She loves me, she loves me not.
She loves me, she loves me not.
Or maybe, “I love her, I love her not” would have been a more accurate mantra for my 2-week trip through Ontario.
When, after a brief overnight at the delightful Spruce Woods Provincial Park in Manitoba, I hit Ontario, I was in love. Cross the border, and Presto Magico, the terrain instantly changes. Suddenly, from flat(ish) country with very docile-looking deciduous trees, you find yourself in a world of tiny black lakes and reedy bogs spattered across a landscape of pink rock and short scrubby hardscrabble evergreens. It’s like a act change in a theatre play, where someone whips the scenery away while the curtains are closed.
From one morning on the prairies to the next morning in lake country, the sound of cattle bawling was traded for the sound of loons calling, and the cheerful chortling of magpies was replaced with the lonesome cawing of crows. Ontario, my old stomping ground, speaks to me every time I come back, with its sounds of water lapping rock, and its views of wee lakes surrounded by tough little conifers, and its fragrance of sun-warmed pine needles. And oh, the loons.
From an overnight at Merkel’s Camp in Dryden, I carried on to Thunder Bay, where I stayed steadfastly in love with my home province. Even though they didn’t know me from a hole in the ground, I was welcomed as if I were family by Marg and Tom Loghrin, whom I’d “met” on Facebook through the equestrian club of my (relative) youth, the Ontario Trail Riders Association. I instantly felt right at home, as Pai settled in to a roomy round pen lush with grass, and I set up my little camp alongside. A lovely evening was had, and plans were made to ride at 8:30 the next morning before I pulled out.
Which we did. And then it all went to pot.
After a glorious ride up Mt Rose, which is basically in Marg and Tom’s back yard, on steep trails past ripening blueberries and saskatoons, under red pine and white pine and poplars and the odd maple, my phone got rained on in a shockingly sudden and admirably vigorous thunderstorm.
Which is why this post will be extremely light on the photographs.
Hey, that’s OK. Who wants to keep their photos of the Betty and Cheryl, the two lovely ladies who showed me the trails at Spruce Wood? Who needs to save a photo of 80-something-year-old Velma at Merkel’s Camp, alongside the bicycle she’s had since she was 14 year old? Or views over Lake Superior or Chain of Ponds or Loch Lomond from the top of a rocky outcrop on Marg and Tom’s trails? Who needs to take pics of gorgeous rock surrounding tiny lakes on the drive down Hwy 17? Who needs to take photos while riding their horse through airy sugarbush on the outskirts of Orillia? Who needs to take shots of golden wheat fields rolling away in the honeyed afternoon on a ride outside Guelph? I sure don’t.
And hey, fun fact: there are very few pay phones left in the world.
It’s annoyingly difficult to find some way to phone your husband from the road in Northern Ontario and tell him you won’t be calling or texting him at all for the foreseeable future since your cell is in a coma and not expected to live, and you are in BF Nowhere where there is no store in which to buy a cell phone lightning-to-C cord, nevermind an actual phone (I know: I asked, in the relative metropolis of Wawa. It was exactly like enquiring about an English girth at Cowtown or tofu products in Maple Creek). In fact, I didn’t call Mr Andrews, but had to wait to find horrendously disappointing WiFi at my next camp (by which I mean that even though I was sitting cross-legged on a countertop in the laundry room approximately four feet from the router, the service was so slow that I just about went to sleep).
But that’s OK. Via FB and the above-mentioned glacially slow WiFi, I managed to let the folks with whom I was meeting up in Southern Ontario that I was on track, and a few days later, I was happily settled into a lakeside cabin with the Pantlings, who used to board my Fred horse back when I was a student at U of G. They were at their cottage rather than their farm outside Guelph, and they just happen to have a corral in the back yard. And so a sweet, wine-drenched evening was had.
And then, when I was pulling out in the morning, I found my truck had a flat.
Changing a tire on the trailer is a piece of cake. The spares are mounted on the tongue, and, with my drive-on ramp, there is no need to use a jack. It takes 10 minutes (ask me how I know – two blowouts in 24 hours back on Road Trip 2012 made me an expert tire changer). Changing a tire on the Tundra while it is hitched to the trailer… not so much. The jack is under the seat behind a bunch of crap that is also under the seat, and the seat itself is under a sling and under a bunch of boxes. The tire is underneath the truck, cranial to the back bumper. Figuring out which type of slot is in there for attaching the winder-downer thingy requires a flashlight (which I do have, somewhere, underneath another bunch of crap. I would usually use my cell phone light, but… yeah. About that rain. Thankfully, Geoff and Brenda were in attendance for the fun of the tire change, and had the requisite phone flashlight). Winding the spare down with the designated tool is impossible with the trailer hitched, so an alternate device is required, which would be vise grips, which I carry, in my toolbox, back in the depths of the pickup bed… And then the spare was under-inflated (thank you, Geoff, for having the presence of mind to check), which meant digging out the compressor to remedy that particular situation… Let’s just say that Operation Tundra Tire Change took vastly more than 10 minutes.
