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Todayville Travel: A ‘soft egg’ in the Nahanni Pt. 1

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This is the first in a three-part Yukon road trip series.

In German weichei means soft egg. It defines a person’s character. In Canada we call them wimps. Charly Kudlacek is from Frankfurt, Germany and, as eggs go, is hard-boiled. We met Charly and his wife Marion in a remote campground at Summit Lake on the British Columbia portion of the Alaska Highway. The place is so-named because of its location on
the highest point of this international byway.

The “Alcan” starts in Dawson Creek, BC and ends 2237 kilometers later in Delta Junction, Alaska. Remarkably the highway was built in just eight months during 1942, designed to stave off a possible World War II Japanese invasion. Although June was nigh, Summit Lake was still covered in ice. We arrived late evening and set up camp. A solitary beaver, freshly emerged from winter lodging, coolly went about its business. Canadian summers are brief. We Albertans tend to enjoy them near home, with perhaps a visit to the mountains or a couple of weeks sunning and boating on a warm lake
in the Okanagan. I’d never been north of Grande Prairie, so we decided it was time to see more of Canada in its season of warmth; the great white north converted green by boreal springtime.

The Alaska Highway’s largest wooden bridge near Dawson Creek, BC.

My trip planning is poor: peruse a map, devise a vague strategy, perhaps talk to a couple of friends who have been to the parts unknown. I’ve attempted advance planning – reading about the sights, the flora, the fauna – but somehow it just doesn’t sink in for me until the experience actually happens. I learn as I go, waiting to see what’s around the next corner.

Charly was apologetic. “In former times I was not so slow and the distance would be much greater.”

A stranger at a campground in Fort Nelson told us about a bush pilot who flew floatplane charters from Muncho Lake, B.C. to remote Virginia Falls in Nahanni National Park, in the Northwest Territories. I had no idea where Muncho Lake was. I checked the map and found it was two days up the road, directly on our path to the Yukon. I phoned and spoke to Marianne of Northern Rockies Lodge. She and her husband, Urs the bush pilot, own this beautiful spot on Muncho Lake. “Urs is in Vancouver getting the
floatplane ready for the season,” said Marianne in a thick Swiss accent. “The lake still has ice and he can’t land until it clears. Perhaps call again in a day or two.”

That was the night we camped at Summit Lake and met Charly and Marion. I asked them if they’d like to join us on a trip to Virginia Falls – if the ice cleared and Urs could fly in. I waxed eloquently, inflating my meager knowledge of the Nahanni (which I had gleaned from a guide book fifteen minutes earlier). The floatplane seats nine and Marianne had told me Urs wouldn’t fly with less than four paying customers. Germans have a propensity for austerity exceeded only by Scots, so I was not optimistic that our Alaska Highway adventure would include a spur-of-the-moment side trip to the Northwest Territories.

“We shall sleep on this,” announced Charly. In the morning crispness Charly informed me in a precise clip that, “Marion and I have slept on this and agree that we shall join you if the conditions permit.” We spent the next two days in the company of our newfound German friends, enjoying wonderful hiking in this remote corner of northeastern BC, enchanted by the sight of moose, grizzly bear, stone sheep, caribou, wood bison, and a countless variety of flying creatures.

Charly and Marion have made five trips to Canada. They have seen more of our home and native land than have I – an embarrassing admission. They never arrive unprepared. Their well-appointed rental camper van was fully equipped, except for an axe. Charly brought his own finely-edged Fiskar from Germany. After a particularly tiring day-hike up a melting mountain creek, Charly asked if I would like to join him for a short run down the highway. Naturally, I was stupid enough to acquiesce. 10 kilometers and an hour later I stumbled back to camp, lamely following his tireless legs.

Charly was apologetic. “In former times I was not so slow and the distance would be much greater.” When I collapsed into bed that night Charly was alternating between calisthenics and wood chopping. In the morning I stumbled out into the bright sun and found him washing in the cold creek. He’d been up for hours, eaten his morning repast of eggs, meat, cheese,
tea, fruit and five pieces of bread and had completed 50 pushups and 100 sit-ups. Then he buckled down to real breakfast: a hearty bowl of Muesli.

