Category Archives: Vacations

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

Northern Ontario vacation – Part 3: Pancake Bay and home

This is part 3 (the thrilling conclusion) in the continuing saga of our 2012 family vacation to Northern Ontario. Part one: Ivanhoe Lake and Thunder Bay. Part two: Manitouwadge. Part three: Pancake Bay and then home.

August 15

We only had a few hours to drive on this day (between 3 and 4, compared with the 8 or 9 we’d done on previous days), so we didn’t make a point of getting up early. But after breakfast, we started packing up, then thanked Rolly and Candyce for their generosity and hospitality, and headed out. We stopped in White River for an early lunch, and were in Pancake Bay by mid-afternoon. We got set up quickly and once again, out came the cribbage board. Both boys knew how to play crib before we left, but by the end of this vacation, Ryan was getting very good, and Nicky still had a few troubles with strategy (“Why can’t I lead a five?”) but was certainly making progress. After dinner, John made a fire (he’s a better fire-maker than I am, but it also helps to have dry wood), and the boys roasted marshmallows. Both boys have way more patience with this than I ever did – my strategy was always to set the marshmallow on fire, quickly blow it out, and then eat the burnt part, leaving a second smaller marshmallow to roast burn. This continued until there was nothing left. But both my boys can patiently put the marshmallow over the coals and slowly turn it until it’s just like me with a tan: golden brown on all sides and soft and mushy in the middle.

August 16

This was the least active day of our vacation, but still not terrible. It started raining shortly after breakfast, but we were playing cards in the dining tent so we didn’t really pay much attention. Then the rain started getting heavier, so we threw the big tarp over the dining tent and kept going. Pretty soon the rain started running under the dining tent (there’s no floor) and pooling. It was also getting very loud with the rain hitting the tarp, so we decided to go inside the trailer where we had more room. This was a good decision, as the rain quickly became torrential. We played some cards inside and read for a while, as the rain continued to pound outside. It was the heaviest rain I can remember in years – every time you thought it couldn’t possibly rain any harder, it did. After lunch, Gail grabbed her laptop and the DVDs we brought from the van, and the boys finished off the Star Wars series with Return of the Jedi (they had watched episodes I through V on various days of driving) while we played cards and read. In the late afternoon the rain finally let up, and we drove down to the “trading post” down the road, which consisted of a small grocery store ($8.99 for a 12-pack of Diet Coke! Ouch) and a couple of fairly big country stores which sold everything from bumper stickers and fridge magnets to animal skins and huge wooden carvings. We spent maybe an hour walking around there and it rained on and off that whole time, but by the time we left, it had stopped. When we got back to the campground, we were thankful that John had had the presence of mind to cover the firewood with a tarp before the rain started, and we had a fire going in no time.

In the early evening, Gail and I took a romantic twilight stroll down to the garbage shack. This led to one of the more amusing things we saw at Pancake Bay. When camping in the north, storing garbage in your tent or trailer or even your car is dangerous because of bears. They can smell food miles away (and they are less particular about what they call “food” than we are), and when they smell it they’ll stop at nothing to get it. Bears have been known to rip doors off of cars because of half a chocolate bar in the glove compartment. So we laughed at the door to the garbage shack:

Bear proof

That teeny little chunk of wood they call a “lock” would keep a bear out? Or the flimsy chicken wire? Not a chance. But wait – there’s a sign on the door:

Please ensure you place all garbage in a garbage bag
Ensure the door is locked when you leave
Please, no scavenging
Thank you, Park staff

Now that the bears know that there’s no scavenging allowed, they’ll obviously go somewhere else.

August 17

I don’t remember if it was raining when we woke up, but if it wasn’t, it definitely did overnight. As a result, the tents and tarps and everything that was outside was very wet. After a quick breakfast, we packed almost everything into the van, and then stuffed the dining tent and the tarp covering it into garbage bags, with the intention of opening them up once we were home to let them dry off before packing them away. We drove with John and Jackie almost to the Sault, where they went east towards home while we continued south. After a stop at Tim Horton’s, we crossed the bridge to Sault Michigan and then waited in the customs line. The lines didn’t seem all that long, but it was the better part of an hour before we were through and into the good ol’ US of A. We drove over the very cool Mackinac Bridge, and then straight down through the middle of Michigan towards Flint, where we hung a left towards Port Huron. We stopped once for lunch (around Gaylord, I believe), and then again shortly before crossing the border again to fill up on (cheap American) gas. There was virtually no lineup at Port Huron, so after one of the quickest customs stops ever, we were in Sarnia and about 2½ hours later, we were home.

I had reset the trip odometer just before we pulled out for St. Catharine’s the previous Friday, so once we were back in the driveway I took a picture:

3608.1 km

I made a Google map of the trip which shows the driving we did. As you can see, the total was 3608 km, which is roughly equivalent to driving from Toronto to San Francisco, or from New York City to Las Vegas. The boys are really good travellers, at least when they have a DVD player, Nintendo DS’es, and iPods to keep them occupied. They did look up to see the awesome views whenever Gail and I gasped, and they didn’t complain once about our “no iPods or DS’es when not driving” rule. I did hear “how much longer?” a couple of times, but it was always in the vein of “Do we have time to finish this movie” or something similar, and never whiny. I can’t say that I did all the driving, since Gail drove around Manitouwadge a little. But that was probably less than 10 km total, so I can say I did almost all the driving. That is not a complaint at all since I love to drive, and our van (a 2010 Chrysler Town & Country) is very comfortable on long trips.

After adding up the camping costs, gas, restaurant and grocery store bills and such, I think this entire vacation cost us less than $1000, compared to the $7-10 thousand our France and UK trips cost. Of course, camping is very cheap compared to even the most inexpensive hotels, and gas (as expensive as it was up north – ~$1.40-$1.45/L compared to ~$1.28 at home) is way cheaper than four flights anywhere. Staying with family for four days really helped as well. We’re already thinking of a camping trip out east (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, PEI) next summer. That’s not to say we’ll never stay in a hotel or travel to Europe again; we’ve already decided that our next major overseas trip will be to Italy, though we have no idea if that will be in two years or fifteen.

