Getting to know the Riel Canada

It’s been a year and a half since we began living a nomadic life. We hadn’t really planned to do this and if you had asked us if we would still be at it even a year ago we would likely have said, ‘probably not.’ However, here we are, in Victoria, British Columbia ‘settled’ in a furnished Airbnb for a month, maybe two. We felt a need to stop, regroup, be in one place for a short period of time. Our goal is to work, well, try to put some of the creative projects we have been conjuring up into action while we are stationary, not moving, not camping. We are comfortable, yet we are itching to be on the move again. We want to see places we haven’t yet seen, experience things we haven’t yet experienced and continue to meet new people. We also want to revisit some of the people and places we really loved in the past year and a half. We are really no closer to finding a place we want to settle. Maybe because we don’t want to just ‘settle.’ Maybe we don’t want to live in ‘one’ place. Maybe we just aren’t ready to stop, settle into a comfortable, routine lifestyle again. Maybe if we are honest we are afraid to stop. Because if we stop, we will get old?!


Getting old is something we are thinking about maybe a little too often these days. Between us we have one parent still living. Bill, Julie’s dad, is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease/ Dementia. We spent two months with him in the spring organizing his life and setting up care to keep him safe and healthy while he continues to live at home alone with his companion, MacDuff, a 7 year-old wire-haired Fox Terrier. They live in Amherstburg, Ontario just south of Windsor. We were there again in September and October doing much the same for almost two months. It is just as difficult being there 24/7 as it is being so far away. Each day presents new challenges. It is frustrating, scary and heartbreaking witnessing someone you love, respect and care for experience something like Alzheimer’s. It probably wouldn’t be any easier dealing with any of this if we were still living in Toronto and up to our eyeballs in deadlines, etc. In a way this new paradigm of not having a planned future has made it possible for us to tailor our path to accommodate Bill and his dying brain. Interestingly our son-in-law, Declan, recently began working at Toronto Western Research Institute as a researcher at the Krembil Neuroscience Centre studying the Alzheimer’s gene. This is such important work and we are more grateful than ever to scientists like Declan trying to figure out this devastating disease.

Once Bill’s diagnoses was confirmed in May we weren’t sure if we would be able to or should continue west in Canada as we had hoped. We left Amherstburg in early July thinking we would perhaps forego driving west and instead further explore our home province of Ontario and perhaps neighbouring Québec. We thought it might be best to remain close in case we were needed back in Amherstburg. Our first stops were to visit Jamie, Christian’s brother, and sister-in-law, Marie in Midhurst and then our friends Michael and Nobuyo in Singhampton. It was there, talking with our dearest friends about our summer route that we decided instead to continue west to British Columbia. In Canada there is a small window of opportunity where camping sans snow is possible! So off we went! Carpe Diem!! We travelled faster than we would have probably chosen to but we had reason to be back in Ontario by the 12th of September – our son, Elia, was getting married to his longtime girlfriend, Margot. We knew we couldn’t and wouldn’t want to drive to BC, and back, by the first week of September. So, we parked our van in Langley, BC at cousin Graeme’s secure company lot and flew to Toronto. This was our first time leaving our home on wheels since selling our home in Toronto. We now think of our van as home wherever it is parked!

Our route west:

Before leaving southern Ontario we made one of our best purchases since moving into our home on wheels: the Indel B Italian Fridge. We removed the inefficient Westfalia fridge and made this space into a pantry cupboard. Thanks to Jamie and Marie for allowing us the space and tools to do this. We were then ready to leave Grey County via Tobermory where we boarded the Chi-Cheemaun ferry to Manitoulin Island in Georgian Bay. From this point on we saw firsthand just how many different First Nations there are in Canada. It seemed that every 50 km there was a sign welcoming or announcing another of Canada’s First Nations communities. We aren’t sure why we were so surprised. After all, Canada’s First Nations called this country home long before it was even called Canada. And maybe, because we see so few references to our First Nations in southern and southwestern Ontario or even as we travelled east in Canada last summer.