Charly surveys a dicey path on the rotting ice

Did I mention that Charly is older than I? He is no weichei. They say the Irish (my heritage) would rule the world were it not for Guinness. After
observing Charly for a few days I have concluded that there is somewhat more to the equation. When we arrived at Muncho the lake was still half frozen and, crucially, ice still surrounded the lodge where the plane was to land. But Marianne told us Urs was en route from Vancouver and would be arriving soon. Sure enough, as we set up camp, a canary-yellow de Havilland floatplane droned overhead.

Marion is no weichei either

In the morning Urs told us that the landing had been dicey. He had spent a good portion of the night breaking a slushy path to get the plane ashore. “Night” doesn’t mean dark here in late May. The sun sets after 11 pm and is up again by 4 am. The interval is simply dusky. “What about tomorrow?” I asked Urs. “Can we fly to the Nahanni?” Urs is a big man, clad always in blue jeans and red suspenders. His name means “bear” in Swiss German. He looked at me, then warily at the lake. A wind had come up. We could
see a wide river of rotten ice moving northward. Open water was within 300 meters of the Lodge. “Perhaps… if the wind continues and does not reverse direction.” I crossed my fingers. Our window of opportunity was closing. Charly and Marion had only one day to spare before continuing on to Whitehorse, Yukon. Our schedule was more relaxed, but without them we couldn’t do the charter.

 

Urs wouldn’t be caught dead without his red suspenders

In the morning the ice had moved. It was a bluebird day. But still Urs was worried. He would decide at noon. I’m not renowned for my patience; but I am a biblical Job next to Charly who paced the morning away, unable to control the situation, awaiting word from Urs. “Impatience. This is a minus point for me,” Charly admitted.

A stone sheep casts a stony gaze

In the past I’ve mentioned a phenomenon known as “the Feehan thing”. This entails arriving at the last possible moment, uninformed, ill-prepared, sans reservation, but expecting top-notch service. Invariably it works like a charm. At noon Urs announced the flight was a go.

The de Havilland sits ice-free in Muncho Lake


He gently lifted the retrofitted 1959 de Havilland off the emerald waters of Muncho Lake and banked over the Lodge. Our hour and a half flight crossed the BC border at 60 degrees north, swiping a corner of the Yukon Territory before entering the NWT. Urs treated us to a spectacular 360-degree view of Virginia Falls before landing upstream of the cascade. He touched the plane down softly, wary of deadheads floating down the swollen Nahanni River. We were Nahanni’s first visitors of the year, arriving even before Parks Canada set up camp for the season.

The Falls, a world-renowned UNESCO site, are twice the height of Niagara Falls. An icy spring pillar hung precariously down the center of the water’s 102-meter descent. Downstream the torrent curved through ochre cliffs en route to its confluence with the Mackenzie River and the Arctic Ocean three thousand kilometers away. Our stay in the Nahanni was brief – after just a few hours aground we were skimming back up off the river. Urs offered us a last spectacular glance at the Falls. Then the old plane banked southward, skirting vast unexplored ridges of the Northwest Territories. In the early evening light, the northern-most tip of the Rocky Mountains appeared, signaling our return to British Columbia.

Virginia Falls roars with Nahanni’s spring melt

It was well past 8 pm when the de Havilland touched down perfectly on the calm waters of Muncho Lake. The sun was still high in the sky. We hopped from the plane’s floats to the dock and bid goodbye to our German friends. Before heading down the road Charly offered a heart-felt hug – confirming that, inside, all good eggs are soft.

The Rocky Mountains end where B.C. meets the Yukon

Next time: Dawson City and the Dempster Highway

Gerry Feehan QC practised law in Red Deer for 27 years before starting his second life as a freelance travel writer and photographer. He says that, while being a lawyer is more remunerative than travel writing, it isn’t nearly as much fun. When not on the road, Gerry and his wife Florence live in Red Deer and Kimberley, BC. Todayville is proud to work with Gerry to re-publish some of his most compelling stories from his vast catalogue developed over more than a decade of travel.

