Riding Down the Walloostook: From the Republic of Madawaska to the Fundy Coast

5 Nov

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The St. John River is the north boundary between Maine and Canada.

I see storm clouds on the horizon.  There have been storms here before, most notably during the Aroostook War of 1839-41.   This was the conflict that almost caused a third war between the U.S. and Great Britain—in fact the Governor of Maine actually did declare war on England.  It’s an interesting story about company greed, commodity speculation, conflicting territorial claims, refugees, and extremist groups escalating disagreements to the point of armed conflict and it would make headlines today is you substituted the word lumber for oil.  Feed-up with corporate greed and political posturing the settlers in this beautiful valley declared themselves to be the independent Republic of Madawaska.

The oldest original blockhouse in the United States is located in Fort Kent, Maine.  Built in 1839 during the Aroostook War, it marks the end of the first mile—or in my case, the beginning of the last mile—of U.S. Route 1.

Crossing the Walloostook, what is now called the Saint John River, I follow it downstream.  In 1843 a treaty was hammered out in Paris that defined the international border between Maine and New Brunswick, however the Republic of Madawaska still exists, encompassing both sides of the border and with the title of president being traditionally bestowed upon the mayor of Edmundston.

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Bricklins were the only car manufactured in New Brunswick.

I’m trying to catch the end of the annual Edmundston Jazz & Blues Festival, but am hours behind.  As it begins to rain, I pull into the parking lot of the Antique Automobile Museum.  It’s supposed to be a quick stop to take some photos and inspect the Bricklin, but I become sidetracked by the REO (the car, not the rock group) and a Detroit Electric–yes, Detroit was producing electric cars from 1907 to 1923–then by the 1933 Rolls-Royce Phantom and a pristine 1928 Ford Model A.  Before realizing it, time has passed and the rain is now steady.

Wearing 100% waterproof gear and mounted on a Street Glide trike I could care less about wet pavement and depart to catch the last of the festival.  Alas, it isn’t to be.  I hunker beneath the Route 2 overpass as the worst storm of the last two years rolls through.  By the time it lets up enough for an escape to downtown, the festival has disappeared like street litter down a storm drain.

New Brunswick is officially bilingual, but regardless of which side of the border you’re on the primary language is Canadian French with Acadian being spoken more frequently than English.  Fortunately, official signs are posted in both French and English.

Route 144 leads to Grand Falls/Grand-Sault, the only town in Canada that’s officially in two languages.  A 270-ft. deep gorge cuts through the center of the city where the waterfall called Chicanekapeag, the Great Destroyer, has been tamed by a hydroelectric dam.  I end up competing for the best photographic vantage points with a busload of Japanese tourists before riding the trike around –not across—the great gorge.

Route 105 is an old river road, one that follows the natural undulations of flowing water at a meandering pace.  The asphalt is broken, patched, and re-patched.  Vegetation grows to the very edge of the pavement and tree branches embrace those on the opposing side to form a dappled tunnel of refreshing shade.  The few people seen in passing all raise an arm in acknowledgement or wave a greeting. No cars pass me; there’s nobody on my tail.

I’m spending the night in a stone castle where my host is a Scottish chef who stocks cold Irish beer and has a passion for English-Indian fusion cooking.  In fact, the farther I travel down the river, the more English it becomes.

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The Hartland Covered Bridge is the longest in the world.

There are several bridges that span the Saint John River, but the one I’ve traveled to see is the world’s longest covered bridge in Hartland.  At 1,289 ft. in length it’s an almost a quarter-mile long wooden tunnel held above flowing water by a series of concrete stanchions.  This one-lane bridge with simple stop signs at both ends requires that drivers take turns by peering towards the light at the end of the tunnel to determine when it’s safe to set forth.

This is the land of potatoes.  If you’ve ever eaten French fries at McDonalds you’ve eaten potatoes grown around here. Florenceville-Bristol claims the title of “French Fry Capitol of the World” and is the corporate headquarters for McCain Foods, the undisputed planetary leader in the production of frozen French fries.  There’s Potato World museum and a seed potato research facility.  The Covered Bridge Potato Chip Company in Waterville is a bit different: it’s the only chip factory that uses potatoes grown on their own farm.

