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Friday, 30 July 2010

Port Hood, Nova Scotia. Mile 2833

Its been a damp grey overcast wet blanket of a day. A day for staying in and having tea and crumpets in front of a crackling log fire. A day for watching old movies on the telly or reading a new book. For us though it was a day to drive to Cape Breton.

We woke to rain crashing down and wind howling around the roof, catching on something and making flute noises. Any thoughts we might have had about perhaps playing on the beach for a bit or going on a hike were washed out. We might as well use the day to head north and aim for the Cape Breton Highlands National Park at the tip of Nova Scotia. After all, how often are we going to come back here? After a few days of pleasant scenery P and I are hankering for something a bit more dramatic, something more challenging. I may well live to regret saying that but the next few days promise brighter weather and it would be nice to be somewhere spectacular when it strikes.

We unhooked the electric power and the water, found Tom one of the held-back new books from yesterday and squelched out of the campground. Nova Scotia was hunkering down and there was virtually no traffic on Route 6 which skirts the north coast. The next village along, River John, looked like an eighteenth century painting with a tiny main street lined with little buildings in clapboard and brick, one with a flat false front. We pushed on through Seafoam and Toney River to Pictou. The town is apparently famous for its fish and chips, though the Nova Scotia tourist board does a good job of making sure every community in the province is famous for something. "Come and see our state of the art Civic Centre!" boasts one entry in the guide.

Pictou feels like a small town in Scotland, complete with a tourist shop devoted to Tartan paraphanalia. This though is where "New Scotland" began, with the arrival of thirty three families and twenty five single men in the "Hector" in 1733. Thousands more Scots eventually followed. A fine replica of the leaky old Hector sits at a dock in Pictou, and we hoped to visit it, but the museum was "closed until further notice" which seemd a bit sad and somewhat final. We read the plaque though and also found an interesting granite memorial to Canada's only regiment composed of black soldiers. They were grudgingly allowed to sign up for the First World War and sent to south central France to chop wood for the supply trains. They were disbanded soon after the war, but the memorial was rather good with photos of some of those who served and tributes to them.

Pictou was once clearly a prosperous place with mansions built up the hill, side-on to the street so they could face down to the harbour. Some that we saw though were looking faded and weather beaten, the Victorian stone buildings were dour in the drizzle and a factory of some sort across the water was belching foul smelling steam.

But there were no less than three fish and chip shops to choose from and we piled in to Murphy's for  platefuls of thoroughly delicious battered haddock and double fried fries. The second fying gives them the crispness you see. Its one of the many vital life lessons I learned in my summer job at a tourist cafe in Cheddar Gorge. Another one was "people think its funny if the ice-cream machine sprays you with vanilla, but not if it sprays them with it".

From Pictou we took the Trans-Canada Highway towards Cape Breton, stopping at a WalMart outside Antigonish for some supplies and to let Tom spend his pocket money on a little lego kit he has been saving for. Fish and chips and new lego; this has been an excellent day for T.

Back to the fast road with a view ahead of wooded hillsides, not too steep yet but the road got loopier and curvier the further north we went until we crossed the causeway to the island of Cape Breton. At the inevitable, and superb, tourist office the efficient Annette pointed us in the direction of the nearest campsite and even booked it for us.

It was a half hour drive along the coast with a long stretch by the water, which surprisingly we haven't seen much of today; its either been too misty or obscured by trees. At Port Hope we found the campsite and a rather boggy spot to park surrounded rather too closely by tatty trailers. Hmm. Its only a night though and with the blinds down we could be anywhere. There was a community lobster supper going on at the sports hall at the end of the car park when we arrived which is high on my to-do list here. But to be honest we were all too full from lunch and when I poked my head around the door it didn't seem particularly inviting. So we cooked for ourselves, watched a movie together and are now listening to the wind howl around us. Its cosy, but it would be nice to get outside tomorrow.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Brule Point, Nova Scotia. Mile 2694

We are on the Brule peninsula, which is a left turn when you get to the middle of nowhere. We've had a day of odd little places and roads which didn't get to where we thought they would but none the worse for that. Its been the perfect English summer's day, breezy but with temperatures in the low eighties and no humidity. When its good, the weather here is really very good. We don't need the heater at night and we don't need airconditioning during the day; the air is fresh and cool.

Tom made us eggs this morning and then had an hour in the pool before we we drove on to find a bookshop. Amy's used bookstore just up the road was a dimly lit warren of musty volumes stacked floor to ceiling. The guy behind the counter (Amy?) said there were three hundred and fifty thousand books and he seemed to have a pretty good idea what most of them were. Tom delivered his precise literary requirements and Amy came back with a stack of Magic Tree House books, all of which Tom had already read unfortunately.

So, next stop the mall down the road and a modern bookshop which had EVERYTHING I WANT MUM - LOOK! And indeed it had. P and I got a book each and Tom came out with five: "This is the best day ever!!!!"

Right. Onward, down rolling Route 6 in the sunshine. Nova Scotia houses tend to be white and often have have tall narrow gables which we haven't seen before. Er, quite unlike the ones in the picture actually. We passed smaller, older cottages with mean little windows to keep out the wind, and big farmhouses with little spires on the roofs, handsome barns and glossy brown cattle in the fields. This is what's called the Northumberland coast on the north east side of Nova Scotia, so its also called the sunrise coast.



Eventually we came to Pugwash and really, we had to stop. The main street was about a quarter of a mile long and had a single cafe which was the absolute definition of what a small town cafe should be. It had wifi, second hand books, a cheery owner and an interesting menu. P and I had lobster rolls with lemon and dill and we all whiled away a happy hour on the terrace outside.

The other interesting feature of Pugwash, is that it sprang a movement which shared the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize. Now that made you blink didn't it. Yup, millionaire industrialist Cyrus Eaton convened a "Thinkers Conference" there in 1957 founding the Pugwash Movement synonymous with global disarmament. It was  later being given the Nobel gong with Joseph Rotblat. Well fancy that. Our interests were a little more mundane. We fancied a swim at a sandy beach.

The cafe's owner told us about a great beach "three miles north - its in a provincial park, a big open area, you can't miss it".  We set off, passing road signs written in Gaelic and English, but five miles later had seen nothing even remotely like the place he described.

