Usually when I plan my road trips, there’s always a fallback when the weather gets inclement: book a hotel room, enjoy TV, try to empty the hot water, and stay cozy.  This year with the risk of Covid and the chances of less-than-thorough cleaning in hotels, I decided that we were going to be as self-sufficient as we possibly could be and minimize our contact with humans even more than usual.  I mean, I go on vacation to stay away from people but this year we were doing that even more.  How much more can you self-isolate than bringing your own shelter anyway?

So what did I do differently for this trip?  I packed even more blankets than usual and picked the thickest and warmest for the dogs.  I had even found a couple of fleece sleeping bag liners that they could sleep in hoping that they wouldn’t feel the need to climb into my bag (I'm looking at you Leo).  I packed Leo’s winter coat because he has such a thin coat of his own he would need help to stay warm.  

As far as food, I was not going to stop and dine out everywhere but brought some food that could handle not being refrigerated constantly such as eggs, cheddar cheese, potatoes, onions, and garlic as well as my usual tub of dried foods.  I also swapped out my usual cooking oil of coconut oil with some jars of clarified butter.  I kept the cheese and eggs in my little plug-in cooler and on nights when the temperature dropped, I would open the lid and let nature work it’s course.  I also packed my cast iron skillet to cook over a fire rather than relying solely on my little backpacking stove.  

Since this trip was going to be more self-sufficient, I’ll be mentioning more of the gear that we used with links to purchase them if you want.

As this was also the first time in a long time that I have had a pack of healthy dogs, we were going to slow our pace down and hike all the trails we could.  This meant that we likely weren’t going to make it to the coast but that was fine by me.

I started packing the car the night before we left.  King knew exactly what was going on and was a total pest, trying to bolt outside every time I opened the door.  I changed how I packed some gear and even though I had more things, I seemed to have more space.  Maybe I’m finally getting efficient.  It’s taken me long enough to finally get the hang of it.

Of course The Standard Road Trip Rules would apply. The road trip bottle was Yvan Cournoyer Alumni Whiskey series.  Of course it was a one-time release that turned out to be outstanding and I haven’t seen it before or since.  Never fails. 

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Day 1 - Thursday September 3, 2020

I woke up before my alarm but I had a very slow and very lazy morning.  Since our first stop was not too far away and I did not have to drive across the city or make it to a border, there was no rush to get going.  The dogs ignored their breakfasts and almost had to be shoved out into the backyard.  When King came back inside, he sat by the front door and pouted because I was taking too long to pack up the last of our things.

Finally at 9:10 am, I drove the car out of our driveway and we were on our way.  I have to admit that I almost felt lost since we are normally driving this section of roads in the pre-dawn hours.  Seeing it in the daylight felt kind of strange and it wasn’t until we were close to Parry Sound that things started to look more familiar.

I stopped at Twiggs Coffee Roasters in Parry Sound for a coffee and breakfast sandwich.  I ate the sandwich as we walked around the parking lot which seemed like a good idea until I had a very excited bulldog pulling on me.  Of course, he yanked on the leash just as I was trying to steer the sandwich into my mouth which led to a comical episode of me biting air as my hand was pulled away.  I found a patch of grass to distract them and wolfed down my sandwich before we headed back out on the road. 

The sandwich and the coffee were quite good but by the time we got to Sudbury, well I felt like I needed another hit of caffeine.   I’m sure the fact that Salute Coffee is in Sudbury had absolutely nothing to do with my sudden need for a boost.  It’s not like its become a Pavlovian response whenever we are near there.  Noooooooooo…not at all (insert shifty eye movements here).  With a coffee safely stowed and a lap around the lot completed, we continued on our way.

We were going to be spending our first night in Chutes Provincial Park  which is on the edge of the town of Massey.  As I was about to pull into the driveway, the heavens opened up in a spectacular rain storm.  Oh darn.  I checked my weather app and saw that is was only supposed to rain for a couple of hours.  On one hand it was kind of a bummer to have to wait it out but on the other, my lazy tendencies saved us from having to wait it out in the car or being stuck on a trail and getting drenched.  I’ll take it for the win.

I checked in at the gatehouse and grabbed a bag of firewood before we drove to our site.  It was MASSIVE!  Not only that, but the only trail in the park was directly behind us and on the other side of the that was the gorge.  At first I was a little worried that King might go crazy if there was a lot of people walking by but the site is so big and the cover fairly dense that he may not even see them and if he did, he wasn’t going to get close to them.  Now just to wait out the rain.

I drove back into Massey and thought about getting some food to pass the time.  Both restaurants were closed, one maybe indefinitely and the other would be opening in a few hours.  I ended up driving in circles around the town looking for anything else that may help pass the time and eventually gave up and drove back to the site where I sat in the car and practically memorized the park brochure until the rain stopped.

I quickly had the dogs on their tie-outs and the tent set up.  After filling the tent with a mountain of blankets, we hit the Twin Bridges Trail for some much needed exercise.  If you walk the whole loop, it is about 6.5 km (or just over 4 miles for my Imperial friends).  

The first portion of the trail is easy and we were able to cover that at a good pace.  It takes you along the river with some great views of the waterfalls.  We were between the two bridges when it started to rain again.  I paused.  Do we go back to the site or do we keep going?  I looked up and noticed that it seemed to be a bit of a rainburst so we kept walking.  Luckily I guessed right and the rain soon stopped.  

