From lobster rolls to the midnight sun: Creating the Canadian travel blog "Toque and Canoe"
Kim Gray and Jennifer Twyman are Toque and Canoe—two Albertans engaged in a full-blown love affair with Canada. Together they started up their own “real Canadian” travel blog, taking readers to destinations that are inside our borders and outside our wildest dreams.
As part of our series on great Canadian blogs, we spoke with Kim (who owns the red canoe) about family vacations, hanging out with gold miners and the rewards of joining a new writing community.
Hello Kim! Tell us a bit about yourself.
I'm a B.C. girl who married a guy from Alberta. We spent a good chunk of our early days together in Toronto but when we started having children, we moved West to be closer to family. I've been a working journalist for 22 years—having worked in print, radio and television around the country. The written word has always been my passion. That said, I love radio and most recently, I've been doing a series of radio columns syndicated countrywide on CBC. On July 1 (Canada Day), 2011, I morphed into a full-time travel journalist when my friend and collaborator Jennifer Twyman and I launched Toque & Canoe.
How did you and Jennifer meet? How did you decide to start Toque and Canoe?
Our children went to the same elementary school. I liked writing stories. She's one hell of a photographer. We collaborated for mainstream media outlets on a few stories which triggered a desire in us to launch our own outlet. We're both based in Calgary. She travels to the East Coast during the summer with her family and I go West to British Columbia, which is where my extended family lives. We'd return home in the fall and swap tales about where we'd been, who we'd met and what we'd seen. We genuinely share a major crush on Canada. She wears toques. I own a red canoe. The rest is history.
What do you mean when you say that Toque and Canoe is a “real” Canadian travel culture blog?
Well, if you check out our site you'll see that if we can find a legitimate Canadian angle, anything goes—so not just cliché Canadian travel destinations. My mom's from the Northwest Coast. My family travelled to Haida Gwaii for her 70th b-day. I wrote a post about it. Canadians do this kind of stuff. We love to travel within our own borders. We do it solo. We do it with friends. We do it as family units. And, we do it with extended family. A lot of Canadians don't know this but 80 per cent of the tourism dollar spent in Canada is spent by Canadians. Then again, when we hear this figure, we're not surprised!
How do you choose the destinations you write about?
What we write about often comes from our personal family travel agendas. That said, we do get some pretty amazing offers. The coolest to date, we'd have to say, was an invitation to go on a one-day polar bear safari on the shores of Hudson Bay in northern Manitoba. Check out our site for our post on this trip. It's one of our favourites to date. Most recently, we popped up a post by East Coast writer Sandra Phinney who goes on a hunt for the perfect PEI lobster roll. We met Sandra—one of Canada's top drawer travel writers—at a Canadian Tourism Commission conference in PEI in the fall.
What are some of your own personal favorite trips/places in Canada?
Well, Churchill, Manitoba was pretty epic. And the Yukon. In 2012, we were invited to a travel conference in Whitehorse where we won Best Travel Blog—Canadian and International Submissions. We both love this storied part of Canada and got to hang out in Dawson City with an actual gold miner and walk the streets under the midnight sun. Personally, I adore Quebec and lived there as a university student. So when I had an opportunity to send freelance writer Don Enright to cover the Carnaval de Quebec last year, I jumped on it. He's a brilliant writer and he produced one of the strongest posts to date on our site. Every Canadian needs to experience Quebec City in person. The people. The culture. The language. The food. It's about as European as North America gets.
Your blog features articles by a number of freelance writers, including some great Canadian storytellers. How do these collaborations come about?
I've been in the business of journalism for a long time. So some contributers are colleagues I've fostered relationships with over time. Others are people whose work I admire. Like B.C. photographer Ian McAllister whose images are nothing short of epic—beyond National Geographic if you ask me. (Check out his photo essay on our site called Eyes of the Great Bear.) I like to call Canada's Governor General award-winning poet Lorna Crozier Toque & Canoe's "Traveling Poet." She wrote a seriously gorgeous piece for us on her hometown, Sidney, B.C. I've since sent her to The Great Bear Rainforest, where she produced a provocative story that had huge readership engagement and was shared by Margaret Atwood with her then 450,000 Twitter followers. That was kind of, well, awesome. I've currently got Lorna on another story—one that is meaningful to Canadians and to Lorna personally—but you'll have to wait to see what that story is going to look like. Very good writers are approaching us pretty steadily these days, which is the ultimate compliment.
