Tag Archives: North Mountain

Off the trail

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For this trip, while I was struggling to get through my first year of Clerkship (third year of Medicine), Josh outdid himself in travel agent mode and spectacularly organized all accommodations on the booked-months-in-advance Cabot Trail, as well as ensuring that we had adequate time between cycling days to rest our mountain-naïve bones. Our first rest day was spent in a state of relative shock. Having survived Deluge Day 1 on the trail – which consisted not only of 100 km of riding, but also approximately 100 litres of water absorbed into our bike shorts – we did little else in Chéticamp except consume large quantities of of donair pizza and poutine at Wabos Pizza Sub & Donair (not sure what it is about donair and Cape Breton, but it’s everywhere and it’s excellent), as well as Nova Scotian Jost Vineyards “Great Big Friggin’ Red,” which was much like the province itself: hilariously unpretentious on the surface, but addictively delightful once sampled. (Also, surprisingly elusive – while I faithfully trolled each wine list and LC for the rest of the trip, I have yet to track down another bottle of GBFR, much to my distress.)

Our peaceful porch at Albert’s Motel

Assembly line lunch-making, optimistically assuming we WILL be able to eat lunch without it drowning on the trail the next day:

Where we’ve come from, where we’re headed:

We rolled into Pleasant Bay, aka Rest Day 2, only moderately soaked this time: we nearly escaped the rain on Trail Day 2 except for our final half hour of riding, when we encountered our first mountain descent, highway construction, and a sudden downpour all at once. However, our Airbnb accommodations had not only a private bathroom with beautifully fluffy towels (real towels quickly become one of the greatest luxuries when using travel towels for any length of time), but also one of the largest and most comfortable beds ever known to cyclist-kind. We lay down just for a moment to talk about our evening plans… and woke up 2 hours later, ready for anything 🙂 Our Airbnb host Jeff had left not only a 20% off coupon for the restaurant where he worked, but tips on when the live music started – one of the many advantages to staying with a local! We ended up at The Mountain View Restaurant 2 evenings in a row to enjoy their enormously generous glasses of wine and literal toe-tapping local fiddle music and Highland dance. In between Mountain View visits, we spent our time on the Pleasant Bay beach, a mere 5 minute walk down the hill from our house. The mesmerizing sound of the waves dragging beach pebbles along the shore and the odd beauty of lobster traps piled against the harbour made for a delicious way to pass an afternoon.

View from the porch:

Pleasant Bay beach day:

Mountain View does not skimp on wine!

Of COURSE we would bump into a fellow Winnipegger staying at the same Airbnb… Judy, hearing your voice in the hallway was the best surprise of the trip! 🙂

Rest Day 3 was undoubtedly the pinnacle of the rest days, and in some ways, the pinnacle of the trip. To arrive at Hideaway Campground in Dingwall, our Trail Day 3 destination, we had to summit North Mountain, the most challenging ascent on the trail, made even more daunting by the fact that, for the first time, we had to cycle in blazing sun and the subsequent heat that accompanied this rare Cape Breton phenomenon, as well as manoeuvre through kilometres of construction over the slope of the mountain. Having successfully negotiated all the above, we rolled into Hideaway and made our way to our most delightful accommodations yet: The Lighthouse. (When our bike guy heard Josh had booked the Lighthouse, he went into rhapsodies of acclamation for Josh’s excellent planning, since apparently this is the most coveted spot to stay on the island).

Waking up to this view every morning made every gruesome turn of the pedals up North Mtn well worth it:

That evening, we walked the two kilometres or so to the “Secret Beach” whose existence had been hinted at by our previous Airbnb host. The Hideaway staff member had assured us that it was a sprawling white sand beach, “Just like Verrraderrro, Cooooba” (those are not rolled Latino Rs, mind you, but rather the piratey Nova Scotian variety). While not precisely like Varadero, it was beautiful, secluded, and the definition of restful.

