Trekking in Bay of Fundy, Canada: The woods best left to Bear Grylls, until now

A Canadian adventure has Guy Wilkinson contemplating a bushman’s life.

Most lobster fisherman in these parts cannot swim. Talk to any one of them down on the docks and they'll be the first to admit it.

"It's absolutely true," 50-year fishing veteran Dale Mitchell says. "The theory is, the water's so damn cold, if you end up in it, the chances of coming out again are very slim. It's a very rural way of living out here. We have our own rules and we get along pretty well by following them."

Mitchell's logic might seem odd, but it is because his entire existence, like everyone else's here, revolves around a most unusual phenomenon. 

Emerging from deep in the backwoods, I am standing on a ragged stretch of coastline that, just a couple of hours earlier, was submerged beneath 10 metres of water. It is what makes the Bay of Fundy one of the most intriguing natural marvels in the world. 

Cradling the east Atlantic seaboard in the maritime province of New Brunswick, this 270-kilometre stretch is home to the highest tides in the world. Every six hours and 13 minutes, 160 billion tonnes of water flow in and out of this bay. To put that in perspective, twice a day, the tidal change here equals the daily discharge of all the world's rivers. 

Back in the woods, we pick our way along a series of steep switchbacks carving through skeletal spruce and birch trees. It's challenging terrain, an undulating mix of flats and thigh-burning climbs interspersed with fallen trees, waterfalls and shallow rivers. 

Leading us are guides Mike Carpenter and Nick Brennan, close friends with contrasting personalities.

Brennan, with his faint resemblance to actor Rob Lowe (he once starred in a television milk advert, much to our collective mirth), previously led dog-sled teams through the snowy backwaters of Canada before finding his true vocation in guiding. He is, perhaps, from a tougher background but has an easy, laid-back charm.

Carpenter, meanwhile, has a refreshingly dry sense of humour and sinewy build forged through years of kayaking on rough, icy seas.

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Together, they are likely the first-ever guides to lead a trek in this way.

Until recently, the Bay of Fundy footpath was an undertaking best left to Bear Grylls or the kind of peoplewho think nothing of swinging across a ravine with daggers between their teeth. 

Forest ranger Jack McKay originally blazed the trail in the 1980s, but it fell into disrepair soon after. The modern incarnation was opened in 1998 and stretches from the Fundy National Park boundary to the Big Salmon River Interpretive Centre. 

But it is only now that hikers can tackle the footpath carrying only a light daypack, with a behind-the-scenes crew transporting additional gear to a designated campsite each night.

Most days we start early, trekking between 10 and 15 kilometres. It sounds easy but, within an hour, I am invariably soaked in sweat and as far removed from my comfort zone as Kyle Sandilands at a salad bar. A mix of steep ascents and nature's natural obstacle course make relatively short distances far more strenuous than you might expect.

By late afternoon, we stumble into camp, grateful it has already been set up. Sometimes, we kick back; at other times, like at Little Salmon River, I opt to take a swim, only to come perilously close to hypothermia, although the experience is worth the shock to the system.

Evening meals are a big deal. We collect firewood as our guides prepare dinner, or  gather around the campfire,  reflecting on the day's events. 

Having previously worked in kitchens and frequently observed his Greek grandfather "get mad if people didn't want breakfast", Brennan, in particular, has a real flair for cooking. 

"Food tastes good in the woods, anyway," he says, "but if you feed people something a bit special, they're like, 'holy shit'. Sure, we could serve instant noodles and make more money, but that's not what we're about."

His efforts don't disappoint. We begin with seared scallops wrapped in bacon, and the main course - fillets of Atlantic salmon on cedar wood with cracked pepper and maple syrup - would have Matt Preston drooling on to his cravat. 

Later, I head out of the woods for a moment of solitude by the river. At 9pm, the sky is still a hazy blue. There is only the sound of rushing water as a low vapour rises from the treetops on the far bank. For a short while, I feel entirely alone. It occurs to me, these are the moments we cross oceans to experience.

Most of the trekking takes place through the woods, but no two days on the trail are alike. Some mornings we awake to clear skies; at other times, a thick carpet of fog - another Fundy hallmark - has enveloped the entire landscape. 

