This same conversation has played out countless times.
Someone gushes, “Congratulations on finishing Moab 240! What a huge accomplishment”
“Thank you. It was incredible”
But my answer falls flat, like I’m doing a disservice to my experience by struggling to find an adjective big enough to encompass what happened out there.
Even a long post, telling my story in sequence, doesn’t begin to capture the intensity that comes with 240 miles. But that’s ok, it’s mine to wrap up and keep for myself. No one else needs to understand it.
However, I find the curiosity from others still engaging and even I am still trying to find answers to the questions others have. So here is my best shot at sorting through those questions.
Yes, I slept. About seven hours total. Three hours at once at the half-way point, and the rest broken into tidbits in the back of the truck or trail naps on the cold desert rocks.
Yes, I hallucinated. Nothing too severe since I slept frequently enough, but my mind played games with me, for hours at a time. Making me question each rock and the shifting shape I was sure I saw on the edges of my peripheral vision. A chicken. A teapot. Dogs and people. Illuminated ghosts, skeletons and purple sparkly spiders, but those were real. I think.
Yes, I ate everything. For the first time ever, I was able to maintain my caloric consumption strong until the finish. At least 8 burgers, two breakfast sandwiches, three stuffed quesadillas, two bags of baby potatoes, two bags of mashed potatoes, four servings of ramen, two bowls of oatmeal, a whole box of Seven Summit Snacks of bars, sugar coated gummy candies, sugar-coated cashews, dozens of applesauce packets, fruit I wished had 500 calories in it, a whole box of Science in Sport isometric gels and nearly three bags of F2C liquid nutrition (maltodextrin for the win!) and half a bag of F2C Recovery shake mix.
When I finished, I crushed a beer 🍺
I didn’t throw up and only felt a bit nauseated once. I stayed annoyingly hydrated and I apologize to everyone that saw me pee on the side of the trail.
The temperature swung from -2’C at Shay Mountain to at least 28’C on the first day in the Canyonlands. I wore the same incredible, custom-made shorts and arm sleeves from Earthgroove Activewear the entire time, adding layers once the sun set. I often had a toque and sunglasses and a headlamp on at the same time because that was the only way to stay prepared for everything when you are out there so long. Twice, I went 20 hours without seeing my crew and I’m sure my pacers got real sick of me.
The altitude of the course went from 1200m to 3100m, taking me higher than I have ever been in our Rockies back home, and giving a total elevation gain of 8800m, or the equivalent of Mount Everest. Much of that was done in two major climbs, first up Shay Mountain and then ascending into the La Sal mountain range to Geyser Pass where we were treated to completely new terrain and sweeping views of the entire course, Shay a tiny speck on the horizon, making me question if I was ever actually there.
The climbs were hard, but I had trained for that. It was the descents that were brutal and had me moving at a frustratingly slow pace. Particularly on the plummet down the famous Porcupine Rim mountain bike trail at the end where I was wincing with each step on raw and swollen feet.
Many people have told me they followed my tracker, checking in over Thanksgiving dinner and from hot tub parties, toasting my progress with five consecutive morning coffees and four evening wines. My pacers read me messages, showed me videos of well wishes and even called up friends for encouragement when we got into cell service. My favourite was the steady stream of jokes sent in and relayed to me as I pushed through the dark points with laughter as best I could. Humour is an incredibly powerful antidote to pain.
“What do you get when you run in front of a car?”
I kept my mind busy by counting to 100, playing games, telling stories, focusing on only the Km I was in, remembering loved ones and remembering my ‘why’. I rejected the analogy of a ‘pain cave’ and instead embraced it as a ‘pain wave’; knowing that the pain would rise, crest and fall and I would be ok. At times it would feel unbearable, or return at an alarming rate, but I always knew I could ride it out. This is the price of admission. You can’t have the fullness of the ultrarunning experience without accepting these lows, waiting for them to pass.
Although I hit some pretty emotional lows, I also hit a lot of highs, and I never once considered quitting. I wished that sections of trail would end or that aid stations would materialize quicker. I swore a lot and cried a few times and at times could no longer muster conversation. The lowest points were remedied with a cry, a snack and a nap, as though I was a toddler, but without fail I pulled myself back up to keep going.
My two favourite parts of this race were the views and the people. Believe me when I say the pictures don’t do it justice. Moab is incredible for the variety and novelty of its landscape. Every turn seemed to bring something new, whether it was a gravity-defying rock formation or the biggest vibrant yellow Aspens I’ve ever seen, I never got bored of the views and they kept me motivated to keep moving. Even though half of the race was spent in the dark, it was still spectacular thanks to a full moon and bright stars illuminating ever-changing rock formations on the horizon.
And of course, the people were amazing. I’m a true extrovert and being mid-pack meant I was in the party the whole time. The crowd that is drawn to 200 milers are a bit different than those I meet at most ultras. I was surprised how many people are addicted to the 200 distance and have formed their own supportive community that races together multiple times per year, many of them doing it without outside crew or pacers. The support and comradery out there is exactly what I adore about this sport and I was thankful Nolan and I could contribute to helping another runner while he had a breathing emergency from a pre-existing condition at mile 210. It meant some terrifying moments that ended with him being air-lifted to a nearby hospital to spend a few days on a ventilator, but I am grateful we were able to offer some comfort at such a crucial moment.
My favourite people out there though? Were my people. My pacers Nolan, Tania and Denise kept me safe, moving, laughing, entertained and engaged for nearly 150 miles, and even though they each only got a sampling of the whole experience, my race became their own, with their own unique challenges and experiences.
And of course the ultimate support was my husband Kirk, out there for the entire time, with minimal sleep and juggling the logistics of keeping me sorted, meeting me on time, delivering pacers, hot-tubbing, getting our kids and my parents to an aid station and even volunteering for several hours at the last aid station so he could complete the final 18-mile section with me. It occurred to me that this was his longest ‘run’ ever too, made all the more impressive that he did it on minimal sleep, with a 4 am start, on technical trail, with a heavy pack, and finished it off with what probably felt like a grueling 5k when he hit the paved bike trail and I was able to actually run at a normal pace to the finish line.
At the risk of sounding like I’m accepting a Grammy; ‘Thanks hun, I couldn’t have done it without you.’ But seriously, these things require a lot of support.
My quickened pace at the end had him frantically calling friends and family to make sure they were waiting at the finish line on time. My kids threw together a gorgeous poster and my pacers were running in sandals from the parking lot as I rounded the corner to the finish line where I was feeling all the love and intensity of the last 101 hours, 22 mins and 57 seconds.
A race like this is doable thanks to a generous cut off that allows you to move slowly or take breaks as your energy levels change. Sleeping, even for short stints, makes this a very different experience then 100k or 100miler races and I truly believe that a distance of this magnitude is within reach of many people. And it’s definitely an experience I highly recommend.
This sort of summary barely scratches the surface of my time out there. The full story, in sequence can be found here and here, although even that cannot capture the depth of the experience that can only be found when you push those limits for so long. In the meantime, I suppose this will have to do. I mean, the belt buckle helps too.
I pull myself out of my warm sleeping bag in the back of our truck and say goodbye to Kirk in the freezing night air. Here we go again. Keep starting.
Denise was the perfect pacer for the next 50km section after the difficult push to Shay Mountain. We giggle our way down a windy rocky trail while the sun rises over the desert below.
Our humour matches the absurdity of the trail finds along the way; a head of lettuce, a smiling tarmac bunny, a foot.
As the day heats up, we pass a kid sitting in the small patch of shade under a scraggly tree in the middle of nowhere. He announces that there is a joke sale happening today and wonders if we are interested in a joke. We enthusiastically agree, nervous that we have not brought any money for such a timely sale. He points down the trail and says his sister will provide us with the joke; he is just the salesman. A girl, about 8 years old, in a chair near an equally scraggly tree with a sign that reads “Joke Sale” and another one she flips over to say “Go Girl!”. She again, asks if we would like a joke. The suspense is killing us. Deadpan, she delivers.
“What happens when you go running behind a car?
You get, EXHAUSTED.”
We die laughing. She remains deadpan. Her mother waves from a trailer 20 meters away, a knowing smile on her face.
We make good time on the flat gravel road to Dry Valley and again, beat our crew there by a few minutes. But there was no way I am leaving before they get here, I have been looking forward to this moment for days. My parents and kids had come to Moab the day before and were spending their time exploring, playing in the pool and waiting to see me. I had a deal with my mom that no matter what she saw, she was not allowed to ‘mom’ me and tell me to stop. She doesn’t. She brings her usual unconditional love and beaming smile. They are as excited as I am to reunite, and their hugs bring renewed energy. Katie tells me that my dorky desert hat is actually a trend and she knows lots of kids that wear something similar. Wait, what?!
I check in with a few friends, John the cop and Lucy from the start line, and hug my family goodbye before Denise and I continue down the hot gravel road again. I realize I forgot to thank Kirk and regret it for many hours. I can see he is stressed over crewing responsibilities, and I suspect he has slept less then I have so far. Taking care of someone running is as exhausting as running. I know this from experience, and I don’t take him for granted, but I know I didn’t show my gratitude well at this last busy stop.
Our laughter continues, helping mask the pain in my swollen feet as the road turns from gravel to pavement, the day growing hotter by the minute. Thunder crashes in the distance with a storm cloud over the La Sal mountains, but no reprieve comes our way. As we come within view of the Needles Aid Station many hours later and I pick up my speed to a quick run, amazed at how good it actually feels to shift out of the usual shuffle. We come up behind a fellow runner named Elliot, whom we had been playing leapfrog with for hours. I playfully yell that it’s a race, and he clearly understands the assignment, picking up his pace to sprint the last several meters into the aid station, all of us in full laughter, high fiving and jostling to get to check in first.
Nolan and Tania wait for me at the Needles Aid Station where they have volunteered for several hours, both to help out and to get another chance to see me and trade off pacers. Tania gets ready to join me for the next 50-mile section and it is time to say goodbye to Denise. Love her.
