Northern Stories
Driving the Trans-Canada

By Barbara Lavoie

June 10, 1985
It’s about three hours into the trip and I’m driving along one of the most scenic areas the northern route has to offer, approximately 50 kilometres of road running parallel and close to the Ottawa River, the Ottawa Valley.

Long breakaways stretch out before you, then gradually climb to plateaus that level off, then gradually descend into the same again. This repetitive motion, a steady dip and dive, is concentrated along one particularly scenic piece of road.

Clouds have moved in on what was a sunny day until now. The sun is hidden and the sky dark. The wind picks up. Pitter patter, splic splat. A light rain begins to fall, then before long, it’s bucketing down. Peeking through the trees on sun-lit days, the river is omnipresent, but not today.

Further on up the road, the sky is clear and blue. I spot a half rainbow arching its way over towards the riverside. As I drive on, the rain becomes lighter and the sun begins to shine through the rain droplets. At the top of a plateau there is a small village of houses built around a church, convenience store, gas station and small restaurant.

Suddenly, just as I reach the edge of town, I’m blinded by brilliant golden light. The inside of the car is bathed in gold. Gold streaks splash off the interior surfaces. Everything shimmers with gold. I feel confused. I check behind me in the rear view mirror, perhaps a car or truck is right behind me with its high beams or fog lights on. No, nothing is behind me.

I wonder if someone at the side of the road is shining a light inside my car. No, nobody is at the roadside. Oncoming cars pass me and I peer at the drivers. They don’t appear concerned. I roll down my window. Still the golden light continues to bounce around the car. Then, as abruptly as it had descended on me, it was over.

The sun is now shining, the road is dry and I’m still driving westward. An 18-wheeler rolls up behind, passes me on the left throwing a thin cloud of dust onto my windshield. In the sky ahead of me another rainbow is emerging and I think I have the answer.


November 18, 2004

A month of planning, a few days of packing and I was ready to go. Everything I could conceivably need for a week on the road was safely stowed in the trunk and back seat of my Volkswagen. Maps, coffee thermos, portable tea kettle, sunglasses, a cooler crammed with munchies, umbrella, bathing suit, several changes of clothing and a warm jacket in case it turned chilly, comfortable shoes, cell phone, more for security than communication, a full tank of diesel fuel and as many music tapes as would fit in the glove box.

I was as excited as a child. For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved road trips. I started the car blissfully unaware that on this particular trip would be unforgettable.

My destination was Elliot Lake, a small, but picturesque Northern Ontario community of about 13,000 inhabitants. Various tags such as “Jewel of the North” or “Follow Nature’s Footsteps” identify the town that lies midway between Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie in a 400-kilometre-wide strip of thick forest and dotted with some of the world’s greatest fresh water fishing holes. From the fire tower lookout built there years ago, you can see as far as Manitoulin Island and parts of the northern U.S. border on a good day.

Half-a-century ago the town was a thriving world-class mining centre, before it was forced to transform itself into a soporific mecca for retirees after the last uranium mine shut down five years ago. Although not exactly a vacation hotspot, outbreaks of sheer excitement do occur from time to time. Enough to cause hordes of seniors to rush over to the local McDonald’s restaurant or drive through the garbage dump when they hear the bears have come for dinner. But, most of all, there’s enough excitement and outdoor pleasure to keep my 79-year-old mother happy and healthy.

There are two options for driving to Elliot Lake. Both are equal in distance travelled, but not in time on the road. The first I call the direct approach, a few hours shorter because most of the roads are four-lane expressways.

Travel west out of Montreal along either Hwy. 20 or 40 following the signs toward Toronto, the road becomes Hwy. 401 in Ontario. Just beyond the Don Valley Parkway and Yonge St. exits, watch for Hwy. 400 and exit on your right. This road travels north through Barrie then Parry Sound where it narrows into two lanes and becomes Hwy. 69. Before you reach Sudbury, turn left onto the Trans-Canada Highway or Hwy. 17.

According to, the road was built in the 1950s through a federal-provincial government cost-sharing agreement to join the country from coast-to-coast by road, St. John’s, Newfoundland to Victoria, British Columbia. The TCH is the world’s longest national highway, 7,821 km. or 4,860 miles in length.

As you drive westward, often directly into the sun if it’s late afternoon, you’ll pass through a number of small villages. Watch your speed, especially when entering and leaving those communities, as the Ontario Provincial Police often sets up radar in those areas.

Just past the town of Cutler and a small roadside picnic area on your left you’ll come to the exit for Hwy. 108. Turn right and drive north along a lake-studded tree-lined two-lane entranceway to Elliot Lake, once a rough-cut muddy logging road. All told, the direct approach means about 12 hours on the road and a total distance of approximately 1,100 km.

The second is what I call the northern route, always the longest, up to 14 or more hours depending on the weather conditions, but a good choice when you’ve got the time and the weather is good.

Drive west out of Montreal along Hwy. 40. At the junction just past Vaudreuil-Dorion, choose one of two lanes that veer to the right and take you across the Quebec-Ontario provincial border and continue toward the nation’s capital, Ottawa. This road merges into Hwy. 417, by-passes the City of Ottawa skirting its southern perimeters until it becomes Hwy. 17 or, as you know, the Trans-Canada Highway.

From that point on, the drive continues at a leisurely pace westward, past the small village where my experience came to pass, then on through North Bay, past Sudbury until it’s time to exit onto Hwy. 108 for Elliot Lake.

So, after all these years, what do I believe is the answer, something otherworldly or simply an optical illusion.

It was the second rainbow in the sky that gave me a clue. As a child I’d heard stories conjured up about rainbows, Irish leprechauns and pots of gold, but, as an adult, I realized a scientific explanation was needed.

Encarta online encyclopedia defines a rainbow as an arc of concentric coloured bands that spans a section of the sky. For a rainbow to form rain must be falling in one part of the sky and the sun must be shining from behind the observer.

Digging a little deeper, Wikipedia, another online resource, defines a rainbow as an optical and meteorological phenomenon that causes a (nearly) continuous spectrum of light to appear in the sky when the sun shines onto falling rain. It adds that an illusion is a distortion of a sensory perception. Each of the human senses can be deceived by illusions, but visual illusions are the most well known.

It is further noted that rainbows have been part of legends, myths and given religious references for centuries. In both Greek and Norse mythology, the rainbow is a bridge between heaven and earth. In the Old Testament of the Bible, it is a sign of God’s covenant with mankind (humankind). After Noah survives the flooding of the earth, God sent a rainbow to promise he will never again destroy the world in this way.

A community activism website maintained by Citizens for Foreign Aid Reform Inc. notes rainbows have more recently been used as symbols of hope and redemption. New Agers, anarchists and hippies became members The Rainbow Family and followed Eastern mysticism and Native shamanism.

In 1972, Greenpeace used the steamship Rainbow Warrior to carry out its ecological-awareness activities, the name taken from a Cree Indian prophecy, “When the world is sick and dying, the people will rise up like Warriors of the Rainbow.”

The Rainbow Coalition and former American presidential candidate Reverend Jesse Jackson continues to fight for multi-racial unity. The rainbow flag, also used to symbolize the lobby for gay and lesbian rights, was chosen by the International Co-operative Movement in 1925 and is still used by it today.

While I’m not fully certain what occurred that afternoon along the Trans-Canada Highway, whether it was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow or an optical illusion, I do know it was something extraordinary, yet profound and something I hold as deeply mysterious to this day. Will it happen twice in my lifetime? I doubt it. But every time I visit my mom in Elliot Lake, I choose the second option.