The scenery also changes. Mindful to plot our course around the intense rhythm of the tides, we duck out of the woods to skirt dramatic beaches strewn with boulders the size of small buildings. Flanked by sheer cliff faces, with the steel-grey sea stretching out towards the coast of Nova Scotia, it is  something like the Scottish Highlands meet Jason and the Argonauts.

For the most part, the footpath is ours. The region's three main attractions - the Fundy Footpath, Fundy National Park and Fundy Trail Parkway - have all received significant government investment in recent months, with $22.8 million pledged to improving roads, lookouts and infrastructure but for now word has yet to catch on about the footpath. 

"Very few people have ever even seen this area," says Carpenter. 

"Even people from New Brunswick are surprised if you tell them you've been to Big Salmon River. It's really only now that it's become an accessible adventure experience." 

Ripping off our hiking boots, we wade through rivers into clearings cloaked by thousands of explosive magenta wildflowers. Sitting on a gravel beach, scooping chunks of smoked haddock straight from a can with a hunting knife, I realise my phone hasn't had a signal in days. For the moment, the modern world and all its usual concerns feel faintly ridiculous.

Our final night is commemorated with a lobster boil on the beach at Martin Head. Larry and Ida Adair, owners of nearby Adair's Wilderness Lodge, are hosting the meal, preparing most of the food from the back of a van.

On the sand, just metres from the ocean, they have laid out an immaculate table complete with crisp white cloth stirring in the breeze. 

Until roughly the end of World War II, this beach was home to more than 20 buildings devoted to thriving logging, ship building and lumber enterprises. Roads were eventually built and the nature of industry changed, but for many years, this contributed significantly to the region's status as an economic powerhouse, yet not without considerable environmental impact.

Now, though, with Brennan demonstrating how to make short work of dismantling a lobster, we enjoy the freshest seafood imaginable in a pristine wilderness. 

"It may take another generation to fully understand what's out here and just how unique it is," Larry Adair says. "The history, the culture, the sheer natural beauty; it's going to become one of the best hidden icons on the maritime province."

After sharing a bottle of wine around a beach campfire as night settles in, we retire gradually to our tents to the sound of crashing waves. 

Tomorrow, we will hike back to the world and all its modern amenities, but for now this isolated corner belongs solely to us.

FIVE MORE BAY OF FUNDY MUST-SEES

ST MARTINS

The gateway to the Fundy trail, this was the epicentre of the ship-building industry in the 1800s. It retains a charming maritime feel, with iconic covered bridges and sea-carved cliffs spectacular at sunset.

See stmartinscanada.com

FUNDY TRAIL PARKWAY

Beginning at St Martins and ending at the boundary of Fundy National Park, this newly developed stretch of coast is accessible by car, bike, foot or even skis, with spectacular lookout points dominating the route.

See fundytrailparkway.com.

FUNDY NATIONAL PARK

Experience the Fundy Bay's dramatic coastline, world-famous tides and fog-blanketed forests through more than 100 kilometres of walking trails through the heart of this 206-square kilometre park.

BIG SALMON INTERPRETIVE CENTRE

Learn more of the fishing, logging and ship-building industry that was the lifeblood of the region at this interpretive centre filled with photographs and artefacts from the earliest settlements. 

See fundytrailparkway.com/en/facilities/interpretive_centre

STONEHAMMER GEOPARK

Hike, rock climb, snowshoe, kayak and more in this 2500-square kilometre portion of the upper bay, designated North America's first geopark in 2010, and recognised by UNESCO for its geological significance.

See stonehammergeopark.com.

TRIP NOTES 

MORE INFORMATION

canada.travel.

GETTING THERE

Air Canada flies directly from Sydney to Vancouver, where there are affordable connecting flights on to Saint John. Phone 1300 655 767, see aircanada.com

STAYING THERE

Adair's Wilderness Lodge offers five cosy cabins surrounding a private lake and 10 motel rooms. Rates start at $150 a night for a two-bedroom cabin. See adairswildernesslodge.com.

TREKKING THERE

World Expeditions' eight-day Bay of Fundy Trek starts from $3590. Price includes all meals, professional guides, camping equipment, park fees and private transportation. Phone 1300 720 000. See worldexpeditions.com

The writer was a guest of World Expeditions and the Canadian Tourism Commission.

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