Was It the Toughest Climb on the Journey… The 10,000 Mile Bike Trek

I found this spray painted bicycle at the top of Cape Breton's toughest climb and laughed. (photo by Jean Snuggs.)

I found this spray painted bicycle at the top of Cape Breton’s toughest climb and laughed. (Photo by Jean Snuggs.)

Gearing ratios on bicycles are complicated beyond my normal interest in things mechanical. Let’s just say there are high gears for scurrying down mountains, medium gears for flat road travel, and low gears for climbing mountains and fighting headwinds. The more gears you have, the greater your options and ease of travel. The goal is to bike at a speed that is comfortable for your level of physical conditioning while keeping undo pressure off your knees. (Trashed knees can ruin the most pleasant bike trip.) Maintaining cadence, which is the speed you pedal, and knowing when to shift are critical parts of keeping your knees happy. Beginners have to struggle through a steep learning curve, especially in climbing hills and mountains— and yes, I recognize the potential pun.

The reason for this discussion about gears is that it relates to the substantial mountain that Jean, Lindell and I faced when we left our camp at Cape North in Nova Scotia and cycled back up into the Cape Breton Highlands. It was a doozy. We could see it looming in front of us as we cycled through the canyon carved out by the Middle Aspy River. The closer we came, the more it looked like something a mountain climber might enjoy.

One of the steepest climbs along the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia was climbing up this hill into the Highlands.

The hill loomed in front of us. It was obvious we were in for a climb.

Was it the toughest hill I climbed on my journey? No. It wasn’t nearly as steep as my climb over the Panamint Range in Death Valley. And I had pedaled up several others that were much longer on the Blue Ridge Parkway. What made it so damnably difficult were my low gears— they weren’t as low as Jean’s and Lindell’s! While I was out of the saddle pushing down on my pedals with knee-punishing grit, Jean and Lindell were sitting down and merrily teasing me about my inability to keep up. Talk about a challenge. (grin) Had I been by myself, I would have simply noted the difficulty, complained to the universe, and pedaled on. And I wouldn’t have stopped at the first bike shop I came to and added more gears!

Here I am biking up a mountain in Nova Scotia with 60 pounds of gear.

I posted this photo at the beginning of the series. Jean took it as we crested the mountain. Note the bulging leg muscles that couldn’t keep up with two slight women— even with 5,000 miles of travel.

One of my happiest sights on the 10,000 mile trip: the top of the hill.

One of my happiest sights on any steep climb: the top of the mountain.

Let me note here that Lindell and Jean had a lot more going for themselves than low gears. They had both graduated from the University of Illinois with top honors in physical education and gone on to become highly successful community college track coaches. They had just completed a bike trip that was all about climbing hills. In addition to being bright and competitive, they were as tough mentally as they were physically. They had managed to keep up with me on the flats and downhills as well as busting my butt going up the hill.

Topping the ridge, we came across a bicycle outline that a cyclist had spray painted on the shoulder with the words, “Why?” We laughed in sympathy. Continuing on, we followed the Cabot Trail across the Cape Breton Highlands and down to the small town of Chéticamp on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, leaving the highlands with their Scottish influence behind for flatter, coastal lands with French influence. France had originally named Cape Breton, Île Royale, and had considered the island part of Acadia. We cycled down the coast though villages and cut inland to Margaree Forks where we said goodbye to the Cabot Trail and picked up NS Highway 19 known as the Ceilidh Trail, which we followed for 60 miles back to the Canso Causeway.

A very fast downhill (brakes advised) brought us to this traditional Scotch cabin known as Lone Scheiling. We had flashed by it on our bikes but Peggy and I stopped to admire it.

A very fast downhill after our climb (brakes advised), brought us to this traditional Scottish cottage known as Lone Scheiling. We had flashed by it on our bikes but Peggy and I stopped to admire it.

I took this photo out the window.

I took this photo out the window.

It was surrounded by yellow birch.

The cottage was surrounded by yellow birch.

One of which featured this colorful knot.

