Friday, May 27, 2011

Heavy on the Seasoning...

Oh, and by the way, what is up with these seasons? When I got to the UK I had 2 weeks of unbroken, late spring, mostly warm; then I got to Toronto and it was sunny again (mostly) and warm too, but the trees seemed to have stepped back about a month in how leafy they were – late spring, they told me. Then, up in North Bay it was sunny to start with, then cold and wet, still no spring in the leaves. Now, in Thunder Bay, it is light at 10pm, like I’d expect it to be in Summer, the sun has been shining all day (like Summer – it is nearly June after all) but it never got over 7˚C and the trees are still barely out of Winter. I mean I wouldn't mind, except that its like driving about in a greenhouse and then I get out of the car and need to put on Winter clothing. I am confused!!

Water, Water Everywhere

Did I say fun? I meant hard labour. What was I thinking? I somehow imagined that the kindness and generosity I’d shown Mike and Janelle in Wellington would be repaid when I got to their manor, squire, but instead I was put to work in their new house – a real fixer-upper – within moments of my arrival on Thursday afternoon. OK, so Janelle fed me first, but then she got out her whip and jackboots, and not in a good way!

With a kitchen installation looming on Friday morning, we were on a tight schedule to get a whole, freshly plastered kitchen to undercoat and double top-coat before then. With 4 hours of drying time between coats, we used a fan heater to speed things along but, even still it was quarter to one in the morning before we were done. And then the installation was delayed to Tuesday anyway. Never mind, I thought, it’s the least I could do to earn my keep for a couple of days…and then the landscaping started.

In the end, I spent four days with them, shifting dirt, clearing brush, digging vegetable beds, planting seeds, and having a great time. Their new house is right on the lake side in North Bay, Mike’s parents, grandparents, niece and nephew came up to help and were great, and in a way I see it as earning my whole trip. In South America I did voluntary work with kids and animals to feel like I earned the ride, and this time…well, this time I guess it’s much the same…just not quite for as long…but then neither is the trip.

The worst thing about spending the first two weeks of my trip with friends is that I was sorely tempted to ditch the whole cross country drive thing and just hang out and re-paint Mike and Janelle’s house for three months. Still, that would be cop out, so enough of that kind of talk.

Anyhoo, work done, back still in one piece, just about, and it was time to hit the road properly – at last! I plotted a vague course for a few days and got cracking, aiming on the first day, not for the touristy town of Sault Ste. Marie, but to the Lake Superior Provincial Park a bit further north, for some camping out and an attempt to get into the spirit of the trip.

It was a good call. The road itself was interesting enough…for a while. Then, however picturesque the mixed pines and silver birches were, decoratively interspersed with reflective lakes and creeks as they were, they got a bit samey after a while. Even trying to check each clearing for a glimpse of a bear or moose that might have been wandering past, lost its excitement factor after about 6 hours with not a sniff. Still, thinks I, it won’t last for long…except it did. It lasted for hours…days, in fact as it turned out, as it was still the same at the end of the third day of driving, I was beginning to get an idea of just how large Canada is.

Case in point: I have so far driven along the shores of three of the Great Lakes – Ontario, Huron and Superior – and while they are definitely beautiful to see, they are so unbelievably large that it’s hard to tell them apart from the ocean for a lot of the time. It’s a bit like looking at the pixels that make up a picture, close up. They lose any kind of meaning until you take a step back and they merge into an image. The lakes are like this. You’d need to be able to look at them from a great distance to get any sense that they were, indeed, lakes rather than oceans, and even then it’s not that clear.

There were plenty of spots to pull in and stretch the old legs of course – and more importantly the even older-feeling back – but, rather disappointingly, if they were in a Provincial Park (of which there are many to drive through) the spots all required a hefty parking fee, in cash - of which I didn’t have any. So, I chanced it, parking up and rushing to whatever cliff edge or waterfall this particular stopping point was promoting, taking some quick photos and skidaddling. A bit dishonest, but I tell myself (and you, too, you judgers) that I was quite willing to pay if they’d had a better system in place that took plastic or notes rather than exact change.

The same thing happened at Lake Superior Provincial Park, which was closed up when I arrived at 6pm and still closed when I left conveniently early at 8am, once again being unable to pay the ridiculously high camping fee (C$35 a night!! That’s more than a hostel charges!) . Still, I grabbed myself a spot along the deserted lake front, with a view of the setting sun, where I was able to organise the back of Flash Harriette and cook my first evening meal. No hiccups there…except that the fuel bottle of my Whisperlite stove decided to leak like a geriatrics bladder instead of carefully channelling the fuel to the burner. Luckily, it did this before ignition, but trying to fix fiddly little metal bits with very cold hands indeed was not easy. I was equal to the task however and got it plugged and fired up safely. Dinner was a snap, the sun set over the horizon (not sure where else I’d have expected it to set), and the back of Harriette was fixed up for sleeping. Nice. This was what it was all about!

