The Enchanted Isle (Prince Edward Island)

A generation has gone by since the 13-kilometre Confederation Bridge was opened, linking Prince Edward Island to the rest of Canada. A diverse land of colours, cultures and music, the birthplace of Confederation remains unchanged despite quick access to this historic, beautiful yet tiny province and its traditionally rural ways.

When my wife Arlene and I left BC on a cross-Canada trip late last May, one of the things on our minds was where we would be on Canada Day. But the question answered itself on the last day of June when we pointed the nose of our gear-laden Harley-Davidson Electra Glide onto the ramp of Confederation Bridge. With a brilliant blue sky over our heads and the wind at our backs, we would arrive in the cradle of Confederation precisely in time for the national birthday party. Canada Day in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island: how sweet is that?
Though we’d made no prior arrangements for arrival in the middle of the biggest holiday weekend on the Island, we lucked out by landing a remaining vacancy at a waterfront campsite near Stratford, situated just across the Charlottetown Harbour. From this centrally located base camp not only could we make day-long sorties of this 140-mile-long, 40-mile-wide island, we would also be able take in the annual celebrations in and around the very streets and buildings where the architects of our country lobbied for and negotiated our beginnings. Everywhere we turned we were immersed in the genesis of our country and quickly we were swept up in the celebration at the waterfront park. Later that night, cocktails in hand, we watched mezmerized from the vantage point of our campsite as a dazzling array of fireworks lit the harbour.

This explosion of colour reminded me that it had been my hope we’d be here early in the summer so Arlene could see the island’s famous lupines in bloom. Much like the bluebonnets of Texas, this hardy species has flourished and even threatens to overwhelm other native flora. But it does so in grand style. I’d visited 20 years prior and had never forgotten the multi-coloured spectacle of the stalky lupine fields in full-pop. We weren’t disappointed: a red, white, purple and pink lupine carpet rolled over one hill, then traipsed up the next to the distant horizon.
Colour defines Prince Edward Island, starting from the ground up. The iconic red sandy loam blanketing the province provides the base esthetic, but more importantly to the island economy, this soil is said to be well-drained and a perfect environment for growing potatoes. More than a cash crop, potatoes have lent the island an identity and personality unique to itself. The great Stompin’ Tom Connors embedded that sense of PEI with his anthemic “Bud the Spud” and the lyrics come easily to any Canadian celebrating Saturday night in the kitchen with friends:

Well it’s Bud the Spud, from the bright red mud,
Rollin’ down the highway smilin’,
The spuds are big on the back of Bud’s rig,
They’re from Prince Edward Island,
They’re from Prince Edward Island.

The province lives up to its advance billing—mile after mile, over hill and over dale, rows and rows of spuds grow in the red, red soil. A radio host put it into perspective for us:
“You’re listening to more sweet tunes on the Island’s favourite; 102.1 … SPUUUD FM,” he crooned in his smoothest FM voice. In the same way that the 13-kilometre Confederation Bridge is not just infrastructure, the potatoe is more than a tuber in the province of Prince Edward Island.

TO START OUR ISLAND TOUR WE STOPPED AT THE LOCAL HARLEY dealer, Red Rock Harley-Davidson and
as always fellow HOG members there were more than helpful, suggesting scenic routes and places to visit. They directed us to North Cape, the most northerly tip of the island, a two-hour ride away. To get there, we took a winding route that included Hwy Two and many side roads past spud farms and small harbours. We passed through Summerside—the other main town on the island—then continued along through mostly boggy peat land into the interior. When we again reached the coast, we stopped at Sea Cow Harbour—a tiny, classically maritime, bottleneck harbour protecting a small lobster fleet from the wild Gulf of St. Lawrence. Eventually we reached the Cape where the windmills of the Atlantic Wind Test Site produce five per cent of the island’s electricity. Windmills have a rather hypnotic effect on me and things usually come to a grinding halt when I’m in their presence. But they were the physical evidence of the area’s constant and occasionally terrific gusts. There’s not much for snow on PEI—most of it is blown sideways, say the islanders.

Regrettably, we didn’t get to see the harvesting of Irish moss, a type of seaweed found on the northwest coast beaches where people once used horses to drag rakes through the surf to collect the crop which they then dried in windrows. There is apparently now only one Irish Moss farmer left. Times change.