The Needles isn’t considered a sleep station, but they have a few cots in the medical tent so I hobble over to get my swollen feet up in the air. Someone brings me a burger, my meal of choice, and I start to shiver, even though the day is roasting. Tania helps cover me with some blankets. The lovely Conner and Pepper from the Island appear. I joke that he looks older and wiser then from the last time I saw him, and he just smiles and offers to check my feet. Pepper hops on the cot with me and Nolan comes to check my pulse to make sure my vitals are still ok despite my uncontrollable shivering. My eyes grow heavy and his face becomes blurry. I feel the burger slips out of my hand and Pepper jump down to follow it. Connor quietly announces he is done tending to my feet, his kindness as comforting as the blanket I am wrapped in.
But this is not a sleep station and there are only two cots that are reserved for runners needing medical attention. I can sense another runner hovering, waiting for a cot. I forced my eyes open and throw off the blanket, mumbling that I was just leaving; they could lie down. Keep starting.
I was off with Tania, each new start slower than the last as my right Achilles seems to tighten up ever since the ascent up Shay. But we are so excited to finally get some time to catch up; conversation comes easily as usual. I apologize she wouldn’t be getting much running, that most of my movement is as fast a march I can muster, with only a few bursts of running here and there. My energy begins to fade about halfway through the section to Road 46 even though it is not a difficult stretch. The sun starts to set on my third day out there. She opens her phone and shows me a hilarious video some friends back home had sent. I start to cry. Partly tears of joy at their support, but also because I feel so overwhelmed. Here we were, extremely remote and alone. And yet hundreds of people who are watching my location knew exactly where I am. I worry they will wonder what is taking me so long, or why I am not moving faster.
“All the lights that light the way are blinding” Ah, that British angst still propelling me forward.
I wish others can see what I am seeing. The way the full moon rises so quickly, or the way each strange red rock is surprisingly unique. I want to share this beauty with everyone that bothers to check my spot tracker location. And yet, I wouldn’t wish the pain in my feet on anyone. That is mine alone. You only get this after putting in the time.
Road 46 Aid Station has a Canadian theme, including Thanksgiving dinner fixings to celebrate the holiday I am missing back home. We beat our crew again by a few minutes, thanks to a quickened pace at the end, so I grab soup and sit down around the fire with other racers. The circle is quiet; tired runners with tired smiles, sharing stories and offering kindness. We hear the truck pull into the parking lot, so I take my soup, wish them well, and hobble to my crew. Another nap, this time a solid 90 minutes, and I wake up starving. Kirk hands me coffee and a big bowl of oatmeal with a smile and says “Good morning”.
I’m happy him and Nolan will get to go back to the cabin for a full nights sleep as I know Kirk is exhausted and I hug him extra long, thanking him and apologizing for not showing my gratitude at Dry Valley. Tania and I head off into the dark, cold night again for the hardest section of the race. It will be nearly 20 hours before I see them again.
The night brings the long slow ascent to Pole Canyon as we head to the La Sal mountains. I assume the view is beautiful in daylight, but all we get are stars and a full moon. The temperature drops dramatically as the elevation increases and we scramble to put on every bit of clothing we have packed with us. I worry it is not enough.
We pass the time by playing ridiculous counting and alphabet games to keep my mind sharp against the effects of sleep deprivation. “I’m going on a trip and taking Asphalt, a Baby, some Cutlery and Doritos” building on each topic until each repetition eats up several minutes of concentration. We switch to telling stories of first loves and high school sweethearts; the ones that got away. How strange to hear those long-forgotten names float through the desert air. We get passed. Again. This time by Wilco from Halifax. We chat briefly and our pacers gain ground, the difference in our energies noticeable. He wishes me well and catches up with his pacer and I hit a new low. Cold, exhausted and near tears, I tell Tania I need a rest. We pull out my bivy sac and I crawl in, oblivious to the cold rocks below me. Tania slips me a Tylenol and a caffeine pill, sets a timer for 15 mins and I disappear. She is frozen. I can’t imagine the agony she endures while watching the clock, wanting to give me rest but also wanting to move to stay warm. She wakes me and we are both shivering. I stand and wrap the bivy around my shoulders like a shawl. we keep marching. The gradual ascent continue.
The sky begins to lighten and we notice a significant change in the environment. Colourful deciduous trees replace cactus and desert shrubs. Welcome to the La Sal mountains.
Our timing could not have been more perfect as we hit the east side of the south mountains just as the sun peaks over the horizon at Pole Canyon Aid Station, lighting the sky and allowing us to see a mama deer and her two babies guarding the entrance to the tent.
I collapse on the medical cot and a kind volunteer hands me a breakfast sandwich I manage to stuff into my face before falling asleep for a half hour. I wake up to find Tania sitting around the fire, my pack ready to go. She hands me a coffee and invites me to sit to chat with Seana and her dog Daphne. We’ve met at an earlier busy aid station, but now we are the only runners here and her full attention is on us. She asks me my ‘why’ and I start to cry, telling her about those I’ve lost and how one day, two years ago I nearly lost my own life. She then asks me why I’m still sitting there instead of going to see my incredible crew and family. Good point. Bye Daphne. Thanks Seana.
Its daylight now and I’m refueled and ready to go to Geyser Pass, the hardest section of the entire course. Massive aspens, golden leaves, and an unforgiving rocky trail for hours and hours on end. We continue telling stories about people we know with alphabet prompts. L for Lehman, N for Nikki. S for Scott. Our pace is agonizingly slow despite my best efforts. Hours pass without seeing another soul and the race starts to feel surreal. Were we even on course anymore?
Tania tells me later it may be the hardest thing she has ever done. So slow. So beautiful. We crested at over 10 000+ ft (3200m). And were rewarded with views of the whole course. Arches, Canyonlands, Shay in the distance and it’s hard to believe how far I have come. Even harder to believe how far I still have to go. We get cell reception and a text comes to Tania from our friend Thomas so she calls him. He gets me laughing and I offer him my own joke sale for the day. Totally nailed it.
I ask him to ask how far I have gone and he obliges. Both of us are incredulous at the answer. But then it hits me. I have nearly 100km still to go.
The narrow and overgrown trail makes using poles impossible but not using poles feels even more impossible. I sit down on a log and burst into a deep heartsob. Tania gives me a snack, and lays me down on the side of the trail for another 15 minute reprieve.
It helps. Just. Keep. Starting. We get passed, again and again. Sometimes by people I assumed were way ahead of me. Sometimes by people I’ve never seen before. I give up caring about my finishing time. We didn’t account for this. No one could prepare for how the trail, the elevation and the distance would impact my pace.
The relentless trail finally spits us out onto a gravel road. A guy named Jared hits the road the same time we do. I will get to know him well soon enough, but for now, he pushes past me, says it’s a half mile to the aid station and time to move. He is wrong. It’s nearly two miles, and a steep climb up the road, but I find a new gear and push with renewed strength. Grateful for easy footing and steady climb. Tania drops back, frustrated and exhausted. I’m sorry.
I don’t know where this burst came from but I’m going with it. I just want to see Kirk. The truck drives by, cheering. My throat closes with emotion but I’m still breathing hard so it comes out in wheezes. Kirk runs back to walk me in the last few hundred meters and I can hardly talk, can only pet the dog that has come to say hi. I check in, thankful for a proper outhouse and another burger. Tania emerges from the bathroom and we share a long hug. That was hard, but that’s nothing compared to the journeys we have shared before. I couldn’t have done it without her.
I lay down for another 45 minutes but I don’t sleep. I can hear my crew outside the truck, it’s too light out, and I’m too jacked up from hitting 200 miles. I channel my frustration into checking out of the aid station and marching down the road to take on the next section with Nolan again as my next pacer as the sun sets on day 4. I hope Tania can get some rest after our long journey; I feel we have a lot to process to figure out what happened out there. But for now, Nolan and I hit some single track and I’m surprised at how good the climbs feel. We pass the glowing eyes of cows and deer, watching us from just off the trail and I am thankful that big predators are rare here. “Hi Cows”.
The trail ends onto a gravel road descent where I maintain good energy and even manage to run a fair bit (although I’m sure Nolan might feel differently about my definition of ‘run’ at that point!). I am happy with my progress, the stars and the views of the La Sals behind us. The end feels in sight.
Ahead I see a cluster of headlamps on the side of the road. I’ve seen this scene before when I have come up to a runner out of water, fixing their feet or pausing for a break while other runners stop to offer help or share comfort. This is the 200-miler attitude.
But this scene is different. Packs are ripped apart and the contents on the ground. The runner Jared, from Geyser Pass, and his pacer sound urgent, and they tell us “This is serious. Breathing emergency” Nolan jumps in “I’m a paramedic” and I’ve never been so relieved he was along with me. The other two have military experience and seem to know what they are doing so I stand back, leaning on my poles, taking in the scene and letting the severity of the situation sink in.
His name is Mark, and his airway is closing thanks to an allergic reaction. It is a pre-existing condition that has chosen the worst possible time to flare up. He is still talking and is leaning forward, saliva dripping from his mouth and calmly explains that the disassembled sunglasses arms can help keep his airway open, or the white plastic object on the ground can be used for an emergency tracheotomy.
What?? My mind explodes. I want out.
And yet I want to help. I stand, paralyzed outside the circle feeling like I have nothing to offer and reeling with my own re-lived trauma from a life threatening incident. Nolan is doing all the first responder things, asking the right questions and checking the scene. I can’t get a straight answer from Jared if they have contacted Race HQ or 911. Yes, they have, someone is on the way, but no they haven’t. Jared keeps trying to call and gets cut off. I watch as he hangs up, over and over. He tells me to call 911. But they have already confirmed that help is on the way. I’m confused. It occurs to me that Mark must be too. He must be terrified.
I can do that. I drop my poles and grab an emergency blanket strewn on the ground. I introduce myself, struggle to stay calm, wrap the blanket around his shoulders and sit close. Uncomfortably close for a stranger, but he doesn’t flinch. The healing power of touch is the best I can offer. As long as he is still talking and responsive I am happy to keep engaging.
“What is your wife’s name?”
“Do you have kids?”
“We will get you home to them”.
We call his wife. She sounds lovely and I advise she stay at Race HQ instead of trying to go to Porcupine Rim; a narrow 4×4 road she would never make in the dark. She agrees to wait in town to hear where he is going.
“Help is on the way, You are doing a great job staying calm.” I share some funny stories from the day with nothing to do but wait for help to arrive; distraction is a powerful tool. I joke about his 60 000 unread emails and offer to delete them for him, he says ‘Go ahead. Unsubscribe’.
I can see texts pouring in from his family. He is loved. He needs to get home to them.
