By Ed Staskus
It is roughly 700 miles from Montreal, Quebec, an island at the confluence of the Ottawa and Saint Lawrence rivers, to Prince Edward Island, on the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. The way most people get off Montreal is by bridge or tunnel. There are twenty-five bridges and three tunnels. The longest passage is slightly more than a mile.
Most transit gets to Prince Edward Island by way of the Confederation Bridge, the only bridge that connects the island to the rest of Canada. Until the span was built coming and going was largely by boat or ferry. When the Northumberland Strait froze solid you might strap chains onto your tires and drive across it. After four years of construction the bridge opened in 1997.
It is the longest overpass in the world traversing ice-covered water. The concrete arc is 8 miles long. It is illegal to stop on the bridge and there is a curve to it whose only purpose is to keep drivers alert.
“It’s weird, it’s long, you’re on it for 5 minutes, at least.” said Tanner Patterson.
“It’s more of a 12-minute trip,” Amanda Patterson pointed out, fine-tuning.
“I did a project on it at school, actually, although I didn’t have any choice,” she said. “My teacher told me, you’re doing the Confederation Bridge. There was a referendum about building it. It was really close because lots of people wanted the island to stay secluded.”
There were even some who preferred the concept of a moat.
“Local workers built it and it’s sturdy. It’s probably never going to fall down,” said Amanda, putting the moat idea to rest.
More than a million-and-a-quarter people travel to PEI for a week-or-two in the summer, almost nine times as many people as live on the red island. Some of them cross by ferry, some of them fly into Charlottetown, but most of them drive over on the bridge.
“It’s very impressive,” said Cathy Patterson.
“Crossing it is anti-climactic, though, because of the concrete parapet. You can’t see anything,” said Mark Patterson, Tanner’s uncle, Amanda’s father, and Cathy’s husband. “But there’s a church you can pull into after you cross, up the approach towards Victoria, and from the parking lot you can see the bridge going all the way back into New Brunswick. It’s an incredible view.”
The Patterson’s live in the West Island, on the west side of Montreal, a laidback community-oriented green space small town feel in the big city kind of neighborhood. One of Montreal’s last large remaining spots of wilderness is in West Island. The region was a summer retreat into the 20th century.
Cathy Patterson first visited Prince Edward Island with a group of fellow potters in 2014. “We did the circuit of the pottery studios,” she said. Throwing, firing, and glazing mud and clay is a cottage industry on the island. “Several teachers showed us their methods.”
The small troop of ceramic artists stayed in the town of North Rustico, at the Coastline Cottages, on the seashore. “Kelly Doyle opened a cabin for us. It was very nice, but it was cold.” By the end of March 2014 more snow had fallen that winter than had in more than 40 years. Blizzards swept the island. “The landscape was stunning, but really, really cold. We all had three layers on.”
“I was here when I was a kid, thirty-five years ago,” said Mark. “We went to Nova Scotia, did the Cabot Trail, and came here. I saw “Anne of Green Gables” at the Confederation Centre. My mom told me we stayed near North Rustico.”
One afternoon when his nephew, daughter, and wife had gone deep-sea fishing, he went for a drive, exploring the north central coast. At the intersection of Route 6 and South Rustico he spotted an old-school style roadhouse. He pulled the car over.
“It was the original motel with green paint,” he said. “That’s where we stayed.”
The Patterson’s piled into their car on a Saturday at 6 o’clock in the morning in late June and left West Island for the eastern seaboard. The drive is circuitous, north to Quebec City, south to Fredericton, east to Monkton, and finally across the bridge. It takes close to 15 hours.
“We played the letter game in the car,” said Cathy.
The alphabet game is played on long car rides. The players try to find the letters of the alphabet on license plates, road signs, and nearby buildings, in order, starting with “A”. If any player spots a graveyard on the side of the road and declares it, the other players have to go back to the beginning. There is a shout out for the winner after they have reached “Z” if they can remember all the different things for each letter of the alphabet.
When he wasn’t playing the letter game, Tanner was downloading podcasts on his phone. “They saved my life,” he said. “’Our Fake History’ and ‘Night Vale’ are good ones.” ‘Night Vale’ is about a small desert town, mysterious lights in the night sky, and dark hooded figures with dark unknowable powers.
“I like to sleep,” said Amanda. “When I get bored I start rambling, talking nonsense.”
“It’s annoying,” Tanner groused about Amanda bunking in the back seat, who didn’t lose any sleep over it. “I can’t sleep in cars. She’s out for at least half the trip.”
“I drive,” said Mark. “I’m no good being a passenger.”
“I can drive all day or I can sleep,” said Cathy. “Put me in the passenger seat and I’m out like a light.”