The trail on the other side of the bridges was a bit more challenging but nothing that we couldn’t handle.  It did however take the edge off for the dogs and by the time we got back to our site, they were finally tired.  

I started a fire in the fire pit while trying to keep King and Leo from burrowing into the tent.  Considering they had slept the day away, they were done with being outside and wanted to go to sleep.  King in particular can be quite demanding.  His bedtime is 7:30-8:00 and you better be ready for a toddler-like meltdown if he can’t get into his bed.  Leo just stands there and paws at the tent then looks at you with the guilty eye if you don’t let him in. 

Fine.  I’ll sit by the fire and cook my dinner by myself.  Once the fire was roaring away, I finely minced some garlic, chopped an onion, and cubed a potato.  I melted some clarified butter in the skillet then tossed the onion and garlic in until softened.  I added the potato, poured in a splash of water, and covered the mess with tin foil, letting the potato cook until softened.  As it cooked, I thinly sliced some cheddar cheese.  Once the potatoes were soft, I cracked a couple of eggs onto the potatoes, laid the cheese on top, and covered it with tin foil again until the eggs were set.  Since I was the only one dining, I ate out of the skillet and it was pretty darned good.

Once I had cleaned up the site, I climbed into the tent, pushed King off of my sleeping bag, and curled up for the night.

Day 2 - September 4, 2020

The dogs were in no rush to get going and neither was I.  Eventually though, we had to get our backsides in gear and we lumbered out into the sunshine.  We took the opportunity to hike the Twin Bridges Trail again, which was so much nicer when you’re not hiking in the rain.

Then as the dogs sprawled out on their blanket and picked at their food, I broke camp.  Well to be honest, I made coffee as I broke camp using my handy Kuke collapsible coffee funnel and Trangia stove.  I love those things.

Once everything was packed away, we headed back out on the road.  By the time we hit Sault Ste. Marie, I was feeling a bit peckish and stopped at Superior Bakery.  I stared at the wall of sandwiches and finally when the woman working behind the counter asked what I wanted, I was just too overwhelmed.  I chose a three meat sandwich and anything other than that I left up to her.  Although the additional lunch meats, coconut butter tart, and donut bread that also ended up in my bag were all me.  The sandwich was excellent and it did not last long even without sharing any with the little faces in the backseat.

We made a few quick stops but I just wanted to get to our next stop: Neys Provincial Park where we were going to be spending the next two nights.  As soon as I turned off the Trans-Canada Highway, I lost cell signal.  It’s amazing that in this day and age, even though we’re not far from major cities, there are still dead zones which is just fine by me.

We had another excellent campsite with next to no neighbours around us except for one cheeky chipmunk which seemed intent on tormenting King.  Once everything was up, we hiked the Lookout Trail since the trailhead was almost beside our site.  Almost immediately I noticed that Neys seemed to be more muggy than other parts of Lake Superior. Perhaps the large trees block the wind; I'm not sure but everything felt damp.

The trail was easy to start but then quickly became a challenging single-track with some steep and rocky parts.  My biggest concern was that King would pull me off-balance on a downhill section and I'd go bouncing down the rock face.  Luckily all the work that I have put in on voice commands has been paying off.  The most important ones for trails have been “whoooooooooo” (slow down), “hold up” (don’t move forward),  “easy” (walk forward slowly), and “this way” (come in the direction I’m pointing or towards me). And yes he will actually follow where I point which is amazing when we're walking in a river and I need to direct him from a distance.

Some parts of the trail were not as well-marked as most of the trails in provincial parks, especially at the overlook itself but what a view we found.  The park is on Lake Superior so you are guaranteed stunning views. 

Lookout Trail

We hiked back to the site and the dogs picked up some interesting language as they watched me try to get the fire going.  Since everything was so damp, it seemed as though the wood just did not want to catch and I resorted to cheating by using some of the fuel from my camp stove.  Eventually it got going but not before dark and the dogs put themselves to bed.  

Someone's commentary on the picnic table.

I was tired so I decided to make a simple sandwich.  But of course not just any sandwich.  I took a few plain slices of the donut bread from the bakery and slapped them on the hot grill.  Once both sides were toasted, I piled on a good helping of salsa salami (sooooo gooood) and a few slices of cheddar cheese.  I wrapped that all up in foil and tossed it back on the grill.  I ate the last of the salsa salami while I waited.  Did I mention it was really good?  I pulled the sandwich off the grill and ate it right out of the foil.  I should have waited a little bit more for the cheese to melt but at that point I was just too hungry to care.  The fire-toasted bread feels like it was a stroke of genius and the salami had a nice bite to it.  It was the perfect meal to end the day and I crawled into my sleeping bag, once I moved the dogs off, with a full tummy.

Day 3 - September 5, 2020

I was woken up a few times during the night by some folks enjoying the great outdoors a bit too much, the nearby trains that passed by all night, and then the sound of rain.  By the time morning rolled around, I felt as though I had barely slept at all.  Well then I had no reason not to get up and get going.

Basking in the sun.

Rather than hike all the trails at once, I loaded the dogs in the car and we drove to Dune Trail.  It was a shorter trail and a good way to wake up.  The lichen hanging off the trees and thick carpets of moss seemed to support my feeling that this area was more humid than other parts and the moss felt like it dampened sound as we walked.  It’s an easier trail than the Lookout Trail and a great walk to start the day.

