Category Archives: Vacations

Florida 2014: Titusville and Universal

This is part II of my Florida 2014 travelogue. Part I described the planning for the trip, and in this article, I’ll discuss the first eight days of the vacation, starting the day we left home, and finishing the day we left Universal for Disney. Disney World is described in the next article.

Wed, Aug 13: This was a working day for me but everything that needed to go had been collected so Gail and the boys spent the day getting everything packed into the van. Our friends Jeff & Kerri were going to be looking after Shadow while we were gone, so Gail had brought him to their place the day before. I got home from work around 4:30 and we left shortly after that, stopping at Subway for dinner. After crossing at Queenston-Lewiston, we headed for Wal-Mart in Buffalo where we bought a few things for the trip and a few snacks to bring home at the end of the trip. The things to bring home were things we can’t buy in Canada like Cherry Coke Zero.

After our shopping trip, we continued to the Clarion Hotel Buffalo Airport.

Thurs, Aug 14: Early morning and a quick breakfast at the hotel before taking the 7:10 shuttle to the airport. We had an uneventful flight to Baltimore, then a 1½ hour wait before our equally-uneventful flight to Orlando. Southwest offers wifi service but if you want actual internet, you have to pay $8 for it. However they do offer free TV service over the wifi, and Nicky was apparently able to get that working. Ryan tried on his tablet but kept getting “Unable to play video”.

On arrival in Orlando, we picked up our rental car – a silver Nissan Maxima. I really liked this car – it held all the luggage easily, and was comfortable and drove nicely. We didn’t get food on the plane so we stopped at Wendy’s for lunch and then drove 45 minutes east to Titusville. Our hotel was the Hampton Inn Titusville which also featured free hot breakfast (Nicky became well acquainted with the waffle-maker) and also had a pool and weight room, neither of which we used. After checking in, we drove out to the nearby Merritt Island Nature Preserve (north of the Space Center, though we could see the Vehicle Assembly Building). The visitor’s center was closed but we want to the Manatee viewing area where we got eaten alive by “no-see-ums” (tiny little biting flies which we don’t have at home) but managed to see a few manatees in the distance as well as some pelicans, storks, buzzards (or vultures), and little salamanders. On the way back to the hotel, we picked up a pizza from Domino’s for dinner and enjoyed it while watching a movie on Gail’s laptop.

Fri, Aug 15: After breakfast, we drove to Kennedy Space Center. This was not the cheapest place around: $50 admission each. But by the end of the day, we all agreed that it was well worth it. We took a short tour of the “rocket garden”, which contained a number of rockets identical to the ones used by the early astronauts. These were missiles that NASA had bought from the military. They removed the warhead and replaced it with a tiny capsule into which they put a person. This was essentially a ten-story fuel tank with a little box on top. It’s one thing to fly in a big space shuttle where you can move around a little but these early astronauts had nowhere to move.

After that tour, we saw a presentation about the new Orion spacecraft that is being built for future missions to Mars. These won’t launch until 2020 or so but we got a good overview of the capabilities and what kind of hurdles the engineers have to overcome. After this we headed over to the Atlantis building, where we saw a very cool movie about the Space Shuttle program, from its beginnings in the late 60’s (!) to the launch of Columbia in 1981 to the other shuttles. At the end of the movie, the wall with the screen was raised and there it was: the actual shuttle Atlantis hanging from the ceiling. Cool trivia: It looks like the shuttle is hanging on a 45° angle, but the angle is actually 43.21°. Get it? 4-3-2-1 – it’s a countdown! There was a ton of information and pictures about all of the shuttles and their missions, as well as a short movie on the Hubble space telescope and the mission to fix it.

AtlantisAfter lunch we got in line for the bus tour around the facility. It started to rain while we were in line but luckily the line was covered so we didn’t get wet (this was a bit of foreshadowing to Disney). The rain got heavier and then the thunder and lightning started. The lightning was very close by and I can’t explain how or why the thunder sounded different than at home, but it did. By the time we got on the bus, the thunder had stopped but the rain continued. The tour went by the Vehicle Assembly Building and then out to the launch pads that were used for the Apollo and shuttle missions, and it then dropped us off at the Apollo / Saturn V center.

Engines on the Saturn VThis building wasn’t there the last time Gail and I were at the KSC, though that was 17 years ago. There was an entire Saturn V rocket inside, broken up into stages so you could see what each stage was used for. The size of this thing was unbelievable. There were plaques for each of the Apollo missions as well as other memorabilia. There were also movies about an Apollo launch and the Apollo 11 landing on the moon. I’ve heard the Apollo 11 landing story many times but I still learned a lot here – for example, the Eagle lander had less than 30 seconds of fuel remaining when it touched down on the moon’s surface.

After the bus tour, we walked around the Early Space Exploration building, which taught us a lot about the pioneers of the space industry. Many of them died long before the space missions actually started, but their work was instrumental, even if it happened fifty years before the space program existed.

The four of us are definitely science and space geeks, and so we really enjoyed KSC. But even if you’re not as into it as we are, I think there was enough at the visitor’s center to interest almost anyone. Everything was really well done, there were lots of informational plaques and videos and such, and there were plenty of interactive exhibits so even if you didn’t want to read all the information, there were still things to do.

After the Space Center, we stopped at Denny’s for dinner on the way back to the hotel.

Starting today, the boys wore pedometers every day, and every night I recorded how far they walked. Neither of the pedometers were calibrated properly though, and some days the distances travelled were wildly different, so while they weren’t completely accurate, they gave us a pretty good indication of how far we walked. Ryan only told me the number of km he walked, while Nicky included the number of steps as well.

Ryan: 4.39 km
Nicky: 11.19 km, 18661 steps

Sat, Aug 16: After packing up and having breakfast, we checked out of the hotel and drove back to the Merritt Island visitor’s center, since it was closed when we went on Thursday. After perusing the visitor’s center, we went on the nature drive just down the road. This is a 5 mile one way driving path through the preserve, on which we saw lots of water birds (mainly storks, herons, and egrets) and one alligator in the water.

Once finished here, we drove back to Orlando where we had lunch reservations at T-Rex in Downtown Disney. If you’ve ever eaten at a Rainforest Cafe, this was very similar except there were animatronic dinosaurs and mammoths and such rather than rainforest animals. I had a proud daddy moment when Nicky pointed out that mammoths lived only 10-15 thousand years ago while the dinosaurs were over 65 million years ago. In another episode of foreshadowing, it began to rain just as we were entering the restaurant. We didn’t get wet, but a few minutes later it was raining hard. Unfortunately, when we left it was still raining pretty hard. Luckily, Gail had packed rain ponchos for all of us. Unluckily, three of the four of them were still in the car. I’ll let you guess who remembered to bring theirs. The boys and I were quite wet when we got back to the parking lot.

After lunch, we drove to the Loews Royal Pacific resort at Universal Studios, our home for the next four nights. We parked the car and then went to check in, but our room was not yet ready. They did have a luggage service so we left our bags there and wandered the hotel for a while. There was a very large pool outside as well as a mini water play area, two ping pong tables, and a pool table as well. There was supposed to be shuffleboard but we never found that. There were also at least three restaurants, a weight room, and a small video game room. We played ping pong for a little while and then went back in to check on our room. Still not ready. Half an hour later, we checked a third time, and it was still not ready. By this point, we had been waiting for well over two hours so as an apology, they gave us a voucher for a free dinner at one of the restaurants while we waited. We chose a place called Jake’s, and shortly into the meal (I don’t think our meal had even arrived yet), I got a text message saying that our room was now ready.

After an excellent dinner, we got into our room on the 7th (top) floor. We had a view of the river running through the resort, and could see parts of the theme parks (including some of the rides – see the picture below. Hulk is the coaster in the middle, Dr. Doom’s Fearfall is the two towers to the left of Hulk, and Rip Ride Rocket is on the far right). At night when there were firework shows, we could see them pretty clearly from our window.

View from our windowWhen the boys went to bed, I went out to find a Wal-Mart to buy some milk, cereal, muffins, and snacks to keep in the room for breakfast. Since neither this hotel nor the one at Disney offered free breakfast, we did this the rest of the trip.

Ryan: 9.96 km
Nicky: unknown

Sun, Aug 17: For those of you who haven’t been (or haven’t been in ten years, like us), there are two Universal theme parks: Universal Studios and Universal’s Islands of Adventure. They are right next to each other, and you can get from one to the other (assuming your tickets allow you) on the Hogwarts Express. The entrance to Islands of Adventure was about a 15 minute walk from our hotel, and Universal Studios was about 5 minutes beyond that.

Gail’s back had been bugging her a little each day on the trip up to this point, but she had brought some Robaxicet (muscle relaxant) with her, and that was enough to make the pain go away. But shortly after her shower on Sunday morning, something in her back “popped” and started hurting much more. She took the last of the Robaxicet and we headed out for Islands of Adventure. Early entry was at 8am but we got there at 7:30, and there were plenty of people ahead of us. Once the doors opened at 8, we followed the crowd to Hogsmeade and the most popular ride in that park, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. All four of us are huge Harry Potter fans, so walking through Hogsmeade and the Hogwarts castle was amazing for us. Since we were there so early, there was almost no line. The entrance to the ride was inside the castle, and we actually felt like we were walking through Hogwarts. We saw the Defense against the Dark Arts and Herbology classrooms, the stairway to the headmaster’s office, moving portraits, the Mirror of Erised, the sorting hat, the Fat Lady, and much more.

