The Ebbs, Floes & Tides of Luck on Grand Manan: An Atypical Island Vacation

Strong are the nesting tendencies for home after vacations and migrations abroad, and as such are the feelings after visiting small island territories, even those close to home. For to travel by sea is to leave behind the familiar microcosm of one planetary reality, and exchange it for another. Even, as was proven in my last foray to one of the maritime isles off the Fundy coast called Grand Manan. A foggy, fishy, formidable place of forlorn folk, and fantastic fables… Here’s one to snag your hook that was almost too big to reel in, even for a well salted Viking seafarer as myself.

The plan was to saddle up on a hybrid trail and street bike, bedded down with cargo for two keen riders, enough food and tack for three nights and four days, cooking equipment, camping essentials (hammock included), a jump kit and tool pouch in case of engine problems, two way radios, some good eventide literature, personal hygeine bundle, some woolens, and our cameras for some island touring extraordinaire. This would be the first time Mufassa floated the ocean waves, and while Grand Manan is not as epic in size as some of the Atlantic Scandinavian isles that are close to my heart, I was needless to say erupting with excitation for new lands.

This story is about Luck. Luck is a phenomenon and a concept that I have been musing about for over a decade with intensity. I even nearly changed my name to an old Icelandic word for ‘luck’ once upon a time, in an effort to marry my fate with a more ‘lucky’ life. But what it actually means is not one dimensional or inherently positive as it is proferred to be. In the mind of my Norse-Germanic ancestors Luck was more like a physics, or law of the universe, while it had the power to be linked to a single human life, a clan, tribe or even an entire lineage. Luck was not always personalized but dynamically affected even non animate things, such as tools, stones, places, weather patterns, magic procedures, or romances. Luck was and is one of the least understood forces of nature in our modern world, and while it has been a subject of deep study and conscious intention to live in tune with my own luck for my whole adult life, I am often thrown overboard into the vast chaotic waters in order to truly appreciate the wildness of its ways. All this allegorically riddled by ocean metaphors of course. By swimming in the free and often violent waves, untethered to the constants of a routine existence and losing the oars of my own ship, we are brought to the place where luck really dwells. I am humbled then to climb back onto the boat, return to land and tell this tale.

Roped in with the Caribbean princess for the journey, we launched out of Fredericton in a haze of mist which turned to pelting rain en route to Blacks Harbor. A perspicacious Bear in a corn field uprighted himself to stare down the strange beast breaking his peaceful afternoon. We cut inland towards Oromocto Lake road in an effort to save time, and catch the three-thirty ferry off the mainland. A missed turn in Blissville had us prowling down rabbit roads trying to save grace and retrace our original map, but only funneled us further into the bush, eventually landing us on a slick red clay and gravel trail called Rusty road which even the KLR did not appreciate. The legendary cargo we packed had accentuated the subtle imbalances of driving in second gear, then first, until alas we were crawling along with feet out to catch any sudden slides. We opted to backtrack to the main St. John highway which was at least paved and fast, and dismissed the idea of reaching the mid-day ferry, instead stopping halfway for hot chai and a brief escape from the downpour, with our riding suits soaked and our hands pale and numb.

After regrouping spirits and recalibrating our route, we fired up for the second leg of what was supposed to be a ninety minute one way trip, now into our third hour in the saddle. The sheepy woolens came out of the pack already, and we stayed relatively warm, pressed together on the bike until reaching the port and where we were the last ones to embark the ship. I am flooded with sincere gratitude for my darling riding pillion. As the words empty from my mind and into the narrative of now a mere reflection of what was. Her courage and willingness to engage my desire for these wild trips, to accept the rather unorthodox being that I am, and her patience for unexpected and often uncomfortable circumstances is rarely found in a woman, and could take a man sail from many shores to find one so good.

