Canada: "What d'ya wanna drive a bike for?"

Intrepid pedaller JOSIE DEW enjoyed the car-(and cyclist-) free roads of Nova Scotia. The scenery was stunning and the locals incredulous but welcoming

'Caution lobsters crossing'. I was in the eastern Canadian Maritime province of Nova Scotia for a month's cycling tour.

I started by visiting a friend who lived in the capital, Halifax. The friend informed me the largest man-made explosion, prior to the detonation of the atomic bomb, had occurred in Halifax in 1917. A Belgian relief vessel collided in mid-harbour with a French munitions ship loaded with 2500 tons of explosives. In a horrifying split second the north end of Halifax was demolished, levelling more than 1600 buildings, killing some 2000 people and injuring another 6000. The anchor of the French ship was found over two miles away.

After the car-infested roads of southern England, Nova Scotia was a cyclist's paradise. Routes marked as major highways on my map were virtually traffic-free. Despite this, it's certainly no country of cyclists. Everyone drives everywhere, and they all treated me with uncomprehending curiosity. "Hell kid!", the motor-loving locals would say, "what on earth d'ya wanna drive a bike for?"

Forget about asking a Nova Scotian for the distance to somewhere. Either they don't know or they give a hugely inaccurate answer. Everyone's mind works in motoring time.

"Excuse me," I'd ask, "how far is the town/campsite/shop?" "Only 20 minutes," came the reply. "No, I mean in miles or kilometres." "Well, hon," they'd say, "I haven't a clue!" And they meant it.

I set out alone along the south shore. First stop Peggy's Cove - home to the most photographed lighthouse in North America. It has the unique distinction of containing a post office. The Nova Scotians seem to take an obsessive pride in claiming the fame of the most mundane building or location as 'the highest..., the first..., the only...' Leaving the airport a few days earlier I had passed a sign stating: 'Halfway North Pole Equator'.

I wove my way along the rocky, rugged coastline and through a multitude of tiny, picturesque fishing villages. There were glorious, white, sandy beaches, empty and clean, with not a soul or piece of litter for miles: a welcome change from their cluttered European counterparts.

Having disembarked from the short cable-ferry crossing I stopped at Le Have Bakery and asked the owner, Gael, whether she knew of a good place to camp. "If you fancy baby-sitting for the night you're very welcome to stay here," she said.

The bakery was a wonderful, 100-year-old, ramshackle wooden shipping warehouse that reached out into the river. One side was a quay for the many small fishing boats. Gael, with helpers, baked 500 loaves a day. She said: "In summer we start baking at midnight, but winter is easy - we begin around 3am." That didn't sound very easy to me.

The next day, outside Liverpool's 'no frills' supermarket, an inflated middle-aged man sidled up to me. "Be careful," he said, "Nova Scotia ain't what it used to be," and then he drifted away.

So far I had only met with genuine hospitality, and was prepared to cast such words of warning aside. But later that day, when cycling down one lonely wooded way, a man sprang out from behind a spruce and dropped his trousers, revealing all. I told him what I thought, which wasn't complimentary, and then scarpered.

A few hours later a white pick-up passed and stopped. A bearded character jumped out and said: "Have I got something to show you!" I thought: Uh-oh! Here we go again. Fortunately he had other intentions.

He was referring to a 90ft schooner that he was building just down the road. His name was Kelly Kellog and he gave me a guided tour of the shipyard. When the boat was finished he was off to sail around the world. "She's called Tree of Life," he said proudly, "and she's my dream."

Once, when I stopped at Goo Goo's Diner to buy a drink, a big station wagon that was at least 10ft off the ground pulled up. Out of the back leapt a huge dog. It snarled and growled at me pugnaciously. I felt the situation called for an enthusiastic trial of my new dog-deterring gadget: a Dog Tazer. As I cowered in the corner about to take aim, an ample-girthed lumberjack lolled along. He took one look at my aggressor. "Shut up you!" he said, "I ain't frightened of no dawgs!" And shut up it did.

