06 March 2017 Posted By : Hayley Juhl, Montreal Gazette

March Break with Parks Canada's Free Pass: Adventure, Awe and a Cure (of sorts) for the Common Cold

Before we get started, there are a couple of things you should know. I don’t like camping. And I had a cold.

Yet when I got all choked up during our first 10 minutes at La Mauricie National Park, it wasn’t for the reason you (or my family) might have thought. Standing on the welcome centre’s deck with wood smoke heavy in the air, looking down on chalky trails emerging from shadowed woods backdropped by low mountains thick with evergreens, I was filled with the sort of patriotism propagandists can only dream of sowing. I am Canadian. And that’s how I was going to get through the weekend.

We — wife Melani, daughter Jilly and I — were taking our 2017 Parks Canada pass for its first spin, just two hours north of Montreal.

Those of you still looking for a last-minute March Break jaunt with the family can take inspiration from our outing. As part of Canada’s 150th birthday celebration, the federal government has made access to Parks Canada sites accessible to all Canadians by giving away Discovery passes. They can be ordered online or picked up at any national park, historic site or marine conservation area. You only need one pass per vehicle (so get one for the family), and it covers entry to the site, but not camping, activities or outside fees like parking or equipment rental.   

We’ve had our pass since before 2017 started and it was burning a hole in our glove compartment.  We decided to try winter camping during that golden pre-spring time when you can play in the snow but it’s warm enough to have your coat’s zipper open, but because I hate camping, setting up a tent in the woods and full-on roughing it wasn’t an option. 

“This isn’t like camping,” I said joyfully when we arrived at lucky camp site No. 13. “This is like a thing that I enjoy.”

“This isn’t like camping,” said 5-year-old Beaver Scout Jilly, less joyfully. “With camping you need a real tent, not a thing like this.”

“A thing like this” is a tent-shaped, canvas cabin called an oTENTik. It has a wood floor and room for six people to sleep on real mattresses, plus a fully equipped cupboard across from a heavy, family-style dining table. There were 13 oTENTiks in our campground, yet they were far enough from each other, and surrounded by enough thick old trees, that we could pretend we were deep in the wilderness — except with actual beds and a wood stove and an iron fire pit just outside.

About 200 metres away was a common building with tables and hot plates and hot running water, and more importantly, the bathrooms. It was a short, pleasant walk that ended in what doubled as a pretty good sledding hill.

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