Forbidden Journey was one of our favourite rides in any of the six parks we visited on this trip. It combined a moving car with a simulation ride to give you the impression you were actually flying. Most of the cast of the movies played parts in the video on the ride as well as the “pre-show” while walking through the castle.

After that, we rode Flight of the Hippogriff (a fairly tame roller coaster) and then went to Ollivander’s Wand Shop where the boys each bought a wand. The wands were interactive, meaning there were places around both Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley (in Universal Studios) where you could use your wand to cast spells, and they had fun with that.

The boys at HogwartsAt this point (it was no later than about 10:30), Gail’s back was hurting much more and she had to go back to the hotel to rest. The boys and I rode Dragon Challenge, which was one of the most intense coasters I’ve ever done. It wasn’t huge but very fast and compact, which means the corners and loops were very tight. There were two coasters intertwined, and they were different so it was like two different rides. The lines were still short so Nicky (he of the iron-clad stomach) actually rode it a second time while Ryan and I sat the second one out. The rest of the morning was all rides: Hulk (Nicky only), Spider-Man (similar to Forbidden Journey), Poseidon’s Fury (a show, not a ride, but very fun), and the River Adventure in Jurassic Park (a cool flume ride). Then it was back to Hogsmeade where Nicky rode Dragon Challenge again.

Our friends the Finnigans (Andrew, Gail, Gareth, and Jenna) were at Universal that day as well. They were near the end of their vacation while we were just starting ours, but we managed to meet up for lunch at the Three Broomsticks. It was there that we first tried butterbeer, both the “cold” and “frozen” varieties, as well as pumpkin juice. All of them were really good; I preferred the cold type of butterbeer (sort of a cream soda kind of thing) while the boys preferred the frozen stuff (same but more of a slushie), and I really enjoyed the pumpkin juice which tasted like liquid pumpkin pie. Ryan is our pumpkin pie fanatic (he prefers that to cake on his birthday), but surprisingly, he didn’t really like the pumpkin juice.

After lunch, Andrew, Gareth, Jenna, Ryan, and Nicky rode Forbidden Journey again while I called Gail to see how she was. Her back was even worse than before so we left the park and went back to the hotel. On the way back to the hotel, Nicky realized that his phone was missing. He thought maybe he had dropped it on Forbidden Journey but by this point were near the front of the park. I told Nicky we’d check back later on or the next day, but we both figured we’d seen the last of it. “Nicky’s phone” was actually my old Android phone and was not actually activated as a phone, but he had it as a wifi device. We brought it so that if he got lost, he could get in touch with us through email. Ryan had a real phone.

Gail’s back had gotten steadily worse throughout the day and by this point, she was barely able to get out of bed to go to the bathroom and couldn’t move to do anything else. One of my work benefits is out-of-country health coverage, so we called Sun Life to see if they could send a doctor to the hotel. They arranged for a doctor, and an hour or two later, Dr. Almond (“like the nut”) arrived. He was very friendly and helpful, and we didn’t have to pay him a cent (thanks SAP!). It turns out that the drug in Robaxicet is only available in the US by prescription so he gave us one, and I went to get it filled and also picked up some sandwiches for dinner.

After dinner, the boys and I went down to the pool for a while before heading to bed.

Ryan: 11.88 km
Nicky: 14.85 km, 24752 steps

Mon, Aug 18: Another early entry day, this time to Universal Studios. Gail’s back was a little better this morning, but not enough to go anywhere. The boys and I arrived at the park a little later than yesterday and got in at 8am. However Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts (the most popular ride at Universal, particularly because it had only been open for a couple of months at this point) was closed. It opened later on, but see the picture below for why we didn’t ride it today. This, plus the fact that almost nothing else in the park was open yet, kind of threw a wrench into our plans but Despicable Me was open so we went and did that one. This turned out to be a good idea since the line for this ride was insane later in the day. After that, we did Transformers and then walked around Diagon Alley where the boys did tried more magic with their wands.

The line for GringottsAfter a while we left Diagon Alley and did some more rides. By lunch we had done Men in Black, The Simpsons, Revenge of the Mummy, Twister, Rip Ride Rocket (Nicky only), and Shrek 4-D. After lunch at the Leaky Cauldron, we took the Hogwarts Express over to Islands of Adventure, where we rode Forbidden Journey and Dragon Challenge once again. We headed to the guest services area to ask about Nicky’s phone. We described it and when and where we lost it, and presto! It had been found and returned, and the lady had it. She told Nicky that if he could unlock it, he could have it. He did, and we walked away with the phone. Nicky was ecstatic, and I was pretty surprised and thankful. It wouldn’t be the last time on this trip that something would get lost and then found.

We took the Hogwarts Express back to Universal Studios where we got an ice cream and a bottle of pumpkin juice to bring back to the hotel for Gail (since she hadn’t had a chance to have any yet). We walked back to the hotel where we found Gail in better shape than in the morning. She could get up and walk around the room a little. It wasn’t much, but it was definite improvement. We hung around the hotel for the rest of the day. We watched the reboot of Robocop and the boys and I went for a swim. Dinner was ad hoc – we had some snacks and leftover sandwiches from the previous day, and I think Ryan had a bowl of cereal.

Ryan: 13.5 km
Nicky: 15.37 km, 25623 steps

Tues, Aug 19: It was a sleep-in day for Gail and Ryan, but Nicky and I were up by 8:00 so we got dressed and left them to sleep. We went for a walk around the hotel and played some ping pong before Gail texted me to tell me that they were awake, around 9:45. Gail was feeling much better this morning – so much so that she wanted to leave the hotel room (for the first time in two full days) and go down to City Walk, an outdoor shopping area in between (but outside) the two theme parks. On the way there, she changed her mind and decided she wanted to go to the Three Broomsticks for lunch, and I was very excited that she felt good enough to go into the park. On the way there, we stopped at the ticket counter. We each had a three day ticket and this was our third day, but since Gail had not used her ticket the day before, she still had an extra day to play with. We stopped to see how much it would cost to add an extra day onto our tickets. The answer: $10 each. This was a no-brainer.

GringottsAfter lunch we went back to Forbidden Journey but just did the castle tour rather than the ride, so we could spend as much time in the castle as we wanted without worrying about the lines. Then we took the Hogwarts Express over to Universal Studios and walked Diagon Alley for a while. The boys and I did a few rides, but Gail wasn’t taking any chances with her back so she sat those out. At this point the line for Gringott’s was under an hour so we decided to do that while Gail went back to the hotel for some more meds. This worked out well since Gail couldn’t ride it anyway. The line moved fairly quickly but it still took about 70 minutes before we actually were on the ride. It was similar to Forbidden Journey but more roller coaster and less simulation.

We met Gail at Bubba Gump’s Shrimp Company for dinner and had a wonderful meal before heading back to Universal Studios for the Cinematic Spectacular. This was a combination fireworks / laser / water show with movie clips being projected onto a screen of falling water, which was really cool. Of course, it was only Universal movies, but considering the amount of money they spent on Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, it was odd that there were no clips from Harry Potter movies in the show.

Ryan: 14.8 km
Nicky: 9.2 km, 15341 steps

Wed, Aug 20: This was our transition day from Universal to Disney so the first thing we did was pack up, check out, and put everything in the car. But since we had extended our passes by a day, we went back to Universal rather than driving to Disney. We did Despicable Me first, then took the Hogwarts Express over to Islands of Adventure where we wrote some postcards and got them stamped “Owl Post” before mailing them. The boys practiced their magic before watching the Poseidon’s Fury show again and then heading back to Universal. We saw the Terminator 2 show, which has stood up pretty well since Gail and I first saw it 18 years ago, then had lunch at the Leaky Cauldron. A little more wand work in Diagon Alley, a ride on E.T., and we were done.

We took the water taxi back to the hotel where we piled into the car and drove to Coronado Springs. After checking in and unpacking, we headed over to the Wilderness Lodge resort for dinner at the Whispering Canyon Cafe. I don’t remember the name of the thing we ordered, but it was essentially a huge plate of food for the four of us to share, including roast beef, BBQ chicken, sausages, ribs, corn, baked beans, mashed potatoes, and roasted veggies. The amount of food was unbelievable and we felt really wasteful not finishing it but it was just way too much and not having a microwave in our room, there was no point in taking it to go. The funny thing is that it was all-you-can-eat, so if we wanted, we could have asked for more.

After dinner we wandered around the Lodge, where we saw a blue heron just a few metres away who caught a fish as we watched. We also saw a rabbit under the boardwalk. Then it was back to Coronado Springs where Gail did laundry while the boys and I went for a swim. Once the boys went to bed, I hit Wal-Mart once again for snacks and breakfast foods.

Ryan: 13.45 km
Nicky: 12.25 km, 20425 steps

Our Disney vacation began in earnest the next day, and that will continue in the next article.

Florida 2014: Planning

In August 2014, we spent two weeks in Florida, spending two days in Titusville and the Kennedy Space Center, four days at the Universal theme parks in Orlando, and eight days at the various Disney World theme parks. You know what that means – it’s that time again! That time when Graeme uses his blog to capture a ton of vacation information that you, dear reader, probably don’t care about. But to be honest, it’s not you I’m writing this for, it’s me. I’ve done this in the past for other vacations, and I find it’s a pretty good way of capturing all of the minutiae of the trip that we’d otherwise forget. I find it fun to read them over again a couple of years later. That said, if you don’t happen to be me, I hope you enjoy it too.

