Monday, August 19, 2013

Part 5: Homewards

Somehow we have a small spurtle collection hanging in our kitchen at home. A spurtle you ask; what is a spurtle? Well, it's a Scottish stirring stick, traditionally used for stirring porridge. A subtext of our Cape Breton journey was perhaps finding an interesting or notable spurtle to add to the collection. After all, Cape Breton has a deep and rich Scottish history and surely we'd find a few examples.

We happily left Bay St. Lawrence and pedaled back over the small mountain pass leading back to Cape North and onwards towards the east coast. Our morning was uneventful, with a stop at the well provisioned store in Cape North before we headed on. While we were there we talked with a small band of motorcyclists and our chat gave me some appreciation of the idea that cyclist and motorcyclists have some common experiences and perspectives, although at different speed.

Some miles on we stopped at a store that sells all things Scottish. Surely this store would have a spurtle! There were all manner of kilts, tam-o-shanters, but no spurtles.  Although we did miss out in that department, I did discover a small bit of black eye while trying on a tweed cap. It seems that our heavy climbing had broke a small blood vessel. Although I felt fine we were a bit alarmed; with the assistance of an emailed photo to some medically trained friends, we were reassured that there was little need for concern. 

We again diverted from the Cabot Trail to see the scenic coastal route that took us to Neils Harbour. It was a beautiful ride with some sharp hills and a ride along yet another plateau. By the time we reached Neils Harbour it was hot and we were ready to eat, so we had lunch in a little seafood place looking over the water.

Nance and I had made a little bet about how many other cyclists we would see on our journey around the Cabot Trail. I think I said something like 5 and Nancy said something like 15 to 20. Up to this point I think we had seen 4 other riders, but in Neils Harbour we crossed paths with a small crowd of supported riders on a tour. So much for my chances of winning our little bet. We hopscotched with this crew for the next day or so. Never say never, but supported tours don't ring my bell. I really disdain the notion that you need a vehicle in order to ride a bike. Carry what ya need!

Our goal was to get to one of the Ingonish villages for the night. 

Despite the bucolic feeling, this was a reasonably populated area

Arriving at the Parks Canada Ingonish Campground we were stumped to find it was not yet open for the season. Since we arrived there late in the day and were feeling a bit tired we were having a hard time making decisions, mostly because we didn't really know what lay ahead and hadn't found anything compelling leading to this point. You never know if there is some great option a few miles down the road or just some dusty pull off. We settled on going just a bit further and found ourselves in a comparativly developed neighborhood with shops and stuff, so we were, um, you know, forced to stay in a very comfortable motel cabin. The warm bath and a cold beer were heartily enjoyed. An evening walk down to the bay was a highlight of our brief stay in the area. Word was that the east side of the Cabot Trail was a little less thrilling, and I'd say this was our experience. It felt more commercial and less visually spectacular. 

Our last big climb...

...and last big decent

Soon after starting out the next morning we began our final big climb. This was up Smokey Mountain; it was a pretty even and not-so-hard grade, so we pedaled away and made it to the top without too much drama. We had the added benefit at this point of having eaten most of our food. Once we had reached Neils Harbor we had left the Gulf of St. Lawrence behind us and were now gazing upon the mighty Atlantic Ocean for the remainder of our trip and I somehow felt I could see this as we looked southwards from Smokey Mountain. Coming down the other side of the mountain was fun, followed be a long stretch of fairly flat unremarkable riding for the better part of the day. it was our goal to get to Baddeck so we spent the majority of the day churning out the miles back towards our starting point.

Looking down from Smokey Mountain over the Atlantic

We had one last item on our itinerary before finishing our ride, which was stopping at the Gaelic College. We have friends who have studied there and it was a natural place of curiosity for us. 

The Gaelic College in St. Anns. We were glad to finally arrive here after what felt like a long slog 
with headwinds and unremarkable scenery

Some times the miles on a bike seem to roll away without even really thinking about it, and other times it seems like no matter how long you keep plugging away you never seem to get very far. The last 10 miles or so leading to our arrival at the Gaelic College, in St. Ann's, were this way. I think it was a combination of fatigue, a headwind, dull surroundings, topped with only a vague sense of when we would actually find the college. Nonetheless, we were cheered to hear the brilliant sounds of bagpipes as we finally reached our destination. After some food and water on the lawn we enjoyed a visit to the impressively named Hall of the Clans where we learned about the early history of the area and the school, as well as a great interactive history of traditional Cape Breton music.

