Photo of Marta Searle Gill with fellow travellers

There’s no place like home

Travelling Canada from coast to coast to coast
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I was born and raised in Toronto and taught there for years. I had explored much of Ontario’s beautiful cottage country, but I’d never seen a mountain nor an ocean — I was busy and hesitant to travel during my career. Then, in 1997 at almost 60, as a retired, widowed grandma and mini-farmer, my reluctance to travel vanished when radio hosts Paul and Carol Mott invited listeners to join them on an Alaskan cruise.

The thought of sharing a cabin with a stranger delayed my booking. But then my lifelong friend Pat said she’d love to go, because her husband had already done that cruise. As we flew across Canada to board the Nieuw Amsterdam, which was docked in Vancouver, I was awestruck at seeing everything for the first time.

The cruise was more than I had hoped for. The off-ship day trips were amazing: first, a train from Skagway, Ala., took us up a mountain through gold rush territory to the Yukon; later, a helicopter from Juneau, Ala., ferried us, wearing moonwalk-style outfits, to a glacier.

I was thrilled by the entire cruise experience. On our flight home from B.C., I thought, ”My two daughters shouldn’t wait until they’re 60 to travel; I’ll ask each one where she’d like to go.”

This first-ever trip led me to save up, do without and plan a far-away journey at least once a year for the next 23 years — sometimes I went alone, sometimes with friends and often with my daughters and family. But my most memorable trips were in Canada.

One year, I drove west to Prince Rupert, B.C., again with my dear friend Pat. Another year, my friend Doreen was my passenger on a drive east to the Cabot Trail. (Lesson learned on this adventure: Book ahead or there may be no room in the inn. Try sleeping in a car with few conveniences!)

We highlighted all the routes we travelled and the places we visited on a map, which provided me with a great trip memoir that I often ponder. Poring over that map, I realized I hadn’t yet been to the north coast of Canada, Alaska being American. The Arctic may not be the most traditional destination, but to know Canada more completely, it seemed like a must-do venture.

Four years ago, I searched online and found a local, family-owned expedition company that cruised the Arctic. The voyage included cabin accommodations, all meals, entertainment, lectures by experts in a variety of fields and excursions on rubber Zodiacs with professional guides. Just what I was looking for!

So in 2017, my 80th year, there I was diving from the ship Ocean Endeavour into the Davis Strait! (That’s east of Baffin Island, heading toward Greenland.) It was exhilarating, especially followed by a stint in the ship’s sauna.

This 200-passenger ship and its staff soon became like home and family. Experts in local archaeology, geology, geography, botany, zoology, the aurora borealis and Indigenous studies offered in-depth presentations that contributed to our understanding of this part of Canada. They always made time to answer questions during their presentations or casually whenever a query came up. On my first Arctic expedition, the list of guest speakers included Phil Fontaine, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations; Les Stroud, Canadian survival expert and host of the television series Survivorman; and award-winning Canadian author Margaret Atwood, who came with her family.

One thinks of the Arctic as being extremely cold, and so it is. Take Baffin Island, for example: In February, the coldest month, the mean temperature is –28 C (–18.4 F). In July and August, however, the average temperature is a “balmy” 4.2 C (almost 40 F).

Still, it was chilly — and wet — when we were skimming over the waves and among the icebergs in a Zodiac. But we dressed in layers and were soon down to short sleeves as we trekked the rough, hilly landscapes and visited the welcoming communities. The buildings are painted beautiful colours, and while there doesn’t seem to be an official reason why, most people believe that the bright hues boost happiness during the long, cold winters.

Nature rules, so the expedition team couldn’t guarantee planned routes or sightings of narwhals, whales or polar bears, but we were never disappointed. I wonder if the ship leaned a little to one side as we rushed to see wildlife whenever an appearance was announced over the PA system. We’d miss out if we forgot which side of the ship was starboard and which was port, but we had a trick for remembering: both left and port have four letters.

I returned to the Arctic in 2018 and again in 2019, when, with the help of an icebreaker, we cruised through the Northwest Passage, where Sir John Franklin’s famous lost ships, Erebus and Terror, were recently discovered after lying buried in ice for 170 years.

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So what’s next? I have my eye on a 2022 Antarctic Circle excursion into penguin territory. However, with my loyalty to Canada — the best place in the world — I may rebook a COVID-cancelled train trip on The Canadian across Canada through the Rockies to Vancouver, or circumnavigate Newfoundland on the Ocean Endeavour.

I should have started travelling sooner. There’s so much to do, and too many places to go. But after every trip, with all its excitement and activity, I like finding the reminder note I leave for myself just inside our farmhouse door: “There’s no place like home.”

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