cross­ing a bridge to spend an af­ter­noon with tigers and go­ril­las.

The weather was lousy the day we went to the zoo. Cold, rain and early spring snow. But the zoo sweet­ened the deal by of­fer­ing a bad-weather dis­count and, as it turns out, there was a lot to do in­doors. The indoor rain­for­est was ideal; it was de­li­ciously muggy and warm. Go­ril­las munched on sweet pota­toes and par­rots flew through the trees above our heads.

We also vis­ited indoor en­clo­sures for the ele­phants, as well as gi­raffes, hip­pos, flamin­gos, Red River hogs from Congo, African crested por­cu­pines, pea­cocks and pea­hens, coatis ( relatives of rac­coons) and wal­la­bies. Out­side again, the snow leop­ards looked ap­pro­pri­ately at home, slink­ing through the whitened af­ter­noon. My own back seat wildlife loved it all.

Be­fore we had kids, road trips had been about wide open spa­ces and the empty rush of driv­ing. We spent hours and days talk­ing about ev­ery­thing that two peo­ple could pos­si­bly talk about or sit­ting silently, side-by-side, watch­ing as the coun­try slipped past.

It is dif­fer­ent with kids. You need more stamina, be­cause they need more at­ten­tion. But you get to see the coun­try dif­fer­ently. You get to know the play­grounds in a dozen neigh­bour­hoods, in towns you’ve never heard of, and you get to talk with the par­ents who live there be­cause your kids have just be­come fast friends.

You see the coun­try less as land­scape out­side a win­dow and more as a string of liv­able spots, com­mu­ni­ties along the road. Trav­el­ling slowly as a fam­ily is do-able, and, though dif­fi­cult at times, it’s worth do­ing.

MICHAEL MUN­NIK

Katie Mun­nik, son Leo meet Win­nie the Pooh in White River, Ont.

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