Gerry Feehan

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Click here for an adventure with Gerry in Texas.

 

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Alberta

My European Favourites – Helsinki, Finland

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Founded only in the 16th century, Helsinki is the geographic, political, financial and cultural capital of Finland. In addition to the area Helsinki encompasses on the mainland, it includes over 300 islands on the inlets and bays of the easternmost arm of the Baltic Sea, the Gulf of Finland. Combined with Stockholm and Tallinn, Helsinki is one of our top tour destinations for youth hockey and ringette teams for over twenty years. Finns are avid sports people and great hosts for our Canadian groups.

View of Helsinki harbour’s busy Market Square and the prominent Lutheran Cathedral.

Before gaining independence in 1917, Finland was ruled by the Swedes and Russians. The city was founded by Sweden’s King Gustav in 1550 to rival the Hanseatic League member city once known as Reval. Today, Reval is known as Tallinn, Estonia, and it can be reached by a two hour ferry ride.

In 1809, Russia gained control of Helsinki, and in 1812, moved Finland’s capital city from Turku to Helsinki. The decision was made because Helsinki was closer to St. Petersburg and easier to defend because of the Sveaborg sea fortress which guards the sea entrance into the city. Today the sea fortress is named Suomenlinna, and is one of the city’s most popular attractions.

The population of Helsinki proper is about 650,000, and it has a metro population of around 1.5 million including its neighboring municipalities like Vantaa and Espoo. This makes it the 3rd largest city of the Nordic countries, after only Stockholm and Copenhagen. While having all the conveniences of a modern city, Helsinki is a great destination for nature lovers. There are parks and vast areas of unspoilt nature to explore year round. In the summer months, when days are long, there are beaches, boating and watersport opportunities on the sea or at nearby lakes.

Helsinki has an interesting mix of various architectural styles including modern structures that are on the cutting edge of design. The city has a vibrant nightlife with many clubs, bars and late night eateries. The culinary scene is varied from the popular local hamburger chain, Hesburger, to Michelin-star restaurants. There is even a restaurant in the city centre decorated with rustic tables and old tractors serving traditional reindeer dishes. If you want to enjoy a beer while passing Helsinki’s main sights, you may be interested in the Sparakoff Pub Tram. The red colored tram with the destination board reading “PUB” takes about 45 minutes to make a round trip. Plenty of time to enjoy a beverage or two.

The Russian Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral, the Allas Sea Pools and the Sky Wheel Helsinki.

Katajanokka Island

Inaugurated in 1868, the Uspenski Cathedral is the center of the Eastern Orthodox faith in Finland. The cathedral was built using 700,000 red bricks that were brought in by barge from a demolished fortress in the Baltic. Entrance to the cathedral is free, and about half a million tourists visit it annually to see the elaborately decorated interior and several valuable icons.    The cathedral was built upon a hillside of the Katajanokka island, which forms the eastern side of the city center and the Helsinki harbour. Overlooking the city, the cathedral is a great place to start our journey through Helsinki.

Walking down from the cathedral to the waterfront, we immediately see the 40 meter tall Sky Wheel Helsinki. The wheel offers great views of the city, the sea and the surrounding islands. The wheel has two unique gondolas. One’s interior has leather seats with a glass floor and includes a bottle of champagne for a 30 minute ride. The other is the SkySauna. Yes, we all know Finns love their saunas, so why not combine a ferris wheel ride with a sauna.

Next to the wheel, we find the Allas Sea Pool which has three pools right in the Heslinki harbour. One pool is for lap swimming, one is for families and one is a salt water pool. The fresh water pools are heated, the salt water pool is not. In addition to the pools, there are saunas and a restaurant with terraces to enjoy the views. For those looking to experience a Finnish sauna, it’s a convenient location. If you have time, I would recommend the Löyly sauna which is located near the Tallin ferry terminal. There are many places in Helsinki offering a sauna, so finding one is easy.

The Presidential Palace, Market Square and a food vendor selling a fish and vegetable lunch.