One of the boatman engaged our fancy for motorcycle travel, showing us pictures on his phone from a recent venture with his wife to the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton. He struck a chord of familiar territory, with a fresh dose of nostalgic memories from these Gaelic wonderlands. Yet it somehow felt like an age ago when those memories were laid down, and that brought me a perspective depth of thought in recollecting the saga of our summer. From the bay window of the upper ship we devoured steaming haddock and poutine, while witnessing a pod of porpoises cast their compass northwards in the evening gloom. We massaged each others feet underneath the dinner table and saved hope for being able to hike a few trails this weekend. The cold ride had through the fog and wind had already loaded our joints with stress. At least it did for my cranky bones, and that made me feel like an arthritic old man, but at least I didn’t have a wooden peg leg.

Rumbling off the ferry we cut the island in half on a winding run to Dark Harbor, where Grand Manan’s bulk of Dulse is harvested. We had been informed of a free campsite with views of the wharf, and intended to investigate its verity on two wheels. Anicka commented that the boats along shore reminded her of those from Trinidad and Tobago. Rigged with the same outboard motor and painted in various pastels, salt worn and wave wracked as they were. After a police cruiser left the scene, we coasted along on the sands of low tide around a spit of land to where some herring weirs were set up. Tumbled shacks of grey board spilled back into ocean flotsam, weathered homefronts with their fifth coat of paint added an antiquity to the place, and the corpses of inumerable sea crabs, quahogs, clams and oysters were spilled on the mud flats dropped by fattened gulls. We reached a cabin with its obilgatory buoys on the banisters, paddles on the porch and a plaquard that read Outlaw I, presumably the name of the dwelling. We snooped around for signs of life, thinking maybe we could roost the night in the bunkie, but found not a soul, only the antique faces of so much salt worn wood, and crooning gulls. Opting instead to head back up the hill in the foggy gloom, a half moon sand lot next to dock road offered a carpet of bleach tanned grass for our one man (& one woman) tent. The ground was bumpy, but dry and free of rocks so it was reckoned good enough, but we were without water. After pitching the tent and unpacking the saddlebags, we went on an after hours bumble, backtracking the road to find a stream or small falls that might offer flowing h20 for our parched thirst.

In the dark it was almost impossible to discern what we clean, and what may be tainted from upstream pollution. Some of the water had a film over it, and as we now crested into a new moon phase, no lunar light shon ‘pon the oceans, rivers nor brooks of the land, and we decided not to risk it. So we returned to our nylon seaside shanty and called on the night spirits to grant us good nigh and sweet slumber.

Am arose with cool clouds above preceeding a forecast of balmy island warmth. The prospects were good for a tour of the island, and some foot hopping on the red trail. Mufassa seemed to have had snuffed out its headlamp overnight, but fortunately we did not intend to drive in the nocturnal hours again. Rounding a turn with a fully loaded bike with our coordinates set for Ingall’s head, a massive dumper careened around the corner in our path and only in the last moment swerved out into its own lane. Suddenly I was back in India with giant lorries driving head on towards you, and felt rather anxious of what lay around each ensuing bend in the road. We slithered on at a lower clip and rounded another curve when the bike tire drifted across the center and fishtailed through the turn. It was like in the cartoons when the hapless character hits a pile of banana peels in the road, and swerves out of control. I yanked the bike off into the gravel bar at the side, and we dismounted to check the bike. My heartbeat had revved up, but we were now parked and going nowhere fast. A flat had grounded us under heavy cargo, and we still needed to make up twelve kilometers, and it was Saturday on an island, after tourist season. We would be lucky to find someone to fix the bike, or an open garage for parts. Not off to a grand start on Grand Manan.