One of the guides said that Fox Harbour also had a lovely sandy beach so at the sign for Fox Harbour we turned left on a narrow road which, several miles later turned into a gravel track between seaside cottages. Eventually it stopped in someone's drive. Philippa went out to see where on earth we were while I tried to turn around in the single track country lane. I don't recommend it in a 26 foot motorhome. A charming older gent Philippa met at the end of the road said he would lead us to the beach "Did you turn left at the cottage?" he asked. We must have passed at least thirty cottage by this stage so it seemed like pretty good odds that we had. "I'll take you back to it". We followed him back to the only junction and the only part of the road which in fact did not have a cottage on it. We all got out and chatted and he pointed out a field gate which he said we could walk around and to down to the beach. "Its no problem" he said "Its my land". He was brown as a nut and somewhat deaf, and we chatted outside what must have been his mobile home, where he had waved us in to park. He said his name was Clarence Myers. "We're all English around here" He said. "There's a lot of Jamesons". We weren't quite sure what to make of that comment but he was a lovely chap and said we would be welcome to stay the night where we were.

We would have done too, but for the fact that the place was swarming with the most viscious mosquitos we have encountered on this trip. As we chatted three of them lined up and bit me through my tee-shirt, and we were both amassing bites all over our legs. Eventually we made a run for the rocky beach. They followed us there too until we doused ourselves with deet and P and T ran off into the shallow sea.

On the way back to Harvey they found us again and we decided to press on rather than stay and be trapped inside for the rest of the evening. Clarence was nowhere to be seen. We never did find the sandy beach mentioned in the guide.


In the golden light of the late afternoon we rolled through Wallace and Malagash and Tatamagoush ending up at the grassy campsite on the end of the peninsula. At sunset, three seals were settling down for the night on a sandbar just offshore. We are settling down for the night on ours too.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Amherst, Nova Scotia. Mile 2619

Nova Scotia. Its a place which always sounded impossibly far away to me as a kid; only slightly south of the North Pole, treeless and windswept with a population of about nine if you included the huskies. I was therefore hugely put out to discover that it is on about the same latitude as Marseille for goodness sake. Really how can that be? Its green and lush and the people are charming and so probably, are their huskies (I'm sticking with that one).

We struggled with the time difference this morning as Tom got up and started clattering about. Hearing our groans he came to tell us that it was "EIGHT o'clock - look it says so on my clock". Seven year olds don't really understand that in your head its still seven... The same beefy clouds were still patrolling the otherwise bright blue sky in a menacing sort of way but there was no rain so we went to explore Kiboughdshgjhawaggggghh.

First stop, the bog. And quite a bog it is, rising in the middle to over six meters and gradually eating away at the forest around it. A grey wooden boardwalk runs across it through green and red mosses, blueberry bushes, orchids and carnivorous pitcher plants. They eat insects of course but I always half hope to see a moose leg or something sticking out of one. We saw moose prints and that was as close to widlife as we got, but that wasn't the point really. The bog had an other-worldly feel to it like a single giant organism sitting quietly in the midst of coast and forest.

From there we went to the park's other main attraction. Kelly's beach was described in the Frommers as the best beach experience in Eastern Canada, but curiously it didn't mention the jellyfish which render the sea a no-go area for much of the summer and were floating about in the surf. It was a nice enough sandy beach I suppose but it did make me wonder how many Eastern Canadian beaches the author had actually been to.

Rather meanly the Park insists you are out by noon, or pay another $20, even if you have also paid a further $30 to camp there. They are not cheap. We lingered obstinately and left sometime in the early afternoon back on the anonymous road which cuts straight through New Brunswick's eastern flank. I'm sure New Brunswick has its moments, but we didn't really find them and to be fair we didn't really look, but instead pressed on to the land of the husky and the nine people and the midnight sun and, oh never mind. Nova Scotia is still pretty special. We crossed the border to find an immaculate tourist information place with a forest-load of pamphlets and a lady playing the bagpipes outside. Well you can't have everything I suppose. It was nice to feel wanted though and we had ice-creams on a bench in the sunshine and mapped out our next few days.

The Loch Lomond campground was just down the road and for $28 we have lekky and water and about a bit and a half of wifi. Tomorrow I'm going to find those huskies.

Kouchibouguac National Park. Mile 2517

Kouchibouguac is pronounced Koochy-BOO-goowak according to our guidebook, but when the cheery ranger at the entrance said it, it sounded more like he was coughing up a nail. Anyway, its a national park about halfway down the East Coast of New Brunswick and we didn't think we would get this far today. It was a big drive by our modest standards, getting on for two hundred miles and we didn't really get started until lunchtime.

Its been a blustery old day with dramatic clouds filling the sky, dumping some rain and melting away into the blue all within the space of ten minutes. On the other side of the lagoon from this morning's campground and behind the town there was a wooded ridge rising steeply to eighteen hundred feet, with a little Oratory on top.


When we first looked up at it, the sky was clear and we set out for the top in Harv. As we drove the clouds descended, the rain fell and we were soon crawling up a punishingly steep, damp road in low gear. The road was built by a man who promised God he would do so if his wife recovered from an illness, and she did. But he wasn't about to do any of that fancy "levelling out" business which so many new fangled road builders tend to do today. Even the car park at the top was a dramatic slope and we let Harvey cool off while we went to see the Oratory.


Originally it was a small stone church, built in 1935 with rocks carried up by the people of Carleton-sur-mer as an act of devotion.  Later on a new bigger roof was added to protect the original chapel and add some more space. It was lovely inside; very simple but with modern stained glass windows in soft colours which picked out other houses of worship including Ely cathedral - "the ship of the fens" - near my old stamping ground in Cambridge.

