I admit that I did not, in the past, afford New Brunswick much respect. In my mind, it was the charmless home of the spruce budworm, "the drive-through province," as even locals call it. The Bay of Fundy's legendary tides had no pull for me.
I would hereby like to renounce my former beliefs. I just spent three days hiking and kayaking and eating my way through Fundy National Park and along the Fundy Trail, the extended red cliff of forest and beach that runs along the bottom of New Brunswick like a sturdy sole of nature. It may be the comfiest wilderness in the country.
I had three days. This is not a lot of time to devote to the task of exploring a region that has been designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO Geo-Park, and one of the seven new natural wonders of the world (as determined by an ongoing global Internet poll).
On the other hand, one of the charms of the Fundy coast is that it is designed precisely for fast, easy, anti-epic interaction, a Wilderness for Everyone that does not require suffering. I realize this is a shocking, contra-Canadian concept. We equate the pleasures of the national wilderness (isolation, silence, unchanging beauty) with the agony of getting to it (back-breaking packs, blisters like craters, bears and avalanches). A Canadian vacation hurts.
But camping on New Brunswick's southern riviera can be so cushy it's sometimes called "glamping." My plan was to drive an hour south from the small and intelligently designed airport at Moncton (named for Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Monkton, the British officer who, as a reward for capturing nearby Fort Beauséjour in 1755, was made second-in-command to the lunatic General James Wolfe at the siege of Quebec in 1759); hike and kayak the northeastern end of the Bay of Fundy coastline, in Fundy National Park; and then drive two hours to St. Martins, on the southwesterly end of the Fundy shore, to hike the Fundy Trail and the mighty Caledonia Highlands (elev. 300 metres). I figured three nights in a tent.
No. My first night in the park, I stayed at the Fundy Highlands Hotel and Chalets, a 1950s-style drive-up from an era when wilderness was still a means to an end and not an increasingly precious museum. My spotless room on the second level boasted a deck, a full bathroom, a queen and two bunk beds, satellite TV and a fully equipped kitchen. The only thing missing was a former stewardess to whom I was married with children, all of whom were somehow playing safely somewhere on the property. The Highlands was the kind of motel that induced that fantasy. Maybe it was the scallops I had eaten for dinner in Moncton, shellfish so fresh I felt like asking it on a date. "Think Ontario 25 years ago," a Parks Canada consultant named Bronwyn Pavey had said. "That's New Brunswick today."
I ingested breakfast the next morning at An Octopus's Garden, a restaurant in the teensy town of Alma that serves as the entrance to Fundy National Park for a quarter of a million visitors every year. The gates of the park are located where the neighbourhood of Alma West once stood, which is why some Alma maters resent the park to this day. An Octopus's Garden has a café in its front room, a stage and a drum kit in another, and quadruples as an art gallery and library, from which I plucked some local history.
In 1836, when Nathaniel Locke and James Turnbull purchased the grant lands of Col. J. Coffin, Alma was called Salmon River. The fishery collapsed first, choked to death by sawmills and shipyards: By 1947, when the park was surveyed, they, too, were defunct. These days, the park is the region's biggest employer. The Atlantic salmon that famously stuffed the river are a goner as well. Despite a nascent reintroduction program and extensive study, stocks are a thousandth of what they were in the 1970s. The latest theory is that the wild fish interbreed with farm-raised salmon, which in turn renders them too fat and stupid to find their way back upriver to spawn.