This was a pretty long vacation with no “down” days, so there’s a lot of information here. I’ve broken it up into a number of different articles: the first (this one) talks about the planning of the trip, the second covers Titusville and Universal, the third covers Disney World, the fourth contains some stats about our trip, and the fifth is a comparison of the Universal and Disney experiences (i.e. stuff other than rides).

The castleWe began by booking the flights and hotels back in about April. Once we booked Disney, we were given access to a web site called My Disney Experience, where we could look over our information and bookings as well as do things like book lunch and dinner reservations (and in some cases, even order our food in advance), and even book Fast Passes for rides. Gail had fun doing this, but there was one other web site that she frequented in preparation: This is a site that allows you to pick the rides you want to go on at a particular park (it covers all of the Disney and Universal parks) and it will tell you what order to do them in so that you’re not spending half the day waiting in line. There are iOS and Android apps so you can see your plans and even update them on the fly, as well as checking out the current wait times for each and every ride. If it sounds like it’s regimenting your day, it kind of is, but in a good way. Plus these are of course only guidelines so if you want to shuffle things around or skip a ride or do one twice because the line is short or whatever, you can. There were some days where we followed the plan reasonably well and others where for one reason or another we ended up doing our own thing, though having the app really helped. Gail really liked that app – to the point where she was checking ride wait times weeks before we even left. “Look, 158 minutes for Gringotts!” “That’s great, dear, but we don’t leave for another month.”

The cheapest flights we could find were out of Buffalo rather than Toronto. We’d never flown out of Buffalo before but lots of our friends have and the flights were far cheaper than out of Toronto. Buffalo is about an hour from home but our flight was at 8:25am so we elected to book a hotel room and use their shuttle service to get to the airport. Most hotels near the airport also offer shuttles as well as parking services, which were generally cheaper than the $50/week that parking at the airport would have been. We chose the Clarion Hotel Buffalo Airport which included 2 weeks of parking, a hot breakfast, and a shuttle to and from the airport for about $89.

We flew on Southwest, which was unusual compared to other airlines for two reasons: (1) Each of us could check up to 2 bags for free, and (2) there are no assigned seats; instead, you check in online 24 hours in advance and you are assigned a “booking order” (A1-A60, B1-B60, or C1-C60). When the flight starts boarding, the A’s go first in numerical order, then the B’s, then the C’s. When it’s time for you to board, you get on the plane and pick whatever available seat you want. Obviously if you’re C20, you’ll have less to choose from than if you’re A10. We couldn’t get a direct flight on the way down (or didn’t want to pay extra for it), so we flew to Baltimore and then to Orlando an hour later. Our return flight was direct to Buffalo.

At Disney, we originally booked the Port Orleans Riverside resort, based on price as well as recommendations from friends. But after we had booked (and paid), Gail heard from her hairdresser (who heard from her cousin) that Disney sometimes offers a free dining plan, and we should check into that. We did, and the free dining plan offer was only good if you arrived after August 31, so it didn’t apply to us. But we kept checking and after a couple of weeks, they moved the date back to before we arrived, so Gail called them. The deal didn’t apply to our hotel, but they said that if we didn’t mind switching hotels, they could give it to us. We said yes immediately, and chose Coronado Springs, since it was on our original short list anyway. The total cost actually ended up about $80 cheaper, and we now had the free dining plan. This was huge and it sounds weird but words cannot express how excited Gail and I were about this.

The dining plan consisted of one “counter service” meal, one “table service” meal, and one “snack” per person, per day. The meals consisted of an entree, a non-alcoholic drink, and a dessert. So basically, other than breakfast and a couple of appetizers and alcoholic drinks, all of our food at Disney was free. We didn’t do the math (since some of the restaurant bills consisted entirely of $0’s) but we figured this saved us close to $1500. This applied to any restaurant (there may have been restrictions, but we never ran into any) in all four theme parks, Downtown Disney, and all of the resorts. Not only did this save us a bunch of money, but it gave us some freedom as well – if Ryan wanted to order the $29.95 salmon, go for it. We ate at an African buffet for one meal, which we may not have otherwise. We didn’t have to order the $16.95 chicken when we really wanted the $28.95 steak. In many cases, we were too full from dinner to get dessert but since it was free anyway, we got it to go and then ate it for breakfast the next day. That way, breakfast ended up being free as well. Of course, having cheesecake or key lime pie for breakfast isn’t necessarily the healthiest choice but hey, we’re on vacation. And really, is it that much worse than a chocolate chip muffin or waffles with syrup?

In the next article, I’ll cover the first week of our trip.

Our tubing nightmare

One of the more popular natural attractions in south central Ontario is the Elora Gorge. It’s a beautiful 2 kilometre long gorge that the Grand River has cut through 70-foot cliffs north of Guelph. The gorge is contained within the Elora Gorge Conservation Area, and they rent big inner tubes for people to ride down the river. There are sections of rapids as well as some more serene “lazy river” sections. We’ve now been camping there twice, and both times have certainly been eventful – once because we didn’t go tubing, and once because we did.

About a year ago (the summer of 2013), we went for a few days to Elora in the hopes of going tubing. But it had rained quite a bit over the previous week. It was OK the day we got there, but then it rained overnight and the next night too. The tubing run is closed when the river flow exceeds 8 cubic metres per second; the day we wanted to go tubing, it was measuring 98 cubic metres per second. That’s not a typo – the river flow was over twelve times higher than their safety limit. One of the two bridges over the gorge was closed entirely because water was flowing over it, to the point where you couldn’t see the bridge. There was no way we were going anywhere near the water. We had a fun camping trip (despite the rain), but we were disappointed that we didn’t get to go tubing.

Let’s try that again

So this year, we decided to go back and try again. We booked the same campsite as we had the previous year and this time Mother Nature played nice. Our first day we slept late and decided to have more of a lazy day, so we played some cards before lunch and did some geocaching in Elora after lunch. The second day was tubing day. Our plan was to do one run, then walk back to our campsite (about halfway up), have lunch, and then do more runs in the afternoon. If Gail or I got tired, one of us could wait at the bottom with the van and drive everyone back to the top. After getting ready, we drove to the rental place and walked with the tubes to the starting point. This was sometime around 11:00.

Here’s a Google map of the tubing run; I wanted to use the satellite view but it was cloudy the day the satellite took the picture so you can’t see much. I’ve marked approximately where the interesting events happened.

Note that this is not a water ride, it’s just a river. They rent you the tubes and they’ve built stairs to get you to the starting point, but the rest is up to you. There are no lifeguards or attendants at the start, end, or anywhere in between.

At the start, a friendly man was there taking pictures of his grandkids, and noticed our confusion as to where to go. He suggested walking a little further up the river and starting from there, so we did. We didn’t plan it this way (we didn’t really plan anything – more on that later) but Ryan went first, then Gail followed him. Nicky went next and I came last. Before I even started, I noticed that Ryan had flipped over going down the first set of “rapids”, but quickly recovered and gave us the thumbs up. As I was approaching the rapids, I managed to get spun around and didn’t see what happened to Gail or Nicky. When I hit the rapids, I flipped over backwards as well. I managed to stand up and grab my tube, and started to get back on it.

That’s when I noticed Gail sitting on a rock on the right bank. No tube.

Problem #1

Nicky was floating down the middle of the river and an empty tube was floating down in front of him. I hadn’t gotten back on my tube yet, so I managed to walk/swim over to the bank where Gail was. The water was still pretty fast here, so it took a fair bit of effort. It turned out that Gail had also flipped over, but while Ryan and I managed to grab our tubes, Gail did not. She got pounded by multiple waves which bounced her off of the rocky bottom a number of times. She was eventually able to grab some rocks on the bottom and pull herself to the side and get out of the river. Both of her knees were scraped up pretty good, as well as her ankles and the side of her right foot. She had lost her sunglasses and had thought for a minute that her contact lenses had also been washed away, though luckily they hadn’t. I stayed with her until we determined that she could stand and walk back to the start (she was shaking too much for the first couple of minutes). We decided that I would continue and once we were done, the boys and I would walk back to the van and then come and get her.

Elora GorgeThe whole time we were sitting there, we had to watch our children float further away from us, down a river that we hadn’t seen before, and that we had already found to be much more dangerous than any of us had realized. The boys are 14 and 12 and have been taking swimming lessons their whole lives; they’re probably better swimmers now than either me or Gail. That plus the fact that they were wearing helmets and life jackets were the only reasons we were nervous but not panicking.

After making sure that Gail could walk back to the start (maybe 30 metres back), I continued down the river in my tube. I had no watch on and so my sense of time is rather hazy, so I have no idea how long it was before I caught up with the boys, but it couldn’t have been more than about 5 or 10 minutes. They had reached an eddy in the river, so Ryan was essentially sitting in the middle of a big circle, not moving, while Nicky was slowly drifting around the circle, holding on to Gail’s tube which he had managed to grab. I grabbed Gail’s tube from Nicky, then we had to kick our feet for a while to get out of the eddy and start heading back downstream. Ryan had somehow managed to get out of it without kicking at all and was ahead of us again.