One of the trees featured this colorful knot.

A few ghost leaves still flung to branches, waiting for spring growth to push them off.

A few ghost leaves still clung to branches, waiting for the budding spring growth to push them off.

And this creek burbled along beside the cottage.

And this creek burbled along beside the cottage.

Climbing again, we came on this view of the west coast of Cape Breton looking out toward the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Climbing again, we came on this view of the west coast of Cape Breton looking out toward the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Signs along the road had been warning us about moose...

Signs along the road had been warning us about moose…

Finally, we got to see one.

Finally, we got to see one. These wonderfully humorous animals can be quite dangerous. You don’t want one chasing you down the road when you are on a bicycle. When I lived in Alaska, a cyclist came around a blind curve on a bike trail and ran smack into one! Fortunately, the surprised moose decided to run away.

The Cabot Trail often requires road work after a rough winter.

The Cabot Trail often requires road work after a rough winter. Peggy and I were entertained by this effort at a traffic stop. Don’t you wonder they got the earth mover up on the hillside?

This impressive cliff was near the road work.

This impressive cliff was near the road work.

Leaving the Highlands, we came on several small communities along the coast where fishing is a major industry. Whale watching is also popular off the coast.

Leaving the Highlands, we came on several small communities along the coast where fishing is a major industry. Whale watching is also popular off the coast.

The Cabot Trail heads inland across much flatter country. Spring waters still flooded this field.

The Cabot Trail heads inland across much flatter country. Spring waters still flooded this field and the grass had yet to turn green. Last year’s cattails can be seen in the left foreground.

I'll finish off my Cape Breton photos with this rather lovely stream.

I’ll finish off my Cape Breton photos with this stream, which spoke to me again of the wild aspect of the island.

Our exploration of Cape Breton was over and my time with traveling companions was drawing to a close. We picked up highway 104 back through Antigonish and on to New Glasgow where Jean and Lindell said goodbye and biked south toward Halifax and their plane. I continued on my lonely journey west, following Highway 6 back to the coast and through towns with wonderful names like Tatamagouche and Pugwash. New Brunswick and new adventures were waiting.

NEXT BLOG: Peggy and I detour to Prince Edward Island, meet the mayor of Victoria, and eat a scrumptious lobster roll.

Beautiful Canada: Cape Breton and the Cabot Trail… The 10,000 Mile Bike Trek

 

Rocky shores touched by the Atlantic Ocean are a key element in the scenic beauty of the Cape Breton Highlands along the Cabot Trail.

Rocky shores touched by the Atlantic Ocean are a key element in the scenic beauty of the Cape Breton Highlands along the Cabot Trail.

Cape Breton is a big island: the 77th largest in the world and the 18th in Canada if you are a detail-oriented type of person. Once upon a very long time ago, before the continents got divorced and started drifting away from each other, it was snuggled up to Scotland and Norway on the ancient continent of Pangaea. I feel a certain amount of affinity since my ancient ancestors drifted away from Norway and Scotland, some 300 million years later.

It’s an island of superlatives and you will be hearing a fair number on this post. The tourist bureau should hire me. I’m not alone in my praise. The pretty-picture travel magazine Condé Nast considers Cape Breton to be one “of the best island destinations in the world.” Numerous other magazine and newspaper articles agree.

The Cape Breton Highlands on the northern part of the island are the primary reason for the acclaim. Considered a northern extension of the Appalachian Mountains, the Highlands are noted for their steep ups and downs. I agree; they provided me with some of the most challenging bicycling on my 10,000-mile trip. I was amused when doing research for this post to find a Cape Breton website recommending to motorists, “You may want to check your brakes.” Indeed.

The road around the Highlands is known as the Cabot Trail. It was named after the 15th Century explorer John Cabot who was searching for a way to China on behalf of King Henry VII. (Rumor has it that the King was seeking a new place to send his many wives. Just kidding— the reality is that he wanted to spice up his life, and Asia was the place to go for spices.) Cabot may or may not have landed on the island, but locals are eager to claim him. Most experts believe his landing site was more likely Newfoundland.

