The Cabot Trail, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia

At Margaree Harbour we had joined the Cabot Trail, a circular road route of about 200km. It is named after Giovanni Caboto, the Italian navigator and explorer of the late 15th century, who had been the first man to lead an expedition to the Americas since the days of the Vikings. The real heart of the trail is the middle section where it winds through the Cape Breton Highlands National Park.

We drove for about 20kms, back through Arcadian Chéticamp, to the entrance to the Highlands where a small charge was levied. To call the park scenic would be a serious understatement. The first section is a rollercoaster ride across coastal cliffs. There are frequent stopping points where you can get out of the car and take in the views out to sea. Also there are well-marked walking trails to get you closer to nature. These are as short as 0.5 km to more than 10km. We took one of the shorter near the highest point of the Cabot Trail in the mountains but more of that in a minute.

For about 40 kms the road took twists and turns over the cliff-tops as it clung to the cliff edges. Rather worryingly on one stretch there was team of road-workers replacing a section of the Armco barrier. What had happened? Then the road took a long descent through a series of z-bends and we arrived at the town of Pleasant Bay down at sea level. This was our last possible chance for whale watching but the white seahorses and the breaking waves on the beach did not presage well. And, of course, when we got to the harbour there was a big sign saying “No trips today”. The whales would not have to put on a display for us today.

However we did see a sign to the Whale Interpretive Centre and decided we should give it a go. It turned out to be a great decision and we learned a lot about creatures. There are two sub-orders of whale, namely the Baleen and the Toothed. Just to show my ignorance, I had always thought that whales eat plankton. Well that turns out to be true for some of the very largest Baleens, who have combs to filter the plankton and some small fish. The Toothed variety eat everything from fish to other marine mammals including other whales. Another piece of information was that whales are members of the order Cetacea which includes dolphins and porpoises. The term “whale” can be used to embrace them all. You live and learn. In fairness to the other member of our party of two, i.e. Margaret, she knew all about Cetacea and was awarded a gold star by the museum curator who was guiding us round. I kept quiet.

Back in the car, the next section of the Cabot Trail took us inland and over a series of mountains and some desolate moorland. It was here that we parked up to walk one of the walking trails. This trail, well named The Bog, has as its theme, the flora and fauna of the wilderness. As if to enhance the experience, there was a strong wind blowing and rain in the air. Much of the trail was across boggy ground so a boardwalk had been installed not just to protect walkers from the water but also to protect the plant life from humans. The ubiquitous plant was sphagnum moss that absorbs and stores water. The moss can look deceptively dry on the surface but don’t try to walk on it as your weight will take you straight through and down into a foot or more of water. And take that from someone who has walked many a mile of mountain moorland and who has occasionally not noticed and walked straight on to sphagnum. No amount of boot waterproofing will save you from very wet feet and socks.

As I mentioned, this trail is called in English “Bog Trail” or, as the sign said in French, “La Tourbière” – the beer tower??? That sounds much more attractive.

There was a fine array of small but very attractive flowers. Reading from the storyboards, because I am no botanist, they included several varieties of laurel, rose pogonia, dragon’s mouth and bog rosemary. One of the most colourful and also the most lethal for some, was the dark red pitcher plant. This plant attracts insects, traps them in the depths of the pitcher shaped petals and then dissolves them with chemicals. A nasty ending. There were also bladderwort and sundew which deal similar blows to the insect world.

The only example of fauna that was there to see, or more accurately to hear, was the Green Frog. The males let out a mating sound like a rubber band or banjo string being plucked. Once you hear the sound you can focus in on an area of the bog and, sure enough, there is a well-disguised, hand-sized mottled green frog. We heard about half a dozen and were able to detect two. We didn’t see any females.

The last plants, actually trees, beside the path were miniature larch. The signs said that they were about 100 years old but will only ever grow to a maximum of two feet in height. They are stunted by the ferocious winds that blow down from the Arctic and off the Atlantic Ocean.

The whole area has an uncanny, remote feeling. Although this was late June, it was easy to imagine the whole region covered in three or four feet of snow, which it is for much of the winter months. It was time to move on from this fascinating and forbidding place and start the slow descent to the Atlantic coast. We reached the ocean at a small fishing community with the distinctly Scottish/Nordic name of Dingwall. It looked to be a thriving community as the boats were freshly painted and the grass around the houses was well manicured, but the stormy sea gave the feeling of harsh living conditions.

Another half-hour drive took us to Ingonish on the fringe of the National Park. This was a place with sandy beaches, holiday homes, hotels and even a golf club. Canada Day (1st July), marks the start of Canadian summer holidays. It was in couple of days’ time, so the place was still quiet but with an air of expectancy. Everything was open and ready for a rush of visitors. A sign saying “The best pies in Cape Breton” caught our eyes and we went to investigate. They were indeed great pies but, contrary to what we had imagined and hoped, they were fruit pies not meat.

South of here, we took an opportunity to save a few miles by leaving the Cabot Trail temporarily and taking a short ferry ride across St Ann’s Bay to a town called Englishtown in the county of Victoria. All very English indeed, except for the ferry which had the distinctly Scottish name of the “Torquil MacLean”. Then a little further south we re-joined the TransCanada Highway not far from the port of Sydney where the Highway “boards” the ferry for Newfoundland, its final destination. The route re-joined the Cabot Trail and took us to our destination for the night, the town of Baddeck, pronounced Baa-deck.