His airway shifts and breathing becomes more difficult so Nolan secures the sunglasses arm down his throat and has him clench it between his teeth to keep his airway open. ‘Come on help, what is taking you so long?’ I wrap the blanket tighter when I see he is shivering a bit. Miraculously I’m not cold. I always get cold when I stop but not tonight. Help arrives in a speeding SUV and there is a flurry of activity. He asks for Nolan to go with him and I beg for the same, but the vehicle is jam packed with gear in the backseats and there is no room, so Mark climbs in the front seat, sitting backwards, saliva dripping onto the seat as he struggles to breath. I can’t imagine how terrified he must be, but he seems to remain calm. I reach out one more time through the window to wish him well, tell him I’m honoured to have met him. A part of me wants to climb in the seat with him. Not just for his comfort but for my own as well. The full force of the fragility of life hits me and I desperately want to feel safe. Somehow the front seat of that SUV feels like that safest place for both of us. I realize afterwards how much that activated my own trauma of fighting for survival in the backcountry. How quickly things could have turned for the worse. But I don’t dwell on that now. Instead, we pack up and keep marching with our new comrades Jared and Matt as Mark and the medic race to the waiting helicopter that will take him to the nearest hospital. I find out later he is on a ventilator for several days, but makes a full recovery.
We stick with them, chatting, debriefing, being sort of ridiculous for hours back and forth before their headlights disappear out of sight ahead. I am fading very quickly, falling asleep while walking and barely coherent as my adrenaline tanks. I’m seeing things in the trees again and force myself to stare at the ground at the squished dead snakes because everything in my peripheral vision feels too scary and overwhelming right now. I’m thankful for Nolan; his energy is still high. He is patient and considerate, wanting to help, counting down until I can have another regular Tylenol, even though that does nothing to touch the pain. In hindsight, I should have stopped to sleep again. But Porcupine Rim feels close (it wasn’t) and I am excited to see Kirk. He alternates between a thoughtfully downloaded playlist with many of my favourite artists, and conversation prompts to keep my mind busy. At one point I whisper “Nolan, I can’t talk. I’m sorry” I don’t need distraction, I need to ride this wave of pain to Porcupine Rim within myself, Mark still heavy on my mind. The night doesn’t feel safe and I want it to be over.
Illuminated ghosts hang in the trees, following me with haunted eyes, but this time it is real. We are only a few hundred meters from the last aid station; Porcupine Rim with its Halloween themed decorations. I keep my eyes down so I can only see the glow of my headlamp resisting the urge to stop and examine each ghost to make sure it isn’t actually following me.
We arrive at the aid station where Kirk has been volunteering and he is ready to pace me for the last section. I tell him I will need some time to rest before we go. I am thankful to make it there, but deep down I am still feeling a strange mix of scared and brave. I think I thank Nolan for getting me there and his expertise with Mark, but all I can think about is drifting off for my last short sleep before the finish. Forty-five minutes later, I ask, “What time is it?” Kirk says 3:45 and I stare at my watch and say “No, that is how far I’ve run” He says, “Its both” and Denise laughs her infectious laugh. Let’s finish this beast. I start for
the last time.
I down some noodles and my crew puts on my heavy pack one last time. Denise is beaming at me and reading me funny things from a group chat from our run family. Nolan is pumped, so excited to see me off. Kirk is ready and I realize later this is his longest distance ever and this world of required gear and headlamps is new to him and yet he doesn’t complain once. In fact, he has a lot of fun, making friends along the way; he is well loved, as always.
Before we leave, I stop to use the outhouse and scream at the giant purple glittery spider placed near the seat; a cruel joke to my fuzzy brain. The volunteers and Kirk laugh at my expense, but I tell them it is still better then using buckets from other aid stations and I don’t really care. Mostly I just like to hear them laugh.
The descent from Porcupine should have been easy since it is all downhill from here. It is literally one of the most beloved downhill mountain bike routes in the world with stunning views and techy descents. As the sun rises I can see the whole course I have just completed; the mesa, hidden valley, canyonlands, Shay mountain is barely visible on the horizon. Was that even real?
I can see the long stretch of desert with a joke sale (and probably some bodies) buried somewhere out there, and the towering La Sal mountains that seem plucked from another world and plopped in this otherworldly desert. And now here I am, picking my way down the quintessential Moab descent to the Colorado river and the finish line. I want this moment to be more enjoyable. I have envisioned this for years, ever since I first dropped Kirk off there three years ago so he could ride this descent. But yet here I am, and every step is agony. My feet are raw and the loose rocks on the descent fry my nervous system with each screaming step. Moving fast feels impossible and yet I am so frustrated to feel so slow at yet another section of trail. My goal of finishing under 100 hours disappears quickly, so I embrace a new goal. Just. Finish.
Kirk is attentive, reminding me to eat, drink, helping me adjust layers as the sun comes up and the day heats, pointing out views and taking pictures.
The Colorado river comes into view but still seems impossibly far down, and yet, like anything that feels impossible, if you keep moving forward, it gets closer. And soon it feels like I can reach out to touch that river. I can hear the roar of the highway and even see where the mountain bike trail meets the paved bike trail, but with a cruel twist of fate, there is one last canyon to navigate. Its huge boulders have me scrambling on all fours just to get past. If there is one thing that 200’s have taught me it’s this: Stay humble. I crawl and whimper my way down the last canyon, about as humble as I’ve ever been.
We hit the pavement for the final 5km bike trail back to town and I miraculously get a new burst of energy. This feels easy, so I drink it up. Running sub 6:30 kilometres at times and it all felt amazing. Weirdly, I am using muscles I haven’t used in awhile and the pain in my feet no longer feels so sharp on the pavement. Kirk, not as used to running, is frantically texting while running to see if people are at the finish line, letting them know I am coming in much sooner then my tracker has projected now that I have sped up.
With only a 100 m to go. Nolan comes running towards us, ecstatic, but says he doesn’t know where Tania and Denise are.
I stop briefly. I don’t want to finish with out them. Thankfully, they meet me at the corner, trying to run in flip flops on tired feet. I round the corner to the campground at the finish line and I see my parents and kids holding signs and blowing noisemakers. I can’t stop smiling and my heart rips apart and explodes in a million pieces.
I see the finish line arch where I stood four days, 5 hours and 27 minutes ago; a different person. I throw down my poles in excitement and suddenly it’s all over.
I grip my knees and look up to see my pacers and crew coming up behind me. This was my dream, but it would be foolish of me to think I did this alone. I dish out sweaty hugs and cry my way through my “After” mug shot.
I had mentally prepared myself for the journey, but not for this. Not for the end. I want to pause it all and sip slowly from this moment. Candice Burt calls me over to pick out my belt buckle but it feels like an impossible decision. A belt buckle means both nothing and everything after what happened out there.
Everything in 101 hours, 22 minutes and 57 seconds.
101 hours, 22 minutes, and 57 seconds. 240 miles of forward motion.
When asked what it felt like, my only answer is “Everything”. It felt like everything jammed into 4 days. All the joy and all the misery you can imagine. All the beauty, laughter, exhaustion and awe. All my strength and all my overwhelming weakness. All the incredible highs and all the crushing lows had me curled in the fetal position on sharp desert rocks. And the views. Oh, the views. It was everything.
Everything in 101 hours, 22 minutes and 57 seconds.
Time expands and contracts out there, sometimes crawling as slowly as my painful shuffle and other times flying by as quickly as the moonrise over the dessert.
The timer started at 6 am on Friday morning. 250 of us, standing at the start line, reciting the “Destination Trail Pledge” that states “If I get hurt, lost or die out there. It is my Own, Damn, Fault.” A volunteer zip-ties the spot tracker on the shoulder of my pack, as if they are locking down the restraining device on a rollercoaster to say, “Hold on for the ride of your life.”
I smile at the woman beside me. Her name is Lucy from California, and she too is nervous, even though she has done an impressive number of 200+ mile races before. She tells me it is incredible, and totally worth it. I hope she is right.
I wave bye to Kirk in the darkness, and we are off, weaving through the town of Moab before heading up the mesa that towers over the sleeping town. I enjoy those early hours, the ‘free miles’, passing them with easy chatter with a woman named Linda from Toronto, who did her PhD in Edmonton. We know several of the same local runners and toss around stories of our run community back home. The sun rises and we come to the first aid station where I lose Linda, don’t see her again until after the race where we met on Facebook. This becomes my story. Connect with others, the lose them just as quickly, weaving our journeys at our own pace.
I share some miles with a young guy, who tells me he plans to finish in 48 hours as the youngest racer to complete the race. It is his first ultra race, and he is confident he can maintain the pace needed to blow the course record away. He asks if I have any advice. I tell him, “Stay humble. Stay curious. I wish you all the best”. I think I see him several hours later sleeping on the trail, and I’m sad to see he is listed as DNF. This distance has a way of keeping you humble, no matter your age.
At about 27 km I get to see my crew for the first, and last time on day one. I can’t find Kirk and Nolan in the chaos, but instead focus on what I can do until they get there. I debate continuing without seeing them, but thankfully, Nolan comes running across the parking lot, my recovery drink in hand. He grabs my pack, frantically apologizing for being late, citing a glitching spot tracker and heavy traffic. I tell him its ok, this is a long game, not a Nascar pit stop.
The day heats up on the next stretch to Basecamp. My phone fills with excited selfies of me and another cool rock, but each time I’m disappointed that the photos don’t do it justice.
So I settle in to enjoy it anyway, taking it slow and loving that the miles still feel easy. The last thing I want is to get heat stroke on the first day, and my strategy to stay covered, (with my super dorky desert hat and beautiful arm sleeves) seem to do the trick as I never once felt the sun-baked raw skin I feared.
Basecamp aid station fills with runners sprawled out in small patches of shade, many of them nauseous from the heat. I stop briefly to admire the giant tortoise that lives there, watching as he moves slowly through the sand, impervious to the heat. He too knows the secret to surviving the desert; go slow, pace yourself.