The following morning, our actual Rest Day 3, was definitely the least restful of the rest days, but in the best possible way: We cycled 5 minutes down the highway (in city clothes, which just felt wrong after growing accustomed to padded shorts and jerseys!) to Eagle North Kayak, where we spent the afternoon with local sea kayaking guide Mike and 4 lovely tourists from Ohio. Together, we navigated the sea-bird strewn marshes and white-capped waves of the wild Atlantic. Then, to cap off an already-perfect afternoon, Mike offered Josh & I the use of his kids’ paddleboards to try in his harbour.

We had grand plans to go out for a lavish dinner that night, but realised no view could top the one from our own cabin porch. So, we cycled to the Red Store (aka the one store in the entire Aspy Bay area), artfully packed slices of Donair pizza and cold beer into our paniers, and enjoyed a delectable evening of star-gazing from the Lighthouse.

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Trail Days 4 and 5 were back to back, with no rest days in between. We detoured off the official Cabot Trail on Trail Day 4, following the serendipitous advice of a local we chatted with while buying ice cream, who advised us to veer off onto the Coastal Loop to avoid the horrendous construction that had taken over South Mountain. Not only did we successfully avoid all construction, but the Coastal Loop views and unavoidable encounter with the Neil Harbour Chowderhouse made the detour well worth it.

Trail Day 5 was beautiful and bittersweet, both looking forward to the triumph of completing the trail and dreading the end of such a spectacular journey. We stretched it out, enjoying a languid brunch of bacon-ginger pannekoeken at The Dancing Moose Cafe, celebrating not only our grand journey on the trail, but also our 6th wedding anniversary. When we got married 6 years ago, we had no way of imagining all the adventures we have since experienced and written about on this blog… so I can only imagine what we’ll look back on in another 6 years!

On the trail

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There are two maps one uses when cycling the Cabot Trail, and one is infinitely more useful than the other.

The first is a regular map that shows the trail (a paved, two-lane road shared by cyclists and motor vehicles alike) making a circle of the northern half of Cape Breton, with really no exits or intersections. There’s no way to get lost on this trail, so there’s really no need for this one.

The second map, however, is the elevation map, which essentially looks like the EKG of a mouse on steroids. It does not take long to learn that your sense of distance will not be measured by street signs, but rather by the number and steepness of ascents and descents left til your destination.

Here we go!!

Elevation treated us well for the first day. Tyler the Bike Guy drove us to the trailhead in Baddeck, from which we pedalled 97km. This is less masochistic than it sounds since this was the flattest leg of the journey and we figured it was best to make as much headway as possible.

Our “What have we gotten ourselves into?!” faces, when Tyler drove away from us in Baddeck and we realised we actually had to face the trail alone…

About a quarter of the way into the day, however, the clouds grew ominous.

They have a saying in this sea-battered part of the world that goes “if you don’t like the weather in Cape Breton, just wait 15 minutes.” Not to cast doubt on the local wisdom, but after 15 minutes of the skies opening up and casting off their icy burden of rain-bullets on us, we were starting to doubt the local wisdom. A lesser deluge may have dampened our spirits, but it was impossible not to laugh in the face of this frigid 4-hour baptism of precipitation. By the time we arrived at a dining establishment (we had packed sandwiches, but knew they would disintegrate in an instant if we took them out of their bags), we were squeaky-clean and smelled fresher than any cyclist ever has.

(Apologies to the Belle View restaurant in Margaree, however, for leaving such colossal puddles on your floor. Thanks for the hot chocolate!)

We arrived in Chéticamp that evening, wrung out our clothes and our bones, and rested in the satisfaction that it was all uphill from here (har har)

Limbering up for Trail Day 2:

One blissful rest-day and one corny elevation pun later, we embarked on Trail Day 2. This was technically our shortest trail day, barring the fact that two mountains stood between us and our next stop in Pleasant Bay. We bid à bientot to Chéticamp, relishing the freedom of carrying nothing but the panniers that hung from our bicycles. And then the mountain came.

Leaving Chéticamp and facing the road ahead

My last experience with mountains was Cuba’s Pico Gayón, which for me was definitely a Pyrrhic victory. I technically made it to the top, but not without leaving every ounce of decorum, pride, and excess oxygen behind. Needless to say, I was nervous for this.