Most importantly, we had a great time. In the first few days after we got home, all four of us commented on how much we enjoyed this trip. We went places we’d never been before, saw things we’d never seen before, and did things we’d never done before. The boys are old enough that they can be given a lot more freedom and independence than before, but young enough that they still sometimes see things in a way that only children can.

Once again, thanks to Rolly and Candyce for their hospitality during our stay, and to John and Jackie for not only being great travelling companions but roommates as well!

Northern Ontario vacation – Part 2: Manitouwadge

This is part 2 in the continuing saga of our 2012 family vacation to Northern Ontario. Part one: Ivanhoe Lake and Thunder Bay. Part two: Manitouwadge. Part three: Pancake Bay and then home.

August 12

Rolly's boatWe had a nice sleep-in before we got moving. Our plan was to spend the day sailing on Rolly’s 25-foot sailboat in Lake Manitouwadge, but it wasn’t in the water yet so that was our first project. Rolly had parked the boat at work (i.e. the OPP station), so we went there first and the boys and I had a little tour of the station. We saw the cells (and all the security measures around them), the boys were fingerprinted, and they even got to see the gun locker and hold the guns. When we were done with the tour, we hooked the boat trailer up to the truck and took it down to the launch. I’m not a boat guy (I enjoy boating in general but I know squat about sailing) so I wasn’t sure how much help I could be, but we managed to get everything set up and even had no trouble putting the mast up, which Rolly said could be challenging at times. Rolly backed the boat into the water (and let Ryan drive the truck a little after releasing the boat) and we were off to the races. The four of us sailed around the lake for an hour or two, and he had the boys help out whenever possible, hoisting the thing and raising that other thing and making sure the schmerbler was properly grommled, or whatever. When we started to get hungry, we looked over at the dock where we launched and found that Gail, Jackie, and Candyce had arrived with lunch. After a lovely lunch sitting on the dock, Gail joined us back out on the lake.

This was a sailboat with a small motor, not a “motorboat”, so the thought of water skiing or wakeboarding never occurred to me. And we didn’t… exactly… but the boys tried something similar. Rolly tied a long rope to the back of the boat and then Nicky jumped in the water and swam back until he grabbed the rope. Then when he was ready, Rolly gunned the motor and Nicky was dragged through the water.Nicky belly-skiing He had to turn onto his back now and again to breathe, but he had a blast. After a few minutes he got tired, and Ryan gave it a try. He also had fun, and impressed us all by sliding down the rope until he was all the way at the end and then pulling himself back in again, while the motor was going full speed.

After another visit to the dock to let Gail off, we sailed around the lake a little more and played some cards down below. When dinner time was approaching, we headed back to Rolly’s, leaving the boat in the water. After dinner, Rolly and Nicky headed back to the boat for a sleepover. Rolly had mentioned during the day that he and Candyce sleep on the boat when they go on sailing trips in Lake Superior, and Nicky thought that sleeping on the boat would be really cool. Ryan seemed less enthused, so it was just Nicky and Rolly. After we got Nicky set up with a change of clothes and his toothbrush (Rolly assured us that it would come back unused), the two intrepid sailors headed off. The rest of us played several games of cribbage, and then it was off to bed after a relaxing and yet tiring day.

August 13

After another sleep-in (sitting out in the sun all day really tires one out, even if one is not doing anything strenuous), we got up and ate, and then Candyce and I headed down to the dock to help Rolly with the boat and see how Nicky lasted the night. When we arrived, the boat was docked and Rolly was doing some cleanup while Nicky, still in his pyjamas, was inside watching a movie (Up) on a portable DVD player. He’d had a great time on the boat and had slept pretty well, though his toothbrush was indeed unused. He said that they got to the boat, packed everything on board, and then sailed to the middle of the lake where they dropped anchor. Then they played cards for a while, watched a movie, and went to bed.

View of ManitouwadgeWe backed the trailer into the water, got the boat secured on it, and pulled it out. Then we lowered the mast and secured all the stuff that needed securing before pulling it back to the OPP office. By this point it was lunch time so we went back to Rolly’s for lunch, and then Rolly, Candyce, Ryan, Nicky, and I went on a hike. There is a little trail from the back of Rolly’s house to a gravel road, and then a hiking trail from there up the hill behind the town. Most of the trail was through the woods, though there was a bit along the ski hills which were a little more open, but you still couldn’t really see much. Then suddenly, we got to the top of the hill and there was a beautiful view of the entire town. And I mean the entire town, it’s not that big.

Ready, aim...After we came back down, Rolly had another surprise for the boys – they were going to make slingshots. The three of them went looking for appropriate Y-shaped sticks, and then cut up an old bicycle inner tube and tied the strips onto the sticks. This worked surprisingly well, and after a bit of a lecture from boring old dad (“Remember, these are not toys, these are weapons. You never point them at any person or animal, blah blah blah”), they found some rocks and proceeded to blast an old plastic jug. I even had a go and found that they were pretty powerful and could get a rock up to a surprising speed, but aiming was harder than I thought. The boys played with their new toys practiced with their new weapons until dinner.

After dinner, the boys played cards inside while we chatted with Candyce’s daughter Charrly, her husband, and a couple of other friends of theirs who came to visit.