There was a photo exhibition about some of the people who had lived in the area; black and white pictures of smiling, weatherbeaten faces. One man leaning self-consciously against his truck, another on the bridge of his fishing boat in 1940 and frowning at the camera. One shot was of a four masted clipper which usually carried goods between Europe and Asia and was "a rare sight in Carleton"

Outside there was a series of information boards with a very honest and frank synopsis of the history of the area, in the way that such things never usually are. Thus the arrival of the much heralded Jacques Cartier in 1554 was described as a disaster for the indigenous people. The French naval forces were "hopelessly inadequate" in the face of the British advance in the late eighteenth century. It was a fascinating read and you wonder what it was like to live here in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It would have been a mix of disposessed Mic-Mac (who I now see are spelt Mi'kmaq) Indians, French speaking Acadians who were returning to their former homeland after being booted out by the Brits; Scots and Irish settlers who had no love for the English but who had almost certainly moved into former Acadian farms, and then Americans loyal to the Crown who fled the US War of Independence and as a reward for their loyalty were given the best tracts of land by the British government. Talk about simmering resentment. They must have all hated each other. You can imagine visitors being taken aside at the pub and being told "probably best to not talk politics...".

Interestingly there is a sense of the different loyalties today. As you drive past the houses they almost all have flags, but not the same one. In one stretch there were lots of Acadian flags, one house had a French flag, then a house plastered with Canadian flags, the next had the stars and stripes flying outside, others had regional flags which I couldn't identify. There are still some differences being worked out here.

Driving back down the sheer slope of the mountain was as nail biting as driving up and at one point as I shifted into low gear the speedo cable said "that's it" and quit. So we will rely on Google for mileages from here on. We stopped for lunch at one of the wayside halts that Parks Canada does so well. Soup on the stove and a playground outside which Tom hurled himself at. We waited patiently until he had finished.

At Campbellton, which is where the south side of the Gaspe peninsula begins, we missed a turning and found ourselves bumping through the residential streets of a native community. "First Nation" people as they are called here. The faces were rounder and browner and the street signs were in the language of the Mi'kmaqs. In some ways its a miracle they are still here, but they are.

We turned right onto the road we had missed and were soon crossing a handsome iron bridge into a different country. Well that's how it felt anyway. All the shop signs were in English and the street names were Scottish - Aberdeen, Andrew, Argyll. We had left Quebec and arrived in New Brunswick, though with no fanfare - not even a sign to tell us that, and there was a sense that our trip had just become somehow slightly less exotic. Interestingly there is an hour's time difference here, though we are no further out in the Atlantic, so for a while we will be just four hours different from the UK.

The road was smooth and fast and we hummed along it. Philippa and Tom played battleship in the back and Tom won more prizes which Kristin had so sweetly wrapped for him along with the games before we left. Thanks again Kristin! This feels like a strangely empty neck of the woods and we didn't see houses or any real signs of communities for great stretches. There are towns here of course, but you really can't see them from Highway 11. Bathurst and Miramichi came and went, as did the big blustery skies. Occasionally we would get a sudden, brief handful of rain flung at us but for most of the journey the rain seemed to have happened ten minutes before we got there and the road was steaming in the sunshine. We did get hit by one downpour and a river of water flowed across the road before the rain stopped instantly and the wipers were squeaking across the windscreen.  

In the early evening we reached Kouchibouguac and were trying to get a handle on the ranger's accent. Its supposed to be a pretty special place, so we will find out about that tomorrow.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Carleton-sur-Mer. Mile 2330

The rain was hammering on the roof when we woke this morning and a blustery offshore wind was blowing old Harvey around a bit too. Brilliant. Philippa and I grinned at each other knowing we had the perfect excuse to stay in bed with cups of tea and books; being cozy while the storm whipped around us. Tom was pretty pleased too as the campsite wifi was up and running so he could spend some quality time with Lunar Jim.

Eventually we hauled ourselves up with the rain still pouring outside. Harv seems pretty watertight these days. There were a couple of small leaks when I first drove down from Michigan, but I seem to have fixed them and all is snug. Outside, the view stopped at the end of the campsight; a thick grey wall of cloud was sitting on our ridge. It was a shame in some ways as Perce is so very pretty and it would have been nice to walk across to its famous rock, but on days like this you might as well eat up some miles. We ate up some croissants first though, and discovered that the browner on our original microwave (which is brilliant by the way) is perfect for warming croissants.

Its interesting reading the GMC Owners Handbook about the microwave which was still relatively new technology back in '78. Several pages are devoted to its operation, and they were clearly a bit concerned about what microwaves could actually do, so they included the advice that its use is recorded in a log book which should be kept somewhere nearby. Dutifully I anotated "croissant warming, 2 minutes, Philippa in charge." in the vellum covered ringbinder we keep in a time-locked safe in the kitchen cabinet. Its a complete history of our microwave usage and I am thinking of having it published.

Stuffed with croissant and coffee we reluctantly fired up and skidded our way along the steep gravel track out of the campsite. Coming down the ridge and finally ducking under the cloud we could see the ocean; white caps running at the shore on churning grey waves. The stiff wind blew us around a bit and the rain was relentless. Tom settled in for a long day of books and dvds and Philippa and I watched the rain streaked world go by.

The south coast is clearly more heavily populated than the north. One hamlet wishes you au revoir on a cheery sign and almost immediately another sign is welcoming you to the next place. There are neatly clipped lawns and familiar signs on still-small shops; Sears, Subway, Radio Shack. There are signs for bus terminuses (termini..?) and small train stations. The line runs roughly parallel with the road, crossing and recrossing it. We are moving into English speaking areas, populated at some point by Scots and Irish and Loyalists to the English crown. Once the French speaking Acadians had been booted out of course.

In Shigawake, "the land of the rising sun" according to the sign, the rain stopped and the sun, indeed, came out. The sea had calmed down and was all tame and sparkly in the sunshine. We failed to get lunch at a big restaurant by the road - the owner actually came out to tell us that they had just closed which was nice of him. But a little further on in St Godefroi there was a "Cantine" by the roadside serving terrific lobster club sandwiches. Our resident gourmet went for the Hot Dog option, which I had to repeat several times to the girl at the counter until she said "AAh! Ut deug!" I hadn't wanted to say that, thinking it would sound too much like an Englishman hamming up a French accent, but when in Rome I suppose...


