Beautiful Canada: Cape Breton and the Cabot Trail… The 10,000 Mile Bike Trek

 

Rocky shores touched by the Atlantic Ocean are a key element in the scenic beauty of the Cape Breton Highlands along the Cabot Trail.

Rocky shores touched by the Atlantic Ocean are a key element in the scenic beauty of the Cape Breton Highlands along the Cabot Trail.

Cape Breton is a big island: the 77th largest in the world and the 18th in Canada if you are a detail-oriented type of person. Once upon a very long time ago, before the continents got divorced and started drifting away from each other, it was snuggled up to Scotland and Norway on the ancient continent of Pangaea. I feel a certain amount of affinity since my ancient ancestors drifted away from Norway and Scotland, some 300 million years later.

It’s an island of superlatives and you will be hearing a fair number on this post. The tourist bureau should hire me. I’m not alone in my praise. The pretty-picture travel magazine Condé Nast considers Cape Breton to be one “of the best island destinations in the world.” Numerous other magazine and newspaper articles agree.

The Cape Breton Highlands on the northern part of the island are the primary reason for the acclaim. Considered a northern extension of the Appalachian Mountains, the Highlands are noted for their steep ups and downs. I agree; they provided me with some of the most challenging bicycling on my 10,000-mile trip. I was amused when doing research for this post to find a Cape Breton website recommending to motorists, “You may want to check your brakes.” Indeed.

The road around the Highlands is known as the Cabot Trail. It was named after the 15th Century explorer John Cabot who was searching for a way to China on behalf of King Henry VII. (Rumor has it that the King was seeking a new place to send his many wives. Just kidding— the reality is that he wanted to spice up his life, and Asia was the place to go for spices.) Cabot may or may not have landed on the island, but locals are eager to claim him. Most experts believe his landing site was more likely Newfoundland.

There is much more to Cape Breton Island than the Cabot Trail, but the scenic highway is the primary reason that visitors flock to the island.

There is much more to Cape Breton than the Cabot Trail, but the scenic highway is the primary reason that visitors flock to the island. This post and my next one will focus on views along the Trail.

A view form the beginning of the Cabot Trail looking not toward the Cape breton Highlands.

A view from the beginning of the Cabot Trail looking out toward the Cape Breton Highlands.

The Cabot Trail is world-famous. The sign says so. The highway is what I remember most about Nova Scotia. After crossing over the Canso Causeway, I, and my two bicycle-travelling companions, Jean and Lindell, had made a beeline for it. Peggy and I did as well, following the Trans-Canada Highway 105. Since the 185-mile scenic byway travels in a circle (more or less), we had a choice of whether to travel clockwise or counter-clockwise. The travel guides recommend clockwise since going in the opposite direction puts travelers on the outside of the road as it winds along towering cliffs with scary drop-offs. The theory is that most people prefer safety to death-defying edges. But what’s the fun in that? We chose the outside with its dramatic views of the Atlantic Ocean on the east side of the Highlands and Gulf of St. Lawrence on the west. (Besides, I am a veteran of Highway 1 on the California coast, which is much scarier.)

In addition to natural beauty, Cape Breton features both its Celtic and Acadian heritages. Some 50,000 Highland Scots migrated to the area between 1800 and 1850 as a result of the Highland Clearances where small farmers in Scotland were replaced by sheep, i.e. the hereditary aristocratic owners of the land found a better way to make money. Colaisde na Gàidhlig, the Gaelic College, was founded to promote and preserve the Scotch-Irish Gaelic Culture in Nova Scotia. Located on the Cabot Trail shortly after it leaves the Trans-Canada Highway, the college offers courses in Gaelic language, crafts, music, dance and history. Visitors are invited to stop by and see a ceilidh, a traditional Scottish dance, or even buy a kilt.

Scottish sheep photo by Curtis Mekemson.

Furry fellow. An ancestor of the sheep that replaced the Highland farmers. We were happily lost on a remote Scotland road when this guy greeted us. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

The Gaelic College located along the Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island.

The craft shop of the Gaelic College where everything Gaelic is promoted including the language.

St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, located several miles beyond the Gaelic College, reminded me of my own Scotch-Irish (Ulster Scot) family’s heritage— and our journey to the New World in the 1750s. We were Lowland Scots as opposed to the Highland Scots. The Mekemsons had been serious Presbyterians all the way back to the 1600s when Scottish Presbyterians had declared that God and not the King of England was their ruler. This had upset the King considerably. One of my ancestors, John Brown, was even a martyr to the cause. Peggy and I visited his gravesite in Scotland and I did a blog on him. Our family had remained Presbyterians right up until my father had become an Episcopalian (the American equivalent of the Anglican Church), a move that undoubtedly sent generations of our Presbyterian ancestors rolling over in their graves.

