Six thousand miles along the Saint Lawrence Seaway through Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, to Maine’s Acadia National Park.
“I have travelled around the globe. I have seen the Canadian and American Rockies, the Andes, the Alps and the Highlands of Scotland, but for simple beauty Cape Breton outrivals them all.”
Alexander Graham Bell
Last fall, the Camp Westfalia crew embarked on a 4-week, 6000-mile roundtrip tour from Wisconsin to the extreme northeastern points of Cape Breton Island, returning home through Maine. Highlights of this trip included Montreal, the Bay of Fundy, Acadia National Park and, and more.
We had long wanted to drive this historic route, the St. Lawrence Seaway being the ancient ‘water highway’ of natives, voyageurs, and modern vessels since the end of the last ice age. And having previously circumnavigated the upper Great Lakes of Superior and Michigan, we were eager to see the others.
Hop in and ride along …!
Day 1: Escanaba, Michigan
We drive hard from Wisconsin into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, wedged between Lakes Superior and Michigan. We cannot ask for fairer weather today, the warm autumn sun tempered by the cool lake breezes wafting in through the Vanagon’s wing windows.
A few miles past Manistique, we crest a rise in the highway to see a nicely restored classic 1960’s sedan pulled over on the side of the road, hood up and smoke rolling from the open engine compartment. I stop hard on the shoulder a safe distance back, grab the Westfalia fire extinguisher, and rush ahead to find the owner in a Hawaiian shirt peering into the open engine compartment.
“I think I’ve got it …” he announces, having just emptied his economy-sized extinguisher. But a moment later sparks erupt and the carburetor is again engulfed in flames. I quickly hand him my extinguisher and he puts it out for good.
Near St. Ignace, Mich., we pause at a roadside rest area for a view of the Mackinac Bridge. Spanning the five-mile straits between Lakes Michigan and Huron, it’s the longest suspension bridge in the Western Hemisphere.
We don’t take the bridge today, but instead turn north, finally crossing into Ontario and taking a campsite in Sault Ste. Marie.
Day 2: Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario
After breakfast in a Tim Horton’s (delectable donuts, characterless coffee), we jump on the Trans-Canada Highway and swing east, the Vanagon’s 1.9-liter diesel thrumming steadily as we motor along the north shore of Lake Huron.
Several years ago on our circumnavigation of Lake Superior , we paused in modern-day Thunder Bay to visit Fort William. Along with nearby Grand Portage, this collection point formed the western nexus of the great North American fur trade. Beaver pelts collected in the western forests were brought down to the lake, loaded into immense canoes paddled by twelve hardy men, and transported 1400 miles down the entire length of the Great Lakes to Montreal.
I think of these rugged, determined voyageurs today as we head eastward in the Vanagon, cruising along at a mile a minute, sipping coffee …
Shortly past Sudbury we join the Ottawa River and follow it all afternoon, finally camping on its south bank at Fitzroy Provincial Park.
Day 3: Ottawa, Ontario
Cruising past Ottawa, we soon enter the New France separatist stronghold of Quebec, where I learn, among other things, that while kilometers are considerably smaller than miles, it doesn’t take a lot of them to get one in trouble with the local gendarmerie.
Near Montreal we take a campsite at the La Prairie KOA. After checking in at the office we putter along at a stately pace to our assigned site. But no sooner have we parked than an attendant comes racing up in a golf cart and stops beside the driver’s door.
“You must slow down in the Kampground™,” he informs me in a thick French accent. ”Your speed must be eight km/h!”
I glance at the Vanagon’s speedometer, and see that it starts at 18 km/h, or 10 MPH.
“Do you know how fast you were driving?” he asks.
“Umm … nine?”
He is not amused.
In the end, errors are acknowledged, amends are made, and an international incident is averted which may very well have resulted in my permanent expulsion by an angry New-Frenchman in a yellow golf Kart™.
Day 4: Montreal, Quebec
We break camp and head north for a day in the city, somewhat naively assuming this will be a leisurely jaunt.
But we soon realize that the greater metropolitan area of Montreal has recently suffered an ongoing barrage of intercontinental ballistic missiles bearing thermonuclear warheads, resulting in the near-total destruction of all major roads, highways, bridges, and many city streets.
