Eastern Time Zone meets Central Time Zone
Civic Hybrid at junction of Eastern Time Zone and Central Time Zone. Click image to enlarge

by Paul Williams

With over 2000 kilometres under its serpentine belt, the Honda Civic Hybrid was definitely warming up to a long trip. I had no difficulty cruising on the highway at 110-120 km/h, climbing hills or passing. But I found that, “It’s underpowered, isn’t it?” is the third most common misconception about gasoline-electric hybrid cars, behind the belief that you have to plug them in and that they can run solely on the battery (you don’t and they can’t).

So far, the 93 horsepower supplied by the 1.3-litre, four-cylinder gasoline engine and the electric-powered Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) was perfectly sufficient. Carrying a 60-100 kg battery and with 18 horsepower less that a Civic DX, the car must be somewhat slower, but as I say, it’s not underpowered. Perhaps the smooth CVT gearbox, and the aerodynamic body treatment help.

Leaving Ottawa later than planned, I struck north for Wawa. It’s a thousand kilometres away, but doesn’t look its distance. Indeed, North Bay arrived with little effort, but by Sudbury I was checking the map, only to realize that an entire city was between it and Wawa.

Sault St. Marie. Where the heck did that come from?

nearly out of gas
Nearly out of gas. Click image to enlarge

The day was running out, as was the gas. The gas gauge, like all the instruments in this car, is electronic. It consists of 20 stacked blue bars that disappear one-by-one as the gas is consumed. The prudent person would fill up at two or three bars for sure, but I was wondering when, exactly, the “low fuel” light would come on (we adventurers thrive on such danger).

Driving west on Highway 17 after 680 km from a full tank, I knew the town of Spanish, and hopefully an open gas station, was not too far ahead. Eventually, one of my two remaining bars flickered off, and the “low fuel” light (a yellow gas pump) came on.

That got me thinking. What if the last bar blinks off? Would the car stop? It could, you know. After all, this is no guesswork analog antique we’re dealing with. The Civic Hybrid is packed with sophisticated electronic hardware and software, and it may be calculated right down to the last millilitre of gasoline. Then again, maybe not.

As a Suny’s gas station disappeared in the rear-view mirror, I decided to go for it. Kramer was right; this was definitely living on the edge. Up and down hills, with Spanish somewhere ahead, the last bar of the gas gauge finally, exhilaratingly, disappeared. These are cheap thrills, let me tell you. Cocking a snook at common sense, running on empty. “Bring it on!” as Mr. Bush would say. Then I started looking frantically for Spanish.

Inukshuks line the Northern Ontario roads. Do they mean “welcome” or “go

Trans-Canada Highway
Northern Ontario Highway 17.

Rough road
The roads get rough in places.
Click images to enlarge

Filling up took a disappointing 44-litres after 760 km. Given that the tank holds 50-litres, I’d no right to cock my snook at anyone. I bet I could have made Blind River, where I headed for supper.

In Blind River you’ll find Ron’s Famous Fish and Chips. Ron Hammond and his wife Marguerite are ex-patriate Newfoundlanders. I asked Ron if their fish and chips were indeed famous, or if he just made that up to attract customers. He looked hurt. Famous, was the response. Ron’s has a loyal and international clientele. He’s been in newspapers and books. The fish and chips are divine; fresh and made from scratch with a special batter. $6.95 for three pieces of cod with chips and malt vinegar.

Ron and Marguerite are selling out after 34 years in Blind River and a lifetime of civic service in the town. They’re heading back to Newfoundland. If you’d like to be Ron and Marguerite, you can buy the shop, the station wagon and the house and move right in. But if you want their famous fish and chips, you’d better head to Blind River this summer.

“Watch out for the moose,” warned Marguerite before I left Ron’s. “They come out at night.”

And night it was quickly becoming, so I stayed at McCauley’s Motel on the other side of Sault Ste. Marie (no Wawa today), where the proprietor looked suspiciously at my black and gold Rickenbacker (guitar) T-shirt as if I was associated with a motorcycle gang. A quick glance at the genteel Civic Hybrid put her right and I got a key and a room for $44.00.