Just as Tom was settling into Monsters Inc and P was preparing to drift off, I pulled off the road in Bonaventure and frog-marched them into the Museum of Acadia. To be honest, I've always been a bit hazy about who the Acadians actually were. Well now I know. From 1604 they started arriving in this area as the vangard of French territorial ambition. But a hundred and fifty years later the Brits decided they wanted it, and without all those people speaking French thank you very much. So the Acadians were unceremoniously uprooted and driven out. Some were deported back to France, others fled inland or to the US and some shacked up with the local Mic-mac Indians. Once peace was restored with the French in the 1760s many Acadians started returning but others stayed in the new communities they had established in Lousiana, Alabama and even Texas. Bonaventure is very proud of its heritage and most windows had the Acadian flag - a French tricolour with a gold star. Its a handsome place with a fine church in the traditional Gaspe style.

There are still some Mic-Macs left too. In Marie there was a little market devoted to native crafts and a gas station with a roof in the shape of a teepee. And so to Carleton-Sur-Mer. Its a gentle sort of place curving around a lagoon, with the requisite tall-steepled church. The campground is on a spit on the other side of the lagoon, with a fat little lighthouse on the end. We cycled to it after supper and then watched the sunset. Its hard to believe that the day started with a storm.



Saturday, 24 July 2010

Perce, QC. Mile 2210

Up at the crack of about seven thirty again this morning for another attempt to harrass whales. Inevitably Tom slept in and we felt bad about waking him. Not quite bad enough to let him keep sleeping though. Due to the complete and utter lack of whales yesterday we were on the standby list for another go this morning and we drove the half an hour to the south side of the park only to discover that the boat was full and "perhaps later". No. Time to move on.

Before we left I heard the captain delivering his background briefing again and he used the same words he gave us: "the whales are very far out at the moment which can be frustrating". Translation, they are so far out that we can't find them. I just looked at their website and in the fourteen trips they did in the third week of July, they only spotted one blue whale and six minkes, so I think even if we had gone, the chances are pretty good that we would have come back frustrated. ONE DAY though, I will see a Blue Whale. They are the largest creatures on earth, after all.

Never mind. It gave us the chance to linger on the coast road to Gaspe a little bit and enjoy the little houses and the blue sea and the rolling hillsides. Its all quite Scotland, though with brilliant sunshine. Its all the more peaceful because the people here are spread so thinly. You can stop at a gorgeous stretch of beach and there are perhaps five other people on it. If you pull into a picnic area, there will be picnic benches available. What tourists there are seem to be local - we never hear English spoken around us. People check out our DC license plate and stop to stare at our unusual vehicle.

The town of Gaspe is a tidy but functional kind of place. Plenty of gas stations and supermarkets and fishing supply stores, but there is a smart little street running through downtown which was mostly built by the same family and has been restored and prettifed. We found the inevitable coffee and wifi place at the Cafe Des Artistes where we downloaded blogs and uploaded caffeine. At a big supermarket on the edge of town we re-stocked the fridge and drove on to find a lunchspot further up the coast. By a narrow spit with a clear river tumbling out into the sea we had sandwiches and plums and lemonade. Tom, who had woken up a bit by now ran off into the sea and swam with little waves breaking over his head. P and I looked on with the air of people who certainly could do that if we felt like it.

On to Perce. This was perhaps the loveliest bit of coastline yet, with golden sandbars giving way to rich green marshland - some of the most important marshes in North America says Mr Michelin. Fir and pine strees framed the views across sparkling blue water and over to rocky headlands. Brightly painted cottages were scattered along the shoreline. It was a grand drive and the view down to Perce and the "pierced rock" which gives it its name was breathtaking. The town itself was amazingly busy with crowds ambling along the pavements and touristy shops lining the main street. It was a bit of a jolt to suddenly re-enter the world of summer holidays and if Perce wasn't so lovely I think we might have been tempted to drive on. But it is lovely, with carefully painted and preserved timber framed houses by the harbour and That Rock looming like a beached ocean liner just offshore. You can walk to it when the tide is out.

We had supper in a rather fine establishment on the wharf. Given the numbers of people trolling about, we had booked and were offered either five or eight thirty, so it was busy. We were there at five, admiring the polished wood and crisp tablecloths. It rather fancies itself does the Maison du Pecheurs and we were looked after by an amusingly abrupt waitress who clearly had little time for us at first. She asked if we wanted an aperitif and, with our wedding anniversary in mind I was reckless enough to ask if they did champagne by the glass. She gave an incredulous snort and went on to the next table. That was the last we saw of her for a bit. Eventually though she deigned to return and we lowered ourselves even further beneath contempt by asking whether they served frites with the children's menu. A curt "non" and there was an unspoken suggestion hovering in the air that we should get our coats. We redeemed ourselves slightly by ordering fish for Tom and the table d'ote for us. It came with seaweed soup which they are rather proud of but which Tom said was "hmm yes, a mixture of pea and mushroom. Its OK" Thank goodness the waitress didn't hear or we would have been slung out.

She warmed up in the end thanks to effusive "mercis" from Tom and a "magnifique" about his rather fine chocolate mousse. The ice was broken, she smiled, we smiled and it was a nice evening. We promenaded on the promenade and watched a couple of fishermen pulling in mackerel after mackerel, before heading back to Harvey and our busy campsite. We are on a ridge overlooking Perce and a little unnerved to hear low voices around us following our three nights in silent Forillon. After more than a month of heading north we are finally beginning our journey south and it feels somehow like going back to the real world even though we still have many more out of the way places to come.

Still in Forillon!

Our day began at 7.18am with a text message buzzing into my phone from my Mother in England wishing us a happy wedding anniversary. Thank you! It was. We had to be up early anyway as we had booked places on a whalewatching tour. The area is a bit of a whale smorgasbord apparently and several species hang around the tip of the penisula on an all you can eat binge. One which is spottable is the Blue Whale, which I would give someone's eye teeth to see. Possibly even mine. Every time I say "Blue Whale" Tom says "its the largest animal on earth", and so it is.

We drove round to the south side of the peninsula about half an hour away. Just outside the campground I spotted a small black bear by the roadside. It gave me a hard look for a moment and then ambled off into the undergrowth. But still, a bear!

At the jetty in Grande Graves we donned yellow oilskins and boarded our open boat. There is only one boat allowed to operate here because we are still in the park, and that means no crowds, but it also means there are no other boats to act as spotters... The sky was deep blue and the sun would have been scorching but for a steady wind, which created quite a swell once were in the open ocean. It was probably no more bumpy than usual out there but it felt pretty heroic pounding up and down through six foot troughs creating explosions of brilliant white spray.

