You’d think that travel in your own country would be easy, even mundane. That there would be few surprises, unknowns, or misconceptions.
I’m here today to tell you that that was my first misconception. In the three weeks that Bruno and I have been on the road in Canada, I’ve experienced just as many revelations as if I were traveling in the deepest depths of Africa.
My first revelation happened six hours after our departure from my family home in New Brunswick. Bruno and I had driven along New Brunswick’s coastline and experienced how it was truly the province of water – its inlets, seaside, marshes, and rivers gave a holiday-feel to the quaint Acadian villages. We were in the cottage country I knew so well.
But then, we turned inland, and immediately the dense evergreen forests of northern New Brunswick crowded our view from Totoyaya’s window. A few hours before dark, we found a dirt track that led to a small opening in the forest, just off the highway. There were wild blueberries for the picking and more types of wild mushrooms than I’ve ever seen. We wandered through the forest down to the nearby creek to wash in its cool clear waters. We were having a grand old time.
And then I stopped. I listened to a sound in the nearby brush. And I pictured a wolf or bear or – more likely – a moose behind the bush, ready to pounce on us and eat us up for dinner.
“Bruno, what do we do if we run into a bear here?” I asked, concerned.
“Make yourself big and back away slowly, I think.”
“And, what if it’s a wolf?”
“Back away slowly… I think.”
“And… what if it’s a moose?”
The revelation came them. We were not only traveling in a new country but on a brand new continent with a totally new set of flora and fauna and therefore a totally new set of rules. I didn’t know anything about the animals of North America – even though they were “my own” fauna. I couldn’t recognize their scat or footprints. I didn’t know their territory. And, more eye-opening, I didn’t know how to react if I encountered them in the wild.
There was a lot to learn on the road in Canada.
After a quiet but near-freezing early September night in the forest, we continued driving toward the province of Quebec. We passed highway signs displaying images of snow-mobile and four-wheeler lanes and moose crossings. In the towns, we saw snow-ploughs parked in driveways and more signs for garage sales than I ever thought possible.
“Why are so many people selling their garages?” Bruno asked me in French.
And revelation two hit me. These things – these moose-signs and four-wheeler signs, these snow-ploughs and garage sales – were not universally normal things, they were Canadian things. Once again, Bruno was showing me the Canadian culture that was all around me and that I’d always taken for granted.
Though I’ve camped in forty-odd countries around the world, I’d never before camped at an official campsite in Canada. Just before the Quebec border, along a charming little lake in the hills, we stopped to inquire at our first Canadian campsite. Seeing us arrive in our little Toyota, the manager stepped outside and beckoned us to follow him. We walked past motorhome after giant motorhome, greeting the retirees watering their plants and barbecuing hamburgers and corn on the cob under the shade of their giant gazebos.
The manager stopped in front of a large trailer.
“This is my trailer, but I hardly ever stay in it. You’re welcome to stay here, or in one of our cabins, for the night.”
Bruno and I stared at one another, perplexed. We had a place to stay, we explained to the man, in our Toyota camper van.
“I didn’t think you could sleep in there,” the manager replied. “It’s so tiny!”
It occurred to me, in that moment, that camping in Canada – or indeed, in all of North America – would be an entirely different experience than camping anywhere else in the world. With their giant motorhomes with water, electric, and sewage hook-ups, not only would we be looked at with a mix of indulgence and pity, but we would be forced to pay for services that our vehicle was not even designed for. Revelation three was upon me.
Indeed, camping at a campsite in Canada has proven to be more expensive than in any other country Bruno has ever camped in – and there have been over 130 of them! Were we to camp every night of the month here, we would have to spend more than the rent on a sizeable apartment, utilities included! To my utter shock and shame, camping in my own country’s campsites was going to be out of our reach.
For now, I suppose that was fine. After five months of daily hot reliable showers, I felt ok about bathing in creeks, with a bucket of cold water or a few wet wipes. It was just the rules of bush camping – called boondocking, dry camping, or dispersed camping in North America – that Bruno and I needed to learn.