You can get non-smoking rooms everywhere, these days, even at forty bucks a night, but I’m thinking there’s a hierarchy of motels with some very clear differentiating features. At forty dollars you get neither a phone nor shampoo. The soap in the bathroom is a fiddly, small tablet made by the North Woods company. The shiny green paper in which the soap is wrapped is impossible to remove with wet fingers, and you find yourself scratching stupidly at the paper to get the nugget within. At fifty dollars a night you get the same soap plus a sachet of North Woods shampoo, packaged in an equally impregnable foil container. These are the most frustrating packages ever devised by human hands. You end up in the shower biting and gnawing at it like a mad dog. Those guys at Deep Woods must be just killing themselves, having gotten away with this for decades.

I set out at 6:00 a.m for Wawa and breakfast. There’s a lot of fog through Lake Superior Provincial Park at that time of day and confirming last night’s warning, the roads were thick with signs warning of moose, so I was on my guard.

Breakfast eventually emerged at a small motel, north of Wawa. It was slow to arrive, the coffee was weak, the potatoes were oily, the toast was hard and it cost ten bucks.

“How was your breakfast?” asked the sweet waitress, Renée.

“Fine,” I said.

What, you’ve never done that?

Leaving Wawa I noticed that the town is still a trap for hitchhikers. Several people, now looking like R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, were trying vainly to leave. They’d probably been there since the 60s.

Once the fog lifts and you get past Marathon you’re treated to one of the most breathtaking sights in the world. The north shore of Lake Superior is something else. Pictures can’t do it justice. You just want to keep stopping and looking and drinking the views in. The roads, by the way, are great. Long, sweeping curves with sheer cliffs on one side, and this vast blue panorama on the other.

Serendipity Cafe
Serendipity Cafe, Rossport, Ontario. Click image to enlarge

Not exactly by chance (it was recommended to me) I stopped at Roger and Mary’s Serendipity Gardens Café in Rossport. Rossport is a little slice of heaven, a former fishing village, population 100. Roger and Mary have been there since 1988. The French Canadian pea soup was a meal in itself, and the tea comes served in a pot with the water properly boiled (always the mark of a finer restaurant, in my view). Inside you’ll find local arts and crafts, and background music by local artists. Outside is a whimsical garden overlooking boats and the bay. If you find yourself growing roots, there’s a year-round guesthouse.

A strange thing is happening with the Civic Hybrid. My mileage has dropped from an average of 5.8 L/100 km to 5.2, and now down to 4.8. My speed has been pretty much a constant 100 km/h (10 over the limit, in case you think I’m dogging it). After some thought I’ve concluded it’s partially the air conditioner. Turned off, I mean. The weather’s fairly cool and it looks like the a/c is worth about a half-litre per 100 km. I decided to leave it off for the day, to see what happens.

What happens is that I make it to Thunder Bay from Spanish on one tank of gas. A distance of 902 kilometres at 4.8 litres per 100 kilometres. That’s diesel territory. Surprisingly, there’s one bar left in my gas gauge, but I can’t believe the car will go much farther. In fact, it takes 48 litres.

Mid point of the Trans-Canada Highway
Mid point of the Trans-Canada Highway. Click image to enlarge

While still in Ontario, I’d passed from the Eastern Time Zone to the Central Time Zone, so if you think Ontario’s strictly an eastern province, think again. You also pass the midway point in the Trans-Canada highway, where there’s a plaque honouring Dr. Perry Doolittle, whose idea and dream it was.

But you’re still not out of blasted Ontario, which is beginning to feel like something from the Twilight Zone. Picture this, you’re driving down the highway and you enter Ignace, again and again and again. Talk about déja vu. In Ignace I meet Captain Ron of Capt. Ron’s Fish and Chips. Yes, he’d vaguely heard of some feller in Blind River, also named Ron, also plying fish and chips. Famous, was he? Ron didn’t know about that.

Capt. Ron
Captain Ron in Ignace, Ontario. Click image to enlarge

Capt. Ron’s cod and chips set me up for the run to Kenora, then next day for the Manitoba border where you’re greeted by a huge sign for Nelda’s Giant Cinammon Buns – a delight I could only imagine sinking my teeth into. However, I never did see an actual moose, although you really have to be careful of the warning signs. They’re everywhere.

Next: Disappearing Saskatchewan towns, encounter with Cadillac, rocky mountain highs, and ocean views.

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