I pass some miles with two Wall Street executives, who tell me that many of their colleagues are also drawn to extreme sports. I love collecting these tidbits of information from each racer I pair with. Peter’s wife taxidermized a racoon, Sean makes the concrete forms that surround a casket in the ground, Jared has two cats that are 18lbs and look like leopards. You need to run on John Park’s right-side cause he can’t hear from his other ear thanks to years at the gun range and John Duncan Clark got his middle name because his mom loves Dunkin Donuts. Nikki once slept behind a Dollarama while doing a 350 mile ultra by Lazarus Lake and Dexi is running in memory of her dad; she got her adventurous side from him. “He would love this” she tells me, and a lump forms in my throat. Even though we are a rare breed of ultra-runners, we are all painfully normal humans, just out for a run in the desert.
A medic waits at the bottom of the Jackson’s Ladder Descent as we carefully pick our way down the mesa wall to the bottom of the canyon, and I realize I am slightly off course. I make a self-deprecating joke to a man nearby wearing bright shorts with rubber duckies on them, it’s John Dunkin Donuts Clark, and we will end up spending several more hours together after the sun sets, but for now, I put in time alone, appreciating the dropping temperature and drinking in all the desert views.
When I pause to help a runner that has run out of water, I match up with John again and we stay together through the Oasis aid station and onto Indian Creek, about seven hours to end the first day.
We don’t pause long at the Oasis before I pull John away from the snack table and back into the night. There was something about the way he sprinkles the conversation with ‘dear’ and easy laughter that made the night pass effortlessly, and before I know it, we are at Indian Creek where John was a true gentleman and let me use the tent with the toilet bucket first. Classy right? Unfortunately, this is where I lose him as my excited crew pulls me to the truck to regroup before the next section. We peel off my socks to examine the toll the glass-sharp sand had taken on my feet. To my dismay there are several blisters already formed and I know this will be my nemesis for the rest of the race. I have never struggled with blisters before, so this is uncharted territory. I entrust Nolan to clean, dry and tape them up and then sleep for an hour and a half. Kirk wakes me with his bright headlamp, telling me it is time to go. I’m completely disoriented but remembered the mantra I’ve rehearsed for this moment.
Nolan’s fresh energy is contagious as we leave Indian Creek, and we spend the first few miles getting caught up on what had transpired so far. As the sun rises, the trail has us weaving through the Canyonlands, past chimney stack rocks and through washed out valleys with difficult to follow paths. I am thankful for Nolan’s GPX on his watch keeping us on the right path and we rescue several other runners that have missed turns. No one needs bonus miles out here.
By mid-morning, we make it to the Island aid station where I down a huge plate of bacon, eggs and hashbrowns while a young volunteer medic named Conner fixes up my feet. He and his sweet dog, Pepper are from Wyoming, and he tells me it is his birthday. I ask what makes him want to spend his birthday fixing up people’s disgusting feet. He smiles, and just says he loves it. Pepper sticks close for snuggles, hoping for some dropped bacon even though his dad says it’s not allowed. I beg for Pepper to join me to Bridger Jack, and Conner just laughs. He doubts my sincerity.
Leaving the Island, we begin the long, slow ascent to Bridger Jack along a narrowing canyon wall that ends with a stunning view to appreciate how far you’ve come. The day was scorching, so we keep it slow and steady, taking in lots of salt tabs and water to stay ahead of dehydration. It’s common to pass other runners laying in small bits of shade under a rock, trying to find reprieve from the heat. Some look in rough shape, so we always check in; getting weak smiles and waves in reply, dismissing our offers to help. This is just part of the journey, and the strange human that willingly signs up for this seems to embrace the suffering without complaint.
Bridger Jack aid station means we have hit the 100-mile mark and were about to begin a very challenging section of the course heading up to Shay Mountain. (For my Alberta friends, picture running Sin 7 and THEN starting Leg 6). I make sure to take my time with this re-group, eating two burgers, re-examining my feet and enjoying the giggles of a little girl volunteering with her dad. It’s getting harder to re-energize with each new start, but I rally with a smile and pull myself out of the chair yet again.
Mercifully, the sun was losing its power and we begin a descent into a lush valley with technical winding trails and all new terrain yet again. Moab is full of surprises. Of course, to add further challenge to my day, my nose starts to bleed, dripping down my hands and mixing with the orange dust on the road, making it difficult to breath for the rest of the race as my nose fills with dried, dusty blood.
A long, wash out section with next to no flagging and lots of creek hopping has us both frustrated at how our progress had slowed. Nolan paused for a pee break and takes a wrong turn, leaving me on my own for about 45 mins as the trail grows dark. I trust he will find me again, and indeed he does, apologizing profusely. Thank god I don’t have to go into the night alone.
Knowing that the ascent up Shay Mountain is brutal helps me steel for the climb ahead. Thanks to encouragement from Nolan, I dig deep and power up the long and technical trail. I turn on my playlist, but to my dismay realize that only a few songs out of 12 hours of music have downloaded, leaving only a handful of songs on repeat. Oasis, over and over in my head:
“All the roads we have to walk are winding”.
Exhausted, I sit down to eat a handful of candy and my whole-body screams ‘Lie down’. Nolan scrambles to find a softer place, maybe pull out my bivy sack. But I told him no. “Right here. Right now. Just like this. Wake me in ten.”
“There are many things that I would like to say to you, but I don’t know how…Afterall, you’re my Wonderwall” My body rests but my brain does not.
The break is enough to renew my push up the trail to the summit. The cruel and unusual reward of climbing a mountain at night is you never know what you should be seeing. All I knew was the trail took a downward turn and the hardest part of the night is over.
There comes a time in an ultra where you have the choice to hold your emotions in or keep moving forward. You can’t have both. So, as we crested the top of the mountain I start to cry. I choose forward motion over suppressed emotions. Nolan is at a loss, checking that they were happy tears “Yes, of course” and gives me a quick hug.
My brain struggles to fill in the complicated gaps in sensory input I am unable to process. Hallucinations creep in to confuse me; a rock morphs into a chicken, a stump becomes a teapot, people and creatures jeering at me from the trees, shifting position as I pass. Even though I keep reminding myself it isn’t real, I still have to ask Nolan a few times for confirmation, each time his answer a patient “It’s just a rock”.
I had been warned the descent off Shay was followed by another relentless gravel road climb up to the aid station that was more than a little heartbreaking, and indeed it was. So, when I reach the aid station, after nearly 20 hours on the trail with Nolan, I cry again as Kirk, Tania and Denise meet me, the girls in cute onesies after volunteering for hours already that night. I wasn’t the only one who was bleary eyed and exhausted.
I had been told the race started and ended at Shay. If you could get there, you would finish, but your position meant nothing until you got there. I congratulated myself on making it halfway, resisting the nagging thoughts that I was already 11 miles past my previous furthest distance, and I was still only half way. While I slept for a few hours, warm in the truck, Kirk sat outside in temperatures below zero and shivered so I could get some rest; sacrificing his own comfort for my race. He was nearly hypothermic as he helped me and Denise (my next pacer) get ready to go. Nolan long ago showered and back at our cabin in Moab, fast asleep.
I had already hallucinated, bled, roasted, froze, climbed, descended and surpassed my furthest previous distance, all on blistered, bandaged feet.
Zero thoughts of quitting.
I just had to put everything I had already done behind me, start fresh and do it all over again.
The long answer is much more complicated. And it’s full of a LOT of unknowns. I read up on every bit of training theory on multi-day runs, watched a couple documentaries on 200’s and followed the Moab 240 Facebook group to glean some wisdom from previous finishers. Then I thought long and hard about what kind of experience I wanted to have leading up to the biggest race of my life and very quickly decided that there was no one right way to do this and I was just going to enjoy the journey.
What was my ultimate goal with training? Get to the start line feeling happy and healthy.
I’m just a few days away from toeing the line and am so happy to report that I’ve done exactly that. Getting ready for this race has been years in the making, ever since we spent a few days in Moab on the way to run Rim2Rim2Rim of the Grand Canyon. I was enamored with the Mars-like landscape and wild canyons and of course had to Google “Trail Races in Moab”. My eyes nearly popped out of my head when Moab 240 came up. I knew immediately where I wanted to set my sights.
At the time I was training for my first 100 miler at Sinister 7 in 2019 and lacked the confidence needed to even think about something as big as 240. But as I sat at the finish line at Sinister looking at my newly earned belt buckle I asked myself if I could turn around and do another 100 miles. My answer was an unwavering yes.
Moab up next.
We all know there was a lot about the next few seasons that didn’t go as planned. And although I technically got into the race for 2021 off the waitlist, it was only a few weeks before the race and I wasn’t even sure how covid regulations would impact my trip so I passed up the spot and hoped to get in on the lottery for 2022. I did a couple more 100 mile (plus) distances and lots of high volume and was pumped to get in for this year.
I settled on a training plan that felt very manageable, and similar to what I had used for training for 100 milers. High volume is important to get your body adapted to the high stress needed for race day, but pushing too far has diminishing returns. Eventually you spend more time trying to recover from big training efforts and you are no longer building your capacity, and may even be overtraining. I liked that this plan had a few big days and weeks built in, but that overall I just needed to be consistent and stay healthy. There was also a lot of flexibility within each day for how long I should plan to run, dependent on recovery needs and time constraints, which meant that some weekdays days, if all that I got in was a 6k, instead of a 16k, that was ok, at least I got out. Most days I aimed for the big number on the plan, but it was also really important to me to recognize that the body doesn’t count miles, it counts overall stress. And with a full time job, three kids (with their own busy schedules), a masters degree (nearly done), race directing Run On, co-leading Trail Sisters, and a cute dog that demands snuggles, I have plenty of other things to juggle on top of training.
I worked in a few races and big mountain days during my training to make the journey more interesting and because I love getting out with my incredible run family. I also had to somehow work in a five week hiatus to my training right when I should’ve been building, thanks to another once in a lifetime journey this summer with our 35 day road trip across Canada in Van-nessa. (Worth it!)
So, how did it look? How do we answer the unanswerable question about how to train for a 240 mile race?
I averaged about 100km weeks of running, and aimed for 1500-2000m elevation gain. My peak weeks took me closer to 150km and maxed at 4000m elevation gain. I worked in one speed session per week to build aerobic capacity, and had one or two days a week with double runs to build volume, which was pretty easy to do thanks to shorter runs with my son’s afterschool run club and 5-7km Thursday sessions leading Trail Sisters. I cross train with road biking, either on the trainer in winter or bike commuting when I can once the snow clears. While I still maintain strength sessions as best I can, I generally struggle to find the time for weight training when I’m already spending so much time running. So instead, I focused on mini-strength sessions throughout my day with things like lunges after a run or a couple sets of core or upper body before bed.