St. Andrews Presbyterian Church.

St. Andrews Presbyterian Church.

A close up of the grave of John Brown, the Scottish Martyr shot down in fron of his family in the late 1600s.

The lonely grave of John Brown, the Scottish Martyr shot down in front of his family in the late 1600s.

This shot of Peggy captures the isolation of John Brown's Grave, the white speck on the upper left of the photo.

This shot of Peggy captures the isolation of John Brown’s Grave, the white speck on the upper left of the photo.

Anyway, a series of religious, political, and economic factors had sent my ancestors first to Northern Ireland and then on to Pennsylvania and Maryland.

One third of the Cabot Trail runs through the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, which captures the ocean and highland scenery of the area as well as protects the wildlife and plants that call it home. Moose signs along the highway warn motorists of potential automobile-moose confrontations, which are not good for either man or moose. While Peggy and I are always aware of the potential danger, mainly we think of the signs as suggestions we may get to see a moose, always a plus. But that is a story for my next blog, along with the second toughest climb of my 10,000-mile trek and a visit to the Acadian side of the island. Following are several photos I took on the first half of the Cabot Trail.

St. Andrews Provincial Park in the Cape Breton Highlands.

Regional parks, such as St. Ann’s, demanded that we stop and admire them.

Looking the other direction at St. Ann's Provincial Park along the Cabot Trail.

Looking the other direction at St. Ann’s Provincial Park along the Cabot Trail.

Once again Peggy and I found ourselves looking at scenery that sported an early spring look.

Once again Peggy and I found ourselves looking at scenery that sported an early spring look.

Our day along the Cabot Trail varied between sunshine and threatening skies.

Our day along the Cabot Trail varied between sunshine and threatening skies.

We found these boats near the small town of Ingonish.

We found these fishing boats near the small town of Ingonish. Lobster traps are located on the pier.

I liked this lonely structure, which looks like a great place for a picnic.

I liked this lonely structure, which looks like a great place for a picnic.

And these quiet waters.

And these quiet waters.

Climbing up into the Highlands provides scenic views of the Atlantic coast.

Climbing up into the Highlands provides scenic views of the Atlantic coast.

A close-up.

A close-up.

Blue skies color the Atlantic Ocean blue.

Blue skies color the Atlantic Ocean blue.

The Cabot Trail moves between the Highlands and Coast. Give a choice between long sandy beaches and rocky coasts I will always prefer the rocky coasts, unless I happen to be on a tropical island.

The Cabot Trail moves between the highlands and coast. Given a choice between long sandy beaches and rocky coasts, I will always prefer the rocky coasts, unless, of course, I happen to be on a tropical island.

Another view.

Another view.

The cool, windy day fluffs Peggy's hair

The cool, windy day fluffs Peggy’s hair

The road leading down to Cape North, which will be the farthest point east I reach on my bike trip.

The road leading down to Cape North, the farthest east I would travel.

This church at North Bay marked my turning point. After this, I would be heading home.

This church at Cape North marked the turning point in my 10,000 mile trek. After this, I would be heading home.

Shortly after we left the church, Peggy and I came on these two bicycle tourists. How appropriate, I thought. The dark cliffs looming in the background would provide the second hardest climb in my whole trip, but that's a story for my next blog.

Shortly after we left the church, Peggy and I came on these two bicycle tourists. The dark cliffs looming in the background would provide the second hardest climb in my whole trip, but that’s a story for my next blog.

30 comments on “Beautiful Canada: Cape Breton and the Cabot Trail… The 10,000 Mile Bike Trek

  1. Carrying a little carriage as well behind one of the bikers. Another tour which reminds me that I haven’t taken my bike out of the garage. It’s been rather cold and windy.
    I noticed the wearing of helmets. Is it compulsory in the US?
    I got into a heated argument with bike riders in Australia once defending not wearing of helmets.
    The Dutch did an exhaustive study on the benefits of wearing bicycle helmets and came to a resounding opinion that the number of people not riding bikes because of the compulsory wearing of helmets has to be taken into consideration on resulting rates of obesity, heart attacks, diabetes 2 through lack of exercise not riding bicycles, against those that might have a fall on their bikes hurting their heads not wearing helmets.
    Of course, riding a bicycle in Holland is totally different. Here, in Australia most ride those skinny wheeled racing bikes all dressed in the latest gear as if on ‘Le Tour De France.’

