COURTESY OF SALLY HALL
Sally and Dave Hall donned full rain gear for their ride through Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
Pedaling through a pastoral paradise
The beauty of Cape Breton Island makes cycling over its hills worth the energy
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Spring had come to Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia with the beauty of a Mozart sonata. On June 14, Cape Breton Island's tiny town of Baddeck looked like an emerald sparkling on the edge of Bras d'Or Lake. Flowering apple trees dropped delicate pink and white blossoms onto the expansive green lawn of our motel, the Ceildh (Caylee) Country Lodge.
"Ceildh," we were told, means "party" in Gaelic. My husband, Dave, and I thought this was appropriate since we were about to begin our own personal spring party. We were preparing to depart on our new bicycling adventure, a ride that would take us 185 miles around the famous Cabot Trail.
But first we needed some lobster. We crossed the street and walked a block to the red-and-white Baddeck Lobster Suppers restaurant overlooking new green grass and the vivid waters of Bras d'Or Lake. We commenced the meal with steamed mussels. Delicious. But the delicate, succulent lobsters sent us into the stratosphere. This was a propitious start to our bicycle tour.
Dave spent the next day assembling our Ramblumtick coupling touring bikes, and we packed our panniers. Finally, we were ready. On June 16, feeling joyful and free, we rode off into the morning.
SALLY HALL / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-BULLETIN
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My husband Dave and I have pedaled into many mornings since 1999 when we began our bicycle touring. I was 55, Dave, 60, when we expanded our world with a ride across the northern United States mainland. Since then we have experienced by bicycle the beauty of Ireland, southwest Utah, the French Pyrenees, and the Alps. The Cabot Trail was our new challenge.
COURTESY OF SALLY HALL
Halls explored Lone Shieling, a replica of a stone Scottish shepherd's hut, in the midst of the park's forests.
In silver fog and a misty drizzle, we pedaled southwest from Baddeck, along the coast of Bras d'Or Lake to Nyanza, traveling along the Margaree River, famous for its salmon, which still run prolifically. There is even a museum in Northeast Margaree, the Margaree Salmon Museum, explaining the history of salmon fishing in the area. Gradually the sun came out, intensifying the spring greens and the blue of the sky and river. The birds sang wildly. The bikes rolled comfortably under us, the gears like silk, as we rose and fell on the gentle hills. After 45 miles we reached the Gulf of St. Lawrence on the west coast of Cape Breton and the snug Duck Cove Inn.
To our surprise, the restaurant did not offer salmon; instead, we had fresh trout that was also caught in the Margaree River, locally made oatcakes, and gingerbread with whipped cream, a local standard. It all provided an appropriate ending to a happy first day on the Cabot Trail.
Red River, a local cereal of seeds and grains, fueled us well for the easy day of cycling ahead. We set off in bright sunshine and cool breezes, crossing a bridge over the mouth of the Margaree River. Riding up the west coast of Cape Breton, the Gulf of Saint Lawrence sparkling on our left, we found ourselves in Acadian country.
Red-and-white lobster traps bobbed in the deep blue waters. Steepled churches and neatly maintained frame houses of gray, taupe, white, red and yellow, built to withstand the often hurricane-force winds, hugged the rocky shore and stood deeply rooted in lush lawns. Most of the houses had chimneys and fireplaces, and nearly every yard held neatly stacked wood logs. Today it seemed everyone was cutting grass.
Above many of the houses, exuberant in the wind, flew the red-and-white Canadian flag and the Acadian flag, the red, white and blue striped flag of France with a yellow star.
COURTESY OF SALLY HALL
At Cheticamp the couple rented a room overlooking the Gulf of St. Lawrence at the Ocean View Cabins and Motel.
Giovanni Caboto, an Italian sailing for the English, as John Cabot, discovered Nova Scotia in 1497. But it was the French who were the first successful European settlers in the area, establishing the colony of Acadia in 1610. After the French and Indian War of 1755, the British claimed the area, and many Acadians were forced to leave, populating sections of the east coast of Canada and the United States. Today, Cheticamp remains the center of French-speaking Acadian culture on Cape Breton Island.
Pedaling effortlessly over the gently rolling hills, we arrived in Cheticamp at about noon. We had come 18 miles, a short day on the bikes for us. People greeted us and each other, "Bon jour! Ca va! Isn't it a beautiful day?"
We rode through the long main street until we came to the end of town and the Ocean View Cabins and Motel, where we secured a room.
After lunch we walked to the Dr. Elizabeth LeFort Gallery and Museum. An interesting collection of artifacts documents the life of the Acadian farmers and fishermen. The Acadians worked hard and made do with what was on hand. A prime example of their ingenuity is their hooked rugs and tapestries made from wool sheared, carded and spun from their sheep and dyed with local plant products.