Ontario is one big province. We seriously wondered if we would ever reach Manitoba! Our favourite stretch was between the Soo and Wawa. The north shore of Lake Superior is seriously beautiful. We loved the giant geese that welcomed us and dominated the northern town of Wawa. Beyond Wawa it was easy to miss the aforementioned stretch of highway. We kept thinking of Ian Bos, the great fellow we met on the side of the highway while trying to remedy our leak (documented in a previous post). He was after all walking the same route we were driving. Some Ontario highlights include the Agawa Pictographs which are probably more easily viewed from a canoe or kayak than from climbing along the slippery perch with just a few feet of chain to hold onto; meeting Lisa and Bernie from Toronto who were also travelling west in Canada; the Terry Fox Memorial overlooking Lake Superior and Sleeping Giant Provincial Park; the Thunder Bay Museum which provided much insight into early Canadian life; the famous Finnish pancakes at Hoito in Thunder Bay; Thunder Oak Cheese; and the beautiful Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park.

Northern Ontario is the land of rivers and lakes, great and small; of cars with canoes on top; and trees for as far as the eye can see. Unfortunately, many of these trees are destined to be made into paper and cardboard. We passed quite a few Domtar Paper Mills. The smell these plants emit is cloying, acrid and nauseating and permeates the air so completely that it is difficult to breathe. We stopped in the town of Dryden thinking we might have a bite to eat but quickly realized the Domtar plant was located adjacent to the town centre. We couldn’t get out of town fast enough. But what about the people that live here? This is a community that likely depends on this industry for their very livelihood yet at the same time it is probably responsible for the majority of health problems. It isn’t lost on us that in our career as printers and designers we contributed to the demand for more and more paper.

We finally made it across the provincial border into Manitoba and to our first campsite at West Hawk Lake. The lake is actually a huge crater that was formed by a meteor impact about 20 million years ago. We stopped in the town of Steinbach the next day to sample some Mennonite delights such as schmountfat. Well, we didn’t actually try it but we you can bet we were heartily fed. Oh Ba Yo! – as the Mennonites say. We spent the next several days in Winnipeg hosted by Bob and Marsha Jones. Ah-maze-ing Hosts!! We happen to have quite a number of friends back in Toronto that hail from Winnipeg so we were pretty stoked to spend time in this city that nutured some pretty amazing folks. We weren’t disappointed. First and foremost, we most certainly must now be the number one fans of the Jones family which also includes Meaghan, Cooper and Freja. They showed us everything worth seeing in this historic city. We for instance know quite a lot more about Louis Riel after traversing Canada than we had previously. We even visited his grave and met more than a few of his descendents between northern Ontario and Saskatchewan. The brand spanking new Canadian Museum for Human Rights was inspirational. It was impossible to take it all in in only one visit and very moving. Neechi Commons is a First Nations grocery store cum café and art gallery that riffs on the big grocery store model with a distinctly Native flare. We enjoyed some delicious food at Deer and Almond, St. Norbert’s Market and Sherbrook St. Delicatessen.

We were pretty disappointed that our visit coincided with our pal Ray’s western performance art tour. He was due to return to Winnipeg just after we were due to leave. As fate would have it, and frankly a little planning, we were able to schedule our departure so that we would arrive in Brandon on the evening of his final performance in the western tour. We went for a quick bite to eat at one of the only non-chain restaurants in Brandon, Hansel and Gretel, a kitschy schnitzel house which actually turned out to be surprisingly good. We were so grateful to see Ray perform his spoken word piece at the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba. We were happy that we had even just the one evening with our old friend. Of course, there is a down side to many things… It was the night of the Blue Moon and we were encamped at the True Blood Campground from Hell. Scary doesn’t really touch the level of fear we felt as we closed our eyes for the night. We were convinced that something or someone would come through the tent walls of our pop-up. As we checked in that afternoon the owner asked if we had brought our swimming togs as he was suggesting we could take a dip in the Turtle Crossing pond. Upon close inspection we discovered said pond to have exceedingly high levels of algae and other unidentifiable contaminants. A side bar to this: the biker gang that checked in just after us was holding a fundraiser for abused children and the main entertainment was a water slide into this very pond. The owner was also keen to let us know that the bathhouse was brand new and to look for the beautiful new building with white siding. Once we had parked and started to set up camp Julie went in search of a building that fit this description and could not find it. Christian had to join in the search. Together we finally found it. Funny how one person’s description of a brand new building with white siding differs from another’s interpretation! We were pretty excited to head to Saskatchewan the following morning!