My longest run this training session was 100km at Klondike Ultra in June, but I made sure to build on that by following up with a 120km bike in Banff the next day to simulate long days on tired legs without burning out with high impact.
I also had plenty of big back to backs, like Iron Legs Mountain Race on Saturday followed by leading a Trail Sisters mountain summit on Sunday.
Or Assiniboine Pass followed by a brutal road run early the next morning.
The best simulation for a multi-day was at Golden Ultra Stage Race which had me feeling faster and better with each day of the race and was a nice peak to my training for Moab.
While my training plan was 20 weeks on paper, my actual training has been going on for years. Muscle and cardio strength can develop quickly but soft tissue strength is a much slower process. The body needs a long time to adapt to withstand high volume without suffering soft tissue injury. Thanks to years of consistency and bit of good luck, I have avoided injury leading up to this race and have generally maintained good energy levels. I say ‘generally’ because I did struggle with loss of my period and fatigue at times last year, however a couple diet and lifestyle changes helped me get my period back and have kept my energy levels high throughout these last six months.
But enough about training theory and numbers. As always, I’m far more interested in the other side of this ridiculous sport called ultra running. Or in the case of Moab, mega-ultra-ridiculous-can’teven-wrap-my-head-around-that-distance-‘running’. The enormity of 240-miles is mind-blowing to me even though I am the strongest I have ever been. As I pour over the race manual and study the map, I can hardly fathom how I will hit Shay Mountain Aid Station at 120miles (193km) at my longest distance yet, and will only be half way done the race.
I will likely see four sunrises, maybe even five. Will climb the equivalent elevation gain of Mount Everest (8800m) and cover the distance from Edmonton to Canmore (383km). I will go 12 or more hours between seeing my crew and will encounter weather conditions ranging from blistering exposure in the desert basin (hitting 30’C) to snow and extreme storms in the La Sal Mountains (as low as -7’C). All while carrying minimum 3L of water, and a few pounds of food, clothes and safety gear on my back.
There is a reason the race manual says “This is an Endurance Run, not a race. As such this is not considered a competitive event, but rather a life accomplishment”.
And it’s way to much to think about all at once. Whenever I do, it all feels too overwhelming. And that is where the psychological side of this training comes in. It is too easy to let self-doubt swallow you whole. I guarantee that every single racer that will stand at that start line on Friday morning will struggle with imposter syndrome. Who am I to think that I can do this? I’m not some elite athlete, I’m just some soccer mom that likes to run. Easy to think I have no business being there. That is just one of the many lies I combat every time I think of the magnitude of 240 miles. Instead of giving into self-doubt, I am choosing strategies that strengthen me and will propel me forward. A lot of those strategies require the acceptance of dichotomies.
I worked hard for this and deserve to be there. AND this is an incredible privilege I am not worthy of.
I am strong. AND I am devastatingly fragile against these harsh elements.
I can choose an attitude that rises above the discomforts of the moment AND its gonna hurt like hell and be a constant battle to ignore the pain.
I choose to remain curious, humble and embrace each stage of the journey. AND I need to be vigilant and aggressively solve problems as they arise.
I will enjoy the beauty in the people and scenery around me. AND I will want it to end so I can be done and return to comfort.
Other strategies are to break it down to make sections feel more manageable. That may require thinking of the race in chunks, breaking it down by days, sections with pacers, or between aid stations. Or even smaller if needed and tackling each kilometer, distance between trees or even by seconds. Like Amy Alain said, ‘you can do anything hard for 60 seconds’ The crazy thing is, time passes at the same rate whether I am sitting on my couch watching Netflix or if I am running 383km. I can go without the Netflix, but I don’t want to miss a thing out there on the trail.
The strategy that is already bringing me the most joy, and I am certain will carry me through some dark hours, is the incredible support around me. In addition to the messages and encouragement from friends who may think I’m crazy, but still think its cool, I have a phenomenal team joining me.
This would not happen without them. I don’t even think I fully asked Nolan, he just unhesitatingly said yes when I said I could use some help for the hardest section of the course. An accomplished runner himself, the timing felt right in his life to join us to experience an event like this. I didn’t formally asked Denise either, she was just always a given. Unwavering in her commitment to the sport and her friendships, I know she is 100% dependable and the perfect companion for a long time on the trail.
And of course, Tania, cause it would be weird to go on an adventure without her. Even though this is a huge ask from her, and for her support system that fills in for her, she seems so excited to be joining and I know she is exactly who I want out there with me for the experience.
Holding all this together is Kirk, crew chief and rockstar husband that has not only been fully supportive of my training, he is now taking the time out of his newly (and unexpectedly) rearranged life to get me there and take charge of the incredibly difficult job of keeping me held together and moving forward.
This definitely wouldn’t have happened without him. Thanks hun 🥰
The best part is that we are planning to have him pace me for the last section, about 30km to the finish line. It will be at an agonizingly slow pace. But together we will shuffle to the finish line where my kids and parents will be waiting. This is their race too, they’ve all put in work and sacrifice to support me to get here and they all get sweaty hugs even though they will squirm away and tell me I smell terrible.
I can never be ready. Another dichotomy.
I’m excited. I’m terrified. At peace. A bundle of nerves.
It’s kinda like those days towards the end of your pregnancy, where all that hard work of pregnancy is behind you, and although there is so much unknown ahead, you are ready to get on with things cause you know the journey is going to be amazing.
I wanted to write this ‘before’ because I know that once its all over, I will see everything so differently. Those days in the desert will change me. Kinda like how becoming a parent changes you. Parenting is far more incredible, and far more difficult then you could ever begin to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it, and I wouldn’t change it for anything.
I suspect running 240 miles will be a similar experience
It is bittersweet now that it is all over. While I look forward to clean showers and melting into a cuddle puddle with Bruno, I’m sad that years of dreaming about this trip are over. Of course, we have more adventures ahead, but we simply won’t get these years with the kids back.
Katie is especially impatient to get home. She misses her friends, her privacy and the comfort of her bedroom. But as she stands on the edge of starting high school, I want to tell her I know something she doesn’t understand yet. Once she takes that next step towards adulthood, everything changes. She will jump to test her wings, returning to us for safety and support as needed, before leaping away again. Tegan is not far behind; she is already so much older then her age. And I swear, Levi has grown three inches in only a month on the road. Must be all the fresh air and ice cream. This trip was so important for our family to take.
It was never about making it east at all, it was about making it there together.
Along the way we gained a whole new appreciation for this incredible country of ours and how we won the lottery of geography and history to be right here, right now. We were fortunate enough to have countless beautiful encounters with other Canadians along the way, with Newfoundlanders and Quebecois showing the greatest kindness, and Ontario drivers showing the greatest impatience.
I was also amazed at how safe I felt everywhere we travelled. Whether it was running alone or walking around late at night, we never once felt like our personal safety was threatened in the cities and towns we visited.
In contrast, we learned a lot about our dark history, and ongoing issues of race and injustice we continue to sort through as a country. So many of the historical landmarks we visited are riddled with the horrors of colonialism and deep rifts between the English, French and Indigenous peoples that were here first. On our way back through Winnipeg, we stopped at the Human Rights Museum to learn the moving accounts of Human Rights violations, and reparations we have undergone as a nation. A good reminder to remain humble, curious and willing to set aside our privilege to give equal voice and power to those that have been denied that in the past.
Apart from the people, what makes this country amazing, is the land. And there’s a lot of it. Vannessa barely scratched the surface when you consider the amount of wilderness that extends north, mostly uninhabited and loudly calling my name. And we’ve got a lotta trees. And rocks.
And soooo much water.
We stood in the Pacific, and Atlantic Oceans and swam in all five Great Lakes because that was Levi’s big goal for the trip. We even made it to Lake Michigan, which required an American detour on the way home but was definitely worth it.
We stopped at countless waterfalls; most notably the big flashy ones like Niagara and Montmorency.
And lots of rivers and lakes, also called ‘brooks’ and ‘ponds’ if you’re in Newfoundland, and I was so impressed at how easy it was to find water that was safe to drink everywhere we went. So many countries in the world do not have such accessible safe drinking water, and we have it in abundance here. Sounds like a resource worth protecting doesn’t it?
You know what else is worth protecting? Ice cream. If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you know that we take our ice cream very seriously in this family. While the best ice cream award still goes to the Big Scoop in Waterton, AB, we found some close contenders in Percé, and St. John’s, and Winnipeg and Old Quebec City …ok we ate ice cream every day everywhere we went and who are we kidding, it was all good.
We even had an emergency ice cream binge in Cavendish where we had to eat two pints of melting ice cream after our freezer ran out of propane. What a hardship.
Once and a while we introduced other foods into our diets, like poutine in Quebec, and fish and chips in Newfoundland, and bagels in Montreal, and Hard Rock Café in Niagara, and lobster, mussels and clams in PEI, scallops in New Brunswick, cheese and more cheese in Quebec, smoked meat sandwiches in Montreal, pizza from a vending machine in Ontario, pasties in Michigan and Halifax donairs in Halifax. Obviously.
To wash it all down we made sure to drink wine from Niagara and Gaspe, Moosehead Radlers from Saint John, Iceberg beer from Newfoundland and ciders from Anapolis Valley. And some American wine on the way home just cause it’s so much cheaper and I wasn’t about to argue with that.
It’s kind of fun when you travel to pick out little goals along the way to give some purpose and structure to your ramblings, and so one of our goals became to find the parliament building in each province to get a picture. Thanks to spending a year in Europe, I just love old buildings, and it seems our parliament buildings are the closest thing we have to old buildings in Canada, so mission accomplished.
We found ‘em all.
We also found the ‘Welcome to” signs of every province except Prince Edward Island! Either it didn’t exist or we missed it while travelling across the bridge in the dark. So, I guess that mission isn’t over yet.
Levi started collecting the dog tags from the Xplorer program in the National Parks across the country and amassed 11 of them despite visiting a lot more National Parks then that. Our National Park system is incredible and having an annual pass more then paid for itself several times over. I highly recommend.
Our favourite? Going to Levi National Park and finding a tag that felt custom made for our little explorer.
You know what else we found? A lot of weird ‘big’ things. Ya know, like big apples, and geese and a dime, and a nickel and lobster and moose.