There is much more to Cape Breton Island than the Cabot Trail, but the scenic highway is the primary reason that visitors flock to the island.

There is much more to Cape Breton than the Cabot Trail, but the scenic highway is the primary reason that visitors flock to the island. This post and my next one will focus on views along the Trail.

A view form the beginning of the Cabot Trail looking not toward the Cape breton Highlands.

A view from the beginning of the Cabot Trail looking out toward the Cape Breton Highlands.

The Cabot Trail is world-famous. The sign says so. The highway is what I remember most about Nova Scotia. After crossing over the Canso Causeway, I, and my two bicycle-travelling companions, Jean and Lindell, had made a beeline for it. Peggy and I did as well, following the Trans-Canada Highway 105. Since the 185-mile scenic byway travels in a circle (more or less), we had a choice of whether to travel clockwise or counter-clockwise. The travel guides recommend clockwise since going in the opposite direction puts travelers on the outside of the road as it winds along towering cliffs with scary drop-offs. The theory is that most people prefer safety to death-defying edges. But what’s the fun in that? We chose the outside with its dramatic views of the Atlantic Ocean on the east side of the Highlands and Gulf of St. Lawrence on the west. (Besides, I am a veteran of Highway 1 on the California coast, which is much scarier.)

In addition to natural beauty, Cape Breton features both its Celtic and Acadian heritages. Some 50,000 Highland Scots migrated to the area between 1800 and 1850 as a result of the Highland Clearances where small farmers in Scotland were replaced by sheep, i.e. the hereditary aristocratic owners of the land found a better way to make money. Colaisde na Gàidhlig, the Gaelic College, was founded to promote and preserve the Scotch-Irish Gaelic Culture in Nova Scotia. Located on the Cabot Trail shortly after it leaves the Trans-Canada Highway, the college offers courses in Gaelic language, crafts, music, dance and history. Visitors are invited to stop by and see a ceilidh, a traditional Scottish dance, or even buy a kilt.

Scottish sheep photo by Curtis Mekemson.

Furry fellow. An ancestor of the sheep that replaced the Highland farmers. We were happily lost on a remote Scotland road when this guy greeted us. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

The Gaelic College located along the Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island.

The craft shop of the Gaelic College where everything Gaelic is promoted including the language.

St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, located several miles beyond the Gaelic College, reminded me of my own Scotch-Irish (Ulster Scot) family’s heritage— and our journey to the New World in the 1750s. We were Lowland Scots as opposed to the Highland Scots. The Mekemsons had been serious Presbyterians all the way back to the 1600s when Scottish Presbyterians had declared that God and not the King of England was their ruler. This had upset the King considerably. One of my ancestors, John Brown, was even a martyr to the cause. Peggy and I visited his gravesite in Scotland and I did a blog on him. Our family had remained Presbyterians right up until my father had become an Episcopalian (the American equivalent of the Anglican Church), a move that undoubtedly sent generations of our Presbyterian ancestors rolling over in their graves.

St. Andrews Presbyterian Church.

St. Andrews Presbyterian Church.

A close up of the grave of John Brown, the Scottish Martyr shot down in fron of his family in the late 1600s.

The lonely grave of John Brown, the Scottish Martyr shot down in front of his family in the late 1600s.

This shot of Peggy captures the isolation of John Brown's Grave, the white speck on the upper left of the photo.

This shot of Peggy captures the isolation of John Brown’s Grave, the white speck on the upper left of the photo.

Anyway, a series of religious, political, and economic factors had sent my ancestors first to Northern Ireland and then on to Pennsylvania and Maryland.

One third of the Cabot Trail runs through the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, which captures the ocean and highland scenery of the area as well as protects the wildlife and plants that call it home. Moose signs along the highway warn motorists of potential automobile-moose confrontations, which are not good for either man or moose. While Peggy and I are always aware of the potential danger, mainly we think of the signs as suggestions we may get to see a moose, always a plus. But that is a story for my next blog, along with the second toughest climb of my 10,000-mile trek and a visit to the Acadian side of the island. Following are several photos I took on the first half of the Cabot Trail.