Route 105 becomes even more rural and often forms the very bank of the river as the Street Glide slowly bounces along. Slowing down to take a photo the brakes start to make that “ee…ee….ee” sound.  Funny thing, it continues even after stopping.  I’ve inadvertently parked beneath an osprey nest and the parents are not happy.  After getting some nice close-up shots of ospreys swooping rather low, it’s time to move on.

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The world’s largest axe.

I ease into Nackawic on the old road that continues to follow west bank of the river to reach the recreation area.  Fortunately I don’t have an axe to grind because at 66-feet long and with a stainless-steel head weighing 7 tons the one in this municipal park is the largest in the world.  The giant double-bladed axe on a pedestal is dedicated to the forest industry and–give them credit–there’s not one mention of Paul Bunyon.

Route 105 continues to Fredericton, but I decide to hop over to Route 102 on the other bank.  At this point one side is no better than the other, but this is an opportunity to cross atop the Mactaquac Dam, the largest power project in New Brunswick.  On one side of the narrow road I’m eye-to-eye with recreational boaters on the reservoir; on the other is a 123-ft. drop to the rocks far below.

Fredericton once was a military garrison, but now is the capitol of the province.  Official signs are bilingual, although street names are British, people generally speak English, and public places have English identities.  I’m booked at the Crowne Plaza where both the general manager and the desk manager are motorcyclists.  No worries about the Harley, they have me put it on the walkway by the entrance.  There are quite a few great restaurants, cafes, and bars in this historic downtown district, but being invited to critique an experimental menu created by top chef Brent Conlin I don’t make it past the front doors of the hotel.

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Cable ferries were invented in New Brunswick.

There’s a bit to see in Fredericton, including the famous 40-lb Carleton Frog, but the next morning finds me back on Route 105 heading south along a river fractured by islands and laced with sandbars.  Going local, means following well marked Route 695 and 715 through Lower Jemseng to cross the river on the Gageville Ferry.

These cable ferries on the lower Saint John–both free and numerous–are convenient, quick, and much more fun than a bridge.  In a matter of minutes I’m headed south on Route 102 along the most extensive wetlands in all the Maritimes.  Bald eagles, ospreys, blue herons, geese, and ducks move between worlds of vivid green and blue.  Once again, I find myself essentially alone on the road.  During roadside stops, the songs of countless birds dominate this bucolic landscape.

Waking up I discover there’s an ocean liner moored outside my door.  It’s the Carnival Glory and taller than the 11-storey Hilton.  Last night I arrived at the deep-water port of Saint John and today is Canada Day, the equivalent to 4th of July in the U.S.  From Saint John a choice has to be made whether to head up the Fundy Coast or take the ferry to Nova Scotia, but instead decide to ride back to Maine tomorrow.  Today the downtown of this city has been transformed into one giant block party so I’ll hang here, the last stop on my ride down the Walloostook.

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Downtown Saint John.

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2 Responses to “Riding Down the Walloostook: From the Republic of Madawaska to the Fundy Coast”

  1. James Lagnese November 11, 2012 at 6:34 pm #

    You should have gone down RT 201, it’s pretty good riding from the border all the way to Waterville.

    • touringroads November 11, 2012 at 10:52 pm #

      I’m quite familiar with Rt. 201, 15, 16, 11, and most of the highways in Maine. I think you live in the Moose capital of the world: there aren’t that many highways that have blinking yellow caution lights on highway signs warning about moose (as found on Rt. 201 just south of Jackman). Actually moose are fairly scarce along Rt. 105 (high banks, no wetlands) and even Rt. 102. Perhaps I’ll post something about riding in your region. The 4th edition of “Motorcycle Journeys Through New England” will be out in the spring of 2013. You’ll find your region covered in this book. For more on riding in the provinces pick up a copy of “Motorcycle Journeys Through Atlantic Canada.”
      Ride safe.

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