I have a mad crush on Canada and I am unashamed to admit it.
Despite the several times I have avoided visiting the land to which my Irish ancestors fled from the potato famine, see the tales of Banff and Vancouver, on my Nova Scotia road trip I learned to love the rolling hills and easy way of life. But it was Ottawa that caught my heart.
I visited the capitol with my parents while we were attending an IEEE EMC Symposium being held there. Our trip was planned to fly into Toronto where we would rent a car and drive to Ottawa. After the conference, we were going to do some genealogy research in the cities where we had records of the Hoolihans living as well as the cottage of my Aunt and Uncle on Georgian Bay.
The first step to these wonderful plans to discover my heritage began with getting out of Toronto. Ha! You say, that shouldn’t be an issue. It is a large city and there should be many freeways. Yes. Yes, there are. And on that particular day in July, every single person in Toronto decided to use those freeways. Oh yes, and because Toronto has a road construction season – as does my home state of Minnesota—due to the climate, most of those freeway lanes were closed. It took us two hours to crawl from the airport to suburbs where we were able to find food.
I wanted Timmy’s really badly. I was in Canada. For those not familiar with the glorious joy that is Tim Horton’s it is a Canadian classic referred to often as Timmy’s. There are baked goods ALL THE TIME. I loved baked goods. And of course, because they must be health conscious, they have the foods that make up the rest of my diet – oatmeal, yogurt, fruit.
And…wait for it…they have coffee. It is my happy place. I was recently overjoyed to find one installed at the Mall of America in Minnesota, or Canada Lite.
My dad stopped at a McDonald’s. Honestly, after two hours in the car when I had been promised food when we landed…I just wanted to eat. I was also ready to stop wearing the shiny green hat my dad had packed to see if anyone would notice as we passed them.
My father does not always travel with a green bowler adorned with sequins – it was part of his costume. And no, this was not ComiCon, people did not wear costumes each day to the symposium. My father is part of the DB society, a society within the IEEE EMC Society, and they have a social event each year with a theme and a costume contest. The hat was a part of his costume, and apparently had to be carried onto the plane. Which is how it found its way into the backseat. Which is why I decided to put it on my head after two hours of driving through Toronto.
After refueling at the generic American staple of McDonald’s, we resumed our route to Ottawa. Practically seven hours after landing in the Great White North, just as the light was beginning to fade in the dimming summer day, we arrived in downtown where we would be staying. Driving in along the Rideau Canal, I was gripped with how beautiful even a city was in Canada. After hours of staring out the window and nothing but fields punctuated by rest stops, I was happy for a change.
I must say, however, that the rest stops built along the road in Canada were fantastic. They had gas, gifts, TIMMY’s and nice bathrooms. Honestly, I truly believe that all rest stops on freeways everywhere should be equipped with coffee shops. But that is just me.
Our hotel was lovely, and the man who checked me in was so super friendly. At first, I thought he was flirting with me. Then I stopped and remembered I was 35 and that doesn’t happen the way it did when I was 21. It was just the Canada nice showing through in his demeanor and treatment of guests.
The next morning we were up bright and early as it was Sunday and we were going to attend Mass. We had asked the nice young gentleman if he knew of a place with a 6:30 am Mass. Upon much questioning of other staff and the quick reference to the church directory, it was determined that there was no such place in Ottawa.
I knew instantly that I liked these people. That was far too early in the morning to be doing anything in summertime.
However, we needed to be doing work at 8:30 stuffing bags with the bags that I had stuffed all summer long. Bright and early at 7 am we loaded into the rental car…again…and attempted to leave the parking lot headed for the church. We went to pay at the pay station. It was down. We went to the exit to use the pay station there. It would not accept the card. We flagged down someone who worked in the parking lot who brought us to another crossbar and that machine was down. Finally, because we were trapped otherwise, the attendant let us pass.
God wanted to ensure the Hoolihan’s made it to Mass that morning.
As we sat through the prayers of the fateful, we all perked up as the priest prayed for those who were sick – including someone with the surname Houlihan. Sure enough, upon further investigation into the church bulletin, we found that there was also a Houlihan listed on the staff.
My father, the consummate genealogist, wanted to call and find out in which way we were related. We had other Canadian relatives with the Houlihan spelling derivative living several hours away. There had to be a connection.
But as Mass was closing, we were unable to follow the leads and had to, instead, depart to stuff bags into bags for the Symposium.
