Across Canada in 2022

A big road trip, from Vancouver to St. John's and back

It had been over twenty years since I last took a decent holiday, and thirty-five years since I last drove across much of Canada. In 2022, I had the opportunity to change that. This time, I wouldn't settle for crossing most of Canada. I'd go all the way.

My vehicle for this trip was a 2019 Honda CR-V. I'd bought it in 2021, when I found myself driving back and forth across the province nine times on family business. I kept it with this specific adventure in mind, although it is also fun to drive generally. It performed quite well, handling all the rough roads easily and averaging 6.3 L/100km gas mileage.

I was ready to make the trip in 2021, but COVID-19 restrictions prevented it for most of the year. Then winter came along. By May 2022, travel restrictions were gone and the roads were clear; it was time to go. I loaded the car with supplies, gear and old clothes. My plan, inasmuch as I had one, was to camp in the back of the car with occasional hotel stops. Some people rig the backs of their CR-Vs to make more proper campers, but I managed fine with just a foam mattress and a sleeping bag.

Across the prairies

Seaton Lake, BC

I departed heading north rather than east, mostly for practical reasons. Construction at Golden had closed highway 1 that month, part of a years-long effort to expand Canada's main road. Also, having driven over it and highway 3 (the usual alternative) dozens of times, I just didn't want to do them again. I wanted to stick to back roads where possible, so I left on highway 99.

A loud chorus of seals saw me off at Porteau Cove, just before the road turned inland. The scenery changes dramatically and quickly following this path. The rain forest around Vancouver gives way to arid hillsides near Lillooet. Highway 99 becomes highway 5, which wends northward into drier mountains and forest.

Pipeline construction stretched all along this last leg, from Kamloops to Valemount. This Trans-Mountain project had been a major controversy, in the news for years and costing billions of dollars. When you actually saw the scale of the work, it was easier to picture where all that money went.

North of Valemount, out of the construction zone, the scenery improved dramatically. I grew up in Alberta and had visited Jasper briefly in the past, but enjoyed touring it in more depth. Unluckily, there wasn't a lot I could see then. Much was closed due to the time of year or remaining COVID-19 restrictions. (I ran into the same sort of closures everywhere on this trip; Jasper was just the first instance.) Much of what was open in the park required hiking, but I was geared up for a road trip. The most interesting accessible sight proved to be the visiting herds of bighorn sheep.

The Drumheller Badlands, AB

I continued on from Jasper to Banff, rushing south a bit since the Icefields Parkway closed in mid-afternoon. From that point on, I travelled familiar roads — almost home, even. I had seen all of it many times, though, and had no wish to stop again then. The badlands around Drumheller interested me more, as did the many range roads and minor highways in that area.

I crossed into Saskatchewan on a gravel road in the middle of nowhere. Then I swung south to Rouleau, along various other back roads. I wanted to see where they'd filmed "Corner Gas." Little remained from shooting, but the Dog River Hotel was still there on Rouleau's main street.

I rejoined the Trans-Canada highway just outside Regina, heading eastwards towards Winnipeg. This part of the prairie is notoriously flat, inspiring many a joke. The grass sea is an interesting geographic phenomenon, but requires little description. By the end of the day, my car had a thick coating of bugs and road dust and I'd seen endless lookalike fields.

The terrain changed gradually as I drove east towards Winnipeg, from the driest grassland to bushy scrub. Extreme rainfall had hit much of Manitoba just days before, and so many flooded fields surrounded Winnipeg that it looked to be afloat. This didn't make a stop tempting, even when I hit the light forest of Whiteshell. I pushed on, exiting the prairies to Kenora.

Through Lake Country to Labrador

Crossing a historic divide in western Ontario

A lack of alternative roads forced me to take the Trans-Canada across into Ontario, but as soon as I could I left it again. From Kenora I skirted the Lake Of The Woods to the south, passing through Fort Frances then up to Thunder Bay. Much was closed there, too, and Thunder Bay — although convenient — is not the most scenic of towns. I took care of business and hit the road again.

Continuing east, I stuck close to Lake Superior and Ontario, all the way around to Sault Ste. Marie then down to Niagara Falls. The lake ice hadn't completely disappeared, but the roads were all bare and clear. The towns and cities in this part of the country have been there a very long time, yet it still felt much like wilderness. Animal encounters were common. While sleeping in my car one night at Sault Ste Marie, I was awakened by shaking. Looking up, I saw the distinctive outline of a bear peering in my side window. I wasn't entirely convinced it wasn't a dream, until I saw its muddy paw prints on the door handle in the morning.

