Thursday, July 23, 2009

Cape Breton Highlands National Park, NS: A Cabot Trail Photo Album

Cape Breton is a large island that defines the eastern end of Nova Scotia. It is a popular destination for many travelers, including these two cyclists. The Cabot Trail is a road that follows the shore along the northern trace. It oddly crosses in and out of Cape Breton Highlands National Park, so following the trail is a mixture of sections of craft stores and motels followed by vistas of undeveloped shoreline cliffs and wooded plateaus.

The areas is also one of cultural contrasts. Along the eastern shore we stopped at a gas station, and the attendant there spoke pure Gaelic to his neighbor filling his tank. By the time we reached the town of Cheticamp on the west shore, fiddle music played in the background in the public places and Acadian French was the dominant language. All within less than a hundred kilometers.

Cape Breton is popular for cycling, and we met the most bike tourists so far on our trip. The route is legendary, mostly because of four steep hills. The recommendation is to do the route clock-wise, but ever the contrarians, we did it the other way. The angst early in our trip about that darned Achilles tendon was in anticipation of these climbs. But being 100% healed, I had room to fear other things, like mosquitoes, rain, and low blood sugar.

Our first hill was Kelly Mountain. It was overcast and pleasantly cool yet humid on our ascent. The reward was a view down of the Seal Island Bridge that we crossed just an hour or so earlier.

We wanted to relish the hills, so we did one a day over the five days it took us to traverse the trail. After the hill at Cape Smokey we stayed an extra day at the lovely campground at Ingonish to rest and wait out a rainstorm. The weather moves fast in this region, and the interesting cloud pattern dissipated in the time it took to take this picture and to call to John in the tent to come out and see.

The day after was clear and spectacular. It was on this day that we had our best views of the rocky shores as we traveled between Ingonish and Pleasant Bay.

We took a scenic side road at Neils Harbour that afforded nice views towards White Point.
And the hill at North Peak was a challenge -- winds and traffic added to the fun. There were numerous turnouts and vistas, which made good rest stops on the way up. It never ceases to amaze me how we can be chugging up a hill, pull into a turnout, and crowds of RV and motorbike travelers parked there will not even look us in the eye or acknowledge our effort. But they are offset a hundred times over by the honks and thumbs-up we have had throughout our entire trip through Canada.

But with every up there is a down, and my hands ached from braking on this one.

The significance of Cape Breton National Park is that it protects the ecosystem of the highlands, which are virtually inaccessible. But it is in the river valleys that incise the highlands where old growth hardwood forests still exist, a glimpse of the native flora untouched by logging. We did a short hike into one of the forests, winding along a path under a sheltered canopy of sugar maples.

And moose enjoy the forest, too.

After ascending our last climb up Mackenzie, we had the fun of the descent on the French Mountain side.

The coastal views on the way down were spectacular, but a bit dampened by the gray skies.

Rain descended on us at Cheticamp Beach. We were forced to say an extra day to wait it out. In the evening the most furious thunderstorm we have had in a long time came through. The sheet of rain obscured the other side of the bay, and flooded the campground, including our little tent. We sopped it up best we could, and our air mattresses floated us on top of the moisture throughout the night.

We said good-bye to the Cabot Trail at Margaree Forks, following the coast and then crossing inland to Whycocomagh. Like making up after a big argument, the sun after the storm is sweet.

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