Northwestern Ontario is like Algonquin Park on Steroids. And it’s worth every second to get there.

Everyone oohs and ahhs about Ontario’s Algonquin Park. It’s dense forest, pristine lakes, and the abundance of nature are crazy beautiful. But it’s also just a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Toronto, so city folk can easily get that northern fix with out actually venturing that north at all. If you grew up in Southern Ontario, it’s probably as far north as you know.

But Northwestern Ontario, you guys! It’s wild in every way up here.

Over 72 hours, we drove the TransCanada Highway from Toronto to Kenora—which is on the Manitoba border, 200 km from Winnipeg), clocking nearly 1,900 kilometres as we made our way across the Northwestern part of the province. Though we were still in Ontario, it already felt far away from my home in Southern Ontario.

Our first leg of the adventure west was Toronto to Sudbury. Around midnight, we pulled our exhausted bods into a Walmart parking lot. (Truth be told, Walmart is great for a night of free camping; when you wake up, there’s a washroom to use, and a shameful-ish Egg McMuffin to eat.)

In the am, we filed a few stories from McDonalds’ wifi, and got back on the road. On our way out of the city we spotted a bearded hitchhiker with auburn hair. Three large nylon bags were next to him on the asphalt, a couple of beat up cardboard scraps in his hands had the words “Sault Sainte Marie” scribbled in black ink.

Coleman and I looked at each other, and rolled past him. “We’re the WORST Westfalia owners ever!” we decided in unison. In our defence, it was hot out, and there was no way he smelled good.

After travelling along a seemingly endless winding road lined with the thickest of thick trees, we arrived in Sault Ste. Marie, hungry for wifi and caffeine. Both were limited at 5:50pm on a Friday, so we got back on our merry way.

Pulling out of town, we saw the bearded hitchhiker again. Karma calling.

“Should we? We should. We’re doing it,” Coleman said pulling van over. Our new friend scooped up his life from the side of the road, and we welcomed our very first hitchhiker, Jordan, into our tiny home.

From Sault Ste. Marie, we continued north west, new friend in tow. It was all kinds of hot, and at a random gas station stop, we asked the locals where to swim. “Just pull over anywhere,” one of the young attendants told us. “That’s what the locals do.” We found a place on the shoulder a bit up the road that looked good as any—glistening blue water, stone beach, pines for days—and waded into the freezing water of Lake Superior. Two middle aged women searched for sea glass on the shore nearby.

Around 7pm, we pulled into Wawa and set up camp for the night. Turns out we’re all runners, so we banged out an eight kilometre run like total bosses along the ground’s rolling trails before dinner.

Wawa was our first taste of extreme bugs. They couldn’t really keep up to us on the jog, but when we got back, dusk having set in, they were waiting for us. While Jordan was cutting cucumber (the classy dude offered to cook us dinner) on the picnic table, he actually sliced a few right out of the air.

The following day we clocked another 485 kilometres along the winding Trans Can into Thunder Bay. We parted ways with Jordan, and, in typical Li et Co fashion, found the oldest bar in T-Bay for a pint with the locals, who looked liked worn antique fixtures perched at the wood.

That night we met a bear. At around 2am, down a remote service road about 200 kilometres from Thunder Bay, the van started rocking.

I poked Coleman.

“There’s something outside.”

We both sat up and held our breath. We could hear scratching on the side of the van, and then a snuffing sound coming through the screen window. Coleman pulled back the curtains and came face to face with a black (maybe brown) bear.

After the beariest noises I’ve ever heard Coleman make, the bear took off. We hung out, laughing and chatting nervously, our adrenaline pumping—”wow, we’re stupid, we should’ve cleaned the tuna out of the dishes”—for a few minutes before falling back asleep.

A couple hours later, the dishes still unrinsed, the bear came back and peered in the windshield—still rockin’ our boat. This time we started the van and gave him the horn. (He took off and didn’t come back, but we didn’t sleep much more.)

The next morning we woke up with the sun and gassed up at a two-pump station. We bought heavily-creamed coffees (totally not #candidafriendly), washed ourselves in the sink, and drove on.

Yup, this is the not-often-Instagrammed side of #vanlife: bears, bathing in a gas station sink, and very little sleep.

On day three of our Northwestern Ontario trek, we rolled to Kenora, a seriously charming waterfront town (it’s on Lake of the Woods with access to nearly 15,000 remote islands) that borders Manitoba. If we weren’t on such a gosh darn tight schedule to get to Shambhala, we would have hung out here for a whole lot longer. There’s a craft brewery, loads of local shops, and all the water activities your heart desires.

As we approached the Manitoba border, my stomach filled with a fluttery feeling, a concoction of homesickness mixed with that inspiring feeling of exploring unchartered land. I was saying so long to my home province, but that taste of discovering somewhere new was still was so fresh in my mouth. Bring it on, Canada, I though, as we rolled passed a discreet sign announcing Manitoba. And so, we rolled on.