August 14

Rolly and Candyce are both avid scuba divers, and they thought it would be great for for all of us to give it a try. But Lake Manitouwadge is cold and murky. Lake Superior is an hour away and there are places that aren’t so murky so you can see stuff, but it’s cold as well, so neither is the ideal place to learn. There’s a lake at Wawa that’s warm and clear, and Rolly said that would be an ideal place to learn but that’s 2½ hours away. So we did the next best thing – Rolly rented the local pool. He’s got all the required gear (actually, he could outfit a whole scuba school if he wanted), so he brought that to the pool and we all gave it a try. He had one tank set up with a 25-foot hose, so it sat on the deck while we got in the water. The boys took to it right away – put the mask on, put the regulator in your mouth, grab the weight belt, and sit on the bottom for a few minutes. No problem. Gail and I…. not so much. We can both swim, but it just wasn’t for us. I managed to get underwater, and I could breathe just fine – I even took a few really deep breaths to convince myself that the regulator could give me as much air as I wanted – but I just wasn’t comfortable for some reason and I couldn’t stay under for more than about ten seconds without semi-panicking and coming back up. Gail was the same.

After trying with the tank on the deck for a while, Ryan wanted to go the whole nine yards and use his own tank. Rolly set him up, and off they went to the deep end. They were both under for ages, and when they returned Ryan kept saying how awesome it was. Nicky had the same success, as did Charrly’s kids (one about Ryan’s age, the other a couple of years older). Rolly had an underwater camera that took some pretty nice pictures; here’s our favourite:

Nicky the diver

Rolly had the pool for two hours, and despite the fact that it was pretty cold once you got out of the water and there looked to be rain clouds approaching, the swimmers stayed in the pool the whole time.

Everyone slept really well that night.

In our final installment, we leave Manitouwadge for Pancake Bay and then home.

Northern Ontario vacation – Part 1: Ivanhoe and Kakabeka

I have lived in Ontario almost all my life (43 years minus the four months I lived in Redmond, Washington), and the size and beauty of this province never fails to astound me. We don’t have mountains as high as the Rockies or white sand beaches or palm trees or cute little fishing villages on the ocean. But we do have hundreds of lakes and millions of hectares of forests, all built upon one massive rock known as the Canadian Shield. You can drive on a single road for 24 straight hours (Toronto all the way to the Manitoba border) and not even leave Ontario. And that route wouldn’t take you anywhere near Windsor or Ottawa and is more than 800 km from the northern tip of the province. It’s a big place.

For our summer vacation this year, we took a camping trip (with Gail’s dad John and stepmom Jackie) along the north shore of Lake Superior. We stayed at three different provincial parks and also visited family for several days. We tried scuba diving, dug for amethysts, visited an old fur trading fort, went sailing, made slingshots, and played lots and lots of cribbage. We had a great time and as I have done in the past with France and the UK, I’m going to write about it here – not because my millions thousands dozens several readers are dying to know what happened on our trip, but so that we can look at it again in a few years and remember.

This article was getting really long, so I broke it into three parts. Part one: Ivanhoe Lake and Thunder Bay. Part two: Manitouwadge. Part three: Pancake Bay and then home.

August 6

The trip started on Monday, August 6th with a rather inefficient trip to St. Catharines, which is 45 minutes directly away from where we wanted to go. Ryan has been playing house league soccer for many years and this year, he was asked to play with the rep team, which he was very excited about. Monday was his first game with them, and he really didn’t want to miss it so we packed up the van and drove to St. Catharines for a 7pm game. The team got smoked (something like 7-0, we lost count after a while), but Ryan really enjoyed the game. Afterwards, we headed back around Lake Ontario (passing within about 5 km of our house) and then north to Gail’s dad’s place in Sundridge, arriving there around 1:30am.

August 7

Driving day #1. After a quick sleep, we hit the road around 8:15am. We drove north through North Bay and Sudbury, with a stop in the little town of Gogama where Jackie’s sister has a trailer. After a brief visit, we continued north to the outskirts of Timmins before hanging a left down Highway 101 to Ivanhoe Lake Provincial Park, arriving in time for dinner. John and Jackie brought their trailer for the trip, and after setting it up and enjoying a short campfire, all six of us slept quite comfortably.

August 8

Ivanhoe LakeThe beach at Ivanhoe Lake the next morning might have been the quietest place I’ve ever been. There were lots of camp sites around us with trailers on them, but almost no people. I walked down to the beach by myself and just stood and listened – other than the occasional loon call or chipmunk chattering, there was no noise whatsoever. It was amazing. We spent the day walking around some nature trails, reading, playing cribbage, and generally relaxing. One of the nature trails featured a “quaking bog”, which is a bog that is so overgrown with weeds and grass that you can walk on it. Each step caused the ground around you to shake, giving the place its name. The forest was very wet and mossy, and the ground (even away from the bog) was very springy. It was like no other forest I’ve ever been in.

We had another campfire in the evening before heading to bed. I hit the hay somewhat early; we had driven over 500 km the previous day, but the next day’s drive was going to be even longer so I wanted to be well rested.

August 9

WawaGot up, had a quick breakfast, packed up, and hit the road by 8am. Our first stop was about an hour away in Chapleau, where we planned on visiting the rail museum. We arrived too early and didn’t want to wait for another hour until it opened, so we just kept going. We stopped in Wawa, another hour away, for lunch, gas, and the obligatory stop at the Big Goose. From there, we temporarily parted ways with our travelling companions, as John and Jackie drove to Manitouwadge while we continued west to Thunder Bay. Jackie’s son Rolly is an OPP officer in Manitouwadge and visiting Rolly and his wife Candyce was the main reason for our trip. But we had never been to Thunder Bay so we decided that since we were in the area (relatively speaking), we’d continue on for a couple of nights there before heading to Manitouwadge.

As we went further west, we got into some serious hills. I won’t call them “mountains” in case anyone who lives in the Rockies reads this and laughs but for an Ontarian, these were pretty big. The road went up and down and was winding all over the place. There were a number of places where you’d come over the crest of a hill and it looked like the road went straight down into the lake. I have to say that the part of the Trans-Canada Highway between Nipigon and Terrace Bay might be the most beautiful piece of highway I’ve ever been on, and that would include both the Sea to Sky highway from Vancouver to Whistler, and the 17-Mile Drive in California. Actually, trying to rank them is difficult because they’re all beautiful for different reasons, so let’s just say they’re all awesome.