We went back to our site and the dogs had some breakfast while I made coffee and oatmeal as I studied the trail map.  The next four trails to hike are all connected and even though they are marked as separate on the map, you can really only access them from the ends.  I don’t know why they didn’t just mark it as one long trail.  The other thing that I was a bit worried about was that it was not a loop so once we got to the end, we’d have to walk along to road to get back to the car.  It’s not a big deal and certainly not a deal-breaker, it’s just one of those things you have to be ready for.

With breakfast out of the way, we piled back into the car and drove to the trailhead for Point Trail.  The trail leads from the parking lot, through trees, and onto a beach on Lake Superior.  Part of the beach has been reserved for dogs to run which is outstanding.  Even better was the fact that no dogs were on the beach when we were there, meaning I didn’t have to worry about any of them running up to us and spawning a barking fit from King.  I took the opportunity to unzip the lower section of my pants and stuff them in the ample cargo pockets of my now-shorts and away we went.

At The Point, the trail then turns into Under the Volcano Trail which continues along the shore of Lake Superior.  The trail was rocky single track but still not too bad.  Then it turns inland and becomes Kopa Cove.  This was the point where I began to question my sanity and every decision that lead to me practically being dragged up what felt like a mountain by King while Leo easily leapt from one boulder to the next, taunting us with his mountain goat-like agility.  Parts of the trail were barely a trail and we were scrambling over near-vertical rock and roots.

We overtook another group as we trudged up the trail. You know I got weird stares from as we passed by: they were all kitted out in fancy technical fabrics, heavy duty hiking boots, and each one of them had backpacks. Then there's me: the minimalist. Since it was barely a 10 km trail, I was wearing my usual running shoes, shorts, and home-made T-shirt under a merino wool zip-up with my camera slung over my shoulder. No pack; just carrying what was stuffed in my pockets.  

We had gotten by the group and I was feeling my arm literally being stretched out by the leash looped over my wrist when the heavens opened up. So now we're partway up the trail with no idea how much further we have to go, scrambling up rocks, and it's raining. I had to laugh at it all. I wrapped my camera in a poop bag, tucked it under my zip-up, and onward we went.

Even as soaked as I was and as difficult as the trail was, I was having so much fun.  It was a short rain and by the time we emerged at the top, the sun had come out and we were treated to a breathtaking view of Pic Island, a site made famous by the Group of Seven.  We sat there for a few minutes while I enjoyed the view and then set off down Pic Island Overlook Trail.  This was the longest section of trail but also the easiest as it was a truck track.  I’m glad we did the trail in the order that we did because otherwise the downhill would have been awful.

And for some reason, we found small pockets of cell service.  There we were, partway up a rock face and my phone started going off like crazy with almost 24 hours worth of activity.  We’d move a few feet and gone.

Pic Island Overlook

I was worried that the pups may have strained themselves but they were happily trotting along pulling me behind them.  Once we got to the trailhead, we set off down the road to go back to the car, keeping on the grass as much as we could.  The pups had some water, jumped in the car, and we headed back to our site.

Pleasantly tired and feeling a bit of a chill, I reached into my pockets to put on the lower section of pants.  I pulled out one but the other was nowhere to be found.  Uh oh.  I checked the car, I checked the tent, and felt my heart sink.  It was either on the beach because I didn’t shove it in my pocket deep enough or it’s somewhere on the trail.  So I loaded the dogs back into the car and we went back to the beach and we went back to the log where I had sat down to find…nothing.  Well that’s just great.  Now one of my pants has permanently become a pair of shorts and we’re heading into cooler temperatures.  Darn.  OK we all know I was using language considerably worse than darn but I’m trying to keep this G-rated.

Needing to take a bit more of the edge off, we set off down the road from the campsite and ended up on the shore of Lake Superior. I don't think there's such a thing as a bad view here.

One we got back to the site, I poured myself a stiff drink and got to work starting a fire.  It was remarkably easier than it had been the night before and it was soon blazing away.  I thought that the dogs may want to bask in the warmth but they would rather climb in the tent.  I wasn’t ready for wet and muddy paws to be all over my sleeping bag without supervision so I asked if they wanted to wait in the car.  Those little heads shot right up and when I opened the door, they jumped in.  That was easy.

I decided to make another skillet only this time I topped it with some sliced beef from the deli and some eggs.  It didn’t look pretty but it sure was good and immensely satisfying after the long day of hiking.

Finally I roused the pups and watched them bound to the tent and curl up on my sleeping bag while I untied my shoes.  I was able to wiggle in and soon fell asleep.  Even the trains didn’t wake me.

Day 4 - September 6, 2020

We had a bit of a longer drive ahead of us so I packed up our gear without much delay, other than making coffee of course.  We stopped at Dunes Trail again for an easy walk and then continued on.

Luckily the dogs were tired so we had a few quick breaks at rest stops to stretch our legs before we continued on.  It wasn’t until we were west of Thunder Bay that we hit horrible weather.  It was so bad I would have pulled over if I could have found a safe place to stop.  Heavy rain, lightning, even large chunks of hail.  I was certain my windshield was going to crack from the hail.  Growing up, we always knew it was going to be a bad storm if the sky was green and the sky ahead of us was definitely that shade of green.  All I could do was grit my teeth, slow down, and just go.  Fortunately it was a short storm and we soon emerged apparently none too worse for wear.

