Fundy Trail Parkway was one of the first Canadian parks and tourist attractions to reopen last week after mandatory distancing.
The scent of pine fills the humid air every few steps. Fiddleheads peer out from the edges of the path, curling upward as the sun peeks in and out of clouds and trees overhead. Beneath my boots, pine cones, moss and twigs creak and sponge before I step down a wood-block-and-cable stairway built into a ravine edge. It leads toward a lookout deck stilted over a waterfall’s plunge pool. A few mosquitoes nag but they are irrelevant. All I hear is the music of water and leaves rustling.
This isn’t the first time I have stood with nature. It isn’t even the first time I’ve explored a national, provincial or territorial park. But it certainly feels like it.
After months of coordinated physical distancing, closed borders and stay-at-home orders, the New Brunswick government announced April 24 that its parks, beaches and golf courses would reopen, along with many non-essential businesses. This was to be the second phase of its COVID-19 recovery plan to ease back into, what officials are calling “the new normal.”
It is certainly new to me.
I moved to New Brunswick in March – just three days before the province announced it was restricting its borders due to the pandemic. When we arrived after a 12-hour drive from Ottawa following a stressful $3,000-per-ticket flight from the Canadian Arctic, the stores and parks were already closed, as they have been for the last several weeks until last week.
What makes my craving for greenery stronger than most other New Brunswickers during this strange time is that I had moved from the territory of Nunavut where I spent the last two years working in journalism and government communications. I have been dreaming of sunshine and forests for a while. Since I had arrived in Nunavut in April 2017 and my few vacations were either in autumn, winter or spring, I have not experienced a “Southern Canada” late spring or summer weather since September 2016. It only became clear to me last year how deeply sunlight and the seasons affect my energy and health.
My craving for trees, leaves and grass had been swelling for a while. For me, it is a spiritual act to see the buds change into leaves and notice fruits becoming flowers. I didn’t know how much I needed those reminders in landscapes. To touch a branch and smell forest all around me, while watching water cascade through leaves this weekend was nothing short of divine.
I may have been swept away by the joys of the forest wilderness but there was still the reality of a pandemic for grounding.
While parks and beaches may be opening for visitors, distancing measures must still be respected and many services, activities and programming are either cancelled or limited.
For instance, on Sunday’s Fundy trails, family or friend clusters kept a polite distance from one another, occasionally chatting but without getting too close. When they needed to pass by one another, they sped up their gait for the moments they might have to be near enough for “breathing moistly” to pose a risk. Some people wore face masks. Many curious explorers opted to stay within their vehicles, driving from one attraction or lookout to another before stepping out to appreciate the beauty of the natural world in that one area for a short time. Then, they would climb back into their vehicles, where they had limited proximity to others.
Even with the spectacular views of a creamy pastel bay, blending into the misty blue of a sunny sky, I wasn’t distracted from the knowledge I should not touch my face and made sure to sanitize my hands after touching the cable railings on makeshift stairs or the wooden siding of the waterfall lookout.
Finally, the wilderness of forests and beach was within reach. Trees for days. Little flowers popping up. Thick sticks on the ground you can pick up and lean on. Pine needles sprinkled over moss and peeling bark.
You can’t risk losing all that again if it is easily avoidable by washing your hands and standing away from people.
On Sunday, Fundy Trail Parkway officials announced on social media that they saw record numbers of visitors this weekend. They apologized for any long wait times as a result of their beginning to implement new measures, the new normal. Even though the parkway was open for an extra hour – until 6 p.m. rather than 5 p.m. – on Sunday, there was still a long line of cars in line to enter after 4:30 p.m.
Some of this congestion could have been caused by the fact that Fundy Trail had just opened its new Eastern Gate access, which would allow more visitors to the scene. But it was also likely due to the fact that so many people, much like me, have been cooped up indoors these last few months, dreaming of beach views and tree-lined hikes deep in the wilderness – and only a few parks were open last week.
That included Oak Bay, Mactaquac, New River Beach and Anchorage (Grand Manan Island). Others, like Herring Cove (Campobello Island), Mount Carleton, Murray Beach, Parlee Beach, De La République and Val Comeau plan to follow suit later this week on Wednesday, May 20. As well, this Friday, May 22, Sugarloaf Provincial Park will reopen, including limited service trails, bike park and camping. Still, many others plan to reopen in June.
Wondering About Wandering?
If you’re curious to see how the new normal is playing out at Fundy Trail Parkway, here are some practical points to keep in mind if you plan to visit any time soon.
The new access point is through Sussex Corner, which is closer to Moncton than the other entrance.
To get there this new way, follow these driving instructions:
Once you reach Sussex Corner, turn right onto Needle Street. After traveling about 500 metres, turn left onto Waterford Road at its intersection with Route 111 to St. Martins. Then, follow the Waterford Road for 12 kilometres and make a slight left turn over the bridge onto Creek Road. Follow Creek Road a distance for 11 kilometres before turning left at the intersection with Shepody Road. At the intersection of Crawford Lake Road, connect with the newly constructed Fundy Trail Connector (Little Salmon River Road) and follow it for 12 kilometres to the East Gate of Fundy Trail Parkway.
