Monday, July 13, 2015

Katahdin, Quebec, & Ottawa

I've long had my sights on Mt Katahdin. As the highest point in Maine and the northern end of the Appalachian Trail, it's a peak rich in hiking traditions. I'd decided I didn't want to thru hike the AT (I chose my two summer road trips instead) but Katahdin still held its allure.

Mt Katahdin as seen from South Turner Mountain. I ascended the left skyline. 
So on my way west from PEI I cut back across Maine and made the bumpy drive on roads beaten by logging trucks to Baxter State Park. In the 1920s, Maine's Governor Baxter had the foresight and generosity to use his own money to buy up a lot of the North Woods from the logging companies and then donated the land to the state. But he stipulated that conservation would take precedence over creature comforts: none of the roads in Baxter are paved, the trails are rugged, there is no running water, trashcans, or electricity.

One advantage of climbing Katahdin separate from an AT hike is your flexibility in route choices. I camped on the eastern side of the peak (the AT comes at it from the west) and chose the "Knife Edge" ridge trail. It was a fun, scrambly route with definite drop-offs and exposure, but a razor-blade it was not. There were a few admonitions from fellow campers to look out for certain tricky points on the trail, but I honestly didn't notice anything abnormally difficult. I think too many folks want paved boulevards to ease their way up tall mountains. It's supposed to be hard! Thanks Governor Baxter!

Katahdin's Knife Edge
The AT the easy way: Back in January, I hiked up Springer Mountain in Georgia. And then drove to Maine. 
I exited Baxter State Park and continued west into Canada for the second time on my trip (customs was easier this go around). But it certainly didn't feel like the same Canada I left a week before; in the province of Quebec everything is in French! Thankfully I took some French back in high school and remembered enough of it to get by with the occasional help from Google Translate. And apparently I stood out like a sore thumb and most folks immediately spoke English with me. However, I'm not sure I was legally parked at anytime during my stay in Quebec; the street signs were not bilingual.

With a commanding view of the St. Lawrence River, Quebec City controlled access into the interior of the continent and was strategically important to both French and British colonial ambitions. As a result the city is heavily fortified, with walls, gates, towers, and a citadel that stand to this day. Combined with the winding narrow one way streets, sidewalk cafes, colorful flower boxes, weathered limestone churches, impressive hotels, and French-everything you'll excuse anyone for thinking they are in Europe instead of North America.

Chateau Frontenac, the most famous hotel in Quebec 

Porte Kent, Quebec City
After a night in Quebec City I continued on to Montreal. Montreal is a much larger city, complete with skyscrapers and a metro, but down by the river you can still find Vieux-Montreal or the Old City. Again it had a distinctly European feel and ancient architecture, but it was far more crowded and less quaint than Quebec City. A major metropolis compared to a bustling village.

Basilica de Notre Dame, Montreal
I did enjoy a great night out on the town. While sampling my authentic French bistro dinner, I met a sailor from the Canadian Navy. We swapped sea stories (they had hosted a Coast Guard counter-narcotics team on his last cruise) and I was invited for a couple drinks up on a fabulous rooftop bar overlooking the Old City. A great view for the International Fireworks Festival hosted by Montreal. After the sailor left, I struck up a conversation with a local radio host and his date, both proud "Quebecois." We debated the pros and cons of Quebec independence from Canada long into the night. Apparently during the last referendum in '95 it was a close call, voted down by only a percent!

I said "au revoir" to Quebec and continued west to visit Canada's capital city of Ottawa. My first day in Ontario and I had to spend the night in jail!

A jail hotel! The coolest place ever! Old stone and wrought iron galore. My cell was only about 4x8. I think I would have volunteered for the death penalty instead of spending my life in there!

I posted bail in the morning and walked over to Parliament Hill to witness the Changing of the Guard, a ceremony in tribute to Canada's place in the British Commonwealth.  If Quebec City could have been North America's Paris, then Ottawa was London. A pipe and drum band leading a company of redcoats in bearskin shakos!

With Canada in our backyard who needs to travel to Europe?
I've got a long drive ahead along the north shore of Lake Huron, bound for the Upper Peninsula of Michigan at Sault Ste Marie.

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