After leaving Winnipeg, we next headed north to Lake Winnipeg. Shane’s cousin and her partner recently bought some property up there and we took them up on their invitation to visit. What a piece of paradise! The lake is a stunner, really choppy like the ocean, and the shore is just a short walk through the woods from the property. Sunset was spectacular that first night. It's just great because there’s almost no one else around.
But man, is there ever a ton of bugs everywhere at night! And this is how I came to discover fish flies (their Southern counterpart is the mayfly). They look like a cross between a dragonfly and baby aliens, and they’re gross and interesting and all over the place. They begin their life cycle in the water, where they spend about a couple of years, eventually emerging and descending upon communities during the second half of July. But their reign is short-lived because they only survive for a few days. One afternoon, the wind blew as a storm kicked up and they all started blowing our way, like something out of a Hitchcock movie.
And then there’s this guy:
Don't let his little angel face deceive you. Someone can now add breakout artist to his kitty resume. We left him inside our home while we sat right outside by the fire with family. We returned to an empty abode and an open window - yes, Xiao Meow actually pried open the screen part of the window with his little paws and leaped out. Little bugger. He came back an hour later, after we underwent a panic/anxiety attack. Someone's gotten a taste of the great outdoors and has suddenly become brave. (You can see it here, he’s like, “I’m going on an adventure, c’mon!”)
Note to selves: cat-proof the windows asap!
It was recommended that we hit up Grand Beach, which I found out is one of the top 10 beaches in North America/the world (depending on which list you look at). So naturally we had to check it out for ourselves. Grand Beach is located in a region called Grand Marais, which was first settled by the Metis, and it was apparently quite the resort destination back in the day. People took the train up here and dragged wagons of their belongings up to the beach. Even though the day was overcast when we went, the beach was lovely and warm, with fine white sand everywhere just like in the Caribbean. It did start to rain while we were swimming but we stayed in the water and practically had the place to ourselves since everyone made a mad exodus at the start of raindrops. There’s just nothing like restorative powers of water. We both felt reborn after an hour long swim.
I think that these pics are pretty but I can see how this place looks a little more top 10 on a sunny day, with bluer skies and water against those sandy beaches.
We went for one final swim on our last day, accompanied by Kayla and Evan’s adorable dog, Zack. Again, reborn in those waters. Which is actually an understatement. And we’re so appreciative to Kayla and Evan for being such warm and generous hosts, and to the rest of the fam who showed up on the last day and gave us recommendations for the next leg of our journey.
Remains of the local pickerel fish, which looks kind of beautiful:
On our way out of town we made one more stop closer to Grand Beach. We hit up Lanky’s so that Shane could try their famous 2 foot hotdog, lol.
And then it was time to hit the road and head towards Whiteshell provincial park. We opted for the scenic route and took up Uncle Junel’s advice, first making a detour to Pinawa Dam Provincial Park. The dam was Manitoba’s first year-round hydroelectric generating station but closed down in 1951. But the ruins still stand, and they’re very cool to walk around. It’s a little like being at the Roman ruins, that same scale. And lots of people picnic and go swimming there.
We made our tour of the dam during the golden hour, so we decided to head onward to the actual town of Pinawa to set up for the night. Shane’s cousin Emily recommended that we go tubing on the Pinawa Channel, and that’s what we did the next day. We parked in the marina parking lot for the night and then rolled on over across the lawn to catch our ride to the river the next morning. The owner of the Wilderness Edge Retreat and Conference Center (who we booked our tubing outing through), Noah, greeted us and regaled us with stories of the local lore. The building was originally built to house scientists for the Atomic Energy of Canada, which makes sense when you look at the 60’s-style building. He said that his grandpa ran a bunch for the Liberal party back in the day so caught wind of how much the property was going for and put in a bid for just above that number. And Noah is the 3rd generation owner. His kids will one day take over and carry on the tradition into a 4th generation. This region of Manitoba is also where you find the famous Canadian Shield, or an exposed portion of the continental crust underlying the majority of North America, extending from northern Mexico to Greenland. And he told us that the shield rock in Manitoba is thought to be the oldest on the planet. We afterwards got dropped off with our tubes and spent close to 2.5 hours lazing and floating down the river, which was heavenly. And then we were picked up at the end and brought back to the Wilderness Edge, easy breezy. So that was a great start to the day.
We ventured into Whiteshell Provincial Park by afternoon. We were inspired by Walt from Winnipeg, my tarot reader, who had highly urged me to go. Our first stop inside the park was for gas and we met a wonderful woman artist who gifted us a greeting card of one of her intuitive paintings, “something to remember your trip to Whiteshell”. After that, we went to check out the petroforms at Bannock Point, which Walt had also told me about.
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The petroforms are prehistoric, indigenous-made rock formations that were used as instructional teachings as well as ceremonial sites. They form human glyphs, turtles, snakes and then geometric shapes for more ceremonial purposes. It’s a sacred area and people leave offerings of pieces of cloth and crystals to pay their respects.
We spent an hour and a half walking around and taking them all in. The funny thing was that later that evening I felt as if I were coming down from some kind of an edible high. I was just buzzing with energy.
