Expedition 2023, part 2, Week 8: The Long March West

The eastern end of the Cabot Trail, at the Englishtown Ferry, Cape Breton Island, NS, Canada. we elected not to do the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, but drove the western part of the Cabot Trail to Cheticamp.

Monday, Thanksgiving Day in Canada, we awoke to find the power had been restored, mostly. We had to use our 30-amp adapter, as the 15-amp circuit didn’t work.  The washrooms remained locked at 7:45, so we drove up to the pit toilets in the day-use area, then headed out to make a partial tour of the Cabot Trail before heading westward.

Cheticamp, NS,

The storm had abated, but such weather comes in waves.  We  turned off at the west entrance to the Cabot Trail and up the beautiful Magaree River Valley, where the fall colors had popped in great profusion, then up the west coast of Cape Breton to the town of Cheticamp, the gateway to the Breton Highlands National Park.  There, the weather turned dark, the clouds lowered, and the main came in squalls.  We headed back, toward New Brunswick, along the coast rather than up the river.

Crossing over onto the mainland, we tried to get WiFi coverage to check for camping and weather, but to no avail: the coffee shops at gas stations apparently don’t provide WiFi, or it simply wasn’t available in the remote area.  After bumping along with the Thanksgiving traffic headed back to the cities after the long weekend, we again turned off the busy freeway onto the coastal roads, through such towns as Pugwash, which we thought hilarious and took photos to send to our Pug-owning friends and relatives.  We were seeking a campground, but didn’t find one, so headed inland to the freewayin another search for WiFi.  We found a Walmart, but it was closed for the holiday, so parking there was out, but we found a truck stop just over the border in New Brunswick, so that’s where we ended up for the night.

Confederation Bridge, Prince Edward Island, Canada, to New Brunswick. 13 km long, 60 meters high. The $50.25 toll is collected when you leave the island. Pricey, but a bit cheaper than the ferry to Nova Scotia, 110 km to the east.

It rained most of the night, but promised to clear later, so early in the morning, we headed up highway 16 to the Confederation Bridge, 13 kilometers across the Northumberland Stait to Prince Edward Island.  We got advice on a practical day and a half tour of the Province and set off around the center of the island.  PEI is very much like our part of the world–rain, farms, factories, and ocean, but very Canadian.  We found a bike trail we liked, but decided to come back when rain didn’t threaten.  Driving into Charlottetown, we threaded our way through throngs of cruise-ship passengers to find the B&B we had booked.  Settled in, we walked around the waterfront district, found an Indian restaurant for our first sit-down restaurant meal without being dragged by family since the pandemic.  Even the mild was hotter than I make the dishes at home, so Judy didn’t have as enjoyable meal as I did.  On the way back to the B&B, we saw a vegan restaurant across the street that would have been a better choice.  Such is the outcome of adventuring when you’re hungry and haven’t made a thorough search of the area.

After an excellent breakfast at the B&B, we headed out, swinging out through the center of the island to check out areas we missed, then headed for the toll bridge in a driving rain shower.  The Confederation Bridge toll is $50.25, collected on the island side, so the round trip cost is about $1.89 per kilometer, not bad as toll bridge prices go.  Immediately over the bridge, we took the scenic route along the Strait, and, ignoring the GPS, headed north instead of south at Hwy 11, electing to take the shorter, but slower Hwy 108 across the province instead of the 4-lane freeway on Hwy 2.  It was a rough and bumpy afternoon, but virtually no traffic, and great autumn colours over the Appalachians, ending up at a truck stop at Edmonston, a few kilometers from the northern tip of Maine and the eastern border of Quebec, where the time zone will change soon after we get underway in the morning.   Soon after we settled in, the rains we had fled from all day arrived, and continued most of the night.

