Thanks for joining our Excellent Summer Adventure. For the next few months, we will share our lives on the road with some fun science facts mixed in with our favourite moments as Quinn discovers the many of the different rocks, cacti, trees, and landscapes along the way.
I guess the best way to start this journey off is for us to introduce ourselves. I will go first, for those who I’ve had long and short conversations, slight head nods or meet for the first time during our adventure, my name is Quinn. My favourite time of day is rising early with the sun to start a fresh new day. I love to eat many plants (+ fungi & bacteria) and to spend quality time in nature. I grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, had the privilege to travel and explore new cultures and meet so many amazing people along the way. I love to be active and move my body! I am an aspiring yogi, avid hiker, environmental + social justice advocate, and a philanthropist. This led me to study Environmental Science at Carleton University.
For those that may not know me yet, my name is Ceiledh. My favourite time of day is twilight, I love Irish cream in my coffee, and I aspire to run a social enterprise. Introducing yourself without a job title or field of study is oddly difficult but should be normalized. I grew up near Halifax, Nova Scotia and ever since I went to France on a student exchange trip when I was 15, I’ve been obsessed with learning about other cultures, languages, and travelling. This led me to study international business at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario where I recently graduated
We are literally just a few hours into our van life adventure, so we thought we’d write a short piece welcoming you to our next journey in life. Feel free to browse our website to find out more about us and the insane summer-long adventure we have ahead of us. A goal of ours is to share regularly along the way with our blog to allow friends and family to check-in, plus it will allow readers who would like to follow us to see what we have been up to before our next article in the magazine. Please feel free to share our link to anyone who you think would like to follow along… the more, the merrier!
I’m sure you’re interested in knowing a bit of the back story surrounding how our van life came to fruition. One day, I made a passing comment while Quinn and I were both cooking in our apartment about traveling in a van together after grad and that night, we began mapping out potential stops along the west coast of North America. Needless to say, the plan stuck. In the months following, Quinn scoured Facebook Marketplace to find a van that had already been renovated. A month later, we drove to Montreal for a test drive and made an offer that day. Since then, we have been sorting out the logistics – purchasing insurance, registering the van, creating a budget, making a list of equipment we need, ensuring we have roadside assistance, researching international SIM cards, looking into national parks passes, etc. There are several details still to be sorted but it will all come in good time and are part of the adventure.
We were almost certain we had everything we needed to survive for the first few days as we got ready to head to our first next destination and were going to treat the first leg of our journey as a test to make sure we knew how everything in the van works and get into somewhat of a living and driving routine.
Let’s just say that things have been a little hectic for both of us. After picking the van up and registering it in Ottawa, I (Ceiledh) packed up the majority of my things and made the road trip home to Nova Scotia in my Jeep. Spending a week at home was a big stress reliever and I could focus on savouring my time with close family and friends as I’m not sure the next time I will be in Halifax. Then I flew back to Ottawa, sold all my furniture, and officially moved into the van! I had a final pitch presentation which marked the end of my undergrad, and within hours, we hit the road.
It has been a roller coaster of pure excitement and the realization that this chapter of my life is coming to an end. Not taking the traditional route of either securing a full-time job or pursuing a masters feels odd. But if you know me well, I’m sure you expected nothing less. I must say, the amount of support and praise we receive when sharing our unconventional post-grad plans is quite reassuring. I heard great advice this past year:
“You have the next 50 years to work, and if that ends up being 48, so what?”
I’m grateful that I’m in the position where I am able to travel, explore my passions, and slowly discover my career path. And I’m more than happy to share our memories in the making with those who never had the opportunity to and those who are aspiring to travel.
Here is a photo of our new home before we moved in! It has the capabilities to be completely off-grid with solar panels which charge batteries to power the electrical outlets, lights, fridge, and microwave along with propane to cook with and heat water. We absolutely love the wooden interior and the entire set up so we will share more in the future (once we know exactly how it all works hahaha).
Quinn and I started our journey with a trial run to test out Hugo, our van, which started in Ottawa and ended in Edmonton, the feeling of finally being on the road is exhilarating yet a little terrifying all at the same time.
The first two days went smoothly. We purposefully planned to make the drive along Lake Superior during the day so we could enjoy the stunning views. We stopped in Wawa, Ontario to see the big Canadian goose and in White River to see Winnie the Pooh to spice up the trip. We slept at picnic or rest stop areas just off the highway along the route.