Kauppatori Market Square

Taking one of the little bridges from Katajanokka island to the market square we will pass the yellow Presidential Palace. The former Russian imperial palace, contains the Office of the President of the Republic and is used for official functions and receptions. Continuing past the palace, we arrive at the Kauppatori Market Square. The square has been a marketplace for hundreds of years and is a popular tourist attraction. The year round market’s kiosks sell fresh fish, fruit, vegetables, handcrafts, clothing and souvenirs. There are also stands that sell prepared food and beverages. A warm bowl of salmon soup with rye bread or a plate of grilled fish with vegetables make a quick, inexpensive and tasty lunch. The square faces the busy Port of Helsinki (Helsingen Satama) and from here you can take boat tours of the archipelago or to the Suomenlinna Island fortress. You can also see the huge Viking and Silja Line ferries arriving in the morning and departing in the evening for Stockholm.

 

Senate Square with the Helsinki Cathedral. Group photo of our 2016 World Juniors fan tour.

Senate Square

The light blue Helsinki City Hall is located right in front of the Market Square. Taking a side street along the City Hall we will arrive at the expansive Senate Square with a statue of Russian Czar Alexander II at its centre. The white neo-classical Lutheran Helsinki Cathedral, built in 1852, dominates the north side of the square and towers over the city center. The west and east sides of the square have two similarly looking yellow buildings. The eastern building houses the offices of the prime Minister of Finland and the cabinet. The one on the west side is the main building of the University. North of the University building is the National Library of Finland. The ‘Sederholm house” on the southeast corner of the square is the oldest, built in 1757. The square is used for many events including art displays, food festivals, concerts, New Year’s celebrations and the Christmas market.

Helsinki’s Old Market Hall, the Havis Amanda fountain and the Esplanadi’s pedestrian walkway.

The Old Market Hall and the Esplanadi

Walking back towards the harbour, we will go past the market square on the west side of the harbour to Helsinki’s Old Market Hall. Open in 1889, it is Finland’s oldest indoor market. In the lively market you will find merchants selling meat, fish, shellfish, cheese, fruit, vegetables, baked goods, spices, coffee, tea and even a small wine and spirits shop. The cafés and restaurants in the Old Market Hall are a great place to have a break from sightseeing or have a nice lunch.

After grabbing a coffee at the Market, we head back towards the market square and to an interesting fountain that was built in 1908. The Havis Amanda fountain has a nude female statue, often referred to as Manta, at the centre. It was created by Finnish artist Ville Vallgren at his studio in Paris, France. The fountain has four seals looking up to the sea nymph as she rises out of the water. The first of May is the start of the summer for students and in celebration they would don a white cap. Since the early days of the fountain, students have celebrated “May Day” by placing a cap on the head of Manta.

The Havis Amanda fountain sits at the foot of the National urban park called the Esplanadi. This elongated park, opened in 1818, has a wide pedestrian center with numerous benches and green space on either side. The historic Kappeli restaurant, open since 1867, and the Espa Stage, used for concerts, are at the eastern entrance to the Esplanadi. There are pieces of art throughout the Esplanadi including a statue of Finland’s national poet, Johan Ludvig Runeberg, at the very centre of the park. At the western end of the park, we find the Swedish language theatre aptly named, the Swedish Theatre. Originally built in 1860, it burned down just three years later. In 1866, it was rebuilt in neo-classical style, but in 1935 it was renovated and the richly decorated exterior was changed by the architects to a simpler “functionalist” style.

The Esplanadi has a street on either side of the park and the surrounding buildings, especially on the north side, have upscale shopping and restaurants. On the north west end of the park just across the street from the Swedish Theatre is the Stockmann Department Store. The iconic Stockmann building, the largest department store in the Nordic countries, was built in 1930 and the brand’s history dates back to 1858.

The entrance façade and clock tower of the Helsinki Train Station. The unique Kamppi Chapel.

