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The Bay of Fundy tides make it a contender for the Seven Natural Wonders contest. (J.Pleau/Parks Canada/J.Pleau/Parks Canada)
The Bay of Fundy tides make it a contender for the Seven Natural Wonders contest. (J.Pleau/Parks Canada/J.Pleau/Parks Canada)

Discover a 'wilderness for everyone' at Fundy National Park Add to ...

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.

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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.

Instead of fishing, I signed up for an intertidal interpretative talk, given by Karen Hine. Karen Hine is to the intertidal interpretive interchange what James Joyce is to modernist fiction. The woman is brilliant. We traipsed through the multiple greens of the New Brunswick woods down a flight of handy stairs (stairs! in the woods! lovely!) to the humped stone beach of Herring Cove.

The Bay of Fundy, you may remember from third-grade geography, has the highest tides in the world. They range from 3.5 metres at their lowest to 16 metres and more. A normal, non-Fundian tide rises and falls one measly metre. As tides go, Fundy is the big boy. Fundy's high waters can travel eight kilometres inland and five storeys vertically - a force of 25 million horsepower that in places has worn the surrounding sedimentary topography down to 300-million-year-old rock.

Why are Fundy's tides so roomy? At the risk of becoming a tidal bore myself, I tell you sincerely: There are many fascinating parts to the answer to that question. Some of them are the pull of the moon and the sun on the Earth (the highest tides occur when all three are in line); the distance of the moon in its orbit from the Earth; the spin of the Earth and the even the wobble of its axis. All these forces are enhanced by the fact that the Bay of Fundy is essentially a 270-kilometre-long loaf pan, closed at one end, into which 100 billion tonnes of sea water sluice and ebb every six and a quarter hours, building and bouncing as they go - the famous Fundy seiche.

To see the ebbing tide leave the wide red-mud flats bare, only to make them completely disappear six hours and 15 minutes later, is to watch the world get undressed for bed at night, and dressed again for work in the morning. The bed of the Earth is made, and stripped, and made, and stripped: The maid herself is tireless. People walk across the damp flats like figures in a Currier & Ives print engraved long ago, back when man was enthralled by the natural world and not just ashamed of what he had done to it. The tides of the Bay of Fundy are the timekeeper of the planet, its nag, its reminder of birth and death and birth and death and birth and death again. Environmentalist Rachel Carson thought that watching the to and fro of tides and all the life they contained was "to have knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly life can be." This is why the New Brunswick shore feels so ordinary and remarkable at the same time.

******

Karen moved closer to the water. The tide was coming in, "about an inch a minute," she said. She had red hair that stood out nicely against the forest green of her Parks Canada jacket, rain pants and Wellingtons. We were examining knotted wrack, the long strands of dark brown bubbled seaweed that beards the rocks at low tide. Each pod represents a year of growth. "When the water comes in," Karen said, "photosynthesis is ON. Factory's open! And when it goes out, factory's OFF!" That was the way she talked. She was surprisingly suspenseful.

Karen stooped, and pointed to some barnacles. Between the larger ones, the rock was plastered with tiny ones as well.

The barnacles start out as free-swimming crab-like things, Karen said. "And then at one stage they get the urge to settle down. And they look for a nice stretch of rock, preferably one that isn't going to turn over, and they glue the top of their heads to the rock, never to move again." (Dentists use barnacle glue to secure crowns.) "Then they build that six-sided volcano-like shape. And then they build a door, like a little elevator door."

If you've ever noticed a snip-snap sound at the seashore on a hot day when the tide is out, it was likely barnacles, menopausally opening and closing their doors as they try to ventilate their microthermal interiors without drying out.

"And finally the ocean comes in again, and they go, 'Yipeee!' Then the doors open and the barnacles sweep their legs through the water to pick up microscopic plankton, which they lick off their legs." Karen did a nice imitation of a barnacle licking its legs. "Did I used to, when I was younger, do a demonstration of a barnacle on my talks, standing on my head and waving my legs? I'll never tell." Then she moved on to the immoral way whelks eat barnacles by injecting them with a roofie-like muscle relaxant, "and the barnacles just can't keep their doors closed." The water had moved up 1.2 metres in 10 minutes. Karen gave a zesty talk.

I said goodbye to Karen and hiked back to Alma along the shore trail. The park maps say it's a difficult two-hour hike, but the trail's so wide and well maintained you can run it in half an hour. The hike in the other direction, to Mathews Head and beyond, is as beautiful a wander as you'll find anywhere, like strolling through fresh salad, the trees breaking regularly to remind you of how high and close the cliffs are.