So. Many. Moose.
Plus, the highways are riddled with signs warning drivers to be cautious of moose while driving, with the moose on the signs in Newfoundland looking especially formidable.
Guess how many real moose we saw?
One. Just one.
Thankfully we saw lots of other real-life animals too. Caribou in Port-aux-Choix, deer EVERYWHERE and a mama black bear and her two cubs at Riding Mountain in an incident a little too close for comfort even for this trail runner.
We found lots of smaller creatures like a bobcat near Thunder Bay, red foxes in PEI, mink in Michigan, black fox with a white tail in Newfoundland, Mississauga rattle snake in Bruce Peninsula, skunks, beavers and so, so many racoons in Nova Scotia. Most of them dead on the side of the road, but one adorable family was alive and well and looking mischievous.
Herons, pelicans, common gannets, cormorants, yellow finches, wild turkeys, peregrine falcons, bald eagles, quirky puffins and of course so many angry Canadian geese mixed in with a few million squawking seagulls.
We got some glimpses of whales and porpoises but have to go back because Kirk is dying to see a whale breach and that didn’t happen on this trip.
Vannessa did amazing. Far better then we ever imagined a 1981 Chevy Van would ever do. Other then adjusting a few things along the way, lots of oil top ups and a new wheel bearing, she preformed flawlessy. I mean, her window leaks a bit and the furnace cover won’t stay on, but that’s ok.
Oh. And she’s a guzzler. But we decided early on we weren’t going to worry about addressing her drinking habits right now as she is still able to function at a high level despite her indulgences. Her next family can host an intervention if they want her to change. We just practice harm reduction and love her as she is. She lost four out of five of her top front light covers, a fender, some trim pieces, and a sewage hose, but don’t worry, Karma sent us another one that Kirk actually fished out of a dump station.
That’s my man.
As I was writing that last paragraph, we heard a pop, and the sound of sprinkling glass while barreling along the flat roads of Saskatchewan. The top front window took a rock from the grain truck ahead of us, and shattered, raining glass all over the bed and onto Levi at his spot at the table. Spoke too soon.
Good thing we only had a few more hours to go. A piece of scrap melamine and some duct tape and we Red-Greened it good enough to get home. Phew.
To sum: 35 days
14980km with Vannessa + 2750km with a rental SUV for a total of 17730 km.
(If we include our BC trip in April, our total is 10 provinces with an additional 2500km for a grand total of 20 230km, or half-way around the world.)
17 hours on three different ferries.
A 4 hour bus ride
5 people in 147 square feet.
More $ in fuel then we ever imagined with prices ranging from 1.25/L in Michigan to 2.10/L in Northern Ontario and Vannessa guzzling 24L/100km. We aren’t even going to bother with that calculation.
Exploring New Brunswick actually happened in two parts. First, on the way to Prince Edward Island, and again after our return from Newfoundland. Which is fitting, since it felt like an in-between province anyway; not quite French, and not quite Maritimes, it has its own quiet charm and we enjoyed a few of the gems it has to offer.
But first, Vannessa needed some love. You know how it is with us middle-aged ladies, we’re tough as nails but we still require occasional maintenance. We were noticing a new sound that Kirk figured was the wheel bearing needing to be replaced. Some very helpful parts dealers and a few detours to parts stores along the north coast and we got the parts we needed. ‘Operation Wheel Bearing’ happened in Shediac, mostly because it was a good place for the kids and I to explore while Kirk got to work.
Lobster roll dinner and pictures with a giant lobster was enough to keep us entertained, while Kirk was entertained by a old local guy that saw him in the parking lot and stopped to keep him company (or maybe to supervise?), even coming back with water and an ice cream sandwich for him. Another example of maritime kindness we certainly appreciated.
Unfortunately, the strange sound persisted after the wheel bearing change, and even seemed to be getting worse. Kirk made the rounds with a tire iron and was horrified to realize that four out of five of the lug nuts on the back wheel were loose. Something he definitely checked before the trip started. Which means there is a good chance someone loosened them on us. We blame the racoons with their tiny opposable thumbs. I’m not sure what is scarier, the racoon theory or the more likely theory that a human lacking a conscious targeted Vannessa for some reason. Either way, we fixed it before calamity struck and were happily on our way. It takes more then a loose lug nut or two to shake us up.
New Brunswick is perhaps most famous for the high tides on the Bay of Fundy, where all the power of the ocean is funneled into a shallow bay, making for dramatic tide changes throughout the day. One of the best places to experience the changing tides is Hopewell Rocks, where unique rock formations are submerged, and exposed within each six-hour tide change, and you can walk on the ocean floor among the rocks at low tide, as long as you are mindful of how getting out quickly, so you aren’t trapped by the water that rises as fast a foot a minute. Squishy mud, hermit crabs, jellyfish and lotsa cool rocks made this a fun place to play for the morning. Then picnic lunch, a nap and voila, back to the same viewpoint that looks completely different at high tide.
A stop to explore Fundy National Park where we were hoping to swim at the outdoor pool near Alma, but a severe staff shortage meant they were operating at half capacity so the wait to get into the pool was far longer than Levi’s patience allowed. We hit pause on the province and crossed the Confederation Bridge to PEI .
A few weeks later, we were headed back to New Brunswick to finish the tour.
It was a hot day, so we took a long stop at Heather’s Beach, (which is actually in Nova Scotia), near Pugwash, where I saw ZERO pugs. I want pugs, and I want them getting baths. I’m very disappointed.
I miss my puppy 😢
Despite feeling so let down over the lack of dogs, we enjoyed playing in the red sand and walking out into the shallow water to perfect our new clam digging skills and find more hermit crabs. Tegan, the fish of the family, could spend all day in the sea and be perfectly happy. Is that why we say “Happy as a clam”?? She was definitely that.
Happy as a clam.
Turns out, there wasn’t wasn’t a whole lot more to do in New Brunswick. By the time we started heading west, it was hard to muster the enthusiasm for much else. The kids had even lost track of where we were. Tegan casually commented that it was so weird that there were so many New Brunswick licence plates all of a sudden. Erm… cause we are in New Brunswick maybe??
Into Saint John where Kirk remembers watching jet boats take tourists up the reversing falls in ’94 and being very impressed. However, after checking out what Wikipedia has declared is “The Worst Tourist Attraction in the World” we decided that what 13-year-old Kirk was actually impressed with was the jet boats, not the reversing falls. It’s a cool concept though, the outflow from the Saint John river competes with the inflow of the high rising tide and the water churns and reverses directions as the tide changes. Not worth the visit, but worth the laugh we had about. We will take a jet boat ride another day.
Our stop in Fredricton was also short lived when Tegan tried to jump a post and rolled her ankle instead.
But just when we thought we were done the New Brunswick, we made the excellent decision to pull over to see one of the covered bridges that the province is noted for. I’m sure it was haunted, but it made for some pretty pictures.
And some creepy ones.
New Brunswick makes some great potato chips and has excellent seafood and impressive fluctuating tides but other that we weren’t sure what else to explore.
One last goodbye to the Maritimes before heading inland for good.
“Um. Are you serious? How about the overnight ferry?”
“August 2nd. There’s always room for foot passengers though.”
There goes our dreams of driving Vannessa all the way to St. John’s.
We really didn’t do much pre-planning for this trip. But the one thing we did do, was look into the ferry to Newfoundland. I had checked the website repeatedly, and saw that advance reservations were not required, although were recommended. And every time I checked availability, it showed there was lots of space. Since we weren’t following a schedule and had no idea when we would be ready for the ferry, we decided to wait until we were a few days away before booking. However, thanks to a heartwarming campaign called “Come Home 2022” put on by the province of Newfoundland, unprecedented numbers of travellers were going back to their beloved island after two years of pandemic restrictions kept the Newfoundland diaspora away.
Great news for Newfoundlanders returning home.
Bad news for us and Vannessa.
The amount of problem solving (and cost) of navigating a massive province with three children, no vehicle and not great public transit felt overwhelming. At one point in Nova Scotia, we even gave up, accepting that we wouldn’t make it all the way east. But after a good sleep, some fresh resolve, and a lucky phone call to Enterprise as soon as they opened, we managed to snag what was likely the only rental vehicle left on the island. Unfortunately, it was in Deer Lake, a few hours from the ferry terminal, and only available for four days and there was still a whole lot of logistics to sort out to make it happen. We booked the SUV and decided to go for it.
We picked up some duffel bags at Walmart, packed the bare minimum essentials, found a parking spot for our dear Vannessa (promised her we would be back) and set out on foot.
We felt a bit like the intrepid explorers of Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition to Antarctica, being forced to leave behind their beloved ship and venture into the unknown with survival their only goal. Except instead of lifeboats across the polar ice, we had a comfy ferry, followed by an SUV with AC and satellite radio. Regardless, our brave little explorers did a great job of rolling with the changes, even digging deep when travel felt pretty uncomfortable.
The ferry drops you in Port-aux-Basque, a sleepy harbour town with not a lot going on. However, the hearty souls that live there are some of the friendliest you’ll ever meet. The lady at the front desk of our hotel offered us her vehicle for the week!
Instead, Kirk opted to take the arduous bus ride to Deer Lake while the kids and I loitered around the town, killing time like a couple of vagabonds. We wandered the streets, made friends with the staff at Tim Horton’s, found a purse that belonged to a woman that lived in Alberta and helped her reunite with it, shopped at Riff’s and had a contest at the grocery store to see who could find the weirdest local food.
Levi won when he came back with a giant jar of pickled wieners that had us laughing so hard I was worried we would drop it and get kicked out of the store. We ended up buying Purity’s Square Milk Lunch which are quite possibly the most blah food product you could imagine.
After an hour of playing at the only playground in town, Tegan said “Today was awesome, I forgot how amazing it is to just do nothing for a day.” I agree. I don’t remember the last time I just did nothing for the sake of killing time and how refreshing it was to know that there was nothing else I could (or should) be doing.
I also don’t remember when I last laughed so hard with my kids. Coincidence? Nope.
Kirk, on the other hand, did not have such a great day, covering all that ground just to come back to retrieve us with our new ride. But finally, we were off on the final stretch east.
Except first we went north.
I was on a mission to find caribou.