Although the highway through Sault Ste Marie isn't busy, I still wanted to travel even smaller roads. So, I turned south off the main road again to visit Manitoulin Island. The sights and business there were mostly closed, so I didn't stay. The island landscape proved nothing like what I'd expected; prairie rather than forest. I did enjoy the drive through. The rare sight of turtles crossing the road made it worthwhile all by itself. The ferry trip onwards to Owen Sound also proved pleasant, and allowed me to stay off the most-beaten path.

Highway six south from Owen sound rolled straight through farm country, richer and greener than that in most places out west but not fundamentally different. As I got farther south, it grew steadily busier and more urban. Because of the very long days at this time of year, I was able to make it all the way south in one morning.

There was really only one thing I wanted to see in southern Ontario: Niagara Falls. As well as the falls itself, the town figured into family history in a minor way. The first Canadian in the family, one Francis Willock, came over from Scotland to fight in the War of 1812 and was injured at Lundy's Lane. I was curious to see the place, at least. These days, the town and the Lane are gaudy overdeveloped tourist country. The Falls themselves remain one of the continent's great attractions, and I felt glad I'd diverted all the way to see them.

Niagara Falls, ON

It's difficult to avoid Toronto on the drive from Niagara to Quebec, even on back roads, so I didn't try. This was probably a mistake, costing me hours in traffic jams, but I eventually escaped and continued east again on highway 401. I arrived at the campground I'd aimed for, to find they closed early and had no night registration. So, I drove on and I spent my first night "camping" at a rest stop. This was probably the best thing to do in any case, although that particular stop didn't have the showers some do.

Leaving the main highway again, I headed off into the farmland of SE Ontario, angling roughly up to cross the border somewhere east of Ottawa. The winding village roads of southern Quebec reminded me a little of France, but more industrial and dusty. This was not the easiest area to drive through, but it did let me avoid Montreal. By the end of that day, I reached the relative quiet of riverside highway 132 into Quebec City — and much preferred it.

East of Quebec, I planned to make a big loop through the maritime provinces, and I could begin by driving that loop in either direction. I opted to head for Labrador first, following highway 138 to Baie-Comeau. This road up the shore turned out to be a beautiful coastal drive, over scenic hillsides. Unfortunately, I mishandled my dashcam storage so took no video of it.

From Baie-Comeau I turned north up highway 389, to connect to the trans-Labrador highway. This was the kind of country I really enjoyed, long stretches of road through scenic near-wilderness. I passed small company towns and the giant Manic-Cinq hydroelectric dam. Little other traffic went over that road; a few big trucks, plus utility vehicles and the occasional other private car. Near Fermont the highway became a rough track through one rocky outcropping after another. Although it has a poor reputation for safety, I enjoyed this stretch, feeling a bit like a rally driver.

Forteau, Labrador

Labrador City, despite its name, is a small town. It did have a good hotel and conveniences, which I appreciated as the freezing night-time temperatures didn't encourage camping. The rest of the Labrador highway went smoothly enough, through Churchill Falls and Happy Valley / Goose Bay. One reason I'd chosen to drive this leg first was to lessen the suffering from Labrador's notorious bugs. In the event, I saw none at all — and little other wildlife, either. Spring or not, that country was still quite frozen.

By that time almost all the Trans-Labrador Highway had been paved, removing some of the adventurous feeling it once had. Nearing the coast, the sub=arctic terrain started to look more like actual arctic, with snow covering the hillsides and ice jamming the harbours. The road doesn't actually run that far north; we can blame the cold Atlantic winds for these temperatures. Even in the Strait of Belle Isle, parka weather prevailed.

I spent my last night in Labrador in Forteau, where I discovered the highly recommended Florian Hotel. The coast towns briefly tempted me to stay a day or two longer, but — again — much was closed, and hiking long distances off the road not an attractive option. I took the ferry across to Newfoundland.

The Maritimes

A red beach on the north shore of PEI

I'd toured western Newfoundland twice before, so didn't linger. Much as I loved the scenery, it mostly sufficed to see it from the road this time. Nevertheless, I did venture down side roads in search of vistas and icebergs, with modest success.

This stretch of the trip turned up my luckiest wildlife encounter. While driving south near St Barbé, I passed a white moose by the side of the road! I knew they were rare, but at the time didn't appreciate just how rare. I'd pictured them being about one in a thousand, whereas their scarcity is apparently more about one in a hundred thousand. Thus, I didn't stop to snap pictures. I probably should have, but then the moose likely would have run off if I had. I did manage to capture it briefly on the dashcam. You can see it in the accompanying video, at about the timestamp 13:05:48.

Gros Morne remained the most scenic part of the island, but — predictably — much was closed. I headed east towards the Avalon Peninsula and St. John's, which I had not seen on past trips. This part of Newfoundland feels much milder climate than the north, with an abundance of picturesque fishing villages. I spent a long weekend touring the area and visited the easternmost point of the continent. Then I turned west again, driving straight through to Port aux Basques in a single day. The next day I took the ferry onward.

