Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A less traveled road

Port aux Basques, NL – The low hooting of a foghorn woke me around four this morn-ing, fore-telling a misty morn-ing and cool temperatures. At least the wind and rain had stopped when we got up and got rolling.

After a short consultation at the information centre back at Port aux Basques, we drove through the town for a quick peek. Ringed by rocks and pounding surf, the town appeared to be prosperous enough, with well-kept modest bungalows along streets that meandered around the rocky terrain. We saw another huge ferry at the dock, but drove on past as we headed further south, out of town.
The map shows a little tail of highway to the right of the ferry landing point, while most traffic coming ashore heads left, or north. Effie, at the information centre, told us about a stone lighthouse and a couple of places where we could get some real Newfoundland food down that way.

Stunted pine trees and boggy vegetation covered the rolling hills, reminding us of the tundra in the Yukon. There were lots of rocky outcroppings and still, dark ponds of water, like mirrors, reflecting the twisted pines along their edges.
We covered about 40 km before reaching Rose Blanche (rhymes with ranch). Its stone lighthouse served the fishing community for many years before it fell apart, leaving only its tower intact. In 1997 the townspeople decided to gather and clean the scattered stones, and reassemble them. Their labour of love has drawn many people since then, although we had the place to ourselves today.

On the path to the lighthouse we encountered a clutch of baby piping plovers and their anxious mother. The chicks were mere puffballs on long, spindly legs, and they pelted along the path ahead of us, unable yet to use their wings. Piping plovers are an endangered species here so we were lucky to see them.
We learned that the town’s name actually referred to some white rocks (“roches blanches”) at Diamond Cove that were visible from the height of land, but locals changed the name to Rose from roches. I’m thinking we will encounter many such unique pronunciations in our travels here.

Retracing our steps, we turned off at Isle aux Morts (“eye-la-morts”) for a meal at Hairyman’s Safe Haven, a community centre offering Newfoundland fare. Long tables inside awaited the summer crowds that have yet to appear, but we enjoyed great slabs of fresh cod, lightly floured and panfried, as we sat at a window overlooking the rocks and bush.
Hairyman refers to the Newfoundland dog that swam out into the raging waves in 1828 with a rope so that 163 hapless passengers of a wrecked ship could pull their way, hand over hand, to safety.

When we got back to the camp-ground, we drove past our site to have a look at the spectacular sandy beach that we had read about in the literature. Again, we had it to ourselves, except for a bald eagle down the way that was perched on a rock, tearing away at his catch as the roaring surf rolled in. Such beauty!

Monday, June 29, 2015

In the belly of the beast

Port aux Basques, NL – We made it to New-foundland! And we were greet-ed with rain falling sideways and warn-ings of gusts up to 100 km per hour after a rough crossing. You gotta be tough to come out to The Rock!

There were already long lineups of cars and transport trucks at the mustering point for the ferry in North Sydney when we got there around 9:30. We were guided to Lane 21 on the large flat apron near the loading dock, where we sat for nearly two hours to get on board. It was raining the whole time, so we were quite content to stay in the vehicle, although some people went into the building for coffee or to stretch their legs.
Finally the PA system announced that it was time to get on board. Attendants dressed in high-visibility slickers guided the long line of huge transport trucks, holiday trailers with trucks, motorhomes and cars onto two different access levels. We marveled that this extremely heavy cargo of vehicles could all get into a vessel that would actually float and not go straight to the bottom.

Inside, more attendants showed drivers where to park their vehicles. We were packed in like sardines, with clearance between the rows that was less than a shoulder-width apart! We had to fold our mirrors in so we wouldn’t graze the sides of our neighbours’ vehicles.
Once our rig was settled in place, we left the loading bay and headed up to the passenger level. There, we found amenities of all kinds: a restaurant, snack bar, gift shop and various lounges with comfortable chairs and large TV screens. There was an internet station with several computers, plus washrooms and a play area for children.

We decided to have a mid-day dinner in the restaurant and save the sandwiches I’d prepared for the end of our trip. It was a tasty meal, and we had a window seat so we could look out at the waves. And waves there were; our server said it might be a bit rough crossing and advised that we sit near the stern for a less unpleasant experience. We also popped a seasick pill with our meal just in case.
The pills worked wonders. We were both konked out in no time in our comfortable chairs, blissfully unaware of the heaving vessel that carried us away from mainland Canada. The crossing took about five hours. When we regained consciousness and tried to move about, we reeled like drunken sailors, grabbing for railings whenever possible! So most of the time we just zoned out in our chairs. The driving rain pelted against the windows and all one could see through the wet glass were white-capped swells and grey sky, so we didn’t miss a whole lot.