Back on the road, driving a sad 80 km/h on the spare, I made the usually quick trip down to the Orillia lakeside home of my old U of G friend Mark in record slow time. Therapeutic gin and tonic was on offer, and, after a swim in the lake and a hefty dose of medicine, my good humour was restored.
A trip in to the mechanic’s in Orillia gradually revealed that not only was there no plugging the tire (sidewalls were shredded), nor was there the mere matter of ordering and installing a new (obscenely expensive Toyo) tire, but the wheel itself was flattened and cracked. When it came to welding the rim, no one in town would touch it, so the folks at Meineke offered to perform a gangster epoxy repair on the thing to get me back on the road. Sold! Hell, I had places to go, people to see.
Excellent Ontario Issue #3: when I went to pay for the made-of-gold Toyo tire, my credit card was declined. Which event was ostensibly not possible, given our boundless credit limit (we can buy a house on that card). An eventual return to WiFi and access to Mr Andrews revealed that fraudulent charges had been placed on the card, and AmEx had decided to cancel it. Exxxxcelllent.
The flat tire warning light came on minutes after I pulled out onto the highway out of Orillia, but a stop at the Toyota dealer in Barrie 25 km down the road saw some Doogie Howser mechanic come out and tell this Little Lady (seriously, that was me: I actually saw him assign a label over my head) that everything would be just fine. I carried on to Guelph and had it seen at the dealer there the next day, where a similarly glib mechanic punched the tire and told me that it seemed fine, and offered the stellar advice that if I felt a wobble on the truck, it would be an indication to get it checked out for losing pressure. Um, no. I stopped expecting mechanics to be mind readers (clearly they thought that I was just ambling around town in my BC plates in a heavily laden truck with a big rack on top and horse trailer behind), and explained that I was hauling from there to PEI, and from PEI back to Vancouver Island, and did he think it would be a good idea to carry on with the ghetto epoxy-ed rim, or would he suggest I get the wheel looked at more closely?
Exactly, dude. Appointment made.
Meanwhile, in Cell Phone Recovery Land, there began a very long and boring story about my technological ignorance, and about interprovincial business restrictions, and about the pitfalls of making assumptions (Mr Andrews assuming I know anything whatsoever about buying a cell phone, telus retail people assuming that I would want the cheapest option possible, corporate telus people assuming a bunch of things). It would take two days and bottomless angst to purchase a thousand dollars’ worth of phone in order to return to the land of the connected.
In Guelph, on the eve prior to the phone finally being procured and a new wheel finally being ordered, when the logistics of life were still dreadful, I was sitting by the pool with my beloved friend Derek late in the evening, slamming down a medicinal 500mL of 9% beer, and just starting to reclaim my chill. We peered through the dusk and wondered aloud what Spy the Dog was chasing. Hahahahaaa. The answer to THAT became clear once the suffocating stench rolled over us.
We don’t have skunks on Vancouver Island. Dealing with a skunked dog is something I have never had to embrace in my 25-year veterinary career. (We don’t have porcupines either, though, bizarrely, I did once have to remove quills from a dog who had chomped down on a porcupine souvenir). Some speedy texting to a skunked-dog-savvy friend on Derek’s part had us zipping out to Walmart (still open!) and purchasing skunk wash supplies so that, dressed Hazmat style and stationed at the end of the driveway, we could de-skunk the sad, frothy-mouthed Spy. A more than faint Eau-de-Skunk fragrance persisted, so I set up his collapsible kennel in the back yard and abandoned him to his stench for the rest of the night.
Stink-dog in tow, I eased my way east to my Dad’s place in Cornwall with a delightful side-trip to visit my classmate Susie on her acreage north of Oshawa. While I have to say that I wasn’t sorry when Ontario saw the ass end of me, I did have a fantastic time there, visiting old friends and meeting new ones.
The Manitoba-Ontario recap:
When I left the Wood Mountain Wagon Train, I was headed for Spruce Woods Provincial Park in Manitoba, on a sort of reconnaissance mission. I’d originally intended to spend a few days there riding, but there were logistical issues with meeting up with friends in Ontario, and so I decided to just go, check out the campsite and trails, and decide whether it was worth coming back to in September on my return trip. When I pulled in, and popped out of the truck to get the lay of the land, I was immediately hailed by a couple of ladies, who then let me know what was where and how it all worked.