When we got to Ignace I decided I needed, no I deserved something to eat so we stopped at the Ignace Tavern and I ordered the Hangover Burger with a side of sweet potato fries.  It was so good: a burger patty topped with egg and tater tots.  Here’s a tip: if you get this, dip your burger in the sauce that comes with the sweet potato fries.  I’ll just say this right now: you’re welcome.

With food out of the way, we drove just outside of town to Sandbar Lake Provincial Park.  Originally the plan was to stay for one night but when I saw the signs for Pickle Law, I decided to stay an extra night.  I had been told that Pickle Lake was the farthest north you can drive in Ontario and here I was with no plans and no deadline.  How could I not go?

Not only did I change my reservation but I also changed my site after talking with the staff in the gatehouse and am I ever glad I did.  The site we got was huge and backed onto the lake with a trail running behind it.  The forecast was calling for heavy winds so there was not going to be a fire tonight.  

Once the tent was up, the dogs and I hit the trail.  It was a relatively short trail compared to what we had hiked the day before but it was so much easier even if it was a tight single track.

I was really glad I brought all the extra blankets because the temperature dropped that night.  Leo being the stubborn little fellow that he is, did not want to either stay under blankets or get in his sleeping bag.  He’d make his little nest and then climb out of it and shiver while I tried to tuck him in again.  Finally he got a little lesson of tough love: I stuffed the down comforter that I had brought into the foot of one of the sleeping bags.  I then stuffed Leo in the sleeping bag and held the mouth of the bag closed.  He soon made himself a nest and was snoring away.  When I peeked in the bag to check on him, he barely opened his eye to look at me and went back to sleep.  I tossed a blanket on King and he was fine.

Leo finally in his den

Day 5 - September 7, 2020

Holy cow they weren’t kidding when they said we were going to be getting high winds.  The thick stand of trees around the site took the brunt of the wind and I half expected to hear trees coming down but my little tent didn’t even twitch.  When we emerged into a light drizzle, there was no damage to be seen any where near us.

I can’t say the same for the drive to Pickle Lake.  There were several trees that had come down on the highway but they had crews out cleaning them up.  It took us a few hours to get to Pickle Lake and when we got to town, I was a bit confused when this beautiful stretch of highway kept going.  I drove for a little while thinking that it was going to end but it didn’t.  Finally I pulled over and did a little bit of research.  Ironically they have better internet than I had had for most of the drive to Pickle Lake.  Well, it looks as though the highway had been extended farther north and not by a little; by a lot.  As in over 200 km more.  I wasn’t ready to make that trip today so we turned around and went into Pickle Lake proper.  

Everything was closed.  The fact that it was Labour Day and a holiday should not have surprised me.  So we took a walk around town and jumped back in the car to return to Sandbar Lake Provincial Park.

The weather was nicer and the sun had come out so we walked the trail behind our site again.  When we got to the beach where we had turned around the day before, we kept walking along the water until we came to a trail that I hadn’t noticed before.  This was a fun little discovery and we were soon walking through the trees and climbing a small stand of rocks that gave us a great view of the lake.  There was so much moose scat, I kept expecting to see one but I’m guessing we were making enough noise to send them all packing which is quite alright by me.  

We made our way back to our site just as it was getting dark.  I let the dogs into the tent while I made some ramen and we were all soon curled up together.  Leo didn’t want to get into his sleeping bag this time and he pushed his way out then sat on top staring at me and shivering until I piled his comforter on top of him.  

Day 6 - September 8, 2020  

It did not look like a good day when I poked my head out of the tent so I packed up quickly and took the dogs for a walk, chancing the rain the whole time.  I must have some crazy luck because the rain held off until we were back heading west on the Trans-Canada Highway.

Once we got to Dryden, the urge for food and more importantly was too much to ignore and we stopped at Kano Reid.  I ordered the KRBreakfast Wrap: egg, bacon, cheese, fire-roasted tomatoes, caramelized onions, with sriracha aioli in a grilled wrap.  It was very tasty and the coffee was very good.  Just what a traveller needs.

We crossed into Manitoba and started heading south after we passed Winnipeg.  When I saw signs for Treherne I had the sneaky feeling that I had been there before and when I saw L & J's Drive Inn, well it was confirmed.  We had stopped there a few years ago on the way to visit the grandparents after Grasslands National Park.  I wasn’t about to let a chance to have a good burger pass me by or a side of fries.  The dogs were so kind to offer their assistance to help me with this.

A short time later we arrived at Spruce Woods Provincial Park.  The gatehouse was closed and I studied the sign for the available sites.  Unfortunately I didn’t study them hard enough because I ended up pitching my tent in an area that wasn’t open for camping.  Whoops.  So I threw everything back in the car and drove around until I was in the right area.  I picked a nice site even though I didn’t notice the poison ivy all around the edge of it.  I wasn’t planning on rolling in it so I wasn’t worried.

I was too full from the burger and fries to worry about food so once we had walked around a little, we crawled inside and were soon fast asleep.

