My geography of the world is great in the places I have cycled, in other areas it is quite appalling. While I was working in Australia earlier this year I spent a good while staring at the map of North America wondering where I should ride when I got back on the bike. I was curious how far east I could get on the continent and discovered Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. I had heard of both places but had no idea where they sat on the Canadian map. I had no idea that so many people lived up here, or that I’d be able to get an affordable flight from this far north.
So, I hatched a plan to make Canada a late addition to my world tour. By the time I got around to the booking, flights were not quite so affordable so I removed Newfoundland from the idea and bought a ticket from Halifax.
I scrapped the idea of cycling up Maine into New Brunswick and caught the boat across from Portland. Getting the expensive boat to Yarmouth was still an overall cheaper journey back to Europe than taking the plane at a later date. So I boarded the CAT ferry and bid farewell to the US. The sun set in a glorious display over America and whales swam not far from the boat.
It took 6.5 hours to make the crossing and by the time I got off the boat it was midnight. Unlike the harassment I received upon my arrival into the US, the Canadian border officials stamped me in without fuss (or visa) and I cycled into the night.
It’s a long time since I’ve found myself riding in the darkness in search of a campsite. Nova Scotia was misty and my headtorch lit up the haze in front of me. I pedalled a rough trail through marshland and forest in search of a spot to sleep. It was a dreamlike ride in the cool night. Luckily there was a full moon and I could set up on a boggy patch without needing extra night.
In the morning I could get my bearings. Everything was soaked in the dawn dew and the wet leaves twinkled in the first light. Now I could see the leaves had turned every shade of autumn red, orange and yellow. It was beautiful. New England had looked positively bland in comparison.
I stuck to the forest trails the first day. Nova Scotia was incredibly rural and I didn’t see much human life. That was fine by me as I was quite happy admiring the deciduous woods in peaceful solitude.
The forest trails were a real chore at times. Patches were OK for riding but some stretches were incredibly rough. It was tedious cycling and if I had to focus all my attention on rocky paths then I’d miss all the autumn foliage.
I picked a minor road that followed the highway through the forest. It was a disastrous route. The track was nothing more than a pile of rocks. I have’t seen a ‘road’ in such a state since I was in East Timor.
The next day I stuck to asphalt when I could rejoin the main road and make the most of the tailwind. If I was to reach Halifax in time for my flight I couldn’t ride such crumbly forest trails as I still had plenty of mileage to cover. It was nice to see a little more of human life in Nova Scotia. The villages were cute and houses were nestled in between the trees around cute fishing bays or inland lakes. Nobody was farming anywhere and it was easy to wild camp.
If you read my recent blogs in the US you may recall me being confused by the attention to which the Americans gave their immaculate lawns. I was pleased to discover here in Nova Scotia that the people have healthy, normal-looking lawns that fade into the driveway and aren’t manicured to perfection.
I learnt very few things about the Canadians out here but I did discover that they are obsessed with quad bikes. Those first 3 days on the forest trails I saw no other cyclists but dozens of ATVs. Many of the houses had quad bikes parked outside in the garden. Us boring Brits go out for a Sunday stroll but the Canadians hop on their bikes and blast through forests at break neck speed. Most of the conversations I had the first few days were from people out for a potter on their quad bikes who stopped to say hello on the trails.
When I reached the little town of Shelburne I was very surprised to find the place plastered in British flags. Embarrassingly, it was only when I opened a tourist leaflet that I learned it wasn’t the Union Jack at all. The diagonal red is missing and this was the flag of the British loyalists who moved up here during the American Revolution.
A little further west I’d passed Birchtown where 3,500 black loyalists and free slaves had settled at the same time. The British had rewarded them with land but – in a story that is recurring for the black community in North America – they were still discriminated against and treated unfairly. After a decade trying to work the crap land a third of them gave up and took ships across to Sierra Leone where they founded Freetown.
In a way Nova Scotia reminded me of New Zealand. I can’t quite put my finger on why. Perhaps it was the villages that felt somehow back-in-time. I liked the little general stores (where are the supermarkets!?) that sold a few useless packaged goods alongside cakes and coffee, owned by someone who didn’t even need to get out of pajamas to go to work.
My favourite thing in Canada was switching back into metric. Back in the UK I was used to using miles but after two years of thinking in kilometers I found it very hard to switch into imperial. Perhaps you were also tired of me stubbornly trying to do everything in imperial throughout my US blogs. Well, good news for you – I’m back in metric! I switched my speedometer’s settings over just in time to watch the odometer hit 45,000km.