The Maritimes in general are known for music, and PEI has its own brand, mostly of Celtic origin but with Acadian influence. Styles can vary as you move from one area to another with the influence of local artists a part of the evolution. My self-imposed mission was to seek out a céilidh (pronounced: kaylee); a social gathering with music and dancing. We struck it rich when we saw a small poster advertising a céilidh in Brackley Beach, a short ride to the north shore from camp, featuring Cynthia MacLeod with friends and family. It was the real deal, held in a small community hall jammed to the rafters on a hot, humid evening. Cynthia herself is an incredible fiddler with a definite Irish background. Her partner, a friend and cousin were the accompanists, singers and step dancers. All were natural comedians: Granny sold tickets, two aunties sold ice cream and strawberries, Dad was the bouncer/booking agent (and a hell of a stepdancer at 72) and Mom hawked CDs. The place rocked for several hours while about 150 of us sweated, laughed till our sides ached, stomped, clapped and sang the night away. We found ourselves to be impromptu celebrities when our licence plate was spotted during a break. After we were asked from the stage to talk about our wanderings, we weren’t viewed as the scary leather-clad bikers that some obviously thought we were. I think we paid eight bucks each for the evening. The strawberries and ice cream were extra.

WE CONCENTRATED OUR SECOND TOUR IN THE ISLAND’S CENTRE. For a place of such limited physical dimensions, Prince Edward Island is a culturally rich environment. Anne of Green Gables and author Lucy Maud Montgomery are, of course, franchises unto themselves and clearly a big money-maker on the central-north side of the island. As a result there is a pocket of commercialism that somewhat contradicts PEI’s rural and maritime nature. Fans of the genre can more than satisfy their affinity for all things “Anne” in and around Cavendish. The area has assumed something of a theme park atmosphere, attracting people from around the world, mainly from Japan. Stompin’ Tom is often in concert at venues in the vicinity, but was nowhere to be found during our visit. A pity, we know we missed seeing a very special Canadian.
In spite of the commercial core near Cavendish—itself a very pretty town—we rode through many small communities that were marked as towns on the map but were simply several stores and houses at the intersection of various roads. Each seemed to have its own personality and charm though, making the ride a very pleasant one.

TOUR NUMBER THREE TOOK US TO THE EAST END OF THE ISLAND, where the highlight was the lighthouse at East Point. The area is predominantly agricultural in the interior with the usual five- or six-boat lobster fleets moored in pint-size protected harbours along the coast. Something we saw in abundance here but rarely anywhere else on the island were mussel farms, which are secluded bays filled with orderly rows of floats. Lines hang from the floats providing a home for mussels to grow. Small restaurants in the area specialize in mussels and clam strips, a delicious distraction from the lobster available virtually everywhere. Our visit to the lighthouse included a long conversation with a lady tending the small gift shop/snack bar inside. A lobster fisher in her day job, she told us about the life of a lobster fisherman, how lobster traps work and generally entertained us with her dry wit. And by golly if her daughter wasn’t an RCMP member in our home town of Langley. Afterward we enjoyed tea and biscuits on the lawn beside the lighthouse, sampled the wild strawberries at our feet and enjoyed the view of Cape Breton Island on the southeast horizon.

Our ride home to Stratford took us through Souris (pronounced “Surrey’ in PEI, but “Sooris” in the Manitoba town of the same name) which is the terminus for the ferry to Îles-de-la-Madeleine—the Magdalen Islands—in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
An archipelago comprised of a dozen islands, six of which are connected by long, narrow sand dunes, Îles-de-la-Madeleine is populated primarily by French-speaking people, a legacy of the area’s Acadian heritage. Accessed by a five-hour ferry ride, the island group has become a tourism hotspot. A lazy afternoon wandering back to Base Camp rounded out yet another perfect day.

THOUGH WE HAD THREE WONDERFULLY DIFFERENT TOURS on the island, it was virtually impossible
to escape the smell of skunk. We would often leave one cloud only to slam headlong into another invisible wall a short distance down the road. On the other hand, we had been told there is no big game on the island, meaning no deer or moose. If nothing else, this certainly makes riding in PEI unique in Canada, and it’s obvious, to me at any rate, that skunk can swim better than moose. The predominance of skunks on the island was affirmed when we passed a house with a “Bob is 40” sign on the lawn and rather than the usual pink flamingos, a girl was busy stabbing 40 black-and-white skunks into the lawn. So it wasn’t my imagination, after all.

RICH IN HISTORY WITH MI’KMAQ, ACADIAN AND CELTIC HERITAGE, roots here are deep. In no discussion did we hear talk of folks leaving the island for a better life elsewhere. Though labour force trends in Canada have made westward-bound nomads of many Atlantic provinces people, PEI seems unaffected. Perhaps that has much to do with a slower pace of life and an idyllic environment. Obviously toughing out harsh winters is a small price to pay for remaining here. In any case, winter probably also accounts for the hospitable, easy-going nature of the people here and perhaps even the sheer numbers of fine musicians and artists, which seem disproportionate to the island’s population of 138,627.

For a little perspective, there are only 24 human bodies per square km, and nearly half are rural dwellers.
But nothing seems to say “Maritimes” as much as the small harbours and the ever-present stacks of lobster traps and other related seafaring gear neatly arranged alongside tidy houses. Twenty years ago the only road access to the “Enchanted Isle” was by ferry. I feared that when the Confederation Bridge was built it would change PEI’s essential nature. It hasn’t.

– Ed Pretty (March 2009)