Canada by Campervan

His daughter’s desire to go whale-watching takes Stanley Stewart back to his own childhood in Canada: through Nova Scotia, by campervan, on an odyssey of emotions

We could hear the whales before we saw them. That long breathy exhalation of a humpback blowing as it breached. Leaning over the side of the Zodiac, Sophia peered across the water into the thick curtains of fog.

‘She is close,’ she whispered. It was her first whale. This is what she’d come for: the whiff of adventure, whales and bears, campfires and Indian trails. We were on a road trip — a father daughter thing — through Nova Scotia, and Sophia woke every morning in the expectation of another chapter out of White Fang.

Humpback whale diving by Getty Images

I’d actually come for something quite different. I’d come for the nostalgia of small towns and familiar streets. I’d come for those big red barns with silos, and for pretty farmhouses surrounded by apple orchards. I’d come for leafy streets of Victorian houses, their front porches bathed in the dusty light of childhood memories. I was on a nostalgia trip. Sophia, quite understandably, thought this sounded dead boring.

‘It was ideal for my nostalgia trip, an old-fashioned place of small towns and farms, of fishing boats and lighthouses’

‘It was ideal for my nostalgia trip, an old-fashioned place of small towns and farms, of fishing boats and lighthouses’

Canada was big enough to cater to us both. The country has always seemed a touch schizophrenic, and it’s not just the French and English thing. Canada veers between two contrasting personalities – between cute towns and vast wilderness, between Main Streets and migration routes too complex to fathom, between corner diners and tracts of unknown forests. Take a look at a map. Everyone lives along that southern border in a neat network of roads and towns. But above them is empty space, a wilderness of woods, dark unnamed lakes and distances inhabited only by moose, caribou and wolves — and grizzlies keen to dine on unwary townsfolk who ventured onto their patch.

I grew up in Canada — in the cute towns part not the hungry grizzlies bit — and the holiday I remember most fondly was caravanning in the Maritimes in the eastern Atlantic provinces. I was eight and life was good. My Dad and I pored over maps and picked campsites, and every day felt like an adventure. Now my daughter was eight, I wanted to bring her home and show her the Maritimes. Booking a campervan, we took a flight to Nova Scotia and we knew we were somewhere different the moment we arrived. There are rocking chairs in Halifax airport.

Among the homogenising tendencies of North America, the Maritimes are a place apart. There is an Anne of Green Gables innocence about these small provinces, which made it ideal territory for my nostalgia trip: an old-fashioned place of small towns and family farms, of fishing boats and lighthouses, of rocky shores and rocking chairs. Celtic roots run deep here and at the ceilidhs, the traditional songs, are about homesickness. Homesickness was why I was here.

In Halifax, we collected our new home. The RV was a big hit. ‘It’s a whole house, Papa,’ Sophia said excitedly, as she inspected the double beds, the kitchen, the on-board loo and shower, the storage space that could have catered for an Apollo mission. For the next week she played house, fussing with the wardrobe arrangements, sweeping the floor and trying to keep her Papa in order.

We popped some Nova Scotia folk into the CD, punched Lunenburg into the sat nav and headed along Nova Scotia’s South Shore. The RV was a handful — an eight metre, 6,800kg behemoth. Out on Highway 3, I prayed I’d never have to execute a three-point turn or parallel park.

With 8,000km of coastline, Nova Scotia is a sea-faring province, at one time it had the fourth-largest merchant fleet in the world. The Mary Celeste was built here and the dead from the Titanic were buried here. Sailors and fishermen are the local heroes, and no-one spends more than a week here without venturing out on the water.

We passed villages where century-old houses framed harbours of trawlers draped in nets. At Peggy’s Cove (population: 30), I sat on the weathered deck of a fishing shack chatting to a whiskery fellow about the lobster catch, while Sophia danced like a sea sprite across the granite outcrops that frame St Margaret’s Bay.

Further down the coast, the town of Lunenburg is so pretty it’s been made a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Colourful houses built in the 19th-century line its streets. Here was the innocent small-town North America I was seeking. Kids ride their bikes down Main Street to soda fountains run by a guy called Pop and people get all the news they need in the Lunenburg Ledger. Confronted with the landscape of my childhood, I came over all emotional.

Canada, Nova Scotia, Lunenbur by Getty Images

But that wasn’t why Sophia had come to Canada. She wanted drama. She wanted wilderness.

In Canada, wilderness is always close. Barely 150 years ago, virtually all of Canada’s 10 million square kilometres was wilderness. They have cut down a few trees since Queen Victoria’s day, but it hardly seems to have made a dent — approximately half of Canada is covered by forest. Even among the settled small towns of Nova Scotia, there are vast tracts of the country that no-one has got round to using yet. Turn up a back road or hike over the next hill here and you find yourself in trackless forest where there have been few human footprints since the First Nations people ghosted through these trees on moccasined soles.

From the coast we cut inland on a two-lane highway. The landscape and the road emptied, and the forests closed in. After a couple of hours we came to the entrance of Kejimkujik National Park, a broad swathe of virgin forest where the only permanent marks of man are the petroglyphs of the Mi’kmaq people. Eighty per cent of the park is accessible only by foot or canoe. This was the antithesis of pretty, settled Lunenburg. Kejimkujik is not pretty. It is wild, pure and ravishingly beautiful. To visitors like us, Kejimkujik is an outdoor playground, a place to commune with nature. To the Mi’kmaq, it’s home, a National Historic Site more than a National Park. This is what their Nova Scotia looked like before we arrived with town-planning and strange ideas about roads.