Finally, we returned to our vehicles as we arrived at Port aux Basques, and filed onto shore. The John T. Cheeseman Provincial Park campground where we are staying was just 10 km from the town, and we arrived before a great horde of other campers, so we didn’t have long to wait to get registered and settled in our reserved site. With only electricity to hook up, we were inside in the dry in no time.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

A lake with a golden arm

North Sydney, NS – Actually, our campground has that label but it’s to the south in a place called New Harris. We’re about 15 minutes away from the town of North Sydney. Must be accurate!

It was a chilly wakeup this morning: a mere nine degrees outside, and not many more inside. Thank goodness for our down-filled duvet, which makes it unnecessary to run the furnace while we sleep. It was good to see the sunshine today, and to feel the warmth from my coffee mug.
It was the first morning of the trip that we didn’t have to pack up and get going, so we savoured it! By 11 o’clock we were ready to do a bit of exploring, so we headed south to have a look at Baddeck (pronounced buh-DECK).

This small town is on the shore of Bras d’Or Lake, uniquely described as “a sea, within an island, within an ocean” by UNESCO which declared it a special reserve in 2011. With a mixture of fresh and salt water, the lake supports a wide variety of creatures in it and around it, including the many tourists who come to the beautiful resort hotels and sail on its sparkling waters.
Probably its most famous resident was Alexander Graham Bell, who built a home here. After the success of his invention, the telephone, he had enough revenue to allow his research into flying machines. It was on the frozen surface of Bras d’Or Lake that he and his team of inventors set the Silver Dart into flight in 1909 – the first controlled powered flight in Canada.

We had a look at the Parks Canada museum about Bell and his inventions. It was interesting to learn that in his teens he was not doing very well academically, but after spending time with his grandfather, a man of learning and curiosity, he was properly launched and went on to great achievements. His first focus was on speech, elocution and teaching the deaf to speak, but his curiosity led him in many directions.
Our lunch stop was at the Bell Bouy, a nice restaurant overlooking the sailing club and lake, where we enjoyed a delicious seafood chowder and lobster sandwich on oatmeal bread, followed by a shared slice of Nova Scotia blueberry pie. Yum!

We took a short stroll down to see the sailboats and small lighthouse before heading back toward the campground. Aside from picking up a few supplies and getting the car washed, that was the extent of our activities today.
We’re all set for an early start tomorrow. We have to report to the ferry two hours before it sails, so that means we have to get to North Sydney by 9:45. We won’t get to the other side till suppertime!

We’ll be staying at John T. Cheeseman Provincial Park, just near our landing point in Port aux Basques, for two nights. We will not have an internet connection there, so the blog will be silent for a couple of days. We’ll catch up as soon as we can get online again.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The cook and the laundress

North Sydney, NS – A sense of ease had settled on us this pleasant evening, as we sit over-looking St Andrews Channel, a finger of water that reaches north from Bras D’Or Lake on Cape Breton Island. After a week of daily driving and not a few challenges, we are ready for a break.

It was nearly eleven o’clock when we left Antigonish, but we only had two hours’ drive to our next stop so we were in no rush. The TransCanada Highway in this area winds through rolling hills clothed in pines and deciduous trees, and every now and then a vista of rugged coast and deep blue inlets comes into view.
Not long after passing through Tracadie, we came to the causeway and bridge that joins Cape Breton Island to the mainland, spanning the Strait of Canso. The roadbed sits on a raised strip of land with sloped rocky shoulders on either side right down to the water. Only at the end was the water allowed to flow freely under a short lift bridge, where boats could sail through a channel from St Georges Bay on the west to Chedabucto Bay on the east side.

Once we were on the island, the blended flavours of old Scottish settlements and Mi'kmaq tribes were evident in road signs and attractions that we passed. I kept trying to pronounce names like Whycocomagh and Wagmatcook , with no idea if I got them right or not! We stopped for lunch at the Tim Hortons in Baddeck. I savoured my hot soup and bagel; it was kind of brisk day, although Val braved the weather in shorts and a T-shirt.

We climbed Kelly’s Mountain as we got closer to our destination – a 240 meter rise and descent, with a hairpin switchback that brought us down to the KOA entrance. The campground is set at the base of a huge red rock cliff to its rear, and facing the channel where a handsome green bridge provides passage to the other side.
Once we were assigned our site, we detached the car and left it there while we drove on to North Sydney. Jason, at the KOA office, told us where we could find propane for the RV, and it just happened to be next to the Newfoundland ferry launch.  This suited us well, as we wanted to check out the site before sailing on Monday anyway. Two bits of business in one trip!

