Saint John New Brunswick: Sea Dogs (QMJHL) and Partridge Island

Hopewell Rocks, Hopewell Hill, Saint John, New Brunswick

Fall 2013.


There's a certain dread that comes with living in a place with such an awful winter, so while it had only snowed a few flakes late at night, the days continued to grow shorter and colder.

And with that, a hasty decision was made to go to Saint John for Canadian Thanksgiving. Having just spent plenty of time and money to go with Clarkman on that baseball trip, I wasn't about to spend any more vacation days at the very least. Following work on Friday, it was onto the night ferry, followed by driving 5 straight hours to get over to New Brunswick, then leaving the highway at Moncton towards the Bay of Fundy for the first time, towards the Hopewell Rocks.

As the Hopewell Rocks are a hotspot on the Maritime tourist circuit, the leading highway had much more than your average New Brunswick highway. Things such as this pleasant church turned antique store.

The Hopewell Rocks are sandstone stacks and coves, shaped by the highest tides in the world here in the Bay of Fundy. At low tide, we walked about a kilometer from the descending staircase, at high tide, the stack in the above picture is an island.

Turning southwest from the Hopewell Rocks, I wanted to go get nearby Cape Enrage Lighthouse - which although it's on private property, we're talking about October in rural New Brunswick. Unfortunately, after driving on the twisting road, I pushed up one last hill to find two couples worth of bikers at the top. Looking more like bikers originating from Boss Hogs instead of Easy Rider, I decided against just walking in like I owned the place, standing around awkwardly taking pictures while trying to see if they planned on leaving anytime soon.

In the end, I got tired of waiting while the cape delivered on its promise, speeding away enraged with the whole fiasco.

Next up, we happened upon the Sawmill Creek Covered Bridge. Built in 1905, it has been preserved as a historic site since it was decommissioned in 1975.

I've now seen two covered bridges in my life - both in New Brunswick.

Pulling into Saint John near sunset, I sped towards their Hollywood-like hillside letters to get warm pictures at day's end.

(They're Hollywood-like in that they're on a hill; not in size or scope.)

Whereas I'm usually a fan of camping or motels, the motel/hotel choices in Saint John were expensive and/or outside of the core. There was one option that looked like it was up my alley, but I'd later find out the reason I couldn't get a hold of them was that they're converting the place into senior's apartments.

Skipping out of these mediocre hotel options was possible thanks to a reasonably priced bed & breakfast, which also satisfied my desire to stay downtown amongst the old churches and brownstones that I had came all this way to experience.

The night would involve going out for some decent Egyptian food, then hitting a bar with a relatively good beer selection. I was trying to be good and take her easy in terms of beer and sleep, but the promise of Hoegaarden at one last bar threw a wrench into that.

The funny thing was that this last bar ended up being out of one thing - Hoegaarden. I had a lousy Sam Adams and called it a night.

Waking in the morning and flashing back to thoughts of home, I had recently heard that the city couldn't install the skatepark's new $10k picnic table, ledge and manual pad because it was too close to winter. How sad my life had become to care so deeply about something that 1000-person towns like Thamesville have had for over a decade. With all of that, there was little chance I wasn't getting out of bed to ride Saint John's actually city-adequate skatepark.

Since I wasn't sure if skaters actually enforced the no biking rule here, I had to get up early.

In the end it was more than worth it, as I overcame a few things, even though I had my peg stick on the dumbest thing, multiplied by the annoyance of hitting the concrete in 38°F/3°C weather.

There wasn't a skateboarder to be found during the time that I was there & I remain clueless as to whether they would have cared.

It was such a nice morning that even though it was brisk and I was now sweaty, I had to risk pneumonia to walk around the beautiful streets of this great city.

The Old Centenary Methodist Church was very close to the bed & breakfast; so close that I laughed at a line of gulls upon its long roofline the night before.

What I didn't laugh at was the sad state of the building, where it seemed to have been used for a community centre of late, but was shabby by the time I found myself here. I would come to learn the building hasn't been used as a church since 1999, but it indeed was a community centre/performance space until very recently. This was all because of a man named Phillip Huggard, who bought the building from the Methodists in the early 2000s, after seeing the writing on the wall while they left it to decay and vacancy.