Just around the corner from the eddy, there was a shallow area that Nicky and I got caught up in. We had to push along the bottom to get free, and that led us to the second set of rapids. I told Nicky to go down first, then I sent Gail’s tube down by itself (since I figured I wouldn’t be able to hold onto it), and then I came last. I drifted to the right side of the rapids, near the canyon wall. Just as I expected to bounce off the wall, I heard a loud bang and immediately sank into the river.

Problem #2

The water wasn’t deep but the current was very strong. It pushed me through the rapids until I managed to grab another rock on the canyon wall with one hand, while holding onto my deflated tube with the other. Nicky saw this and wanted to know if he should stop or try to grab Gail’s tube, but he was still in some pretty fast-moving water. I told him to just keep going, figuring it was more dangerous for him to try to stop. I had no choice here but to walk down the river. Some parts had a rocky shoreline which was easy navigable, but for most of it I had to walk in the river holding on to the cliff face or trees sticking out. Some places were ankle deep and slippery, while others were deeper – the water came up to my shoulders in one place. There was one area where I had to swim about 30 feet and another where I had to climb through a fallen tree. There were a few areas with big rocks that I had to climb over, and I saw one rock with a big spider on it – must have been 3-4 inches across. I hate spiders, so that would have been the worst moment of most normal days, but it barely even registered. I slipped and fell once but luckily just landed on my butt, with nothing more than a bruise to show for it. Sorry, I don’t have any pictures of it.

Eventually, the river got shallow enough that Nicky was able to grab Gail’s tube once again and get out of the water to wait for me. Again, I have no concept of how long it took for me to get to him – fifteen minutes? Forty five? I really don’t know but from the time my tube burst until the time I met up with Nicky again must have been at least 30 minutes. I stopped there for a rest and then we continued down the river, with me floating on Gail’s tube and carrying mine.

The rest of the way was relatively uneventful but frustratingly slow. Not only was I physically exhausted, but I was anxious to get back to make sure Gail was OK. Problem #2 had slowed us down significantly, so I was sure Gail was wondering where we were. I got caught in another eddy where I had to kick continually for several minutes to get through it. Then Nicky and I hit some more shallows where we had to push off the bottom to move. We eventually arrived at the end of the tubing run where we were finally reunited with Ryan who had finished ages before.

We got out of the river and walked back up to the parking area while I filled Ryan in on what had happened. After about a 10-15 minute walk, we got to the rental place, turned in the punctured tube (“No thanks, I don’t need a replacement”), and picked up our van keys. While tying tube #3 onto the top of the van, Gail’s phone (which was in the van) rang. By the time we found the phone, it had stopped ringing but I noticed that there were eleven missed calls from my phone. Gail had walked back to our campsite and was getting pretty worried that we hadn’t yet reached the van. We called her back and reassured her that everyone was OK. It was now 1:38pm. That one single run – that only three of us finished – had taken us about two and a half hours.

We drove back to the camp site and Gail hobbled over to meet us. She was also doing a little better though her left leg was pretty stiff and it was obvious she was going to have some pretty good bruises in a couple of days. I’m writing this a couple of days later and she does indeed have some bruising (see picture) and her legs are still stiff and achy, but it could certainly have been much worse.


The aftermathDuring lunch, we tried to decide what to do the rest of the day. Gail thought about trying again but skipping the first set of rapids (the subsequent rapids weren’t as bumpy as the first), but she decided her legs hurt too much. I wasn’t really in pain but was still nervous about the river because of my tube bursting. There were a couple of areas during my walk down the river where it had taken most of my strength to avoid getting pulled by the current – what if it had been Nicky’s tube that had burst? Would he have had the strength? Would the current have pulled him along, bouncing him off of rocks the whole way, or worse, dragging him under the surface?

I knew this was a pretty rare occurrence and the odds of it happening again were pretty low, but the tube bursting scared me enough that we decided that we were done tubing. The boys were disappointed but understood. We played some more cards and the boys and I kicked a soccer ball around for a while, and we eventually returned the tubes. The boys and I had one run for our $25 each, and Gail spent about $1 per metre of her tubing adventure.

Gail and I are pretty surprised at ourselves for just jumping in (pun intended) before really examining the river and the rapids and having a plan. We did say to the boys before we started that if we get separated, just keep going and we’ll meet up at the bottom, and maybe there really wasn’t much more we could have done. Hundreds of people do this every day and while I know they’ve had accidents, they’re pretty few and far between. I guess subconsciously we didn’t figure that we needed a “what if one of us gets beaten into the rocks?” plan or a “what if a tube bursts?” plan. Perhaps cancelling the rest of the day entirely rather than letting the boys keep going was a bit extreme, but the what-ifs crept into my brain and took over.

Perhaps we’ll stick to water parks from now on.

Land of lakes

Canada has more lakes than the rest of the world combined. As far as I know, each and every one of these lakes has a name and naming so many lakes is bound to result in some pretty interesting ones. On our trip north this past summer, we drove a long way and passed a lot of lakes. Here are some of the more interesting names.

  • We passed Baby Lake, right across the highway from Mom Lake. About a kilometer up the road, we found Dad Lake.
  • Desolation Lake, right next to Lonely Lake. Sounds like a delightful place for a cottage, doesn’t it?
  • Tons of lakes named for people: Cathy’s Lake, Jason Lake, Sammy’s Lake, etc.
  • Near the town of Rossport is Little Lake. Little Lake? That’s the best you could come up with? Though perhaps it’s named after Mr. Little.
  • The most original goes to Parkinson’s Pothole
  • According to Google Maps, near Terrace Bay we have Lake A and Lake B
  • About 25 km east of Terrace Bay, there’s Echo Lake. This is the same name as the lake my parents’ cottage is on, a little over 1000 km to the south east (near Bracebridge). About 30 km further east of the first Echo Lake, there’s another Echo Lake.
  • On either side of Marathon there are Two Finger Lake and Three Finger Lake
  • Near Wawa, we have Rod and Gun Lake
  • It’s not a lake, but there’s Old Woman Bay (and nearby Old Woman River)
  • Not far from Old Woman Bay is Rabbit Blanket Lake
  • South of there is Dead Otter Lake
  • South of Agawa Bay were Beta Lake and Gamma Lake. Alpha Lake is nearby but not on the highway.
  • There’s a town we didn’t go to called Eliot Lake (which is near a lake called Eliot Lake), but that’s not that exciting a name. Near there, however, is Crotch Lake. This sounds to me like a place you don’t want to go swimming.

Northern Ontario 2013 – Part 2: Manitouwadge and Pancake Bay

This is part two in the two-part miniseries of our trip to Northern Ontario in the summer of 2013. Part one is here. When we last left our heroes, they we getting ready to leave Sleeping Giant for Manitouwadge.

Aug 23

Driving Day Three, though there was far less driving on this day than most of the other driving days. In fact, Driving Day Three and Driving Day Four combined were less than either of Driving Days Two or Five. We were on the road by 9am and about three hours later, we arrived in Marathon and did the same thing we did for lunch last year in Marathon – stopped at Pizza Hut, picked up a pizza to go, and drove down to a place called Pebble Beach. We enjoyed our pizza on the top of a cliff overlooking the beach, and then went down to the beach itself. There’s a ton of driftwood on the beach – and we’re talking about 20-30 foot logs here, not just a bunch of sticks. Rolly says they regularly remove it, but there was a pile that looked like a “fort” (which must have been arranged by hand, with enough room inside that a few people could semi-comfortably sit) which looked exactly like one that was there last year. After climbing around on the rocks and logs for a while, we were back in the van for the last bit of this day’s drive.

About an hour later, we were at Rolly & Candyce’s place in Manitouwadge. Arriving at around the same time were Norma and Lloyd, Rolly’s aunt and uncle from Dawson Creek, BC, who we had never met (Rolly hadn’t seen them in over 20 years). We got to know them a little over the next few days, and they are wonderful people; it’s too bad they live four thousand kilometres away. Also arriving shortly after us were Jackie’s brother Mitch (from Tracy, California), and two of Rolly’s (grown) sons, Foster (Owen Sound) and Ethan (Mississauga). Rolly’s eldest son, Rhys, is in the Canadian Navy and is stationed in Halifax, so he was not able to make it. We set up the trailer in Rolly’s driveway, right behind John and Jackie’s trailer, and just down from Norma and Lloyd’s camper/pickup. Rolly and Candyce don’t have the biggest house but they had thirteen people staying with them; without the campers it would have been a little cramped. Rolly later referred to everyone as his “band of gypsies”.

Dinner was a big get-together at Candyce’s friend Donna’s place. They had cooked both a roast and a turkey, and there were veggies and potatoes and salads and such as well. For dessert, they had several (at least four) of those big metal lasagna pans (i.e. two feet long, a foot wide, and four inches thick) full of cheesecake and Black Forest cake. Donna even gave us a couple of them to bring back to Candyce’s place, where we gradually finished them over the next few days.

Aug 24

The punny Perrows (photo by Michel Bazinet)Wedding Day! Tradition says the groom should not see the bride on the wedding day until the wedding, so Candyce stayed at Donna’s the previous night. The morning was very leisurely – the boys watched TV for a while, and we played cards and chatted. Last summer, Rolly had helped the boys make slingshots, and even offered to keep them until our next visit. Unfortunately, he’d forgotten where he put them, so he helped Nicky make another one. Nicky spent a good chunk of the morning shooting rocks at a plastic bottle, and Ryan and I took a few shots as well.