We stopped for dinner at a truck stop in Nipigon. We were booked at Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park, which is west of Thunder Bay and we didn’t arrive there until around 8pm, at which point I heard a sound I hadn’t heard in days – my phone finally had a signal again, and I was able to check my email. Since we knew John and Jackie were taking the trailer to Manitouwadge with them, we brought our tent and in less than an hour, we were all set up. We bought some wood at the park but after an hour of fumbling with it we couldn’t get a fire going, so we abandoned it and went to bed.

August 10

The night was chilly (7° when we woke up), but we were all comfortable in our sleeping bags. After a quick breakfast, we headed back to Thunder Bay to visit the Fort William Historical Park, which we thought was an old military fort that had been refurbished and turned into a historical site. As it turned out, we were wrong on both counts. The park is a re-creation of the original Fort William, a trading fort (which was located elsewhere in Thunder Bay) where voyageurs would come to trade their furs. The fur trade is a defining part of Canadian history, and we all enjoyed learning more about this part of our heritage. We learned about how they built canoes, how it took six weeks to get there from Montreal, and about the different kinds of furs they traded (obviously beaver, but also squirrel (!), wolf, seal, bear, deer, lynx, and fox). Nicky and another kid got to be “the fire” during a fire engine demonstration (and was drenched for the rest of the day), and the boys and I even played a little lacrosse using old-time wooden sticks and a ball made out of deerskin filled with feathers.

The boys favourite activity was axe throwing. They had a huge log to aim at, and you stood about ten feet away and tried to bury the head of the axe in the wood. The training and safety instructions for this consisted of the guy giving you an axe and saying “Here ya go, now throw it.”. There were very few people there, so Nicky, Ryan, and I each had a couple of turns and Gail took one as well. Nicky loved it so much that the rest of the day he kept asking if we could go back and try it again, but it was a timed thing, so you couldn’t just go any time and throw. In the picture below, you can see the axe in the air just before it hit the log.

Ryan throwing the axeWe originally planned on spending about half a day at Fort William, but it was after 4:00 before we left. After the Fort, we drove into Thunder Bay to see if we could get a good view of the lake. We had been told that from just about anywhere in the city, you get a great view of the “Sleeping Giant”, and we were curious to find out what that meant. We stopped at a grocery store and picked up a pizza, then happened across Hillcrest Park. From here, we did indeed get a great view of the Sleeping Giant which is a huge rock formation across the bay that looks like a man sleeping on his back. We ate our pizza, took some pictures, walked around the nearby gardens, and hung out at the park for a while before heading back to Kakabeka.

Once again we tried to get a fire going and once again we had no luck. It was obvious that the wood was very wet – once it got hot enough (with almost constant fanning with our empty pizza-box lid) we could see dribbles of water and lots of steam coming out of the ends of the wood but we had to work almost constantly just to keep it alight. After going through about 10 chunks of firestarter (usually two is sufficient to get the fire going) and gradually reducing our fan size by tearing off strips of cardboard to burn, we finally decided to just leave it alone and let it burn itself out and head to bed. Of course, that’s when the fire caught. But we were tired by that point, so after another 15 minutes or so we doused the fire and went to bed anyway.

August 11

Kakabeka FallsAnother chilly morning at Kakabeka, but we had places to go and people to see so we got a move on. After a quick breakfast we packed up and drove out to see Kakabeka Falls, which were amazing. They’re not all that high, and the amount of water going over them doesn’t compare to Niagara, but there was something about them that fascinated me. I could have stared at them for hours. After I managed to tear myself away, we made our way back east, making at least four stops on our way to Manitouwadge (and saying goodbye once again to my phone signal until six days later in Sault Ste. Marie). The first was at the Terry Fox memorial, just east of Thunder Bay. This is near the spot where Terry was forced to end his Marathon of Hope after running halfway across Canada in 1981. After a short stop to pay our respects to a true Canadian hero, we continued on to our next adventure, an amethyst mine.

The mine site was about 10 km off the highway, and totally wasn’t what I expected. It’s an open-pit mine, and it’s built on a fault line so it just looked like a little mini-canyon about 50 feet wide. They occasionally use blasting but mostly it’s manual digging, with high-pressure water and pickaxes. It’s a family business so it’s not like there are hundreds of miners working there. They did say that their rate of digging is an amazingly slow two feet in twenty years, though with the amount of amethyst they’ve got for sale, that number seems low. Anyway, after a short tour of the mine, we were let loose in the “digging area”, which is a big area that they’ve seeded with (likely) dump trucks full of stuff they’ve dug up but haven’t gone through themselves. There are little chunks of amethyst everywhere, and you can take whatever you want for $3/pound. Most of the pieces there are pretty tiny, but there were some bigger ones here and there. The boys had a great time digging and while we likely bought too much, we did come away with some pretty nice pieces for the garden.

Our next stop was Eagle Canyon, home of Canada’s longest suspension bridge. There were actually two bridges across the canyon, one 300 feet long and 125 feet up and the other 600 feet long and 150 feet up. By comparison, the Capilano Suspension Bridge in Vancouver (which Gail and I visited in about 1996) is only 450 feet long but 230 feet high. We all walked across the first (shorter) bridge, but both Gail and I were a little more nervous than we were expecting. Neither of us is really afraid of heights, but it was a little more shaky and windy than we thought and I took a few pictures with one hand gripping my phone as tight as possible and the other gripping the bridge as tight as possible. I gradually became more comfortable out there, but Gail did not. She finished the first bridge and decided to take the nature trail down to the bottom of the canyon rather than come back across the longer bridge. The boys and I ventured on and it turned out that the second bridge wasn’t nearly as scary as the first one, though I have no idea why not since it was just as wobbly and just as windy. I even took some video from the middle of the bridge, which required me to let go of the bridge with both hands. Graeme the daredevil. Gail took a couple of pictures of us from the ground which gives you an idea of the scale. Here’s the entire bridge with us in the middle, each of us about a pixel high:Suspension Bridge

and here’s us after Gail zoomed in a little (yay telephoto lens!):

Suspension Bridge 2

After descending the steps down to the valley floor, we walked along a trail back to the parking lot and continued making our way towards Manitouwadge.

