Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Part 3: The Cabot Trail

The iconic moment: looking north along the western coast of Cape Breton

The second half of our trip was a cycling journey around the island of Cape Breton along the Cabot Trail. This route is approximately 180 miles long and is frequently begun from Baddeck.
Our first day out, headed to Margaree Forks

We got a somewhat late and inauspicious start at about 2:30 Sunday afternoon once we'd loaded up our bikes, parked the car, bought an extra memory disc for the camera and had a supplemental cup of coffee to fuel the effort. Leaving the village of Baddeck I missed a turn and we did maybe 4 miles out of our way through some hilly area before starting to feel that maybe we weren't on the right track. Added to this was our getting accustomed to heavily loaded bikes. We had gear and equipment for camping as well as a good supply of food given our uncertain options over the next few days. I have to admit those first couple of miles I was a little dubious about us hauling this much weight 180 miles. It wasn't long before the spirit of the adventure started to take hold and the bikes started to feel okay.

The route. We started in Baddeck and went clockwise

Once we were sorted out, we made our way and had a nice 30-ish mile ride across pretty but unremarkable countryside to Margaree Forks where we had planned to camp. Upon our arrival in this small village, we discovered that the campground was closed. It being late and not know what other  options were out there, we decided to hedge our bets and stay in a nearby motel. The motel was nothing special, but turned out to be a nice place to launch from the next morning when we awoke to a light rain.
Morning rain as we head for Margaree Harbour

Looking up the coast somewhere around Cap le Moine

Leaving Margaree Forks we headed north through a lovely valley towards the ocean. It was raining lightly, but we were on a pleasant dirt road. We forwent our morning coffee, not wanting to bother with the camp stove and all, with a plan to stop when a good option arose. We thought Margaree Harbor or Belle Cote might present an opportunity, but there wasn't much there when we reached it, so we kept rolling up the coast. The pedaling was easy and it was great to have the ocean views on our left was we rode.

After the spoke nipple escapade we restocked in Cheticamp

Somewhere around Cap le Moine Nancy announced that she had just heard an odd sound coming from the bike. I didn't necessarily make much of it, but we took a quick look and there was nothing obvious, so we continued on. In under a half mile or so she said something was wrong with her braking, so we looked again and discovered that she had a broken spoke, so we found a spot off the road and looked into it a little further. 

A broken spoke is not necessarily a big deal, but having a replacement spoke of the proper length is more of a challenge. One bike can have up to four different spoke lengths, depending on how the wheels are built. We removed the wheel, took off the tire and tube, removed the rim tape and found that in fact it was the spoke nipple that had broke. This was good because I happened to be carrying two spare spokes with nipples on my bike, so the spoke length issue was not a factor. What was a factor, however, was that we found that not one nipple had broken but actually three of them had given out. This was bad; I had two spare nipples but had no recollection of any more in my collection of assorted small bike bits. As  I worked in the wheel repair, Nancy rummaged through my tool kit and somewhat surprisingly found a third nipple. Yes! We were able to put her wheel back in one piece and get back on the road. What could have been something of a show stopper was solved. Phew.

I must say, I felt a bit unnerved buy this mechanical breakdown. Were our bikes overloaded? Was there more broken spokes heads to come? Had I misjudged the capacity of our respective frames? We continued  on and as the miles rolled by without incident my worry began to subside.

Our long awaited cup of coffee was finally found in the tiny village of Le Grand Etang. We were ready for it by then and it did the trick.

I completely surprised Nancy by quietly putting on this outfit at the Mi-Carême museum and then nonchalantly standing next to her watching a video waiting for her to notice. It completely surprised her

A few masks from the museum

Next to our little coffee shop we discovered an amazing museum called Centre de la Mi-Carême which celebrates and preserves the tradition of the Mi-Carême . The Mi-Carême is an Acadian tradition that had largely died out by the mid 20th century but has been slowly brought back. In short, it is a "vacation" from lent about halfway through where the people dress up in masks and costumes and travel from house to house merrymaking and enjoying a social time together. Music, masks, and conviviality are the order of the day and we were really pleased to learn about this great tradition.

From Grand Etang we reached Cheticamp where we happily, and somewhat unexpectedly, found a bike shop. The proprietor had only opened shop the previous fall. He had a truing stand and we were able to put Nancy's front wheel in and confirm that it was reasonably true. In fact, we didn't need to adjust it at all. To my delight the shop happened to sell Brooks saddles seat covers. This was a total anomaly, and perfect, since mine had blown off somewhere on the highway between Vermont and New Brunswick. Yes! 
Entering Cape Breton National Park in Cheticamp

The drama unfolds

The happy cyclotourists

We weren't sure where we planned to stay that night and the weather report for the next two days was predicting rain. We had pedaled through mist and light rain most of the day. Cheticamp is the western gateway to the Cape Breton National Park and we were either going to camp at a campground Dan and Addie recommended a few miles into the park, or we were going to push on, climb French Mountain and stay in Pleasant Bay.  After a makeshift lunch at the Boulangerie Aucoin, we headed toward the national park, feeling a little bit like we were heading into a wild place late in the day. The park was profoundly beautiful within minutes of entry and there was very little traffic. The first lookout panned from Cheticamp to the south across the broad Gulf of St. Lawrence and north to the highlands. As we continued there were hints of sunshine and within a half hour or so we were in full sun. This lifted our spirits and encouraged us to keep moving. We stopped at the campground, and it was beautiful, but we felt energetic and ready for the climb, so we continued along the rolling roadway towards French Mountain. 