Soon after lunch, we got dressed for the wedding. As I mentioned in the previous article, this was a Hallowe’en themed wedding, so “getting dressed for the wedding” was a little different from other weddings we’d been to. The four of us wore costumes that were linked – we were the “punny Perrows”, and each of us went as a different pun:

  • Gail had a white shirt with a yellow circle on it as well as a cape, red horns, and a pitchfork – she was a “devilled egg”.
  • I was dressed as a medieval knight, complete with sword, with a LED light attached to my belt – I was a “knight light”. (Once I turned the light off, I was the Dark Knight.) In the picture here, the light is mostly hidden by the sword. 
  • Ryan had a baseball cap with a “C” on it, a foam finger (Toronto Rock!), and a t-shirt made by Gail that said “Ceiling” – he was a “ceiling fan”.
  • Nicky was dressed in hospital scrubs with a stethoscope and a necklace with hot peppers on it – he was “Dr. Pepper”.

The wedding started around 3:00 and was held in a beautiful gazebo in Donna’s back yard. The weather was perfect and it was a lovely ceremony. Rolly was dressed as a Klingon, though he didn’t wear the headpiece with the long hair and bumpy forehead during the ceremony. Candyce didn’t wear a costume but had a beautiful orange and black dress that she had specially ordered from China – and then had a friend fix because when it arrived, it was the wrong size.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith (photo by Michel Bazinet)

There were a number of other good costumes there – an awesome Xena, two different Shrek’s and one (male) Fiona, two other knights, Fred Flintstone, and a whole family full of Angry Birds. To go along with Rolly’s Klingon, Foster went as Dr. McCoy while Ethan donned the Vulcan ears as Mr. Spock. There was even a man who donned a Nike hat and red Nike golf shirt, coloured his face, neck, and arms dark with shoe polish or something, and went as Tiger Woods. I’m still trying to decide whether that was in poor taste or kind of clever.

The wedding party went for pictures, and we went back to Rolly & Candyce’s place to hang out until the reception, which took place at a local bar called K & G’s. The hall was all decorated for Hallowe’en, including bride and groom zombies behind the head table, and bride and groom skeletons on top of the orange and black wedding cake. The food was great, the speeches were fun (and there weren’t too many of them, just enough), and the music was good. The boys were up way too late but hey, it was their first wedding, and we’re on vacation.

Aug 25

Sooooo hungover.

Oh wait, no I wasn’t. I wasn’t even drunk the night before. We had another quiet morning of cards, reading, and chatting. As much as I like to be active while on vacation (we’ve never been big on “head to the beach, sit down, stay for nine hours”), I really enjoyed these mornings of doing a whole lotta nothing.

After lunch, Rolly took the four of us to the dump. Yes, the dump. And not only did we all go willingly, we all looked forward to it. Rolly and Candyce had both told us about a bear that lives near the dump and frequently wanders in to find things to eat, so we asked Rolly if we could go to see him. He took us over and we had no trouble spotting the bear; he was right out in the open, digging through the mounds of garbage for things to eat. Candyce said he was a big fat one, but I wouldn’t know a fat bear from a lean and muscular bear – I just know this guy was big. We were able to get pretty close before he backed away, but once we backed off a little, he ignored us completely. We didn’t get out of the truck at all but got lots of pictures.

A big fat bear

After the bear sighting, a few people decided to go swimming in Manitouwadge Lake, a 5 minute walk from Rolly’s place. Rolly, Foster, Alison, Ryan and Nicky got their suits on, while Gail and I walked down as well (with no intention of swimming). The lake turned out to be very cold, and neither Rolly nor Ryan could bring themselves to go in beyond their waist. Nicky dunked his head a couple of times, but Foster and Alison were the only ones who actually swam at all. The swim didn’t last too long before everyone was frozen despite the fact that it was 30+ degrees out. For dinner, Candyce had ordered pizza from the local pizza joint. Luckily for Candyce and Rolly, the pizza from this place is very good; when I say “the local pizza joint” I mean the local pizza joint – the next closest is the Pizza Hut in Marathon, an hour away.

Aug 26

Another hot, humid, and lazy day. Nicky asked Jackie and Mitch if they wanted to play Scrabble, and playing Scrabble with them is something I’ve never had the guts to do. Jackie and Mitch are both very good, and I’m pretty sure their sister Claudette (who lives in Alberta but was in poor health so could not make the wedding) was at one point nationally ranked. Nicky did very well in a close game, finishing third but within five points of both Mitch and Jackie, though he did get a fair bit of help from Rolly.

We spent some time in the afternoon doing more shooting, and then after dinner we got ready to go on a drive to nowhere. As I mentioned, this was our third trip to Northern Ontario and we had yet to see any wildlife that we wouldn’t see at home. On this trip we had already seen a bear, so we told Rolly we wanted to see a moose. He said the best way to do that would be to drive on the highway early in the morning or after dark, so we decided to head out at night with the intention of driving south on the highway for 20-30 minutes and then driving back. Just before we left, Rolly (who’s a bit of a joker) told the boys and Alison to put their tinfoil hats on, which would increase the chances of seeing a moose. He didn’t say why this would work, just that it would. To their credit, neither Ryan nor Alison simply grabbed the hat and put it on, even after Rolly did. NIcky did, and even brought some foil to me and Gail for us to wear, but to this day I’m not 100% sure whether he immediately bought into it or was just playing along with the joke. With Nicky, that second option is highly possible. But we did get a picture with the hats:

The moose-attracting hats

We left around 9:00, and managed to get lucky. About 15 km south of the town, Rolly suddenly stopped and said “there’s one.” Sure enough, in the bushes on the left side of the road was a moose. We couldn’t see it clearly, but well enough to get a good sense of the size of this animal. Think about one of those big Clydesdale horses; this guy could have been its big brother. Attempts to take pictures met with dismal failure since it was too dark, so I have nothing to show here but we were pretty happy we’d seen both a moose and a bear on this trip. I guess the wolf will have to wait until next time.

Aug 27

Driving Day Four. We got up and after a quick breakfast, packed up the trailer and left the Wadge around 9:30. After gassing up and lunch at Subway in Wawa, we arrived at Pancake Bay Provincial Park around 1:30pm. John and Jackie had the site across the road from us, and Sandy, Alison, and Foster had a site behind J&J. By this point in the trip, we were experts at putting up the trailer and getting things ready, so we were set up in no time. Nicky and I joined Foster and Alison for a swim in the lake. Pancake Bay is right on Lake Superior, known for being the biggest and coldest of the Great Lakes, but the bay was relatively warm. Note that it wasn’t actually warm, just relatively when compared to the icy waters near Sleeping Giant and Lake Manitouwadge. After we were done swimming, we played some cribbage (which the boys are getting very good at).

After dinner, Nicky and Ryan went back to the lake with Foster until it started to get dark. By the time they got back, John had a campfire going, and they roasted marshmallows and spider dogs. Never heard of a spider dog? You take a wiener and cut the ends of it into quarters lengthwise about 1/3 of the way down. Then put it on a stick and cook it over the fire. As it cooks, the bits you cut will curl up, and by the time you’re done, they’ve curled far enough that it looks like a spider.

Aug 28

After a breakfast of pancakes (did I mention my wife is awesome?) (Wait, actually John made these ones.) (He’s pretty cool too.) we headed down to a “3.5 km” nature trail at the north end of the campground. I put the “3.5 km” in quotation marks because that’s what the signs said, but it was way longer than that. I fired up the MapMyRun app on my phone which uses the GPS to keep track of where and how far you walk/hike/run/bike. Before the phone’s battery died, we were over 6 km and weren’t finished yet. We were making pretty good time though since the mosquitoes in there were unbelievable, and every time we stopped for more than a few seconds, we were all slapping ourselves silly. Once we finished the walk we were all sweaty and covered in bug spray, so we couldn’t wait to get to the showers.

MishipeshuAfter lunch, we drove back north to Agawa Bay to see the pictographs. These are paintings on the side of a cliff, done by the Ojibwe several hundred years ago. This picture captures a few of them: there’s a canoe with people in it on the left, two snakes at the bottom, and the other thing is Mishipeshu, or the Great Lynx. Mishipeshu has the body of a big cat but has horns, spikes down its back, and is covered in scales.

At the base of the cliff is a small rock platform you can walk on to see the paintings, and then a short drop to the lake. Foster brought his swimsuit and was in the lake most of the time we were there, and the boys had fun climbing on the ropes attached to the platform to help swimmers get back out of the water. They must have done this for fifteen minutes until Ryan lost his grip and almost ended up in the water himself. He grabbed the rope again at the last second and pulled himself back up (still dry!), but then decided he’d had enough of that game.

When we were done there, we drove down a few km to the Agawa visitor’s centre, which was a combination tourist info booth plus a little museum with some very cool exhibits. I thought this was going to be a five-minute stop but we must have been there an hour before heading back to Pancake Bay.

The evening was similar to most other nights on this trip – dinner, cards, campfire, marshmallows, bed.