We carefully traverse an endless narrow ribbon of broken pavement, outlined by a veritable sea of orange signs and barrels, and surrounded on all sides by dense morning rush-hour traffic, immense construction (or destruction?) equipment. Plumes of dust and smoke rise from towering pyramids of concrete rubble.
After about two hours of this post-apocalyptic mayhem, we finally find a quiet cafe in Vieux (Old) Montreal for some of the best croissants and coffee we’ve ever tasted.
Built on an island at the confluence of the Saint Lawrence and Ottawa rivers, Montreal was first settled by First Nation peoples over 4000 years ago, then by French explorers and traders in the 1600’s. The second-largest French-speaking city in the world (after Paris) Montreal remains a major commercial and cultural hub in Canada.
After breakfast we walk the streets of Old Montreal to the Notre-Dame Basilica, its twin Gothic Revival bell towers rising two hundred feet toward the blue heavens. Built between 1824 and 1843, the Roman Catholic church remained the largest in North America for over fifty years.
We stroll in off the Place d’Armes, the second oldest public square in Montreal. Built in 1693, the square has served as a major gathering place for public and military events, hay and wood markets, and even as a Victorian garden.
Inside, the Basilica’s dramatic and grand interior is rich and colorful, every surface gilded with gold, silver, reds, blues, and purples. Our eyes follow the soaring walls upward to the dark blue ceiling, spotted with celestial stars, and daylight streams in through immense stained glass windows. Even non-believers are offered a glimpse of a world beyond this one …
In the multi-level parking structure on the King Edward Quay overlooking the roaring Saint Lawrence River, we jump back in the Vanagon and head for our final Montreal stop: the site of the old fur trading post at Lachine.
Lorie punches the address into the GPS and we make our way through the dense metropolitan traffic on rough cobbled streets, our route taking us further and further away from the river and up steep inclines. Finally, the GPS helpfully informs us that we have reached our destination, but it is a three-story brownstone walk-up, at least ten city blocks from the river.
I’m an avid paddler of canoes and kayaks myself, and something tells me this isn’t right. Even the most enthusiastic of voyageurs wouldn’t be so foolish as to haul his 35-foot canoe this far from the water. Uphill. Full of four tons of beaver pelts.
We check the map and find a similar address in a more likely location, and are soon at the western end of the Canal de Lachine. We park the van and walk across the footbridge to the small island where the stone warehouse and office overlooks the canal. It was here that the furs from the North American interior were transferred from canoe to sailing ships for delivery to Europe, and it marked the final destination for our hardy voyageurs.
For avid Great Lakes-region paddlers and history buffs, this is sacred ground. As I stroll the shady lawn, I imagine dozens of immense canoes hauled up here, hundreds of bone-tired men sprawled on the grass. Exhausted from their thousand-mile journey and elated to have arrived before the worst of the winter storms, they turned in their furs and collected their pay. Tonight, they would eat well, would drink even better, and would sleep the sleep of the weary.
Reluctantly, we dive back into heavy highway traffic, which has not improved with the addition of sweltering afternoon heat. A few days from now, a Quebecois Westy owner we meet at a Cape Breton beach will tell me that Montreal is the great provincial laughingstock for its intolerable traffic situation and perpetual road construction, and for seemingly cornering the world market on orange barrels. Some have suggested the city’s visitors bureau adopt a new slogan: “Montreal—We’re busy, come back next year!”
We continue eastward to Montmagny, where we stop only for fuel but where we also make some new friends.
A new Mini Cooper pulls in and stops at the adjacent fuel pump, and François and his little family pile out to excitedly admire our Westfalia. François tells us that he’s currently on his third Westy, a Syncro. His partner and Lorie exchange travel stories while François and I chat about the inevitable mechanical misadventures, and we all share the instant camaraderie that seems to come with Vanagon ownership.
François’ delightful young daughter, perhaps five or six, is of course a native French-speaker like her parents, but she sings for us a charming little English song she is learning in school. In appreciation, Lorie plucks one of the many small magnetic flower stickers from the flanks of our Vanagon and presents it to the girl; she promptly applies the single pink flower to her father’s gunmetal silver Mini Cooper.
