Friday, July 22, 2011

Cape Breton

A week ago, I was on one of the prettiest parts of our continent; the portion of Nova Scotia that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean. Known as Cape Breton, it feels like part of the Scottish highlands and indeed, as I learned from visiting the Highland Village in Iona one day, a ton of Scots migrated to Canada when things got kind of bad in the old country. Not that Canada was all that much to their liking; the snow and the mosquitoes were quite a downer but the land is so reminiscent of Scotland. As I drove to my host's place just south of Sydney, I felt like I was driving along a firth. Everything was foggy, misty and green. I was quite taken by all the place signs having English/Gaelic translations.
We had scheduled two days there but that turned into 3 because the weather was awful and there was so much to see. Our second day there, we went to Louisbourg, a huge fort on the southern coast of the cape that was built by the French but taken over by the British in the mid-18th century. The place is larger than Williamsburg and frozen in time in 1744 which is how all the people are dressed there. One is confronted by soldiers asking if you speak French or English; given carding and spinning lessons and shown the dances of the day. One of the photos shows Veeka being very taken by a young man dressed in colonial garb in one of the homes who showed her how to play cards. She and I also found ourselves eating lunch at a restaurant where the only utensil was a spoon.
I bundled Veeka up quite a bit, as the weather was windy and about 50 degrees - and this was mid-July. Louisbourg has horrific weather all the time and one wonders why the French built a fort in such a nasty locale. It's true the harbor was quite handy but friendly ships as well as unfriendly ones crashed on the rocks just outside the harbor.
On our third day on the cape, the bad weather finally broke and the sun poured down. We bade good-bye to our kind hosts and started on a 400-mile trek (yes in one day) around the famed Cabot Trail, that goes around the northern-most part of Cape Breton. This isolated peninsula is mostly a national park; it's also the Big Sur of the Far North with similar views, crashing waves against cliffs, etc. So on a bright, sunny Sunday morning, we headed up St. Ann's Bay past numerous stores selling Gaelic books and music, past some gorgeous coves, then braved 12 percent inclines (US highways have 9 percent inclines at the most) up the Cape Smokey mount for even better views. Throngs of motorcyclists were out that day as well. We then descended to Ingonish, a resort town with a tiny ski area that is the major lodging place for summer visitors. It's situated around a pretty harbor and again, I would have stopped there in a minute had I two, instead of one, days, to explore the region.
Then we entered the national park portion of the cape, stopped at Green Cove, where Veeka adored clambering around all the rocks, then ended up at Neil's Harbour, a fishing port, for lunch at the Chowder House, a place with killer views of the ocean. A local fisherman showed me the piles of lobster and crab traps they use (bottom photo) and said there's so much crab, a fisherman can catch a whole year's allotment in the first two days of the season. I met a bunch of people throughout my trip who make a living fishing and my host in PEI even got up at 4 a.m. daily to fish for oysters. That kind of lifestyle is becoming quite rare in the US but it's not hard to find folks who live off of it in Atlantic Canada. As my hosts near Sydney told me, there are very few jobs in their region, so many of the young people have left Cape Breton to move to the States or to western Canada where there's plenty of work mining oil sands.
I would have liked to have headed further north towards Meat Cove or at least driven by White Point, just north of Neil's Harbour where the views are said to be the best, but we had to push inland through two huge valleys where I was constantly putting my Subaru in second gear to get up and down the grades. Atop one of the mountains, everyone (including about 100 motorcyclists) were stopped, ogling a large moose in a nearby field. (There are lots of highway signs in Canada telling you to beware of moose who wander onto the roads). It was at this point we were the furthest east of our trip and the slant of the sunlight and the pine trees and rocks and birches and sparse vegetation was almost boreal - very northern woods at high altitudes. Purple and yellow flowers everywhere.
Finally we popped out on the western side of the trail at Pleasant Bay and the views from there and for the next 40 or so miles going south were truly spectacular. Soaring vistas of blue sea and green mountains; many gulls. There were so many pleasant towns such as Inverness and Mabou that I wanted to linger in. Near Cap le Moine there was the funniest road-side display of dozens of scarecrows. Apparently Joe's Scarecrow is quite famous and we were asked to leave a donation for the upkeep of this display. Veeka liked wandering around giving hugs to the 'crows. We spent the afternoon coasting down the route leading back to the Corso Causeway - got there at 6 pm as I'd wished but then I had a 3-hour trip to Halifax to get to where we were supposed to spend the night. Got there at 9 pm and collapsed. Thank God for lingering light during long summer evenings.

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