What's in store

Nancy pedaling away as we climb into the clouds

Taking a breather

Taking another breather. We didn't know it, but we were pretty much at the top at this point

If you look really close, you can see the moose, and maybe even her calf

The climb was long but not grueling. As we rose the fog rolled back in and we were unable to see much either below or ahead of us. I worried slightly that we were missing some dramatic views, but on the flip side, the fog kept us cool. Just after we reached the top, Nancy noticed a mother moose and her calf coming toward us on the edge of the road. For a second it was scary, but we crossed to get out of her way and they soon made their way into the scrub. 

Cruising along the highlands plateau

Looking down at Fisherman's Cove, a settlement abandoned in the 1930's

Coming down into Pleasant Bay after a long, varied, and wonderful day

The highlands plateau is beautiful; miles of low scrub brush and pine over rolling terrain. The sun soon came out again and we travelled with high spirits under a deep blue sky across untrammeled wilds. It was a thrilling ride. Along the way we saw down into a coastal valley that was a tiny inhabited fishing village until the 1930's when the residents abandoned it. 
The youth hostel in Pleasant Bay. We were treated to the chance to harvest a 
little fresh chives from the little garden in front

Eventually we descended down the mountain road to Pleasant Bay and spent the night in a youth hostel. Good thing you don't have to be young to stay in one!

There was even bike parking

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Part 2: Interlude

Dancing in West Mabou

Somewhat creepy looking fox. Sadly, the foxes were habituated to wait for food from passing cars.  Can a rabid fox's mouth foam melt tent fabric? 

Our campsite for the night in PEI

Guess what? Bike parts wear out.  I rode a lot last year and that's been apparent this 
year with a number of items needing replacement

Good to know

Outside the Red Shoe Pub, owned and run by the Rankin family

Following on the heels of our week on the Îles-de-la-Madeleine, we spent a night camping with Dan and Addie on the coast in Prince Edward Island. It was nice to decompress a little after such a lovely experience, before moving on to our respective destinations. 

After spending such a pleasurable and relaxing week together it was sad to say goodbye to our friends, but they need to begin their trip homewards and we needed to make our way towards Cape Breton where we were to begin our cycling journey around the Cabot Trail. 

After Dan and Addie left we made some repairs to our bikes and prepared for part two of our journey as a Bald Eagle sat in a nearby tree. As I stated previously, I was feeling unexcited about our next chapter, having had such a wonderful time on the islands. It took some time for my mood to shift, but as the miles slipped away through Nova Scotia, I began to look forward to what was coming next.

Nancy and I have long enjoyed contra dancing and traditional music. We made it our plan to reach Mabou, where we spent our first night on Cape Breton. Mabou is at the heart of Cape Breton fiddling and dance, so we were pretty sure we'd be in friendly terrain. Gerry Holland, Ashley MacIsaac, Natalie MacMaster, the Rankins, and many others all hail from this region. 

After setting up camp we headed to the Red Shoe Pub for dinner, which was a delight, and then afterwords headed back to West Mabou for an evening of dancing. The local dance is billed as a square dance, but upon arrival we saw that it had very little in common with a typical American square dance. We learned that each region has it's own dance tradition and variation. West Mabou features a three-dance set, repeated throughout the evening. There is no caller and the dancers determine when the dance is over by clapping. The most delightful aspect of the dance is the the shuffle or step-dance that many of the dancers do while moving through the simple figures of the dance. In a sort of show-your-feathers kind of way, that's where the skills really shine. 

We joined in and had a great time. Mind you, the dance started at 10:00PM, so by 11:30 or so we were feeling like we'd had our fill. It was such a treat to find the dance and be welcomed into this this familiar, yet different dance community. 

After a contented night's camping we sorted ourselves out in preparation to begin our cycling tour of the island and headed to Baddeck, our point of departure. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

Part 1: Sailing on two wheels

In early June we spent the better part of a week vacationing with our friends Dan and Addie on the Îles-de-la-Madeleine.  We had long tossed around the idea for a trip together and explored various possibilities as the time we had put aside drew near. Sometime in May we settled on a trip the islands together, with Dan and Addie exploring Cape Breton in the week before we arrived and us doing the same in the week after their departure. It was a wonderful vacation with two distinct parts that were equally as rewarding and quite different from each other. 

This view captured me every time we pedaled by. The storybook aspect of the houses and colors drew me in. 