Throughout all my travels, and despite all my valiant efforts, I had never seen a caribou before. When I was 13, my family went to Aklavik, NWT to visit family, and we spent an entire day on snowmobiles and dog sleds (with the huskies riding in the dog sleds with us instead of pulling us!) looking for an elusive migratory herd that we never found. Then in Iceland we found domestic reindeer, which was pretty cool, but not the same. Then I missed out again when running Tonquin valley with zero caribou sightings. We had it on good authority that Port-aux-Choix was the place to go since they rarely left the peninsula. And sure enough, it was just as easy as that. They were waiting for me by the lighthouse, just chilling with their babies.
Bucket list item checked.
Back through Gros Morne National Park where we took in a few hikes to see some gorgeous views and explore one of the few places in the world where you can see the Earth’s Mantle, the layer of rock below the crust, that was pushed up and exposed during continental drift. The rock is toxic to plant life so the hills look naked and kinda orange thanks to oxidation of the iron in the rocks.
Like Trump on a beach vacation. You’re welcome.
We could’ve spent a lot more time there, but the northern peninsula is huge, and the clock was ticking so we kept heading east, taking the scenic route through cute fishing villages where the cod industry once thrived before the cod moratorium changed Newfoundland life forever.
Kirk and I often commented that Newfoundland reminded us of Iceland, and we were pretty excited to stop at rock in Elliston that was covered in Puffins, just like we had seen in Iceland. Same adorable birds, an ocean apart, this time with our kids to witness them too.
Finally, we arrived in St. John’s on a gorgeous summer evening. We walked through downtown, strolled Water Street and Jellybean row with the quirky colourful houses and found some pretty amazing ice cream thanks to a recommendation from my Newfoundland friend Jill. We definitely weren’t done with the city, but the sun was down and we had an early morning date with the sunrise.
(Have you ever tried getting a 15-year-old nightowl up for sunrise?)
Bleary eyed kids, cursing missed turns and racing east on winding roads before we made it to Cape Spear just as the sun peaked over the horizon at the most easterly point in North America. Could this moment get any more beautiful?
Just to make sure it was perfect, some whales decided to play close by while we watched. OK, now its perfect. Let’s just enjoy this moment. Its all roads west from here.
Travelling is funny like that, sometimes you work so hard to reach some arbitrary destination, stop, look around, and move on. The goal is to experience it simply because you haven’t before. Don’t get me wrong, making it to Cape Spear was incredible. But although that was our ‘goal’, it really wasn’t the purpose of the trip. The purpose of this trip was all the moments along the way to make this absolutely unforgettable. Whales, lighthouses and a sunrise was the bonus.
Kinda like the medal at the end of an ultra. The true value is in the journey that led you to the finish line, the medal just commemorates it all.
Speaking of running.
I was thankful to sneak in a quick run up Signal Hill to let these restless legs fly before another long journey back to our overnight ferry scheduled on the other side of the island.
A seven hour drive, with lots of construction delays and stops for food at busy, understaffed fast food joints, then a four hour bus ride to the ferry, then a seven hour ferry ride, ten minute walk and we were back at Vannessa, happy with our whirlwind tour of gorgeous Newfoundland that left us wanting more.
Hey Labrador, you must have some treasures waiting to be discovered? Seriously though, what is up there? (They have mountains!) For now, we were just excited we made it all the way across this vast country of ours. What a strange feeling to be closer to Europe then to home, yet still in the same country.
So far from home. I guess this journey isn’t over yet.
I don’t want to rush this. I want to soak up every ounce of goodness and every fragment of time the universe will give us because I know this will all be over too soon.
Another maritime province to explore. This is going by too fast.
After leaving Prince Edward Island at night, we woke in a quiet town called Amherst, armed with a list of things to see in Nova Scotia. It was an incredibly windy day and poor Vannessa got a good workout by pushing headwind and navigating the narrow hilly roads down the north west coast of the province. When the tide is low on the Bay of Fundy, the banks of all the inlets turn to mud slicks that look like they would be so much fun to slip and slid down, and there are rafting companies that offer tours to go play in the mud. We were really tempted to try it out but cost and miserable wind were enough of a deterrent to opt out. Can’t do all the fun things can we?
Burntcoat Park was a good alternative to go explore the low rocks at low tide and wander into caves and over tidal pools that will be under 40 feet of water in a mere six hours.
Further along the coast we were into Anapolis Valley where most Nova Scotia’s produce is grown and is the site of early Acadian settlements. Unfortunately we just missed the last tour of Fort Anne, but we’re still able to wander around the grounds making up our own theories on what the fort was used for. I’m sure the canons and dry moats are only decorative and meant for us to climb all over them for pictures. No war, right? ✌🏻
While Kirk and I bought local cider, Levi ran down the street to scout out the nearest ice cream shop. The ice cream lady watched him for awhile, bemused by the little guy who was intently studying the posters of the insurance agent next door. She came outside and stood beside him and asked if he would like to buy some insurance. He looked at her with great offence and said ‘No’ and ran away while she looked on with a smile on her face.
Of course, we went back to the correct store to buy the ice cream and explained to Levi he may actually want to purchase some insurance one day. In the mean time, ice cream is better.
We felt like we won the lottery yet again when we left the coast to cross over the middle of Nova Scotia to camp at Kujimkujik National Park. The kids were drawn to the perfectly warm lake water next to our campsite, and spent hours splashing and laughing while playing with a big floating log. Sometimes it’s the simplest things that are most fun, right?
We cooked up our bucket of clams we dug in PEI after a steep learning curve and a lot of interneting to figure out how to clean and cook fresh clams. I was a little sad to eat them cause we grew kinda attached to them after watching them spit and poke out of their shells all day. Although I don’t think they liked me cause one of them spit all over my face when I leaned in to tell them they were cute.
Our clam dinner was amazing and we ended the night by start gazing by the lake where the stars actually reflected over the glassy surface.
Can we just freeze time?
Up the pretty southeast coast of Nova Scotia we wandered the adorable fishing village of Lunenburg with the required tour of the BlueNose II. Villages like Lunenburg are straight off of postcards with the cute brightly painted houses right on the water and it’s pretty easy to spend a few hours just meandering up and down the hilly streets enjoying the views.
We stopped at a place called “The Ovens” to hike along the cliffs and see the sea caves as best we could from above. Deep tunnels go under the rocks into big caves that echo like canons as the waves ricochet inside. The hardest part about that stop was convincing Kirk he couldn’t go down inside the caves because he would definitely die.
The east coast fog rolled in as we neared Peggy’s Cove, another iconic harbour town with a beautiful lighthouse on the rocks. There were lots of people milling about, and we had fun playing on the rocks and exploring the town, I’m sure we ruined a few touristy photos with our rock hopping under the lighthouse.
Once we were into Halifax Kirk was on a mission to try a Halifax donair with its signature sweet sauce. Thankfully the kids also quiet liked them, which is always a win when we find something everyone can agree on.
Other then delicious donairs, we also found the lovely Halifax harbour once the fog burned off, and wandered all the way from the infamous Pier 21 to the HMCS Sackville before dragging our very reluctant children up the steep hill to see the Citadel, another star shaped Fort complete with more decorative canons and actors in period costume. As we entered through the thick stone wall gates, a light bulb went off for Tegan when she realized she had done a school project about the Fort and had found it on google earth. Look it up, it looks pretty cool from above!
Before heading to Newfoundland, we wanted to spend at least a day in Cape Breton, getting to know this unique island that feels like it should be its own province. It’s mix of Celtic and French and a whole lot of rugged beauty we really loved exploring. The best way to see the island is to drive the scenic Cabot trail, a 280km loop that had Vannessa working hard on the climbs and whooping with joy on the descents. The views were incredible and I made Kirk pinky promise we would come back one year in the fall when the trees were changing to road bike the loop. He’s in. Yay.
With plenty of stops at lookouts, summits, ice cream (of course) and the Alexander Graham Bell Site we jammed a lot into one day. I’m a big fan of Mr. Bell, did you know that he considers the telephone the least of his successes? His proudest accomplishment was his work with the deaf community and development of speech strategies to improve communication and integration into society. As the mother of a hearing impaired son and an employee at a school for children with communication delays I was ready to high five his ghost in appreciation. Phones are cool too, I guess.
The day was hot and we were ready for a late swim at the beautiful Ingonish beach, where the waves were perfect for body surfing. All three kids were in there having a great time until Kirk found and big ugly eel and that was enough for Katie to decide she was happiest on land (like I am!). We were quite content to listen to her eclectic playlist together and watch a bride and groom from Keltic Lodge get their pictures on the beach instead.
A sunset walk down Middle Head trail was the perfect way to solidify Cape Breton in our minds as a beautiful, rugged and likely a lil haunted treasure of the maritimes. We told ghost stories as we walked through the thick forest in the dark, back to the beach. We were all in desperate need of a cleaning so we rinsed off at the beach outdoor shower in the deserted parking lot under the cover of darkness. Which was fine, until a ghost walk tour group emerged from the trail nearby carrying lanterns through the trees.
Yeah, this place is definitely haunted.
Let’s try further East, see what it’s like. Newfoundland up next!
Life on the road has settled into its own comfortable rhythm with Van-nessa. The basics of survival are distilled down to finding groceries, water, sani-dump stations, showers, fuel, a place to park overnight. Sometimes we sleep under fluorescent lights and busy roads in Walmart parking lots, sometimes we get sunsets and starry nights at serene campsites. Our space is small, but we are perfecting the (sometimes impatient) dance to make our tiny home on wheels work. Sometimes the kids complain they want their space and the comforts of home, but mostly we are content with what we have.
I remind them: you can’t have a comfortable life AND an adventurous life all the time. Usually, it is a trade off.
And its worth it. Living in a van is a good exercise in remaining fully present and only tending to what is happening right in front of you. Thankfully, Prince Edward Island is a pretty spectacular place to be fully present.
We crossed over the Confederation Bridge from New Brunswick to Prince Edward Island just as the last bit of sun was disappearing below the water. The bridge was under construction when both Kirk and I went to PEI in the 90’s, so this was new for everyone. At 12 km long and ranging from 40-60 meters above the water (which freezes in winter!) it is quite the engineering feat, that many islanders say irrevocably changed PEI culture.
Sunday morning and we headed to Charlottetown to browse a flea market where Katie found all kinds of treasures she insisted enhanced her vibe. Whatever that means.