We hobbled along like a lame horse, rather than a proud Lion to the oceanside nexus of Ingall’s Head, where we found a grocery store and a petrol station but no signs of where we could pump the tire. We were in fact travelers from away in our own province, and I have found that the surefire method of “asking the locals” what to do is usually a good protocol so we played the tourist card and were indubitably assisted by a gentleman on his way to somewhere who pointed us onwards to the next auto shop. There we found Wayne, and Trey who were just about to load a seacan onto a trailer. He insisted that he “usually does not work Saturdays” but did not want to leave us stranded and agreed to give the bike a once over. They figured it was the stem valve, though the tyre had ‘tubeless’ stamped on the rubber. We supposed it may have been one of those tubed tubeless tyres, eh… He pumped us up to 60psi, and said we would last a few hours until they returned. They were headed to Dark Harbor too, and I thought to warn them of nails, and possibly bananas in the road.

We stopped for tea at a wharf, and when we resumed our ride we were already flat. Yet again we trundled the bike down the eastern coast of the island to Anchorage Bay and it felt as though we were riding over train ties. A happy reprieve from the ride was the tranquilized setting of Anchorage beach, with its two migratory bird ponds that filtered into the great sea through brackish sounds. Rustic campsites with pergolas and raised fire grills betwixt the wetland ponds and ocean bar promised a sanguine and incognito place to pitch a tent and swing a hammock, and we did just that.

Some chubby rabbits hopped around the family picnic park, evidently content with their piece of the good life. They bummed food from the throng of visitors who easily gave up snacks of strawberry and lettuce, and welcomed new arrivals by running to your feet, as if to bow before their Guru. I fed a bearded brown bunny blackberries from my bare hands, and enjoyed the youthful experience that provided.

Rubber tramping back into Ingall’s head town provided something else entirely, a mission with many errs. 20km/h proved to be my max speed on the now completely deflated tube. I reached the brother of the mechanic’s house, a chap named Lawrence, and he attempted to get me back on the road with his compressed air pump, but to no avail. The stem valve had burst right through the wall of the tube, and would not hold a breath of air. Instead he backed up his M.G. Fisheries truck into the ditch to load the bike, but there was still a good foot of clearance to reach the pickup deck. With the help of his son in the back of the truck, we were able to deadlift the 650 pound beast with loaded saddlebags, and full tank of fuel onto the vehicle. I feel confident we each lifted a share of 800 pounds against earth’s gravity, and with that we were off to the garage.

It would be until Monday when the two wheeler could be fixed, and not until the evening ferry off the island, this was beginning to feel like a movie. In the meanwhile we had our nest at Anchorage bay, a fireplace and pergola, and a hammock in the trees for wave watching, shade snoozing, or just generally living the good life, so we decided to stoke up on the sweet stuff of life. By evenfall we had walked a leg of the red trail, sat in a bird hide to watch Kingfishers seduce each other, foraged blackberries, beach combed for seafood morsels, swam naked at low tide on a secluded arm of sand, cooked a curry, and did things that only hippies in love do on summer vacations.

Without our own chariot, we relied on our magical thumbs for transport, and met some lively and interesting folks on our forays to Swallow tail lighthouse. There was Walter who owned the pizzeria and post office, both of them in a heritage brick building near the wharf who tipped us on a trail in North head that lead to an abandoned campsite where one can sleep to the swooning songs of whales in the night. There was an elder of Manan who owned the dollar store, that told us some interesting history of the island, peppered with inspiring stories and the local download, but ultimately iterated with the ‘slow death’ of the township in his eyes. We learned about the bunnies of Anchorage Park, how they got there in the first place and how to best bypass the park authorities when wild camping. Anicka met a Jamaican over the phone when we were looking for places to eat, and casting our net over the eastern shore for anywhere decent that was still open for business.

At the tail of a good trail south of Anchorage we found a boulder beach in a secret cove, and sat within the swaying kelp forest as Mermaid and Merman. Then while foraging for clams, we bumped into a friend who had just collect a basket of wampums and quahogs, and was headed back to catch the ferry, so he offered us his bounty, for which we were indebted and grateful. A legendary chain of Canadian Geese flew in V-pattern above us, spanning out over what seemed like a kilometer of airspace. The land breathed in a peace of its own, as its exhale softened our collective consciousness. The ebbs, flows, currents, winds, and migrations all seemed to show off an exuberant dynamism about them, so alive, so real, such a reminder of presence and place. In those moments of lucidity, we truly lived here, and now.