Day 7 - September 9, 2020

It got cold overnight.  Really cold.  I felt fine but it seemed like I kept waking up to check on the pups to make sure they were alright.  King stuck his head into my sleeping bag and Leo accepted his sleeping bag with no problem.  Once I got King sorted out to be a little more comfortable than partly in my bag, I slept better.

I should have checked the hours for the gatehouse the night before because I didn’t realize no one would be there until 10:00 and we were there considerably before 10:00.  So we went to the nearby Glenboro Inn for some breakfast.  I ordered up the big breakfast and happily devoured it in no time flat.

We drove back to the gatehouse at about 9:45 and waited.  And waited.  And waited some more.  By 10:30 I was tired of waiting so I struggled with the oh so slow internet to book our site for another night and headed off to the reason we were at Spruce Woods: the Spirit Sands. 

Imagine a desert but in the prairies.  It’s not exactly accurate since they get too much precipitation to be considered a desert but you get the idea.  There was this expanse of sand dunes in the middle of green forests and lush grasses.

The sand wasn’t too hot for little paws but it was a challenging hike.  I am so glad that I brought water for the dogs because while taps were available, the water was not potable and seemed to be so much farther apart than it seems on the map.  When you’re in the dunes, you feel like you’re getting baked by the heat, there’s no shade, and you forget how much of a challenge it is to walk in sand when you’re doing it for kilometres at a time.  Luckily there are plenty of places to sit in covered huts so there is a chance to rest.  We also stopped to see the Devils Punch Bowl: a pond with such a unique shade of water that it does not seem to belong in the prairies.   Naturally the dogs jumped in and went for a quick splash before we went back to the car.  

We stopped in Glenboro for a quick photo with Sara the Camel then drove back to the park.  The gatehouse was actually open and when I stopped in to pay for the site for the night before, the gentleman working there seemed genuinely confused.  Yes shame on me and my honesty.  I also wanted to get some firewood and was told that it’s free for the taking.  If there wasn’t any in the woodpiles, I could just scavenge from empty sites.  If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s scavenging and we took the scenic route back to our site, filling the trunk and front seat with firewood.

I let the dogs out of the car to relax then unloaded the pile of wood from the car.  I gathered enough for me and the next few people so it was a good haul.  I looked at the dogs and they looked at me and I asked if they wanted to go for a walk.  They both bounced to their feet so back on the leashes we went and we set off down the road.  

The Trans-Canada Trail runs through the park and follows the Assiniboine River for a stretch so we hopped on the trail and followed it for a little while until it started to get dark.  By the time we made it back to camp, they both went directly to the tent.  King stood there and barked at me when I didn’t open the zipper.  I know that once they are in the tent, there’s no way I’m getting them out and it was too early for them to go to sleep so I put them back in the car, got the fire going, and made another skillet.

Once the site was cleaned, I brought them out for a short walk and pee break and we climbed into the tent.  One thing about Spruce Woods: the cell service is exceptionally spotty.  I was laying in my sleeping bag and if I rolled one way, no service.  If I rolled the other way, I could happily surf the internet.  Weird.

Day 8 - September 10, 2020

When I opened my eyes, it was daylight and when I stretched every muscle in my lower body screamed at me.  Even though I try to stay in decent shape, the Spirit Sands killed my thighs.  Needless to say, it took a while for me to convince myself that I needed to get out of my sleeping bag.  Luckily it wasn’t as cold as it had been the night before so I didn’t have a Boston Terrier trying to crawl over me int my bag.

It was cool enough that the dogs wanted in the car so I let them in and put their food in with them, then set about making my coffee and breaking camp.  Every time I bent over or would squat down I thought my legs were going to give out and it took me a bit longer to get everything stowed away.  I was really glad there wasn’t anyone nearby because they may have been subjected to a whole new vocabulary.

Before we left, I stopped to have a quick shower.  They were paid showers and the first one I went into ate my money.  There I was, standing staring at the coin box, naked as the day I was born but for sandals staring into what appeared to be an almost overflowing coin box.  You know when your brain gets stuck on something and just can’t let it go?  That was me.  I was determined to get my money back and I stood there trying every little trick with everything at my disposal to get a stupid two dollar coin out of the coin box.  It was so frustrating because it was right there.  I was staring right at it.  I’d turn away and then “No a stupid coin slot isn’t going to defeat me” and get right back at it.  I did eventually give up and move to another shower which meant I had to get dressed and then get undressed all over again.  So much work for some hot water.

Once I got back to the site, we drove past the Spirit Sands and went for a stroll down another trail.  It was an easy and wide trail and just what we needed to stretch out legs before driving to our next stop: Riding Mountain National Park.  We did stop on the way there at Farmery Estate Brewery in Neepawa for some beer.  OK for a lot of beer.  Hey it’s great stuff and I can’t get most of it in Ontario so I was going to stock up.

Just outside of the park is the town of Onanole and when I saw Cody's Concessions stand that advertised burgers, you know I stopped.  I studied the menu and when I saw Kenny’s Cowboy Burger, my heart skipped a beat: a burger topped with an onion ring, jack cheese, bacon, and chipotle mayo?  Be still my screaming arteries.

The first site we got at Riding Mountain was very small and uneven so we drove back to the gatehouse.  The staff member working there was probably one of the few people I have ever met that didn’t know each site so she handed me a map of what sites were available and told me to pick one and come back.  

