Having driven for hours to the nearest park trailhead at Cap Gaspé, Pitstop proceeded to hike up a 4 km gravel road to meet me at the lighthouse where I’d finished the Quebec section. He arrived out of breath and sweating buckets. “Maybe it’s all those cigarettes he’s been puffin’,” I thought.” But to his credit, it was a scorching hot day and the access trail’s elevation profile did show a steady gain. “Argh,” Pitstop interjected as he arrived at the picnic grounds where I had been waiting, “that hike up the road ’bout killed me!” We sat for a few minutes until Pitstop’s heartbeat came to a comfortable rest. “Ready to hit the road, Outback?” he asked, knowing there was still much driving ahead. I felt a strange tension—a fresh excitement for a new province, yet a reluctance to leave another. “Uh-huh,” I replied——”I’m ready.”
Pitstop gave me a lift from the lighthouse at Gaspé Peninsula (Gaspesia) in Quebec down along the coast of New Brunswick and across the Confederation Bridge to Prince Edward Island (PEI). The French Acadians call it Île-du-Prince-Édouard; the Scots who immigrated there knew the place as Eilean a’ Phrionnsa, a Gaelic word meaning “the Island of the Prince.” The name of the island has a peculiar but traceable history that I found worthy of study. Once a part of the ancestral lands of the Micmac, the place was first called Abegweit. Then, after the French colonized the island in 1604 as part of their colony of Acadia, it was renamed Île Saint-Jean. The French ceded control to the British in 1763; as a consequence, the Brits Anglicized the name to St. John’s Island, making it part of the British colony of Nova Scotia. Later, in 1769, the island became a separate British colony. Finally, in 1798, the island took its current name which refers to Edward Augustus, one of the sons of King George III of Great Britain who has been referred to as “Father of the Canadian Crown.” Six years after the Canadian Confederation of 1867, PEI became Canada’s seventh province.
As one of the three Maritime provinces of Canada, this insular landmass is largely comprised of green pastoral landscapes with a soil fertile for agricultural cultivation. Although PEI is the smallest of the ten Canadian provinces, the agrarian beauty is unmatchable. It’s Canada’s Garden of Eden, an Elysian Fields of natural beauty. Corn, turnips, hay, grain, and tobacco are all grown and harvested on the island; however, the chief crop is potatoes. With its rural character of idyllic farmlands and gentle rolling pastures, and its picturesque shorelines of red sand beaches, the island was and remains a land of dreams. PEI has been ascribed with such endearing names as “Garden of the Gulf,” “Million-Acre Farm,” and, alluding to its renowned potato production, “Spud Island.”
PEI may best be known as the setting for Anne of Green Gables, a 1908 novel written by the Canadian author Lucy Maude Montgomery (published under L. M. Montgomery). Set in the latter part of the 19th century, the classic work recounts the happenings of Anne Shirley, an eleven-year-old red-headed orphan girl. Anne is sent by mistake to Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, two older siblings who had intended to adopt a boy to help them work the farm. Although Montgomery’s story is set in the fictional town of Avonlea in Prince Edward Island, the Green Gables farmstead is indeed a real place. The 19th century farmhouse, originally built by relatives of Montgomery, became a literary landmark. It’s now called Green Gables Heritage Place and is recognized as a Federal Historic Building and National Historical Site.
In 1985, when I was only four years old, a Canadian made-for-television drama film was released, which was based upon Montgomery’s 1908 book. My mother and two sisters (who had an apparent teen crush on Gilbert Blythe!) watched the Megan Follows movie loyally, along with the other sequel films in the series including Anne of Avonlea and Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story. Although I didn’t admit it at the time, I enjoyed the films immensely and, as I’ve gotten older, have come to appreciate the unfolding drama of the impetuous and dreamy orphan. The motion picture follows Anne from her late childhood and adolescence in PEI through her young adulthood. Although the movie was filmed in Ontario rather than the original inspired setting of PEI, the scenes of the Canadian countryside were nonetheless burned in my memory forever after.
The ride across the eight-mile Confederation Bridge was sensational in itself. Completed in 1997, the structure is Canada’s longest bridge and part of the Trans-Canada Highway. Crossing the Abegweit Passage of the Northumberland Strait, the bridge links PEI with the province of New Brunswick. Pitstop parked his travel trailer at Lone Oak Brewery, a Harvest Host that allows free overnight RV parking on the island. After a long day traveling, I was tuckered out and turned in early that night. The next day, after a flight of lagers from the brewery, we settled in at the local KOA where I took a full zero day. At the campground I conceived a practicable plan to blast through the 91-mile PEI section in three days. This scheme would involve three consecutive thirty-plus-mile days. At the end of each day, Pitstop would pick me up and take me back to his trailer so as to avoid searching out stealth sites, which can be scarce on an island made up largely of crop-covered farms and private land parcels.
