Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 18, 2017
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Cockles and muscles

Eat your heart out while cycling PEI's
Confederation Trail

It would be a week of muscles and mussels. The muscles were mine, working steadily as I bicycled from one end of Prince Edward Island to the other; the bivalves would be my reward, arriving sautéed, steamed or immersed in chowders before me. Everybody has their own idea of heaven and mine was the opportunity to combine two of my passions -- bicycling and seafood -- and indulge in them shamelessly every day. This turned out to be a very easy thing to do in Canada's smallest province.

I picked up my bike in Charlottetown and was shuttled to Tignish near the North Cape Lighthouse, the starting point for a pathway that runs 270 kilometres clear across Prince Edward Island. The Confederation Trail is the PEI section of the Trans Canada Trail (TCT), which traverses the entire country from tip to tip to top.

It was once the island's only railway line, and since it was built for trains unable to tackle anything steeper than a three-percent grade (what a coincidence -- neither can I), it makes for smooth and easy cycling. The route meanders between communities, through farmland, woods and wetlands and along the ocean. Along the way I would stay at inns, visit museums and put a serious dent into the local seafood population.

At the trail's western terminus, the winds howled so strongly it seemed even the windmills of a new energy project there were hyperventilating. But the gales also brought about a scene from another century. On a scallop of red sand beach, two sturdy horses dragged huge metal baskets through the white-capped shallows, raking up storm-loosened seaweed called "Irish Moss," which is used as a thickener in ice cream.

As soon as I passed through the plum-coloured gates at Kilometre Zero, I was in the lee of the wind, sheltered by dense forest. The wide, hard-packed trail was lined in purple and pink lupines. Irises peeked above a trailside thicket of fiddleheads and unfurled ferns, and great blue herons stalked bogs lush with bulrushes and bullfrogs. Buttercup meadows engulfed old ploughs, wagon wheels and the white picket fences of farmhouses. A fox dashed across the track in front of me. As the kilometre signs ticked past, I crossed vintage railway bridges (also painted the trail's trademark plum colour) and passed restored railway stations.

Pipe Dreams
Along the way I paid homage to two of PEI's most famous exports, stopping in O'Leary at the terrific Potato Museum, with its Potato Hall of Fame, the Amazing Potato Exhibit, as well as potato pottery and ceramics. In Ellerslie, I popped into an oyster lover's mecca, the little Shellfish Museum near the shores of Malpeque Bay, for PEI's famous Malpeque oysters, among the world's best.

When I reached the seaside town of Summerside, I checked into the Willowgreen Inn and dined across the street at Brothers Two Restaurant (where I ate classic mussels steamed in white wine and fresh thyme). When I awoke the following morning it was to the sound of bagpipes from the College of Piping next door. As I munched on homemade muffins and strawberry jam, the owner's daughter chatted with her friend on a cell phone as she listened at the window to the discordant piping. "James is there for sure today," she informed her friend, "I know because he always misses the same notes."

Generally, I met only a few people -- a couple walking their dog, solitary joggers or the occasional cyclist. I passed the crossroads with one of six spur lines off the main trail, this one leading towards the Confederation Bridge. Many cyclists arrive via this route from New Brunswick; as bicycles or pedestrians aren't allowed on the bridge, they are transported by shuttle.

Most of the other spur lines head off toward scenic routes on the eastern half of the island. Four of those off-route trails are open to cross-country skiers in winter when the main line is the exclusive domain of snowmobilers. Including the spur lines, there are 365 cyclable kilometres in PEI, the first province to complete the entire length of its Trans Canada Trail.

 

I took Spur B into Charlottetown, which felt like a big city after all those quiet miles of countryside, and headed straight for the Claddagh Oyster House run by the three-time and current Canadian oyster shucking champion, John Bil. "It's the first 20,000 that are the hardest," he quipped as he flipped open Malpeques and Raspberry Point oysters with a no-nonsense jab at their Achilles heel. I sampled them all, but had to admit my heart went to the Colville Island bivalves. Next door at the Off Broadway Restaurant, dinner was mussels, of course, (steamed in locally brewed Gahan House lager and roasted garlic.) Divine.

Ride The Rail
Construction of the Prince Edward Island Railway began in 1871 and its route wiggles across the island. Train speed was not a priority, as it stopped along the way for berry pickers and farmers. I could imagine the old steam train, laden with passengers and potatoes, and I certainly moved faster on two wheels than it ever did. Within two years, the partially finished line was bankrupt. One of the conditions under which the colony of PEI joined Canada was that the federal government finance the completion of the line, which it did in 1873. The railway lasted a good long time, until it was finally abandoned in December 1989.

One of the driving forces behind converting the former rail bed into a walking and cycling trail was the late Donald Deacon, who had fallen in love with the kind of country trails he'd discovered on his vacations in the UK. As a director of the TCT Foundation he pushed for the pedestrian trail, and in 1994 the province purchased the entire corridor. With the help of many volunteers, the Confederation Trail was complete by 2000.

After a long day's cycling in torrential rains, I met Donald's son, Doug Deacon, in Mount Stewart, where he runs the funky Trailside Café and Inn. Doug turned a condemned 1937 general store that had also done time as a potato warehouse into one of the trail highlights, an excellent little café and B&B with four rooms.

Three's Company
I had just showered and hung up my wet clothes in my rooftop room when I heard laughter outside. I peered into the pouring rain to see two women in mud-splattered plastic ponchos hosing off one another and their muddy bicycles on the back lawn.

An hour later, in the dry quarters of the café, we were drinking Clancy's beer together on tables adorned with wildflowers while the women's sneakers banged around in the dryer. Betty and Alexis from BC and Alabama were celebrating Betty's 50th birthday by cycling across PEI. "It's a lot easier than Alexis' 50th last year," said Betty, rolling her eyes. "For that I had to train for the San Diego marathon."

After dinner (oyster stew, a house specialty), Thom Swift from the New Brunswick band Hot Toddy wove a magical evening with a procession of ballads, folk tunes and ragtime guitar as rain drummed the windows. It was a perfect night.

Sunshine and the sound of singing birds got me on the trail early the next morning, along its most scenic stretch. From Morell, I cycled alongside the mussel- and oyster-float-dotted waters of St. Peter's Bay, then took a short detour out to Greenwich, Prince Edward Island National Park.

Hiking a trail through forest and marsh I reached a zigzag boardwalk across spectacular wetlands, an eco-friendly route that took me over dunes and down to the beach. Back on my bike I retraced my path towards the biking trail, stopping for lunch at the Inn at St. Peter, where I had the most memorable mussels of the trip, served with an unforgettable smoked tomato cream sauce.

At the end of my fifth day, I pulled into Elmira -- literally the end of the line. The 1912 station had been restored into a railway museum. But I continued on another 10 kilometres. After all, I had to make the trip official, by claiming my Tip to Tip Certificate at the East Point Lighthouse.

 

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