But the then and later was soon to come, and we would be leaving with our flying Lion one way or another. Forty minutes before the sunset ferry return to Blacks Harbor we received the call that the motorbike was ready. Our location was in North Head, but our gear was hidden in the grass at our Anchorage haven. So another of Lawrence’s sons was summoned to come and find us, and usher us back to our camp to collect our bundle and amscray as fast as possible back to the garage to reload the saddles with the gear. Unfortunately a few major components of the bike refit were left by the waywardside and we were without head light, or back brakes. This harrowing realization came when a routine deceleration for a signaling car turned into a make or break situation. Oncoming traffic in the left hand lane made the one in front of us come to a complete standstill, while the motorbike cruised at 70km/hour with only a front brake to bring us slowly to a halt over 100 meters. I was nearly forced to slither between the oncoming and advancing traffic in a daredevil move as the front brakes alone offered little power to grind slowly and softly to a reasonable distance from the car we followed behind. We did coast to a stop with barely enough room from the car in front of us, and a massive amount of relief for not hitting it. The remaining cruise around the bay went smoothly enough, and as we neutraled the bike down onto the loading ramp of the ferry. as the chains were just being drawn across the hull of the boat, and the motors started to blend the sea around it. We were the last on the ferry, by some feat of miracle. Our flying machine has redeemed itself we thought…

We napped and meditated on the ferry and came out the other side into the gloom of fog and mist. Our pack was becoming loose on the chassis which did not balance well and threatened to fall of the bike, the head light refused to shine, and we lacked stopped power so would have to take the country roads and keep it at sixty to avoid collision with and trundling beast spooked by our roaring chariot. Our route went through Utopia, which we did not even notice in the dark of night, only a centennial road of pure blackness, no center line, no hyrdo electic lines, no rails, no reflectors, or even signs, it felt as if driving through a space loop, with almost no feature to the edge of the road except the bristly spruce silhouettes.

After over an hour of driving in the twilight zone, the most piercing, banshee wailing, screaming bird sounds started to sound, and it was coming from beneath my seat. The alarm system was somehow triggered by the balance of the bike. I tried killing the ignition, putting it on the kickstand, restarting it, switching gears, but nothing worked to silence the cacophany, so I threw off my helmet in a rather annoyed response, and at the same moment a large tree crashed in the forest behind us. We went to work unknotting all the straps and buckles of our saddlebags, rolling out the wrench bundle and spotlighting the dusken motorcycle maintenance with the phone light. Then came the side panels and the leather seat to take off, hoping that we would not lose the bolts in the ditch or scattered on the road as we set them down. One car stopped heading in the opposite direction and offered to call someone back to help, but we figured we could fedangle something to work for us, and did not want to attract more attention than we needed to. In the absence of moonlight to shine down, we still managed with the artificial light to find the fusebox, which held a spare 10A light fuse that gave us back our high beam, and I manually disarmed the deafening alarm by pulling and replugging it at the terminal. The alarm going off turned out to actually be a blessing, because we now rode on with illumination, a more balanced saddle kit, more space on the pillion seat, and without the nightmarish alarm siren invading the night.

At Fredericton junction we hit gravel dunes piled in the center of the road and had to crawl at 40km/hr past this stretch of dreaded construction. Rarely was I happier to reach the urban environs on a two wheeler than when we finally reached New Maryland. Before long we at last idled in the driveway where it all started and it felt surreal to be back. Stepping into a house, greeting the cat, cooking some comfort food, taking a hot shower, and sleeping in a large cozy bed, the contrast of realities was stark and very agreeable. We had meditated on Anchorage beach that same morning and had projected of vision of this very thing happened, returning to the nest, after a rather perilous journey of adventure, daring, risk, and reward in the unknown territory far from home, like all good trips abroad.

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