Fuel prices in PEI were the lowest we’ve seen so far in Canada, and the prices in New Brunswick were the highest.  All of the stations, except the one near our campground in Nova Scotia–that didn’t have a credit card reader at the pump–limit purchases to $100, at least on U.S. issued cards, which gets us about half a tank, 55-60 liters, depending on price.  We had topped off on PEI just before getting on the bridge, $135 total in two fill-ups for 80 liters, so our 500-km daily distance costs us about $125 CDN, or $92.50 USD.  With about 6000 km ahead of us, our trip home will consume over $1000 USD in fuel charges alone.  So, our extravagances in the last week with State Parks, National Parks, Provincial Parks, and Bed and Breakfast hotels needs to be in the past for the rest of the trip, if we expect to get home still solvent.  Likewise, we need to curtail eating out, even fast food and the delicious pastries and coffee from Tim Horton’s, which are everywhere and often the only source of WiFi connections.

Edmonston, NB, Canada. The Madawaska River flows into the St. John River just below the dam (behind us to the left), which is the U.S.-Canada Border, Amazingly, wood pulp from this plant in Edmondson is shipped through a huge pipeline along the Madowaska and across the St. John River to Madawaska, ME, USA ., where it is made into paper at a mill there.

In the morning, we dropped in at the Ford dealer across the street from the truck stop and made an appointment for an oil change, having traveled nearly 10,000 km since our last oil change in Missouri.  Our appointment was for 11:00 am, so we took advantage of the time to make a brief tour of Edmondston, finding a wonderful city park that wound around the pool behind the hydroelectric dam on the river.  After we got our van back, we headed northwest, intending to tour Quebec City before continuing on toward Montreal.  

At a scenic stop along the St. Lawrence River, between rain squalls.

We had a good day, gaining an hour as we crossed the border into Quebec. We dropped off the freeway as the highway turned southwest, to drive through the farming towns along the shore of the St. Lawrence seaway, where we were also treated to vibrant fall color in the trees along the cliffs and hills above the farmlands.  From time to time, when we stopped, the rain clouds that had continued west overnight caught up with us.  After one of the stops, our GPS decided we would be getting into Quebec City during rush hour, so rerouted us to a ferry.  We realized this only when we arrived at the ferry dock.  We declined, backtracked to the freeway, and joined the creeping traffic toward the bridge, further upriver.  As a result, we once again changed our plans, and decided to abandon our visit to Quebec City, a stop we had been looking forward to for several years as a “bucket list” destination.  But, we simply couldn’t afford to backtrack from Montreal, a full day’s travel.

As close as we got to Quebec City: across the river, where our GPS directed us to the ferry instead of the bridge, farther upstream. Photo by Judy.

The traffic finally cleared, and we arrived at yet another truck stop halfway between Quebec City and Montreal, just as the sun touched the horizon.  The temperature, which had hovered in the low teens (Celsius) all day, began to drop, making us glad we had bought heavier clothing at one of our stops in the U.S.

Friday the 13th of October turned out to be a typical run of luck. We got up early, topped off the fuel, and headed for Montreal, mixing with the Drummondville morning rush hour.  We missed a turn for the bridge, and had to backtrack.  Once in the city, we headed for the location indicated for our friend Marge’s vegan cafe, only to find it was not a storefront, but an on-line only ordering service.  So much for reading the entire website when pressed for time and having to “surf the web” standing in the gas station convenience store, the only place the WiFi worked at our Thursday night stop.  We discovered that there was a full-service truck stop just past Drummondville, had we checked, which would have been a better place to stay.  As it was, we had been surrounded by idling diesel trucks most of the night: for some reason, all of the drivers chose to stay on our side of the store instead of the larger lot by the diesel pumps.

Neighborhood in Montreal. Photo by Judy.

Anyway, we had a delightful tour of the old neighborhoods of Montreal and were delighted by the sight of dozens of bicyclists zooming along the separated bike lanes that lined most of the streets in that part of the city.  Working our way out to the freeway through a newer, less genteel part of the city, we were soon on our way to Ontario and the national capital, Ottawa, passing through a seemingly endless warehouse district with a lot of new construction.  One item of note: Canada is convinced of the worth of light rail, and is building elevated track “everywhere.”  The new track out of Montreal is nearly complete, and work is well underway on a ground-level track west of Ottawa.  Once over the massive Ottawa River, we were in the countryside and headed in a northwesterly direction, following the river, which, north of Ottawa, is the border between Quebec and Ontario.

By chance and a wrong turn,we got a front-on view of the Parliament building and were able to loop around and cruise past the government complex without stopping, as Judy shot photos out the window.

