Sunday, September 29, 2019

To North and Back Again

Two years ago, Ed asked the children where they'd like to go on a family trip. They chose Niagara Falls, a place neither Ed or I had ever been. Our vacation plans were abandoned when Ed was diagnosed with cancer a few weeks later, but after Ed's death, the children and I dared to dream again of a trip to Canada.

Our plan was to stay at state parks and tent. We spent three days camping in Virginia to see if we could manage tenting without Ed. I knew an extended trip with six children would be challenging, but figured we'd either rise to the challenge and have a bonding experience OR I'd lose my sanity and stagger home early. 

Then my brother offered us his RV. My children have fond memories of the year Ed rented an RV for a week-long trip, but I was not comfortable driving a RV. Siblings to the rescue. My youngest brother Vaun offered to drive for us. It was one more time this year that I had to swallow my pride and accept help, but by the end of the trip, I wondered how I ever thought I could survive a long trip as the only adult. 

We left early Tuesday morning. The children loved the extra room and flexibility that traveling in an RV brings. 

Our first lunch on the road.

We set up camp at Four Mile Creek State Park, NY right on Lake Ontario.

When we go camping, we always eat as many meals as possible over the campfire. I was glad Vaun was willing to join our tradition. 

We thought about doing some hiking at the park, but we knew we were only about fifteen minutes away from Niagara Falls. We couldn't wait one more day.

We found free RV parking on the far end of Goat Island. This island straddles the Niagara River between the American and Canadian falls. In preparation for our trip, I had talked to many friends who had visited the Falls recently. Without exception they had all stayed on the Canadian side of the falls (where the best views are found) and all mentioned how commercialized it was.

So I was pleasantly surprised to find that Goat Island, on the New York side of the Falls, had been kept very wild looking. We walked out to the Three Sisters Island and watched the pulsing rapids of Niagara River. In the distance we could see the mist from Horseshoe Falls. 

And then we rounded the corner and stood on the brink of the falls, watching millions of gallons of water dash over the falls every minute. The power of the water is indescribable.

We spent the rest of the evening walking Goat Island, enjoying sights of all three falls as the lights illuminated the falls. Since we were above the falls, we couldn't get the full view, but the feeling of power unforgettable. 

We started early  the next morning, parking at Fort Niagara and taking the free shuttle the rest of the day to various spots. The Niagara Power Visa was our first stop.

 This free science museum is provided by the New York Power Authority. I didn't expect much, but figured it wouldn't hurt to stop since it was free. 

We spent two hours enjoying the interactive exhibits and could have stayed longer. I've spent money for science museums that were not nearly this high of quality. And we almost had the whole museum (and their helpful staff) all to ourselves. 

View of the hydro-electric dams (Canada's on the left and New York's on the right.)

Next on our list was to visit the falls up close. We went back to Goat Island to Cave of the Winds. We were given ponchos and sandals and taken by elevator down to the base of Bridal Veil Falls. 

Here was built a series of platforms and stairs where we could climb and enjoy the power and spray of the falls. The Hurricane Deck was the favorite of my oldest four children. They were soaked. 

This was the only tickets we purchased during our stay at Niagara Falls, but it was a highlight to the children.

We planned to travel into Canada the next day, but we kept looking across the water at the Canadian side of the river. Finally we decided to just walk across the bridge and say we walked to Canada. 

This was the first time any of us visited our neighbors in the north (even though Vaun and I were both in several other countries half-way around the world). By this time the little girls were exhausted and the sun was hot, so after taking in the view from the bridge, we didn't even touch our feet to land and headed back through the US customs. (My children were all young enough they didn't need passports to cross the border but they did need birth certificates.) 

It was a rather quiet ride back on the shuttle as most of the children fell asleep. They revived when we stirred up the campfire and grilled chicken. For the second night in a row, it rained. I listened to the rain on the roof of the RV and thanked God that I wasn't in a tent.

The next morning we stopped at Whirlpool State Park and took a walk along the Niagara River. If only we had more time. We could have spent hours here. But we wanted to officially visit the Canadian side of the falls.

Unfortunately, by the time we got through customs and found parking, the light mist was turning into a heavy drizzle. 

The view of Horseshoe Falls (on the right) and American Falls (on the left) was obscured by the rain. After seeing what we could, we decided to move on. 

Our next stop was Welland Canal. Obviously boats can't go up the Niagara River so the canal shuttles traffic between Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. At the St. Catherine's Museum, we learned history of the area. (Museum admission by donation.) 

The museum also has a viewing area of the canal and one of the locks. We arrived just in time to see a large cargo ship go through the locks.

Our destination for the night was the Valens Lake Conservation Area. This park was our favorite campground of the trip. We didn't have any success fishing, but the campground had been carved out of woods with barely enough trees removed to park the RV. This meant lots of privacy between campsites. Even though we were only a short walk from the lake, the trees hid the view of the campsites from the lake making the lake seem very private. 

We watched the moon rise over the lake and only then went back to our campsite to build our fire and make our supper. 

