On Borders, Campfires and Double Plaid

“Oh Ca-na-da” as they sing…getting in was easy, getting out again not so much!

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Rideau Lakes campground at sunset

The Thousand Islands region is a beautiful and handy spot where the border between the United States and Canada runs East West-ish through the waters of the St Lawrence River, as it exits a corner of Lake Ontario.

Visions of the bus breaking down again before the border and simply abandoning it to jog the rest of the way passport in hand played in my mind as we approached…

You can peer down at picturesque riverside holiday homes dotted along the shore of New York State as you drive over the green painted metal toll-bridge and arrive in Ontario, Canada. It is so handy that many Canadians take a day trip in the other direction for a bit of duty-free shopping.

Definition of an island here? Two trees and at least 1 square foot of land above water all year. Many of the smaller rocky outcrops appear to have just enough room for the tiny wooden shed bolted onto them, some larger versions also feature docks and green gardens creating an enviable little rocky one-house universe in the midst of the river.

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The border! And a few of the Thousand Islands.

Our mission in Canada was two-fold. First and foremost by this time in late September 2018, L needed to exit the USA and fast. Not making regular trips back to the UK like me, his 6 month-long tourist visa needed to be “reset” back to zero. We had being planning to make this trip for months, first via the boat and then in the bus so when we were held up by 2 weeks of breakdowns we finally made it but with just days to spare.

Visions of the bus breaking down again before the border and simply abandoning it to jog the rest of the way passport in hand played in my mind as we approached…

…there is some comedy value in a pink painted caravan propped on bricks instead of wheels, with “drive like you stole it” painted on the back!

The second part of our mission was to have some uneventful R&R in a campground on the historic Rideau canals area near Kingston, Ontario hopefully to regain our composure after recent “events”.

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Me. Regaining my composure.

Campgrounds suitable for RV’s attract an unusual mix of people and vehicles and this place was a real doozy. By the end of the summer the flurry of tents, family holiday makers and summer weekenders in their trailers thins out like the autumn foliage, exposing the bare branches of what are called the “seasonals”, plus a few late stragglers like us.

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There’s a motor-home in there somewhere!!

In this part of the world, the climate doesn’t allow people to live in little tin boxes through the winter – and even if they wanted to the laws governing campgrounds don’t allow it – but many do choose to live in them all summer, hence the term seasonal. And while they are there they tinker and build and garden and DIY all around these former mobile dwellings, adding comforts and conveniences, until they look as much as possible like small houses.

Speaking as someone who sold a house and lives in a bus there is no room for being snobby about it, but there is some comedy value in a pink painted caravan propped on bricks instead of wheels, with “drive like you stole it” painted on the back!

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Cargo trains and station masters – neither are to messed with.

Having family just an hour away along the shore of Lake Ontario in the small and historic town of Cobourg, I planned myself a trip on one of those seriously upmarket Canadian trains. More like an airline than a nationalised railway, with (expensive!) pre-booked tickets, guards to strictly control that you board at the correct door and take the correct seat, a coffee trolley, reclining seats and clean leather upholstery.

I confess to overindulging in both my Aunt Isabel’s awesome cooking and taking several over-long hot baths. Who knows when I will get another chance to enjoy either of those pleasures.

I both enjoyed the orderly calm whilst suppressing my rebellious British temptation to break one of the rules! Not the one about standing well back from the train tracks though…these two-story tall freight trains pulling seemingly hundreds of cars, thunder relentlessly through the station for 10 minutes at a time.

From the sandy beaches just off downtown Cobourg, Lake Ontario looks like the sea complete with docks, marinas full of boats, gulls and a lighthouse.

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And from the neighbouring town of Port Hope the main street looked like America, decked out in American flags and with a 20 foot tall fiberglass statue of Paul Bunyan, a lumberjack of America folklore.