Three years after Cathy had gone to Prince Edward Island, bundled up against the cold, they were on the way there in the summertime. They were in shorts and t-shirts because Sue Cameron, a fellow potter, had booked two weeks at Coastline Cottages earlier in the year. Cathy got wind of the vacation while at lunch with her friend one day.
“Is there another cabin?” asked Cathy.
“I don’t know, we can find out,” said Sue.
“I called Kelly, he had an open cottage, I said fine, and booked it on the spot,” said Cathy.
“Our first week we went to beaches five days in a row,” said Mark.
There are almost 700 miles of PEI coastline, cliffs, sand dunes, and long sandy beaches. There are about 90 of them. Most of them are located in provincial or national parks. The beaches on the north coast are white sand while those on the south coast are red sand. The sand at Basin Head is called singing sand because it squeaks when you walk on it.
“I was so excited for the beaches,” said Tanner. “We went all over, to Cavendish, Brackley, Thunder Cove.”
“He just sits there listening to music,” said Amanda.
“Or I listen to podcasts,” said Tanner. “Then I go in the water.”
“Thunder Cove is a secret beach,” said Amanda.
“The kids took a walk to the Teacup,” said Cathy.
“The way the rock there has eroded you can walk underneath it,” explained Mark.
“It’s a cliff, so you can be on the beach and behind you the water flows into the cliff, and you can go inside it,” said Tanner.
“It was cool,” said Amanda. “But, there were little crabs that bit your feet, especially this one part where they kept snapping at you.”
The day Mark Patterson went solo exploring was the same day the rest of the family boarded Papa’s Gem, one of two 45-foot Aiden’s Deep Sea Fishing boats sailing out of the North Rustico harbor. The fishing charter supplies rods, tackle, and bait, cleans the cod and mackerel you’ve caught, and you get to take it all with you.
Aiden Doiron started fishing when he was 15-years-old, started his own deep-sea fishing excursions in 1957, and started up Doiron’s Fish Market on the near side of the harbor. His family still operates the charter and the fishery.
“I caught one cod and two mackerel,” said Tanner.
“I caught two cod and mom got sick,” said Amanda.
“This guy on board was smoking a cigarette,” said Cathy.
“You’re not supposed to smoke,” said Amanda. “The captain got mad when he found out.”
“It was the way the wind came up and the smoke hit me full throttle. I had to sit down, but when the engines started up and we started moving, going back, it was too much. The next minute I was feeding the fish. It was quite embarrassing.”
Mark fired up the grill at Coastline Cottages the next day.
“I had never had mackerel,” he said. “We didn’t have any spices, no nothing, maybe a little parsley, but Tanner and I pan-fried the fish, and it might have been our best meal on the island.”
“No, dad, it was ice cream at Cows,” said Amanda.
By all accounts dinner at the New Glasgow Lobster Suppers was a big hit.
“It was a high point for me,” said Tanner.
The restaurant, on the Hunter River, not far from North Rustico, got its start in 1957 when the New Glasgow and District Junior Farmers Organization, looking for a permanent meeting place, bought and moved a canteen to the eatery’s current location. The first lobster supper, priced at $1.50, was served on improvised plank tables as a fundraiser in 1958. The dinner was followed by a dance.
Today the all-you-can-eat feast starts with fresh rolls seafood chowder coleslaw salad and Island Blue mussels.. The main course is lobster. Dessert is buffet-style. The restaurant is still owned by the Nicholson’s and MacRae’s, two of the original founding couples. It was showcased on TV’s Food Network in 2012, on a program called “You Gotta Eat Here”.
“You sit at a long picnic-style table. It’s like clockwork, so well run,” said Cathy.
“Tanner and I ate a whole bucket of mussels,” said Mark.
“You can have one, two, three buckets, all you want,” said Cathy.
“I ate them all,” said Tanner proudly.
“I never had fresh mussels like that,” said Mark.
PEI mussels, sweet and tender, are widely available at seafood counters in many countries, and are often considered the best in the world. Some gourmands say the best mussels are harvested on lonely rocky outcrops along cold-water tidal inlets, but since few people haul themselves, their rubber boots and gloves, and 5-gallon plastic pails to isolated shorelines, the island’s rope-grown mussels are the next best. They are super tasty nutritious sustainable and even help purify water by clearing nitrogen.
Nothing beats sitting down to PEI mussels on PEI.
“Amanda tried a mussel, but she wasn’t crazy about it,” said Tanner.
“Hey, I ate a lot of them!” she protested.
After a week of lolling on beaches the Patterson’s got into their car and went touring. The Tip-to-Tip Tour is about driving the length of the province on the rolling coastal roads. It’s a way to see the meeting of the tides at one end of the island at East Point and North America’s longest natural rock reef at the other end at North Cape.
“You go to one side, they give you a ribbon, and when you get to the other side, and show them the ribbon, they give you a certificate,” said Mark. “It’s a long drive. We were all tired by the time we got to North Cape.”