Finally after driving in circles for a while, we picked a good site at the end of a road with a bike path nearby and full facilities.  Sweet.  So we drove back to the front, booked the site and grabbed a bag of firewood, and drove back to the site.

Setting up the tent was interesting since my thighs threatened to give out every time I tried to squat down to hammer in a tent peg but it got done.  Slowly.  With camp set up, we started off down the trail to explore the area.  The dogs were still tired and the eager pulling at their leashes was soon an easy meander so we turned around and went back to camp.  

I was still full from the burger so we sat and enjoyed a few quiet moments before we crawled into the tent and went to sleep.

Day 9 - September 11, 2020

We were going to be in Riding Mountain for a few days to give ourselves plenty of time to explore so there was no rush to be up and going early.  We started our day at Whitehouse Bakery in the town of Wasagaming just outside of the campground where I bought a cream cheese cinnamon roll the size of my head and a coffee.  Rather than sit in the car or in a nearby park to eat, we drove to The Wishing Well where we had a wander, threw some coins into the wishing well, and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast.  And yes they got tiny pieces of roll minus the cinnamon and cream cheese.  Or rather King did.  Leo turned his nose up at it unless there was a little bit of topping on in.

Next we continued north to the bison enclosure.  Naturally there isn’t much hiking to be down when you drive through a herd of bison but it’s great for photos.  I wasn’t sure how King was going to react: he was either going to go full panic or just stare at them and try to figure out what these big things are.  Luckily he stared rather than freak out which meant I didn’t have to worry about a bunch of angry bison bigger than my car.

Outside of the bison enclosure is a trailhead so we started walking.  I didn’t really have a plan as far as where to go or how far; we just kept walking.  We ended up walking to the Audy Lake Dam which turned out to be 15 km from the trailhead.  Ummmmmm whoops.  I had been watching the dogs for signs of exhaustion or discomfort but they were happily trotting along.  In fact, whenever I did stop in the shade to give them a break, they would sit down and then soon be back on their feet and pulling me down the trail.  Even when we got to the lake, I let them jump in to cool off and have a drink but once they were done, they wanted to get back going.  I’ve created monsters.  I will say that once we got back to the car, they were tired and so was I.

I didn’t feel like cooking dinner so we went to Barnaby’s Grille in Onanole.  Word had it they had fantastic ribs.  Being something of a rib expert, I was willing to try them out and the dogs were happy to help me.  The ribs were pretty good; not the best I’ve had but they certainly hit the spot and we fell asleep happily content. 

Day 10 - September 12, 2020

Maybe it was the ribs, maybe it was the hike but either way I had a great sleep that night and woke ready to have an easy day.  I made my coffee and thought about what we were going to do when it started to rain.  Unable to cook anything, we set off into town for a cinnamon roll and another coffee which we ate as we walked along the shore of Clear Lake since the rain had stopped.  King seemed to be fascinated with the people playing tennis and we stood there for a while to let him take it in.  Naturally Leo rolled in the grass.

We drove to Arrowhead Trail which is an easy 3.4 km trail through the forest.  I thought that might take the edge off the dog's energy but no.  Not even close.  So we set off to hike to Grey Owl’s Cabin, another easy trail through lots of trees and wide open footing.  The trail is 8.7 km each way which means the round trip was 17.4 km.  Add the 3.4 km from Arrowhead and my “easy” day became 20.8 km.  Add the 30 km from the day before and we hiked over 50 km in two days.  No wonder the dogs were beat by the time we got back to camp.  Rather King was sleeping awake; Leo looked like he could go another loop or two.

While they relaxed, I made up some ramen, cracked in a couple of eggs, and we went to bed good and early.

Day 11 - September 13, 2020

We were going to have an easy day whether we wanted it or not.  King woke up with sore feet which he made worse by licking.  It may have been an after effect of the sand from Spirit Sands which got worse with all the walking.  Although some rest would probably be a good idea for all of us no matter what.  

They sprawled out on their blanket in the sun and King was so tired he didn’t even bother to stand to eat his breakfast; he just wiggled close enough to the bowl to eat while laying down.

I made some coffee and oatmeal and enjoyed just relaxing in the sun for a little while.  Eventually though we all got a little restless so we climbed into the car and drove back into town.  I was tempted to get a cinnamon roll but just wasn’t feeling it so we walked around on the paved path beside the lake.  No rush, just an easy stroll to see what’s around.

Another night of ramen and another early bedtime of snoring puppies.

Day 12 - September 14, 2020

It would have been great if I could say we had a good sleep.  Or rather if I had had a good sleep.  It would have been fantastic if not for the site across from us playing guitar and singing at the top of their lungs.  At one point it even sounded like they were banging pots together.  It wasn’t until park staff showed up well after midnight that they quieted down.  If putting on real clothes hadn’t seemed like such a hassle I would have walked over there myself but I try not to meet people in my jammies.  I’m not always successful but I try.

When I woke up, I checked the weather for Grasslands National Park.  I wanted to go there and it had been my goal but the forecast was not looking good at all so by the time I broke camp, the plan was to drive straight to my grandparents for a visit.

So when I stopped at Whitehouse Bakery for the last time, I stocked up on half a dozen rolls to go, plus mine plus a coffee.  These are supposed to be some of the finest in Manitoba so it’s only fair to bring some.  Then I checked the weather for Grasslands again.  Completely different.  In fact, it was looking downright pleasant.  OK to Grasslands we go well stocked with cinnamon rolls and beer.  Really what more do we need?