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I love this one, it looks as if a spirit energy is being beamed on up:
Then we took a gamble and headed to the far corner of the park, to Great White Lake, to set up camp for the night. We had tried to make a reservation but you can’t book the same day online, and then we just missed office hours for both phone and in-person. So we were directed by the campground “host” to try out a spot that she said was booked but hadn’t been occupied for days. So we parked, made dinner and watched the sunset. Unfortunately, the person who had booked the site left it open so that his brother could show up and essentially use the campsite as a parking space for his big-ass boatm, and they rolled in at close to 11pm. No matter, we just pulled out and into the clearing next door. And that’s how we woke up next to the amphitheater. Got to love that vanlife stealth.
That next morning, we moved over to an empty site in the tenting area. And we made friends with Grayson, a highly inquisitive 8-year-old who became infatuated with Xiaozhang. “I’ve never met a cat from China before! His eyes are so big and his neck is so long!"
Then he was over the moon to hear that Kitty Kitty Bang Bang is our permanent abode.
“Wow, that’s so cool! It’s so cozy in here. How do you shower? Where do you put your clothes? What do cats from China eat? I think you should paint that surface brown. Do you have a stove? You should make a fireplace for the winter. How do you make money? Where does Xiaozhang sleep? Why is he making that hissing sound? Where are you going next? Can you follow us?” Hahaha, we really fell in love with this kid. (Good job Mom and Dad on raising such a thoughtful, kind kiddo.)
Xiao Meow processing his encounter with a tiny hooman:
Even cuter was his introducing Xiao Meow to his sister and recounting his entire origin story. More squeals of, “Wow, I’ve never met a cat from China before!” We also made friends with our camping neighbors, Tracy and Jaime, who were so lovely. They both used to live in Thunder bay and told us about all of the treasures in the area, including a list of must-see parks and campgrounds.
We decided to move on down to West Hawk Lake by evening, about an hour south of Great White Lake (this park is just teeming with lakes). West Hawk lake was formed by a meteor millions of years ago, creating a hole that’s 4.5 km wide and 111 meters (364 feet) deep. As Shane said the next day, after we read the history: “Pardon us for forgetting how anxious we’re supposed to be about the world when we’re only sitting by this body of water that was formed by a meteor millions of years ago. Not that we take current events lightly at all, but big pic perspective is also a beautiful thing.
We were hungry, so we again took cousin Emily’s advice and grabbed dinner at the Night Hawk Cafe, started in 1970 by Ellie (who had relocated to the area in 1955 and fell in love with it here). She passed away in late June, so her daughter has taken over. And her daughter is in turn already learning the ropes in order to one day take over. She said that it’s a lot of hard work maintaining a restaurant but that “We just love it so much. You have to really love this in order to make it work.” And we could certainly feel the love in the air and in the food.
Next we set up camp and got to the beach just in time for sunset:
And when we woke the next morning I let myself have a moment of appreciation for this cute little Airstream Bambi right near us:
We also went for a hike along the water that connected our campsite to a bigger beach up the way.
Other than that, we just floated on our raft in the lake and chilled out. We again had some lovely neighbors, who were local and knew the lay of the land. They told us about some very bold deer that like to frequent the campsite, usually around 11am. I think that too many humans spoil them with junk food, which we actually witnessed. We fed one some leaves and berries from the bush from our hands on our last evening there. Unfortunately, the deer didn’t seem all that enthused about nature’s candy. But Xiao Meow also had his first encounter with a deer. A lot of hissing and growling ensued.
West Hawk Lake Catlife
We spent a couple of days at West Hawk before making our move into Ontario. First stop, Kenora, which is situated in Lake of the Woods and is a big boating destination.
Kenora mascot Husky the Muskie:
It was steaming hot when we got there, so we first cooled off with a couple of pints at Lake of the Woods Brewery.
We also tried to run across the street to buy a new harness for Xiaozhang, since we had to cut him out of his current one in Moose jaw when he tried to get out and got stuck. But believe it or not, the woman in there told us that they had just sold out of their last one. “People have been buying them in droves lately,” she told us. Huh, who knew?
We set up camp for the night at the rec center, which we heard offered overnight parking. And then we walked across the street to the water and took in an absolutely breathtaking sunset.
We afterwards settled in for the night, right before there was a torrential downpour and thunder/lightning storm that alleviated the heat. The only drawback is that we still haven't fixed that roof issue, so we were rotating pots and bowls out until 4:40 in the morning, trying to catch the water so that things didn't get damaged. We saw that the rain just wasn't letting up, though, and we did eventually move from a flat field to a street parking spot, which helped. I said the next morning that it was like we'd come out on the other side of the biblical flood. Maybe we've been metaphorically baptized, who knows...
Suffice to say, we weren’t in a sightseeing mood after that whole debacle. And we realized that the Kenora experience is really at its finest if you have a boat. So we just decided to cut things short and start the path towards Quetico Provincial Park, where we’d booked a couple of nights based on Tracy’s (our Great White Lake neighbor) recommendation. But first we did laundry and grabbed some homemade chips at Ye Olde Chip Truck:
We had a beautiful drive through northern Ontario's lake country. Everything was so green and unpolluted, and the air just smelled so sweet and so clean.