    • I don’t know if wearing helmets in Canada is mandatory, Gerard. It varies by state in the US. I always wear one out on the roads. I took a tumble on my bike once that would have done in my brain without it. I don’t wear one at Burning Man. No one does. The terrain is flat and people travel relatively slowly. Maybe it is similar to Holland. I tried to wear brighter clothing on my bike trek. You want drivers to see you. But I skipped the Tour De France look. 🙂 –Curt

  2. Curt, I kept having to remind myself that this was NOT Scotland as some of the photos really look similar to the Scottish Highlands – even down to the the sheep. I studied in Scotland for a couple of years and had a wonderful time and loved the ceilidhs? Did you go to any? Fun biostrous events at times! The island looks stunning, the clarity of light unreal, I can almost feel the crisp cool air. Love the photo of Peggy, so relaxed and contented and yep, whilst at St. Andrews I almost gave up with my hair as think I experienced only a couple of calm days! Amazing to bike in such a landscape. Look forward to the next post and the moose incident! Hope not too scary!

    • We didn’t make a ceilidh but they certainly looked like fun in the videos I saw of them. I too was struck by the similarities with Scotland. Made we want to go back, which I hope to work in sometime next year. Two years, wow, my time there can be measured in weeks. It was indeed another wild-hair day for Peggy. 🙂 Thanks, Annika. –Curt

  3. Curious to see if your John Brown was in fact the same as the US John Brown mouldering in his grave, but I see they are not. ?The color of the rocks interested me, so different from the California coast rocks.
    Good point of Gerard re helmets. My late son in law was against wearing them too, but when they became the law for motorcycles he got a small one. I’m glad the kids have to wear them though.

  4. While I enjoyed your story I must say that the scenery is not as spectacular as I thought it would be. Perhaps sunny weather would have enlivened things a bit, but that’s a rarity in that part of the world. Oh and cold brrrrrrr!
    Alison

    • It was still spring-like, so many of the trees had yet to leaf out, Alison. And the weather was in-between. I also think Peggy and I had to move through it to quickly to totally do justice. –Curt

    • Me too, Juliann. May be best be there in the spring if you want to avoid the crowds. Summer and fall are the busiest. I would like to go there in the fall to see the trees, however. Thanks. –Curt

    • They come in many different shapes now days, Andrew, but yes, they still look a little geeky. 🙂 Mainly they are functional, designed to keep something between your head and the pavement. The bright clothes make sense, but they look a bit geeky as well. Think of them as uniforms. As you might imagine, I worked hard to be visible but avoid the “look.” –Curt

  5. As usual, beautifully written and illustrated. But what struck me most was your reference to the Highlands Clearances. That was new to me, and it shouldn’t have been, since that’s almost certainly what sent my mother’s family to the U.S. (Appalachian Virginia) in the 1850’s. All of her grandparents were Scottish, which makes me at least 50% Scotch. I know quite a lot about my ancestry on my father’s side and very little about my mother’s side. You’ve definitely caused me to want to learn more!

    • Thank you, Bill. Two quick thoughts. One is on the important role that Scots-Irish have played in America’s history. The second is how many of them came to America because of British policies (plus the potato famine). I think you will find the history fascinating. I certainly have. –Curt

      • Thanks Curt. I’m looking forward to digging in. But I was wrong about the date. They immigrated to the U.S. in 1820. Nevertheless, I’m sure the history will be fascinating. Have you read Jim Webb’s book Born Fighting? I haven’t read it yet, but it’s on my read-soon list.

      • Did you mention where your family came from in Scotland, Bill? BTW, thanks for the note on Webb’s book. I haven’t read it but I have just added it to my book list. –Curt

  6. Since water and rocks hold great appeal for me, the season for seeing this wonderful place hardly would matter. Through your whole series, I’ve kept thinking, “This is the best yet,” and I’m thinking it now. I’m especially taken with the photos of John Brown’s grave, and the churches. The decoration on the first one is such fun. It’s as though they decided, “This time around, we’re really going to cut loose and get away from our tendency toward plain buildings!”

    • Obviously, Linda, I am a great fan of rocks and water myself. Thanks. I still remember when my father came home from a family reunion he attended in 1969 with a family chart that traced a branch of out family back to John Brown. My curiosity was definitely piqued, but it was 40 years before I became fascinated with genealogy to the point that it would send me scooting off to Scotland. Now I am getting the bug to check out Northern Ireland.
      As Peggy and I reprove my bike route, I found the regional variations in churches very interesting. I took lot of photos. 🙂 –Curt

    • I can remember some beautiful long sandy beaches from my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, Timi. 🙂 But my first experience with the ocean were on the beautifully rugged coasts of Northern California. They were imprinted forever on my brain! Peggy is closer to your perspective. –Curt

  7. We took that Cabot Trail once — would love to do it again. Rugged shore line, open fields, white churches. Love it all. But I’ve never had a picture of a sheep I like any better than the one you’ve included. He’s sort of regal looking just standing there! –Rusha

    • The spring reflected how far north we had travelled for sure. We had a similar experience when we climbed up into the Appalachian Mountains. As for the UK feeling, its probably why the English and Scots felt right at home. 🙂 –Curt

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