On the way out we saw the dorsal fins of a couple of porpoises, and sadly that was as close to whales as we got. For two and a half hours we crashed about scanning the horizon and spotting some frisky dolphins, but the whales had either eaten their fill and gone home to slump in front of the telly, or were further out than we were. The captain offered us a freebie on another trip though so we will try to go tomorrow. I'm still hoping to see a Blue Whale. Its the largest animal on earth.

It has been such a pretty day though. The sea is a deep blue and the high piney ridges are a vivid green, stopping abruptly at a wall of sandy coloured cliff. We drove a little further down the coast had tuna sandwiches and hardboiled eggs on a pebbly beach and then broke out the bikes.

We were aiming for the tip of the peninsula, where the international bit of the Appalachian Trail starts. There was a bike trail along a stony track which was punishingly steep in places. We could see seals in the water below as we sweated and strained. When we saw the track suddenly soar skyward - an impossible wall of gravel - we left the bikes and walked. On the top was a white lighthouse with a red cap and a stone marker which appeared to be the start of the trail but was irritatingly vague about it "the trail which starts here in Forillon" I wanted it to say "here at this spot where you are standing".

The marker itself didn't mention the Trail and had one of those slogans on it which are designed by committee and don't quite work. It said something like "Foward to 2000". Hmm. Not the greatest shelf life for that one. Great view though and a nice exhibition in the old foghorn station. I tell you, I have learned more about foghorns on this trip...


Going back seemed, irritatingly, to have just as much uphill as the way there. Tom ended up in the ditch at one point adding yet more abrasions to his scabbed little boy knees. We deserved the icecreams we pulled from Harvey's freezer when we got back.

So back to the campsite for books and tea in the last of the afternoon sunshine. After supper we walked back along the shoreline, a big peach coloured moon rising at the end of the peninsula in a pinky blue sky. Tom scampered about doing "magic tricks" with cunningly hidden rocks that he cunningly hid right in front of us. A couple of seals wallowed about offshore, birds floated or pretended to be part of a rock.

As we were coming back we noticed odd splashes in the water, as though someone was throwing handfulls of sand. They were shoals of little fish either being chased by something or acting out some kind of smelty exuberance. Several distinct groups swished and swirled just a few feet from the shoreline and when they got close you could see them leaping out of the water. Some had gone too far and were flickering and gasping on the beach just beyond the waves. I threw a load of them back in, doing my bit for wildlife preservation. I have my fingers crossed that tomorrow we will spot something bigger - like a Blue Whale. Its the largest animal on earth you know.

Forillon

It was nice to wake up knowing we didn't have to go anywhere today. I think a month of constant driving and hiking and biking and exploring has left me somewhat drained. Its been great but I needed a day off. The weather report was less than promising so that also gave us an excuse to lope about and not do too much. Tom and Philippa went for a swim in the sea after breakfast because apparently they were born without nerve endings. I chose the warmer option of washing up and welcomed them back a short time later. Philippa was bright red and in the last stages of lockjaw while Tom, wrapped in a towel and walking slowly, simply looked as if he had been gravely mislead.

Once restored to normal core temperature T and I buried our noses in books for the rest of the morning, but Philippa was clearly itching to get out into Forillon. So after a lunch of shrimp sandwiches we drove a few miles down the coast to Cap de Bon Ami and set out on the track to the lookout tower on the ridge above.

It was a long steep climb through sparse woodland with breathtaking views along the coast and little yellow plums to keep us going. Everybody we met on the trail nodded, smiled and bonjoured us. I thought I saw a bear footprint in a mud patch, P said it was a dog or something. She thought she heard a bear crashing through the trees; I said only if it had wings. The clouds kept threatening to rain on us but never did and an hour later we were at the foot of a tall wooden lookout tower. Tom has been counting the number of stair-type steps we have climbed since Quebec City and reached two thousand on the second flight of stairs up the tower. We thought that was probably a good point at which to stop the counting game...

The tower is perched quite precariously on top of a narrow ridge and it feels like climbing into a cloud. The view is 360 degrees: along the north coast, round the tip of the penisula and then back along the south coast of Gaspe where we will head over the next few days. Harvey looked like a seventies matchbox model several hundred feet below.

Going down was easier and we passed a couple of Ruffled Grouse on the way down. We had stranded them on separate sides of the path and they were very ruffled, calling rather pathetically to each other. Eventually one bridged the vast divide, walking like a chicken, and harmony was restored.

At the start of the walk was a grassy area where you could watch the birds flying from the cliffs and big doggy seal-heads periscoping up through the waves, which we did for a bit. We were all pretty much exhausted though and dragged ourselves back to Harv and the campsite. As Philippa put it; "I am ready for either tea or beer". Eventually we had both.

Parc de Forillon, QC. Mile 2099

We've reached the end of Canada. Well almost. Just a few miles further east is "Lands End"; the very tip of the Gaspe peninsula. We can see it from our campsite, a formidable wall of sheer cliffs plunging into the Atlantic. Thats the way for a peninsula to end, not with a gradual, grassy descent into marshland and oblivion but with a bold show of rocky defiance.

Its nice to be able to see the sea from inside The RV. This morning it was just over the brow of the hill and the other side of two rows of campers. It was a pleasant spot though and we had breakfast in peaceful sunshine. We weren't far from the road but there was hardly any traffic and it was still and quiet. The breeze barely fluttered the leaves of the trees around us which were used to much more. We've noticed a little bird which seems to be wherever we stop. We haven't seen it but it has a very particular song which echoes a line of opera. I can't remember the opera but the tune was lifted for a Cornetto ice-cream ad on the telly in the late seventies. "Just one Cornetto, give it to me" and if you ever saw it, you will know the tune. The bird does it exactly but plays with the syncopation; "just one cornetto-to-to, give it to me, me-me-me meee meee". He was tweeting away as we had eggs courtesy of Tom, who learned about frying them this morning.