Finally, after the work was done I was able to explore Ottawa. There was an adorable European type market not far from our hotel, and I walked over there while my parents attended their soiree that required costumes. I walked amongst the stalls of Maple Syrup, fresh flowers and produce, jewelry and restaurants. I found a cute little sandwich shop that also served wine and I decided to treat myself to an early dinner. A delicious grilled caprese panini and a glass of wine made me feel as though I had been transported back to Italy for a day to enjoy the culinary delights.
Byward Market became a daily venture for me. Whether it was for souvenirs, or dinners, or just to get out and walk about the city. There was always something happening when I wasn’t locked into the convention center.
The fact that the majority of the restaurants where my parents and I ate when not attending Symposium events also helped. It was in Byward Market where I discovered the strange culinary treat that was Beaver Tails.
When I first saw the sign, I thought maybe it was a really dirty bar.
Nope. Beaver Tails are a pastry.
They are pretty much a large funnel cake that is topped with many different kinds of flavors: Strawberries, Maple Syrup (of course), chocolate…anything sweet. Beyond Beaver Tails, it was hard to find anything specific to the Ottawa culinary scene.
There were some locally brewed beers that I tried, they were okay. There was, of course, Poutine. I was highly unimpressed with this Canadian delicacy. The fact that it is fried food topped with gravy may clue you in as to why.
I try to eat very healthy.
That is, except when it comes to baked goods. Thus, the epitome of my Canadian culinary joy was Tim Horton’s.
Once the symposium was over, and I was able to explore the city a little more outside of the Byward Market area and my daily run along the Rideau Canal, there was so much history and culture to be found. Otherwise, my exposure had been mostly commercialized as our hotel attached directly to the Convention Center and to the Rideau Shopping Centre (an Americanized mall).
This is not to say I didn’t also love Canadian stores.
Chapters was the equivalent of a Barnes and Noble meets Borders with a splash of hip little boutique. I was promptly excited to see that they would be celebrating the release of the new Harry Potter play – as I was fresh off my trip from Harry Potter World. However, alas, I discovered that although I thought it was celebrated on the day I was to check out and move to the next destination – it was the day after. 12:01 AM not Midnight of that date. I had to order it as a Kindle book to read it right away. And order my hard copy for the future.
My obsession with Roots clothing line became so obsessive, and the fact that I simply took the elevator to a different floor of the hotel and walked through the sliding doors to the mall, brought me almost daily to look over the items that I wanted to bring home. I needed to decide which of my favorites were pack worthy for the trip back to the US. Of course, as is the world I was able to order whatever I couldn’t bring home on the Internet, but there was something about buying it in Canada. I still refer to those pieces as my Canadian clothes, even though my mother had one shipped to me for my birthday in August. And that there were actually stores in the United States. But no matter – they are my Canadian clothes.
My Canadian clothes match my Canada mittens that I bought at Hudson Bay Company, which is kind of a mix between a Macy’s and an old outfitter that the Voyagers may have used. It was far less stuffy than a Macy’s, and the brands were all outdoorsy like I wear. It made me feel classy and at home at the same time. That does not happen often. Classy is not the first word that pops to most people’s mind when describing me.
Sometimes I am afraid to ask what word does appear…
Needless to say, with Timmy Horton’s, Roots and Hudson Bay Company—I was ready to sign up for my Green Card. The alternative was to find a Canadian husband…which seemed awfully tempting in the summer of 2016 as Election 2016 loomed on the horizon.
There was that tiny, little, insignificant fact that I was already married.
My annual summer employment gig complete, I boarded a tour boat on the Rideau Canal with my mother and saw the city as I hadn’t seen it all week. There were a ton of old buildings to be seen, including the Prime Minister’s home where PM Trudeau lived with his family and where his father had lived before him. I had lived in the looming presence of the capital all week and aside from the foray into the Canada Science and Technology Museum, Byward Market, The Rideau Mall, and the Convention Center, hadn’t seen much.
We stopped along the canal at the National Gallery where I was schooled in The Group of Seven and their natural landscapes capturing the heart of Canadian country. I will just admit right now that I am not usually a big fan of Art museums. I am like a child, and unless the museum is hands on, I can breeze through relatively quickly. Even then, I move from one exhibit to the next pretty rapidly. I truly enjoyed these artists work, and learning about them opened my eyes to the fact that Canada is indeed filled with art beyond architecture and Mike Myers.
The evening after I went to the art museum, I walked over with a friend to the Parliament Building. Every night during the summer of that year, as it was the 150 year anniversary of Canada as a nation, there was a laser show telling the history of Canada displayed on the building. It was incredible. The images were crystal clear and the simultaneous broadcast of English and French narration told a history that I was not terribly familiar with. It offered insights into the British, French and Native American people to the current country.
