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
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.