Sometimes in life one is put in such a unique situation or predicament that all one can do is chuckle at the circumstances that gave rise to the occurrence. On July 10th, after completing the boundary walk known as “The Slash,” I walked up to the Canadian customs port of entry. There were two auto lanes there but only the inner lane was open, illuminated with a round green light above. Feeling some angst beginning to set in about the border crossing, I worked up an ounce (or gram!) of courage. With a see-what-happens attitude, I walked right up to the window much like a car at a drive-thru bank. The uniformed customs agent nonchalantly opened her service window and, with a wide smile, kindly asked, “What have ya got for a passport?” Seeing my pack, trekking poles, and sweat beading around my brow, the lady agent was observably interested in my hiking objectives. Fielding me with questions not so much about drugs or other illegalities but about my kilometer-crushing quest, she became personally absorbed with the notion that one could perambulate through North America from Key West, Florida all the way to Belle Isle, Newfoundland. The approval to get in the country was remarkably fast since I’d already submitted a scanned passport and COVID-19 vax card electronically through ArriveCAN. Enthralled by my thru-hiking ambitions, especially to trek through five Canadian provinces, the customs agent wished me the best; and I was on my way. I’d made it into Canada!
Entering New Brunswick, I was routed on a long circuitous road that took me through verdant pastures and farmlands. There was a deafening silence and not a solitary car had passed as I moved along the roadway. From the highway, the IAT connects to an ATV/snowmobile trail which leads to the village of Perth-Andover. Because I had forgotten to account for the hour-difference time change and adjust my watch, the sun fell and all daylight was lost. After night-hiking with my headlamp, I finally checked into the Fort Road Motel around 11:00pm. Cindy, the owner of the motel, kindly accommodated me in the late hours of the night. The next morning I resupplied at the Independent Grocer catty-corner from the motel, loading up my food bag with Canadian confections. A 500 mL carton of Liberty Creek cabernet sauvignon “hiker wine” was also thrown in my pack to celebrate my entrance into Canada! As I sauntered along, I crossed the Saint John River, which was one of the most spectacular sights since entering New Brunswick. The majestic Saint John is Eastern Canada’s longest river and empties into the Atlantic.
Canada has a European feel to it but is an amalgam of England, France, and America—a perfect blend of three separate countries. While Canada—first ruled by the kings of France—is a member of the British Commonwealth with a parliamentary form of government and a “shared monarchy” headed by Queen Elizabeth, it’s a country that is similar to the United States. Canadians, like their American neighbors, drive on the “right” side of the road, add a sales tax to the price tag, practice the custom of tipping, enjoy sports and country music, and are filled with patriotism. Canada and America share the longest undefended border in the world (as I can personally attest) and the Canadian-American relationship is noticeably strong. Canucks, from what I’ve observed, are generally steady and hardworking people; and an American like me can easily adapt to life here. Canada even has their own Rocky and Appalachian Mountains!
New Brunswick is a bilingual province of two languages—English and French. Signs are generally imprinted with English above and French below or the two languages side by side. Stop signs, for example, have the word arrêt painted below in smaller print. French is a language of which I had limited exposure and almost no formal training. Playing the Parker Brothers French-themed card game Mille Bornes was the extent of my knowledge of the language! Although I took a sixth grade French class, my French teacher was a chain smoker, which was not conducive to teaching a spoken language. Whenever she pronounced the “French R,”which requires a special gargly back-of-the-mouth tongue position, the raspy consonant turned into a spell of coughing! As a consequence, I’ve had to depend on the few phrases I know, along with Google Translate, to communicate in French. The good news is that most French-Canadians speak at least some, if not fluent, English. The French of New Brunswick are Acadians who fly their starred tricolor Acadian flag, consisting of three vertical stripes of blue, white and red (flag of France), with the star of the Virgin Mary in the blue stripe.
The metric system was another obvious difference, but one of which I became accustomed to having previously spent much time in Australia. All speed limits are given in kilometers instead of miles since Canada converted from imperial to metric in 1970. There is clever rule of thumb I learned some years ago to combat “metric fatigue” and make distance unit conversions in my head. To convert miles to kilometers, simply add 60 percent or, to break it down, 50 percent plus another ten percent. To convert 50 miles into kilometers just add 50 + 25 + 5. (100% + 50% + 10%). That equals 80 km. Converting kilometers to miles is basically the opposite, subtracting 40 percent; therefore, to convert 120 km, 120 – 60 + 12 (100% – 50% + 10%) which comes out to 72. It’s not exact but it’s close enough and makes metrification seem less daunting. The Eastern Continental Trail is 5,700 miles long, or as I would tell my Canadian friends, 9,120 km!