One thing that surprised us during this drive was the number of cyclists between Thunder Bay and Marathon. Considering the hilly road and the fact that towns were few and far between, we were pretty impressed with these people. Most of them were riding bikes equipped with numerous saddle bags that were, I would assume, filled with Rub A-535.

There are a number of scenic lookouts along this road and at one particularly nice one, we pulled off the road for a look. After we pulled off, a transport truck behind us pulled off as well. This was a particularly big place which was empty so there was lots of room for him to park his rig. The driver got out and approached us. I started to wonder if I’d cut him off or something without realizing it and he was coming to pound me into oblivion, but he smiled and just asked if we’d take his picture (with his rig). He said he loved the area but because he was always driving by himself, he could never get a picture taken with him in it. I took a couple of pictures and we chatted to him for a few minutes. We asked where he was going (just a short trip to Toronto and then New Jersey) and if he ever got bored with the scenery (never). He said he loved the north so much that if he got to Toronto and they told him he’d forgotten something in Nipigon, he’d just smile, turn around, and walk back to his truck. He said that his usual route is a triangle from Toronto to Vancouver to Los Angeles and back to Toronto – a circuit of about 10,000 km which he drives in nine days. We drove off a short while later and then stopped for gas about a half hour after that. He must have passed us while we got gas because I passed him again a short while later – and he remembered us and waved at us out the window.

Pebble BeachOur next stop was in Marathon, only an hour from Manitouwadge but we were starving so we stopped for dinner. We found a Pizza Hut and did the same thing as we had done in Thunder Bay – bought a pizza and found a nice park to sit and eat. In this case, Gail knew of a place called Pebble Beach but we didn’t know where it was. We asked the Pizza Hut guy (who, it turned out, was originally from Kitchener/Waterloo), who gave us directions to the parking lot. We parked at the top of a cliff overlooking the beach and enjoyed our dinner. Afterwards, we walked down to the beach itself. If that beach is made up of what Marathon people call “pebbles”, I’d love to see what they call “rocks”. You can see the pebbles (some of which were four or five inches wide) in this picture. This was definitely not a fine sand dig-your-toes-in kind of beach – flip flops would have been pretty dangerous and bare feet was painful. But the boys had a blast climbing over the hundreds of pieces of driftwood. We grabbed a few nice rocks and a piece of driftwood for the garden, and then went back to the van for the final leg of the day’s trip.

The drive north to Manitouwadge was uneventful, and an hour later we were at Rolly and Candyce’s place.

Our next installment is just like that Brad Pitt movie: Three Days in Manitouwadge.

Ten awesome things about Fern Resort

Our family travels with a couple of other families to Fern Resort for a week every August, and we’ve done this for the past 11 years. We love our week at Fern, not only because the food is great and there’s lots to do, but also because we’re all so familiar with the place so the kids have a lot more freedom there than they generally do.

Other than the obvious “someone else making meals for you”, “you don’t need to clean up”, “lots of fun things to do” which are true for Fern and many other resorts, here are ten awesome things unique to Fern, in no particular order:

1. Peanut butter pie

A creamy peanut-butter-flavoured pie with a chocolate crust and whipped cream and chocolate syrup on top. Nothing else to say but OM NOM NOM.

2. Mike Stewart

Mike has been the sports director at Fern forever. If you have ever been to Fern, you have met Mike. If you’ve been a few times, he likely knows your name. He runs tennis, volleyball, basketball, badminton, bocce, shuffleboard, all the trivia games, and more. He is also the MC and one of the performers for the Show Time! show (see below). He’s friendly, he’s outgoing, he’s helpful, he’s LOUD, he’s always smiling, and he don’t take no crap from nobody. He’s got a lot of good stories – ask him about the time he bought the Zamboni. Another good one is when a guest and her husband asked him to join them for… well, he may not tell you all of that one.

3. The Bad Boys line, the Irie line, the No Problem line, the Go Get a T-Shirt line, and the O Canada line

You haven’t played bingo until you’ve played bingo called by an frenetic Jamaican dude with big mirrored sunglasses. Crazy D is the bingo king of Fern. Bingo can be a pretty boring game but when Crazy D is calling it, it’s always fun. He’s got more energy than half the Playvillage and always gets people pumped and excited about N34 and G49.

4. Four-way beach volleyball

This is an absolute must for me every year – Monday at 1:30. Standard beach volleyball except that there are four courts arranged in a square with nets between them in a cross. You can serve and return the ball to any of the other courts. Always a fun game even when there’s eleven or twelve people per team, all playing at the same time.

5. Rolls and honey

Putting honey on fresh squishy rolls is definitely a Fern thing. Every year we buy a dozen rolls and some honey to bring home.

6. The kids programs

If this list was in order of importance, this might be #1. Kids from 0 to 17 have programs specifically for them run by counsellors who are fun and friendly and outgoing. For kids 0-6, we have the Playvillage. There’s a nursery for babies, an area for toddlers with swings and stuff, a big climbing structure, a ball pit, diggers, a track for motorized jeeps, a couple of trampolines, a water play area, a little amphitheatre for shows, and the “craft caboose”, where they make all kinds of crafts. They have snacks, go for walks around the resort, and take a tractor ride called the Honey Bee Express. I have to say it’s awfully cute seeing a bunch of 3-6 year olds on the Honey Bee waving to everyone and singing their “mighty mighty Playvillage” song. The best part is that the Playvillage is open from 6-7:30pm, which is (not coincidentally) during dinner, so you can feed your kids from 5:30-6:00, take them to Playvillage, then enjoy a nice relaxing kid-free dinner, knowing that your kids are being cared for and are having fun.