When they pulled into Tignish, a small town on the far northwestern tip of the island, they were ready for their daily bread. When they asked, someone recommended the Very Best Restaurant, which turned out to be part of the Tignish Co-op. A small sit-down, it has a big name for its Acadian meat pies.
“At first I thought they were bragging,” said Mark. “But, it’s got to be good if they say that. When we got there, there were all kinds of different tables and chairs.”
“It looked pretty sketchy,” said Amanda.
“After we sat down we could tell it was going to be good because all the local farmers and fishermen were there, in work clothes and Chevy caps,” said Mark. “We fed the whole family for thirty-five dollars.”
“It’s like a PEI secret place,” said Tanner.
“The name comes from living in the north,” said Amanda. “If you ask anybody how their day has been, they always say, the very best day.”
Closer to home, one day Cathy told the 12-year-old Tanner and the 13-year-old Amanda that the next day would be their day. They could pick whatever activity they wanted to do.
“We got one day, no, one morning, out of two weeks,” said Tanner.
“No, we went to all those beaches,” said Cathy.
“Oh, yeah,” said Tanner.
The next morning they went to Cavendish.
The resort town is the next town over from North Rustico, known for its numerous cottages and campgrounds, Green Gables attractions, golf courses, boardwalk, and amusement parks. The first place they went to was the Route 6 Motel, a haunted house nestled in a spruce grove, crawling, walking, and running through the winding corridors where disturbing obstacles lurk.
“It was great, but I couldn’t. I was fine, but I don’t like getting squished,” said Amanda. “When they yelled to get ready for the airbags, I hate that. I told them I needed to check out and they opened a side door for me.”
Tanner had already checked out.
“I’m good at scary movies,” he said. “I can predict everything. I just use my brain, but haunted houses, I don’t like it when it’s super dark and super loud.”
Cathy was waiting outside, catching some fresh air, reading a paperback. A young mother walked out of the haunted house with a 7-year-old in hand. The boy was crying.
“Is he OK?” asked Cathy.
“The haunted house did him in,” said the woman.
“I’m waiting for my kids,” said Cathy.
“Is one of them wearing a pink sweatshirt?”
“They’re out already.”
Cathy found Big Pink and PJ at the side of the Route 6 Motel.
“Sure enough, neither of them finished the haunted house,” she said.
Within the first few days of arriving on Prince Edward Island, Tanner was known as Big Pink, since he was a large boy and wore his favorite pink sweatshirt whenever he could, and Amanda was known as PJ for wearing her pajamas over her bathing suit going to and from the Coastline Cottage’s kidney-shaped saltwater pool overlooking the ocean.
Their next stop was the Hangar, a black-lit, fog-filled, state-of-the-art laser tag arena. Strapped into special vests, Tanner and Amanda were released into the 3000-square-foot space, firing infrared beams with Uzi-style ray guns.
“When we went one-on-one, I totally destroyed her,” said Tanner.
“Sure, but when we played that other family, I dominated,” said Amanda.
“She was super good at sneaking around, getting behind you, and shooting, shooting, shooting,” said Tanner. “She would just surprise run up and shoot you in the back the whole time.”
After two weeks on the island, going home to Montreal wasn’t easy, except for leaving the pillows behind. “The beds are comfortable in the cottage, but the pillows aren’t,” said Amanda.
“Bring your own pillow next time,” said Cathy.
“We all went to see “Anne of Green Gables” in Charlottetown. When Matthew dies at the end, I was, oh, crap, I had forgotten that part. That got me,” said Mark.
“The island is beautiful,” he added. “I liked that I wasn’t working for two weeks.” Island hopping is being able to do nothing much and having all day to do it before you have to go back to whatever made you go on vacation in the first place.
“I liked getting up in the morning, taking my cup of tea down to the ocean, sitting on my log down there,” said Cathy.
“The beaches,” said Big Pink. His favorite place was anyplace by the ocean. “Eating mussels and Canada Day were awesome, too.”
When he heard there was pole climbing rubber boot throwing lobster eating contests and a cow bingo, guessing where the cow will do its business at the end of the afternoon, every year at the Agricultural Exhibition and Acadian Festival, he said, “We’re coming back!”
“I’m not chasing pigs!” said Amanda.
When the Patterson’s piled into their car for the return trip to Montreal, they drove from North Rustico to New Glasgow to Hunter River to Kelly’s Cross to Crapaud onto Highway 1 to Borden-Carleton and onto the Confederation Bridge.
By a twist of the turnstile, there’s no cost to cross the bridge for a summer vacation on the red island, no ticket takers. But, when you pull up to the tollbooth to go home, it costs $47.00 to leave. It’s like the candles costing more than the cake. That’s when you might as well make plans to go back, since the 12-minute way off the mainland over the wide coastal water to Prince Edward Island is always for the asking.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.