Aug 29

Our last day at Pancake Bay, so we decided to see as much of the bay itself as we could. We walked out to the beach just across from Sandy and Alison’s camp site, then turned right and walked along the beach to the point. The picture below shows the route we walked, though the point we walked to is shrouded in fog in the picture. I didn’t have my GPS app running so I don’t know how far it was, but it was farther than it looked. By the time we came back, it was almost lunch time.

Pancake Bay

We’d had fabulous weather on this trip. Up to this point, we’d had one night of rain and none during the day at all. But the forecast for the next day wasn’t looking so promising – it was supposed to rain all night and all day. We planned on packing up everything but the trailer in the evening, so we had less stuff to pack up wet the next day, and John and Jackie did the same. But Sandy, Alison, and Foster were in tents, so they could only pack up so much the night before, and packing up a wet tent and stuffing in the car wouldn’t have been too pleasant, so they decided to pack up and head home today instead. Sandy and Alison live in Sudbury, about 4 hours from Pancake Bay, and Foster was going to take a bus from there to Owen Sound. As it turned out, this was a good decision on their part.

After some more crib, we went over to the local trading post to fill up the gas tank, have a look around the gift shops, and pick up some ice cream treats. We then started to get ready for the trip home, packing up the clothes line and the mat outside the trailer door, taking down the dining tent, that sort of thing. By the time we were done, all that was left was to take down the trailer itself. After one last fire to get rid of the rest of our firewood, the boys went to bed, then Gail and I went back over to J&J’s trailer to play some more cards (with Jackie; John was asleep) before bed.

Aug 30

Driving Day Five, and the final day of this adventure. As I said, Sandy did make the right choice in leaving a day early, since it rained all night and was still raining when we got up (and continued raining for most of the drive home). J&J’s trailer is much bigger than ours, so we went over there for breakfast before the final packing up began. The pajamas were tossed in a bag, dirty dishes tossed in another bag to be washed when we got home, trailer taken down and hooked up to the van, garbage dumped, and goodbyes said. By about 8:30, were on the road home. We stopped in Espanola for lunch (Subway again) and some place called Grundy Lake for gas, and finally arrived home around 6:00pm. We all enjoyed this vacation and our new trailer is orders of magnitude more comfortable than tent camping, but boy, we all appreciated our beds that night.

Total number of kilometers driven: 3289.5. Not quite as many as last year (3608 km) but not bad. Pulling the trailer was a bit of a new experience. We’d done it a few times this summer, but most of southern Ontario is pretty flat so we didn’t notice much of a difference on the small hills. But driving north of Lake Superior is very hilly, so we certainly noticed the trailer then. We also used more gas, though I don’t know exactly how much more. But the comfort level vastly outweighs those extremely minor drawbacks. As I mentioned above, it was way more comfortable than sleeping in a tent, and the weather is just not an issue anymore. We’ve done our fair share of tent camping in rain, and Gail hates it. It ain’t much fun for the rest of us either. Plus the trailer has lots of storage space so packing the van is much easier. I’m even getting pretty good at backing up and having the trailer go where I want it to.

I don’t think I’ve written about the trailer at all since we got it. Earlier this year, John and Jackie gave it to us as a gift. They had it for several years (we stayed with them in it last summer in Manitouwadge and Pancake Bay) but they decided to buy a bigger one. Once they did, they asked if we wanted their old one. There was no way we were going to turn them down. We tried to buy it from them but they said no. We even gave them a “donation” that was a fraction of what the trailer is worth, but they refused to take it. In the short time we’ve had the trailer, we’ve gone on four different camping trips – three weekends in July and August and then this two week trip to northern Ontario. We have had an absolute blast, and we look forward to more camping next year too. We can’t thank John and Jackie enough for their generosity.


Northern Ontario 2013 – Part 1: Straits and Sleeping Giant

The Perrow Family summer vacation 2013 was a camping trip to Northern Ontario. “Hold on,” I hear you say, “you guys went to Northern Ontario last summer! I remember you writing about it!” Yes, dear loyal reader. You’re right: we did, and I did (parts one, two, and three). But last year the people we went to visit in Manitouwadge, Rolly and Candyce, were (gasp) living in sin and last winter, Rolly popped the big question. They decided to have the wedding this summer, and of course we were excited to make the trip back to the ‘Wadge (I don’t know if Manitouwadge residents really call it “the ‘Wadge”, but if they don’t, they should) for the festivities. Since this was the second wedding for both of them, they decided to forego the traditional wedding and do something different, and what could be more different than a Hallowe’en-themed wedding in August?

But we’ll get to the actual wedding later. As I have done with vacations in the past, I wrote in a mini-journal every night so I’d remember what we did, what we saw, and any other interesting facts that would likely get lost in the mists of time if I didn’t write them down. I do this so that once we return, I can write about them here, creating an online “web log” – a “blog”, if you will (I just coined that term now) – of our vacation.

We were away for two weeks, and stayed in four different places. I’ll write about the first two (Straits State Park and Sleeping Giant) in this article, and then the second two (Manitouwadge and Pancake Bay) in the next article. I’ve also created a Google map of our trip though it’s a bit hard to see since there was a lot of driving overlap, i.e. about half of the drive from Straits to Sleeping Giant was the same as most of the drive from Sleeping Giant to Manitouwadge, and the drive from Manitouwadge to Pancake Bay was entirely along roads we’d already travelled.

Aug 17

Driving Day One (of five). We left home around 9am and got to Sarnia a little over 2 hours later. After one of the quickest and most painless border crossings ever, we continued east from Port Huron to Flint where we stopped for gas. Then we hung a right and headed north to Straits State Park, just on the north side of the Mackinac1 Bridge.  The bridge is pretty impressive – 8 km (5 miles) long, and 200 feet above the water. They even have a free service where they will drive you across (in your car) if you’re uncomfortable driving across yourself. We arrived at the park around 4:00, got set up, and then had dinner.The Mackinac Bridge

We had a lot of fun on the way to Straits. We have a DVD player in the van so the boys brought movies, but Gail also got a couple of books on CD from the library. One of them, Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, turned out to be 35+ hours long so we didn’t listen to that, but the other was a classic: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, read performed by Stephen Fry. I had read this book years ago, but forgot most of it. Fry did a great job with it, changing his voice or accent for the different characters – only slightly but enough that it was easy to figure out who was speaking. Obviously the book itself is hilarious, and we all enjoyed it. We got about 75% finished when we got to Straits, and then finished it a couple days later on Driving Day Two.

There are lots of restrictions on what kinds of food you can bring into the US, so we didn’t take any chances and brought very little that was suspect. The last thing we needed was to be stopped at the border and have to throw half our food out. All the meat we brought was still sealed in the original packaging, and we didn’t bring any eggs, milk, fruits, or veggies. After dinner, we headed over to the local grocery store to stock up on these supplies we didn’t bring. Going grocery shopping in a strange area is interesting; sounds dull but I really enjoy looking at all the differences from home:

  • Products we don’t have – various cereals and chocolate bars, aerosol cheese, pork rinds, strawberry marshmallows, Cherry Coke Zero (Dear Coca-Cola Canada: THIS. Thank you. Love, Graeme)
  • Packaging that’s different – Kraft Dinner is called Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, Knorr Sidekicks are called… something else, that kind of thing. Being from Canada, it’s also weird to see no French on any packaging.
  • Products that have the same name and packaging but are made differently – in Canada, Mike’s Hard Lemonade is a vodka cooler but in the US, it’s a “malt beverage”. Actually I think all coolers are malt beverages in the US. I don’t think there are malt beverages in Canada at all.
  • Being from Ontario, it’s weird to me to see alcohol on a grocery store shelf next to the bottled water, or beer in the cooler next to the cream cheese.

After shopping, we walked down to the beach, right on Lake Huron. The bridge is the dividing point between Lakes Huron and Michigan – this side of the bridge (the east side) is Lake Huron, and the other side of the bridge is Lake Michigan. From the beach, we got some great views of the Mackinac Bridge all lit up. We took a bunch of pictures (including the one above) and stargazed for a little while before heading back to the campsite. We were pretty tired and it was already getting late so we skipped the campfire and went straight to bed.

1 – The bridge and island are spelled Mackinac and the city is spelled Mackinaw, but they are all pronounced “MACK-in-aw”. It took Nicky a couple of days to stop saying “Mack-in-ack”.

Aug 18

Quick breakfast, then drove into nearby St. Ignace (pronounced IG-nuss) for the ferry ride to Mackinac Island. The ferry we took was called a “hydro-jet”, which meant that it had a rooster-tail of water shooting out the back. It actually did move pretty fast, and we specifically chose a time where they went under the Mackinac bridge as well.

Ferry with hydro-jetNo cars are allowed on Mackinac island. Later in the day, we did see one driving in the middle of the island somewhere, but it was an ambulance so we let them off the hook. We got off the ferry in a little downtown area, where we saw lots of little touristy shops as well as tons of bike rental places and horse-drawn taxis. There are lots of walking trails throughout the island, and we decided to take the one that goes all the way around the outside. We do a lot of walking on our vacations, so we figured we could handle the 8.2 mile perimeter trail. The trail was almost right on the edge of the water; usually there was only a rocky beach between the trail and the lake. In a number of places, previous visitors had made tall piles of rocks – similar to an inukshuk but just a single pile, some of them five feet tall or more. We saw hundreds of these things.