There are also Junior programs (7-9), Youths (10-12), and Teens (13-17). They do lots of sports and other activities, crafts (tie-dye T-shirts are very popular), practice skits or songs for Show Time, and sometimes just hang out and chill. This year the Juniors and Youths began programs during dinner times so parents of kids that are too old for Playvillage can have a quiet kid-free dinner as well.

7. Chocolate monkeys

Invented by Lou, who’s been a bartender at Fern for 29 years. Creme de Cacao, Creme de Banane, ice cream, half a banana, and chocolate syrup. Yummy. The kids can get a virgin one that’s just as good.

8. The guest video and Show Time

There’s a photographer / videographer walking around the resort all day every day. On Thursday night they show a video with lots of pictures and video of volleyball games, water skiing, dancing on the pool deck, kids playing at Playvillage, pedal carts, swimming, rock wall climbing, golf, tennis, and all of the other Fern activities. It’s fun to look for people in your group, and of course the kids love looking for pictures of themselves. After the video is Show Time, a lip-sync show hosted by Mike Stewart and performed by the staff including sports, Playvillage, and kitchen people, the odd manager, and even the owner’s kids. Some of them are well-choreographed dance numbers while others are comedy songs that have everyone in stitches. Either way, it’s a lot of fun and the talent of the staff is evident.

9. Mushball

Baseball with a mushy mini-soccer ball rather than an actual baseball so no gloves are needed. The staff play on one team, the guests on the other, and I’ve seen guest teams with 40 people. This makes for a long ad-hoc batting order that frequently changes between innings. Despite being vastly outnumbered and intentionally “blowing” plays involving small children (“Oh look, he dropped the ball, Ashley! Run to first, quick!”), the staff wins every week… or so they tell us. The game was a little different this year since they introduced paintball which happens at the same time, so all the teens were out doing that. The guest team this year consisted of about 5 adults and 20-30 kids under 12.

10. The Downings

With most resorts, the owner is an invisible corporation but Fern is a family business. The Downing family have owned and operated Fern for over 100 years, and the current generation running the place consists of Mark Downing and his sister Laura. Mark, Laura, and their respective spouses and daughters are frequently seen around the resort, and a couple of the girls are old enough now to work there. Mark is as friendly a guy as you’ll ever meet, and both he and Laura host (and tend bar at) a cocktail party on Thursday nights specifically for alumni (i.e. guests who have been to Fern several times) where the drinks and snacks are free. Mark’s father Robert is retired but you still seem him around the resort, driving his golf cart labelled “Robbie’s Rocket”.

Weekend in the Big Apple

On October 14, Gail and I celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary. We knew that we wouldn’t be going anywhere overseas this summer (after UK last year and France the year before), but we love to travel, so for our anniversary we decided to go to New York City. I had been there twice before, once in 1992 and once in about 1996. Both times were for work, and both times I flew down in the morning and back in the evening so I didn’t get to do much sightseeing. Gail and the boys had never been at all. We knew there would be lots to see and do, but it’s driving distance so the only travel costs were gas and time. Google Maps said it was between 7 and 8 hours, which turned out to be fairly accurate discounting gas/lunch/bathroom stops, construction, and traffic. I’m not going to go through each day and describe what we did. That would just take too long. I’ll just comment on stuff I feel like commenting on.

We stayed at the Affinia Manhattan at 31st and 7th, kitty-corner to Penn Station and Madison Square Garden. For a studio room, it was actually quite spacious and the beds were comfortable. The bathroom was tiny but for three days, it was fine. It was pretty expensive compared to hotels almost anywhere else, but for mid-town Manhattan it was pretty reasonable. We would have preferred a hotel further north (in between Times Square and Central Park would have been perfect) but the location wasn’t bad.

We visited the Sony Wonder Technology Lab on Friday. It was pretty cool – lots of hands-on stuff so the boys were happy. There was a timeline of technology showing the earliest cell phones, Walkmans (Walkmen?), radios, and stuff like that, even a Commodore PET computer, which is what I started programming on in high school lo these many years ago. (I’m not sure I used “lo” properly there, but whatever. I just hope this person doesn’t get a hold of my blog and rip it to shreds. But I digress. Oops, began a sentence with “But” there. Sorry, digressing again.) Anyway, the lab was cool and tickets were free, so it was a nice way to spend a couple of hours.

We drove instead of flying but I really had no interest in driving in Manhattan. I can be an aggressive driver if I have to, but Manhattan is just another story altogether. Every block would take forever, there are thousands of taxis driving wherever the hell they want (“lanes? We don’t need no stinking lanes!”), and pedestrians cross against the lights and in the middle of the block all over the place. No thanks. Not to mention that parking is about a million dollars an hour – and that’s US dollars! On the advice of a friend of Gail’s, we drove to Newark airport and parked in a long-term lot there. The parking lot had a shuttle that took us to the airport itself and then we took a New Jersey Transit subway directly to Penn Station. The parking turned out to be more expensive than we wanted ($12/day for 3 days comes to $64? WTF?) but by the time we were paying for it, we had a nine-hour drive ahead of us and we couldn’t be bothered arguing about it so we just paid and left. Other than that, the Newark airport solution worked quite well. The subway into Manhattan on Friday morning was pretty full but even with our suitcases it was pretty painless.

Times Square is unbelievable. Billboards on top of billboards, each five stories tall. Neon and flashing lights everywhere. Several large screens, one of which must have been hi-def since it was unbelievably clear, even from a hundred feet away. Normally it was pretty busy and kind of fun, but we happened to walk through around 9:00 on Saturday night, and there must have been several thousand people milling about. That night, it was a little scary to walk through with the kids, especially after seeing the homeless guy drinking Listerine and having some random guy come up and take a picture of Ryan. This was no picture of the crowd where Ryan happened to be at the front – he stopped, pointed his SLR camera directly at Ryan’s face from under ten feet away and snapped a picture. He didn’t say a word and then vanished into the crowd. To say that this was a little creepy would be the understatement of the century.