You can do it alone, or you can do it with others: There is an Edible Forest interpretive hike, a CSI Salmon hike (to find out where the salmon have gone), even a Forest Therapy hike ("We're trying to appeal to the Toronto crowd," Bronwyn Pavey explained). You can also call Fresh Air Adventures in Alma and paddle the Fundy coast in a kayak.

In four years, if the federal government delivers the money New Brunswick thinks it will, a 40-kilometre, two-lane coastal parkway to rival the Cabot Trail on Cape Breton will link Fundy National Park, in the northeast, to former premier Frank McKenna's dream, the stunning and luxurious but less-used Fundy Trail that has already been completed beyond St. Martins, to the southwest.

Of course, the Fundy footpath, a rigorous shoreline hiking trail, already goes all the way down the bay. But it's a serious three-day hike. You can do that, or you can stay on the multi-use path and never need a map. New Brunswick doesn't mind. New Brunswick's just grateful that you're here at all.

******

The Burgundy Yurt/Yourte bourgogne, one of three (and soon to be five) yurts in Fundy National Park, was nearly nine metres across, had two windows, an all-season gas fireplace on an adjustable thermostat, two bunk beds, a robust table and chairs for meals, wall lamps, a fold-out futon/couch, a deck with two Adirondack chairs and terrorist black flies, and a full-course view of the Bay of Fundy and Cape Enrage, where you can climb serious cliffs and rappel down again if you are of that bounding ilk. I was not. A yurt is not roughing it. But I was beginning to conclude that roughing it can be overrated.

The yurts even had Wi-Fi, not a feature in the Mongolian originals. There were showers and flush toilets five minutes down the path, next to the camp and trailer site, and a cookhouse across the path. I climbed into my car instead (parked in Burgundy Yurt's handy parking spot) and drove to dinner in Alma.

Alma is famous for its sticky buns and its chowders - creamy clam at the Parkland Village Inn, milky fish at the Harbourview Market across the street. I ordered chowder, scallops and a blueberry dumpling, a local dessert New Brunswick should make a lot more fuss about, while contemplating the possibility of a game of golf on the park's pretty but testing nine-hole links. After dinner, I did what tourists in these parts do and walked across the tidal flats, their grey redness shining wetly in the gloaming. The tide was out and the world was resting. Then I walked back to the Parkland, watched two periods of the hockey game (by which time it was 4-0 for Boston), and drove home to my yurt. By now, I thought of it as "my" yurt. The canvas was lightly insulated, but I shut off the stove and opened the windows to the night air.

I woke up at 3 a.m. to the sound of the wind roaring. From my bed, looking up through the skylight in the middle of the roof, the lens around which the lid of the yurt was organized, I could see trees arguing wildly against the pale night sky - as if I were a barnacle, attached by the head to the rock of the Earth, looking up and out my open door. It felt like a stable rock, one that wouldn't turn over - the illusion and blessing of comfortable wilderness. I fell back to sleep.

******

The days passed. I drove west to St. Martins at the other end of the Fundy Trail, saw the future of New Brunswick tourism (which hopes to boost visitor numbers fivefold, to 250,000 a year, so go now); hiked into Hearst lodge, the former fishing camp of the Hearst Corporation, where for $99 you can eat a planked salmon and spend the night next to what were once famous salmon fishing pools. It was beautiful and peaceful but kind of sad without the salmon. I recommend it. But eventually I had to leave, and before I left I wanted to visit the caves.

The caves are what they sound like - deep sandstone invaginations formed by the tide in the ancient sedimentary rock of the Fundy shore. At St. Martins, the routine is to have a bowl of chowder (creamy and cheesy) at The Caves restaurant while you wait for the tide to get low - allowing an hour either side of the farthest ebb, to avoid getting trapped by the incoming water.

But I was late: The tide was almost turning. I wanted to go around the point, out of sight, to the deepest cave of all. I figured I had 10 minutes.

I set out quickly, scrambling over shore rock and jumping down onto seaweed ledges slippery with water that had just receded. I made my way around the point, found the cave, and was about to go in when I noticed how far the bay had risen. In 10 minutes, it was more than a metre closer. Then I looked back.

My route home was blocked by water. I noticed how quickly I was suddenly breathing. It wasn't serious: I still had the option of swimming. Eventually I found a route and clambered back over the rocks on my hands and knees, back to comfort and safety.

It was the intensity of my brief panic that took me by surprise, after all the comforts of my stay. It wasn't much as crises go, just the Bay of Fundy's well-washed, seldom-heeded lesson: I would have taken in all there was to see, but the tide turned quickly, and I ran out of time.

For more information, go to votemyfundy.com or pc.gc.ca/fundy.

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