Spruce Woods is absolutely luxurious, as a non-commercial campsite goes. The campsites are well-spaced around a small meadow, surrounded by trees. Each site has a picnic table, a big fire pit with a grill, and a hitching rail. There is a central potable water hydrant with hose, as well as a hand pump and a couple of other non-potable horsey options. There are flush toilets, and showers, and a building where you can get out of the rain to cook/hang out/eat should you so desire. There are five or six very roomy grassy paddocks, and around a dozen pens (12 x 12-ish), and another half dozen or so larger round pens. Firewood is provided. There are sites with power.
The camp was very lightly populated, with only three other sites occupied. The gals I’d met upon my arrival were Betty and Cheryl, two relatively local ladies who’d been riding together for years, and who knew the trails well. We got to gabbing, and that sociability tumbled into dinner together and then wine-drinking and then a campfire pyjama party.
The horse world is a small one. When Betty heard I’d just been at Cypress Hills, she asked if I’d met her uncle Dave. Why yes, yes indeed I had – the Dave in question was the guitarist I’d hung with for three nights in a row. And then she mentioned Jim Scott, and I was like, “Jim? Jim with the team of Percherons?” Yes, the very same Jim, the one who’d captured my errant horsie a couple of days before at Wood Mountain when, protected by her sheet and indifferent to the e-fence, she skipped town and turned up at his camp in the morning, eating his horses’ cubes.
The ladies generously offered to take me out on an early-morning ride and show me some of the trails before I hit the road at 10:00, and their tour sealed the deal when it came to my intentions to ride there again in the fall.
After leaving Spruce Woods, I camped at Merkel’s Camp in Wabigoon, just east of Dryden. I had camped there on my 2012 east-to-west X-Canada trip, and so, once again, arriving felt like a homecoming. Terry, the camp owner and cousin of my barn owner in Nanaimo, greeted me and sent me off to “my” spot, where he’d left the grass unmown in anticipation of Pai’s arrival.
Merkel’s Camp was quiet this trip, and so there were, sadly, no raucous hunting stories around a campfire. I did, however, meet Velma, who has a seasonal site at the camp. Her place is strewn with all kinds of flowers and garden plants. She feeds the friendly chipmunks who hang out nearby.
After I settled Pai into her cush roundpen, and before I made a quick foray into town to update my grocery supply, Tom showed me their inventory of sleighs and wagons. One sleigh used to belong to Marg’s great-grandfather, and it, as well as another old family sleigh called the “School Sleigh” since it was used to take kids to school, have been lovingly restored by Tom.
We went out to dinner together at their local (best portabella mushroom burger ever!) and Tom gave me a short tour of some of the local sights, including the ski hill where Crazy Canuck Steve Irwin got his start. Marg and Tom have done long-distance road-trip camping with their horses for years, and listening to their stories and hearing about their favourite places to ride made for a topnotch evening.
Since I had only a cruise-y 3 ½ hour drive the following day, we all agreed that an early morning ride would be just the ticket. We hit the trail at 8:30, and Tom let Queen of the World stride out in front for much of the ride. As thunder rumbled around us, we climbed Mt Rose, which offers panoramic views of the surrounding hills and lakes and the Sleeping Giant and the city itself. The rain never hit until we dismounted back at home.
Finding accommodation tailored to equines anywhere between Thunder Bay and Sault Ste Marie is a non-starter. It’s all rocks and trees up there, with nary a fairgrounds nor stockyard nor trail riding stable, nor any farm at all, really, nevermind horse farms. The Provincial Park at Neys had declined to take us (citing provincial regulations, which is odd, since I’d camped at the Provincial Park at Rossport down the highway with no issue), as did the nearby town of Marathon’s civic campground. The commercial campground across from the Provincial Park was game, however, and the host of Neys Adventures gave us the entire group camping field behind the regular sites. Sweet!
As I was about to prep my dinner, the family arrived back in our field on an ATV, three two-year-old triplets on board. They’d never seen a horse before (“Puppy! Puppy!” screeched one, pointing at Pai), and much petting ensued. Queen of the World enjoyed her entourage.
There were ATV trails adjacent to the campground, which apparently offer a fantastic view if you climb to the top of the hill, but since it was foggy when we were preparing to depart, I didn’t take the opportunity to ride/dog walk on the trails.
On the way down to Thessalon, I pulled in at the Provincial Park at Agawa Bay and enquired about camping possibilities for my return trip, and was assured that we would be welcome and that there were no provincial regulations against it. Take that, Neys.