American stuff that used to be in Canada that we (that is to say I) miss: The Olive Garden. Snapple. Cherry Coke. Dear Coca-Cola Canada, three words: Cherry Coke Zero. KTHXBYE.

Drivers honk their horns a lot in New York. A lot. No, seriously, a lot. Most drivers in New York use their horns more often than their turn signals. I’m sure that New York is the only city in the world where it’s commonplace to take your car to the garage to have its horn replaced because it’s worn out. After witnessing the driving in New York for a few days, I’ve come to realize why. Here are some things a New York driver might say as he honks his horn:

  • I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t change lanes right in front of me, my friend!
  • Perhaps you haven’t yet noticed that the light turned from red to green at least ten milliseconds ago.
  • I am turning left/right soon (instead of signals)
  • I am moving into the lane to my left/right (instead of signals)
  • Pardon me sir, but might I trouble you to move a tad forward or back so that I may join you in that lane?
  • Hey! Get the fuck out my fucking way you fucking fuck! (This is the most popular reason)
  • The Yankees/Mets/Rangers/Islanders/Knicks/Giants/Jets/Titans won last night! Woo hoo!
  • The Yankees won the World Series last year! Woo hoo!
  • The Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1994! Woo hoo!
  • Look! When I press the middle of the steering wheel, it makes a noise! Cool!
  • I am a taxi driver
  • I am an ambulance / police car / fire truck driver – I was amazed at how few people moved over to let emergency vehicles through even with lights a-blazing and sirens a-wailing.

Funniest business sign: “Sienna the Psychic” above the address, and “Clairvoint” below. Using my own powers (from the spiritual and mystical world of logic), I can see that she does not get visited by a lot of teachers or English majors.

A few times on Friday night and Saturday we saw people dressed up as superheroes. We thought maybe these people were going to a costume party at a club or something, but then we saw a whole family dressed up – mom, dad, and two kids. Turns out that New York Comic-Con was on in the city that weekend. You know, because there weren’t enough weird people in New York City already.

Part of 5th Avenue was closed on Sunday for a parade celebrating “Hispanic day”. This, according to our tour bus driver, is a different parade than the one for Mexico. And the one for Cuba. And the Dominican Republic. And several for Puerto Rico. Those parades are for specific Hispanic countries – this one was for Hispanics in general. There are also parades for New Yorkers from Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Norway, India, Pakistan, China, and a bunch of other countries (though not Canada), as well as for Thanksgiving Day, Christmas, Columbus Day, Presidents Day, Veterans Day, and extras like the New York City Marathon and the gay pride parade. Apparently there are parades in New York City every week or two.

Just as we did in Paris and London (and Boston many years ago), we took a double-decker hop-on-hop-off bus tour. This one was from CitySightsNY and the package we got included the uptown tour, downtown tour, and Brooklyn tour (which we didn’t do) for 48 hours, and also included a night tour (which included some of Brooklyn) and even a boat tour down the Hudson River near the Statue of Liberty (the Statue isn’t terribly big, but damn is that thing impressive). The busses were fewer and further between than in London or Paris, but it only really caused us a problem once – there were a zillion people in line for stop #1, so we walked over to the last stop on the tour and got on there, and then just stayed on the bus when we reached stop #1. A little more walking, but we didn’t have to wait in line for an hour. The busses didn’t have prerecorded messages and headphones line the European ones, but there was a tour guide pointing out what we were seeing. They told stories and even some jokes – we heard the same New Jersey joke (“What’s the difference between New Jersey and a jar of yogurt? The yogurt has an active culture.”) from two different tour guides. The bus tours alone were worth the price, but we really enjoyed the boat tour and the night tour as well, other than the fact that photography at night from a moving bus doesn’t always result in the greatest pictures.

I thought that Tim Hortons was a Canadian thing – that there were locations all over Canada but not in the US at all, except maybe for some border towns (Niagara Falls NY, Buffalo, maybe Detroit, that sort of thing). There are at least twelve Tim Hortons in Manhattan (no I didn’t count them, there was a list), including one a block from our hotel. No steeped tea though.

We visited Ground Zero, though there really isn’t much to see since the place is a huge construction zone now. You can see the new tower that’s going up and a bunch of cranes above the fences but that’s it. There is a 9/11 Memorial Preview Site, which is a tiny little place around the corner from the building site. There are pictures, videos, and a timeline of events on that horrible day, as well as a 3D model of what the new WTC complex is going to look like. Considering the number of people in there when we were there, it was pretty quiet and very emotional. There were also videos, pictures, lots of NYPD and FDNY shirts and hats and stuff for sale. These were more expensive than at the souvenir shops around the city, but the money goes towards the 9/11 Memorial.

We went to Ellen’s Stardust Diner (warning: web site plays music with no STFU button) for dinner on Saturday. One waiter grabbed a microphone and the first thing he said was that all the waiters and waitresses wanted to quit. They’re all singers trying to make it on Broadway, so between taking orders and delivering food, they would sing show tunes – this is one of the staples of this restaurant. They even passed around a “collection bucket” for us to donate – the money goes towards singing, dancing, or acting lessons for each member of the wait staff. They were all good singers and it was very entertaining, but I’m not sure I can recommend eating there. The food wasn’t bad but quite expensive. Gail’s had a $16 Cobb salad and my Philly cheesesteak was good but had far more onions and peppers than meat. Ryan had $14 “macaroni and cheese” which turned out to be pasta shells with Velveeta. Ick. Have to say that Nicky’s burger was really good and the fries were excellent. This was by far the most expensive meal we had in New York. But that wasn’t the worst part. We ate downstairs, which turns from a restaurant into a jazz club around 7:30. We didn’t know this when we arrived for dinner around 6:30. Partway into our meal, we noticed that most of the tables near us were empty and nobody was coming in anymore. Waiters began covering up the diner-type decor by closing curtains and putting tablecloths and candles on the empty tables. At another table nearby, more staff started pulling out papers and envelopes and stuff – looked like they were counting up the day’s income. Pretty soon there were only two occupied tables in the whole place. We asked our waitress if they were closing soon, and she told us about the jazz club metamorphosis, but that there was no rush, we could stay as long as we wanted. With a $90-something bill for dinner we weren’t likely to have ordered dessert anyway, but we felt rushed despite her reassurance so we quickly finished and left.