We stopped for lunch at the “world-famous” Cannonball grill (obviously you’ve heard of it, since it’s world-famous) for some pretty decent though overpriced burgers and dogs. (Three burgers, a hot dog, a couple of orders of fries and some drinks cost > $40.) After lunch we continued on our around-the-island trek but just over half-way around, we realized that we wouldn’t be able to finish it. We probably could have, except that we wouldn’t have seen anything else. There were a few things on the interior of the island that we wanted to see, and it would have been too far to walk into the middle of the island, see what we wanted to see, and then walk back to the outside. An 8 km hike is no big deal for us, but we were starting to realize at this point that 8 miles is not the same thing as 8 kilometers. 8 miles is more like 13 kilometers, and by now we knew that we were going to be pretty tired on the ferry ride back.

We headed for “Crack-in-the-island”, which Nicky wanted to see though we couldn’t find a description of what exactly that was. All we knew was the name, and that it was right next to “Cave in the woods” which Nicky also wanted to see. We did find it (the walking trails on the island are fairly well marked) but it was a bit underwhelming. Crack-in-the-island is just what it sounds like – a fissure in the ground, maybe 7 feet deep and 20 feet long. The boys actually walked through it and when they did so, they saw the cave in the woods, or so they think. There was no sign around saying what or where cave in the woods was, but there was a little cave (apparently not much more than an indentation in the wall) at the bottom of the crack, so we figured that was it.

Some battles during the War of 1812 were fought on Mackinac Island, and Ryan wanted to see the battlefields. When we got there, the “battlefields” turned out to be a couple of informational signs describing what used to be there, and the actual field itself was now part of a golf course. That was kind of on our way back to the south end of the island, so we didn’t really feel like we’d wasted a lot of time finding it. From there, we headed towards the Grand Hotel. This is when the GPS and Google Maps on my phone would have come in handy but it was not available. (The data rates when roaming to the US are insane a little too high for my liking, so I turned the mobile network off as soon as we entered the US and didn’t turn it back on until we were back in Ontario.)The Grand Hotel

We weaved through the town until we reached the hotel, which is absolutely magnificent. The balcony out front is massive, and the gardens are beautiful. Of course, I’m saying this based on the limited view we had and the pictures I’ve seen, not so much based on what I actually saw. I’ve never before seen a hotel that charged admission just to walk around, but this one does. If you are not a registered guest, it costs you $10 (half price for kids under 12!) just to get onto the grounds. It would have been $35 for the four of us, which we were not willing to pay, so we took some pictures from the road and decided that that would do. The only part of the building that you’re allowed in without paying the admission is the ice cream shop, so we took advantage of that.

At the time, we assumed the place was expensive but had no idea how much it would be to stay there. Once we arrived home, I did some quick research. For the cheapest room during the cheapest time of the week, it would be $264 per night. Per person. And that’s just for two of us. For extra people in the same room, it would be $59 for Ryan and Nicky would be free, so a single night would cost us, once you factored in the taxes and “Mackinac Island assessment” and luggage fees, about $786. For one night. Now, that includes both dinner and breakfast, so there’s that. But still.

We continued through the cute little town back to the docks, and caught the 5:30 ferry back to St. Ignace. Despite not finishing the 8 mile walk around the island, we figured that we’d walked at least 8 or 9 miles anyway, or 13-14 km, so we were tired and hungry. We decided that cooking dinner would take too long, so we asked one of the guys on the dock if he knew of a good place to get a pizza to go. He pointed us to a place across the street called Pizza Builders. We got a couple of pizzas to take back to the camp site and enjoyed them thoroughly. After a campfire and some obligatory marshmallows, we all went to bed.

Aug 19

We slept in a bit today and enjoyed a full pancakes-and-bacon breakfast before having showers. Once we were all refreshed, we took a drive back over the Mackinac bridge into Mackinaw City, stopping at Colonial Michilimackinac Park, where we took 10 or 15 minutes to learn how to say the name of the place (MISH-ill-uh-MACK-in-naw). We had been to Fort William in Thunder Bay last summer, and we figured this would be very similar to that so we didn’t actually go in, just stopped to pick up some of those touristy brochures for other things to see. We were headed for a place called Mill Creek, and figured it would be half a day so we were looking for somewhere else to go once we were done there. Turns out we needn’t have bothered.

Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park is the site of a two-hundred-year-old sawmill which was in use for years but subsequently destroyed. It has been painstakingly recreated in every detail, and there are regular demonstrations of how it helped transform the logging industry. Sawing logs into long boards used to be a slow and very labour-intensive procedure – a single board might take an hour to cut, and they’d get 12 of them cut a day. Once they built the mill, no manual labour was necessary and a board could be cut every 7 minutes. The show was really interesting and the guy who did it was very knowledgeable and entertaining.

Boys on the climbing wallThere was also an “adventure tour” which we enjoyed. It started with a short nature hike with a guide who pointed out local flora and told us about local fauna, not that we saw any fauna. In fact, I don’t think we saw so much as a squirrel or chipmunk at our campsite, on Mackinac Island, or at Mill Creek. A few birds, but that’s about it. That would change later in the trip (foreshadowing!). In the middle of the hike was a bridge made primarily of ropes and wires, but with a narrow wooden floor to walk across. The views from here were pretty nice, and despite being 50 feet up, the bridge felt strong and we were also attached with wires to cables above the bridge so we felt secure. After a bit more of a hike (the hikes on this tour were maybe 1km total), we got to the zip line. This was nowhere near as long as the one at Horseshoe Adventure Park, but still a lot of fun. After zipping over the river, we went around the corner to the 40-foot climbing wall, which Gail and I passed on but the boys enjoyed. Both made it to the top without any trouble.

There were some walking trails through the forest, and we never pass up a good walking trail. They were only a few km as well so it was nothing like the walking on Mackinac Island, but we got some good views of the beaver dams in the river (but we didn’t see any beavers). We ended up spending the rest of the day at Mill Creek and thoroughly enjoyed it all. The whole place was clean and very well kept. The place was quite inexpensive too – admission was $4.75/person and the adventure tour was another $8/person. My only complaint was that there was no food available other than some ice cream, small snacks, and drinks in the gift shop. A place to buy overpriced burgers and dogs would be a good addition. We had brought our own sandwiches, veggies, and drinks for lunch anyway so we were fine.

We headed north again to our campsite (trip #3 over the Mackinac Bridge – total tolls for the 3 trips: $20) for dinner, a campfire, and bed.

Aug 20

Driving Day Two. We packed up quickly and left Straits about 8:45am, heading north. After another very quick customs stop (this is not always the case, so we got really lucky twice on this trip) at Sault Ste. Marie, we stopped at the Sault KOA for a quick visit with John and Jackie (Gail’s dad and stepmom) who were camping there on their way to Manitouwadge. We only stayed a half hour or so since we still had over 700 km still to drive. We finished the Hitchhiker’s Guide, and the boys watched The Dark Knight and then the first half of Batman Begins. Yes, in that order, and no, they didn’t even bring The Dark Knight Rises. They do that. I don’t get it either.

We stopped for lunch at Krazy Fries (a chip wagon) in Wawa, where we also got gas. (Old joke.) After another gas[oline] stop in Nipigon, we finally ended our 11-hour driving day at Sleeping Giant Provincial Park around 8pm. For this part of the trip, we were camping with Jackie’s daughter Sandy and her 17-year-old daughter Alison, who had already arrived. While we were getting set up, Ryan and Alison went for a  short walk (that turned into a long walk because they got lost) and saw the first fauna of our trip: four deer walking through the campground.

The Sleeping Giant is a huge rock formation that is clearly visible from the city of Thunder Bay, and looks somewhat like a man lying on his back. We saw the Sleeping Giant from Thunder Bay last summer, and I was hoping we could get to these rocks and climb them, getting a view of Thunder Bay from the Giant. No such luck though, as the cliffs that make up the Giant are a 22 km hike from the campground, and there are no roads that go there. It’s not an easy 22km walk either, it’s recommended that you take provisions for a night or two and you should be an experienced overnight hiker. So we had to make do with the great views of the Giant from the beach, which was a two minute walk from our camp site.

Aug 21

Our first day at Sleeping Giant was a little more laid back than our days at Straits. In the morning, we played some cards and did some reading. Sleeping Giant more than made up for our lack of wildlife sightings at Straits; there were chipmunks all over the place. They were tame too – they’d take peanuts right out of our hands.

Nicky made a friendAlison and her friend

After lunch we headed over to a walking trail, of which this park has many. The one we chose was called the Wildlife Habitat trail, and I believe it was designed so that wildlife would be drawn to that area. The trail was very nice but for viewing wildlife, we should have stayed at our site. We saw a few birds and one butterfly, but that was about it. The visitor’s centre had a map that listed recent wildlife sightings, which over the last month or so had included wolves, bears, deer, various kinds of birds including cranes and herons, and various others. The hike was only a couple of kilometers so it didn’t take long. After the hike, we returned to our site for more card games. I alternately read and napped for a while.

We barbecued steak and potatoes for dinner, and just as we were finishing up, Gail suddenly gasped and pointed out towards the road behind our site. Walking across the road was a deer. We thought the chipmunks were cool, but this more than made up for any lack of wildlife sightings at Straits. I grabbed my phone and took a few pictures. In this one, you can see Nicky behind the deer.