It all comes to a sad end now, right? Well no. After seeing the for sale signs and lack of maintenance, I came home to find out that the place was bought by a Toronto developer, who moved his family to Saint John with plans to turn the place back into a community center, but with condos attached. The condos look a little out of place in regards to the rest of the neighborhood, but I've always been happy to see a little leeway given to prevent a future grassy lot.

We shall see.

Back at the B&B, how could I eat standard breakfast in such a beautiful city with varying dining options? Finding myself off the island and with Yelp listing promising places, I was more than excited to try a southern twist at the Magnolia Cafe.

Southern food in Saint John New Brunswick? I generally don't judge a place by how it doesn't fit in, but I can understand the general public's skepticism. That being said, my crab cake eggs benedict on cornbread was pretty damn good. In addition, you're talking about a corner spot in hilly downtown with giant windows where you can appreciate the old customs office across the street?

I was happy with the meal, and not just because I wasn't eating at a cafeteria style room attached to a mall (oh hai Corner Brook!).

After breakfast, I drove down to the harbour because I wanted to see The Three Sisters.

This was a cool lighthouse, where mariners could navigate into the harbour safely by lining up the above lanterns with Saint John's Trinity Church and making sure that they could see all three lights.

Unfortunately in the course of renovating the harbour front to appeal to tourists, the city removed the original 1848 trident and replaced it with this replica.

Another beacon which helped mariners navigate into the tricky, yet bustling port of Saint John, was located on Partridge Island.

Unfortunately, the only way out to the island involves crossing on the breakwall, but that can be both dangerous in bad weather and it isn't allowed anyway, as you're not supposed to land on the island.

But wait!

This way?

Pushing outward from Negro Point as you walk along the breakwall, the city slowly starts to emerge from the small hills you just descended. I couldn't stare at the city as I walked along though, for the breakwall has different divisions of width and rock size. You would be walking along fine, then there would be a portion with giant boulders that you'd need to use your hands - then sure enough as that came, it would go - back to rocks where you had to move your feet quickly to find different places to put them.

At least you couldn't ask for better weather. I'll admit that I thought the sea would be cooler and I didn't bring enough water, but away from that, I was happy that there was zero threat of rain or fog.

Unlike The Three Sisters, the Partridge Island Lighthouse actually counts.

It was built in 1959.

After nearly an hour on the breakwall, the island's cliffs were just up ahead; accompanied by sudden, loud noise. Approaching a Coast Guard island you're not supposed to be on, a sudden and loud noise will work wonders to jolt your brain into wondering what is afoot. It sure sounded like a helicopter. And this is the same government entity who can find millions to demolish lighthouses out in the middle of nowhere - what's a little helicopter time to dole out a few trespassing tickets?

Scurrying to the shadows at the base of the island cliff, the noise suddenly got louder and louder, until the helicopter flew almost directly over us. That was the good thing though, the helicopter was headed back to Saint John & presumably back to the Coast Guard base.

(Of course this was a time where my camera wouldn't focus until the helicopter was halfway back to Saint John...)

What were they doing out on the island though? It's not as if 98% of lighthouses aren't automated these days. This was the 1 day of the year they came to do their annual maintenance?

Unlike the fate of the Old Centenary Methodist Church, this is one mystery I'll never know the conclusion.

Giving the Coast Guard some time in case they forgot their clipboard or favourite pen at the lighthouse, eventually the hill was scurried up, past anti-Harper graffiti (lol) and into long grasses, leading into a thin group of trees with an easily traversable forest floor.

Arbitrarily following one path towards the tallest structure on the island - aside from the lighthouse - a murder of crows squawked in the nearby Mountain Ash, as I entered the battery observation post.

Inside the Battery Observation Post

By now you may have gathered that Partridge Island isn't just another lighthouse island. In fact, it could be one of Canada's most historic islands.