François recommends an intriguing side-trip for us, and even calls ahead to request that the French-speaking ferry operators hold a place for us on the last boat. We reluctantly bid our new friends au revoir, and hurry up the highway to the wharf, and are soon gliding across the dark waters to the mysterious L’Isle-Verte, the Green Island.
There is little to see in the darkness when we roll off the ferry and onto the pier. Motoring up and down the single main gravel road running the length of the island at night, it seems François’ assurances of ample overnight parking/camping sites here were perhaps somewhat optimistic.
Finally, one of the side roads peters out in a small gravel parking area and we stop, pull the curtains, and settle in for a night of quiet stealth-camping …
Day 5: L’Isle-Verte, Quebec
We wake early in the morning to see that we are just a few short steps from the St. Lawrence Seaway, so we stroll down to the water’s edge to investigate the small tide pools there. Out on the water, over ten miles wide here, we see oceangoing freighters steaming in from the Atlantic Ocean and heading upriver perhaps even as far as Duluth, Minn., over 2000 miles away at the far western end of Lake Superior.
We drive to the only place which can be considered a café on this isolated island, and go inside for coffee.
“Hello,” I say, and the proprietor greets us warmly, though upon hearing my English the two Quebecois women at the next table look away coldly. We enjoy a pair of freshly steamed caffè latte while poring over our maps.
When Lorie steps away to visit the jewelry workshop in the next room, the owner points to our maps and in halting English inquires of our origins.
“Wisconsin,” I reply.
“Ah, oui. I drove trucks to Wisconsin,” he says, “Milwaukee, Madison, Wausau …”
“Yes, we came up through Sault Ste. Marie, Ottawa, Montreal, to here,” I trace the route on the map with my finger.
“You have a very fine machine,” he declares earnestly.
Lorie returns with a lovely handmade necklace and matching earrings, thereby chalking up perhaps 1% of this tiny island’s annual GDP, and we spend the day exploring the few roads, beaches, and a beautiful old lighthouse. We catch the first evening ferry back to the mainland, and continue northeasterly as a misty rain turns to a torrential downpour, finally taking a campsite at Parc national du Bic.
Day 6: Rimouski, Quebec
We part ways with the Seaway at Mont-Joli and turn inland to climb through hilly highlands toward Campbelltown. A Canada lynx, tall as an American Boxer and over a meter long from its bob tail to the tips of its tufted ears, emerges from the dense forest and dashes across the highway just ahead of us.
The skies clear as we motor south along the Northumberland Strait and take a campsite at Amherst Shores Provincial Park, where the attendant at the office is perhaps the most helpful and congenial of any we’ve met. We settle in for the evening and find this place to be one of the nicest and quietest public campgrounds on this trip so far.
We are impressed by how the Nova Scotia Parks department bundles their firewood for sale: nice large helpings, with an assortment of sizes from kindling up to larger pieces of dry wood that snaps and crackles satisfyingly. And they include a wad of old newspapers to get you started. Heck, even the firepits have been cleaned and tidied for your campfire enjoyment.
Day 7: Northport, Nova Scotia
After a quick breakfast in camp we motor east along Nova Scotia Hwy 6, the Sunrise Trail, with periodic side trips to tiny shoreside parks. Even from the highway we catch glimpses of harbour seals lounging on rocks near the shore, and they turn their heads to watch as we pass by.
We continue through New Glasgow, then cross the kilometer-long causeway over the Strait of Canso to Cape Breton Island. Knowing this may be the last city of any size we’ll visit for awhile, we stop in Port Hawkesbury to replenish some groceries, pick up a few forgotten items, and replace the fire extinguisher I spent on the collector car in Michigan.
At St. Peter’s we choose a nice hillside campsite at Battery Provincial Park. A tidy white lighthouse, built in the distinctive wooden pepper-shaker style, stands over the entrance of the St. Peter’s Canal and lock system, allowing large boats to sail a half mile from the Atlantic Ocean to Bras d’ Or Lake, in the heart of Cape Breton Island.
After long hot showers, we enjoy a stroll around the grounds as the afternoon sun descends over St. Peter’s Bay.