Canada is one remote place; it’s what I like to call the “backcountry country.” Cottages and wood-shaked cabins lined the Saint John River. As I walked parallel to the Saint John, I noticed moose racks were mounted on the gable ends of cabins and sheds, an apparent rural Canadian ritual. French riviera chalets, with their low-sweeping profiles and full roof eave returns, were adorned with flower boxes at each window. All of the residences in New Brunswick are administered blue metal address plates which are mounted by the roadside on a mailbox or post.
Crossing over the Tobique River to the village of Plaster Rock, I began the extensive roadwalk on NB 385, following the Tobique for the majority of the way. Before setting off on the roadwalk, I stopped at a pizza shop tucked away in Plaster Rock to eat and charge up. Upon special request, the lady working at the pizzeria served half the pizza on a plate for me to eat there at the restaurant and the other half wrapped in tinfoil for me to pack out and have for dinner while on trail.
The NB 385 roadwalk was pleasant as far as roadwalks go, affording picturesque views of the Eastern Canadian countryside. Peterbilt logging trucks zoomed by at regular intervals like clockwork, about every quarter of an hour by my estimation. Walking against opposing traffic, the trucks coming toward me were transporting logs from the logging site to the mill, whereas the trucks heading in the other lane were hauling empty trailers back to the forest logging operation for another load. After time, I adapted to the speed and roaring noise of the loggers; as a matter of fact, I came to appreciate the scent of fresh-cut trees and sawdust emanating from the big rigs as they passed. As for safety, the rumble sound of the diesel engines and rattling of double log trailers hauled behind provided ample notice for me as a hiker to get off the roadway so as not to become a hood ornament!
At Nictau, I arranged to stay with the legendary Bill Miller—the one and only trail angel of New Brunswick. Bill is a third-generation wood canoe builder and the owner of Miller Canoes which was started by his grandfather Vic Miller in 1925. He gave me a personal tour of his canoe shop and explained the much-involved canoe-making process. The sequence begins with a canoe form, of which he has eight; four were built by his father and grandfather and the other four were constructed by Bill himself. This means that there are eight basic body shapes of canoes that can be built. Included among these are the classic Miller canoe, a whitewater canoe, and even a kayak. Bill was currently working on two different canoes and was alternating his work between them.
With one of the canoes, Bill was seven days in to the project and kindly took time to show me the steps involved. After the inside gunwales are in place, individual cedar ribs are cut using a jig, planed to the appropriate thickness, then sanded at the edges. All of the ribs are then steamed all at once in the steamer, which is basically a hot water heater laid on its side and open on one end to accommodate the wood ribs. After the wood heats up in the watery bath, Bill takes one rib at a time and begins to bend the wood over the form directly on the metal rib guides, attaching them to the gunwales. “The wood is so pliable from the heat,” Bill informed me, “you could tie it in a knot.” After the ribs are all set, long perpendicular cedar planks are nailed to the ribs using brass canoe tacks. The oversized tacks go through the plank and rib then hit the metal rib guide on the form so as to create a locking “J” shape. There are three brass tacks per rib nailed in a triangular pattern. Once the ribs and planks are installed, the boat is stripped from the form and flipped over. The tacks have to be knocked completely flat using a special curve-shaped tool called a clenching iron; any gaps between the ribs and planks are closed up tight. The canoe is taken down to the lower level of the shop where it is fiberglassed and varnished. The thwarts, decks, and caned seating is installed and the canoe order is complete and ready for pickup.
All of the wood used by Bill was eastern white cedar and had been cut from selected trees using his own personal saw mill. Although Bill no longer owns the 21-foot Wood Mizer portable sawmill, he had the foresight to cut and store stacks upon stacks of lumber for future canoe building. Bill, who is now seventy-five years of age told me, “I’ve got enough wood to build boats until I’m eighty years old!” The quality craftsmanship of a Miller canoe is so superb one may not even want to put it into the water; it’s as if they belong in a heritage museum. It’s tapestry with wood. Human hands can make remarkable things. Miller Canoes will be turning 100 years old in three years, in the year 2025. For the 100th anniversary, he’ll build his last wooden canoe and that will be the end for ol’ Bill Miller.
Bill also makes wooden oars and showed me how to properly size an oar, whether for a sternman or a bowman. Also, he explained the difference between a beaver tail and an otter tail oar and even allowed me to hold his much-cherished prized possession—a set of bird’s eye maple oars! Bill recounted many stories of his life growing up and working at the canoe shop with his grandfather. He’d take the bus after school in nearby Plaster Rock to his grandfather’s shop where he’d hear him tapping away. “That tapping sound,” Bill recalled, “was the sound of a canoe being built, and I’ll always remember that.”