Mama deer

After she moved off a bit to my left, I went up the road to try to get a better picture, and that’s when I saw the others – two baby deer, covered with white spots, playing on the next road over. They jumped around each other a few times and NIcky and I just stared in awe at these beautiful and majestic creatures before they bounded with amazing speed into the forest. This was our third trip to Northern Ontario and we’d never really seen much wildlife on previous trips, so this was certainly a highlight. But we weren’t done with the wildlife on this trip. (More foreshadowing!)

Baby deer

Aug 22

After a lovely breakfast of French toast (my wife is awesome), the boys and I borrowed Sandy’s canoe and went paddling on Marie Louise Lake. We only had two paddles so Nicky got a free ride in the middle, but Ryan was in the back (the steering position) and was proud to show off his skills. The beach is on a little bay at the south end of the lake, and we were going to do a tour of the lake. But when we went around the point, we found that the lake was far bigger than we originally thought so we killed that idea and just stayed in the bay.

After lunch, we went on a couple of other nature hikes. The first was called Sea Lion, but not because there are sea lions living there. There is a rock formation visible from part of the trail that apparently looked like a sea lion at one point, though the head fell off about a hundred years ago. Now it just looks like a stone arch. The total of the wildlife on this trail was a garter snake that Ryan saw. We got some great views of Lake Superior though, and were able to walk down right by the lake. Gail likes to walk on beaches with her feet in the water, but there was no way that was happening here, the water was just too cold. This trail continued on for another 10 km or so, and then joined other trails that went all the way to the Sleeping Giant itself, but we weren’t up for a hike that long so we turned back.

Once we finished that trail, we took another one called Ravine Lake. This was a loop that included a climb to the top of some cliffs where we got more great views of Lake Superior as well as Ravine Lake. Each of these trails was just a couple of kilometres, but the Ravine Lake one was quite hilly so by the time we were done, we were done, and we went back to camp for dinner. After dinner, the boys and I went on another canoe trip (our legs were still tired from the hikes but no leg muscles are needed for canoeing), then some desperately needed showers before campfire and bed.

At one point during this day (I think it was after dinner but I don’t remember exactly), we saw movement on the other side of the trailer. I assumed it was one of the many chipmunks that visited us during our stay, but then saw that it was much bigger than a chipmunk. It turned out to be a very cute little skunk. Of course, a skunk isn’t the kind of animal that you try to pet or toss peanuts at, and while it was wandering around our site, nobody moved. We weren’t afraid of the animal, just afraid that we’d spook it. We all know what could happen if a skunk gets spooked. I was standing near the open tailgate of the van and our visitor strolled nearby as well and actually went under the van for a short time. I very casually took a couple of steps to my right and closed the tailgate; the last thing we wanted – well, the last thing we wanted was to get sprayed. But the second last thing we wanted was to have the skunk jump into the back of the van and either steal some food or find a soft place to have a nap. It turned out to be fine; Mr. LePew just kept on walking across the road and we didn’t see him again. Gail thought she smelled something the next morning though – something must have made him unhappy.

The next day we left for Manitouwadge. The story continues in the next article.

Horseshoe Adventure Park

Horseshoe Valley is one of the most popular skiing destinations in Ontario. But if you have a hotel that’s full all winter and empty all summer, what do you do? Easy – you set up some stuff to do in the summer, and that’s what the Horseshoe Valley people decided to do. They created Horseshoe Adventure Park and gave people a reason to come out in the summer as well. Last week, we spent my birthday there and had a fantastic day, even if the original reason we were going was not even available.

A few years ago, we started a new Christmas tradition. Each of the four of us would come up with something that we wanted to do (some sort of outing), and make up a poster about it. Then after Christmas, we’d schedule these outings throughout the year. The only rules were that it had to be less than $200 (or at least close), and it had to be close enough to make it a day trip. The first year we went snowboarding, to an aquarium in Niagara Falls, and canoeing on the Grand River near Paris. (We only did three because Gail and I coincidentally both chose canoeing.) Since then we’ve been to another aquarium, the HMCS Haida in Hamilton, a butterfly conservatory, and skating at Nathan Phillips Square.

This past Christmas, Nicky’s poster was for Horseshoe Adventure Park, which had a thing called Aqua Ogo which he was dying to do. In a nutshell, the Aqua Ogo is a big rubber ball with water in it. Two people get in the ball and then you are pushed down a hill. Here’s a video of Rick Mercer at the park riding motorbikes (which I don’t remember seeing) and the Aqua Ogo. Nicky thought this would be the greatest thing ever (and it does look like fun) and so we planned on going sometime over the summer. When Gail found a WagJag coupon to get us in at half-price, that made it even better. We ended up going on my birthday just because it was a convenient day rather than a birthday present for me.

But a couple of weeks before we went, Gail got an email from WagJag saying that the Aqua Ogo (which was included in the package we bought) had been shut down until further notice. No further details were given, but we assumed that someone had gotten injured and the ride was shut down until (a) any pending lawsuits were settled, and/or (b) the safety of the ride was improved. Nicky was pretty disappointed, but we decided to go to the park anyway.

The other major attraction was the zip line, billed as the fastest in Ontario. This was a blast. I’m not always Mr. Thrill Seeker, in that I’m too chicken nervous to bungee jump or skydive or things like that (I don’t even do tall roller coasters), and I have to admit I was a little concerned at the top of the tower that I would be terrified the whole way down. Some people find being terrified exhilarating. Not me. But no more than a few feet down the line, I realized that this was going to be fun. It went fast enough to make it fun but not so fast that I felt out of control – not that there were any brakes or any way to get control should I have needed to. Nicky and I went at the same time and as I pointed out to him at the end, I totally dusted him – without even trying. (Thanks, gravity.) Gail’s as much of a thrill seeker as I am, but she loved it as well. And thanks to the closure of the Aqua Ogo, three of us got to go a second time.

After the zip line, we wanted to try another thing called Treetop Trekking, which was basically a high ropes course through the trees. This looked fun as well, but after we filled in the waiver forms we found that reservations were strongly recommended, and we didn’t have one. Since they were fully booked for the rest of the day, we were out of luck. We had no idea that we needed to make reservations so we missed out entirely on this part of the park. Dear WagJag / Horseshoe Valley: you really should add that into the description of the attraction. The Horseshoe web site makes that clear, but the WagJag thing did not.

But this place had even more to do. There is a beautiful mini golf course built into the side of a hill. It was well-designed and well-built and had nice waterfalls and wooden fences and gardens throughout. There is a big rock-climbing wall though the boys didn’t have a chance to try it. There’s a “Euro Bungy” thing, with trampolines and bungee cords that bounce you 10+ feet in the air. There’s a big maze which is fairly easy once you figure out the secret (both boys timed themselves getting through it after they figured it out – 50 seconds for Ryan, 49 seconds for Nicky) but until then, it’s tougher than it looks and a lot of fun.

I mentioned earlier that three of us got to do the zip line twice. We each got a ticket as part of our package deal, and because the Aqua Ogo was closed, we all got the option of either a second zip line ticket or a “mining” bag, which was a bag of dirt containing small gem stones. Gail wasn’t sure she was going to want to go on the zip line twice and Nicky loves to collect rocks so Gail chose the dirt (and then Nicky walked around all day paraphrasing Captain Jack Sparrow – “I’ve got a bag o’ dirt!”). Turned out that she enjoyed the zip line enough that she could have gone again, but we had some fun using a sluice to filter out the rocks from the dirt and got a little collection of chunks of topaz, amethyst, and obsidian. The last thing we did before we had to leave was Archery Tag, which is just what it sounds like. You get a bow and some arrows, and you try to hit other people to knock them out of the game. This sounds like just about the least safe activity you can imagine, but everyone is wearing a helmet with a full face mask, and the arrows have a big cushiony thing at the point that looks like a marshmallow. This not only cushions the impact so it doesn’t hurt but it slows the arrow down significantly – enough that Ryan was able to catch one out of the air. For a while it was just me against Nicky and Ryan (with photographer Gail covering from the sidelines), and then another family joined so it was the three of us against the four of them. They were clearly more skilled at this sport than we were, since I was knocked out less than a minute into the game, and by the time the game had ended, they had knocked Nicky and finally Ryan out as well while we took out none of them. This was also a lot of fun, though I felt a little weird shooting arrows at my kids.

This isn’t the cheapest place around, but it’s not outrageous either. The package we bought would have cost us $25 each plus another $45 for three extra zip line rides. The WagJag was about $50 for the four of us and that included the extra zip line rides (and the bag o’ dirt) because of the Aqua Ogo closure. There was your standard snack bar / chip wagon, and I believe there’s a full restaurant in the hotel though we never went in there. There was even a big pavilion for some shade and lots of picnic tables around. We had a ton of fun and Gail will be scouring WagJag for a similar deal so we can go back next summer. Truth be told, we had enough fun that we’ll probably go even if we can’t find a deal, but don’t tell the Horseshoe people that.

More pictures:

Zip line View from the top of the zip line. You can just see Ryan on his way down.
Zip line - Ryan Ryan going hands-free
Zip line - Graeme Graeme going hands-free
Zip line - Nicky Nicky didn’t get the hands-free memo and is having more fun that it appears
Archery - Ryan Ryan showing fine form
Archery - Nicky Nicky prefers the crossbow stance
Maze The maze