We arrived in Quebec with no idea about any of this. After checking out yet another prohibitive campsite – where we were scolded for parking on the grass outside the campsite entrance because it belonged to a neighbour – we began searching for a discreet place to park for the night. We found a dirt track that led up a forested hill, so we decided to explore on foot. We hadn’t walked fifty meters before a lady was calling out to us from below. It turned out we were on her property and she’d seen us from her security cameras. Once she saw we weren’t hunters or thieves, she calmly explained that most of these forest tracks cut through private lands, and that, even if there were no signs or barriers, trespassing on these lands was illegal.
Well, I guess we’d learned one rule of boondocking. There seemed to be a lot of rules in Canada (which would have been another revelation except I’d experienced this reality every time I’d returned to Canada from abroad for the past decade).
As we drove on, past a halte municipale (a municipal rest stop), we wondered if there were rules against camping there. Again, we got out on foot to explore. We found a quiet, hidden spot behind some trees that looked almost like a certifiable campsite, and even a few ashes from old fires. It was getting late, there were toilets nearby, and we were tired and cold, so we decided to stay. At least we would learn one way or another whether camping in municipal rest areas was allowed in Quebec.
We managed a cold but quiet overnight stay, and set out again the next morning. The forests turned into lakes and then down into a fertile river valley and the mighty Fleuve du St-Laurent was upon us. This fleuve would guide our path all the way to Montreal and beyond.
But first, we stopped in the highly-recommended Kamouraska for a bit of tourism. The town had a cozy holiday-feel with stunningly restored century homes and cottages. The colourful flourishes and attention to detail gave the village an old charm reminiscent of its days as Canada’s number one holiday getaway for European settlers.
After wandering around the town admiring the views of the water, the marshlands, the birds, and the homes, we settled for the night a few kilometers outside of town at a public beach along the St-Laurent. We’d spotted a few camper vans at the end of this country road when driving into town that morning and popped by to enquire as to camping regulations in the area. We learned we could camp overnight here without any problems, and that evening we saw that we were far from the only ones to have this idea on a beautiful late summer long weekend. We witnessed a deeply relaxing sunset over North America’s most historically important waterway and I felt, for the first time, that Bruno and I were back to our normal nomadic life.
The following day we followed the St-Laurent toward Quebec City. Massive plots of farmland lay along the river’s edge, as roadside stands sold their fruit and vegetables and local cheeses. There were you-pick signs for blueberries, strawberries, and apples (now at the height of their season), and bars laitiers (“dairy bars”) offering varieties of ice cream and milkshakes. All along the way, the Fleuve du St-Laurent scintillated in the sun, its rugged green islands calling to mind the First Nations people that had lived off the land and water here.
We arrived in Quebec City, the provincial capital and a city I’d never visited before. I gathered reading material to plan my impending visit. In all the literature, Quebec City was referred to as la capital nationale, or the national capital. I’d spent little time in the province of Quebec, and knew only from a distance of its French nationalism and desire for independence. To see Quebec City referred to as the capital of the nation of Quebec was yet another revelation of how alive and engrained is the separatist movement in Quebec.
Bruno and I spent an afternoon wandering the streets of Vieux Québec, the historical part of the city. As one of the oldest cities in North America, history seemed alive around each corner. Even more interesting was the clear European influence around the entire historical district. The narrow cobblestones lanes, the Victorian architecture, the café culture. References to Paris and France were everywhere. When Bruno and I stumbled upon Le Café de Paris, it all came together for me. The Québécois seem profoundly proud of their French heritage, to a degree I’ve never seen by a formerly colonized people.
We’d experienced this French pride all week, as we were accosted multiple times each day by locals drawn to our French license plates or Le Petit Prince sayings inscribed on the side of our vehicle. (We’d received so much attention and I’d been asked so many times if I were French that I was seriously considering adding a Canadian flag sticker onto the bumper of our vehicle!) The Québécois affinity for the French makes sense – they’ve long been an independent nation, they’re surrounded by Anglophones, and their people are ethnically European themselves – but I’d never truly grasped this francophilia until traveling through this unique Canadian province.
I was born and raised in Canada. Though I have spent little of my adult life in my home nation, I assumed travel here would be less eye-opening, less illuminating, less educational.
Instead, traveling in Canada has been just as – and perhaps more – revealing than travel abroad. With my traveler eyes set on myself and my own culture, these last few weeks have been a thoroughly unique travel experience.
I can’t wait to see what else traveling through my home country with illuminate for me.