The Appalachian Trail starts in Forillon and runs through Grand Vallee, so we walked on it into the village which was a couple of miles away, staying mostly on the rocky beach, strewn with dried seaweed, crab carcasses, rusted ironwork and tree trunks softened and bleached by years of sea and sun. Not a pretty beach but an interesting one and Tom was amazed by the number of Precious Gems he was able to find. "Omygosh! Here's ANOTHER ONE!!!!" Soon my pocket was heavy with little clinking pieces of green, blue and amber. Past the church and round a headland we cut in to the village to look for lunch. The ladies at the empty information centre seemed glad of the interruption and waxed lyrical about the Auberge at the other end of the village. We set out to the white clapboard building set above the road by the harbour and sat in the corner of the terrace.

P and I feasted on trout with shrimp sauce and perfectly steamed vegetables, while T had a rich home-made spaghetti bolognase. There was wine, there was chocolate and banana cake for pudding and there was a pleasantly small bill. I think we could have easily spent the afternoon there doing not very much; watching a local teenager drive endlessly up to the harbour and back in what must have been a newly purchased ten year old Honda Civic in dusty bubblegum pink. With his baseball cap, baggy T-shirt, shades and mate in the passenger seat he was clearly in cruising mode, and longing for an audience.

We tore ourselves away, feeling blurry from the sunshine and the wine. Tom of course was completely recharged. Possibly he is solar powered. We stuck to the pavement on the way back, climbing the headland we had skirted on the beach, until we came to a Laitierre with a fifties plastic ice-cream cone on its roof. The lady was tickled by how thrilled Tom was to be there, and laughed when she saw his face as he received an ice-cream tricked out to be a clown. Her shop backed onto the beach and had an official Appalachian Trail marker post (number 130 I think), so we went back down to the shoreline where Tom insisted we play hide and seek in the rocks until we got back to Harvey.

Forillon was a drive of about an hour and a half on a rollercoaster of a road, climbing steeply, plunging dramatically and turning tightly. There were, thankfully, no loop-the-loops. I had expected the settlements to become even smaller, but actually they got bigger. This stretch of coastline is the main focus of the fishing industry and the towns were more sprawling than anything we have been in for a while - but still small towns nonetheless. The docks were lined with blank-sided canneries and processing plants, big trawlers sat in the harbours.

A few people had told us that Forillon national park was lovely but expensive and if you camp it works out at about $50 a night - which is a lot, but you get what you pay for and locations don't get much lovelier than this. The beach is a couple of hundred yards away, a glassy sea breaking onto the roundest softest pebbles. We had supper looking out across the bay and then played on the beach for a bit. Tom of course had to go in - up to his knees anyway. We walked back under a pink sky to the the usual accompanyment: "Just one cornetto-to-to-to".

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Grand Vallee Quebec. Mile 2043

We made it. I woke up in the wee small hours this morning wondering what running out of petrol would actually BE like and how long it would take to hitch out and back, and what's the French for jerry can. Can you still say "jerry can"? or is that in some way regarded as a grave slight against our Teutonic neighbours and an unneccessary reference to past unpleasantnesses? OK, reserve petrol container.

The bottom line though was that we were up a mountain and heading for sea level. So one way or another there would be more down than up to deal with. That meant coasting. And that is what we did for roughly 14 of the 16.8 miles we had to cover between campground and main road. We barrelled down that gravel road like a runaway train,  sending small animals skittering for cover and spooking a couple of wide-eyed drivers coming the other way with dust billowing in our wake. A few miles from the sea we hit tarmac and poor old Harvey had a respite from the juddering and thumping which, we found later, had neatly emptied a new jar of marmalade all over the fridge.

We rolled to a stop at the T-junction in Mont St Pierre where we we had been assured we would find petrol. "Not here" said the lady in the tourist info place, but 5k further on. Well, we had come this far and Harvey seemed to be feeling decidedly upbeat about the amount of fuel in the reserve tank so on we went and found a little gas station with a scratchy radio playing pop by the pumps, where I put in 135 litres of fuel for $155. There was still room in the tank but the gas station was so small that I was holding people up so I decided to stop there, which means I still don't really know how much fuel we had left. But put it this way, I hope that's as empty as Harv's tanks ever get and as Carl so wisely noted in his comment on the last entry, Harv had probably way more gas than I thought.






The road along the northern tip of the Gaspe hugs the shoreline and passes through occasional villages, which are no more than a few houses strung along the roadside. In one we stopped at an internet cafe to look for a laundromat (failed) and update the blogs (succeeded) and see if there are any more Jack Stalwart books in the series because there really must be I have read them all but I think he goes to Egypt but I'm not sure, but can we see if there are any (yes Tom, there are). The "cafe" felt like half of someone's kitchen, which is probably what it was. It had three computers and an actual kitchen at the back. It was manned by a lad with long ginger hair dressed in black who practiced long, prog-rock guitar riffs on his (unlplugged) Fender while we tapped away. He leapt up to get us coffee though and it was a useful hour.

Further on up the coast we stopped at Gina's Restaurant right on the beach and sat on the sunny terrace feeling pleased with ourselves. We were the only customers and the guy who seemed to be running the place single handed could not have been more friendly, bustling to get us a table out of the wind and putting an umbrella over us. P and I had Coquille St Jacques and T had garlic shrimp and all was right with the world.

From there, the road ran alongide steep black basalt cliffs and then looped and climbed steeply over high ridges. The sea was deep blue and proper Atlantic now with thick rolling waves that meant business. This is about as far North as we will go on this trip and it felt like it somehow; empty and quiet with a sense that the next stop north is the Arctic.

We pulled off the road to climb a lighthouse and emerged wobbly-kneed onto its outside platform with a skinny guard-rail and a bullying wind. Tom was all for running around it but we were all for going back in. There was also a little museum which a smiling teenager opened for us. At the back it had two vast compressed air tanks and the engines that filled them. The lad said they were for the "fog 'orns" They had to be monitored day and night when the fog closed in so two lighthouse keepers had to be stationed there. There is a little automatic light now and the days of the lighthouse keeper are over.



Onwards again toward the park at Forillon where we will be tomorrow. The lady in Mont St Pierre had suggested the campsite at Grand Vallee was nice and as we crested a hill and looked down into the town, with its crisp white church, epiceries and poissonerie, it seemed like a good place to stop. We bought more lobster, crab cakes and shrimp at the immaculate little fish shop, though I passed on the shrimp sausages. We loaded up at the grocery, cleaned up the marmalade explosion and drove on a couple of K to the campsite which slopes down to a rocky beach. It also had a laundromat so Philippa hauled our reeking bag over to it and came back some time later with clothes that we can wear without offending the animals. Supper was lobster and corn on the cob outside in late afternoon sunshine and a busy breeze.

