It might seem unusual to write a nature article about my personal vehicle, the maroon Pontiac Montana. The ultimate family van — the too-typical vessel filled with children on the way to soccer games and school (well, when both of those are open again).
After the May long weekend’s canoeing event in the Virgil Conservation Area, I felt an appreciable affinity for this vehicle all over again, which doesn’t owe me a penny. I wanted to explain how this van has gotten an outdoors enthusiast like myself into, and out of, countless nature adventures over the years. So, here’s an ode to the Purple Chariot.
The van may be the most commonplace type of vehicle for typical households. Funny enough though, I remember (and miss) Tuesday night hockey in Virgil with the guys. My van would pull into the arena, dwarfed by a sea of pickup trucks, and humorously sticking out like a sore thumb. I would always joke how a van is essentially just a pickup truck with a permanent cover. Of course, I’m not being serious. Or am I?
I hope this article inspires any van owners, especially those with children, to make the most of getting to natural areas with this ubiquitous vehicle.
One thing that a lot of my outdoorsy friends have a laugh at is regarding my canoe loading technique. I don’t have a roof rack or anything of that support on top. So, I slide the giant aluminum canoe up on top from the back of the van. There are two foam blocks attached to the front of the canoe, so if I play my angles right and don’t throw my back out, I can slide the nose of the canoe right to the front of the van. Sometimes, I tip up a little too far, and I hear said canoe nose grind the roof of the van for a moment. So, there are some appreciable linear scratches up there, the same way the Wisconsin ice sheet dragged its way across Niagara Peninsula 12,000 years ago and created the Niagara Escarpment.
For a van that just keeps on giving, and has been worked beyond its duties, who even looks at the top of someone else’s vehicle anyway? I’ll trade aesthetics for quality outdoor fun, any day.
I then pick a random beach or bath towel. The most recent one has a psychedelic-looking jaguar face on it. It will do! I fold and layer it like some kind of homemade pasta dish in whatever parking space I’m at, and place it under the back end of the canoe. The canoe at this point is upside down, of course, so I then use my head, and press up on the seat with my skull. This effectively lifts the canoe and frees up my hands, so I can slide the specially folded towel underneath and begin to clamp the canoe down tight.
I sling the straps over the mid-section and weave them through the van side doors, so they only effectively can open halfway now. But that’s okay, as I can still crawl in and out of these spaces to jump into bed after a long day of canoeing, hiking, or biking. Yes, the bike fits back there too. Even two kayaks are possible.
Then there’s the bed, which typically is composed of two thermal mats, an inflatable mattress, and several blankets. I find if you pile on the blankets, you can keep your body heat contained inside both the bed and the van itself. I have pillows, a cup holder, and an electric lantern hanging from the little hooks most people use for clothing. My clothing might be particularly dank after a day of exploring, so it can air out on top of the canoe overnight perhaps. I can lay back, read a book, and listen to the frogs while dozing off.
There’s also the off-road abilities, and inabilities, of the Purple Chariot. Sometimes, the lines blur between these categories. I don’t have the clearance, torque, or robust suspension of a pickup truck or SUV. However, I push the van through the sandy backroads of Norfolk County, the winter highways of Muskoka, and the gravel of Niagara’s country lanes. On the other end of the spectrum, you might catch me on the main street of Niagara-on-the-Lake.
You can only treat a van like a truck for so long, though. The underbelly of the vehicle has a shoe string that has held up a door guard since October, 2020. The ultimate Canadian tool, known as duct tape, is seen holding together other variables on the vehicle. The van still continues to do epic road trips and can’t seem to lock itself down. There is simply too much nature to explore out there, and I am nearly as grateful for my van as I am these very green spaces it takes me to.