The next morning, I was up early to climb up Parliament Hill for the other spectacle it provided: the changing of the guard.
I had seen the changing of the guard in London, but had never really thought about the fact the military had its presence in Canada as well. Every day, at ten in the morning, the new troops come marching up from the barracks and the changing occurs with all the royal complexities of London. In contrast, I felt as though we were much closer to the action as we watched them maneuver through their parade drills and attending pomp and circumstance.
Following the exit of the completed guard down the hill back towards barracks, my parents and I returned to the genealogical investigation that had been foreshadowed our first day in Ottawa. We went to visit the National Archives, and it was quite the process. We to first apply for National Library cards. At least, my father did. My mother and I were his escorted guests – which pretty much describes our entire presence at these symposiums. We then, after he had applied, had to return to the main level of the library where we had to turn in our ID’s and remove absolutely everything from our possession save a pencil and a pad of paper. After all of that, we returned to the archives floor where we were able to look through birth and death records for the entire country.
Sadly, we were unable to find any new records about our earliest known ancestors in Canada, specifically we were looking for where they were buried. We were off the next day to visit the graves of those we did know, and hoped to investigate the others along the way.
The genealogist was raring to go bright and early the next day. It was officially not a trip in which sleeping in would be a priority for anyone but me. Departing my new favorite Canadian city, we planned to stop for gas. Apparently, they do not believe in exiting the freeway once you are on it when departing Ottawa: either stay or get out. We finally, after arguing over several map apps, found a gas station with gas. Accustomed to American convenience store gas stations, I was dismayed to not see coffee being brewed. I had been advised by El Capitan that we would stop for breakfast and coffee along the way, and I shouldn’t make any.
No coffee at a gas station? In Canada? The horror!
I was ready to divorce my Canadian husband and disavow any kinship with the Canadian side of the Hoolihan family.
But as we left the gas station, after having received directions to our route to Peterborough, Ontario where we would be staying, the shop clerk convinced me that there would be Timmy’s in almost all the towns.
I convinced my father to step out of the McDon’s routine and meet my Canadian boyfriend, Timmy. The first one we found as we made our way off the freeway we stopped at to eat. It was delicious. I forgot how wonderful Timmy’s are when you are driving across the country and are starving and discover a store.
It is magnified by a million.
And the coffee. MMMMMMM.
Fully satiated after our breakfast, it was back in the car for the three of us venturing once again to find the Hoolihan’s hidden in the countryside of Canada. My father’s very distant cousin, Donus, was from around the area to which we were headed, but was unable to join us on this particular genealogical excavation. Excavation minus the digging up of items, that is.
After three or four hours…I lost track…we arrived at a tiny little church in a hamlet called Young’s Point. As we staggered out of the vehicle after so many hours of driving, we climbed the ancient steps inside the gothic black fence to the cemetery around the church. Dad made a beeline straight towards the headstone of my great-great-great-grandfather, James Hoolahan.
As I took my first-ever etching of a headstone, something I had read about in a Sleepover Club book back in the eighties, it struck me just how old this tombstone was. The remains of the man buried below had been the descendant of Irish ancestors that had escaped the famine. I used to hold my breath whenever we drove by a cemetery – also a hold-over from an eighties series of books. That is I held my breath until I was about sixteen, when upon the completion of a wedding in Iowa my parents and their friends stopped in a cemetery in Iowa to look for ancestors. The fact that my sister and the sister of the groom were dragged along and we were required to sit at the cemetery put an end to that instantly. But I had chills in this cemetery, gazing at the lake beside which my ancestors rest.
Despite the search on barely legible tombstones, my father was not successful in locating any clues to the location of Honora (or Hannah) Houlahan. James’ wife. As we drove from the hamlet, and I was dying in the backseat because there were no public restrooms due to the lake and river traffic that were stopped at the lock in “town.” We finally arrived in Peterborough where we would stay for the night. The hotel that we checked into was very old. Upon emptying my bladder, I filled my water bottle. The water was horrible. Horrible in the way that it tasted of 100 years of mold, deposit build up and Nast. I proceeded to the lobby to check out the water cooler.
It was equally as heinous.
I immediately avowed that my afternoon adventure would be an investigation into a freshwater source in Peterborough. I exited the hotel and made my way to the river walk. Just because my search for water didn’t require a stick or searching for a stream feeding clean water to the river, but it didn’t mean I couldn’t play settler as my ancestors had years before. Well, they didn’t play they actually did settle in this area.