On day three, we hiked Sleeping Giant near Thunder Bay where we had an interesting experience. We walked through mud, knee deep snow, and a mini Lake Superior. We persevered and trudged several kilometers before encountering an untraversable pond and needed to turn around. To look on the bright side, it was nice to get out of the van and explore a new area plus we had a great sleep that night!
Before leaving Ontario, we stopped for the obligatory fries with salt and vinegar from a chip truck and to see Huskie and Muskie in Kenora. Then we had our bumpiest day of driving… on our mission to find the cheapest gas along the route, we crossed the bridge with the most potholes in all of Ontario (could be proven wrong though).
After that, we sped through Manitoba and Saskatchewan and into Alberta where I was introduced to the big blue sky, tumbleweeds, bison, and all the typical prairie things. In the meanwhile, we followed an unkept dirt road for a good half hour because Google Maps knows all the best short cuts. Google Maps has many useful functions like the most fuel-efficient route, the least amount of traffic, no tolls, etc. but it also has the power to lead you astray.
We spent a week in Alberta, including four jam-packed days in Edmonton, so Quinn could drop off all of her belongings, along with her cat, Lili, and her worms, affectionately named, The Wiggles. It also gave Quinn and I the ability to enjoy quality time with Quinn’s family and friends. Plus it was a treat to have full kitchen and laundry amenities, things you take for granted when not on the road.
We did a brewery tour (Irrational, Arcadia, Odd Company, and Brown’s – would recommend them all), made Mother’s Day pancake brunch, and managed to fit in a bit of sight-seeing and a trip to West Edmonton Mall. We had a big to-do list to prepare for the summer ahead and a list of things to borrow or buy to make our travels a little smoother. With help from Gary and Tony, family friends of Quinn’s, we figured out our plumbing and electrical systems in Hugo and were feeling confident enough to hit the road and continue our excellent summer adventure heading to Red Deer and then onto Calgary!
One cute story I’d like to share is when we bought a fold up camping table from a lady on Facebook Marketplace. When we arrived, she gave us a quick tutorial on how to assemble the table and I mentioned that it will be perfect for our upcoming road trip. She asked where we were headed and when she discovered we were going up North, she was adamant we should go to the Northwest Territories. She was enthusiastic about how beautiful it was in Inuvik where she frequently visits and that the Dempster Highway was well traveled and loved by many so we would have no issues. In the hours following our conversation, we did some research and she definitely made us reconsider our route and even more excited for what’s to come – from meeting more people like her, to seeing these landscapes first-hand.
Travelling south to Cochrane, a small town right between Calgary and the Rockies, for a visit with a close friend of Quinn’s, Grace (and her parents), who Quinn hasn’t seen for the past three years when she moved to Cochrane and Quinn hadn’t had a chance, so you know that this was one of our must stop destination of our adventure.
During the drive, whenever the Rocky Mountains would peek out from behind a hill or between the clouds, I was in awe. One thing we love about our first few days on the road is getting to see the sunset and enjoy twilight in a new place each day.
One of those places was Waterton Lakes National Park where we hiked to Bertha Falls. Near the beginning of our hike, we met two sweet deer of which we were at arms length! They were enjoying the view of the blue water and snowy mountains just as much as we were. Snow periodically blustered through the valley as we walked along the trail. Thankfully this time it was much less snowy than our last hike, however, we still couldn’t make it all the way to the peak because of the snow packed trail – nevertheless, the falls were incredible.
We crossed the border between Alberta, Canada and Montana, USA at the Piegan / Carway site. The drive was beautiful but windy through the farmlands and the mountains peaking out beyond the foothills occasionally. We did some shopping in Great Falls, tanked up with gas, and parked outside of a McDonald’s for their free Wi-Fi so we could research, plan, and get some work done before being off grid for a few days. Not going to lie, we spent eight hours in that parking lot before continuing onto our rest stop destination for the night.
Our next stop was Yellowstone National Park, the world’s first ever official national park established in 1872. On our way there, for some reason, the thought of Yellowstone reminded me of all the family camping trips at Jellystone Campground back home. As you can imagine with the name, it is loosely based on the park which sparked fond memories from Canada Day costume contests to pancake breakfast with Yogi Bear to licking jawbreakers as big as my face.
There is a lot to learn about the tumultuous history of national parks as this title was often used by colonizers to drive indigenous people from the area and leaders took measures to ensure they would not be able to return, but that is a story for a different day.