The Telegraph House Hotel played a significant role in the development of the telegraph and telephone . It once contained the office of the first Trans-Oceanic Cable Company and some of the first telegraph messages in North America were sent from that office in the “Telegraph House”. Alexander Graham Bell’s “Bell room no.1” is preserved in much the same style and charm as it was when he stayed there in the late 1880’s. More about him in a minute.

Baddeck is in a beautiful location on the shores of an inland water system, the Bras D’Or, or Golden Arms, that extend more than 100 kilometres from north to south. They get their name from the network of interlinked arm-like sandy bays that go to make up the whole mass of water. It has a special ecosystem as it lies virtually at sea level and has water entering from the surrounding hills and from the Atlantic. The Bras D’Or is a popular place for all kinds of water sports and fishing.

For our evening meal we walked along the road to the Lynwood Inn and for the second night running I was tempted by the lobster. At home in London, it is possible to buy lobster but at a distinctly unaffordable price. Also you never know how long it has been out of the sea. Here, in Nova Scotia, it was the lobster season and it was priced on the menus at roughly the same price as hamburgers. This time, in contrast to the unadorned specimen of the night before, this lobster had been removed from its shell, the inedible bits discarded and then the white flesh returned to the two half shells, topped with fresh mussels and a warm garlic oil dressing. Delicious.

During the course of the meal we asked the waiter if there was any live music on in town. He said he would enquire and soon returned to tell us that there was a group playing in a hall just a few minutes’ walk away. After our meal, we followed his instructions and soon arrived at the local home of the Royal Canadian Legion, Branch #53, Baddeck. To enter we had to become temporary members of the Legion. The money was handed over, the register signed and we were in the bar. Behind the bar we could see a large hall and could hear a band in full swing. The hall was already full but, with a little shuffling about, we were soon seated.

The band was made up of two girls on fiddles, another on keyboard and a man on the guitar. As the evening progressed, people got up from their seats, apparently spontaneously, and performed demonstration dances. This was something that had happened everywhere that there was live, traditional music in Nova Scotia. This band was really lively and they threw themselves into their music with abandon.

The next day we had a relatively short distance to drive so we had promised ourselves plenty of time to visit the Alexander Graham Bell museum. Were we glad that we did. You learn at school about Bell’s great invention, the telephone. What you don’t learn, or at least we didn’t at our schools, is what led to his invention of the telephone and the many other diverse things that he invented, inspired and developed.

Bell’s father was a teacher of the deaf and invented a method of one-to-one communication based on the shapes that the mouth and tongue make during speech. Young Bell followed in his father’s footsteps and worked on ways of using electronics to pick up sound and pass it to a deaf person as vibrations that they could interpret. The unit used to measure sound volume, the decibel, is named after him. As you will guess, it was only a short step further to use these techniques to transmit speech between two people who were not deaf. The rest, as they say, is history.

But he didn’t stop at one invention. His portfolio of brainwaves was enormous. Shortly after the Wright Brothers made their first flight in The Carolinas, Bell was the inspiration for the design and building of an aircraft that was soon beating the Wright Brothers both in terms of distance flown and time in the air and was the first plane to be flown in Canada. A full scale, working replica is on display. His interest in water propulsion led to his invention of the hydrofoil. Not only did he come up with the idea but he built and trialled a full-sized craft. This was tested on the Baddeck arm of the Bras D’Or. He also did a lot of work on the design of load-bearing kites.

Although no great swimmer, he had a love of the water and, as a filmed interview with one of his daughters showed, he would go regularly to swim in the Bras D’Or in the middle of the night. In fact, he had a reputation for working on his ideas through the night. This led to his future wife painting a portrait that depicted him as an owl. A truly remarkable man and with so much more depth than the mere invention of the telephone!

Cape Breton Island had one more treat in store for us. As we drove south from Baddeck the road was often hugging the shore of the arms of the Bras D’Or. There was plenty of large bird life, predominantly seagulls and crows. Then we saw a pair of birds soaring over the water very close to the road. The closer we got the larger they became. And then we realised they were a pair of eagles, bald eagles to be exact, only a couple of hundred metres away. What a treat. Reading the guidebook later, I learned that this is their breeding ground and hence the flying in pairs.

As we approached the Canso Causeway to take us off the island, there was what appeared to be a traffic jam. What was wrong? Then we saw that the swing bridge leading on to the causeway was open and a small yacht was making its way through from St George’s Bay in the Gulf of St Lawrence to Chedabucto Bay and the Atlantic.
On the mainland shore there is a massive quarry, where a very large bulk carrier was being loaded with crushed rock (aggregate) destined for the eastern seaboard of the United States. It was from this quarry that the rocks were extracted to build the causeway.

And so we left Cape Breton Island. We’d spent three nights there but that didn’t do it justice. Next time we have to get in some longer walks along the Highlands Park trails, listen to more music and – and this is a big AND – do some whale watching.

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About Clashgour

With my wife Margaret I am spending a happy retirement divided between our flat in Richmond, London, our villa in Kalkan on the Turkish Mediterranean coast and travelling mostly in the UK, Turkey and the US. When travelling we use public transport where possible, resorting to a car when it is the only viable option. This blog is an occasional diary of our travels.
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2 Responses to The Cabot Trail, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia

  1. John says:

    I always learn something new with your blogs Alan. Another good one. Thanks.

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