Partridge Island was first mapped and shared amongst Europeans in the 1600s, after Samuel Champlain explored the area and noticed a great number of ruffed grouse on the island, hence, Partridge Island. By the late 1700s, Acadians had set up on the shores of the island and as Canada's first incorporated city grew through the 1780s, Partridge Island was determined to be the best place for a lighthouse, in order to guide incoming ships from the Bay of Fundy, into the docks and shipyards of Saint John.

This first lighthouse was finished in 1791, becoming the 1st lighthouse constructed in New Brunswick & only the 3rd in all of Canada. Unfortunately, with the dangerous ways they lit lamps back then, this wooden lighthouse burnt down in 1830.

These lightkeepers might also have been stressed with the fact that they had added duties at the island's quarantine station. That is because, much like Grosse Ile near Quebec City, Partridge Island was set up to stop immigrants from bringing infectious disease to Canada, diseases like cholera, typhus, scarlet fever and smallpox.

The quarantine station included a kerosene shower for anyone coming over from the old country. For those who were already exhibiting signs of disease, Partridge Island also had Canada's first pest house or fever shed - a building used to store the immigrants as they suffered and often died.

A great number of these poor souls came from Ireland during the Potato Famine. 2000 Irishmen and Irishwomen came in 1844, 6000 in 1845, 9000 in 1846, and the worst year of all, "Black 47", saw 15000 Irish immigrants come to New Brunswick. In just the Black 47 summer, 600 Irish immigrants died on Partridge Island, many of them buried in mass graves only sorted according to their religion. In order to honour the loss of life, a 40-foot Celtic Cross was erected on the island in 1927.

(Apparently there's a plaque at the base of the Celtic Cross that explains all of this, but I didn't see it as it was far too overgrown.)

The Immigration/Quarantine Station on the island would deal with cholera afterwards, then an influx of Jewish immigrants through the turn of the century, before eventually closing in 1941.

The island has also had a military history for nearly as long as it has dabbled in navigation and disease control.

The first wooden barracks were built on the island all the way back in the year 1800, with the mandate coming from the Duke of Kent (who nowadays would be Prince Edward). The island's oceanic location near the United States meant that fortification would continue through the War of 1812 and into the Fenian Raids of 1866-1871 (the Fenian Raids were conducted by Irish-Americans who attacked Canada to influence Britain to leave Ireland).

Looking out from the Battery Observation Post

Partridge Island would be fitted with greater devices of defense shortly after, further beefed up around WWI in fear of German submarines. After a lull in activity between the two World Wars, the island was again put on alert by WWII, to the point where the quarantine station was turned into a military hospital, underground bunkers were dug out and observation posts (see pictures) were constructed.

The island would never intercept any German submarines, and not long after the end of WWII in 1945 the military left, with Partridge Island never having seen a conflict in its 1.5 centuries of defense.

Back in the current day, I didn't want to be out on Partridge Island all afternoon, but everything was coming together to cut my time particularly short. There's just so much on the island, and with where the Coast Guard had ate up time and the breakwater took longer than expected, I had to get going if I wanted to attend to any other daytime plans.

I could happily go back and camp on Partridge Island, in order to have enough time to satisfactorily cover everything.

The last thing that was a must-see involved going back across the island, to what appeared to be the highest point.

This is the 4th Partridge Island Lighthouse, with one existing from 1832-1880, then another from 1880-1959, before finally being replaced by your standard Canadian lighthouse of the 1950s.

At least they kept the vertical red and white stripes that the lighthouses on this island have had for over 230 years.

The breakwall hike back seemed to be shorter, as hikes back always seem to be, but also because we knew more food and water were at the other end. Fort Dufferin is on the other side of the breakwall at Negro Point, so we took a brief look at those ruins as well, but having left Partridge Island due to time constraints, I decided I can easily return to Fort Dufferin some other time.

Speeding into town to look at a few ledges I wanted to try, I also stopped at Saint John's Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, both for the sizable handrail out front & for the wonder of what the interior of the grand structure held.

Checking in on the Immaculate Conception, it was only yesterday that news broke of extensive repairs being conducted.