Next on the agenda was to deal with the meat we’d bought at Hardings Point. We froze most of it, but when we had to empty the fridge in Halifax, the packages thawed in the cooler bag, so we couldn’t refreeze it. So, Val set up the grill and cooked all of it – chicken, pork chops and steak – so it wouldn’t go bad. It’s now safely cooled in the fridge for the next few nights. Better than having to pitch it all!
Meanwhile, yours truly was at the KOA laundry. One machine did the load just fine, but the other hadn’t even finished filling half an hour later. Plus, all the coin-op dryers had broken and the new shipment hadn’t come in yet, so Jason set up one lone domestic dryer for everyone. Luckily there weren’t too many others in the lineup, but on a busy day it must be fun trying to get four machines’ worth of wash into one dryer without ruffling anyone’s feathers. At least it was free of charge!

Friday, June 26, 2015

All systems go!

Antigonish, NS – Our RV problem has been solved and we are on our way again. To say we are relieved is an under-statement, as fewer than 24 hours ago we were envisioning our Newfoundland trek going up in smoke along with our bank account.

Shortly after breakfast at the hotel, we got the call from O’Regan’s  Mercedes-Benz dealership in Halifax to say the RV was ready. We packed up and headed over the bridge into town to be reunited with our home on wheels. Brittany told us the problem was just a dirty fuel filter.
While we had the opportunity, we asked for a new headlight bulb and a little clip for the windshield washer hose that had broken. Shawn, back in the shop, kindly collected those items from the parts department and installed them while we chatted with Brittany and service manager Bruce. A friendlier crew you would not find anywhere, and we pulled away with light hearts once again.

In no time we were back on the highway to Truro, where we would rejoin the TransCanada Highway toward Cape Breton and our rendez-vous with the ferry to Newfoundland. It was great to see the big sky with its puffy clouds, rolling hills all greened up from the spring rains, and glimpses of seaside as we approached Antigonish.
One interesting highway sign we passed (which we’d noticed on the way to Halifax as well) was for the town of Stewiacke, which claims to be at the exact half-way point between the North Pole and the equator. I wonder who figured that one out!

The other sight that took my breath away every time was the splash of pink and purple lupines by the highway, sometimes just a small cluster, and sometimes a whole field of them. They are so magnificent, it’s hard to believe they just grow wild.
I had managed to find an RV park just a couple of hours from Halifax, and about the same distance to North Sydney, so that we could have a couple of gentle days in terms of hours driving. We need to keep our driver’s stamina up for all those miles ahead of us! And we’ve been pretty focused just on getting to the ferry on time. That, and the challenges we’ve encountered over this first week out, have consumed quite a bit of energy, so we’re ready to just chill till our ship sails on Monday.

So, when we got settled here at the Oasis Motel and Campground just outside of Antigonish, it was so pleasant just to vegetate for a spell! After a bite of supper, we drove the car in to have a look at the town. The evening sun was filtering through the trees and on the quaint shop fronts along the main street, and in the local park there was an art show where lots of people were browsing. A bit further along we came to the campus of St Francis Xavier University. The red brick buildings are widely spread out with green lawns and mature trees – no wonder so many students enjoy spending their university years here.

Plan B with a vengeance

Halifax, NS – That’s right, Halifax. Not where we thought we would be tonight – and our lodgings, as shown in the photo of the day, are not our little home on wheels.  Right now it’s at a Mercedes dealer in Halifax, in the lineup for repair work, and we are at the Hampton Inn in Dartmouth.

Before any alarm bells ring, we are OK and the RV is intact, except for something in the engine. The ominous yellow warning light showed up as we motored along somewhere near the border between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Not long after that, we experienced our first loss of engine power, while other vehicles sped past us.
A quick check to our Sprinter owner’s manual gave us a dealer’s address in Halifax. So we pulled in to the Nova Scotia information centre to get some maps of the province and city, and set out again. Not long after, Val pulled over again and said we needed to detach the car from the RV to eliminate any extra strain on the troubled engine. I hopped in to the Honda after we removed it from the hitch, and drove behind Val as we limped on to Halifax.

