Thanksgiving. At Fundy National Park in New Brunswick it’s cold, it’s windy, and it’s raining. Rain drops drum the roof heavily and the ground outside is a patchwork of fallen leaves. Periodically, a thump above our heads tells us another branch has come down. But it could be worse, all things considered. Hurricane Mathew is flooding parts of Nova Scotia and PEI and thousands of people sit without electricity. Here, where we are, it’s just a bad storm. We’re safe and cozy inside Snowflake, watching the leaves outside our rain-glazed windows fly, spin, and drop. Later on today I’ll be cooking an abbreviated Thanksgiving dinner: mushroom, walnut, and smoked cheese strata with potatoes, gravy, and my traditional red cabbage – not cooking with meat has it’s advantages – but for now we’re happy just being here. Sheltered on a sombre day. We didn’t really like our first dip into New Brunswick, along the Acadian peninsula back in August, but here, in the Bay of Fundy area, it’s beautiful. Autumn colours are blooming around us and every bend in the road makes us feel like we’ve entered into one of those kitch country paintings they use for jigsaw puzzles.
For the last month, we’ve kept to the coast. First in Nova Scotia and now in New Brunswick, we’re driving the scenic routes, comparing this coast line to the one we know from BC. The main difference, as Roland points out, is that BC doesn’t have the quaint fishing villages we’re finding here. On this coast, one pretty place follows another and the houses are colourful, interesting, and full character. It makes sense. BC’s chief industry, unlike the fisheries of the maritimes, is forestry. Lumber camps aren’t as rooted to one place as a fishing village would be. No need to build a pretty home when you know you’re moving on once the clearing’s done. Also, this part of Canada was settled earlier than the west coast. Its history is more tied to that of Europe and there’s a lot of history to explore.
That of course means there are also hundreds of tourists (like us, I know) who come here to experience this maritime colour, flavour, and history. Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia, for example. Go to Peggy’s Cove someone told us and we went. According to one of the local guys who lives near there, the same kind of coastline stretches for miles on either side of the Peggy’s Cove and offers identical opportunities for scrambling along the rocks and watching the ocean. So why is it specifically Peggy’s Cove the tourists all flock to? The place is so popular it has it’s own fancy visitor’s centre and, despite it being an active fishing village, there are also a dozen gift shops and tourist traps, most of them offering the same kind of unoriginal stuff you can buy at any touristy destination anywhere.
Next to the lighthouse, which is nice but really no nicer than any of the scores of other lighthouses to be seen in the maritimes, there’s a shopping-mall-sized parking lot where huge tour buses disgorge their loads of sight-seers. Despite all this, none of the locals we asked were able to tell us why Peggy’s Cove is so iconic that it makes it onto the “must see in NS” lists. We were there at the end of September and it was still crawling with people. We hated it and, after clambering around on the rocks to the most remote point we could reach, we took ourselves out of the mix and headed on to the next hot spot.
We saw Lunenburg the next day. On the way, we passed through Mahone Bay – smack in the middle of their annual Scarecrow Festival. In Mahone Bay, volunteers spend every summer making whimsical scarecrows for display during the weekend of the festival and there were literally hundreds of them everywhere – on people’s porches and lawns, in front of shops, and along the promenade by the beach. Wizard of Oz characters, Alice in Wonderland characters, the Royal Family, Tina Turner and Cher, all hanging out together at Mahone Bay for two days. The town itself was beautiful, a postcard place, and the streets were so full of people there was hardly room to turn around or walk. It looked intimidating, from a pedestrian point of view, and we really wanted to get to Lunenburg so we opted to just drive on through. But even that took almost half an hour at a crawl, so we got to see quite a bit and I managed to snap some photos though, unfortunately, none of any of the celebrities on show.
Next stop, Lunenburg, a historical gem, was one of the first planned British Protestant settlements in Canada and is now a UNESCO world heritage site. The downtown is mostly winding narrow streets with dollhouse homes, galleries, and restaurants. Many of the houses date back to the mid 1700’s and have plaques announcing who they were originally built for and when, as in: Built for the Mayor, in 1765, or something like that. We got there early on a Sunday afternoon and were met, again, with streets full of people and no parking anywhere. Let’s get out of here, I said. I kind of wanted to see it, and to have a late lunch at some pretty place, but I could see Roland was getting stressed trying to navigate the narrow streets and I resigned myself to cheese sandwiches thrown together in the camper.
