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Boardwalks lead through La Dune de Bouctouche, a park that stretches along the New Brunswick coast for more than seven miles.
Boardwalks lead through La Dune de Bouctouche, a park that stretches along the New Brunswick coast for more than seven miles. (Michael Kenney for The Boston Globe)

Villages evoke Acadian and personal histories

Email|Print| Text size + By Michael Kenney
Globe Correspondent / May 7, 2006

BOUCTOUCHE, New Brunswick -- The misfortunes of a long-ago war created a lively French-speaking enclave along the northern coast of New Brunswick, and the fortunes of nature gave it sheltered fishing harbors.

It is the Acadian Coast, where the small towns suggest Brittany -- without an overseas flight -- and dune-sheltered fishing villages evoke an undiscovered Cape Cod. Even without knowing of those attractions in advance, we might have chosen this coast for a summer family vacation, for dimly recalled ancestral ties pulled us to the region, and especially to Bouctouche.

The town, with its unpretentious, workaday charm, proved to be a perfect choice for a window into the region's history at a re-created fishing village and into its ecology on a spectacular sand dune. It was an ideal base for further explorations along the coast and inland.

We arrived -- two parents, two adult daughters, one with her partner and Sadie, their lively 18-month-old -- after a nine-hour drive from Cambridge, to find the town decked out with banners for its Acadian Festival, celebrated each August, and the unofficial Acadian flag, the French tricolor with a gold star in the upper blue corner, flying just about everywhere.

''By you dropping in, you make us proud," said Dorine Maillet, our guide at the historic village and, like many others in the area, a distant relative.

The original Acadia was a French colony that became Nova Scotia after the British won it during the colonial wars of the 17th century. The Acadians were the French colonists who were deported in 1755, and immortalized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's ''Evangeline." The World Acadian Congress was held in 2004 at Grand Pré, Evangeline's village in Nova Scotia.

Many of the Acadians were sent to Louisiana (today's Cajuns), others to New England or back to France. A few, though, including our ancestor, Paul Hébert, fled westward into the pine forests of what is now New Brunswick, then north and west along its fertile coast. Bouctouche (pronounced buck-toosh) -- the name is a Gallicized version of the original Micmac word Chebooktoosk, meaning ''big little harbor" -- was settled by descendants in 1785.

We found the family connection to Bouctouche at Saint-Jean Baptiste, the church overlooking the river, which replaced the church where my grandfather's brother, Jean Hébert, was the pastor for some 20 years before a fire claimed it.

A visitor to the region quickly feels a lingering sense of inferiority amid the proud displays of Acadian symbols. Consider the re-created Acadian village on a small island in the Bouctouche River.

The name of the village, Le Pays de la Sagouine, translates as the land of the poor woman who scrubs floors. That is a reference, Maillet said, to the women who took the train into Moncton every day to scrub floors in the 1930s.

Le Pays de la Sagouine, reached by a wooden footbridge, depicts Bouctouche as a fishing village in the relatively recent past of the 1930s as recorded in local memory and in the novels and plays of Antonine Maillet, a native of Bouctouche.

''That was a time," Maillet said, when many Acadians ''still lived very poorly." Growing up in Bouctouche in the '30s, she went to a one-room schoolhouse where the books were in English, ''but we spoke French at home."

In a poor family's re-created bare-floor and sparsely furnished house, Maillet showed a well-worn wedding dress.

''There'd be one wedding dress for the village," she said, ''with a wide ribbon at the waist to be taken in or let out depending on the size of the bride." Still, she said, ''we never went to bed hungry, because we always had the lobsters," adding, ''but we'd rather have had peanut butter."

Along with the history, what draws large numbers of summer visitors are the daylong performances by Acadian musicians and a comedy troupe that performs skits by Maillet. On weekend evenings, there are ''mega-spectacles," which have included a Maillet drama celebrating the 400th anniversary of the first French settlement in what is now Nova Scotia.

Our base was Chebooktoosk Cottages, well-maintained two-bedroom cottages on the riverbank across from town. It was close enough to hear evening music from Le Pays de la Sagouine and a short walk along the river to La Shop de Poisson, a small seafood take-out where you wait while meat for a lobster roll is removed from the shell, and where oysters are sold by the pound, with the loan of a shucking knife.

Just north of town lies La Dune de Bouctouche, which stretches grandly almost 7 1/2 miles along the coast, sheltering the bay behind it -- much as does, on a larger scale, the outer arm of Cape Cod. A 10-mile bike trail leads from the town through forests to the dune.

The entire dune is now preserved as the Irving Eco-Centre, a provincial park developed by a group of forestry and petroleum companies which grew out of the Irving family's 19th-century sawmill and general store.

A network of boardwalks leads out along the barrier beach and the salt marsh behind it, though never to exceed its present 1.2-mile length, explained Eric Demers, a park guide -- even, he said, as the dune gradually lengthens and moves inland under the influence of winter storms.

Like the Cape Cod National Seashore, the dune was threatened by recreational use, and the Irving group began acquiring land from local owners in the 1970s. Now there are educational programs, scientific conferences, and ongoing fieldwork on the dune's ecology.

We spent one day exploring northward along the coast, noting several towns -- including Caraquet, which boasts an even more extensive re-created Acadian village, and the old shipbuilding city of Miramichi -- for longer visits on a return trip, perhaps in 2009 when the next Acadian National Congress will be held in Caraquet.

After five days on the coast, our party split up. The younger contingent headed for two days on the Bay of Fundy, while the senior members were dropped off in the inland city of Moncton.

Moncton provided an urban change of scene whose well-preserved 19th-century commercial buildings justify a ''historic walking tour" along a Main Street enlivened by no fewer than 16 sidewalk cafes in a half-dozen blocks.

The Université de Moncton is a French-speaking institution in an English-dominated city; Colonel Robert Monckton conducted the Acadian expulsion campaign in 1755. Its museum features historical exhibits and a gallery devoted to works from the ''Acadian Renaissance" of the past 30 years.

The highly touted tidal bore, a wave that races up the Petitcodiac River with the incoming tide from the Bay of Fundy, still draws a crowd to the riverfront at the change-of-tide, but is no longer the 3-foot crest that ranked it among the world's 10 greatest such phenomena. Proposals for a bridge to replace the causeway that has silted the river, thus diminishing its flow, promise a return of a more impressive bore.

So, jot down a revived tidal bore, the forthcoming Acadian National Congress in Caraquet, and those bypassed coastal towns as welcome excuses for a family's return to its Acadian roots.

Contact Michael Kenney, a freelance writer in Cambridge, at mkenney777@comcast.net.

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