We drove until sunset and got up early while the clouds were still sitting on the trees in low lying areas. Nothing can beat that.
In the first few minutes of driving, we witnessed a herd of bison clogging up traffic – later we found out this is a regular occurrence. On our way to Lamar Valley, we came across a bunch of cars pulled off the road and people with telephotographic cameras or telescopes. Of course, we pulled off and asked a nice older gentleman what they were all looking at. He explained to us that a male grizzly bear was hiding out in the sagebrush munching on what he assumed was bison. He also explained it is very rare for there to be a bear sitting so still around sixty yards from the road. It was nice to be able to pick his brain for half an hour about his long history with nature photography and all things Yellowstone. The crowd patiently stood waiting for the bear to finish his meal (as did the ravens so they could have his leftovers) and as the bear stood and with every flick of his head, the paparazzi enthusiastically took photos. Regular cell phones or cameras couldn’t capture the moment, so we just watched instead.
There were many moments in the park where we both wished we had brought a pair of binoculars to get a closer peak at the wildlife – so if you ever go, don’t forget them! Regular patrons of the park are very generous with allowing passers-by to look through their lens to check it out.
Our bear photographer friend told us to stop a few miles down the road to check out the wolf den as a litter of wolves had recently been born. Seems like we got really lucky with the timing of our trip despite our lack of planning. Sure enough, we began chatting with a couple from Arizona who had been visiting the park twice a year to follow the pack for several years now. I could have asked questions for hours as they shared their insights on the history of the pack and the nature of wolves. We got to look through their scope to see all the pups running around!
Slowly but surely, with a few stops, we made it to the trailhead in Lamar Valley where we walked past a huge herd of bison and stayed on the lookout for a momma bear with her two cubs rumored to be high on a hill in the distance. We decided to turn around after being stared down by a bison… maybe he was minding his own business, maybe he was being territorial – we weren’t going to be the ones to find out
It was time for lunch, so we had a little picnic with a perfect view of the mountains to have a bite, stretch, and take a little mid-day nap in the sunshine. Since you can’t park or camp in the park overnight without a reservation, we headed out to a nearby town to make risotto for dinner and relax. We played the game “we are not really strangers” for around an hour before heading to bed – would recommend it if you want to provoke deeper conversation than your usual conversation might lead to.
The following day, we followed the advice of our bear photographer friend and woke up around 5:30am so we had a greater chance to see moose – we saw two that morning, one even walked out on the road in front of us within the first few minutes of driving. As we were crossing through Lamar Valley, yet again, we saw a crowd waiting for a grizzly bear to emerge from the bushes. A friendly, and patient, Dutch man spent a few minutes trying to point it out for us and eventually we saw it! The bear was much closer than we thought, which was thrilling but very intimidating.
Later that day, we stopped at the more touristy areas including Mammoth Hot Springs, Artist Point & the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Norris Basin Geyser, and Old Faithful. Each stop portrayed its own very unique features and stunning impression on the overall landscape. Personally, I didn’t realize the park offered such a diverse landscape or that the area was an active volcano. Now it makes sense why this plot of land was chosen to be deemed the first national park!
We would recommend these sites in Yellowstone National Park:\
- Mammoth Hot Springs
- Upper Geyser Basin
- Norris Geyser Basin
- Grand Prismatic Spring
- Midway Geyser Basin
- Soda Butte Trailhead/ Lamar Valley Hike
- Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
- Old Faithful (we unfortunately just missed watching it, but we saw it go off in a video)
Plus, just driving around to see all the bison roaming, sagebrush, rock outcrops and people watching other animals from a distance with binoculars 🙂
After learning so much about the ecological disaster that was created in Yellowstone due to the removal of wolves and the increased population of elk munching on vegetation, seeing a wolf pack through a scope and witnessing the vegetation well again was truly a wonderful feeling. Not only from a beauty perspective, but also from an ecological perspective that we, humans, can restore our negative effects on our environment. It gives us hope for our future as we face climate change due to anthropogenic effects. If we can bring back this system into a balance, why not our climate?
After Yellowstone we continued our journey down South to Grand Teton National Park to drive through on our way to Salt Lake City. We stopped in the cute little mountain town of Jackson, Wyoming which was the perfect place to stay the night. Parked HUGO in the parking lot of a grocery store with Wi-Fi – for some rest, grab some fresh produce and keep everyone updated on our adventures!
Can’t wait to continue sharing our adventures with you.
Until next time!!!
by Ceiledh Monk & Quinn McKinney