Fidgeting with excitement, I stand at the access gate. The metal grate shudders under my feet as each car drops onto the lift gate and rolls onto the ferry at Black’s Harbour, New Brunswick. A man in an orange crossing-guard vest waves for the walk-on passengers to go forward and I stride down the ramp and shimmy between the mirror of a truck and the wall of the cargo hold, then climb the stairs to the observation lounge, where I will remain for the hour-and-a-half crossing to Grand Manan.
Yesterday I had accompanied a friend on two different hikes in the area of Welsford, New Brunswick. Having passed the test of being a compatible outdoor enthusiast, I was offered an invitation to hike the Red Trail on Grand Manan. “Yes, I would love to go,” even though I haven’t been on a backpack camping trip since 2005, and my equipment is not exactly of the ultra-light variety. I figured for two days I could pull it off.
My guide for this hike says he has never hiked this portion of the island but has done the entire length from Southwest Head to Long Eddy Point. He tells me on the crossing he has hiked parts of the Pacific Crest trail, the Appalachian Trail, and trekked in South America, the Philippines etc. He completed the Fundy Footpath several times, covering the entire distance there and back in two days. Given his military experience, I will be leaving the navigating to him, it will be all I can do to keep up. When the ferry’s horn blows announcing its arrival to Grand Manan Island, we shoulder our packs and head for the exit.
Our first stop on this trek is at Swallowtail Lighthouse. He says he will mind my pack while I go explore. My hands slide along the railing as I step down each tread of the stairs decending the cliff, then across the chasm and follow the path to the picturesque island light.
I stand on the rocky outcrop and hold my arms out to the side like a bird, leaning forward, letting the wind hold me up. It is a beautiful day and I am pumped to get going on the 7.8 km trail towards Long Eddy Point. I return to my hiking partner and he leads the way up the grassy path through the dead fall of trees.
The roots and rocks scheme to trip me, so my eyes don’t stray from the ground. I watch with amazement at the easy placement of my companion’s feet and duplicate his steps the best I can but his stride is long and I seem to need two steps to his one.
I continue a trend of falling back then trotting to catch up. When the trail meanders left, then right, and fills in with overgrowth of trees and brush, I lose sight of him altogether. My pride wouldn’t allow me to ask him to slow down. Several rises in elevation and the trail branches off to the north and south and I am at at loss as to which way to go. I don’t know how far behind I am and I shout out, “Kurt!” My voice floats around looking to land on something that holds that name, but nothing but spruce, moss, and rocks surround me and the word lingers in the air lost. I make the bend and he is silently waiting.
“Sorry, I took the wrong turn,” I say.
Being a man of few words he says, “We can rest.”.
I am grateful for the respite. I strip off my layers and drape them from my pack. Drinking heartily from my water bottle, I pause to look back at the terrain we’ve crossed.
Five minutes of rest, then I tighten up the straps on my pack and move off again. The trail skirts along the cliff and several times I choke on my fear of heights, but I push it aside and focus forward. Our next stop is where a cascade of water tumbles over the cliff. ( feature image) Kurt says he has never seen the water flow like this. I ask him if he will take some photos of me with it in the background.
I continue to struggle to keep up, It seems we have two different objectives: his is to complete the task and mine is to absorb the surroundings and take photos. Our next feature is Hole-in-the-Wall. We take our packs off and rest on top of the natural arch for lunch. The wind gives me goosebumps and I have to replace my jacket. Kurt fires up his stove, and says with a smirk, “You are fussy like most women.” Spoken like a true soldier, he finishes with ” you need to embrace the suffer.”
While we eat, I share some of my past life “suffers” of being a jockey, the 19 broken bones, four separated shoulders, three dislocated shoulders, the surgeries and where I have pins. The two times I was crushed, leaving me with a punctured lung, lacerated spleen and bruises to my heart and liver. The unfathomable amount of concussions. I explain,”I couldn’t tell you what my name was, several times.” I consider myself lucky.
He nods and says, “It sounds like a hard life.” his eyes soften and his shoulder relax then he turns away and looks out to the sea and stays quiet. Something in his voice tells me I am being patronized and my tails of woe don’t compare to what he has seen and done on his three tours overseas. I speak again and say, “I am not doing this for punishment, I am here for pleasure.”
We pack up our gear and stand out on the arch and take photos of each other, a crease of a smile crosses his face, it’s the first I have seen today. “Let’s go,” and it is back on the path.
Next is the beach crossing. A natural breakwater created with large rocks that titter underfoot and a barrage of ensnared driftwood. My guide walks the beach with ease; his fearlessness and confidence is enviable. I am angered by the carelessness of fishermen: elastics use to bind lobster claws litter every inch of this beach.
Back in the wooded portion of the trail we come to another small waterfall and it is such a pretty place, I request a stop.
“I am having a fussy moment. I need to pee and change from pants into shorts.”