After the double zero, I was champing at the bit, restlessly awaiting to get on trail. On the morning of the first day, I began my hike at the historic lighthouse near the Confederation Bridge. After snapping some photographs at the popular PEI shrub-lettered sign, I was on my way. The ECT shares a common treadway with the Confederation Trail—a converted rail bed—for almost the entire PEI route. The rail-to-trail pathway was developed in the 1990s after the abandonment of the railway system in 1989. The Trans-Canada Trail (“The Great Trail”) also shares the same pathway. According to the IAT/SIA Council, the trail in Prince Edward Island “begins at the Confederation Bridge in Borden, travelling northeast to the center of the island and then turning east to Mt Stewart. Here, the trail heads south to the ferry at Wood Islands.”
Over the course of the “three-day PEI hiking event,” I trekked past one farm after another. Round hay bales graced the verdant pastures. The trail was tree-lined with dogwoods, red maple, trembling aspen, eastern hemlock, and crab apple. The plant life, splashed with colors, was equally magnificent, displaying choke cherry, milkweed, and fireweed. Wildlife, near and far, could be seen and heard. A banditry of chickadees fluttered among high-reaching branches and blue jays sported their brilliant feathers in flight. The gurgling caw of black ravens demanded my attention. Canadian geese flew in peloton formations along the cattail-bordered marshes. A maritime garter snake was spotted sunbathing near the trail’s grassy edge. The distant chorus of frogs could be heard with their characteristic ribbit notes.
Day hikers, tandem bicyclists, and horseback riders peppered the multi-use trail on which I was hiking. Wooden gates, fences, and covered picnic table structures were painted using the standard magenta-and-hunter green colors found throughout the island. A nearby sign displayed along the trail clued visitors into the history of the island and its early inhabitants; from the info sign, I learned about the Glenaladale settlers from Scotland who immigrated to the island in boats. A local PEI woman filled me in on the French history of the area. The Acadian community on the island is evident, at least in pockets. There is an Acadian-based poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; the poem is entitled Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie and tells of an Acadian girl named Evangeline and her search for Gabriel, her lost love. The poem is set during the time of the Acadian expulsion and is well known in French-Canadian circles.
Weenie roasts at a trailside campground led my nose to an evening campfire where children with knife-carved sticks pierced frankfurters and stabbed marshmallows for open-flame roasting. Hillsborough River, a tidal estuary that flows near Mount Stewart, made for a relaxing spot to rest and capture the scenes of nesting eagles. A section of decommissioned trail led to a diversion across the Pisquid River; however, the trail, by and large went according to plan. The first night I stayed with Pitstop at a goat farm, whereupon I got to taste goat cheese for the first time. The second night, we stayed at a potato farm where I was befriended by a playful golden retriever named Gigi and was educated on fingerling potatoes. Then, on the third and final night on trail, Pitstop and I reserved a spot at Northumberland Provincial Park near Wood Islands, the ending location of the island’s trail segment. The brilliant orange glow from a campfire we lit that last night brought a memorable close to a remarkable hike through the little agrarian province.
While the trail can be physically excruciating, I find that the hardest struggle happens within. It’s a war with the self. The mirrored reflection of personal fears and failures can drive a person mad. When one compares his or her dreams to what has actually come to be, much disillusionment can result. At times, one may feel melancholic about the prospects of the future. Kicking pop cans and hurling trekking poles in near-destructive frustration, I have been guilty of wallowing in self-commiseration. L. M. Montgomery explores this natural tendency. “My life,” the character Anne Shirley exclaimed, “is a perfect graveyard of buried hopes.” While it is easy to echo this sentiment, it is crucial to hold high the positives—to overcome that which hinders us most and to begin each day afresh. “Isn’t it nice,” Anne reminds, “to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet.” Dogged determination and the will to persevere to the end are indispensable, but so is a healthy dose of optimism. Happiness, in the final appraisal, is a decision, not a circumstance. “It’s been my experience,” Anne exhorts,” that you can nearly always enjoy things if you make up your mind firmly that you will.” The trail has taught me much about myself and the theater of life. It’s not all sunshine and butterflies; sometimes it can be drab and difficult. One must learn to see beauty in, and have a cherished appreciation for, the small things. There is poetry all around us.
“‘After all,’ Anne had said to Marilla once, ‘I believe the nicest and sweetest days are not those on which anything very splendid or wonderful or exciting happens but just those that bring simple little pleasures, following one another softly, like pearls slipping off a string.'”—L. M. Montgomery
Anne of Avonlea