Seely Beach. One of the campsites along the Fundy Footpath.
"What am I doing here?"
"I'm 47, carrying a massive 65-pound backpack with boots that don't fit. My body is screaming. My big toes are about to explode. What was I thinking coming on this trail?"
I was three days into a six-day solo-backpacking trip along the most arduous trail I had ever walked — The Fundy Footpath — and I was beat. That third day was tough. I realized my limitations just five measly kilometres along the first leg of the 54-km trek. There were bruises under my big toenails and on my right ankle. My 15-year-old top-of-the-line leather boots suddenly too small for the trail's massive 200-metre elevation adjustments. Something needed to give.
I decided to text my wife and the friends who were planning to pick me up in a few days’ time. There was little hope for outside help but at least they might be able to offer moral support. One of the great surprises along the trail was occasional cell service. I was asked about shortening the trip. I knew I could get out along a number of logging roads but the idea of walking 25 km to get to a highway seemed little better than carrying on. What about turning back? I realized in my current state walking 30 km forward or 24 km back would be impossible if I couldn't solve my boot problem. And, despite the day's pain and difficulty, the truth was that I really was enjoying myself.
That's when the simplest of solutions hit me. The following morning I pulled out the insoles and cut out holes the shape of my big toes. I may be old and battered but dammit, I would do my best to complete the adventure as originally planned.
Moose-hide Drum & Manitou Stone
Over the next three years, the longest remaining wild stretch of Atlantic coastline between Florida and Labrador will become a little more domesticated. A highway is being built which parallels the footpath on its southern end. There is little doubt that this will alter the wild flavour of the trail. Large patches of bulldozed forest and heavy equipment engine noise plagued the first day of my hike. Despite this, one of Canada's most rugged trails remains challenging, solitary and beautiful. I met only four other groups while hiking. The Fundy Footpath is unknown compared to its Canadian coastal cousin, the West Coast Trail. By comparison, when I hiked the West Coast Trail in 1998, 60 hikers began the trail the same day.
The deep solitude and beauty of the rugged New Brunswick coastline is protected by a challenging, under-developed trail and minimal promotion. Compared to the West Coast Trail's ladders, suspension bridges and cable cars, the Fundy Footpath has only a few sets of cable steps on its southern end. The rest of the footpath's steep slopes and river crossings must be negotiated by endless switchbacks along steep muddy trails and by fording. There are no quotas. No need to phone months in advance to reserve a spot. There are no fees for use. A basic phone registration and check-in system is in place for safety and a trail guidebook/map is available (www.fundytrailparkway.com). That's about it.
Although my big toes throbbed the following day, the downhills did no further damage. I crossed the Martin Head access road about mid-day on day four. Martin Head is a rocky peninsula and a haven for local cottagers. It is a noticeable landmark visible from most campsites along the trail. The footpath skirts the edge of the community but remains aloof, allowing hikers to bypass contact with civilization.
From Martin Head the trail crosses many small brooks as it heads towards the first of two tidal rivers at Goose Creek. Each river along the footpath translates into a significant elevation loss and a corresponding elevation gain. Vertical differences of between 150 and 200 metres over a kilometre are common. When not heading into or out of a valley, the trail meanders across a fairly flat plateau cloaked in boreal spruce, alder, mosses and ferns with the odd swampy section. It is a lush temperate boreal rainforest. Numerous streams allow for regular hydration recharges.
Arrival at Goose Creek corresponded with low tide in the late afternoon. The crossing is over a muddy, cobbled salt flat that required boot removal. My dilemma once across was that I wouldn't be able to hike another three hours to get past the Goose River, the second tidal river and the official northern end of the Footpath, before the tide rose and the sun set. I opted to camp at Rose Brook and wait for the tide to go out again the next afternoon.
Martin Head at Sunrise
Over the years my adventures have taken on increasingly strange spiritual tones. In the past decade I have spent many weeks exploring Anishenabee (Ojibway) sacred and pictograph sites in northern Ontario. Weird events have occurred so often that I have come to expect an unexplainable incident to be part of my time in the wilderness - especially when I travel alone. These moments centre me and offer food for thought while I'm at home the rest of the year. I have come to believe that there are other realities best glimpsed through time alone in nature. The Anishenaabe use the word "manitou" meaning "mystery" when they speak of these strange forces.
I arrived at Rose Brook exhausted. I had walked 13 km. After setting camp and eating a cold supper, I went to my tent. About 4:00 a.m. I woke up and realized the tide was low. Being on the Bay of Fundy with its notorious tidal fluctuation made me curious: "I wonder how low the tide gets here?" Despite the moonless darkness this simple thought propelled me out of my sleeping bag to wander Azors Beach.
It took several minutes to walk to the waterline. The surf was low. It encouraged me to turn on my headlamp and beachcomb. I picked up a few interesting shells and rocks. After several minutes of wandering I was startled by a black boulder the size of a shed in my path. Turning away from the water I found myself in a large boulder field. Rather than walking back along the surf, I decided to cut directly across the beach to my tent. This meant scrambling over slick barnacle encrusted boulders. Suddenly I was falling forward, my sandals slipping on a rock. Instinctively my hands went out to break my fall. Ouch! White barnacles pierced my hands in several places including two deep gouges at the base of each palm.
My first aid kit hung in a spruce tree on a steep slope behind the campsite. It had been a pain to hang. I did not want to lower it with sore hands in the dark. A much simpler solution was at hand. Saltwater is a strong natural antiseptic and a whole ocean was a step away. I waded into the surf, immersing my hands to above my wrists.
Metaphors of nature's healing properties, of baptism and of humility were popping in my mind. I began to think about the difficulties I had experienced the day before. The placement of the deep gouges on my palms reminded me of the wounds some call "stigmata." Using saltwater to cleanse my wounds reminded me of baptism, an ancient ritual symbolizing purification. As I stood in the blackness of the Bay I reflected that my journey along the Fundy Footpath had been difficult. I felt humbled and broken. At the same time, the experience had, like the saltwater, purified and washed me.
With these thoughts washing over me I walked back to my tent. Aiming the headlamp towards the beach I immediately was struck by mystery. There, only a few feet away, was a further metaphor etched in stone. Reaching down I picked up a round, flat black cobble. This was no ordinary stone for it had two white veins within it. These veins crossed each other at 90 degrees near the centre. I was looking at a cross… at a medicine wheel… at a manitou… a most ancient symbol found in almost every culture which often represents the four directions and symbolic of wholeness and completeness. It is a symbol of hope.
The Fundy Footpath had broken me. It had purified me. It had made me whole.
The rest of the journey was a bit of an epilogue. I began the next day as I had each morning on my journey. I offered tobacco and smudged with sweet grass, sage and cedar — practices I added to my life after attending an Anishenaabe sweat lodge years ago. I drummed with the moose hide drum an Algonquin craftsman made me earlier in the year. As I drummed, a pair of ravens flew nearby. They chased each other, uttering loud croaks in the sky above. It seemed to me they were dancing. A metaphor for what my spirit was feeling.
Mossy hillside along the Fundy Footpath