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  • Writer's pictureCheryl

Good-bye backpacks—hello van!

We didn’t want to trade wings for wheels or carry-on for campgrounds, but a year into the coronavirus pandemic the choice was clear: stay home or adapt. We’d planned to spend our retirement feeding off the excitement of discovering foreign lands, wandering the globe in search of new experiences, but COVID-19 had other ideas.

Camping isn’t on our bucket list—we had our fill when our kids were young—and the decision to invest in a camper van is a tough one. By the time we decide to bite-the-bullet, affordable camper vans are as rare as hen’s teeth.

We buy a used mini-van instead.

Seats out--ready to begin.

Scouring the internet for inspiration, we discover the “van life” we first embraced 50 years ago is alive and thriving, buoyed by social media and Instagram ideals. We’re decidedly on the home-made side of the spectrum—any structural changes could interfere with out plans to resell the van post-pandemic.

The bed platform is made. A piano hinge connects the two pieces so we can lift up the back section to access our "kitchen."
A piano hinge enables us to lift up the back section for access to our "kitchen."
Lots of storage space underneath.

We remove the middle seats and install a wooden mattress frame, leaving room underneath for kitchen supplies. But finding the right mattress—or any mattress that fits—proves to be the first hurtle. The second? Finding a portable toilet and shower. With stores largely closed to in-person shopping, we’re left with the tyranny of Amazon.

Noel gives his seal of approval to the new mattress.
It works!

Things seemed so much simpler when we drove our Volkswagon van to Mexico in 1973.

Deliveries appear at our door on a regular basis, accumulating in our basement at an alarming rate. How will everything fit in the van?

The answer? It doesn’t.

The rear “stow’n-go” seats must come out as well, if we’re going to make room for our “kitchen”.

We wait, somewhat impatiently, for our final purchase: a portable, collapsible toilet. It’s critical because we plan to camp on crown land and there’s no facilities. Upon its arrival, we realize we’ll also need some form of privacy. Enter the pop-up up shower tent.

The online videos made it look so easy—just throw the disc and up pops a little shower stall! Folding the spring-loaded tent back up, all while fighting mosquitoes and keeping an eye out for bears, is more of a challenge.

Bears, our oldest daughter constantly tells us, cannot be underestimated and lurk behind every rock and tree. So, just when we thought we had everything, we head to MEC for curbside bear spray. It comes with a long list of disconcerting instructions about wind direction.

Finally, bear spray in-hand, we head out for our first night of wild camping on Crown Land near an old prison close to Kilarney Ont. using—one of several websites dedicated to listing free, out of the way campsites—to select our camping spot.

Crown land formerly farmed by prison inmates now sits empty, making it a perfect place to camp.
The adventure begins!
The perfect spot—until the mosquito attack.

It’s picturesque and secluded—at least until the mosquitoes comes out. No bears in sight, just seething, hungry swarms of minuscule predators out for blood. Thinking ourselves clever, we make sure to close the doors of the van as soon as we unload, but it’s too late—battalions of blood-suckers have already invaded the van. Twenty-minutes of swatting later, the van is mostly mosquito free, but they launch a second offensive on our first trip to the “facilities.”

First light reveals the previous evening’s carnage, blood splotches and crushed bodies cover every wall and surface in the vehicle, not even the ceiling is spared. Lesson learned—don’t venture outside until the sun has risen over the trees and the blood-suckers have retreated.

But nature is ours again and the location feels peaceful and rejuvenating.

Not that we’re staying long. Our next destination is Meldrum Bay on Manitoulin Island—the largest fresh water island in the world—where we’ll meet our long-time friend and fellow van camper Trish, along with her remarkable feline companion, Otis.

Trish and her cat Otis—a real charmer!

It’s just the three of us at this private campground (four, if you count Otis). With the Canada-US border closed, seasonal Americans can’t access the island, giving it an eerie, empty feeling. Only twenty-seven people live in Meldrum Bay and the pandemic saw it’s only store close permanently, although a local B&B has survived.

Without Americans we have the place to ourselves. We're the only campers.

“Where’s the rice, where’s the cardamom, cumin, or dried chilies?” Noel asks as he rummages through overflowing boxes of food. Knowing the nearest store is an hour away, we’ve brought everything, including the kitchen sink. Whatever we didn’t bring, Trish did. Noel, undaunted by having only a two burner Coleman stove churns out gourmet meal after gourmet meal—Thai noodles, mango pork, pickerel with potato pancakes, chicken, rice with cashews and roasted pumpkin seeds, freshly grilled zucchini and Moroccan carrots.

Noel magically creates gourmet meals from our "kitchen."
The chef at work.
It's my favouite tonight--Thai.
Dinners are always a delicious surprise.

The North Channel provides the backdrop for our dinners, light shimmering and changing with the setting sun. The view makes up for the campground's management style, which reminds me of the long cancelled classic, Fawlty Towers. The water tap is located in the middle of a clump of bushes, the electrical outlets short out, the bathroom door locks itself from the outside and staff think firewood is a luxury.

Noel is on coffee and tea detail.
The perfect view to enjoy my tea.

Our stay gives us time to adjust to our new lifestyle. Although small, our bed is comfortable and warm—like a cozy cocoon. Getting dressed and out the door is another matter, we can’t sit up on our bed so we learn to get dressed lying down, rolling over onto our sides to get our door open without smashing our heads.

So cozy!

One night, fumbling with my flashlight I unlock the van door manually from the inside, unaware it would trigger the alarm. Noel hit his head on the ceiling as I frantically searched for my glasses and keys to halt the jarring screeching. Lesson learned.

On the bright side we’re becoming much more limber.

During the day, we roam the back roads exploring as we make our way to Providence Bay, known to Indigenous people as Bebekodawangog or “where sands curve around the bay”.

We spot many abandoned farms, perhaps dreams gone awry, while at the same time Amish, relative newcomers successfully farming are bringing new life. History still breathes in the crumbling barns and old homes that dot the island.

Abandoned buildings dot the landscape. Photo: Noel Van Raes

Unfortunately, all museums are closed, but we peer in the windows of many hoping to catch a glimpse of the past.

Walking the sandy shore of Lake Huron gives me time to reflect and—while a lot has changed in the last 50 years—our return to van camping has given us new experiences and fresh memories; there’s no doubt Canada’s backyard is as spectacular as it is vast.

Our world from the windshield. Photo: Noel Van Raes

But decades later, it all feels a bit too familiar. Let’s just say our backpacks are at the ready.

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