Circumnavigating Cape Breton without tears or white knuckles

cape breton highlandsCAPE BRETON, N.S. — I’m a better driver now than the last time we were on the chunk of earth that is Cape Breton, about 10 years ago.

I wasn’t a bad driver then and I’m not a brilliant driver now, but travelling the same roads with one decade and hundreds of thousands of kilometres under my tires showcases the change.

The highway wiggling through Highlands National Park scared the bejeezus out of me 10 years ago and I can’t even fathom how, back then, I made it along the eight-kilometre mountainside, narrow dirt road to Meat Cove. Our triumphant arrival is pictured at the top of this post. What you can’t see, behind the camera, is me nearly in tears because I knew I’d have to take that road again to get back to safety and I didn’t think I could.

This summer I did not attempt that killer road, but we did manage to circumnavigate Cape Breton—in one shot, and kind of by accident, leaving at 1 p.m. and arriving back at our little cabin at 4 a.m. I didn’t mean to drive through the night. Like I’ve said, I don’t do that any more. But Trev needed to meet up with his Venturer company on the other side of the island to get the ferry to Newfoundland and we (foolishly) decided to make a day of it.

We left in a cloud of excitement. A national park! Scenery! Ice cream! A hike!

The drive through the park, which had me white-knuckled then, was swell. It helps when you and your vehicle know each other as well as Joe and I. Me’n’that truck have driven more than 110,000 kilometres together, in all sorts of weather and all sorts of terrain. We knew, Joe and I, that this was going to be our last road trip together, and we were just up and down those hills like we’d been born there, flying over and around some of the most beautiful land on the planet.

We rounded the top of Nova Scotia and caught our breath as mountains and forest dropped away in favour of beach and rock and frigid Atlantic. Our drive was pretty good down the east side, too, through wilderness and more giant rock into Sydney. Trev’s company had left Montreal early that morning and were aiming for a grandpa’s home by 11 p.m. We were on track to meet them there at the same time.

That’s when the fog rose up.

We were on the ocean, after all, so there’s that whole warm air/cold air thing going on all the time. No big deal. But the starless, moonless sky was no help to us, and neither was the road. Rather than ease off onto a shoulder, the road simply crumbled away toward the ditch. I lined my tires up with the yellow stripe down the middle and just held on. There were no locals to follow—we saw fewer than a dozen cars after dark for nearly 200 kilometres—as the unfamiliar road twisted backward and forward and wobbled now and again for no apparent reason.

broken road no shoulder

“It’s like they gave a toddler a crayon and let her design the road,” Trevor said.

“Or someone like Durant,” Melani suggested, “who was paid by the mile.”

The Venturers had to wade through the same fog and we all arrived at the grandpa’s house around midnight. That was all well and good for the kids, brimming with excitement and marvelling at the fog.

But we were on the wrong side of Cape Breton, two hours from our trusty seaside cabin. The fog was unrelenting, following us as far inland as it possibly could before alerting its western cousin to pick up the slack and torment us the rest of the way home.

I certainly never meant to drive through the night again. But though my arms and upper back punished me the next day, no one came to any harm, including the moose I had been constantly warned about. Joe the Truck and I were a good team like that.

I’m grateful for the scores of road trips we’ve taken in the past 10 years, and especially the past five years with Joe, which have turned me into a competent—though muscle-sore—driver. We retired Joe soon after we returned home. I’m glad we had that last sleepless night together.


A walk in the park: Cape Breton Highlands National Park

 Part of an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks.

cape breton highlands park roadCAPE BRETON, N.S. — It had been about 90 minutes, a third of that in the rain. Trevor had gone on ahead. I was stumbling along with a significant limp. Melani was carrying sound-asleep Jilly like a sacrificial lamb.

A dad, his two kids close behind, paused and smiled pityingly at my discomfort. He was just starting on the path. “Was it worth it, though?”

I was a little grumpy, as you might imagine, so I said, “Not if you’re used to long walks in the forest.”

Maybe that wasn’t fair. I mean, most walks through the forest don’t culminate in a vista so grand no camera can capture it and no words can describe it. But the truth is, we’ve walked in lovely forests in Quebec and they have a lot more in common with this trail than one might imagine. We were interested in the other virtues of Cape Breton, like cliffs and whales and waves and islands jutting out of the sea. Those things Highlands National Park has aplenty … just not so much on the seven-kilometre Skyline, which is advertised as Nova Scotia’s premier hiking trail.

But don’t let my forest-jaded self discourage you. Highlands Park is one of the most beautiful places on Earth and has dozens on dozens of trails to discover, over bog and along high beaches as well as through thick woods with a myriad shades of green. Even if you never leave the car, you’ll see the most spectacular sights from winding avenues twisting over French Mountain, past Jigging Cove and through Lone Sheiling. It takes at least two and a half hours to drive the entire route from Cheticamp to Ingonish, through towns with captivating names like Cape North, Dingwall and the elusive Meat Cove (ask me about the drive to that place sometime).

There are hundreds of species of animals throughout the park, which covers a sweeping 950 square kilometres, at least six salt- and freshwater beaches, and Acadian, Boreal and Taiga habitats. There are layers on layers of history here, from the beginning of earth through a time when the land was owned by no one but home to a few brave people, to the settling of the Europeans to we slightly grumpy tourists and gawkers who come to swallow as much beauty as we can before returning to our two-dimensional lives.

Despite the weather and what I consider to be a poor choice in walking trails, Cape Breton Highlands National Park gets four out of five stroller wheels. The paths were clear and flat and an easy walk, even though they passed through forest and over a mountain. And—oh!—everyone we met had a smile and a “hello,” which you just don’t get as often at home.

four wheelsThe road from Cheticamp to Ingonish Beach is 170 kilometres, but mind that much of that is on mountain roads—you’ll have to gear down to get up and down those ancient hills safely.

A park pass must be purchased between May and October. Prices range from $3.90 for youth to $19.60 for a family for a day pass. But consider purchasing the annual family pass, which will run you $98.10 and is accepted at dozens of attractions across the country.

Things that slink and swing in the night

Margaree Harbour Cape BretonMARGAREE HARBOUR, N.S. — It was the dark side of twilight when I spotted it, a ways down the beach.

The silhouette had a hump almost like a raccoon, only its legs were longer and it didn’t waddle. It slinked.

“Trevor, go get the baby right now,” I said softly but firmly. “Give her to her mother.”

Our shallow beach on the Gulf side of Cape Breton is sheltered on three sides by deep cliffs. The day before we got here there was a bear sighting up at the Dumpster, but the creature on the beach seemed to small to be bear. Too big for a fox, though. Coyote, then. It slithered down to the water, across to the cliffs, criss-crossed back closer to us. He paused, seemed to be sizing us up.

We knew he wasn’t comfortable with us, either. We were pretty loud and scary in front of our beach fire. But we were on his land and he’s got big teeth and an instinct to survive.

Our survival instincts are dull enough that not one of us thought to bring a flashlight. So there we were, full of hot dogs and marshmallows on a deserted beach under cloud cover as the last vestiges of sunlight spilled over the edge of the earth. There was a wild animal right there and no one had a personal light source.

Brave Trevor volunteered for the black, half-kilometre hike back to the cabin for gear. We sent the food with him.

The creature had disappeared into the tall grass at the side of the cliff. It was full dark and we felt very alone. It seemed Trev had been gone for a very long time. My watchdog was firmly asleep in my lap.

There were no stars; we could no longer see shadows. There was no way to track our silent creature friend. And where the hell was Trevor, anyway?

Then! On the horizon! Two spinning, glowing orbs appeared on the horizon. Blue and red, then gold, then purple, the unmistakable pattern of Trevor’s poi. Our boy was returned, and with him flashlights for everyone. We laughed, and relaxed and contemplated what to do with our embers while he spun poi in front of the ocean for us.

If the evening had ended there, all would have been right with the world. But it was about to get better.


There was a bit of a commotion at the top of the cliff as a car was relieved of its passengers. Their flashlights bobbed down the path, paused a moment at the top of the wooden stairs. As they became human forms, we welcomed them and offered them our coals. They set up their chairs on the cliff side of the embers and added their wood, building the fire up. There were three women in their party, two with sparkling silver hair, and two men—the companion of one of the silver-haired ladies, and the son of another. They brought their own firewood, their own wine and their own laughing sense of adventure.

They had clapped when they’d seen Trevor spinning poi and soon we realized why, when young Ian put on music and began to spin poi himself. The two played side by side for a while, till Trev moved away to watch instead, and to learn a few more moves. This new young man had spent some time learning how to craft a show and we sat mostly quietly while he danced and spun to his trancy music.

“I could dance,” said one of the ladies. It might have sounded like she was joking. “I could get up there and do my ’60s dance.”

She was, of course, encouraged, and up she got, hands twisting toward the sky, stepping in circles on tiptoe, face tipped star-ward. She danced toward and behind the poi, a firefly at the edge of the flame. When she vanished toward the ocean, we fell silent and waited. And waited. Eventually: “Suzie? Suzie?”

“I’m okay,” she called, not from the place we’d expected her to turn up. Then she was back in the circle of light, arms extended, joined by another lady. Their poi artist never missed a beat.

The gentleman among them got out the marshmallows and fixed them to sticks with the concentration and precision some might associate with rolling a joint. Crouched closer to the fire to get the perfect roast, one of the ladies—a fellow editor!—gave me a little history of the area, told me tales I can keep in my story bank, and made suggestions for our next few days of adventuring. Then the tales turned to the stars: Cassiopeia, Hercules, Draco …

The gods were among us. The magic was all around us. But the fire hadn’t been fed in some time and was reduced to hot, glowing coals. The brutal Cape Breton winds were chilly without the fire to counteract them. It was time to call it a night.

And a night it certainly was.