Hanging out around the campfire the next morning was delightful. Most mornings Vaun made us chai. What a perfect mix of a Middle Eastern drink with Ontario scenery and my favorite Pennsylvania people.

We had chosen the Valens area to camp since it wasn't too far from some of my Ontario friends. Throughout the day, several friends joined us at the park.

Julianne and her boys joined us in the morning. Sharon brought her family in the afternoon.

Leona's family joined us for the evening. While we moms gabbed about books, motherhood, and homeschooling my children made new Canadian friends. Vaun was a good sport at chatting with my friend's husbands. 

The time we spent with people on this trip was a highlight. Some of these ladies I had never met in person and real-life connections are so much better than email friendships.

Rain threatened all day, but only really rained when we were making mountain pies. Thankfully the pavilion at the park had this huge cooker available.

Saturday we enjoyed another campfire breakfast and leisurely packed the RV. We headed around Lake Ontario, waving to Toronto. We stopped for lunch at a beautiful park by the lake where we were amazed at the cultural diversity. It was obvious that immigration is much higher in this area and I would have loved to hear the stories from the others who were enjoying the park.

Our children were eager to arrive at my friend Regena's home. Their family had been to our home several times so our children didn't need time to warm up. I didn't see much out of them for the rest of the evening.

The next day we traveled with Regena's family to church. The hour-long trip wound through gorgeous woods and lakes. What a way to prepare for worship.

We spent the rest of Sunday with Patricia's family. It was special to share our stories since the last time we met as they also have experienced death inf their family.

I had met Patricia before, but not her children, but our children weren't strangers for long. The beautiful setting of their farm drew the children in. 

On Monday morning I woke up in the RV back at Regena's house. This was the view of the river across the road from their house.

The boys didn't waste time after breakfast getting a canoe in the water.

I spent the day enjoying friendship while doing normal Monday tasks of cooking and laundry.

We enjoyed the famous French-Candian poutine that evening.

This dish includes French fries with cheese curds and gravy. Other toppings such as bacon, sausage, peppers, and onions were also available. The result was absolutely delicious.

On Tuesday our friends took us to Kingsport to Fort Henry. 

We enjoyed learning the history of the fort. It was interesting to hear history from a British/Canadian point of view instead of the American perspective which I've read in history books.

After lunch we hiked to Landon Bay Overlook. This is in the Thousand Islands region of the St Lawrence River. I tried not to watch my boys scramble down these rocks.

Most good things have to come to an end. We said good-bye to our friends in Ontario and crossed the river into the US. 

We set up camp at Wellesley Island State Park. The Thousand Island's region has many New York State Parks to choose from. We picked the closest to our route and were not disappointed. 

Very few other campers shared the park with us that night, but I was told that the summer can be crowded. 

The boys got up early and, with some hints from a fellow camper, finally had some fishing success with this 14-inch bass.

Sizzling fish made a perfect last campfire breakfast. We would have loved to stay longer, but home was calling. We were nearly to the Pennsylvania line when the RV began making ominous engine noises and losing power. We shuffled off the interstate and found a repair shop. They said they didn't work on large motors, and it was after 5:00 anyway. After numerous phone calls, we decided that all the shops in this small town were closed. After talking to my brother who owned the RV, we decided to see if we could get closer to home. 

I ran into the grocery store and restocked our food in case we were stranded in the RV for a few meals and we stumbled toward home. It was a long night. The children soon tucked into their beds. We avoided the interstate and limped through tiny Pennsylvania towns wondering if this was where the engine would totally stop. It guzzled down oil at an alarming rate, but a little after 3:00 we pulled into our driveway. The children all woke and staggered to their beds except the five-year-old who never woke until morning.

Many miles, many friends, many smokey campfires, many answered prayers, and a memorable family trip.

And just a bonus...

Three tips for an amazing vacation (said tongue-in-cheek)

1. Homeschool your children so you can vacation without crowds in lovely September weather.

2. Build friendships with those who live in scenic areas so you soak in glorious views mixed with sweet fellowship.

3. Make sure you have a brother twenty years younger than yourself who has a servant's heart. 


  1. I LOVED the pictures I've never seen Niagara falls. It's absolutely beautiful. Thank you for sharing pictures. I'm so glad you got to full fill a vacation dream. The kids looked like they had such a fun time. Always lovely to meet new friends. Hope we can do that soon.

  2. I am so glad that you got to take this trip and that life seems to be going well for you. I pray for you every morning during my devotion time. I too, raised children by myself and remember taking them on a camping trip. What fun!!

  3. Bless your brother for going along. We too, enjoyed the American side of the falls. I so enjoyed all your pictures. Praying for you!

  4. What an amazing trip! Thank you so much for sharing this precious time with us. I hope the RV wasn't too badly 'injured', lol. Your brother is a sweetie!

  5. This trip was a wonderful blessing for you and the children! I loved Niagara falls when I was young but none of our children have seen it. And I also love that with homeschooling we can pick up and go wherever without worrying about a school schedule 😊

  6. What a great trip, Niagara is amazing! The generous spirit of your brothers is such a blessing! Hope the RV is OK. Thanks for sharing your adventures!