For a city with such horrible municipal water, they were very proud of the river and had put a lot of effort into designing the area. It was also only about three blocks long. I returned to the very hot streets and found a convenience store where I immediately bought and chugged a liter of water. Thus refreshed, I continued to investigate the city. Thigh I only had an hour until I was to meet my parents for Mass.
There were several cute shops that made up the downtown, although the majority were restaurants. There were pie places and ice cream shops. I am absolutely in love with the way Canada embraces the sugary side of the culinary life. I often feel as though my food groups are similar to those of elves in the movie Elf. Candy, Candy canes, candy corn, and syrup. Mine is more like: Cereal, Fruit, Ice Cream and Pastries. There was also, surprisingly, a Stand Up Paddle Board shop where you could rent. Had I had more time, I would have tried out this little surprise in the heart of Canada.
Instead, I made my way to the Timmy’s and bought a muffin. As I was walking back towards the hotel, I was stopped by a college age girl who asked for money as she was hungry. Having decided I really didn’t want the muffin, I offered it to her.
She didn’t eat carbs.
Ummm…beggars can’t be choosers? Literally!
I said sorry, and I really didn’t have any more Canadian Dollars as the next day we would be headed to an island with only a cottage on it, to give to her. Then I took my Raspberry Explosion Muffin and headed back to the hotel of nasty water.
After Mass, we toured one more cemetery and were able to locate and take pictures with the gravestone of one of my namesakes, buried alongside her husband, who was one of my father’s namesakes. It was, actually, a really cool moment. Not only to know that these were real people, not just stories or names on the diagram I had been shown over and over, they had lived. In this town. It doesn’t mean I didn’t question their dowsing capabilities. To share that moment with my father, who is so mesmerized by his ancestry was even more special.
My father and I continued out bonding time that evening after a lovely dinner in which the three of us drank too much wine and I drank probably a gallon of water. There were tears and my father was upset by some of my job-related quagmires. We walked our way back to the hotel and my mother bid us good evening. My father decided he would have another drink. I went for ice cream at a shop down the road. I was prepared to make my way to the hotel, when a force compelled me to join my father.
I was not too interested in having more to drink, but I grabbed a beer at the non cohesive Cowboy Bar that he had chosen. Dad and I had the best conversation ever. I felt as though we shared things that we had never told each other and won’t reveal here. But it was filled with revelations and more tears inspired by the closeness of our conversation, drink and I am sure the haunting feeling of terracing land where family had lived years ago. I have never felt as close to my father and I will cherish that night forever.
But, as my parents are want to do, we were up early to do laundry and the laundromat. The party continued.
It was also the realization that I had spent more time in Canadian laundromats over my life than American. There is not much to think about in laundromats.
Having washed and packed my parents clothes for the trip to “The island.” Then we found yet another food chain that needs to be more widespread across the United States. Cora had huge, delicious pancakes and fresh fruit to go with them. It was incredible. Fully satiated after having to wait through the laundromat, we made our way towards a location I had been hearing about for many years: Honey Harbour.
I had always kind of pictures Honey Harbor as a cute little tourist town in Georgian Bay on the islands of Lake Huron. It was actually really just a Harbor with a little general store. Who knew?
My parents and I found a place to park the rental car in someone’s yard–not a bad way to make a living if you are retired in that area. We made our way down to the docks with our luggage to wait for my uncle to arrive with the boat. As we waited, we observed the mass chaos of hundreds of students being loaded into busses by counselors of the Y M C A camp across the bay from the cottage.
My cousin happened to be a counselor at the camp but had the afternoon off and arrived with My uncle as we overloaded the little boat with our luggage and began to chug our way down the straits away from the Harbour. Canadian Flags were flying and The Skipper and his First Mate narrated our little tour with stories of the very rich people whose “cottages” which trumped my house a million times over.
We finally rounded a bend and my uncle pointed to a cabin on a rocky little island and pronounced that we were almost home as he pointed to the twenties cottage perched alongside the strait with the Maple Leaf flying high above the long wooden dock dotted with the red hair of my aunt. We pulled up an unloaded the burdened boat of our luggage and were moved into the main cottage. There was a beautiful screen porch out front overlooking the water and my parents and I were placed in the back room, which could be divided by a curtain. There was also a small era-friendly kitchen and a small bath tucked in the back of the great, vaulted room accompanied by crawl-space loft.
My aunt and uncle would be staying in the other cabin, their special retreat on the island.
I was able to walk from one end of the island to the other in approximately five minutes. That was the long way. You could walk the narrow part of the island at its widest part, where the main cabin sat, in one. It was the cabin on the rock in the lake. Literally.