We were in Weyburn, Saskatchewan when I started to feel hungry and we stopped at Main Track Cafe where I ordered the dry ribs and caesar salad.  The woman brought my food out to me and stopped to visit with the pups before she went back inside and I went to use the trunk of my car as a table.    As I was standing there tearing ribs off bones, a truck parked nearby and a gentleman started making conversation, complimented the dogs, and asked if they like deer horn.  It took me a second to understand but I answered that they do.  Without another word he reached into the back of his truck and handed me an entire two-pronged antler.  Awesome.  I handed the antler to King and he promptly set about gnawing on it.

We were soon on our way and into Grasslands National Park.  We saw wildlife almost as soon as we crossed the park boundary and with the dirt road, we crawled to the campground.  It says something about the park when the campground is surrounded by a fence.  

I checked the main camp sites but while there were spots open, there is no privacy between sites. When I saw that a few dogs were already in place, I decided that we should go to the overflow camping area where there was only one truck and plenty of space around us.  

By the time we were set up, it was getting a bit late so we just hiked the trail from the back of the campground to overlook the valley.  I don’t know what it is about Grasslands but it has always held a special place since the first time that I visited and it keeps calling to me.  This was the first time that I was able to answer that call but it won’t be the last.

We made our way back to camp in the failing light as the sound of coyotes echoed off the hills.  I piled the dogs under the blankets even though it was warmer than it has been in days and the sound of their snoring drowned out the coyotes.

Day 13 - September 15, 2020

We opened our eyes to the sound of bison bawling in the not too far distance and I just laid in my sleeping bag and listened for a while.  Eventually I was able to extricate myself from under a bulldog head and we made our way out into the world.

First order of business was a maple cinnamon roll and some coffee.  Second order was to load the dogs in the car and go to the park office to register for last night and for one more night.  The third was to drive the just over 50 km to the town of Climax because when you’re that close to a town called Climax, you have to see what the big deal is.  If you’re ever in the town of Climax in southern Saskatchewan, don’t blink.  There’s not much there although they do say they are the sunset capital of Canada.  I’m not sure how that was decided but there it is.

Once we had that out of the way, we drove back to Grasslands and started on the Ecotour Road.  That was when I looked at my gas gauge and did a little bit of math.  Crud.  Need gas.  So we turned back around and drove halfway back to Climax to get gas.  When I went into the store to pay, I noticed that it had some groceries and took a quick walk down some of the aisles.  I had just been thinking about cold cuts and buns and here they were.  So I grabbed a bag of all dressed chips, cheese buns, havarti cheese, and roasted turkey breast.  The timing was just too perfect not to.

Then we drove back to Grasslands and hiked 70 Mile Butte Trail which takes you to the highest point in the park.  Here’s a warning: hiking in Grasslands is extremely challenging and this is coming from someone who had just been scrambling up rock faces.  The trails themselves are easy as the footing is relatively level and switchbacks help with the steeper climbs.  What makes it difficult is the fact that there is next to no shade and the land acts like an oven.  Carrying water is an absolute must.  Even my crazy hiking dogs needed a few stops to rest.  In fact, they did not refuse a single chance to take a break and we were there when it was fairly cool.  I would not even think about doing that hike at the peak of summer.

Once we got back to the car, I poured more water out for the dogs and made myself a couple of sandwiches.  Here’s another tip: havarti, turkey breast, and all-dressed chips on a cheese bun.  The chips are a perfect crunchy condiment and you're welcome ;)

We continued to drive around the park, stopping whenever we saw wildlife or a trailhead.  We didn’t go far on any of the trails, just enough to see what’s out there.  One of the most unique features of this park is that while there are trails, you can also park your car wherever you want and set out on foot.  This is so different from every other park that wants you to remain on marked trails.  I guess since bison roam everywhere, there’s no reason why a puny biped can’t stomp on some grass.

The sun was setting behind the berm next to our camp by the time we got back.  I happened to look up and saw deer at the top of the ridge which was a perfect ending to the night.  I made a few more sandwiches before we climbed into the tent and snuggled up to sleep. 

Day 14 - September 16, 2020

It was with a touch of sadness that I had to pack up so soon.  It goes without saying that Grasslands National Park is likely going to be an annual or at least close to annual destination for us from now on.  After a maple cinnamon roll and coffee, we walked the trail behind camp one last time before we were back on the road.  This was a far west as we were going to go this year.  From this point on, we would be heading east and towards home.

I didn’t want to make the long drive straight to my grandparents so we were going to spend the night in Moose Mountain Provincial Park just before the Manitoba border.  With brief stops on the way, including one to see a plesiosaur at Ponteix, it was late afternoon by the time we made it to Moose Mountain.  

Yet again, we missed the gatehouse but at least this park had a slightly easier map so we drove around until we found a good site.  I was tempted for a lakeside site but given the wind was blowing and it was supposed to be getting colder, I thought that a windbreak would be in order.  Most of the sites I saw were massive and had a good bit of trees between them which is outstanding.  

Another point of interest were the privy’s.  I know it’s a bit weird to talk toilets but hear me out: these were spacious with clear plastic ceilings and motion-activated lights.  They were the nicest privies I think I have ever been in.  It’s a small thing but a big thing.