We strolled down to the beach, balancing on the jagged slate. Tom amused a fisherman by getting his feet soaked by a breaking wave, and then going back for more. We found pieces of broken dinner plate which definitely came from shipwrecks and real actual emeralds and sapphires, all of which Tom is putting in his museum. We stayed on the beach to watch the sun shimmer and vanish below the blue horizon and made our way back. I'm really very glad we didn't run out of petrol.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Gaspese day 2

We've all just watched the wonderful Ratatouille on the DVD and are feeling pleasantly weary after a big walk today. Tom fell asleep as he was saying goodnight and Philippa and I are not far behind him. Its pitch dark outside and utterly silent and we are feeling very snug. Not smug though as I am still all too aware that we still have to drive out of this park tomorrow and the petrol fairy has not paid us a visit. Anyway we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. Or possibly splutter and stall before we even get to it.

But that's enough metaphore tweaking. Today we conquered the second highest peak in Quebec! All 1286 meters of it, which is about, oh I don't know, 4000 feet in the old money. Mont. Jacques Cartier is home to a dwindling group of Caribou in the only remaining herd south of the St Lawrence, The park is doing its best to look after them. To get to the trailhead you have to take a shuttle bus and there are stern warnings about staying on the trail and not bothering the animals should you see them. You also have to be heading back down by 2.00pm to ensure that the caribou have the rest of the afternoon to feed without being distracted by a lot of people dressed in anoraks.

Its a stiff climb of about 4 kilometers each way, with a couple more thrown in for side trips. Once through the treeline we were walking through tundra; scattered grey rocks painted with pink and green lichens. After an hour or so of walking, a clump of camera toting walkers ahead of us suggested that the beasts had been spotted, and there they were, plodding about on the slopes, not particularly bothered about us.



These caribou have evolved with much smaller horns than those further north to allow them to move through the forests more easily and their annual migraton is about three hundred meters - from one kind of forest, to another. If I was one of those Arctic caribou I think I'd be asking myself how come I have to migrate hundreds of miles when I could simply move south and play on the same mountain all year. It was a little sad to see them, as despite all efforts their numbers are still falling. There were only a handful of new calves this year.

We had our sandwiches on the summit looking across the velvety green Chic-Choc mountains and watching serious looking big grey clouds sweep over us. It stayed bright though and the wind had dropped to a refreshing breeze.

Walking down was hard work as the rocks underfoot were loose and often wet and slippery and our legs were tired. As ever though, Tom seemed to pick up extra energy on the way - I am sure he has some way to leach it out of me and Philippa. We took the shuttle bus back to our campsite and had big steaks (me and him) and veggie burgers (herself) and felt generally pleased with ourselves. Tomorrow we need a laundromat, a grocery store and above all, a petrol station.

Gaspese National Park, Mile 1986

We are deep in the heart of Gaspese National park - probably about as remote as we are going to get on this trip. But right now I have no idea whether we can actually drive out from here.

When we left the highway at St Anne and turned towards the park, we had what appeared to be half a tank of petrol - or 25 gallons. Now for the first half a tank old Harv is the cheery optimist. "Don't you worry your little head" says the gauge, "you have more than enough. Accelerate a little harder if you like". When it hits halfway though Harv turns all nervous. "hmmm... actually its not looking so good, in fact I'm suddenly going to put the gauge down to a quarter tank." Then when I fill it up, actually there are twenty gallons still in there. So as I pass the last petrol station in St Anne, I am pondering Harv's psyche but the satnav is saying that the park is only three miles further on. So, no need to stop then.

Three miles further on we reach a sign which says the park is another 15K,  10 miles. Yup that's still fine. Then we find the unmanned entry booth at the park entrance, put the money in an envelope and drive on...to a sign which says the main building is another 21k through the park. Hmm... probably still ok.

We get to the main building and discover that our campsite is, er, another 42 kilometers further into the park along a gravel road. At this point the fuel gauge is hovering just under a quarter full, but it has taken us the best part of an hour to get here and it is now 5 o'clock. From the campsite it is another 25k to get out of the park and into a town with petrol. So, just how accurate us the gauge at this point? I guess we will find out, We press on along a wide gravel road which climbs steeply for several miles. It has recently rained and at times Harvey's front wheel drive struggles for traction. Of course rally driving up hill in 12,000lb motorhome is not exactly the best way of maximising the gas mileage, so about a quarter of the way to the campground the low fuel light comes on.

I grip the wheel a little more tightly and switch to the reserve which has about seven gallons or so in it. Every time we get to the top of a hill I select neutral and we coast as far as we can down the other side throwing up great clouds of dust behind us and praying that there are no sudden potholes. By far the smoothest bit of road is right in the very middle of it but thankfully we only meet one other car on the whole trip. Finally, and with no small amount of relief, we reach the Jacques Cartier campsite deep in the park. There are no services of any kind and we have exactly half the reserve tank with which to drive the remaining 25k back to civilisation. Failing that I guess Philippa gets on her bike and cycles the last bit with a fuel container. I would of course - be happy to, but the old back is playing up a bit...

Having so little fuel also means we can't run the generator to recharge the batteries and as we are here for two nights that means being a bit careful with lights and no hot showers. This is though, not a bad place to be stranded. Its utterly peaceful and we look over a line of steep mountains, one of which we hope to climb tomorrow. There are moose, caribou and bears, though as ever we have yet to see any of these things in the fur.

Other than a nagging sense that this could all end rather suddenly and inconveniently, it has been a lovely day. We woke up in our field in Matane being rocked quite violently by a howling wind. The sun was blazing away in a blue sky though and after Tom made us scrambled eggs, we pulled back onto the coast road and headed into town.

