The low-slung mountains crowd upon one another, piled against the horizon like the rumpled blankets of an unmade bed. The darker green of the nearest mountain is transformed into various shades of turquoise as the mounded outlines fade into the distance.
No matter the degree of your turn, the mountains stretch as far as can be seen — mile upon mile of unbroken wildness and millions of emerald pines and aspens with their quivering leaves, mirrors catching the light as they twist and turn.
Occasionally, the mountains part to reveal a gray-blue expanse of water, today tipped with boiling white as the wind whips the waves. Scattered throughout the hidden harbors and bays are pine-covered islands, the crystalline waves shattering on the black rocks of their shorelines.
Here, the watery horizon is blanketed with a layer of fog, broken only by the humpbacks of more islands.
It’s almost always precisely at this geographical spot in my summertime travels north that I begin to feel the transformation. The stress that weighs down my shoulders begins to melt and the tension that lies chalky in my mouth is exhaled.
While my official “vacation” began three days ago, it isn’t until today that my mind is able to comprehend its start. Behind me now are 1,500 miles of driving from Florida to Maine, a time spent listening to books on tape and growing irritated with the clogged highways stretching from Washington, D.C. to Boston.
But now, as I cross into New Brunswick across the Maine border, I’m ready to celebrate.
It isn’t that it’s a different country but that I’ve finally left behind the vestiges of my everyday Jacksonville life. The work. The city. The traffic.
Here’s it’s pure wildness, one of the least developed of Canada’s provinces and the one I’ve made my summer escape for the past decade, ever since I purchased a two-story cottage in a small fishing village called Alma – but more about that later.
Indeed, my holiday-initiating celebration begins this year on a ferry as I set sail for Grand Manan Island, a 53-square-mile island located just north of the of Gulf of Maine within the mouth of the Bay of Fundy. Like much of Canada north of the border, it remains authentic, a small island of fishing villages an hour and a half ferry ride from the mainland.
Aboard the ferry, I drift into daydream, watching the gulls dip and dive beside the ship. Further, lobster boats ply the waters, hauling up the traps attached to brightly colored floats on the water’s surface.
A short daydream later I’m onshore and headed for the Hole-In-The-Wall campground where I’ve reserved a cliffside campsite, overlooking the white-washed lighthouse at one end of the island. It’s a perfect site and I arrange my tent to maximize my view over the ocean far below.
The next morning I learn more about the island seated at one of its three restaurants while in conversation with my gregarious waitress Rachel Jones. She grew up on the island before life drew her away for a decade. Then the close-knit community and the sea drew her back.
It’s a harder existence on the island these days, Rachel admits, then it was when she was a girl. Then, the smoke sheds on the island worked overtime to cure the fish the sea yielded in abundance. She remembers with fondness the smokey air that swam with so many fish she could almost taste them on her tongue.
Now, the smoke sheds are all gone as are most of the fish, both the victims of huge international trawlers that rake the ocean beds and deplete the fishing stock. The women on the island, who used to be employed in the local canning industry, are now often unemployed. Many families have been forced to leave the island.
The main industry today is lobster. The only remnants of the once-vibrant fishing industry are numerous heart-shaped fish weirs set up near shore to entrap herring.
It’s the same story that will follow my path up the coast of New Brunswick and into Nova Scotia then finally to the east coast of Newfoundland. It’s the story of disappearing cod that once swam so thickly their silvery bodies were like mats of fish that extended for miles.
Interestingly, it’s also the story of my great-grandfather, Capt. Elbridge Woodbury, who fished the Grand Banks in his ship, the Charles A. Dyer, in search of cod in the early part of last century.
Perhaps – in addition to the beauty of the untouched wilderness of this region of North America – some invisible genetic connection, passed down through generations of fisher folk, also connects me to this place. I know that when the cold offshore breezes bring salt-tinged whiffs of scent to my nose, something stirs within me.
It’s certainly a powerful voice, like the one that called out to Rachel, which draws me back each year to this northern coast set on the edge of a once-fish-filled sea.