We dropped our money in the self-registration box then kept walking around the campground until we found a trail that ran along Kenosee Lake. There were so many deer that King nearly lost his mind and I nearly lost my arm.  We were turned back by the falling darkness much to the dismay of King.  I was glad to see that his feet were feeling better even if it meant I had a strong and petulant bulldog to cope with.

I ate the last of my sandwiches while the dogs got the tent and my sleeping bag warmed up before piling in with them.

Day 15 to Day 17 - September 17, 2020 to September 19, 2020

It was cool outside the tent and nice and warm inside so it took a little while for me to get my backside in motion.  Eventually though it had to be done and the dogs sat in the car and watched me break camp before we went for another walk around the campground.  With a cinnamon roll and coffee in my belly, we were back on the road.

By the time we got to nearby Carlyle, I wanted another coffee.  A real coffee.  So we stopped at Michael’s Coffee Shop and Bakery on Main Street.   When I saw the selection on the menu, I had to ask if they made cortados.  The staff did not know how but were willing to give it a try since Michael normally makes them.  I was willing to give their try a try and I took my drink out to the sidewalk patio where I enjoyed it with the dogs.  Or at least I started to.  When a gentleman walked into the cafe and thanked me for being there, I assumed it was Michael and asked if he was the master of cortados.  He took one look at the mug on the table and took it away, telling me he would make me a proper one.  Moments later a work of art was placed on the table before me.  When you’ve been living in a car for weeks, you crave a touch of civility and this was exactly what I needed.  The dogs enjoyed all the attention they were getting from the people walking by and a convenient hook on the wall meant that I didn’t end up wearing coffee.  If you’re near Carlyle, do yourself a favour and stop in.

The rest of the drive was a straight shot to my grandparent's cottage.  Leo knew exactly where he was and bounced his way all over place.  King was kept on leash for the rest of the day until he got used to new people and a new place.  He only tried to do one sneaky hump which is far better than I expected from him.

We helped with some of the inevitable chores that come with a cottage and winter but mostly we just caught up and relaxed.  

Day 18 - September 20, 2020

Our brief rest had to come to an end and we were back out on the road heading towards home.  We did stop at Bobby’s Bites food truck in Vermillion Bay for some outstanding fish tacos and fries but then we pushed on.  The drive between Manitoba and Thunder Bay is one of my least favourite parts of the drive so the only time we stopped other than food was for gas and quick pee breaks.  

When we got to Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, there was still some daylight but not much so I was not too picky when it came to selecting a campsite.  Once the tent was up, there was just enough light to get a short walk in before we all climbed into the tent.  I had made the mistake of telling friends that I would pick up beer from Sleeping Giant Brewing Co. but I had missed it which means that I would have to go in the morning after waiting for the brewery to open.  

Day 19 - September 21, 2020

When we woke, it was the warmest we had been in forever it seemed.  One might even call it downright balmy and it was nice to stretch and not have a Boston try to climb into my sleeping bag or a meathead try to crawl in with me.  I did have a bulldog nose shoved into my ear at which point it was time to get up.

I made my coffee and broke camp while the dogs played on their tie outs.  Rather than hike around the tents again, we drove further down the park and hiked the Sea Lion Trail.  Some parts of the trail were a little tricky but after some of the terrain we’ve put under our feet, they were no problem at all.  As much as I wanted to explore the entire park, the road was calling and we were soon on it, after a stop at the brewery for beer of course.

I had two options for the day: drive hard and get home at 2:00 am or stop off somewhere and camp one more night.  When I found that there were sites still available in Lake Superior Provincial Park, I think we all know what my choice was.  

All of the sites on the lake were taken but I was able to get a nice big private site just on the other side of the road.  Even though we didn’t have enough time to hike any of the trails, we still spent plenty of time on the beach where we were able to watch the sun set.  

Rather than a skillet, I made potatoes in my camp stove.  By this time all I had left were a couple of eggs and a small chunk of cheese.  As simple as dinner was, it was still fine by me.  The dogs had long since put themselves to bed and I dined by the light of my headlamp. 

Day 20 - September 22, 2020

With the tent packed and coffee waiting in the car, we took off for one last walk on the beach.  As much as they like exploring, it did not take much convincing to have them walking back to where we had parked the car.  I think they knew that this was our last day on the road.

We stopped for another sandwich, salsa salami, and donut bread at Superior Bakery, then one more stop in Bruces Mines at Copper Bean Cafe. Other than that, we did not make any other stops except for gas and quick pee breaks.  We ended up getting home late on Tuesday September 22 after a trip of 7669.8 km.

It’s not the farthest we’ve ever driven but it almost stands out because we got to actually explore more.  Neys is a park that I will happily return to, as is Spruce Woods and of course Grasslands.
Check out a video from the trip.

We scrambled up rock faces in the rain and stared out over the almost endless waters of Lake Superior.  We felt the call of the far-off horizon in Grasslands and the call of a highway that says “come find the end”.  We walked through curtains of lichen and hiked through unexpected prairie dunes.

And it was just us.  A trio of wayward wanderers that looked at on open road, an open trail, an open beach and said “Let’s see where we end up”.

Check out our weekly Pet Blog Link-Up hosted by yours truly and Big Dog Travel Blog. There are so many fun pets out there to read about; it's a great way to pass those isolation hours.

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