Tag Archives: Pico Gayón

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

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Move Over, Motoco!

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Going into this trip, we knew the first half was going to be a little hectic. Eastern Cuba has so many specific things to see and do, and we were determined to see and do them all before making our way to the more tranquil, schedule-free West. Sara’s already mentioned the chaotic scorching excitement of the city of Santiago, but even our rural venture into the Sierra Maestras had two clear objectives: the Comandancia de la Plata (the jungle hideaway from which the Castro brothers and Che built their revolution), and Pico Turquino (Cuba’s highest peak). The Comandancia was everything we hoped it would be: mysterious, inspiring, and basically untouched since it served its purpose nearly six decades ago. As far as hikes go it was nothing too challenging, thanks largely to the fact that the heavily armed guerillas who blindfold you and carry you through the jungle have now been replaced by nicely tended paths. The next morning, however, all that would change.

Full disclosure: We did not climb Cuba’s highest peak. The trail was closed which, as we were warned, was often the case. Our host, however, recommended a different peak, one which we could actually see right from our casa. He hooked us up with an energetic young guide named Alexi who was happy to accompany these two fit Canadians on a merry little stroll up Pico Gayón.

Our host’s recommended mountain top was one which we’d already appreciated from afar, as it stood benevolently over our casa.

Even fuller disclosure: There was nothing merry or little about it. I have previously said that Argentina’s Motoco was the most grueling experience my body has been subjected to, but after Gayón, I would get a job at the top of Motoco and make that my daily commute. Alternatively, I now have big plans (please hold me to this!!) to talk to my doctor about exercise-induced asthma. Or heat-induced asthma. Or humidity-induced asthma. Or using-venomous-plants-for-handholds-as-the-sun-chars-your-flesh-while-fire-ants-devour-your-feet-induced asthma. Any one of those really. Regardless, for some reason my heart and lungs decided at that moment to unionize and go on strike against me, while Sara and Alexi bounded up the mountain, apparently without any internal labor disputes

About a quarter of the way up, I look back at our progress and still have no idea what I’m getting myself into.

Sara and Alexi use a metal cable, anchored to the top of a near-vertical stretch of rock, to hoist themselves up.

This fairly accurately portrays my feelings for most of the ascent. #NoMakeUpSelfie

I do owe some major kudos to my two companions. Sara, with her trademark compassionate hard-assery, was immensely kind and encouraging whilst refusing to give into my requests that they go on without me (her responses to those requests gradually morphed from “Think of how disappointed you’ll be if you come all this way and don’t reach the top!” to “You gotta keep moving or the fire ants will literally kill you”, both of which were true and motivating in their own way). Alexi, meanwhile, maintained the patience of a saint for the entire trek, using all the time that I was lagging behind to discuss with Sara the fascinating ecology and geography of the region.

Alexi and Sara kindly waiting for me to catch my breath before continuing on.

Some of the beautiful local flora.

Finally, after hearing “We’re almost there” for an overly-generous number of times, Alexi and Sara disappeared completely from view and I heard Sara shout, in Spanish, “Only 2 kilometres left!” As my heart sunk, she added, “Just kidding! We’re standing on the summit!”

With the last of my energy, I hoisted myself over the last few fallen trees and finally came to a pleasantly breezy meadow with a literal old rugged cross marking the summit. Alexi was waiting with bananas and guava juice, and the 360° view of the infamous Sierra Maestras was indeed breathtaking.



The trek down was as treks down always are: physically easier, but more mentally challenging due to the constant reminder of how far you have to fall. Thankfully all our knees held out, and the worst injury was sustained by Sara, who took it like a champ.

A significant portion of Sara’s heel had grown quite close with her blister-bandaid, and thus decided to accompany it as she removed her socks after the hike.

As we reached the bottom, I thought there could be no physical sensation lovelier than level ground beneath my feet. Alexi managed to top that, however, by offering that we stop in at a neighbour’s place for coffee.

It turned out that this neighbour was, in fact, the farmer that owned the forest of coffee trees we had walked through at the beginning of the hike. As chickens clucked around us, he showed us his roasting pan (conveniently located next to a pot of boiled fish heads), ground the beans with a giant mortar & pestle, scooped the grounds into a homemade filter, and percolated the coffee on his wood stove. A few minutes later we were enjoying the freshest cup of java we could ever taste while listening to him explain the ins and outs of coffee farming.



So all’s well that ends well, I suppose, though my quads would fiercely disagree.

Fullest disclosure: Now that I’m fully recovered, I would actually quite like to do something like that again. Just don’t tell Sara, or she’ll find a way to actually make it happen before we head home.