Fortunately, Sara had used her med-student authority (they don’t legally have any, except over their spouses) to get me to pick up a secret weapon before this trip, and for this I will be forever grateful. Armed with my nifty new inhaler, I could feel my lungs working their hardest without ever experiencing that familiar burn and tightness that would have previously forced me to pull over. As the incline steepened, I shifted to the lowest gear and hunkered down for the long haul. Progress was comically slow, but always steady, and every switchback revealed a majestic new cove or inlet filled with the sparkling Atlantic. It was a redemptive experience, to say the least.

Our first “real” ascent… oh, how innocent we were then!

These were the ascents. Day 3’s was undoubtedly the most brutal, with the blazing sun and a 13% grade (that’s a third steeper than the aforementioned Arlington Bridge…and for four unrelenting kilometres!). By Day 5’s ascent, however, we felt like naturals.



Then came the descents. While the ascents did feel less daunting as we became accustomed to them, we never became desensitized to the thrill of careening down mountainsides on two wheels, or that perfect balance of self-reliance and surrender.

Trail Day 1 graciously provided us with what I like to call our ‘training mountain’ (and before the deluge, no less!). Less than half the height of the next days’ mountains, we still pulled over after the descent to exclaim to each other about the drawn-out adrenaline rush we had just experienced. Such wonderful prairie innocence.

If you ever see a photo or postcard from the Cabot Trail, it’s probably of Day 2’s Mackenzie Mountain. Its harrowing switchbacks tumbling toward the ocean make for a fantastic aerial shot. They also make for a steep learning curve (pun inevitable) for flatlanders like us, especially when combined with a sudden downpour at the last minute and a lot of construction. This descent felt the most challenging, as we rapidly learned that switchbacks need to be taken very slowly, especially since it’s impossible to see more than fifty feet in front of you. Still, as the ground levelled out at the bottom we felt we had truly reached a milestone in our cycling careers.

Far be it from me to judge billion-year-old landforms, but in my opinion Day 3’s North Mountain is undoubtedly the best… both in the traditional sense of wonderful, as well as in the more masochistic sense of most challenging and therefore ultimately most rewarding. Its monstrous height (the tallest on the entire trail) combines with slightly gentler curves than Mackenzie Mountain that allow a rider to reach ludicrous speeds while fully taking in the vastness of the landscape. The momentary rush of adrenaline becomes a prolonged state of mind as the descent lasts long enough to alternate multiple times between shrieks of glee and deep contemplations of one’s own insignificance in the face of nature’s magnificence. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

Day 4 lacked any major mountains (though it did contain some major seafood chowder), which brings us to Day the Last, which included the talk of the proverbial town: Cape Smokey. Frequently, when we’d tell people our general itinerary, they would respond with “Oh, so you haven’t done Smokey yet!” Though not nearly as tall as Mackenzie or North Mountains, they were always keen to inform us about how steep it was. One Cape Bretoner in particular reassured us that “It doesn’t matter if I’m in a car(rrr) or a bike, I just close my eyes and hope for the best!”

And though we kept our eyes open the entire time, I can see their point. If North Mountain was thrilling on a spiritually-moving level, Smokey was just pure fun, a roller coaster with no seatbelts. The ocean felt closer than it did on any of the previous descents, and there were a few spots that zigged and zagged so wildly (and seemingly unnecessarily) that I actually laughed out loud. Yet just as the roar of the wind in our ears reached a deafening climax, the ground levelled out and it was all over. This daunting task that we had set for ourselves was complete, and besides some very sore knees we were undefeated.

Lakies Head

The last few hours on the trail were not unlike the last few hours of summer camp: calm, relatively uneventful, and bittersweet as we knew this adventure was coming to a close. The Englishtown ferry met us at the end of a long spit of land hardly wider than the road itself, a surreal iron barge after a week of tiny fishing boats. Our two bikes were dwarfed between SUVs and Winnebagos, and there on the other side stood Tyler the Bike Guy like an ode to narrative symmetry. As he kindly secured our bikes to the rack on the back of his car, we bid farewell to a place that had simultaneously tested and enchanted us more than most places could in less than a week’s time.

Home stretch, cradled by the ocean