Next day it was further on round Lake Superior, all the way to Thunder Bay – no, really, that’s its name. A bit ‘Hollywood B-movie’ for my tastes, but a nice enough little town. On the way there, I pulled in to check out another impressive vista, and as I pulled in to the car park I got my first taste of real live bears! A mother and her cub were scavenging around the bins, and my car startled them. The cub scrambled up the nearest tree (so fast that I instantly dropped “climbing a tree” from my list of bear evasion strategies) while the mother stood and stared down Flash Harriette. I got a quick photo before they shuffled off into the bushes, but it was a better sighting than I’d expected to get outside of a rubbish dump. Definitely a highlight of my two days so far. Still, I gotta say that I miss my bike. Its not as challenging, somehow…

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Back on Track

I’m not sure who to thank in particular, so I’m sending out a general thanks to everyone who sent out positive thoughts about my car predicament. After a frustrating Monday spent phoning the Canadian Ministry of Transport to check the licence issue (the insurance guy was right, no joy), I called a number of well known and not so well known car rental companies, and had pretty similar and discouraging responses from all of them.

You choose, from “we don’t let our cars out of Ontario”, to “If you got to the US you’ll have to arrange separate insurance for that time,” to “we’ll only give you 2500km free for 84 days, then its 20c a kilometre after that,”to “by all means take the car, but every month you’ll have to visit one of our distributors and get the car sited before signing a new contract…and we’ll charge you about $1 for every kilometre you are away from our office as we have to swap cars and we’ll have to get that one back here somehow.” All very depressing, until I was put on to Carter’s Car and Truck Rental.

They came good at the last and let me have a brand new (well, 2010 model with 30,000km on the clock) Dodge Caravan – actually a minivan with seats that disappear into the floor leaving a huge sleeping space – with 5333km free each month and I was able to pre-sign 2 extra contracts before I left, so that all I’d have to do every 28 days was phone in a mileage reading. The only down side was that my credit card does not provide automatic insurance on rental cars, so I have to pay an extra $500 odd per month, but even still, the final cost will be just less than if I’d bought a car at the top of my $5k budget and had to fork out for insurance anyway. With a rental I don’t get to recoup anything by selling it at the end…..unlesssss…no, that would be illegal and, besides, they have my credit card number. I’d better give it back.

Incidentally, they had offered a Toyota Sienna minivan first, which I preferred due to Toyota's reputation for reliability, but this vehicle’s alternator caught fire on its way to the service shop just before I picked it up. So, lucky for me, then.

To sum up then: I am now the proud (temporary) owner of a 2010 reddish-coloured Dodge Caravan and I am about to let rip across Canada. It is a far flasher car than I would have bought for myself (hence its temporary name: Flash Harriette), and I can plug my ipod straight into the radio. Perfect. This is where the fun begins. Tomorrow: North Bay and a visit with Mike and Janelle for a few days.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

An Early Spanner

It had all seemed so simple:

1) Arrive in Canada

2) Buy car

3) Drive back and forth across Canada until time to stop

4) Sell car

5) Leave Canada.

To begin with, it was. The arriving bit went very well indeed, including being collected by a friend at the airport, catching up with more old friends that night, as well as making some new ones. There was drinking. Lots of drinking. And lots of eating. Sunshine, even. More old friends – nice ones, too.

But, alas, it turns out that it was all part of a lulling process. I was being lulled. Tricked into a false sense of how easy everything would be. I was further lulled by a couple interesting and useful test drives of various Volvos and Toyotas. I was even on the verge of completing the second part of the plan, i.e. buying a car (even getting as far as obtaining large quantities of hard cash to sweeten the deal). Unfortunately I had underestimated the Canadian – in particular the Ontario-an – love of red tape.

Before I could actually buy a car, I would have to sort out insurance. Fair enough, and easy, right? Wrong. So, so wrong. I was eventually asked by a small town insurance broker (after being ping-ponged between several larger insurance providers, including the all powerful Canadian Automobile Association) whether I had an Ontario driver’s licence. Of course not, I’d replied. I have a NZ one. And an International one, if that’s any help. Nope. No help at all. If I’d had an Ontario licence, I’d have been insured to drive anywhere in Canada and the US, which would have been great. However, it seems that without an Ontario driver’s licence, I can’t get motor insurance in Ontario. Without motor insurance I can’t legally own a car. Without a car, I can’t drive back and forth across Canada. Ah. Bugger. Quite the kick in the plums.

There were options. I could get a friend to buy a car and go on their insurance, but then they’d have to take 6 – 10 weeks off work to accompany me. I could take a driving test and get an Ontario licence, but I’d have to hand over my NZ licence, and probably wait ages for the new licence to come through. I could maybe (still to be investigated) go to the US, buy a car there and start and end my trip in a whole other country. Inconvenient, but last resort do-able. Or, least stressfully, I might be able to rent a car for 3 months…although I still have not had an opportunity to investigate this either, so there may be restrictions on how far from the rental shop I can drive it.

It is now Sunday, so everything is closed or limited, including my access to internet. I will have to get into it on Monday. Wish me luck. It seems like I may be needing some. Incidentally, I received the bad news two days ago...on Friday...the 13th. Coincidence? You decide.