Nancy chatting with the resident bagpiper. Remarkably, he plays full 40 hour workweeks

Some musical history, in both English and Gaelic

Nearly done as we roll into Baddeck

We left St Ann's to cover the last 20 or so kilometers home and, despite some rough patches, made it back to our car in one piece. Surprisingly, riding on the Trans Canada highway is both legal and at times neccesary, but never pleasant. At least not in our brief experience. 

Happily we crossed paths with John and Kim for a final time and wished them happy trails They were setting off for another night or two of riding before moving on to the next part of their trip in the Halifax or Sydney area.

With bikes on the roof, wishing John and Kim farewell in Baddeck

After we'd packed up our gear and bikes and hit the road not 10 minutes out of Baddeck a pummeling rainstorm hit. Our timing was good, although we could only imagine John and Kim racing to get their tent set up. 


Tunes and a meal at the Red Shoe Pub

Our evening was capped off with a return to the Red Shoe Pub for yummy meal and the pleasure of hearing Anita MacDonald play some tunes. We left feeling grateful for our time in such a wonderful part of the world, despite not having come across any spurtles. We'll have to look harder next time.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Part 4: Sleeping on the edge of the world

We ended our journey from Pleasant Bay here in a little paradise 

Riding down Mackenzie Mountain brought us happily to the Youth Hostel in Pleasant Bay, which was to become our home for two nights. It's hard to turn down the option of a comfortable bed in a private room after a long day on two wheels.

As anyone who has hiked or biked all day knows, food tastes so amazing when you've really worked for it. We settled in to the youth hostel and were delighted to find that Dawn, the manager of the hostel, had planted a small kitchen garden and encouraged us to snip and clip herbs and chives to add to our meal, which was greatly appreciated. Nancy is an experienced backpacker and good at thinking through meals on the road. They are always yummy while not requiring too much effort or extraneous ingredients. We enjoyed a couple of amazing curry dinners.

Close up view of a lobster crew from our whale watching trip out of Pleasant Bay

Looking back at the highlands from an ocean view

After our first night's sleep we took it easy with coffee and a bit of relaxing and then walked into town to venture out on a whale watching excursion. We were the only two customers for the trip, so we, along with our guide, charged out into the Gulf in hopes of seeing a whale. It took some time, but we did in fact see a couple of fin whales (the second largest mammals in the world, as it turns out) that were duly impressive. We were also treated to a brief trip to Fisherman's Cove which we had seen the day before from high up on the Cabot Trail. The boat journey was pretty intense as we pounded through the waves. Although it was fun, it was by no means relaxing. In fact, we felt a bit drained by the experience; the wind and spray and pounding all took their toll on us.

A somewhat harried whale watcher

We walked back to the hostel and decided to book ourselves in for a second night. It was only in retrospect that I concluded that it was the whale watching journey that kind of tipped the scale; it sapped us, and we were simply unable to muster the umph to get up on our bikes and face the next big climb, so we settled in for another night.

I'm glad we did. That evening we joined a small band of fellow hostelers who were enjoying wine around a beach campfire as the sun went down over the gulf. It was a memorable evening of camaraderie and good stories from folks from many parts of the world. The sunset was brilliant and didn't even touch the horizon until after 9:00pm.

Meeting fellow cycling tourists John and Kim, who we would cross paths with a number of times

We were pleased to see two fellow bicycle tourers had checked into the hostel and the next morning we were all getting ready to set out at about the same time. Although we didn't formally plan to travel together, we were pretty sure we'd see them again along the trail, and we did.

A traditional crofters hut at the base of North Mountain

Under the calm of grey clouds we set out from Pleasant Bay knowing we were headed for our second big climb of the journey.  After about 6 or 7 kilometers the climbing started and we slowly made our way back up to the top of the headlands. Although climbing is strenuous and sometimes dreaded, I found myself feeling exhilarated as we huffed and puffed our way up. I guess I was just taken with the splendor of the moment; here we were, Nancy and I, together on our loaded bikes, slowly tuning the cranks as we climbed bit-by-bit in a spectacular setting. What more could one ask for? Sharing a heathy challenge with my love, feeling free, with new places to discover -- I can't imagine anything better.

Climbing North Mountain

As we neared the top we slowly gained on John and Kim. It was a well earned congratulations as we all surmounted the climb and began the cruise along the plateau.

Nearing the top of North Mountain. Each of the highland climbs we did were nearly the 
same elevation;  somewhere right around 450 meters each

Taking a break before we descend down towards Cape North

Our time on the plateau was a little shorter then the previous time and we soon found ourselves descending again as we travelled towards Cape North. It was a rewarding and long cruise down with some lovely views. Our path led to an enjoyable visit to the Cape North community museum where we learned about the interesting history of mining, cross-Atlantic telegraphs, and ice fishing, among many other compelling bits of local lore.

An antique backpack frame, made in Providence, RI. I'd like to make one of these someday

 Cruising along Aspe Bay on our way to Bay St. Lawrence

Before our trip, my friend Dan had said that we had to see Meat Cove, so it was on our itinerary to get there, which requires a diversion from the Cabot Trail proper. Being on bikes, we only had the wherewithal to get to Bay St. Lawrence, but we couldn't have been happier to land where we did.

Looking down into Bay St. Lawrence. Getting there required crossing a small pass, allowing great views as we came into town. There is a beautiful inlet that the town looks upon while the mighty Gulf of St. Lawrence opens beyond

As always, getting off the beaten path is a good thing. Bay St. Lawrence is a small fishing village that sits at the very edge of Cape Breton. The sea is immense and the surrounding mountains make you feel as though you have truly reached the end of the known world. As fate would have it, there is a most charming little campground at the edge of the known world and we were delighted to call bit of paradise home for a night.

The barefoot-friendly Jumping Mouse eco-campground is a treasure. In many places, this is where the 5-star seaside resort would be located, but not here. The setting was thus: broad ocean at our feet, a short slope of grass rising to our beautiful little camp spot and looming highlands behind. We chatted for a bit with the proprietor and it was clear her sense of values were in line with ours. Cyclists even receive a discount.

Cloud cover over the mountains behind us

Our campsite looked down upon the Gulf

The view looking back behind us

Cloud hung around the higher elevations of mountain range behind us as we enjoyed brilliant sunshine over the ocean. In the evening we shared a great meal and a then a memorable walk around the nearby piers, seeing the fishermen prepping bait and attending to their work in the late evening sun. Its funny to bike all day and then feel like you want to go for a walk, but we did.

As we neared the commercial fishing dock we happened upon two vessels unloading their catch under the watchful eye of the Canadian government. As each fish --halibut, in this case-- was lifted from the hold, a uniformed government inspector would look at the length of the fish and give an affirmative nod if the fish met the necessary size/weight requirement and then a workman would cut off the head. From there, it was swung on the lift over to buyer who would inspect it, give it his own nod, and then an assistant would record the weight. From there it was lifted into a tub and packed with ice. Again and again this inspection was repeated in the chilly breeze as the last rays of sun set over the scene. Nearby a Bald Eagle kept watch for food as a seal played at the foot of the pier in the cold, wind churned waves. The impressions of this scene stayed with us: the ritual of unloading the catch, the closeness of both the sea and the high mountains and the intimacy of wildlife so close by, as though humanity had not yet fully possessed this remote and beautiful place.

The view along the coast

The scene of fishermen unloading their catch as the government inspector inspects 
and the company buyer buys

Walking back to our campsite

Sunset over the Gulf

We went back to our tent to sleep, reluctant to let such a spectacular evening go.

I have long been intrigued by tales of travel, polar exploration in particular, but really any journey that involves a sense of remove from the safe and familiar.

During out week in the Magdalene Islands I kept wanting to viscerally feel the fact that I was on some small islands fifty miles out in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. I kept reminding myself that this was the stuff my travel dreams are made of: new territory, foreign culture, and a compelling remote landscape. Despite this, I felt comfortable and somehow not really able to take in or feel that we were all that far from the familiar.

On the other hand, our stay in the village of Bay St. Lawrence offered just a bit of that big-world sense of our place on this little planet. I felt far away.

The shower/check-in building at the Jumping Mouse Campground

Leaving for our next day's travel.

We bid farewell to this lovely spot the next morning as we rolled down the dirt road toward the final phase of our trip.