St. Andrews Provincial Park in the Cape Breton Highlands.

Regional parks, such as St. Ann’s, demanded that we stop and admire them.

Looking the other direction at St. Ann's Provincial Park along the Cabot Trail.

Looking the other direction at St. Ann’s Provincial Park along the Cabot Trail.

Once again Peggy and I found ourselves looking at scenery that sported an early spring look.

Once again Peggy and I found ourselves looking at scenery that sported an early spring look.

Our day along the Cabot Trail varied between sunshine and threatening skies.

Our day along the Cabot Trail varied between sunshine and threatening skies.

We found these boats near the small town of Ingonish.

We found these fishing boats near the small town of Ingonish. Lobster traps are located on the pier.

I liked this lonely structure, which looks like a great place for a picnic.

I liked this lonely structure, which looks like a great place for a picnic.

And these quiet waters.

And these quiet waters.

Climbing up into the Highlands provides scenic views of the Atlantic coast.

Climbing up into the Highlands provides scenic views of the Atlantic coast.

A close-up.

A close-up.

Blue skies color the Atlantic Ocean blue.

Blue skies color the Atlantic Ocean blue.

The Cabot Trail moves between the Highlands and Coast. Give a choice between long sandy beaches and rocky coasts I will always prefer the rocky coasts, unless I happen to be on a tropical island.

The Cabot Trail moves between the highlands and coast. Given a choice between long sandy beaches and rocky coasts, I will always prefer the rocky coasts, unless, of course, I happen to be on a tropical island.

Another view.

Another view.

The cool, windy day fluffs Peggy's hair

The cool, windy day fluffs Peggy’s hair

The road leading down to Cape North, which will be the farthest point east I reach on my bike trip.

The road leading down to Cape North, the farthest east I would travel.

This church at North Bay marked my turning point. After this, I would be heading home.

This church at Cape North marked the turning point in my 10,000 mile trek. After this, I would be heading home.

Shortly after we left the church, Peggy and I came on these two bicycle tourists. How appropriate, I thought. The dark cliffs looming in the background would provide the second hardest climb in my whole trip, but that's a story for my next blog.

Shortly after we left the church, Peggy and I came on these two bicycle tourists. The dark cliffs looming in the background would provide the second hardest climb in my whole trip, but that’s a story for my next blog.

The Quiet Beauty of Nova Scotia… The 10,000-Mile Bike Trek

Cove on East Coast of Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia has a quiet beauty that grows on you. I took this photo along the East Coast’s Marine Drive.

 

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks. From Evangeline by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The beauty of Nova Scotia isn’t tied to towering mountains or vast open spaces. It makes a quieter statement— a combination of water and coves and forests and highlands and valleys and villages that grows on you until you realize that you have arrived somewhere that is very special. Long after I had completed my 10,000-mile journey around North America, Nova Scotia continued to exist in my mind as one of the highlights. Our recent drive around the province as Peggy and I retraced my bike trek route reinforced this original impression.

Nova Scotia is Latin for New Scotland, which seems appropriate to me in that I find the beauty of the two areas similar in nature. Before it became Nova Scotia, however, it was known first as Mi’kma’ki reflecting the First Nation people who lived there, the Mi’kmaq. Afterwards the French settled the area and called it Acadia. In 1755, the British expelled most of the French as a consequence of their ongoing wars with France. Longfellow’s poem, Evangeline, is based on that expulsion. Many of the people who were deported eventually ended up in Louisiana where they became known as Cajuns (Cajun derives from Cadia).

After the Acadians were expelled, numerous Scots arrived from New England to help repopulate the area. They also came from Scotland where British policies were driving them out of the Highlands. Gaelic became a common language. Following the Revolutionary War, a number of people who had remained loyal to England during the conflict resettled in Nova Scotia. Included among them was a small population of blacks who had joined Britain’s cause as a way out of slavery. What all of this means is that Nova Scotia has several distinct cultures, which, it seems to me, coexist side by side in relative harmony.

Other than a day of bicycling in Death Valley, Nova Scotia was the only place on my bike trip where I had travelling companions. Jean Snuggs and Lindell Wilken had both gone to college together in Illinois before moving out to California. I met Jean on one of the 100-mile backpack trips I led in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. We had become good friends and eventually lived together. That arrangement had ended but we remained good friends. Both Jean and Lyndell were college track coaches and in excellent shape. If I recall correctly, they had also just finished bicycling the Oregon Coast. I was extremely glad I had a few thousand miles of bicycling behind me! Otherwise, it could have been a long and humbling seven days.

We didn’t linger in Halifax, which was too bad since it is a lovely city. But the open road called. We crossed over the Angus L. Macdonald Bridge, picked up Highway 7 and followed it up the East Coast to Liscomb, a distance of 100 plus miles. Highway 7 is known as the Marine Highway in tourist promotions for good reasons. It closely follows the Atlantic Ocean. Inlets, coves, small rivers and towns provide an endless kaleidoscope of scenery.

The Angus

The Angus L. MacDonald Bridge in Halifax.

Crossing the Angus L. MacDonald Bridge in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Crossing the bridge. Note the screens on the side. There is no jumping off of the bridge!

Looking back at Halifax through the screened fence on the bridge.

Looking back at Halifax through the screened fence.

Numerous islands, such as this, are scattered along Nova Scotia's East Coast.

Numerous islands, such as this, are scattered along Nova Scotia’s East Coast.

Flats like this one added another element of variety.

Flats like this one added another element of variety along the coast.

Numerous islands fill the coves along Marine Drive.

Winter storms along the Atlantic Ocean must change this incredibly calm water along Marine Drive.

We passed over several river on the East Coast ranging form calm...

We passed over several river on the East Coast ranging from calm…

Riffled river on East Coast of Nova Scotia

To slightly riffled…

To roaring. The West River flows into Sheet Harbor.

To roaring. The West River flows into Sheet Harbor. Sheet Harbor, BTW, was one of the areas that Loyalist refugees from America’s Revolutionary War settled in Nova Scotia.

We found what appeared to be a large derelict along the coast.

We found what appeared to be a large derelict stranded along the coast.

At Liscomb, Highway 7 took us inland across the peninsula to Antigonish. I have only a vague memory of Antigonish on my bike trip, which may mean that the lure of the renowned Cape Breton pulled us on past it. Peggy and I stopped, however, and the town with its St. Francis Xavier University was definitely worth the visit, as university towns often are. From Antigonish we picked up Highway 4 to Auld and the Canso Causeway. The Causeway, a 4500 foot engineering achievement that took some 10 million tons of rock to build, connects mainland Nova Scotia with the island of Cape Breton. It is where I will end today’s post. Next up: the fabulous Cape Breton and the Cabot Trail into Cape Breton Highlands’ National Park.

A road shot of Highway 7

A road shot of Highway 7 between Liscomb and Antigonish.

This guy provided some color, and class.

This guy added both class and color to the road.

St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish is recognized as one of Canada's top colleges.

St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish is recognized as one of Canada’s top colleges.

Antigonish is an attractive town with a number of eating establishments.

Antigonish is an attractive town with a number of eating establishments. Peggy and I had a tasty lunch here.

A number of murals decorated the downtown. This was my favorite.

A number of murals decorated the downtown. This was my favorite, given that I always like weird animals.

The mural also included this girl flying a kite.

The mural also included this girl flying kites.

Bricked in windows across the road also featured fun murals.

Bricked in windows across the road also featured fun murals such as this baker.

This cat looking out of a window also caught my attention.

And a cat looking out the window..

This sign is located at the end of the Canco

This sign was featured at the end of the Canso Causeway. I’ll use it as an introduction to my next two blogs on Cape Breton, a world-class tourist destination.