With no more clothing to remove, If I get any warmer I will be #hiking-naked. When I am sorted out, I nod I am ready to go; picking up his cue of few words.
Back on the main path we come to the source of the falls, a stream maybe 15-20 feet across, a couple of feet deep. There is a stack of limbed poles laying on the ground and Kurt picks ones up, walks to the river bank and without hesitation, places the end of the stick into the bottom of the stream bed. Using it for balance he leaps from rock to rock and lands on the other side in seconds. I stand on the opposite side starring at him thinking, Are you kidding me?
He javelin-throws the pole back towards me but offers no method or encouragement. I remind myself I accepted this invitation. Toughen up MacKay. Exhaling deeply, I plunge the pole to the stream bed, make a quick assessment of which foot is going on which stone and launch myself onto the first rock. Moments later, proud as peacock, I join him on the other side.
The views are breathtaking and we follow the cliff edge, then weave inland slightly. My legs are burning and I try not to groan at the site of every incline. The weight of my pack is starting to get to me. When we arrive at a rock face escarpment, Kurt climbs it with ease, barely using the a assist rope to haul himself up. This time I say aloud “Are you frigging kidding me?” Kurt says nothing just looks down at me from the top.
I suddenly regret my outburst. I must seem a soft civilian to him, and I am even more pissed off at myself for being so. What was I thinking, who ruck marches more than soldiers? I fight my way up the rock face, the weight of my pack causing me to twirl around backwards, swinging off the rope. If I wasn’t so damn fatigued, I would have had a good laugh. I need a moment to catch my breath at the top and I ask, “How much farther to the promised land?”
“What?” he says
“You know, the Long Eddy Point Lighthouse, our goal”
“Thought we would hiking till Sundown.”
I know I can’t hike another 4 hours. When we crest the top of a hill, there is a nice flat grassy area and a gorgeous view, I say “Can’t we camp here? It’s beautiful.”
He drops his pack to the ground and starts rummaging around inside for his tent. No rest for the wicked. I follow suit and set up my tent.
With the tents up, he says, “I am going back to the last water source.” He has a filtration system and a water bladder. Knowing my own water is insufficient for tomorrow’s hike, I say, “I will join you.” We start out down the trail, my legs heavy as lead. When I come to the realization that I will have to descend and re-ascend the escarpment again, I drop out. ” I just can’t go back down and up that again, go on without me. Make sure you come back.”
He heads off through the trees and I return to camp and eat some trail mix, tofu, hummus and crackers. Then I slip off for some privacy to wash the day’s sweat and grime off and brush my teeth. By the time I am completed he is strolling back into camp with a full supply of water. His stove is lit again and he proceeds to make instant mashed potatoes and salmon from a packet, which he transfers to a baggie and eats with a spork. “You have to eat junk out here, there is not enough calories in that health food you eat.” He offers me a Kit Kat bar and I reach and take it from his hand.
We each lounge on our close foam mats. “At least there are no ticks this time of year,” I say to start a conversation. “Oh yes there is,” He replies. My response is to inch down my pad to insure my head is not on the grass. When he finishes his meal he too goes off to clean up. The sun starts to go down and I take some photos but nothing impressive.
We chat a bit more about his equipment and ask if he will let me check out his products and packing methods so I can improve my efficiency. He agrees. He pulls on a down jacket and gets out his sleeping bag. He doesn’t use a stuff sack, “Takes up too much space.” He learned from a fellow trekker in California to just stuff it in the bottom of his pack.
He says his main weakness is being cold, and he is right now and is going to bed, so with no choice I too prepare for bed. We both have short Thermarest sleeping pads. I also brought a full length foam pad, and my sleeping bag is -30 rated, his is -6. A long restless night of intermittent sleep. I awake once as some hikers pass through camp, which puts me on alert.
When morning arrives, he asks, “Did you sleep?” I say “not much, some.”
He adds a bit more,”You moan in your sleep,” I give him a wide grin, ever the cheeky charmer, and say, “Was it ecstasy?” He responds with, “Sounded like pain.” My smile leaves. I was in a lot of pain. Fifty year old women with multiple pelvic injures don’t sleep on the hard ground well.
The fog has rolled in and I am glad I took all my photos yesterday. My legs are fresh from the rest and I keep up better today as we return on the Red Trail back towards the ferry. Two kilometers out we stop for snacks and to pass time. I extend an olive branch his way. “I am sorry I held you back.” I get a genuine smile and he puts an arm around my shoulder, “You did great, If I had wanted to hike alone, I would have hiked alone..”
This hike has empowered me, I have lost some fear, gained some courage, improved my fitness. I am updating my gear and I hope to hike the Fundy Footpath in the future. One of my inspirations has come from fellow writers Curt and Peggy Mekemson (not the same Kurt in this story) of Wandering-through-time-and-place.
I will be stretching myself out in the future. Please join me and happy travels from Maritime Mac
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