I began in Nova Scotia by making a circle tour of the Cape Breton Highlands, then left Cape Breton island in the general direction of Halifax. The city itself wasn't my goal, but I did see Peggy's Cove nearby. From there I wandered around the south a bit, to Lunenberg and Scots Bay and finally north again to Pictou. The forested scenery reminded me somewhat of BC, only less mountainous and more crowded. The town of Pictou and nearby Harbour Light campground both stood out for their exceptional friendliness.

A covered bridge in Fundy National Park, NB

Prince Edward Island, like Manitoulin Island, proved radically different from what I'd expected. It immediately stood out as being much greener and richer, with an abundance of forest. PEI was more what I'd expected Manitoulin to be like, and vice-versa. It was just as small as I'd pictured, though, so two days sufficed to tour the small towns of the island by road. I skipped Charlottetown, as I did most big cities. The red beaches and foggy landscape near Stanhope will probably be the image I most remember from the island.

New Brunswick resembled a less dramatic version of Nova Scotia. After entering on the Confederation Bridge, I headed down to Fundy National Park. I found the park itself small, nice to camp at but not that captivating. The new coastal parkway running west from there made it a more worthwhile stop. From there I moved on to Kouchibouguac National Park. This had a good campground and a beautiful beach, which together made up for it being essentially a mosquito preserve.

Leaving New Brunswick, I headed on to the Gaspé peninsula. I'd had no particular expectations of Gaspésie but it turned out to be possibly the most scenic part of my whole trip. The drive around the peninsula took much longer than one might guess, up the south shore to Percé and Forillon National Park, then around to Ste Anne des Monts. The winding and hilly seaside roads provide one beautiful view after another.

Through the Canadian Shield

Percé, Gaspésie, QC

Turning westward again, I began the long drive home without a clear idea what exact route I wanted to take. I did know I wanted to drive the northern roads as much as possible, but that left many variables. The first one I encountered was deciding where to cross the St. Lawrence. There are numerous ferries, none of which exactly fit my schedule. I finally drove all the way back to Quebec, then turned north from there towards Saguenay.

Saguenay turned out to be rich farm country, much more developed than I was expecting. I drove on, up highway 167 to Chibougaumau, and arrived at sunset. Chibougaumau looked an interesting town yet, somehow, even after that very long day of driving I wanted to keep going into the night. So I did just that. Continuing down highway 113, I finally paused for a few hours sleep at a rest stop near a small town, surrounded by trucks. The next morning I had to wait for a gas station to open before I could press on. When I did, a short drive took me westward through Val d'Or and Rouyn-Noranda and on into Ontario.

Bighorn sheep crossing the road west of Rocky Mountain House, AB

I veered south to make a loop through North Bay and Sudbury, then north again through Timmins before heading west on highway 11. The drive by Lake Timiskaming went pleasantly enough but the rocky bush terrain had become routine by this point, and nothing much happened to make that stretch of road noteworthy. I returned to Thunder Bay, then took the trans-Canada directly back to Kenora this time.

Along the way to Kenora, I discovered that some of the side roads were closed due to flooding. This concerned me, with my plans to take back roads north through Manitoba. Still, road reports were positive, so I drove through Gimli up to the Pas and Flin-Flon. Much of the province is occupied by huge lakes: Winnipeg, Manitoba and Winnipegosis. Much of the rest was still flooded, and I did have to detour a few times, but managed well enough.

Leaving Flin-Flon, highway 106 through northern Saskatchewan gave me one last long stretch of near-wilderness. Then I hit the prairie roads again, steaming fairly directly west all the way through Edmonton. A turn south took me down to Rocky Mountain House. Another back road took me to the Icefield Parkway again, a month after I'd first passed that way. This time I stopped to see the Athabasca Glacier, among other sights. From there, every road I could take led somewhere I'd already been so I finished that day by driving all the way home.

Closing Thoughts

One of many moose; this in Forillon National Park, QC

The total distance of this trip was just over 23,000 km. Along the way, I took the car in for one complete service and a further oil change.

Before this trip, I hadn't realized just how much of Canada is covered in beaver dams. We don't often see them in the parts of the country where I've lived, but they're everywhere on most of those northern roads. I didn't see any actual beavers anywhere, but did hear them making their tail-flapping warning sounds once (in Ontario).

Canada does have other wildlife too, of course. The specific animal encounters I mentioned above were just the tip of the iceberg. I crossed paths with many bears, ravens, moose, deer, antelope, foxes, and other critters.

The other unmissable feature of the landscape was the large amount of destruction. Fire, floods, drought, storms and other cumulative disasters had taken a visible toll. Western Canada looked to be suffering most, but Ontario was hit by massive storm damage about this time, as well.