Photo by: Herb Swanson
Source: New York Times, June 29, 2007
Author: CATHERINE SAINT LOUIS
DRIVE past the potato fields of the St. John Valley in northernmost Maine, walk into Rosette’s, and a four-inch-high mound of fries hand-cut from regional tubers awaits. So does some half-and-half of a linguistic variety.
“Avez vous finis?” a spry waitress asked a corner table one recent Friday, before clearing the dishes.“Yes,” replied the middle-aged couple.
“Any dessert?” she asked.
“Non, merci,” the wife answered, raising her hands as if to surrender.
If you grew up in Madawaska or across the St. John River in Edmundston, New Brunswick, in the ’60s, your parents may have spoken nothing but French while you and everyone you knew were bilingual. It didn’t matter whether you lived on the American or Canadian side of the border — you were Acadian, proud to speak the language of ancestors who arrived there as refugees in 1785, after the British conquerors of Canada evicted French-speaking settlers from settlements along the Atlantic coast. Land and language meant the world to the Acadians, who had been dispersed from Quebec to Louisiana, even though the younger generation was equally comfortable in English.
But over time some parents stopped insisting their children speak French, and schoolteachers shushed the sons and daughters named Fournier and Cyr. Now many adults in their 30s and 40s cannot speak Valley French, the Acadian patois that is more drawn out than crisp Parisian French.
“I can understand it,” said Ken Theriault Jr., 40, the vice president of the Maine Acadian Heritage Council. “But it can’t turn around in my head and come back out.”
Acadian culture risked becoming invisible. But in the ’90s, after the Maine Acadian Culture Preservation Act, the National Park Service worked with other groups to preserve this heritage, and local people began to realize that their history was their future.
The compelling story of the Acadians’ arrival in the St. John Valley is a lure for tourists as well as for homecoming Acadians themselves. Some of the refugees had escaped the British roundup, which sent many other Acadians to Louisiana, where some became ancestors of the Cajuns; others made the long walk back from exile in the British colonies, mostly Massachusetts.
This weekend the high point of Acadian culture — the annual Acadian Festival, now in its 30th year — will feature dancing in the streets and a re-enactment of the settlers’ first landing in canoes and flat-bottomed boats.
A brochure listing 10 sites in the St. John Valley, published just last month by the Maine Acadian Heritage Council, is a guide to Acadia any time. It was a labor of love, born of equal parts of pride and frustration for its author, Louise Martin, the office manager of the heritage council. “Maine’s tourism board doesn’t do us any favors,” she said. “It’s all lighthouses and lobsters. It’s as if north of Bangor, nothing exists.”
And yet, for the history buff or the curious, there’s plenty to see. The Acadian Village in Van Buren is a good place to start, since you’ll want to explore its 17 buildings. Visit square-hewn log houses, a one-room schoolhouse, or if the kids act up, lock them in the steel-barred early-19th-century jail.
In a modest museum, Evangeline — the lovesick refugee of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem about a couple parted by the expulsion, or le grand dérangement, as the Acadians call it — is immortalized in turquoise papier-mâché and in an impressive 1,700-pound Italian marble statue.
Drive eight miles north to Lille and the Musée Culturel du Mont-Carmel, a former Roman Catholic church built from pinewood in 1909 and never consecrated because its materials were considered too impermanent. Don Cyr has devoted 23 years to a $1.5-million restoration of its Romanesque interior of arches and vaults.
Nuns used to sit between waist-high separators in the front row to assure their flesh wouldn’t be touched. These days, Acadian and classical musicians give concerts there. The church also houses artifacts, including tiny chalices and a toy altar. “Some children play cowboys and Indians,” Mr. Cyr quipped. “Kids around here play Mass.”
Another landmark worth seeing is the Fort Kent Blockhouse, built in the late 1830s during the Aroostook war between the United States and Britain. The bloodless war was resolved by the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842, which set the St. John as the border — and separated the close-knit Acadians into two nationalities.
The Madawaska region is great territory for mountain biking. The Four Seasons Trail, home of the Top of Maine mountain bike race, was recently reconceived by John Morton, a well-known trail designer — the aim is to widen it and lengthen its 6 miles, to 10. So far there’s no place in the area to rent mountain bikes. You have to bring your own.
But you can rent a canoe or kayak to go down the St. John River. Most trips leave before 11 a.m. and with beach stops, can make for a full day of enjoyment.
The morning my mother and I went for a three-mile nature walk, the wild strawberries weren’t ripe yet. Still, we saw moose tracks — and thankfully no moose — under a cathedral of maples, birches and poplars .
Starting on the waterfront of Edmundston, cyclists can bike Le Sentier Petit Temis, 70 miles of hard-packed gravel trail that passes rivers, lakes and towns. Eventually you’ll hit the Quebec border; a dozen miles past it sits Lake Temiscouata, which is ripe for an afternoon dip.