Let’s go to the visitor’s centre and see if there’s someplace to park, he offered instead. Good man. At the visitor’s centre we found a campground, administered by the township, and a welcoming and enthusiastic girl who gave us maps and showed us what places we’d like most and how to get to them. Warmed by such sincere bonhomie we decided to stay the night and, bundling ourselves and the dogs up against the biting wind, headed into town on foot.
It was a fifteen minute walk and, happily, all the restaurants were on the same street so it didn’t take long to find one that worked for us. We chose the Grand Banker Pub because of their sunny, out-of-the wind, and dog-friendly outdoor table with a view of the pier and we had some exceptional cajun chowder and a couple of pints of local beer there. We walked off the beer by climbing the hill to the gallery street, where the curator of one of the galleries showed me a few woodblock prints done by a local artist.
I always find it interesting to see what other printmakers are doing but half of the time I’m disappointed because so much modern printmaking (or art in general, for that matter) seems to focus more on technique and less on aesthetic appeal. This was the case here. Handmade paper from local seaweed may be a unique approach and a labour of love, but if the final artwork produced with it isn’t something I’ll keep wanting to look at for years to come when it’s hanging on my wall, then why should I pay the big bucks for it? So I was politely interested and complimentary but secretly thought my own work is better and I left the gallery determined to get my prints into some more galleries once we have a home again.
The last really touristy place we visited was here in New Brunswick: Hopewell Rocks Provincial Park. $10 a head gets you in and then you either walk, or take a shuttle if you can’t walk or are lazy, along a short trail to a set of stairs leading to the beach. There, if the tide is out, you can “walk on the ocean floor” among chocolate-coloured rocks that look like they belong on the set for a sci-fi movie. At high tide, the rocks are halfway submerged and you only see the top halves but they look pretty impressive even then.
We first got there after the tide was in but the same ticket got us back in the next morning when we, together with two hundred other people (it’s another bus tour destination) strolled the muddy beach and tried to take pictures with as few people in them as possible. Which wasn’t easy. There was, even now at the beginning of October, too many of them.
For the most part though, now that it’s off season, the crowds have thinned out – Hopewell Rocks probably gets ten times the visitors in the summer – and we got to camp in parks, private and provincial, that weren’t busy at all. The brochure photos for Rissers Beach Provincial Park, for example, show a beach packed with people and I bet that in July and August the campsites are equally packed too. Now, we were completely alone in our section of the campground and we walked the long stretch of gorgeous beige sandy beach in near solitude.
The next day, on the trail at Kejimkujik National Park Seaside, we shared the parking lot with five other cars and met only a handful of other hikers on the 10K trail. And at Five Islands Provincial Park, where the tide recedes to leave vast stretches of exposed shoreline and then comes in so high and fast people often end up cut off and have to be rescued (on a weekly basis apparently), there were plenty of empty sites even on the weekend. And no rescues needed.
But it’s all drawing to a halt. Campgrounds are closing. RV parks are closing. For the last few weeks we’ve seen too many people getting ready for winter. The maritime provinces don’t have natural gas for heat, as we do in BC, and pretty much every house we pass has mountains of wood stacked up along the side. I see these signs of approaching winter and everything inside me urges me to find a safe refuge, start cooking batches of comforting thick soups, and cozy up by a warming fire. Maybe, like the wild animals digging winter dens around us, I too am programmed to get inside and secure the doors and windows against the cold. Having no solid home to return to, no fireplace to cozy up by, is a bit unsettling.
Even though our NL camper is comfortable and we have heat, it’s cold when we wake up in the mornings and, at night, with temperatures dipping closer to zero, we’re grateful to have our second blanket. With all of that, the last few weeks have us thinking it’s time to head south to warmer weather. To tie up those loose ends (extended health, decisions about American data plans, etc.) and go. As reluctant as we are to arrive in the States in the midst of the presidential election ugliness that’s escalating day by day, Roland’s new accordion is waiting in Philadelphia and there are new songs to be sung. So maybe I’ll see you on the other side…
And Roland has his version of our last few weeks here: