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.

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