Inspired by Frederic Handle’s “Water Music,” Bill started a long-standing tradition that would last for over a quarter century called Fiddles on the Tobique. An article in Canoe & Kayak magazine written by David Jackson chronicles the annual event:
“In 1994, Bill Miller took a lone fiddling friend named Ivan Hicks plus a few other paddlers in his handmade, wooden canoes down a section of the Tobique River from his family’s historic shop in Nictau, New Brunswick. So delighted was the small crew at the harmonious combination of river, music, and canoe that the group decided to meet again the next year, adding another fiddler and keyboard with the help of a local playing group. Dubbed Fiddles on the Tobique, the low-key event quickly grew in size, peaking in years where canoes would number in the thousands, and the sound of fiddles would echo through the scenic wooded valley in a joyful celebration of music and nature. After a quarter-century and now 24 iterations, Bill Miller beams at the mention of the days when his small hamlet of 10 people would swell into the thousands, and his log cabin over-flowed with laughter and song.”
Aside from the canoe shop, there was also a sap camp on his grandparents’ property in which sap was extracted from maple trees and made into syrup. The trees were “tapped” by drilling a small hole into each maple tree and tapping in a spout. The tap is connected to a tube that runs downhill into a bucket for collection. Sap is then boiled down to syrup, filtered, and finally bottled. Remarkably, it takes some thirty-five gallons of sap to boil down into a single gallon of pure syrup. Bill explained to me the sap-to-syrup production method used when he was young and showed me an artistic acrylic painting that depicted his grandparents’ old sap camp which once stood on the property near the canoe shop. The painting was done by a local artist in Nictau that Bill had commissioned to capture the old family tradition.
All three of the Millers served in the military in some capacity. Bill’s grandfather was a sniper in the First World War, his father was a bush pilot in Newfoundland with the Royal Canadian Air Force, and Bill enlisted as a Canadian in the U.S. Navy, serving on the USS Fox during the conflict in Vietnam. During my visit, Bill and I discussed every possible topic, everything from the JFK assassination plot and monetary policies of the Federal Reserve to classical music and the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969. We talked at length about the work of Edwin Tappan Adney who is credited with saving the art of birchbark canoe construction. Bill even explained to me how the logs of his cabin were produced, using a hand froe to painstakingly debark each log.
Bill is a straight shooter who calls a spade a spade, yet he is a gifted storyteller with a large presence and keen sense of humor. “Bonjour,” Bill would answer his phone, “comment ça va?” joshing his English-speaking friends on the other side of the line! As I parted Bill’s place, we snapped a few pictures of one another and he bid me farewell. As I trailed off, I looked back at the Miller homestead and shop one last time, waving at Bill from a distance. He returned a wave, and I knew I’d experienced something that would be with me forever after.
The New Brunswick roadwalk would extend 73.7 miles from Plaster Rock all the way to Saint Quentin via NB 385 and NB 180. Meeting Pitstop at the highway, I double-zeroed near Mount Carleton at Armstrong Campground. He drove me into Saint Quentin for a resupply, and then the two of us ate dinner at a restaurant there. Little did we know that this was a primarily French-speaking village. Not even English subtitles could be found on the public signage of Saint Quentin; however, the waitress knew English as a second language and brought out some “English menus,” which staved off my hiker starvation! Walking around Nictau Lake at the campground brought a pleasant closing to the day. Out of San Quentin, the remainder of the New Brunswick section was mostly ATV/snowmobile trails. North of Kedgwick, I stealthed at a former dump site where a farmer back in the 1930s had apparently taken his old bottles, metal scraps, and other rubbage. There were old rusty metal cans, tea kettles, and two tipped-over barrels of glass bottles. The Restigouche Snowmobile Club maintained the trails and had installed traffic signs much like one would find on a regular street.
After a soaking rain, I met up with Pitstop once more, this time to triple zero in Campbellton before heading into Quebec. Once I cross the Interprovincial Bridge from New Brunswick into Quebec near Matapédia, it will be around two-and-a-half weeks before finishing the province. Extra time was spent in Campbellton not only to plan Quebec but to enjoy some much-desired recreation. Pitstop and I rented kayaks at an adventure camp in Matapédia and completed a full day trip kayaking the Restigouche River. The Restigouche runs between the provinces of New Brunswick and Quebec. The section kayaked was 14.2 km (8.8 miles) from Matapédia, Quebec to Tide Head, New Brunswick. I guess you could call this an “aqua-blaze” since the river parallels the IAT; in fact, I paddled under the very same Interprovincial Bridge I’ll be hiking on when I cross over into Quebec. After triple-zeroing in Campbellton, I was feeling antsy to get back on trail. It was time to make my move into the French-speaking province of Quebec, a section extending 398.7 miles from Matapédia to Cap Gaspé. My goodness…what an adventure this has been; I’ve walked so far that English is no longer the spoken language!
“Vouloir c’est pouvoir.” (Fr. “To want to is to be able to;” hence, “where there’s a will, there’s a way.”)