As it was nearing time for the afternoon engagement, I'm not sure how I ever knew about the pedestrian system of Saint John, but somehow I knew to park uphill on one of the side streets, to navigate staircases into the city's network of skybridges and tunnels, known as the Saint John Pedway.

It was about as nice of a day as you could ask for in October, but I could certainly see the benefit of moving about downtown in a sheltered fashion during harsh winter days.

Today, it was little more than a change from the typical walking across a parking lot expanse, into a set of doors at QMJHL Stadium #8.

Situated upon a large swath of cleared land right next to the skatepark, Harbour Station naturally lends itself to wonder as to what awesome building was knocked down prior to construction. The good thing is that yes, there used to be Saint John's Union Station Train Terminal here, but they actually knocked it down in the 70s during a period of low usage, with this area being a vacant parcel until the city's major arena build in 1993.

The Saint John Flames of the AHL would play here for 10 years, before folding and the new owners needing to pay the QMJHL expansion fee to bring the Sea Dogs here.

Sitting here today, now I only had the Halifax Mooseheads left to see in Atlantic Canada!

This was right around the time I was really psyched on Jonathan Huberdeau, inexplicably trading Tyler Seguin for him in fantasy.

This is inexplicable because Tyler Seguin might be about the 10th best player and Huberdeau about the 150th best nowadays; but on this day, I was very happy to see all things Huberdeau, probably the most famous Sea Dog they've had in their short history.

(A Sea Dog is a seal by the way. It was funny to see a Saint John "sea dog" pop its head up along the breakwall, then see some more Saint John Sea Dogs at Harbour Station.)

While I was very excited about all things Huberdeau, I was then extremely bummed out by the fact that somehow a QMJHL arena didn't have poutine.

The dream of having a poutine at every QMJHL arena had crashed and burned.

I suppose one day I'll have to sneak gravy and cheese curds into Harbour Station, at a time after I get to Sherbrooke and Rouyn-Noranda for the QMJHL stadiums I have remaining.

As for where I rank Harbour Station, I consider it a tough spot to rate an arena based on an afternoon game, but I guess that's where I stand. There were lots of children, little interest in the game and gaps in seats based on the game being in early October. On the other hand, it's funny that an early 90s stadium was almost nostalgic and old feeling, something that I appreciated. There was also a few different beer choices on account of Moosehead being in New Brunswick.

But for how much I like Saint John as a city, we're still talking about a 1990s arena, while comparing it to Quebec arenas that have skillfully incubated my love for the Q.

Harbour Station would be close to the bottom of the ranks.

Needing to get back for the Monday day ferry left us with a weird amount of time, where we were able to go out for Indian in Saint John, but needed to get driving afterwards. In yet another awesome brick building, we actually sat in featured window seats, as there were only 2 other people eating Indian food there on Canadian Thanksgiving.

While the Egyptian dinner was just okay, the Indian was closer to the Magnolia Cafe in terms of quality.

Leaving Saint John & driving into the night, the eight hours of driving left us around Cape Breton's Whycocomaugh at sunrise - a foggy spectacle of a sunrise if I've ever seen one, with the sun doing a decent job of shining on the highway, but having trouble breaking through the clouds rising up from Bras D'or Lake.

For the greatness of Saint John's architecture, their abandoned forts and amazing skate plazas, I'm still not sure about the resources and time spent driving 11 hours & ferrying 7 hours each way for a 3 day weekend.

Oh well. I finally spent time in the one Atlantic Canadian city I wanted to see the most.


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1 - Galen Frysinger Travel - Sawmill Creek

2 - CTV News Atlantic - Saint John's Gothic Arches to be converted into condos

3 - Saint John New - Partridge Island

4 - Canadian War Museum - The Fenian Raids

5 - Legion Magazine - The Sad Story of Partridge Island

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I appreciate when people let me know I'm using punctuation wrong, making grammatical errors, using Rickyisms (malapropisms) or words incorrectly. Let me know if you see one and the next 40/poutine/coney dog is on me.