Meeting Dan and Addie in Souris, PEI. You can see our ferry off to the left.  It was big.

We were situated on Havre-aux-Maisons--a convenient location from with to explore in different directions

This was our view from out little place on Havre-aux-Maisons. The sea is calm here, but often provided a dramatic show along the red cliffs. The island in the distance is Entry Island

The Magdalene Islands are situated about 50 miles out in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and are accessed by ferry from Prince Edward Island. There are 5 islands connected by roughly 60 miles of long sand causeways with a 6th island reachable by ferry. The islands are predominantly French speaking, although there are two English speaking towns that we never managed to get to. That's okay; it was great to be immersed in French culture and language. 

Our home for the week

Morning coffee

This house was just around the bend from us

We rented a magical little house at the base of a very steep hill that looked over the ocean to the southeast. It would be hard to overstate the beauty of this house; it's location at the base of a high dramatic hill, the view to the east of open ocean with exhilarating views of the sea churning against the red cliffs, the sweet little porch, the tastefully arranged interior. We joked at one point that it was like living in a magazine photo spread. Almost a little too good to be true. And most importantly, it immediately felt cosy and warm. 

Food was a cornerstone of our trip. The four of us all appreciate honest, local, quality foods, no matter where we are, so it was natural to see what we could find on the islands, and we were richly rewarded. 

Down the street we found a herring smoke house that has been run by the same family for three generations and has weathered the challenges of quotas, loss of stock, and the other difficulties of making one's living from the sea. The process itself was amazing. The fish are brined for a day or so and then strung up on wooden stakes and then hung in the smoke house rafters. A full smokehouse would have thousands of herring if it were filled up. We were able to walk through the smokehouse and see the fish hanging. Needless to say, the herring were an amazing treat, both dried and in a jarred marinade. Just across the street we found a family cheese making business with a variety of cheeses, all made from the Canadian breed of cow. They were all yummy and we again stocked up.

The fumoir that has been creating smoked herring for three generations

Herring hanging in the smoke house

After the fromagerie we cycled around Cap-aux-Moules where we got some coffee, toured around and managed to find a neat brewery located in an old fish processing plant right near the ocean. There was a shipwreck close by to boot. 

Our days easily stretched into the evening as the sun did not even set until about 9:00PM.

Each day was a chance to explore a new area; the islands are roughly 60 miles long from end to end, allowing a lot of room for meandering and discovering new places.  Since we chose to only bring our bikes, we had to consider our choices in ways that would not have been notable had we had a car. This week reinforced the beautiful relationship between place, scale, movement and experience provided by riding a bike. Our days roughly broke out into exploring an island a day. Given the strong winds, we had to be mindful that a journey fifteen miles to the south with the wind at our backs would mean some serious work returning. The experience reminded me of sailing, which I suppose is appropriate 50 miles out in the middle of the ocean.

Exploring a shipwreck near Étang du Nord

One day we decided to pedal north to explore the vast lengths of beach that connect Havre-aux-Maisons to Grosse-Ile. We had the place to ourselves, napping in the sun and contemplating our good fortune to be in such a lovely place

All our journeys were by bike. In a place as windy as this, you need to think carefully about traveling too far downwind unless you have a lot of time and energy to get back

A meal of fresh scallops and salad of local greens

Our place at night

Our journey to Havre-Aubert was an all day affair. The wind was strong and we seriously contemplated the possibility of arranging a taxi ride back home before we set out. It was work pedaling along in the wind and sand and mist, but beautiful too. Our determination was rewarded with a lovely meal at the Cafe de la Grave. A personal highlight for me was ordering my meal fully in French. 

We didn't see many other cyclists during our stay on the islands with two exceptions. We met a French couple who were traveling around the eastern provinces of Canada. We had a lot in common and it seemed that we just kept crossing paths with them where ever we went. We also met two young women who had rented bikes and made their way out to La Grave as well. That ride was not for the faint of heart. 

La Grave was beautiful despite the raw weather. It had an antique quality to it, as well as a bohemian air. I'd like to head back there for a little more exploring next time around.

On our way out to La Grave on Havre-Aubert, the wind was fierce and sand blows at you over the dunes. The distances from island to island are not insignificant

The Cafe de la Grave. This place was dream-like in its timeless setting and decor

Our time on the island was so rewarding. We loved the food, the stunning scenery, being with dear friends, and having a cozy home. As the time to leave drew near we simply couldn't leave, so we decided to extend our stay an extra night. 

An evening walk with Dan and Addie

The night before we left we decided to scramble up the hill behind our house, and thank god we did. As the sun was setting we got higher and higher and the island and sea spread out below us, our affection for this magical place was sealed for good. 

We departed the islands with heavy hearts, grateful for a good time, but sad to let go. Nancy and I were headed on for further adventures while Dan and Addie were headed home. If I had been able to rearrange things then and there I think I would have voted to stay for the rest of our vacation.  I dearly hope we will get back there again some time. There is more to explore and great places to return to. 

Au revoir!