Have any of your readers been so inspired by your articles that they've gone to visit some of the more remote places you’ve written about?
You bet. Raising awareness about The Great Bear Rainforest on Canada's West Coast has been hugely satisfying. After our posts (four in total) on this part of Canada went up, I received several e-mails from folks in central Canada who wanted to know more about how to experience this part of our country. Given my contacts, I was able to connect them with people who could assist with travel plans. Most recently, a pair of newlyweds from Australia—who will be featured on our site shortly—insisted that Toque & Canoe, and their relationship with us, shaped their recent winter Canadian honeymoon. Heck, my parents didn't even know Quebec's Magdalen Islands existed until they saw our post. Now, as they plan their travels to the East Coast, they'll be sure to fold in a visit to these stunning islands.
What is it about reading about a person’s travels that appeals to us as a culture?
I think people are by nature curious, whether they're armchair travelers or they're serious about actually going somewhere. If it's produced well, a good travel piece is transporting. I remember reading a story in The New York Times about a six-day (annual) cross-country ski event called "The Crossing of the Gaspé Peninsula" or, in French, the "Traversée de la Gaspésie." I was blown away by the quality of the storytelling. I could feel the fatigue in the legs of the writer, taste the food, and hear the music. I could feel the joy he felt from experiencing this intense, athletic journey which he described as a "roaming celebration of winter." Ever since I devoured this story, I've wanted to do this trip myself. In fact, you should Google it. It's written by Tim Neville and the article is entitled "In Quebec, a Celebration on Skis."
Do you remember the first trip you took as a child?
When I was young, my family took a few vacations to Hawaii which pretty well sealed my lifelong love affair with this incredible fleet of islands. I also recall a family trip to Jasper, skiing. I grew up skiing so to travel to the Rockies from my home in the interior of B.C. was pretty unforgettable. They say that when when you grow up, your best memories of your childhood are typically centred around good meals and family travel. I'm conscious of this as my husband and I raise two teenagers. I'd say our children are pretty well travelled by this stage of the game.
Do you have any advice for those contemplating their own travel blog?
Stay true to yourself. Value your followers. Create quality content. Figure out what makes you distinct from others and go with that. Be original. Make friends with others in your industry. I was a traditional journalist for a long time before I ventured into the travel journalism community. What I love most about this world is that there are loads of opportunities to collaborate with others, to inspire one another and to share what we're learning along the way. Writing about travel sounds like it's all fun and games but when you get into it, you realize it's very difficult work. Difficult, but if approached with professionalism, rewarding beyond your wildest dreams. Did I mention that Jen and I have just received an invitation to swim with belugas in the Hudson Bay next summer?
Photo credit: George Webber. Images courtesy of Toque and Canoe.
Read profiles of other Canadian bloggers:
Straight from the Arse by Ryan Arsenault
Couple of Yuppies by Jamie Munro and Kyle Foot
Obscure CanLit Mama by Carrie Anne Snyder
Le Blog du Rob by Rob Watson
The Art of Doing Stuff by Karen Bertelsen
Man on the Lam by Raymond Walsh
Ironic Mom by Leanne Shirtliffe
Clockwork Lemon by Stephanie Eddie
OffQc by Kevin Felix Polesello
Caker Cooking by Brian Francis
Maple Leaf Mamma by Michelle Tarnopolsky
Rolling Around In My Head by Dave Hingsburger
Les Incorrigibles by Mali Navia and Jasmine Papillon-Smith
Ginger and Nutmeg by Carolyne and Andrew
The Book Dumpling by Andrea Borod