The thing about distance, says Mike Carpenter, is that, like time, it’s relative. We are in his pickup truck, swooping up the coast north of St Martins in Canada’s New Brunswick. ‘Sure, the Fundy Footpath is short,’ he concedes, ‘but it’s punchy. It feels a lot longer.’
We’re en route to the trailhead at Big Salmon river with Nick Brennan, the other half of activity company Red Rock Adventures. Every so often we round a bend to see the rust-red cliffs along which we will walk roller coaster into the distance. Unbroken forest fuzzes their summits – this is the largest stand of Acadian old-growth forest in Canada’s maritime states.
‘There are a lot of roots and rocks,’ Mike continues, ‘and a lot of hills. There’s barely a flat section. You’re pretty isolated, too.’ Launched in 1998, the 41km Fundy Footpath already follows the longest stretch of wild Atlantic coastline between Florida and Labrador. From next year, a new section will extend the trail to 50km, after a Dh1.3million trail upgrade last year.
Just 50km may seem no big deal, however hilly, but this is a trail with a twist – the Bay of Fundy.
Because of a funnel shape that amplifies the tidal range, the bay between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia is rinsed by the world’s largest tides. Imagine the combined volume of all the freshwater rivers in the world. Now swirl it into and out of the Bay of Fundy every six hours.
So powerful is the tide’s 10-knot surge that the very seabed flexes in the ebb and flow. So great is its 16-metre range, that it conjures up vast ochre bays for short cuts and makes once-traversable estuaries vanish. Walkers on the Fundy Footpath have to ford streams that turn into rivers. The Goose river crossing can be attempted only at low tide; the recommended trail kit list includes tide tables.
‘People can and do get into trouble,’ Mike says.
So, while Canada’s West Coast Trail is so popular you need to book a hiking permit months in advance then pay extra for camping and ferries, its east-coast equivalent is hiked by only around 600 people a year.
‘It’s a little underused,’ Mike says dryly. ‘We’re this Unesco reserve no one knows.
‘It only gets busy on summer weekends. You might see three people,’ says Mike.
This is New Brunswick in a nutshell. The maritime province is the forgotten twin of Nova Scotia, across the bay. It has the same dumpy lighthouses on ochre cliffs, the same tidy clapboard villages and down-home charm, and the same ‘flowerpot’ islets – photogenic pine-scrubbed pinnacles such as Hopewell Rocks in the north-west of the bay.
What New Brunswick lacks is mass tourism. Americans used to deride it as the ‘drive-through state’. The few I met who had stopped were pinching themselves at their luck.
I wanted a taste of the longer Fundy footpath. I planned to travel light and tick it off at a brisk pace on my own. How long could 41km take? Three days? Trail bores on the blogosphere sucked their teeth and shook their heads. So I did what any prudent hiker would do – I wimped out. Red Rock Adventures is the only company to run supported treks on the footpath. You carry nothing more than clothes and a tent while a support team totes food to a campsite each night via access trails.
We arrive at Big Salmon river to register at the visitor centre. Then it’s packs shouldered (unusually light for this taster – allow five days to complete the extended route, a week with sidetracks), and off we head over a suspension footbridge and up the opposite bank, climbing steadily towards a headland. Ahead, a pale aqua sea shimmers by a shore dark with pine trees. Above, a turkey vulture circles in a cobalt sky. For all the talk of wilderness, it’s machinery I recall initially. An extension to the Fundy Parkway Trail, a scenic coast drive and cycle route, is under construction just above the trail. (Planners promise it will be invisible from the footpath when it opens in autumn 2018.)
Then we swerve away into a forest of pines, skeletal spruce and birch. It’s silent and suddenly intimate after the sea views earlier. When we drop down to Long Beach after a few hours, the world expands again.
We camp on neighbouring Seely Beach that night. At one point I leave Nick frying scallops over a campfire to walk into the darkness. I love that polarity of wild camping, of civilisation juxtaposed with nature. Away from our pool of light, the pines are silhouetted beneath a sky boiling with stars (this coast is a dark sky reserve). The sea whispers. Five hours in and we’re already at the edge of the world.
The sense of cutting-off increases over the next day. Yes, there are some thigh-burning ascents but the forest is shady and cool. The air is sweet with pine resin and the only sounds are of wind in the canopy and creaking tree trunks.
Somewhere out there are black bears and moose. Both appear shy. Not even when Nick cups his hands over his mouth to produce a creaky grunt – irresistible to any passing bull moose, apparently – does anything come crashing out of the forest.
We don’t see any people either. Instead, we lunch on an empty beach at Cradle Brook. And, absurdly, I feel like a pioneer when we descend to Little Salmon river at the end of the day. There’s no path, no evidence of humanity. Just a broad wooded valley and, at low tide, a shallow river that uncoils like a braid of rope.
So it’s a surprise when we ford the river to find a member of the support team waiting with fresh salmon for dinner. Tough gig, this wilderness hiking.
With due attention to the tides, I realise, I probably could have tackled the Fundy Footpath alone. Most people do – the path is generally clear and, while hilly and remote, it’s doable if treated with respect. Yet my food would have come from packets and it’s unlikely I would have discovered a side trip like the one we make next day.
For several hours, we walk inland up a steep river canyon in the company of nothing but vultures and an osprey. We track up a side canyon that narrows almost to touching distance until the way ahead is blocked by a pool. That’s it, then. But this is hiking Canadian-style. In we go, wading through cool chest-deep water, to emerge into an alfresco cathedral buttressed by cliffs and vaulted by leaves. This is the Eye of the Needle. And it’s beautiful.
On the last night I sleep outside. How can I not? Fireflies are drawing fluorescent doodles in the canopy, and the silence is intense. I expected fantastic scenery. What came as a surprise was such escapism after just three days’ walking. Maybe Mike was right – distance is relative after all.