Selecting the bed that was not “my dad’s” (he had been to the island before and had slept there – he is a creature of habit) I was able to gaze out the screen door as I lay in bed at night feeling the breeze come in off the water which was about twenty feet from the door. It was peaceful to hear the lapping of a great lake—one of my favorite calming sounds in the whole world.
Although we had arrived in virtual rainstorm, we crowded into the main cabin. My cousin and his friend would be boating to another island for the evening to enjoy their youth. I settled into weaving of cabin lore as my aunt and uncle walked us through years and years of traditions. We were shown where the swimming beach was located, just in front of the boat house the rocked sloped conveniently toward the water.
We were also taken to the boathouse, where upon arrival to the island earlier that summer, my aunt and uncle had discovered the busy beavers had built an entire lodge in the middle of the boat house. Beavers are the symbol for the well-known Engineering University, MIT. There is a reason. The lodge extended the entire length of the boat’s docking area and was woven to the very bottom of lake.
Although they had been working daily to eliminate the months of work the beavers had finished, it was still three quarters of the way back in the boat slip. We would be put to work later in the trip taking the larger pieces and helping to split and stack them for firewood.
As we sat on the porch after having been introduced to the island, my aunt introduced to me the idea that would be my favorite part of our time on the island. There was a national park a short canoe ride away, right across Beausoleil Bay from the camp my cousin worked at, where we would be able to go for a trail run.
The next morning, I was up early, getting up early while relaxing is apparently in my dad’s family’s genes. As the sun was rising over the water, my aunt and I canoed our way towards the park. As she steered us through her familiar waters, she pointed out all of the different houses and islands that dotted our route. It was silent and peaceful with few waves making for a quick paddle to the island. On our approach, we heard the sounds of excited voices echoing across the bay from camp. On the first day, it was tradition for kids to get up early and take the first swim of the day.
We docked and slid the canoe up onto the sandy beach and pulled it out of the way of the waves before knocking the wet sand off our bare feet and sliding on our socks and running shoes. I am not a trail runner, and truly I have enough trouble staying on my own two feet when running on a path, and as I walked behind my aunt up the steep and rocky incline towards what she claimed was a smoother path, I had nightmares of tree branches protruding from my skull.
We had to take my brother to the ER for a freak “skin-the-cat” trick on the swing set when I was young. My mom got nervous when he released too soon from the flip over the swing one way and then back around. He landed on his back and neck and away we went. I swear as we went to his little sheet enclosed area I walked by another kid with a branch sticking out of the side of his head. It’s been a fear ever since.
In contrast to the pictured horrors, we did arrive at a fairly grassy and wide trail once we had climbed up the rocks. Without ceremony, we began our run and a period of chat with my aunt that seemed to deepen the similarities that I had long ago noticed running between the two of us. I had always felt that kinship, as I fancy that I can write, and she had published several nonfiction books. When I was in college, I would often visit my aunt and uncle and their children at their home which wasn’t far from school. I babysat for them, I hung out, I think I even coached a three-year old’s soccer practice once. But the conversations we had were those of two adults rather than a young woman and her aunt.
These runs became my favorite part of the island.
This was largely in part to the fact that it was the only time that I was able to leave the little rock in the strait.
Whether it was from carrying all of our luggage to the island on the little boat, or the number of friends my cousin loaded into the little boat on their night of freedom, the engine on the boat blew. We discovered this as my uncle prepared the boat for our adventure down the rest of the strait into Lake Huron proper. I was excited to see just how far it went, and had heard harrowing tales of navigating back through the stormy, rocky waters by flashlight.
Instead of a fun adventure, we would be dealing with the boat getting fixed. My uncle put-putted the distance into the harbor, to find that the damage was going to need to be repaired quickly for the boat to be put back into use. Receiving a ride back to the island, my uncle arrived with the news that we would be sans boat for the next few days.
It meant that the only way that we had to get off the island was the canoe that my aunt and I had taken that morning.
Instantly my head flew to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. This was how murder mysteries began. Fortunately, the five of us on the island I trusted. This fact did not prevent the creep of isolation from setting into me.
The moments on the island were punctuated, rather than by trips around the bay, by rounds of pancakes. As I love pancakes, and my uncle had an entire repertoire of pancake recipes, this worked out just fine. Over coffee, also a constant staple on the island another of my loves, we would complete a crossword puzzle as a group. Later, we may swim, read, write chop wood and play Scrabble. For a Type A person like me, this could be a little difficult. Thankfully, until the day my parents and I had to be taken by Granpa’s Taxi off the island to the harbor to return to Minnesota, my aunt and I were able to canoe to the island to run.
This may have saved me from pure insanity.