The middle of Matane is actually very pleasant with brightly painted shops and clapboard houses. It has a fish ladder behind the town hall and we paid our $3 to have a look. We couldn't actually see any fish jumping but they have a glassed in section of the ladder which serves as a sort of holding pen until they open up a gate to let them continue upstream. There were five or six big silver salmon - one was getting on for three feet- gulping away in the strong current and staring through the glass at us, probably wondering how the heck they'd ended up in a dead end. The ladder bypasses a large weir and a nice young lad explained to us in broken English that the salmon tend to climb it at night when there are fewer predators and the water is colder.

Stopping only for the quickest of cappucinos in a dark little cafe with a heavily tattood waiter, we left Matane and continued up the coast. Gaspe is begining to get a bit more mountainous, the green hills up the spine of the peninsula begining to rise up on our right. The road climbed and fell more steeply and the wind was blowing us around a bit.

Outside St Anne we turned up a fearfully steep road to a windmill farm which has one of the largest turbines in the country. Its not the usual propellor type, but cylindrical, and disappointingly motionless when we got to it, though it was surrounded by dozens of the three blade type all humming away.

An older guy in the car park gave us a leaflet about tours and said "I luff yer moteur-herm". Peter Sellers was right on the money with his Clouseau accent. I had to work out the French for "1978" and was rather pleased with myself for remembering dix-neuf-soixant-dix-huit. He raised his eyebrows and nodded. Harv gets the best reaction from older people. I remember a chap somewhere in northern New York State, nodding slowly as he watched us go by from his car and then giving me a beaming smile. You could see that he Got It.  Younger people are more "what the...?"

We tried and failed to eat at one of the roadside seafood shacks that we kept passing over the last few days but now were either closed or non existant. So in a poissonerie in St Anne I bought a little steamed lobster (nine bucks!). The lady broke it up for me and back in Harvey I excavated it on a plate aong with some avocado and smoked prawns that Philippa got a few days ago. With some bread, mayonnaise and white wine we had a really good lunch parked by the sea.

On the other side of the road was a big stone church and the bells suddenly started clanging as a christening party left by a side door. The ladies held onto their hats in the wind and everyone clustered around a baby carrier.

Over in the mountains we could see big flat-bottomed rain clouds and we pulled out of the car park and headed towards them. Now we are in those mountains and wondering whether we have the fuel to get out of them again...

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Matane, Quebec. Mile 1875

Its cool outside and the breeze blowing in off the sea has been rattling our skylight. We have just poured Tom into bed. We all watched Apollo 13 on Harv's DVD and about two thirds through we realised that Tom was flat out, his sweaty little head squished into the cushion. He had been gripped by the film and kept shushing me and Philippa, but at some point as Tom Hanks was fighting fatigue, Tom Lister succumbed to it. He woke up as we were putting his bed together and immediately put his finger to his lips and said "no talking". I don't think he realised the movie had finished.

Its a been the perfect summer's day. Bright and breezy with scudding clouds and white topped waves on a blue sea. Strictly speaking this is still the St. Lawrence river at this stage and somewhere beyond the horizon is its north bank, but it feels more like the ocean now with big tides, and harbours with shrimp and lobster boats. It could be Cornwall, though with far fewer people. There is very much an ends of the earth feel to the Gaspe; small wooden houses hunkered down against the weather, no-frills towns with hardware stores and machine shops. Matane, where we are now is one of them, but it did have a smashing fish restaurant right on the beach. We sat outside braving the wind and watching the sun make a date with the horizon. Local beer, local shrimp and scallops and big slices of the fluffiest and richest lemon cake. Really rather good.

The driving up here has been perfect for old Harv who was built to cruise at somewhere between 55 and 65. The roads are smooth and wide, rising and falling gently as they hug the coastline. Every so often a white lighthouse with a red cap appears on a distant promentory. There are small squat farmhouses on one side of the road backing on to green fields. On the other, just off the beach, tiny fishermen's cottages made of weathered grey timber.




At St Flavie we stopped to see a procession of wood and concrete people emerging from the sea. Around eighty of them in fact, erected by local artist Marcel Gagnon. Some are on little log rafts which float when the tide comes in. They were eerie and somewhat disquieting figures and had that celtic look about the faces. There was an explanation but it was written in "modern art", and thus, impossible to understand by anyone speaking English.












Further on we stopped at the Jardins de Metis and were immediately transported back to some leafy corner of an English country garden. This part of Gaspe has a unique microclimate which allows all manner of English plants to be grown and the gardens had been beautifully set out.

The land was bought in 1886 by a Lord Mount Stephen to use as a fishing retreat, but he eventually turned it over to his neice Elsie Stephen Reford in 1926 who over thirty three years, planted more than three thousand varieties of plants. A path winds around the gardens, through little valleys splashed with brilliant colours, along streams and over wooden bridges, through crabapple orchards and herb gardens. Tom rubbed mint leaves and rosemary  and lemon-basil to get the smells onto his fingers.

At the end of the trail was a sculpture garden which rivalled the Chelsea Flower show. One piece was a recreation of a first world war trench, complete with little birch fences draped with barbed wire, but most were more whimsical; giant ladders leaned against trees little seats at the top, planters on wheels which you could move into place like pieces of a quilt (Tom's favourite). There were nets which you could lie on to smell the herbs beneath you and a swing which triggered the distribution of seeds. Tom did a lot of seed distribution...

My favourite was a room full of a thousand potatoes, which is the average Canadian family's annual consumption apparently. They'd been linked together with electrical wire to create a charge which intermittently triggers little electronic buzzers. Entering a room and being buzzed at by a thousand spuds is a hoot let me tell you.

There were sheds too (a British entry) each of which was painted a different colour. One was filled with jars of honey and through a gap in the boards you could see the wildflowers which made it. Another had logs turning into charcoal, another one seemed to be propagating light bulbs. The last was all white and inside it was a table, some paper, a pen and some push-pins, so you could make a picture and pin it aon the wall. Tom did dragons and signed his name.

There were long and incomprehensible explanations written in Modern Art: "Described as an epithet which conveys micro-climatic processes and spatial sensations as linked..." etc etc. I think its OK to sometimes just say "I thought this was sort of fun..."



It was a terrific place though and we found we had somehow spent more than three hours there. Should you find yourself on the north coast of the Gaspe peninsula, go and see it.






The last of the light has finally gone from the sky and we can see perhaps five lights as we look up and down the coast through Harvey's back window. Up into the wilderness of Gaspese tomorrow.