We walked north along a dirt road paralleling the coast, on a cliff above black rocks. A white seagull rode the wind currents, pausing in silence and beauty above us before tilting to the right, then to the left, on into the distance. We could see tomorrow's ride, the Cabot Trail, shining in the sun, ascending up sheer cliffs and winding away to the north.
A change of plans
We woke to a chilly, dreary morning. Since the weather report called for sun tomorrow, we decided to stay in Cheticamp. We rode our bikes back into the town, where we stocked up on snacks for the ride. The ocean churned black, and cars passed with their lights on and windshield wipers swishing.
We escaped the wet cold of the day in the warmth of the Co-operative Artisanale houses the Acadian Museum and the Restaurant Acadien. The vibrant restaurant was packed with locals dressed warmly in gray, blue, brown and black, conversing animatedly in French. Waitresses in blue-and-white bonnets, white blouses and long blue skirts scurried around taking orders and carrying trays of hot food. Acadian specialties included a potato-and-chicken stew called "fricot," meat pies and potato dishes. We enjoyed the halibut chowder and strawberry rhubarb pie.
In the museum downstairs, Dave and I tried our hand at hooking wool thread onto stretched burlap. Under the direction of the sister of the woman in the gift shop, Dave hooked a red row and then I hooked a blue line. We came away with a new respect for the art of hooking rugs and tapestries.
The drizzle had become a cold, steady rain as we rode to Saint Pierre Church. But inside, the church was warm and lovely. Candles glowed softly, illuminating the colorful painted scene behind the altar and the beautiful white, blue and gold interior. A caretaker told us the church was built in the late 1890s with stone cut from the offshore Cheticamp Island and hauled by horse over the ice in winter to Cheticamp.
Cape Breton Highlands National Park
The morning greeted us with blustery winds from the north, black skies and a turbulent, dark Gulf; white fog blanketing the coast. But we had to get back to Baddeck on time. So, dressed in full rain gear including waterproof hoods, booties and mittens, we rode off, pushing our way into the icy rain, the unusual northerly winds, the gray mists and the wild beauty of this northwestern section of the Cabot Trail.
After two miles of riding, our faces wet and tingling from the frigid rain and head winds, a "boulangerie" looked too inviting to pass, so we went in. It smelled like fresh baked bread, croissants and pastries, just like the bakeries in France.
COURTESY OF SALLY HALL
The east coast of Cape Breton Island provides vistas of the rocky Atlantic shoreline.
"Bonjour, Madame! Bonjour, Monsieur!" Customers and employees spoke French. They also spoke English. One young woman told us she met her husband while cycling the Cabot Trail. A friendly couple, the Danielsons, asked us to stop by their house if we took the Alternate Scenic Route past Smelt Brook. The man was knowledgeable about the weather. Later, we were to discover why.
Passing the entrance to Cape Breton Highlands National Park, we pushed up Jerome Mountain, the road a winding, twisting 11 percent grade through green forested mountains plunging to the Gulf of St. Lawrence far below. The drizzle stopped and the fog lifted somewhat, allowing us visions of the spectacular coast stretching into the distance and the silver thread of our road slicing through the deep green of the fir, birch and maple forests.
French Mountain, at 1,493 feet, took our breath away with 13 percent grades and dizzying descents. Thick fog enveloped us as we cycled across some bogs before MacKenzie Mountain took us up to 1,165 feet, the fog so thick it swallowed the rare car almost as it appeared on the road. Pedaling past a waterfall and the MacKenzie River, we enjoyed dramatic downhills and undulating flat road to aptly named Pleasant Bay, where we slept well that night in our warm, comfortable motel room, having traveled 27 miles that day.
North and East
Scots arrived in Cape Breton Island in the 17th century but did not settle into this rugged land until the late 1820s. They gave their names to mountains, barrens, bogs and lakes: Mackenzie, MacIntosh, McEvoy, Glasgow, Gwinn. "Nova Scotia" =means "New Scotland."
After the morning mist burn-ed off, we rode in sunshine through old-growth hardwood forest, including 350-year-old sugar maples, until we came to Lone Shieling, a replica of a stone Scottish crofter's (shepherd's) hut. It felt good to stretch our legs on the half-mile walk past the hut through the ancient sugar maples.
The Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island takes bikers on a 185-mile trip along a rugged coastline.
The sparkling sun and cool breezes kept us going as we rode through Cape North, the northernmost point of Cabot Trail, to South Harbor and the east coast of Cape Breton.