For curated nature, make a quick jaunt to the New Brunswick Botanical Garden. With nine gardens, including one of rhododendrons, it makes an ideal stroll. Its more than 22 acres include a kaleidoscopic range of day lilies and a well-kept rose garden, where fallen petals are gathered daily.
I fell for the giant bloom-filled sculptures of a peacock and a feu follet, a supernatural creature said to lead travelers astray. (In daylight, he looked like a squat gnome.) But oh, the work that goes into these sculptures! A medium-size one takes an employee eight days to fill with soil and 5,500 flower plugs.
IT might seem odd to hopscotch between countries, but American residents of the St. John Valley cross the border daily to work (nice pensions in Canada) or to listen to music (more of a night life in Edmundston). Canadians cross to buy cheaper gas in Maine. After a few days, stopping to speak to the border guards felt familiar, as if you should ask after their families as you answer questions: Are you carrying any alcohol or firearms?
All that’s required of United States citizens at present is a government-issued photo ID. But soon, this ritual will require a passport or an alternative called a Nexus card, which allows prescreened travelers to cross the border. The notion annoyed one Madawaska teacher I spoke with. She’ll have to buy Nexus cards or passports for her four children (at $50 or $97 a pop) just to be able to visit their dentist across the river.
Since Madawaska is one of the four corners of the United States, motorcyclists often get their pictures snapped in front of the post office to prove they were here. A local association is building a monument downtown to commemorate the riders, complete with flags — Maine’s, the Stars and Stripes, the Canadian Maple Leaf, and the Acadian flag, which has the French flag as its base and on the left a gold star, symbolizing the protection of the Virgin Mary.
Dozens of Acadian flags go up for the Acadian festival, the largest cultural gathering in Maine. Main Street in Madawaska is shut down for a dance party. Artisans demonstrate how rugs were once woven, and foot-tapping Acadian musicians play fiddles, washboards and harmonicas. Five-person teams also race beds on wheels. “Last year we went too far,” said Jerry Carter, who helps organize the festival. “By the time we got back, our tongues were hanging out. Not this year. We’re too old for that.”
The festival is the easiest time for visitors to find Acadian comfort foods, but not the only time. Stacks of ployes, spongy crater-filled buckwheat pancakes, are served at restaurants in lieu of a bread basket. (Slather them with butter or maple syrup.) Also sample chicken stew, a mishmash of broth, potato chunks and nickel-size dumplings.
For happy hour, plant yourself on the porch of Dekadan in Edmundston, a restaurant with that just-off-work rowdiness. Starting at 10 p.m. on Fridays, cover bands rouse the gathered with U2 and Neil Young until 2 a.m. With a beer in hand, it’s far too easy to stay until the night owls show up.
A car is essential for a visit to the St. John Valley and can be rented at the airport in Presque Isle, Me., about 90 minutes from Madawaska.
The brochure “Heritage Sites of the St. John Valley” ($5) is available from firstname.lastname@example.org. The Acadian Village (Route 1, Van Buren; 207-868-2691; www.connectmaine.com/acadianvillage; admission $5) is open daily noon to 5 p.m. from mid-June to mid-September. Musée Culturel du Mont-Carmel (Route 1, Lille; free) is open noon to 4 p.m., except summer Saturdays. The Fort Kent Blockhouse (off Route 1, free) is open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. until Labor Day. Information on the Four Seasons Trail is at www.fourseasonstrail.org.
The Long Lake Sporting Club (48 Sinclair Road, Sinclair; 207-543-7584) is the place to be on a Saturday night. Three-pound lobsters start at $58, and everything comes with ployes. Local people flock to Rosette’s (240 Main Street, Frenchville; 207-543-7759) for homemade pie and hand-cut fries, starting at under $3. Rena’s Roadside Diner (437 Main Street, Grand Isle; 207-895-3012) serves regional specialties like sliced pork with a white gravy ($7.50) during the Acadian festival (annually at the end of June, 207-728-6250; www.acadianfestival.com) and gooey bread pudding ($1.95) any time.
The bare-bones Gateway Motel (735 Main Street, Madawaska; 207-728-3318), has 45 tidy rooms starting at $69.
The New Brunswick Botanical Garden (15 rue Principale, Saint-Jacques; 506-737-4444; www.nbbotanicalgarden.com), is open daily from mid-June through September, admission is 14 Canadian dollars, about $13 at 1.09 Canadian dollars to the U.S. dollar. Le Canotier (214 chemin Rivière Verte, Rivière Verte; 506-263-2201) rents kayaks and canoes for 25 to 35 Canadian dollars.
Au Chalet Bed and Breakfast (712 Canada Road, Edmundston; 888-739-7703; www.auchaletbedandbreakfast.com), owned by a charming former plus-size model, has three rooms starting at 100 Canadian dollars. Auberge les Jardins Inn (60 rue Principale, Saint-Jacques; 506-739-5514; www.auberge-lesjardins-inn.com) has 37 rooms from 89 to 119 Canadian dollars.
The porch at Dekadan (192 rue Victoria, Edmundston; 506-739-7092) is an inviting place for a drink.