Just north of Thessalon, outside Wharncliffe, Cedar Rail Ranch caters to people with horses. When I pulled in, cheery country music was blaring, and the owner’s brother-and-law and his wife greeted me warmly. There are three cabins at the Ranch, all of which were occupied by guests, but none were accompanied by horses and so Pai had her choice of the two large, grassy roundpens.
Before heading off in the morning, I set out for an hour’s ride on the wooded trails, stopping to get off and pick blueberries along the way.
Brenda and Geoff, who boarded my horse for me when I lived on a sheep farm outside Guelph, were my introduction to horse care and to trail riding. They were very active in Ontario Trail Riders, and everything I learned about camping with horses and about trail etiquette and safety was thanks to them.
They have a beautiful cottage in the trees on Clear Lake near Huntsville, a lovely little lake whose shoreline is crenelated with small bays. We took a pre-dinner tour of the lake in the late afternoon sun, followed by an evening of good wine and good food and good conversation in their covered porch, which is set high on the bank and feels like a treehouse up there in the pines.
Pai spent the night in their horse corral in the back yard, well-shaded from the crazy heat by the trees.
In my first year at Guelph, I lived in a small residence called International House, which housed 25 Canadian students and 25 foreign students. One of my good friends was Mark Rosati, a fellow President’s Scholarship recipient. In second year, I shared a house with four other former International House residents, including Mark, and Mark went on to be one of the groomsmen when Wayde and I were married.
Mark and his wife Margaret and kids Esmee and Owen live in a lakeside house just south of Orillia, and when they heard I was road-tripping through, found a neighbour who would put Pai up for the night, and invited me to stay. So I did.
While Pai bunked down with two very smitten Paint geldings and a very cute donkey, I hung out by the lake, swimming and feasting and enjoying time with my friends. We took a short ride through the very pretty sugarbush on the property where Pai stayed, surprising the same doe three times (no one said deer were smart).
Back in high school in Cornwall, Ontario, one of my very best friends was Derek Haley, a fellow track team member who was a couple of years younger than I was. We have remained dear friends for more than three decades, reconnecting in person every couple of years.
From Orillia, it is a mere 2 ½ – 3 hr drive to Guelph. I parked the horse at Brenda and Geoff’s place, where I used to board my Fred horse when I was at U of G, and carried on into town to stay with Derek and his wife Ruth and their two adorable little boys Ben and Evan, and tiny daughter Clara. My visit was chopped up into vignettes of frustration (above-mentioned tire and cellphone issues), which made my stay somewhat less than relaxing for me and, I’m sure, somewhat scatty for my hosts. Nevertheless, we had some awesome dog walks and conversations, and Pai even consented to providing pony rides for the two boys on a farm visit that included visiting the resident pigs and ducks, and collecting a dozen eggs they could take home with them (thanks, Brenda and Geoff!)
I took Pai out for a spin one afternoon, riding across farms where I used to ride Fred. Nothing seemed even vaguely familiar, but that’s OK, because there were so many more trails to ride than when this was my stomping ground back in the 90’s. My stretch-your-legs ride turned into a several hours’ trip, with canters across mown hayfields dotted with round bales, along the edge of rolling fields of golden wheat, and through mixed forest. Sweet!
From a lunch spot along Agawa Bay, one with decent WiFi at its picnic tables, I emailed my vet school classmate Susie Dorland, and mentioned that I would be in her neck of the woods and did she want to get together to ride?
I was invited to stay at their farm just outside Oshawa, adjacent to the Long Sault conservation area. The farm she shares with her partner Ian is pretty much like a resort, and Pai and I were both pampered for the couple of nights we stayed there. After a Saturday night free flowing with wine, and a slow, cruise-y start to our Sunday morning, we spent a couple of hours riding trail in the blessed shade (it was 34 degrees out), followed by lounging by the pool.
You can’t beat good company, good food, and good riding, all in a beautiful setting.
On my X-Canada Road Trip of 2012, I spent a few days visiting my Dad in Cornwall, and parked the horse at the farm of Peter Tropea, the vet I worked for in high school. Peter once again offered to put up my horse, and so Pai reclaimed her cushy grass paddock shaded by pine trees at one end. While she cooled her jets there – we didn’t ride at all – I hung out with my Dad for a couple of days, and also paid a visit to Mr Chan, my high school art teacher, who lives in the ‘hood.
From Cornwall, we hit the road at a leisurely 11:00 a.m., headed for a farm in Quebec just south of Trois Rivieres.
Sorry/not sorry to say goodbye…