By midafternoon we were =tired, but we decided to cycle a few extra miles on the Alternate Scenic Route along the coast to Smelt Brook and south to Neils Harbor. The many hills, though not long, were steep beyond our wildest expectations. I rode past the address given to us by the Danielsons at the boulangerie, concentrating all my energy on making it up the 17 percent grade beyond their house. To my astonishment, Bill Danielson was at the top of the hill I was trying to conquer. When Dave reached the summit, we had a little "ceildh." It turned out Bill is a meteorologist and has written a book about weather on Cape Breton called "Cape Breton Weather Watching." The book is popular with tourists as well as Cape Breton Island residents.
If the west coast is yin, the east coast is yang. We found ourselves at sea level, riding along a rocky coast with harbors, bright-colored fishing boats, more lobster traps, whimsical weather vanes and the clean, fresh smell of the northern Atlantic.
Pushing on to Ingonish, we arrived at 7:45 p.m. After 45 miles and 10 hours of hill riding, we were spent. But the ennui vanished as we walked into a lively restaurant overlooking the rocky coast. Several of the patrons recognized us, having passed us on the road in their cars. They were friendly and encouraging. We shared stories and laughter along with great seafood, and as the night held us, we were grateful for these glorious days of challenging climbs, interesting people and fabulous scenery.
All's Well, Ends Well
Part of the allure of bicycle touring is the excitement of the unexpected. We plan our trip, and are thrilled with the beautiful and interesting. On the other hand, at times we are not happy with unexpected trouble such as bad weather, detours, flat tires, lack of accommodations and dangerous roads. The trick is to keep going. Endurance puts trouble in perspective. Any inconvenience pales in comparison to the wonder of new experiences, the beauty of people and places, and the sense of accomplishment in completing the trip. The tour in its entirety then creates a magnificent, bright mosaic, the memory of which lights our way in darker days.
On this day we planned to travel 28 miles to Indian Brook. It didn't unfold that way. We were expecting a rainy afternoon, so we got rolling by 9 a.m. We pedaled over hill and dale, leaving Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Ingonish Beach, losing the coast, moving through forest and evergreens until we came to Cape Smokey. The ascent up this promontory was perhaps 8 miles long, winding, not too steep, with a 5 percent grade. We ascended to 1,000 feet easily in the cool air.
The summit gave us a magnificent vista. Heavily forested cliffs dropped sharply to the rust-and-white rocks along the shore. The Atlantic stretched unobstructed, clean and fresh smelling, to the horizon, as gray today as the sky. We paused for a photo of the Cape Smokey Ski Resort before the incredible downhill, pictured in many Cabot Trail postcards. We reveled in the winding, twisting and zigzagging 14 percent grade.
At 31 miles, not 28 as we had planned, we came to Indian Brook just as clouds were threatening and cold raindrops were beginning to fall. We found a beautiful bed-and-breakfast inn with a restaurant down the road. Perfect!
No, not perfect. Dave was unwilling to pay a little more to stay at the B&B. We were not happy with each other. With a storm imminent, the pleasant proprietress suggested we take a short cut via a ferry six miles away, to St. Ann's. After six miles and a five-minute ferry ride, we had to cycle 11 more miles, but with the cold drizzle turning to a hard rain and darkness descending, we found a bit of heaven, a beautiful motel in South Gut St. Ann's, down the road from the Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts.
From our room, we looked out on two arms of land embracing St. Ann's Harbor, the water stretching to the mountains on either side and the Atlantic beyond. Mist hovered over the green lawn and black rock wall in front of us and over the silent water and mountains disappearing into the distance. Hot showers and a good dinner revived us. We had come 47.42 miles, and as the storm hit us, we were grateful for this haven. The day had challenged us more than we had anticipated, but Baddeck was only 13 miles away.
Through the raindrops on our large picture window, we watched the mist lifting over the blue mountains and dark expanse of water. A bald eagle stood on the grass in front of us eating what the proprietor later told us was bologna.
We cycled the 13 miles to Baddeck quickly through light mists, arriving at the Ceildh Country Lodge to find the apple blossoms gone from the trees. What a difference a week makes! With our detours, we had pedaled 195 miles in six days, with one day of rest for bad weather. We had experienced the remote and wildly beautiful Cabot Trail up close, by bicycle. We were joyful, exuberant. To celebrate, we indulged in Scottish culture, visiting the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic site of Canada by day and enjoying wild Gaelic music in the Ingonish Lodge bar by night.
Cape Breton Island calls to us. We will return.
Sally Hall lives in Hawaii when she is not touring the world by bicycle.