There is a long, very gravelly – and therefore dusty – road before the entrance. You should choose this new entrance if you don’t mind the possibility of your car getting lightly dinged with little pebbles and if you have confidence in your tires. We got a tiny rock stuck somewhere in our wheel that screeched quite loudly and awkwardly for half an hour before it fell out. The new entrance might not be the best entrance if you: expect a smooth ride, wanted to zoom around in a little, fancy convertible, don’t want your car to get dusty, or have flimsy tires.
At certain points along the drive, there are not that many road signs directing you to the new entrance and you may start to wonder if you are going the right way or if you are lost. Trust your GPS and directions. Stick to it even if you haven’t seen a sign in a while – you will get to your destination.
If you decide to drive through the parkway and don’t venture out along the hiking trails, following the speed limit would result in about an hour-long drive. Schedule your time accordingly. Keep in mind that the hikes that are deemed “Easy” take about two to four hours, while those that are “Moderate” could take three to five hours with occasional uneven footpaths and light ascents. A strenuous trail would be for more experienced hikers looking for three to six hours with uneven terrain and steep ascents.
Some of the roadways are closed off, so even if you did want to drive through completely and you need to “use the facilities,” you may still have to walk a bit to find a washroom.
The washrooms are available at Big Salmon River Interpretive Centre and Long Beach Reception Centre. However, Fundy Trail Parkway is limiting the amount of people accessing the washrooms at any given time to allow for physical distancing. The cute, wooden outhouses are also available for use and there are bottles of hand sanitizer suspended on their exterior walls. By Sunday afternoon there was little left in the bottle I happened upon, so you may want to be sure to bring your own hand sanitizer – especially in a post-COVID-19 era.
Additionally, the park has provincial COVID-19 informational signage posted around the place. These signs show visitors the direction to follow on trails, reminding people to stay at least two metres apart and the capacity limits in any operating Fundy Trail buildings and facilities.
Another thing to note is that there are picnic tables available so you can always bring a snack or lunch while exploring – but visitors are not permitted to move them and the park is not sanitizing them between guests. Just be sure to bring your own sanitizers and, of course, collect your trash.
As well, the Fundy Footpath is accessible from Big Salmon River but the access from Point Wolfe through Fundy National Park will be closed until at least June, according to the park’s COVID-19 operational plan.
The official operational plan also encourages adventurers looking for Fundy day hikes to take a specific route. They suggest starting from P14, heading to Seely Beach and then go toward Long Beach and “possibly to Big Salmon River.” Since there is no shuttle service available, you have three options. You need to have two vehicles to park at both the beginning and end, or do looping trails, or simply drive along the parkway from beginning to end with short steps along the way.
The nitty-gritty details on Fundy trails
Once you know how to get there, which trails will you take? Which ones are even open? And how does social distancing play out with each?
Here are some of the most important specific points about the Fundy trails and footpaths that are officially open – listed out in order from “Easy,” to “Moderate,” to “Strenuous.” These notes include the instructions on new or temporary directions as a response to COVID-19.
Sea Captains’ Burial Ground Footpath – 0.34 km distance – “Easy”
Directions: Go from West to East.
Pioneer Trail Loop – 0.48 km distance – “Easy”
Directions: From the Interpretive Centre, cross the road and take the path, veering to the right and then loop back around (counter clockwise).
Suspension Footbridge Trail – 0.39 km distance – “Easy”
Directions: Open both ways but you must have a system for social distancing.
Multi-Use Trail – 10 km distance – “Easy to Moderate”
Directions: Open for hiking or biking and open in both directions.
Big Salmon River Loop – 1.2 km distance – “Easy to Moderate”
Directions: From the Interpretive Centre, veer to the right and walk down the stairs (one way only), then turn right at the corner of the parking lot and walk along Big Salmon River, near the river’s edge and walk upstairs (one way only) before looping back to the Interpretive Centre (clockwise).
Flowerpot Rock Scenic Footpath – 1.5 km distance – “Moderate”
Directions: Go from the West to the East.
Bradshaw Scenic Footpath – 0.6 km distance – “Moderate to Strenuous”
Directions: Go from West to East.
Hearst Lodge Scenic Footpath – 2.7 km distance – “Moderate to Strenuous”
Directions: Go up the river and down Big Salmon River Road.
Cranberry Brook Loop – 4.8 km distance – “Strenuous”
Directions: Counter clockwise – Go across the suspension bridge, up Big Salmon River Road and across the parkway. Then go down the cable ladder, along Big Salmon and across the suspension bridge.
Big Salmon to Long Beach Footpath (the first section of the Fundy Footpath) – 4.4 km distance – “Strenuous” – Includes a cable ladder
Directions: Go from Long Beach back to the Interpretive Centre.
Fundy Footpath – 61 km distance – “Strenuous”
Directions: Open both ways with phone registration. If hiking within only, go from East to West from Seely Beach.
Footpath to Seely Beach – 1.0 km distance – “Moderate / Moderate to Strenuous on the return hike up the hill”
Directions: Go from P14 to Seeley Beach and then to Long Beach – but you would need a second car parked at Long Beach or Big Salmon River to return.
For the time being, all the other trails are temporarily closed, either due to construction or due to the one way in and one way out directions. Still, you can take your pick from the dozen trail options that are available and only slightly modified. Ease into that new normal, finding your own forest epiphanies and sacred nature moments. Just keep a little distance. And, please, don’t forget to wash your hands.
All photo credits: Courtney Edgar.