It was hotter than Hades that day, even Xiao Meow was panting by the end of the 2.5 hour drive. But we arrived at Fort Frances, ON, the halfway point between Kenora and Quetico park. It sits right across from Minnesota, so you can wave hello to the US. Unfortunately, our only view of the US was a big, fat pulp plant. But we soon came to a beautiful lake in Point Park and went for a swim at 7pm since it was still hot enough. It ended up being a great end to our day, especially after a sleepless night before during the storm.
We even went for a little stroll along the woods in time for yet another gorgeous sunset:
It was just such a perfect evening, and we felt so content by the time our heads hit the pillow. But because vanlife tends to teach you not to get too complacent, our sleep was interrupted yet again at 3am by gusts of wind at night that shook our entire truck. We sprung out of bed, checked the radar and weather reports, and saw that a huuuuuuge storm was coming our way. And we were kind of in the most susceptible spot, being by the lake and all. Let me tell you, we learned in that moment just how fast we can tie things up and be ready to flee. But just as we were ready to make a beeline for the Safeway gas station (protection from the rain under the gas station roof), we checked the radar one last time and saw that just as suddenly as the storm watch came into effect, just as suddenly poof, it was gone. So we ended up staying put and waking up to a bright, sunny morning. And it was if the events of the early am were all just part of last night’s dreams.
So now that it was morning, I went for my run along the water. I passed a church graveyard right by the lake, with the sun sparkling on it. There were these really pretty angel statues throughout the cemetery, too. Next door to the graveyard was another kind of resting place, for float planes. Rows and rows of them. It was kind of surreal. And afterwards I literally jumped into the lake to cool off, which was such a luxury. The water was warm enough and I felt like a little mermaid.
What these two did during my morning run, look cute:
Xiao Meow watching the trains in the distance:
Then it was onward to Quetico Park! And with an Airstream good omen to see us off from the Safeway parking lot:
We arrived at the park a couple of hours later. Quetico park is now officially one of my favorite places on this earth (thank you, Tracy!). It’s absolutely to-die-for beautiful and also so peaceful and quiet. No motorized boats or generators are allowed. And there were very few people on that lake the first afternoon. As I swam in the warm lake water and took in the breathtaking beauty of my surroundings, I heard Tracy’s voice in my head saying, “It’s a bit of a trek but the reward is really sweet.” How right you were, lady.
Shane and I took an evening hike along the water, right during the golden hour and in time for the sunset. It was stunning! I think we were constantly going, “Ooooooh, ahhhhhh, pretty!”
And then we made our campfire:
We booked a canoe for the next day. The company dropped it off right at our campsite, we e-transferred the payment, and then they said they’d just be back at 6pm to pick it back up. So easy. So our campsite was on French Lake, which opens up onto the Pickerel River. And you paddle on down that river for about an hour until you reach Pickerel Lake, which you can then explore.
There are all of these sandy little beaches along the lake, and often nobody else there. During our canoe trip, we saw just a handful of people in the span of 8 hours. We spotted an appealing looking stretch of sand in the distance and paddled towards it. As we did, we noticed some big, dark clouds looming in the distance. Sure enough, the clouds started to move in as soon as we landed on the beach. Although we had a bit of sun beforehand, those clouds loomed larger and nearer. And it started to rain, so we got into the water for a swim. Might as well, right? But then the thunder and lightning soon started up. Really loud and really close. So we got out of the water. But not before Shane lingered and got caught in the torrential downpour:
Pickerel Lake is some sort of lighting rod for storms. We honestly counted as little as 13 32, 33b, seconds between flashes. Shane suddenly was looking at me and said, “Your hair is actually standing completely on end, I’ve never seen this before.”
And the skies were just wild. We’d see blue skies with little fluffy, white clouds meet the dirge in the middle of the sky, and all at the point of this little peninsula we were on and had to ourselves for the 4 hours we spent waiting out the on and off storms. You know, you’d think that a basic part of life on earth would be paying attention to nature more, especially the skies. But you lose touch with the need when you spend so many years in the city, and you forget. But after these last two months on the road, we’re now closely watching the clouds and literally which way the wind is blowing on a given day.
Another couple ended up paddling to our shore in the last half an hour we were there. They wanted to take shelter, and we all waited out the worst and last of the storm together. And then the blue skies came back out and Shane and I got into that canboe and paddled on back up the river. It was crazy, too, because the lake water was still pretty warm but the winds were blowing such cold air, creating this mist on the water’s surface. It felt like we were in an Arthurian, Lady of the lake world.
It was a great day but we were pretty happy to be back at camp, dried off and with a bottle of wine, watching the sunset.
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We woke up the next morning and had one last swim in the lake, and we had the entire lake to ourselves on top of it. All in all, our couple of days there was one of those special, magical moments in time that you never forget. And we’re so grateful to have discovered this hidden gem tucked away in northwestern Ontario. The road has certainly been a blessing so far.
Catlife on the Road: