Home on the range
In honour of Canada 150, Catherine Dawson March wanted to explore a corner of the country her family hadn't seen. So they loaded up a motorhome and headed for Quebec's Gaspé Peninsula. Along the way, they learned a few lessons about camping on wheels
"How many are in the VR?" asked the woman in the campground office.
Her switch to the French acronym threw me for a moment before I could stumble out a reply. But every time I heard VR instead of RV I was struck at how fitting the slip was:
By trading in the family sedan for a 24-foot motorhome, our annual road trip crossed into another realm – we covered the kilometres just fine, but the experience was a little surreal.
When asked about our vacation plans, eyes either lit up in delight or shifted away in embarrassment. But more often than not, I was surprised to hear we were embarking on what is a bucket-list trip for many: road tripping in an RV.
In honour of Canada 150, we wanted to explore a corner of the country none of us had seen. The charms of the Gaspé Peninsula won out: its rugged coastal highway, the seafood, coastal hiking in Forillon National Park, plus the grandeur of Percé Rock and Hitchcockian wonder of the Bonaventure Island bird sanctuary had to be seen to be believed.
By renting an RV, we'd be in good company. GoRVing Canada reports that more than one million of them are on the road, and that 14 per cent of Canadian households own, or have access to, RVs. Maybe more: The shared economy has taken notice and peer-to-peer rental services are popping up. Maybe that's why it always feels like you're stuck behind one on the highway.
We had nine days, six campsites booked, and a new Winnebago to venture out in. It was a sweet ride: shower, designer fixtures, LED lighting, USB ports, speaker system, memory-foam mattress in the pop-out bedroom; tiled kitchen back-splash, plus lots of room to spread out.
Later, I was told that this was not, technically, an RV: If you pull it, it's a recreational vehicle; if you drive it, it's a motorhome. This was the first of many lessons learned on the road.
Lesson No. 1: The drive has never been so awesome
We covered ground quickly: It was only five steps from the passenger seat to the toilet seat; three to the sofa; four to the fridge – on long-haul days, we only needed to stop for gas or to switch drivers. If you weren't driving you lounged around in the back (belted in, of course) and reached for a snack upon demand. This was a game-changer.
Not once did we stop at Tim Hortons or McDonald's – that's some kind of a miracle. Throwing together good meals while parked overlooking the St. Lawrence or the Baie-des-Chaleurs was too easy. The Winnebago had a fridge, propane stove, a microwave and lots of cupboard space. Throughout the drive, we'd make impromptu pullovers into poissonniers, which meant scallops or crab or mussels at the campsite that night. No one missed Big Macs.
I cringed when we pulled into our first Wal-Mart to stock up; it was like all RVs come with a homing beacon for the store. But I let the cliché go, and vowed not to boondock (overnight without electricity or water) in one of its parking lots.
And passing 18-wheelers in the rain? It's not so scary when you're driving more of a truck than a car yourself.
Lesson No. 2: The drive has never been so nerve-wracking
I retrained myself to drive without a rear-view mirror; and we never reversed the RV without making sure someone was watching the back end.
I even got over the shock (on Day 2) of smashing half our dishes when a sharp right and an open cupboard sent a cascade of Corelle over my son's head. But I nearly lost faith on the Gaspé Peninsula's north shore. Some time after passing through Sainte-Anne-des-Monts on our way to Forillon, the blacktop turned into a roller-coaster, and the ride went on for about 200 kilometres. Route 132, with its rock cuts and stunning Gulf views, rivals California's famed Pacific Coast drive. It's breathtaking and hard to keep your eyes on the road.
This drive would be thrilling in a sports car. It is stomach-churning in a 10-foot by seven-foot, 10,000-pound metal box on wheels.
Lesson No. 3: You'll become obsessed with your tanks
Spending so much thought on expunging waste was odd, but fascinating for one of us. We had to keep a watchful eye on our tanks: fuel (propane and gas); fresh water; sewage (both black, from the toilet, and grey, from the sink and shower); plus the battery levels (car and cabin).
A digital panel with lots of buttons in the middle of the RV kept us up to date – and this is where my 13-year-old shined. He was constantly guesstimating when we'd have to fill up on water; when we'd have to do the sewage dump; how to conserve on propane; how long till our battery needed charging and when we'd need to stop for diesel (final tally: $499.80 over more than 3,000 kilometres).
The sewage-dump situation was much discussed – we'd seen Robin Williams's movie RV, and didn't want to experience our own "shower of sadness." But when it was time, Jack slipped on the rubber gloves and took over. Far from disgusting, he found it "strangely satisfying." Your kids will always surprise you.