Sophia slipped so readily into the Mi’kmaq vibe I began to wonder about her mother’s ancestry. We parked in our designated campsite, lit a campfire and cooked salmon on the coals. Later, we skittered down a steep slope to swim in Kejimkujik Lake, warm, still and cleaner than any water I had ever seen. Then we sat on a log on the shore watching sunset colours spill across the surface of the water. For the first time Sophia heard the call of a loon — Canada’s signature tune, a plaintive, haunting sound drifting across the darkening lake from the unseen bird.

Later, we followed paths through the dark woods to the Sky Circle, a raised deck of sloping benches designed for stargazing. Without a trace of light pollution, Kejimkujik offers skies that are dense with constellations. Other stargazers came and went on tiptoe, as if worried about disturbing the universe. Whispering in the dark, a park warden guided us round the familiar constellations: Cassiopeia, Andromeda, Pleiades and Orion. Aligning his telescope, he showed us a star cluster that was one of our nearest neighbours. Sophia asked how long it would take to reach it, as if we could rent a spaceship as easily as we rented a campervan. Not so long, the star warden said. About 25,000 years. And suddenly any feeling of familiarity vanished. We were gazing at the unknowable.

In the following days in Kejimkujik, we biked along forest trails, through glades of hemlock and maples, through meadows of wild ferns. We waded in rivers where herons stalked the shores. We discovered a beaver dam, an architectural shambles of sticks and mud creating its own lake, then hunkered down on the bank to watch Papa Beaver fell a small tree with his teeth. 

We canoed across lakes to empty islands where we picnicked among windswept pines. We sat inside an empty Mi’kmaq tepee and wondered about the people who had lived here without feeling the need to asphalt the paths or construct a town hall in the middle of a clearing. We watched ospreys fish, carrying their catch back to nests the size of small bungalows. Coming as it did with a deer sighting and the beaver tree-felling, Sophia nominated the osprey day (she had spotted the nest herself) as the best one so far. At least until we got to the whales.

A few days later, in Annapolis Royal, beyond the park, we encountered the early European settlers who had been so keen on the town-hall idea. At Fort Anne, it was time for a bit of history. Scampering round the ramparts where battles were fought, and peering into dungeons where prisoners of war were held, we found history was suddenly fun. Through the 18th century, this valley had been a battleground between the English and the French for ascendancy in the New World. While bewigged chaps in chandeliered rooms in London and Paris put their names to treaties, out here, ships were sunk, lives were destroyed and men perished. In its heyday, Fort Anne changed hands seven times before the Brits finally prevailed and the French were obliged to hand over Canada in 1763.

Canoeing on Lake Louise, Banff National Park, Canada by Getty Images

At Port-Royal, they have recreated the first settlement in Canada, a French fort set round a courtyard. Sophia tried her hand at the blacksmith shop, while I stretched out in the workmen’s bunks. In the gate lodge, we got dressed up in three-cornered hats and beaver jackets for selfies. In a warm Canadian summer the place seemed rather idyllic. But it wasn’t, at least for those early settlers. In their first winter here, half of the 79 Frenchmen died.

The next morning, we headed along the shores of the Bay of Fundy, down a long finger of land known as Digby Neck. The morning was fogbound, and the Neck, barely 5km wide, felt insubstantial, hovering between land and sea. At the end of the Neck, I managed to manoeuvre our beast of a home onto a small ferry for the crossing to Long Island and our whale-watching outfit.Kitting up in orange flotation suits, we waddled down to the Zodiac that would have us at eye level with the sea monsters. The Bay of Fundy is one of the best places in the world for whale-watching and Captain Tom, a kind of whale-whisperer, has managed to locate whales on virtually every outing over the course of 30 years. As he steered our boat into the bay, he engaged us with tales of humpbacks, minkes and finbacks, of sightings of the endangered North Atlantic right whale, of the outing when a blue whale, the Earth’s largest creature, surfaced just metres from his boat.

After a time Tom cut the engines and we drifted. The sea was cloaked with fog. The shore, the bay, even the sky above us, had disappeared behind grey veils. An eerie silence had descended, punctuated by the muffled sound of ships’ horns calling mournfully to one another.

Peggys Point Lighthouse, Canada by Getty Images

Then through the fog came the unmistakable sound of a whale blow. Moments later the leviathan appeared, barely 20 metres from the boat, a long grey back breaching. It looked huge — until its mother broke the surface. Fifteen metres of barnacled, scarred whaleback arching through the waves, blowing a spout of water three metres into the air, is something to raise the hair on the back of anyone’s neck. Their size made them look as if they were moving in slow motion. And then they dived, raising their fluked tails as if waving goodbye. Sophia was so excited, I thought she had stopped breathing.

We spent the next hour following them as again and again they breached, throwing their great spouts into the air, riding the waves before diving with that dramatic flourish of their tails.

‘Sophia had found the drama she craved. A month later, I heard her telling her friends of the whales and Captain Tom’

Sophia had found the drama she craved. A month later, I heard her telling her friends of the whales and Captain Tom. Years ahead, she might just recall the campervan, the road trip and the adventures with Papa. As for me, I’d found all the memories I needed. Stepping out for dinner, strolling down a street in Annapolis Royal, I stopped to chat to a family on their porch and was abruptly back there – in the small town I grew up in; as if, dredging the past, I’d caught it in a golden net of nostalgia.

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