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Boardwalk trails and fishing for frogs: New Brunswick to thrill the kids

Peat bogs, which are said to be 5,000 and 8,000 years old, cover 20 per cent of Kouchibouguac National Park.

Darryl Leniuk

Adventure travel with kids can be complicated – and, to be frank, the rewards of escaping into the wild are seldom worth the effort. So after previous backbreaking forays into wilderness areas, we wanted something simpler, and found the perfect answer in an extended visit to New Brunswick's two national parks.

Kouchibouguac National Park, with its sandy beaches and sheltered lagoons, and world-famous Fundy National Park, with its giant tides and rugged coast, promised safe settings for our two-year-old son and enough outdoor highs for us. With each park just an hour's drive from Moncton, one week and one Parks Canada pass was all we needed to two explore two coasts and two worlds.

Our visit to Kouchibouguac began in a wigwam. In warm, canvas-filtered light, Marilyn Simon-Ingram, a Mi'kmaq elder and Parks Canada interpreter dressed in a tanned-caribou robe, told the story of her people's life here, which archeological evidence suggests extends back more than 4,000 years.

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"The caribou were great teachers. If one was injured, the herd stayed nearby. The Europeans used that to wipe them out," she explained, against a backdrop of hanging animal hides. "Without the caribou we lost the wolves. Wolverines are scavengers and need wolves to hunt, so we lost them too. Beavers were nearly wiped out from our own greed, selling their furs to the Europeans."

It was a sobering account, but ended on a lighter note as we learned how the crow got his colour: His eyeballs were stolen by the seagull, and he replaced them with blueberries. Her audience then assembled colourful "friendship necklaces" under her direction, to remember their visit. "All of the stories you've heard are now in these necklaces," she said.

In the 17th century, the Acadians arrived, and forged a deep connection with the Mi'kmaq. The Acadian village of Saint-Louis de Kent now serves as the entrance to the 240-square-kilometre park, whose Mi'kmaq name means "river of long tides." Kouchibouguac draws only 170,000 visitors a year (compared with Banff's three million tourists, for example), so it feels quiet and remote, even at the busiest of times.

A long, elevated boardwalk takes visitors over the salt-marsh lagoon, to Kellys Beach, the focal point of the park, with its white sand and superb swimming in the warm waters of Northumberland Strait. After a dip, we decided to see those lagoons up close on a Parks Canada "Lagoon Life" tour. Visitors were outfitted with nets and containers and sent out into the tepid, ankle-deep water. Our son, Vincent, took to it immediately. Using a net larger than himself, he managed to find hermit crabs, sticklebacks and sand shrimp. Simon-Ingram, who led the tour, came by to identify the creatures. Suddenly lightning flashes lit the horizon: A storm was moving in. "Everyone out of the water!" she yelled.

The next morning, the storm had subsided, so we explored the park's interior. Kouchibouguac boasts 60 kilometres of wide and easy-to-travel bike trails. Under a brilliant sun, we rode our rental bikes along the placid Kouchibouguac River, then followed a boardwalk by foot through the forest to a peat bog – a vast open meadow of cotton grass, pitcher plants and wild blueberries. The bogs, which cover about 20 per cent of the park, are between 5,000 and 8,000 years old – and the sweet berries are a treat, as Vincent discovered.

We made our excursions into the park from L'Ancrage Bed & Breakfast, a large, converted farmhouse, overlooking the Kouchibouguacis River in Saint-Louis de Kent. But to truly experience the park, we would forgo some comfort to spend a night in the back country.

We set out on a pleasant, breezy morning for the 40-minute canoe trip from Cap Saint-Louis, in the southern part of the park to Pointe à Maxime, a camping area accessible only by water. We pitched our tent on a lush headland overlooking the outer lagoon, at the edge of a birch forest, and had the place to ourselves.

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In the afternoon we paddled to the offshore dunes, shifting sand islands that stretch for 25 kilometres. In the summer, they are home to about 500 grey seals. A strong westerly wind pushed us ashore on the South Dune, under hundreds of soaring terns. With some 20,000 birds, this is the second-largest tern colony in North America (the largest is in Maine). Less common is the endangered piping plover; in 2013 eight pairs were observed.

The next day, we paddled back to Cap Saint-Louis and said farewell to Kouchibouguac. A two-hour pastoral drive took us southwest, to Fundy National Park, though tiny hamlets and fields of vibrant wildflowers, along the Petitcodiac River.

Fundy is a rugged coast of sea cliffs and its famous bay is home to the biggest tide fluctuations in the world, up to 16 metres. The 200-square-kilometre park draws about 240,000 visitors a year to hike, camp and enjoy the unspoiled coastline.

We spent our first day hiking the Coppermine and Shiphaven trails, both easy seaside treks (Vincent alternated between walking and riding in his backpack carrier). Through a forest of spruce, birch and fir, we could see the bay blending into a hazy sky. Fog frequently clings to the coast, creating perfect conditions for the myriad of mosses and 400 species of lichens that grow here.

We stopped for lunch at Point Wolfe, a rocky inlet where Vincent splashed about. Across the cove were squat red cliffs, once the size of the Rockies. Time, glaciers and the elements have scoured and given a unique shape to Fundy, creating a tidal oscillation called seiche, which is responsible for the huge tides. Later in the day, after returning to our waterfront hotel in nearby Alma, we saw the power of the tide: Boats that were floating when we set out were now beached, and the water was several kilometres away.

The interior of park is the Caledonia Highlands, a place of gentle streams and waterfalls, which we explored the next day. Mist enveloped the Laverty Falls trail, on which we descended for nearly an hour through second-growth forest until we saw the veil-like cascades – and a young couple skinny dipping in the lower pool. When we arrived minutes later, they were dressed and offered to take our photo. As we posed, the rain let loose with lightning flashes and cracking thunder. We quickly secured the waterproof cover to Vincent's carrier, and headed back up the trail, now a seething stream. An hour later, sopping wet, but in good spirits, we devoured sandwiches in our steamy rental car.

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In Moncton, we lined up a babysitter and enjoyed a last-night meal at the Windjammer Restaurant, in the Delta Beauséjour where we were staying. The former Canadian Pacific property, with its dark leather decor and relaxed ambience, is ranked among the top 10 hotel restaurants in Canada by Hotelier Magazine.

Sous-chef David MacLeod was keen to show us his rooftop garden, where heirloom tomatoes, beans, carrots and zucchini grew in wooden crates among fresh herbs. Soon we were gorging on those greens and fresh local lobster, with no thoughts at all of the weather.

The writer travelled courtesy of Tourism New Brunswick, which did not review or approve the article.

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