Nova Scotia’s Celtic Shores Trail

We left Cheticamp early in the morning, eager to reach Inverness, a small coal mining town — the mines are closed, but the coal mining town identity remains — and the start of the Celtic Shores Trail. Also the birthplace of Alistair MacLeod. Goodbye, obnoxiously steep grades! This section of Nova Scotia’s rail-trail system is well maintained and beautiful with views of Gulf of Lawrence and Northumberland Straight to the northwest.

We spent a night in the woods just out of sight over the trailside berm. It was not our most or least comfortable night of the trip. The next morning, we woke up with the sun and packed quickly, as one does when sleeping in a wood without permission.

Our next stop was the Celtic Cultural Center in Judique. Thanks to our early start, we arrived well before it opened. I ate breakfast at a picnic table on the front lawn while G treated himself to burnt gas station coffee and packaged doughnuts. This center is a must-see. Probably a must-hear too, but once again our schedule didn’t allow for us to stay until the live music began at 11. So it goes on rushed bicycle tours.

Tandem Cycling the Cabot Trail – Cheticamp Rug Hooking

Tandem Cycling the Cabot Trail – Part 4

G and I left came out of the Highlands against a strong headwind, arriving in Cheticamp in the late afternoon. The last several miles were a trial, and we were exhausted. We arrived just moments too late to view the exhibits at the Les Trois Pignons, the Museum of Hooked Rug and Home Life. I had been looking forward to learning more about the craft of hooking and was disppointed. I pressed my cheek to the glass exhibit doors for an oblique peek of Elizabeth LeFort’s famous portrait work.

Two employees were still standing at the front desk, waiting to lock up when the clock struck exactly 5. I asked them what breed of sheep grew the wool that was used in Nova Scotia rug hooking and they said, “Oh, it’s just wool. Good sheep wool.” They were fairly certain it came from Montreal, but had never thought about it further. I asked this question of three different rug hookers at different shops and none of them could tell me. Does anyone know?

We spent the night in a clean and simple room at the Cheticamp Motel (kind, helpful, and adorable owners dressed in handknit wool, clean room, quality laundry machines, all the motel stars). To our surprise, a bright red tandem was propped at the door to the next room down. Our neighbors were a couple from Australia who had been touring the world via tandem. They cycled from Vancouver, BC to Detroit, MI in 2016 and were now finishing up a Detroit, MI to Sydney, NS leg. Their plan was to take the ferry from Sydney, NS to St. John’s, NL and then fly to Europe. G and I loved hearing about their experiences and getting their take on different tandem set-ups and components. They were an inspiration!DSC_0442.JPG


We Bought an Island


Upon our return home from Nova Scotia, I finished The Nymph and the Lamp and began We Bought an Island (also published as We Keep a Light) by Evelyn M. Richardson. Part memoir, part almanac, this lovely read tells of the Richardson family’s life as light house keepers. In the 1920’s, Evelyn Richardson and her husband, Morrill, bought 600-acre Bon Portage Island off the southwest coast of Nova Scotia and worked as the island’s lighthouse keepers for 35 years. They lived a simple, challenging life there, homesteading as much as possible while raising three children. Evelyn tells about their life clearly and honestly through chapters arranged by topic rather than chronology. The book is a not a page turner, but I never found it boring either. One chapter per night satisfied me, and left me feeling positive. Some of Evelyn’s messages have stayed on my mind, including the fact that happiness is a often a choice. She said that she wrote the book in large part to show young couples living in isolated places how it is possible to be happy. I am grateful for her example even if I will never live in a place nearly as isolated as Bon Portage (she only left her island- population ranging between 2 and 6- a few times a year for 35 years and then only to visit family!) Evelyn did not want the same life as I, but I found it easy to relate to her. In large part, I think this was the importance of place in her life. She found her home on Bon Portage Island and never tired of it. She loved the fog and the weather, the plants and the animals. She was part of the natural community there. We are still looking for our home and hope to find it as surely as did Evelyn.

Tandem Cycling the Cabot Trail – Connections

Tandem Cycling the Cabot Trail – Part 3

The first thing that drew me to Nova Scotia as a honeymoon destination was it’s clear cultural ties to Scotland, especially cultural ties expressed in wool. M and I made a trip to Scotland in 2015, and I had since been interested in the historic and present ties to New Scotland.

In the 1800’s, the infamous Highland Clearances took place across northern Scotland. Landlords forced thousands of peasants from their homes in favor of sheep. These people were forced to settle in Scotland’s less arable lands and many risked emmigration rather than eek out meager livings on the plots allowed to them in Scotland. Scots arrived at the harbors of Cape Breton and made new lives for themselves as fisherman, subsitence farmers, and, later, coal miners. (I suspect that these people included my maternal grandmother’s Murray ancestors, though my great great grandfather ended up in Montreal rather than Cape Breton.) Commercial fishing, farming, and mining have all declined, but Nova Scotia’s Scottish heritage continues to thrive in the language, music, and dance of Scotland, which have evolved into endemic styles.

Less attention is given to the geological ties between these lands. The Aspy Fault slices through the Cape Breton Highlands just as the Great Glen Fault cleaves the Scottish Highlands. Two faults are in fact one in the same. They are both part of the 300 km fissure known as the Great Glen Fault formed millenia ago when Newfoundland, Cape Breton, and Northern Scotland were all part of the Avalonian subcontinent.

Travelling the Cabot Trail brings you to a number of Aspy Fault viewpoints. If you are moving by pedal bicycle, these points are good places to rest after climbing the steep road.DSC_0419DSC_0413DSC_0410

The vegetation makes for a different looking landscape, but standing at a Cabot Trail overlook of the Aspy Fault, I also saw the view from Conic Hill in my mind’s eye. I like to think that the ancient geological connection between Scotland and New Scotland is part of what drew thousands of Scots to settle the northwestern Atlantic Coast. True, these people were low on options, but perhaps the Canadian land felt surprisingly familiar to its new residents and allowed for the flourishing of Celtic-Canadian culture that continues to this day.




Sea Change


Sea Change by Frank Viva is a juvenile graphic novel, which I was not expecting when I went to pick it up from the library. It follows a tween who is sent to spend the summer with his great uncle in an isolated fishing village of Nova Scotia. Our protagonist is loath to go, which he makes clear with constant whiny, but of course a few days in his temporary home with his rough uncle and he starts to realize that his summer might not be so bad after all. A fun, quick visit into what it might be like to spend a summer far far from here.

Tandem Cycling the Cabot Trail – Smokey Mountain

Tandem Cycling the Cabot Trail – Part 2

Cape Breton’s Cabot Trail boasts four significant climbs. This is true whether cyclists travel clockwise or counter-clockwise, but the counter-clockwise route involves slightly steeper slopes on the uphill sides of Smokey, North, MacKenzie, and French Mountains. G and I spent a long time considering which direction to take. In Goudsborough, we made up our mind to travel counter-clockwise, so that we would go up the steeper slopes. We made this choice because our tandem is equipped with V-brakes. Tandems that are built for touring should have disc brakes, which are more powerful, and some even have an extra brake that is operated by the stoker (that’s me in the back). Without these features, we were nervous about the steep declines. G would have to be careful to pump our brakes regularly and we would surely reach speeds that make me uncomfortable.

For us, the climbs began on our second day. We prepared ourselved with too much breakfast at the Wreck Cove General Store. Eating at a picnic table on the lawn, we were blessed by a luna moth siting. This one was a little worse for wear, but still beautiful.DSC_0310DSC_0312DSC_0318

We would have left Wreck Cove sooner if not for other friendly visitors who each talked to us for a long time, not sensing our eagerness to depart before the coming rain.