Everywhere there were English names: Yarmouth, Chester, Bridgewater and Liverpool. I even came across the River Mersey (sadly, it had no ferry), which is the oldest documented canoe route in North America (1686) and which flows into and out of Lake Rossignol, the largest freshwater lake in Nova Scotia.

One evening, I stopped at the small and empty Sable River camp site. It was owned by a small woman with plastic bags on her feet, following an operation for bunions. She lived with her husband and her 94-year-old English stepfather, Maurice Burkett, who came from Cheshire and who had a distinct northern accent.

That night the dew didn't trouble me, but Canada's 'national birds' (the mosquitoes) did. They arrived in a squadron and were liberally reinforced by a back-up team of smaller, but more lethal, biting black flies. By morning I looked as if I'd contracted measles or some nasty rash.

Once, when camping in some woods, I was woken in the night by some inconsiderately noisy rustling from the bushes. Sincerely hoping it wasn't another 'flasher' I gingerly stuck my head out of the tent door. What a relief! It was only a prickly porcupine. I left him to his short-sighted perambulations.

One evening, when looking for a place to camp, I came across a farm with a nice grassy paddock and thought: that'll do nicely. In the yard a little girl played with her 'Grandpop' who said: "Inside I've a couple of old Chesterfields; come and sleep there." The house looked busy with friends staying and a tribe of children so, not wanting to interfere, I said, 'The paddock will be fine, thanks."

As dusk drew in I heard rustling from the wood and looked up to see a man's puzzled, baseball-capped head. "Jeeze, kid!" said the chubby face, "that tent sure ain't no place to sleep." It was the neighbour. "The name's Don Nelson. Climb up over this here fence and join me for tea."

Don, a retired Air Canada employee, lived in Ankriston Villa, one of the few buildings in Nova Scotia not made of wood. It was a grandiose place, full of antiquated rooms. His friends, Barb and Ron, from New Brunswick, told me about the hazards of picking up moose ticks when camping. They wriggle under the skin and can cause the often fatal Lime disease. They insisted I went to sleep in the villa. I said I didn't want to offend 'Grandpop'. So, by the light of the moon, they stealthily helped me move base.

In three weeks I saw only six cyclists. The first two were a couple of racing cyclists who sped past in a Lycra-blur shouting as they went: "There's a bike shop in Lunenburg!"

Another two were Paul and Pauline from Kent. They had cycled from Toronto in snow and temperatures as low as minus 11"C. After hearing that, I didn't complain again about my frosty nights of camping.

I followed the red-mud shore of the Bay of Fundy, where the tides are the highest in the world. The record variance between high and low has been measured at 54ft. At Five Islands, where I joined in some clam-digging on the massive mud flats, the tide raced in at a trotting pace.

Down the road was Parrsboro where, I learned, the biggest fossil find in North America was unearthed in 1985. This discovery consisted of more than 100,000 pieces of 200 million-year-old fossils. A unique part of the extensive find was a series of dinosaur footprints, each the size of a penny - the smallest ever found.

May was a glorious time to be touring. The apple orchards of the Annapolis Valley were resplendent with sweet-smelling blossom. Never had I seen so many dandelions; the fields and meadows were ablaze with a sunny yellow. For once I had not arrived in a place in its 'wettest spring on record' or 'coldest summer for 87 years'. I was blessed with cloudless skies, although the temperature could, and did, change rapidly and dramatically.

Nova Scotia seemed like one big friendly community to me. Everyone appeared to know everyone. In one village everybody's mail-box had the name 'LeBlanc' inscribed on the side. The store, the gas station and the post office were run by an aunt or uncle, mother, son or grandparent. It's cer­tainly a family-friendly place; maybe the best in North America.

From The Wind in my Wheels by Josie Dew, ISBN 0 356 20658 0

Previous article:
1970s New York photo collection

Next article:
UK, Scotland: My Particular Paradise