Then to Queen street for the Charlottetown farmers market and to wander around the beautiful harbour, complete with lots of treats and browsing for whatever caught our eye. We were hoping for a picture of the parliament at the home of Confederation but it was entirely under construction so a picture in front of a picture was a quirky enough alternative. Does that enhance my vibe? I think so.
The island is super small. 280km long and as narrow as 6km in some places, so it didn’t take long to drive around most of it, stopping at picturesque lighthouses as we went. On the north side of the island is Prince Edward Island National Park, where we lucked out with another beach front campsite at Cavendish, played in the red sand and watched the sunset over the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
When Kirk travelled across Canada as a teen, they spent most of their time in PEI visiting relatives, many of whom still live there. Much to his mother’s dismay, we did not contact any of them to go visit on this trip. Kirk’s only memories of meeting them was feeling bored out of his mind with yet another cemetery visit and family BBQ, and desperately wanting to go to the beach. So, this time we made sure to maximize beach time by spending a hot afternoon at Cavendish beach between sand dunes and the surprisingly warm water, soaking up the sun.
We also made the stop at iconic home that inspired Lucy Maud Montgomery to write Anne of Green Gables, which is, in my opinion, one of the best pieces of Canadian classics ever written. The house was adorable, and the “Haunted Woods”, “Lovers Lane” and “Babbling Brook” were equally quaint. Katie, an author herself, was astounded to learn that Kirk’s family is related through marriage to Lucy Maud Montgomery, a fact she has heard dozens of times before, but only sunk in once she was standing there, reading snippets of Lucy’s journal entries and her thoughts on being a writer. It is pretty incredible to think of how one character, one simple story has had such an impact on so many people and both captured and shaped Islander life so perfectly.
Of course we promptly bought tickets to see the musical production of Anne of Green Gables for the following night.
But first, seafood. To New Glasgow Lobster Supper we went. A low-key lobster dinner place that Kirk recalls going to on their visit. For over twice the price of a lobster dinner in ’95, we each ordered a lobster that comes with all you can eat mussels, seafood chowder, hot dinner rolls, salad and dessert. I don’t get as excited about lobster as most people do, but I admit pretty delicious. Mussels on the other hand? I just don’t get it. I always try them and am disappointed every time. I can’t be the only one that thinks they taste like mud pate, am I?
We spent our last night in PEI at a campsite called Cumberland Cove upon the recommendation of my good friend Lori. It is a humble piece of grass along the shore, owned and operated by a cute old couple that were more then happy to show us treasures they found washed up on shore (a 3000-year-old arrowhead from England!) and gave us a bedazzled shell and sand dollars as mementos of our stay. It was getting late, but the tide was out, and we couldn’t resist another walk along the ocean floor. I sent some pictures to Lori and she wrote back “Aw that makes me so happy and so sad at the same time.” You see, Lori’s parents had a summer home a few houses down the dead-end red road opposite the campsite. Lori and her family loved to spend a few weeks in the summer playing on the same ocean floor, searching for sea glass and jellyfish, and spending time with her parents. Not long after their last visit, Lori’s father passed away, rather unexpectedly. Her mom sold the house and they have never been back.
The people we love, the places we visit and the feelings they bring, braid together to create a memory. What happens when one of those strands unravel and the memory shifts? I guess that’s the fleeting and devastatingly beautiful thing about our experiences. What will we take away from our experiences on this trip? Is it the beaches of PEI, our uncontrollable laughter while we drew funny characters in the sand or the fact we were all there together as a family? The ocean floor at Cumberland Cove felt a bit like sacred ground, knowing that it is so special to someone that I care about, even though the place meant nothing to me prior.
However, the next morning, we stamped our own memories on the ocean floor when we spent several hours digging for clams on the sandbar on a moody, rainy morning. New memories my kids will tell their future partners and bore their children with on new roadtrips in 25 years.
A bit more touring around to see some more beautiful lighthouses before we headed back to Charlottetown to catch Anne of Green Gables: The Musical, which was of course incredible. I cried when Matthew Cuthbert died. Just like I do every time. I think its because his character reminds me of my Grandpa who passed away several years ago. My memories of him are happy/sad all at the same time too. That’s just the way it goes sometimes.
Back over the long Confederation Bridge in the darkib. ‘Night PEI and thanks for the memories.
Both Kirk and I know what it feels like to be a foreigner in an unfamiliar place. But other then some beachy trips to Mexico they barely remember, our kids haven’t had many opportunities to experience travelling…like, real travelling. Where everything feels exciting simply because it is different.
As the signs switched to predominantly French when we crossed the border, I hoped that going into a place as unique as Québec would fuel their wanderlust the same way it did for me back in ’94.
I feel like Québec remains a bit of a mystery to us prairie folks. We mostly just feel frustrated over words like ‘transfer payments’ and the wave of Bloc Québecois seats in parliament that feel irrelevant to us, but I really don’t hear much else about the province. And we of course worried that we would not be well received with our clunky van and virtually non-existent French skills.
First stop was Montréal, where we headed straight to a bike rental shop to get fitted with bikes to tour the city and avoid the same traffic woes we had with the CN tower parking nightmare in Toronto. It was hot out and our time was limited because the rental place closed at 6, but we made a nice loop along the Lachine Canal to the St. Lawrence, stopping to watch people surfing on the rapids of the river. Who knew urban surfing was a thing? We strolled towards Old Montreal, finding poutine and Montreal smoked meat sandwiches to check that off the list, and then wandered past Notre-Dame Basillica. As we stood in the square in front of the cathedral, I watched the faces of my children to see if they were in awe of the depth of history and richness of story that old buildings hold, like Kirk and I were when we backpacked around Europe, hunting down big old cathedrals as we went.
Their pained faces said they were more hot and tired then architecturally inspired.
Ok Montreal, what else do you have to show us?
The sun set and the air cooled and we stumbled into the heart of Old Montreal where I could actually hear Katie gasp at the beauty of the moment.
Narrow cobblestone streets, lights and flowers strung overhead between ancient buildings, live music drifting through the air and people milling about with big smiles and summer dresses. The kind of feeling you wish you could capture in a bottle to pour out in front of you everywhere you went to make every street sing with the same beauty. It was a scene right out of a perfect Parisienne summer night, topped off with some decadent treats and shopping in adorable stores, practicing our French.
I’ll never forget the look on Levi’s face when he worked up the courage to try out ‘Merci Beaucoup’ with a vendor and they responded back and he understood. I want to expand horizons for my children to extend far beyond our comfortable life in Edmonton, and am saddened we haven’t done that with a second language in our home. So far, none of them are excited about learning French; they blame boring French teachers for that, but I also wonder if we should have put more effort into encouraging a second language. Google translate will have to do I guess.
The next morning, I snuck out of Vannesa and set out for a run across Montreal to what the internet claimed was the best bagel shop in town. I don’t normally like road running on busy city streets, but it sure is a great way to experience a city. My route took me past some beautiful old buildings, quaint neighbourhoods and McGill university before arriving at Fairmont Bagel where my family was waiting for me with a pretty tasty post run breakfast.
Onward to Québec City where we aimed straight to the heart and found parking below the Plains of Abraham. Canadian history came to life for the kids as we took a tour to see the recently discovered remains of the governors castle. Hearing names like Jacques Cartier, Samuel De Champlain, Wolfe and Montcalm instigated long explanations (mostly from Tegan) about the history lessons she remembered from school.
The hot day turned angry and exploded into a wicked summer storm while we were wandering through Chateau Frontenac, sending swarms of tourists running into the lobby for cover and sent us pushing against them to get out into the storm. Cause that is where memories are made. We got soaked, but we also got abandoned streets and were rewarded with a stunning double rainbow between historical buildings on the oh so adorable Rue Du Petit Champlain.
Good thing we aren’t made of sugar and melt in the rain. Although with the amount of ice cream we have been eating so far, we must be getting close to 100% sugar.
Upon the recommendation of our tour guide from the castle, we stopped in the fading light to see Montmorency Falls, and to see it lit up like Niagara was. And then of course we had to race up the 478 stairs to get back to the top.
Feeling the effects of too many cities, we were ready to explore the Gaspé Peninsula, a place neither of us had been, nor did we know much about, so we took our sweet time stopping at tide pools, lighthouses and a Fromagerie for some to-die-for cheese and still-hot-from-the-oven bread.
After a long day of driving, we stopped for the night at a beautiful campground at Forillon National Park and had enough time to get in some serious vert on a hike up to a watchtower for a sweeping view of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Between the stairs the night before, and racing Levi up the steep sections, Levi was feeling that burn in his calves for a couple days.
At the end of the Gaspé Peninsula, is an adorable touristy town called Percé, that is cute by its own right, but it made famous thanks to Percé Rock and the nearby Île Bonaventure.
We weren’t as well prepared as we thought we were, and lucked out by catching the last boat for the day with only ten minutes to spare. It also meant that our time on the island was limited because they shut down the longer trails early in the day to make sure everyone gets on the last boat out of there. Much to Katie’s dismay, that meant we just had to hike fast if we wanted to see the whole island! Île Bonaventure used to by occupied by a few hearty families that survived by fishing and gardening as best they could. The island has been abandoned since the 70’s but is now home to 150 000 squawking Common Gannets, covering the cliffs with their piles of poop for nests. Stinky. But pretty impressive to see that many birds (and their babies!) up close.
We got to snoop through the empty houses on the island, before heading back while a pair of harbour dolphins jumped near the boat.
That calls for another ice cream cone to celebrate such a great day, right? Maple dip, in case you were wondering.
Overall, we were so pleasantly surprised by our time in Québec. Sometimes, western Canadian sentiment towards Québec is omission at best, or disparaging at worst. However, every single encounter we had with Québecois folks was positive. Not one person seemed bothered by our limited French skills and dilapidated Alberta van. Many even went out of their way to show us kindness and make us feel welcome.
I’d like to go back. Not just because there is a 100 mile race on the Gaspé Peninsula I have now added to my bucket list, but because it still feels like a vast province with a lot more to explore. Do you ever look at map, at all the empty space up north and wonder what is up there?
Ok, maybe I’m the only one.
And Kirk. He asks those kind of questions too. I guess that makes us a pretty good team doesn’t it? That will be a trip with an upgraded version of Vannessa and no kids in tow, sometime way in the hopefully not too distant future.