We alternated between 110 km per hour, the speed limit, and spells when all Val could eke out was 80 kph or even 60 a couple of times, madly manipulating the gears to keep the rig going. Every time I saw a hill looming on the horizon, I prayed he’d be able to get to the top without pooping out!
I stuck like glue to Val’s rear (well, the RV’s anyway) all the way, until we got to the toll booth at the bridge into the city. We were channeled to different kiosks and I ended up ahead of Val, unable to hang back till he caught up because of the heavy flow of traffic and the short turning lengths that the GPS was barking out at me. I carried on, not even glimpsing the RV in the rear view mirror, hoping we’d end up in the same place!

Somehow we did make it to the same dealer, shortly after three o’clock, where a very nice service rep named Brittany listened to our tale of woe. She’s the Sprinter expert, and took efficient notes on her clipboard as she looked at the dash of the RV (Val left it running so she could see what icon we were talking about) and asked us questions.
With some advice on local hotels and a hurried packing session (including taking perishables from the fridge and throwing them into a cooler bag with ice packs), we headed out again to find the hotel. Now we must sit and wait to find out a) what the heck is wrong and b) how much it will cost.
Fortunately, when we got to the hotel, we got a room; they told us it was the last one available! Whew!
Oh, and I called the campground we were supposed to stay at near Truro to cancel our reservation for tonight, and because we didn’t give them 48 hours’ notice, they are charging the full amount. So that $50 we saved the other day by not using a ferry? That’s where that money has gone!

Our next steps are unclear. It depends on what they find. We will keep you posted. Cross your fingers for us!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Lupine land

Hardings Point Landing, NB – We’re back on Canadian soil, eh? With Tim Hortons coffee sloshing in our bellies already! We’ve done some grocery shopping now that we won’t have to think about border crossings for a while, so we’ve stocked up on eggs (no bird flu there) and other fresh foods.

Last night in Canaan there were more lashings of rain and claps of thunder that happily subsided by the time we were looking to fall asleep – although after our long day an earthquake might not have roused us let alone a few low rumbles.

A fresh-washed morning greeted us with clear skies and warm temperatures as we took to the road once again, joining the I-95 north just east of Canaan, and then later on switching to US-9 toward St Stephens, New Brunswick.

As we had seen further west throughout New England, any rivers or streams we passed were swollen with water, some nearly to the edge of the highway. Big puddles were stunting the growth of the early corn in some parts of farmers’ fields. But Mother Nature seems done with the wet stuff for the time being, so we’re not complaining.

We negotiated several exits and exchanges around Bangor, Maine, before joining Highway 1 toward St Stephens. And, just before we ran out of US highway, we spotted a gas station with diesel fuel, so we purchased one last dose of cheap fuel. It cost us about 73 cents a litre in the US, where here we saw it selling for $1.13. Worth a short stop!

The Canadian customs at St Stephens went very smoothly, and soon we were enjoying the well-paved, wide TransCanada Highway with lovely vistas of open sky, rolling pine-covered hills and glimpses of coastal waters on our right.

I tried several times to capture shots of the tall pink and purple lupines growing by the roadside, using the sports setting on my camera. The flowers weren’t racing, but our speedy passage guaranteed a blurred shot at any other setting.  None of my efforts was very satisfactory, but when we stopped for groceries there was a beautiful clump of lupines by the parking lot which are my photo pick of the day!

Our campground tonight is on a small peninsula across from Grand Bay and Westfield, just northwest of Saint John, and to reach it we had to take a five-minute ferry ride. Fortunately we’d checked the website of the campground and were relieved to see photos of huge RVs and fifth wheels driving off the ferry, so we knew our little rig would fit. We pulled up to the queue just as the ferry was loading and were invited aboard in no time, plus the ride was free!

We are on a hilltop site with views of the Saint John River below, but there’s no wifi here, so I’ll have to trot down the hill to the office and make use of its hot spot to post this.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The long and winding road

Canaan, ME – We drove for nine hours today. Didn’t even stop for lunch, but ate the sandwiches I made before leaving as we drove. We knew we had a long day’s drive today, but it ended up being even longer than it might otherwise have been.

The biggest reason for that was because we needed fuel. We couldn’t find diesel fuel on our way to Wilmington yesterday, so we figured we could fill up soon after setting out this morning. We still had about a third of a tank, so it didn’t seem that urgent when we got out to the main road.

So off we went, aiming for the ferry crossing at Essex, which would take us over Lake Champlain and into Vermont. That destination became secondary, however, given the need for diesel fuel. We headed in what we thought was the general direction, looking at every small burg or village for a) a gas station and b) one that carried diesel.