In Bridgewater I stayed with a Mormon couple via Warmshowers. The nights were still mild and I camped on their balcony as a crazy storm threatened to blow my tent off the porch. I had a great chat with them about their faith – the LDS church fascinates me. One thing I learnt that evening was the difference between normal marriage and getting ‘sealed’. The normal one is just ‘til death do us part’ but if you get sealed in a temple than you are bound together for eternity. You can get a divorce but you can’t break a seal. So say, hypothetically, that you get sealed with someone you love, only to to discover that they are a vile person a few years later. You can get a divorce and never see them again but when you kick the bucket you’ll be bound together in the afterlife forever. How awful would that be! If I join the LDS church (which I suspect is rather unlikely) I shall have to choose very carefully who I seal myself to in life…
Throughout this conversation I was distracted because I was desperately trying to pin point the differences between the Canadian and American accent. I wrote in the US of my annoyance when people thought I was Australian but I myself had no idea what the difference was between the accents of these North American countries. I’d offended many a Canadian in the past by asking “where in the US are you from?”. A defining feature of being Canadian seems simply to be ‘not-American’ so asking them if they are from across the border is a great way to piss them off.
To me, the accents of the people here in Nova Scotia sounded just like those in America until they reached the ou sound in words like ‘about’. Then suddenly it all goes a little bit mental and out slips a vowel like the oo an owl makes as it hoots. It’s very odd.
The regional accent here is stronger out with the ‘country folk’ but I think that is the case in most countries. I don’t think I’ve noticed those sounds from Canadian friends who are from out west so perhaps it is quite different over there. I did chat to one bloke from Labrador who I met one afternoon. His accent was unlike anything I have ever heard. It sounded almost Irish to me and I was quite thrown.
Despite the fact that I knew nothing about the place, Nova Scotia is clearly a tourist destination. I cycled over to Lunenburg to visit the Unesco Heritage Sight. The buildings in the old town are brightly covered and clustered around a pretty port. The weather had turned, however, and it was a drizzly day in low clouds.
I had put my faith back in the forest trails and was enjoying the return of the sunshine when I suddenly reached an old railway bridge. It was clear that the path ended here, despite no sign on the rail-to-trail info board and a convicted through route by Google Maps. I cautiously carried my bike across the rotten planks of wood before clambering down to the beach, dragging my bike through the sand and back to the tarmac.
That was the last obstacle and after that I found the trails in great condition for the final 100km into Halifax. I had cycled most of Nova Scotia on tracks through the forest past secluded lakes in often quite remote areas. It has been some wonderful cycling to wrap up my time on the continent.
Heading north through New England in the US you get the feeling that you are leaving civilisation further and further behind. I got that impression when I cycled up into Maine and when I drove up there with my family in August. We ended up not too far from the border when we went to Baxter State Park. Then, suddenly, you get into Canada and there are big cities again: Quebec, Montreal and over here – Halifax with 400,000 inhabitants. Portland, the last big town in Maine and from where I took the boat over from has a population of just 50,000.
I only spent half a day in Halifax. It seemed like a pleasant place but I wasn’t there long enough to cast a proper opinion. It certainly had a small-town feel to me. It was, like most of my stops before flying, a stressful rush to pack everything together, buy the last bits and bobs I needed and find a way to get to the airport.
I did get time to go for a quick dip in a local lake with Julien, who I stayed with in town. There had been a couple of dodgy days but mostly weather had been glorious. If this isn’t an ‘Indian summer’ I don’t know what is. Locals kept telling me this was unusual heat for October and I’m glad to hear that. Winters are brutal here (think -30C) but it’s hard to imagine that kind of cold. It’s barely been below 10C at night for me. (Ah, isn’t it lovely to be back in metric!). Still, it was a bit nippy for swimming. I lasted about 5 seconds in the water. I think that will be my last dip on this trip…
Julien was a French Canadian from Quebec. I have Canadian friends who’s first language is French but it still came as a surprise to me to find everything bilingual, including stuff like food packaging. The regions I cycled in Nova Scotia are all English. I didn’t hear any French at all. It was the French who came here first, however, back in the early 17th Century. It was certainly not empty when they arrived – the Mi’kmaq First Nation people lived throughout the region already.
The Brits gained power of the land and kicked all the French ‘Acadians’ out in the mid 18th Century because they wouldn’t pledge allegiance to the British Crown. Lots of those French ended up down in Louisiana but some eventually returned and settled on the other side of Nova Scotia to where I pedalled. Had I cycled up the French Shore from Yarmouth I’d have experienced much more – you guessed it – French influence and language.
When was I last in a country for just a week? Not since I was in Europe at the start of my trip. It feels unfair to be leaving Canada so soon. I’ve just gotten a taste of the country and there’s so much more to explore. I’ve barely scratched the surface of Nova Scotia, let alone the country.
I must say that Nova Scotia has been a real gem. I wasn’t expecting much other than thick forest but the scenery here has blown me away. North America has saved some of its very best until last for me and for once I’ve got my seasons spot on. The foliage in those woods was simply gorgeous. I felt very at home in there. I won’t miss the bears or mosquitoes but I will miss the trees.
There won’t be many of those where I’m heading next…