Smokey Mountain boasts the steepest slope of all the Cabot Trail grinds, but it is also relatively short. We reached the base as misty fog crept in, blocking any views of the ocean to our right. We were fortunate not to have any strongs winds – we didn’t realize just how fortunate at the time – and were able to make steady progress up the hill one stroke at a time. We reached the top, cornily declaring “We smoked it!” and feeling rather smug.DSC_0319DSC_0323

From the peak of Smokey Mountain and Cape Smokey Provincial Park, it is mostly downhill to Ingonish and then Cape Breton National Park.DSC_0326DSC_0332We stopped in the Visitors’ Center there to look at maps, ask about camping, and buy a few souveniers. Then we were off to find a swimming spot. Our first opportunity came at Broad Cove campground. The Parks staff told that there was a beach with frigid water, and we were welcome to swim but probably wouldn’t last long. They were right, of course, the water was freezing, but the sun was warm and it felt wonderful to be outside in the sun with warm breezse blowing on our skins. I only managed to wade in up to my knees, but G was brave enough to take a quick plunge.DSC_0339.JPGDSC_0387DSC_0392

We left the beach feeling refreshed and happy, and still confident from our ride up Smokey. It is fair to say that this was the last time that we felt proud on the Cabot Trail. Our inflated egos travelled with us until the turn-off to Neil’s Harbour and Aspy Bay, at which point we left them lying limply at the bottom of the rolling hills of White Point Road. White Point Road is a detour that was recommended to us by the cashier at Wreck Cove General Store. He told that this detour was beautiful and that there was ice cream to be found in the base of the light house there, but forgot to mention that this road is obnoxiously hilly and there would be strong winds off the coast. We agree that this detour is beautiful, but we cannot recommend it to fellow cyclists, not least because the ice cream shop appears to be no more.DSC_0398.JPG

Tandem Cycling the Cabot Trail – Port Hastings to Wreck Cove

Tandem Cycling the Cabot Trail – Part 1

Cape Breton is, perhaps, the most famous region of Nova Scotia. It is known for dramatic vistas, for Celtic music and dance, for Cheticamp rug hooking, and for the Cabot Trail that links it all together. It is also known for its hills, which Nova Scotians had been warning us about since our arrival in the province. G was confident that we could climb any hill, but I was uncertain, especially due to a deep and unignorable pain that had developed in my left hamstring. Still, there was no way to know until we tried, and really no alternative anyway after we had already come so far to ride The Cabot Trail.

We left Port Hastings on Highway 104, which is a true highway with plenty of trucks, tourists, and resident islanders travelling north. 104 does have a large shoulder, but riding a pedal bicycle on a highway is never pleasant. The pain in my hamstring became unbearable as we climbed the rolling hills toward the Cape Breton highlands. It seemed to take over my mind and all I could think of was the sensation. We were on a tight schedule to reach Cape Smokey Provincial Park for the night, but we were forced to pull over repeatedly for me to take breaks. This was the way of things until we reached Baddeck, the first town of our route on The Cabot Trail. Baddeck is home to Baadeck, a yarn shop of course, so we took the time to peak at the yarns before buying thick, pasty all-natural sunscreen at the drug store and chatting with a M’kmaw man in the parking lot. In the heat of late afternoon, we were in desperate need of ice cream, but there was none to be found. This ended up being the first of several ice cream hunts that ended in disappointment.

The rest of our afternoon was uneventful but for a very short ride on the Englishtown cable ferry.DSC_0300.JPG

Many of the craft shops were closed by the time that we reached them in the early evening. This was disappointing, but we had nowhere to store woodwork or pottery anyway. It was getting toward civil twilight when we started to look for a place to stealth camp rather than continue to Cape Smokey. We came across several places that I thought would do just fine, but G felt that they were too exposed, too visible, too this or too that. We had made up our minds that we would continue to Cape Smoke Provincial Park in the dark after all, which meant climbing Mount Smokey first, when we stopped for a hamstring break in the parking lot of Wreck Cove General Store. The store was closed for the night, but the owner was outside packing a trailer for a trip to Halifax. It only took a few moments of chatting with pathetically tired me for this man to realize that I truly did not want to continue on and climb the steepest hill of Cape Breton after dark, and he offered us a place to camp by the woodline behind the store. There were thousands of mosquitoes back there, he said, but no one would bother us. Not only this, but he brought us each a cold beer to have with our dinners. G and I have been both treated well by many strangers while we are travelling – Appalachian Trail angels and magicians, Warm Showers hosts, drivers giving hitches, the list goes on – and we never take it for granted. We are always more grateful than we can express and can only hope that we are able to pay kindness forward.