  7. I'm so glad you had a good trip, use of the RV and help from your brother!!! I grew up in that area of Canada. The gardens at the Falls are amazing in the spring, but yes, unfortunately the rest is fairly commercial. My kids want to go someday but I haven't made the trip yet even though we go near there 1-2 times a year. I should make the effort sometime.

  8. We liked the less commercialized American side of the Falls much better also. I'm glad your RV made it home. That would have been a scary experience without your brother. Enjoyed the pictures.

  9. Great pictures! Thanks for sharing your trip with us. God bless.

  10. Niagara Falls is a wonderful vacation. I went in late spring of 1979 to the Canadian side (didn't need passports then). Great memories for you & your children!

  11. What wonderful pictures I have never seen the falls , your brother is such a blessing and you were wise to take another adult, families are so precious. Sue

  12. Gina, what a wonderful trip. Thanks so much for the photos as I will never travel overseas again at my age. I am so pleased for you and your family to have had this experience.

  13. The pictures are beautiful. I'm sure it was a very educational trip for all of you.
    Did you find out what was wrong with the RV?

  14. Thank You Vaughn, for looking out for your sister & her children!

  15. I really enjoyed this tour via your delightful photos and description. Thank you for sharing. I'm grateful that you made it home safely without the RV conking out!
    Incidentally, your travels in ON took you near our neck of the woods. When you were at Valens, you were a 45 min. drive from our place. (among apple orchards just outside Waterloo)

  16. Sounds like a lovely trip! I especially enjoyed the pictures. :)

    - Mary Beth M.

  17. Such a wonderful experience for your family. I really enjoyed looking at all the photos.

  18. So glad you made it to Canada! Your family would probably enjoy Upper Canada Village if you make it back.

  19. HI I've followed your blog for several years now but have never commented. I enjoy it though, especially the books recommended. Imagine my surprise to see my niece Regena in your photos and also a nephew's wife, Leona. I knew they were gone to the states for several days last weekend but didn't know what they were up to. Guess I know now.

  20. Gina,
    Wow what a trip! I was left thinking that having a beautiful family, a community of like minded friends and determination is such a blessing. As always you are a wonderful writer. I am glad you are finding beauty in the world, I am sure this is not an easy season for you my friend. I think of your story often.

  21. Grew up near the Falls, and loved seeing your photos. The 3 Sister Islands are one of my favorite spots. So glad you were able to fulfill this dream.

  22. Wow, Gina, looks like a very fun time although I'm sure you were missing Ed along the way. How wonderful of Vaun to go along & be your driver & provide the male, "fatherly" presence for you & the children. So thankful you have brothers like that! Reminds me of how Del, my father & Kevin Buchanan stepped in for Keisha & I many years ago. Thankful for all the memories you made & continuing to pray for all of you.

  23. We took our 6 children to Niagara Falls a couple of years ago, and it was one of our favorite vacations. The US side is very inexpensive for citizens, and the scenery is gorgeous! We rode the bike trail as well, which was great for younger children.
    Our family is at the same stage as yours (ages 14-4), and i enjoy your vacationing tips. I also want to tell you how I admire your courage for simply going on with life after a great loss. God go with you as you and your children continue to grieve and heal. Kathy

  24. So glad to find your blog. Thank you!

  25. Well, I'm two for three for your tips :D Last year we made our first trip to Niagara Falls, though we had a much shorter time there than you did. But we did end up purchasing tickets for Cave of the Winds as well, though we hadn't planned to, and it was definitely the highlight for my children as well. So glad ya'll had this lovely trip.

  26. What a lovely trip! You are a trooper, but it's wonderful that your brother was along to assist you. What a great guy. Another very memorable trip for you and your children--so glad you could do it!
    You came up to our neck of the woods, about three hours from us in Southwestern Ontario. I am originally from Minnesota and enjoy the beauties of Ontario, having grown up on flat farmland, which is of course beautiful as well. I second the person above who recommends Upper Canada Village to you if you are ever up in the Thousand Islands area again. We were just there this summer again (third time) and could have spent far more than the day there. If you camp in a provincial park, you get some free passes to the village, too!

  27. I’m so thankful you had a wonderful trip! May God continue to bless your adventurous days. ❤️

  28. Another widow's childOctober 7, 2019 at 10:56 AM

    I can't help but think that it must be healing to spend time in the great outdoors. I was blessed at the pics of your brother providing that fatherly presence to your family. And I want to bless you for LETTING him step in and help you instead of going into strong mode and insisting that you do life yourself without men. That is a huge gift you are giving to your children. Bless you!

  29. This is the first I read your blog, and I enjoyed reading about your trip to Ontario. To my surprise I saw pictures of Julianne, Leona, and Regena, not to say my sister-in-law Sharon! That made your story doubly interesting! God Bless You and Your Family!

  30. Thank you for sharing the photos and details from your wonderful trip! It seriously tempts me to homeschool my kids to travel during non-peak times! I really do not like crowds, haha.


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