Parliament, Ottawa, Canada. Photo by Judy.

Our excursion past the Parliament buildings saved us from a horrific traffic jam on the 417 freeway, as we got back on the freeway on the west side of the city. It was refreshing to see road signs in both English and French again, as Quebec does not provide dual-language signage and the Canadian version of French is obtuse, if not colorful, and we read neither classical nor the Quebec variation.  During most of the drive north, many signs were in English only, but, as we neared our westward turn, more bi-lingual and Quebec-style signs appeared.  The town of Mattawa, Ontario, is across the only bridge between Quebec and Ontario, and it appears that a great deal of Quebecois influence has crept across the border.

Westward, we were treated with increasingly rolling hills and great expanses of autumn color, with maples, birch, and larch in full dress, framed by the increasingly common evergreens.  We had set an ambitious goal, to reach Sudbury, but, despite the headlong rush toward the sunset, we failed to gain enough minutes of daylight, and found ourselves groping in the dark around Sudbury for a place to park for the night.  Our first choice, a truck stop, was just a closed truck fuel station, with no overnight parking and no car facilities.  Next, we checked out a shopping center noted for proximity to restaurants and WiFi, but it was crowded and not at all level, so we ended up at a Walmart, our first foray into that mainstay of the Van Life and RV crowds.  Of course, in the off-season, there are only a few other hardy souls in residence, and it feels a bit spooky.

A cold, dark morning, in the back of the Walmart.  We quickly packed up and headed out to refuel.  Canadian Tire in Ontario had the lowest gas prices in Canada so far, $1.50 per liter, though we saw a few independent stations at $1.41.  That works out to $4.19 USD/gallon.  We ate our Tim Horton blueberry muffins we had purchased the night before and headed out into rain squalls on a dark highway.  Along the way to Sault St. Marie, we stopped at roadside rest stops and a beach on Lake Huron.  On our third attempt, we found the well-disguised turnoff onto the international bridge to Michigan, where we joined a very slow line at U.S. Customs.  We’re always a bit apprehensive about returning to the U.S., with the possibility of yet another car search.  But, the agent, an older woman, was kind and cheerful.  She did confiscate our left-over tomatoes we had purchased in New Brunswick a week ago, and suggested an author who writes mysteries in Quebec setting.

Fa;ll color from Nova Scotia through Minnesota was in full glory during this week. Here: Munising, Michigan, on the south shore of Lake Superior. Photo by Judy.

Once onto U.S. soil and finding cellular service, we headed west on M-28 across the Upper Peninsula, in strong winds and intermittent rain squalls, refueling in Marquette, $3.79/gallon.  Not finding any convenient stopping places in the sparsely-settled forests in the western half, we pressed on until dark, arriving at yet another Walmart in Ironwood, Michigan.

Lake Superior, Ashland, WI.

In the morning, it was very cold: only one other van and a car that we surmised was a Walmart employee who lived in his/her car.  Still, dark, we moved on, stopping at a lakeshore park in Ashland, Wisconsin at sunrise for breakfast.  Soon, we were through the short section of Wisconsin that has Lake Superior waterfront, and into Minnesota, skirting the city of Duluth and heading west on Highway 2, then backroads across the upper Mississippi River, where a rest stop was closed “due to vandalism,” so we pressed on to Hill City, which had a great city park and campground on the lake.   We passed through Walker, and across the Paul Bunyan Trail, at which we decided not to stop and drag out the bike to ride yet another segment: the day had warmed up, but we needed to move on before nights got too cold.  We drove along MN-34, parallel to the Heartland Trail we had ridden back in 2015.

We continued over the border into North Dakota, stopping to refuel at Fargo, and then raced two-thirds the way across that state before turning in at a Flying J truck stop outside of Mandan.  We’ve been spoiled by the Love’s Travel Stops, Irving Big Stops, and the Edmundston Travel Center.  This stop was not up to standards: the perimeter of the lot, where overnighters were directed to park, was dirt, not level, and the look and feel was chaotic and not well-monitored.  Nevertheless, we had arrived at sunset after a 530-mile/918-km rush across four states and nearly the entire Central Time Zone and weren’t anxious to move on to the next one.