The GPS was no help at all in our quest. Instead, it took us along an endless mountain road that went over hill and dale with curves this way and that until we were completely disoriented, expending dwindling fuel to no good purpose! Finally, we asked at a gas station WHERE could we find diesel, and they directed us to Ticonderoga, well south of Essex. No matter, they promised we’d find diesel there and that was Job #1.

Sure enough, there was the Mobil station with the diesel price posted!  We were within five gallons of running dry, so our sense of relief was considerable! Then we learned that there was actually a ferry at Ticonderoga, so that looked equally attractive. But, the gas station attendant told Val, if we just backtracked a short way, we could cross the lake over a brand new bridge. Even better, we decided, since we hadn’t researched the capacity of the “Ti” ferry to know whether it could take our rig and towed car. (We knew the Essex ferry could.)

So, back up the highway we went, and eventually located the turnoff for the bridge. Feeling like we’d escaped from some unsolvable labyrinth, we crossed over Lake Champlain with no wait, no dicey maneuvering onto a floating vessel and off again, and best yet, NO FEE. So although we’d added a good 30 miles and at least an hour to our journey, we’d saved over $50!

The squiggly line traced across our maps of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, mostly along US Highway 2, demonstrates clearly how alien to Americans is the concept of east-west travel in New England. There are wide swaths of north-south Interstates, but no such speedy route is offered in the direction we were headed. Still, we enjoyed the varied scenery and small towns, with their white-steepled churches, antique shops, and bright posters promising barbeques and fireworks for the upcoming Fourth of July. Our final destination and its promise of supper and rest was a welcome sight.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Eleven eggs and a headlight

Wilmington, NY – We’re settled for the night in a lovely woodsy campground in the Adirondacks, with the sound of the rushing Ausable River filtering through the tall pines.

Our day was planned to be a short one, because we knew there would be first-day-out jobs, such as making up the bed with fresh sheets and opening the new water filters and installing them – not to mention figuring out all the steps to get settled at our site after not doing so for the last 15 months!

I always get the jitters in the first few kilometers of any long trip, thinking something vital was overlooked, like the camera or my favourite shoes. But Val always says “the stores are full of [fill in missing item]” and I realize that we are going to be just fine.

We had great traveling weather; sunshine and puffy clouds decorated the sky and splashes of daisies and Indian paintbrushes whizzed past on the shoulder of the highway. It wasn’t long before we were at the bridge to the US, crossing the St Lawrence River and then on toward the US Customs building.

As we waited in line to pass through, the driver of the car in front of us got out and strolled back to us to report that our left headlight was not working. A thoughtful gesture from a stranger. Val got out to check and sure enough he was right.

When we pulled up to the kiosk, the Customs officer, a woman with short grey hair, asked why Val had gotten out of the vehicle and said, “you’re not supposed to exit your vehicle in this area”. And we are supposed to know that how? We do now, anyway.

Then she asked if we had fresh fruit or vegetables on board and we said no – having checked with recent travelers who told us not to bring such items across the border. Next was chicken – “no.” Did we have eggs? Well, yes actually; what was the problem with that? “Ever heard of bird flu?” was the reply. Then she said “do you want to take them back?” Back? Back where? “Back to Canada!” Well I guess not! What was our choice? “Leave them with me.” So I rummaged through our cooler bag for the box of eggs, from which I had enjoyed a single one with my lunch a day before, and handed over the eleven bird-flu-infested items for immediate disposal. Funny, I felt just fine after consuming the twelfth.

With all that palaver over with, we headed in to the State of New York in the direction of Lake Placid. At first we passed lots of farms, where bright green sprouts of corn and other crops made striped patterns across the fields. Several times we came upon horse-pulled wagons, driven by Amish residents, the men with bushy beards and straw hats, and the women in their long dresses and bonnets.

The terrain became more hilly as we approached the Adirondack Mountains, and our rather winding route took us along Highway 68, 11, 11B, 458, 30 and 86 to our final destination of the day. It was nice to see Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, with its resort town feel and the special buildings left over from the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympic Games.

Friday, June 19, 2015

On the road again!

Ottawa ON – Here’s what our home away from home will look like as we head out on another travel adventure. The picture doesn’t include the small blue Honda FIT that we will be towing behind the motorhome. Bringing the FIT with us means we can be a bit more nimble as we explore our surroundings from a central hub.
Our destination this time is Newfoundland and Labrador! We’re planning a five-week visit with a week at either end to get there and back, so there will be plenty of time to see as much of that large tract of land as we can.
We hope you will follow along! Stay tuned for more travel stories in the days to come.