Apparently Port Hope does a brisk film location business and scenes from Stephen King’s “IT – The Sequel” were being shot there. A creepy fairground, retro pinball machines, a quantity of fake cobwebs and Jessica Chastain had adorned parts of the town, although the main attraction for me was the Saturday afternoon food festival with live music and a beer tent – all enjoyed for free courtesy of my Uncle Tim’s theatre biz connections!

I confess to overindulging in both my Aunt Isabel’s awesome cooking and taking several over-long hot baths. Who knows when I will get another chance to enjoy either of those pleasures.

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A Walmrt person in a cosy plaid shirt.

People talk about “Walmart people” – the eccentric sub-species that is fabled to wander the Twinkies aisle of these mega-stores? We never spotted any Walmart people until we got to Canada, where we shopped in the saddest, grumpiest, most under-stocked, snaggle-toothed Walmart we had ever visited. They did however have cosy, quilted plaid shirts (that’s tartan to us British folk) ideal for the biting, chilly winds for which we were quite unprepared.

Once we had our plaid on, we blended right in…

Julie illustrated her extreme petite-ness and agility by being boosted headfirst through a small window…

We also blended in very nicely with our new campground neighbours. Enzo, Julie and their Giant Schnauzer Sam (imagine a small, very hairy black horse, peering out from under giant eyebrows) were seasoned campers, on their way back from a trip to the east coast Maritimes region to see the sea and pulling their vintage aluminium camper the “Red Zepellin” with their truck.

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Julie, Sam, Enzo and the “Red Zeppellin”

Together we visited some highlights of the Thousand Islands area with Enzo and Julie kindly acting as our unpaid tour guides. At dusk we also stealthily dragged fallen branches from the surrounding woods (strictly forbidden on campgrounds, lest an Easter Island style deforestation occur) to add to the bags of hideously overpriced firewood for several roaring campfires.

We had six plaid shirts round the campfire till midnight with Enzo and Julie both demonstrating how to wear double-plaid (a thick plaid shirt over a thinner plaid shirt), the Canadian version of double-denim!

Enzo illustrated his Italian heritage by ranting about the issues of the day and roasting some beautiful chestnuts on the fire for us.

Julie illustrated her extreme petite-ness and agility by being boosted headfirst through a small window when our other neighbours locked themselves out of their large, plush coach. A coach which Julie had christened “The Mule” on account of it being adorned with a lot of twinkly lights including an electric palm tree and the occupants – several seedy old guys with stringy pony tails – who slept outside all afternoon on camp chairs…hmm…

After reluctantly waving off our new friends for the rest of their trip back up to North Ontario, we prepared ourselves to head back South over the border in the next few days.

L told the whole story forwards, backwards and sideways repeatedly until the officer probably couldn’t bear to hear it one more time…

Despite my glossing over the potential challenges (an annoying habit or a sunny outlook depending on the situation and your point of view!) in discussions about how this was going to go – “we are just long-term tourists, surely?” – L knew in his bones that an immigration officer on the USA border has it within his or her power to take a dislike to us and our plans…and mess them right up…

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The queue for customs. Dicey..

Needless to say, the combination of our entry by yacht from the Bahamas, a long stay in the USA, the Georgia license plates on our bus and Jeep plus a last-minute entry into Canada and back out again resulted in us being called in for an interview in the border control office.

L told the whole story forwards, backwards and sideways repeatedly until the officer probably couldn’t bear to hear it one more time and decided to let us in. Apparently they only see about 4 or 5 non US or Canadian citizens a year traveling in this way – which is not surprising as it is bloody difficult for all sorts of legal, insurance, immigration and admin’ reasons!!

We thankfully drive back over the green bridge and follow the trusty Interstate 81 heading down South again.

We had now to urgently complete the next bit of vehicle registration admin’ required by the powers that be back in Georgia, but we can at least be cosy in our plaid shirts, munching on spectacular fresh Canadian apples and admiring the first tinges of golden Autumn leaf tones in the mountains along the way.

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