by Bill Scheller, a Vermont travel writer whose work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, The Washington Post Magazine, Yankee, and Islands, for which he is a contributing editor. He is an avid long-distance cyclist who is already planning next year's trip with his son, Dave.
We pedaled out to the rocks beyond North Cape Lighthouse, at the austerely beautiful northwestern tip of Prince Edward Island. "If we're going to bicycle this Island end to end," I told my 14-year-old son, Dave, "we're not going to cheat." We took the challenge literally: as we started rolling, the Gulf of St. Lawrence all but dabbed at our wheels.
Nearly all of our route would take us along the Confederation Trail, the province's 300-kilometre-long recreation path. Created along an abandoned railway, the trail dips in and out of farmland, forests, and villages much as the trains once did. And like the trains, cyclists on the trail never have to chug their way up steep hills. A two percent grade here and there was plenty for a locomotive pulling passengers or potatoes, and it's plenty for me and Dave.
From North Cape Light we followed a seaside road, watching gulls wheel over the gulf. After five miles, we turned inland to pick up the start of the Confederation Trail at Tignish. "The trail begins in the park, just a block behind us," said the lady in the town's post office, and there it was. It began in the park, and disappeared into the woods – a trail a bit wider than a railroad car, tunneling through a hardwood forest.
A few miles south of Tignish, I saw Dave stopped up ahead. It turned out he was waiting for traffic – in this case, a mother ruffed grouse, with 15 chicks behind her. And that was the heaviest traffic we saw as we made our way through that shadow-dappled forest.
By mid-afternoon, we were treated to our first expansive vistas of cultivated fields. "The million-acre farm" is one of Prince Edward Island's nicknames, and with the lush, green foliage of the summer potato crop spreading across the brick-red soil, we could easily see why.
It was nearly 7 pm when we got to O'Leary, in the heart of potato country – in fact, the town even hosts a potato museum. We were pleasantly exhausted, having pedaled more than 40 miles from North Cape.
"This town doesn't look too big," I said to Dave. "There probably aren't any restaurants close by. Do you want to just call for a pizza if we can, and have it sent to our B&B?"
"I don't feel like pizza," Dave answered.
"Do you want to get back on our bikes after we check in, and go looking for a restaurant?"
"Mushrooms and green peppers," was Dave's response.
As the forest gave way the next day, it revealed more and more of the Island's rural texture. I had started reading Anne of Green Gables the night before, and now, watching the landscape that was rolling past at a stately seven or eight miles an hour, I could understand the sense of place which distinguishes that book as much as any of its characters. Here were lovely neat farms, and settlements free of bustle. It wasn't hard to imagine Anne 's island at the turn of the last century, simply because the centuries don't seem to turn as quickly here.
On we rode, slicing through the fields, among the red-winged blackbirds and goldfinches. Dave stopped and halted me with his hand, motioning for me to look at the hare that stood stock-still ahead on the trail. Not far beyond, a fox ran before us. We were so far out in the country that it seemed miraculous, just a few hours later, to be sitting outdoors at a dockside restaurant in Summerside, watching bright spinnakers unfurl during a sailboat race.
We finished our Summerside visit with a morning round of miniature golf, at a course aptly called St. Andrew's. Ten minutes later, we were back out in the countryside, pedaling through the potato fields.
An easy day's cycling, a bit over 30 miles, brought us to the town of Hunter River. "Wouldn't it be great to find an all-you-can-eat mussel place tonight," Dave had said earlier in the day, and he got his wish. We plowed through three big buckets of the local mollusks, growing boys that we are. Our innkeeper drove us to dinner, then came back to pick us up. As a waitress at the restaurant remarked, "It's the Island way."
By noon the next day we were cruising along the shores of St. Peters Bay, looking across to the tawny dunes of the Greenwich peninsula in the PEI National Park. A half-dozen great blue herons took flight as we pedaled round the edge of a salt marsh. Neat rows of floats dotted the bay's calm waters. Too small and close together to mark lobster traps, they were a puzzle to us until another cyclist told us they were attached to mussel "socks" – strips of mesh to which cultivated mussels cling, awaiting harvest.
The last day brought a light drizzle, and our B&B hostess at Souris kindly drove us back up to the main trail. We devoured the last 10 gentle downhill miles of woods in an hour, speeding up as the skies cleared and the end came into sight. We slapped hands in triumph, coasted through the trellis that marks trail's end, and pulled up at the old station, now a railroad museum. It seemed as if we had biked back to 1928, and could easily catch the express back to Charlottetown.
But even if that had been possible, it would have been cheating. We weren't at the end of the Island yet. We took a left at the museum and hit the blacktop. From here, it was less than 10 downhill miles, with the Gulf of St. Lawrence crowding the land down to nothing, to the lighthouse at East Point.
With red dust on our saddlebags and smiles on our faces, we rode together beyond the lighthouse, to the cliffs above the sea.