Lesson No. 4: Plan when and where to park it, and explore on foot
These big metal beasts are not meant for driving into cute towns, which we learned the stressful way. There seemed to be only one place to park an RV in Percé, a town well known for its views of one of the world's largest natural arches, and the lot was not easy to find. But it is free – and conveniently close to the beach steps that let you walk out to the 85-metre-high Percé Rock in low tide – a rare stroke of luck since the limestone and shale sandbar was getting thinner every minute.
With our rig safely parked out of harm's way, we could relax, explore the rock, wander the town's shops – and hop on the ferry to circumnavigate Bonaventure Island. It's estimated that 250,000 birds live here – among them, more than 116,000 northern gannets, which return annually to nest on its sunny side – not to mention the herds of seals that frolic in its shallows. Necks craned, we watched hundreds of sea birds fly over the ferry, twirling in all directions or hovering in the wind – the gannets' enormous wingspan lets them simply float, motionless over our heads. It was mesmerizing. And it wiped away the stress of the highway's hills and dales, and the pressure-cooker to find parking.
Lesson No. 5: There's a different vibe to RV 'camping'
By the time we reached Forillon National Park, we'd come to realize that RV "camping" was different than what we were used to. Some RV campgrounds are simply a stretch of grass with electrical outlets. Others are party parks, with pools and playgrounds and street after street of RVs whose owners have covered every inch of their site with satellite dishes, barbecues, lawn furniture, outdoor carpets and party lanterns.
It was more carnival than camping, although firelight does sparkle nicely from the ubiquitous washing machine-drum fire pits. And to be honest, one of our favourite trip moments occurred in one of these parks, when we playfully let loose on a set of ancient, possibly dangerous, teeter-totters. And RVers can be kind: Our first day's drive was too long, and we arrived late to Parc de Motorisés Godefroy outside Trois-Rivières. Not only did the owners back up our rig into our site, but they sent us off in the morning with sun-warmed local strawberries.
Still, I hoped Forillon's RV camping would get us back to the land. Which it did, sort of.
New this summer, Forillon opened 31 RV sites with electricity and water.
" VRers kept asking us for this," Igor Urban of Parks Canada said. "We're booked up for the summer."
Adding the underground water lines, however, meant cutting down a lot of trees. The RV campground was more spacious and more forested than others we'd stayed in, but the view from my bedroom window still reminded me of a clear cut. Thankfully, it was just a short walk through delightful porcupine-filled meadows to Petit Gaspé beach, where we watched seals play in the water and the sun set over tide pools. The next day, under blue-bird skies, we moved our big rig to the trailhead at Cap Gaspé and spent a pleasant few hours on the eight-kilometre trek.
Lilacs were at their peak, buttercups and daisies glowed beside the trail and clover was just starting to open. A weasel sauntered by with a mouse in its jaws, a groundhog tried to hide in the cliff nearby: It was all incredibly enchanting and we hadn't even reached the grand Gulf views at Land's End. It was a long, hot hike, but happily – instead of returning to a hot car – we knew there were Freezies waiting for us in the RV.
Relishing my hot shower in our RV that night, it occurred to me that maybe this was more of a movable cabin anyway. Our own RV had the wiring for two flat-screens – a 32-inch and a 24-inch – only four steps away from each other.
And then it started raining. The pitter-patter of rain on an RV roof is hypnotizing; I stretched out in our pop-out bedroom with a cup of tea and a good book, and relaxed. It was incredibly satisfying to look out at the rain instead of sitting in the rain under a wet tent.
Making that mental shift – from camping to cottaging, from driving vacation to different vacation – made a difference. I let the VR of the RV take over, and it became a road trip to remember.
How to get rollin'
If you're not sure what you want to drive, the GoRVing Canada website is a good place to start. This is where you'll find rental dealers, campgrounds and even a quiz to help you figure out what kind of RV fits your travelling style. gorving.ca
Want to try the Airbnb of RVs? Private rentals can be arranged online, and they include insurance coverage for the vehicle. WheelEstate.ca offers a lot of RVs in Western Canada, though its inventory in the east is limited. RVezy.com is an Ottawa-based business, and its website has rigs available across the country.
No matter where you get your motorhome, take the time to understand the insurance coverage. Awnings, windshield and the undercarriage may not be covered. What happens if you hit a stationary object or drive on a gravel road? Does it come with roadside assistance? All could be costly and kill your postvacation buzz.
The writer was a guest of GoRVing Canada. Le Québec Maritime covered the ferry ride to Bonaventure Island.