On one of our many camper trips, we’d been traveling in Maine and were headed to the Bay of Fundy coast. We were in Lubec where the Roosevelt Memorial Bridge is located; it’s the only way you can get from the mainland to Campobello, one of the Fundy Islands in New Brunswick, Canada. Northern Maine is covered by an immense forest that spreads over the entire Adirondack region; Campobello and the numerous islands surrounding it are detached bits of these great Maine woods that had originally been settled by the Passamaquoddy Nation. In the early 17th century French explorers, including Champlain, were the first Europeans to see these islands.
But instead of crossing right over to Campobello as we’d first planned, we realized we were near the Quoddy Head State Park and its miles of walking trails, forested areas, two bogs, and one of the many lighthouses that dot Maine’s 5,000 miles of coastline. We decided to stop. In the morning we drove out to the West Quoddy Head Light. As we were making our way down a dirt road— after having passed a couple of signs that cautioned us to look for turtles or geese that might be crossing—we saw the lighthouse which looked exactly as a lighthouse is supposed to, clad in thick horizontal bands of red and white stripes. It was sitting at the end of the road with nothing beyond it but green sea water and views of nearby, dangerous black cliffs, and the red cliffs of Grand Manan Island across the bay.
From the lighthouse, we followed a trail to one of the bog areas where interpretive signs along a boardwalk explained its unusual ecosystem. On the way back, we walked along the shore. We had remembered to bring our binoculars but weren’t able to spot any seals or porpoises or any of the whales that return there in the summertime from warmer waters. But we did see a raft of ducks and other shore birds bouncing along on the waves and munching on goodies in the sand.
The next morning, we crossed the bridge to Campobello, a small, sparsely populated island; during the last census it had 872 permanent residents, yet its name is well-known as the summer home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his family. And it was where, in 1921, he contracted polio.
We soon experienced why the charm of Campobello Island was special to the Roosevelt’s. The island sits at the southern end of the Bay of Fundy, famous for having the highest tidal range in the world. Tide schedules are posted at many docks and wharves all around the island, and while the tides are not quite as dramatic as they are farther north, the average high tide is about twenty feet above low tide. During the several days we spent there, we loved driving around the island and seeing its natural wonders.
Most residents of Campobello Island are employed in tourism, fishing, or other trades in aquaculture although its earlier history was quite a bit more “fishy,” so to speak—it was smuggling. From the 18th century during the American Revolution when many loyalist refugees settled there, smuggling was a major industry and a source of its prosperity. There were numerous laws, blockades, and embargoes that interfered with trade between Europe and North America during the American Revolutionary War and later on, during the Napoleonic Wars and their American offshoot, the War of 1812. This robust market in contraband, essentially a black market, was abetted by the frequent dense fog around the island.
The contraband ranged from cattle, timber, flour, gypsum, silk, and wool, to various spirits: rum, Scotch and Irish whiskies, and French wine. Rum running was extremely profitable. A five-gallon keg purchased in the Caribbean for about 25 cents sold for 40 dollars in the U.S. And there were no tariffs or taxes to pay. Even Benedict Arnold, the infamous traitor, came to Campobello Island to engage in the illegal trade shortly after the American Revolution. Once conditions normalized, however, the smuggling trade waned, and by the late 1800s, Campobello’s potential for tourism was recognized.
A luxury hotel was built, and the island quickly became popular among wealthy Canadians and Americans. Some built grand estates there. In 1883, among those who were attracted to the island were FDR’s parents, Sara Delano and James Roosevelt Sr. Franklin spent every summer of his childhood and youth on Campobello. Later, it was where Eleanor and Franklin and their children spent their summer holidays until 1921. The former Roosevelt summer estate, now the 2,800 acre Roosevelt Campobello International Park, is administered jointly by the U.S. and Canada. The park includes not only the grounds, woods and beaches of the former Roosevelt estate, but also the family’s thirty-four room summer “cottage.”
The first place we visited on the island was the Roosevelt cottage, which has been preserved nearly as it was in 1920, the summer before Franklin was stricken with polio. Although large, it wasn’t pretentious; it was a comfortable home, filled with interesting memorabilia. The cottage didn’t have electricity or phone service; it was lit by candles and kerosene lamps and was heated by its fireplaces (no less than seven) and kitchen stoves. However, it did have running water which was piped into the house via gravity from storage tanks that were kept full from another larger tank that sat on top of a windmill.
It was sad to think of the tragedy that occurred there, and that Franklin suffered such great pain and distress. But he was determined that his disability would not define him, and it never did. After his paralysis, he returned to Campobello Island only occasionally. His political life left him little time for leisure, and he had discovered Warm Springs, in Georgia. In the 88 degree waters of its natural spring, he was had some relief from the heavy braces he had to endure.
We’d been warned by the literature that our trek to the Head Harbor Lightstation, the older sister of the West Quoddy Light that we’d visited in Lubec a few days earlier, would be affected by the Fundy tides and that we must check the daily schedule. We did so before we set out the next day. Still, after scrambling up and down along the craggy shoreline, as we approached the ladder that would take us up to the level of the lighthouse, we were taken aback by a sign that read: “Extreme Hazard. Beach exposed only at low tide. Incoming tide rises 5 feet per hour, and may leave you stranded for 8 hours. Wading or swimming is extremely dangerous due to swift currents and cold water. Proceed at your own risk.” With just a touch of scary, it was great fun to get to the Lightstation and back to the camper unscathed.
During our stay on the island we feasted on sweet, succulent seafood, especially lobster. There were a number of restaurants, but we returned to Family Fisheries more than once where it’s possible to have lobster in a variety of forms: rolls, stews, or just boiled, splashed with lemon, and dunked in drawn butter. When we visited the Herring Cove Provincial Park we brought cold, cooked lobster with us for lunch. The next day, when we took a self-guided tour of the Friar’s Head Trail, I packed a picnic lunch of lobster salad from the leftovers. Steve was getting a little tired of it, but I, apparently, hadn’t even come close to reaching my limit.
We also spent a couple of days driving around the island, visiting modest villages and wharves. It was mid-June, still early for the tourist season this far north, so we were able to wander along almost deserted beaches. We rambled along its rugged and undulating coastline with its numerous harbors, coves, ponds and points, those little peninsula fingers of land that jut out from the island where the sea almost surrounds you.
Although we were looking forward to our trip along the Fundy Coastal Drive, we quite reluctantly left the placeFDR called his “beloved island.”
Carole Bell Ford is a Hudson Valley writer. Her first book, an oral history, was The Girls: Jewish women of Brownsville, Brooklyn, (SUNY Press, 2000). An excerpt from The Girls was included in Jews of Brooklyn (University Press of New England, 2002). A second book, The Women of CourtWatch: Reforming a corrupt family court system (University of Texas Press, 2005) was selected by the national organization, Justice for Children, as an outstanding work. After the Girls Club: How teenaged Holocaust survivors built new lives in America (Lexington Books) was published in 2010, and in 2013 my essay “Letters from Riverside,” based upon letters written by a young, mid-19th century feminist, was included in an award winning anthology, A Slant of Light: Contemporary Women Writers of the Husdon Valley (Codhill Press, 2013). She has also written a travel column for the online journal: New Paltz Nation. The above excerpt is from a forthcoming book, On and Off the Beaten Path: The best road trips in twenty years of travel in the U.S. and Canada, available through Amazon and other online sources.