One thing that was a little disappointing was the amount of scaffolding everywhere. I couldn’t begin to count the number of buildings that had scaffolding around them, including the American Museum of Natural History and the immense New York Public Library. There were some pretty impressive old buildings in New York, and obviously they’re going to need maintenance now and again, but it’s too bad we couldn’t see a lot of them because of the scaffolding.

We had a great mini-vacation. By the time we arrived home, we had driven 1501 km, travelled on several busses around Manhattan and Brooklyn, a subway from Newark airport to Penn Station and back, a tram around Newark airport, and a boat down the Hudson River. And my pedometer registered almost 44 km (72012 steps, 27 miles) of walking on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. We walked a marathon in three days.

You have won second prize in a beauty contest! Collect $1

Last week was our annual trip to Fern Resort, and this is my annual blog entry about it. Here is last year’s entry. The unusual title of this article (rather than “Fern 2010”) may make it harder to find, but its meaning will become clear later on. As usual, we went with our friends the Wadsworths, Wildeys, and Marshalls, and everyone had a great time. We’re not exactly “set in our ways” quite yet, but there are a number of traditions that we have started to follow at Fern:

  • we always meet up with the Wadsworths for lunch at Harvey’s on the 400 at the Cookstown Outlet Mall on our way to Fern, and we always eat at Arby’s in Orillia on the way home.
  • Jeff and I (and usually Jerry) have a Caesar at dinner most nights.
  • We always have two tables in the dining room, and we put the kids at one table and the adults at another.
  • Gail and Kerri always get pedicures at the spa, though I think they’re reconsidering that for next year.
  • Jeff and I head over to Mary Lou’s at least one night during the week after the kids are in bed (my kids, anyway – his stay up later but sleep in) to play pool and enjoy a couple of Alexander Keith’s.
  • We always go to see Jamie Williams when he plays. He puts on a fantastic show.
  • The boys love to play bingo so we end up playing at least once every day. This year I won twice, Gail and Ryan each won once, and Nicky was very disappointed that he didn’t win at all.

One of my goals for this week, given my recent health issues, was to be able to participate in the activities I wanted to without having to tell anyone about said issues. I didn’t want to go to the beach volleyball or tennis court and have to leave after five minutes because I couldn’t play. With one exception, I was able to do that. I played beach volleyball, water volleyball, tennis a couple of times, golf, “mushball”, rode the pedal carts around the forest trails, and swam with Ryan for a little while. The one exception was the climbing wall. Before I started I told the people running it that I had had surgery a few months ago and wasn’t sure how strong I was. I managed to make it about 1/3 of the way to the top before I lost confidence in my strength and decided to come back down. Nicky made it to about the same place as me, and Ryan zipped to the top. Both the boys tried (and completed) the “vertical playground”, a climbing obstacle course with rope ladders and tires and stuff. I didn’t try that one.

On Tuesday night, they had a new thing called Retro Night, which was quite innovative. They went through the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s and played music from each decade. There were group participation events and the winners got special Retro Night money, similar to Canadian Tire money. There were four denominations, each with pictures of a different “icon”: $1 (Darth Vader), 75c (Madonna), 50c (Jimi Hendrix), and 25c (Elvis). With the money, you could play various games where you could win more money, or you could buy candy, snacks, or root beer floats (yum – I had two). They had various dance events including the twist and the macarena and all participants got $1. They had a hula hoop event, where anyone who wanted to could try a hula hoop for 30 seconds, and they’d give you $1 just for trying. There were trivia questions and the first person to shout out the answer won $1. There were games like Twister, bean bag toss, and knocking down milk bottles, and you could win money that way too. It was a very neat idea, and lots of fun for everybody.

One of the highlights of the evening, for everyone else anyway, was the a particular contest. The host said that they were looking for three dads to volunteer for a contest, without saying the name of the contest or what it was about. Gail said that it looked like a trivia contest and that I should definitely get up there so I volunteered. Bad move. He announced the name of the contest – they were looking for Mr. Fern 2010, and at that point I wished I’d had a couple more Caesars at dinner. (Jeff came up to me after it was all over and asked “Did you learn anything from all this?” I answered “Yes – don’t put your hand up when they ask for volunteers”.) We had three tasks to perform and audience applause at the end would decide the winner. The first was a disco dance contest. I went second, and waved over to Ryan and Nicky to join me. Nicky declined but thank god Ryan came up and danced with me or I would have… um… looked silly. Never mind.

The second event was something I’d never seen before. We had to take a mouthful of water then tip our heads back and sing the chorus of Rock ‘n Roll All Nite by Kiss. The first guy mainly spit the water all over himself and made some random sounds. I got the hang of it after a few seconds but kept choking on the water. The third guy nailed it – you could understand the words and everything. The third event was an air guitar contest. The first guy did pretty well, then as I took the stage, Gail mimed smashing the guitar a la Pete Townshend, so I did some standard air guitar, played it with my teeth and behind my head, then started smashing it on the floor to great applause. At the end, the crowd voted with their applause and thanks to my friends and family yelling as loud as they could for me, I came in second. The guy that won definitely deserved it though – he did really well at all three events. But for all that public humiliation, I was awarded one Retro Night dollar. Nicky did the macarena in the middle a huge crowd of other people doing the macarena, and he also earned one Retro Night dollar. One of us got seriously ripped off.