The Central Station, Art and A Chapel of Silence

Turning right at the Mannerheimintie street, we walk about 200 meters to Kaivokatu street where we can see the train station on the right. The Helsinki Central Station is the main hub for commuter and long-distance trains for approximately 200,000 people per day. The impressive Finnish granite building was inaugurated in 1919 and has a pair of statues standing guard while holding spherical lamps on each side of the grand entrance. Along with the “stone men,” the station is known for the clock tower on its east side. The Helsinki Central Station has a city metro station, restaurants and an underground shopping centre.

Beyond the train station is a huge open space called the Rautatientori, or Railway Square. On the south side of the square is the Ateneum, the museum of Finnish and international art. The museum, in a beautiful 1887 building, has Finnish works of art from the 18th century to the 20th century and is one of the three museums that form the Finnish National Gallery. In addition to the extensive art from Finland, it has over 600 international pieces.

Going back on Kaivokatu street we cross Mannerheimintie street to Simonkatu street and walk about a block. We will see a curious looking oval cylindrical building with a wood exterior. This is the very unique Kamppi Chapel or the “Chapel of Silence.” The chapel holds up to 60 people and is intended to be a place of calm and silence in a busy urban centre. The chapel is free to visit during opening hours.

The Lutheran Temppeliaukio Church’s alter, pipe organ and the upper balcony.

Parliament and Museum District & Rock Church

After enjoying a moment of silence, we make our way back to Mannerheimintie street and continue along it until we reach Mannerheim Square and the equestrian statue of Marshall Gustaf Mannerheim. The bronze statue of the Finnish military leader and statesman was erected in 1960. The statue sits in front of the Kiasma, the museum of contemporary art, which was built in 1990. Like the Ateneum, the Kiasma is part of the Finnish National Gallery. Near the Kiasma, you will find the architecturally striking Helsinki Central Library Oodi, the Helsinki Music Centre, the National Museum of Finland and the event and congress center, Finlandia Hall. Across the street from the Mannerheim statue, we also find the Finnish Parliament building. The red granite parliament building with fourteen Corinthian columns was built in 1931.

Only a couple of minutes walk from the Mannerheim Square is the Temppeliaukion Kirkko, which is better known as the Rock Church. Designed by architect brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen and opened in 1969, the Lutheran church was built into solid rock, and is filled with natural light from the large skylight that leads up to the copper dome. The acoustics in the church are exceptional and it is frequently used for concerts. The exposed rock walls of the church create an interesting backdrop for the altar and an interesting contrast with the church organ with 3001 pipes. The church welcomes over half a million visitors a year.

The Sibelius monument, our Oilers group with Jari Kurri at Hartwall Arena and the pub tram. 

The Sibelius Monument and the Olympic Stadium

West of Helsinki’s city center is Seurasaarenselkä Bay. On the eastern side of the bay, you will find Sibelius Park and the Sibelius Monument. The monument, made from more than 600 hollow steel pipes, is dedicated to Finland’s greatest composer, Jean Sibelius. He is noted for having encouraged, through his works, the rise of a Finnish national identity and independence from Russia. In the center of the bay is the densely forested Seurasaari island which is home to the Seurasaari Open-Air Musuem. The museum has transplanted wooden buildings from throughout Finland.

In 1952, Helsinki was the host city for the 15th Olympiad and is the northernmost city to host the summer Olympics. The flame was lit by Finland’s greatest Olympian, runner Paavo Nurmi, who won 9 gold and 3 silver medals at the 1920, 1924 and 1928 games. The Olympic Stadium is located only two kilometers north of the city centre and was originally built for the 1940 Olympics that were cancelled due to the second World War. The stadium has undergone renovations in the early 1990s, in 2005 for the World Championships in Athletics, and another renovation phase was scheduled to be completed in 2020. Over time, the stadium has gone from being able to host 70,000 spectators to just over 40,000. The stadium today hosts mainly soccer games, athletics competitions and concerts. The stadium’s 72 meter tower is a Helsinki landmark and its height is equal to the length of Matti Järvinen’s gold medal javelin throw in the 1932 Summer Olympics. The stadium visitor center is located at the foot of the tower. While in Finland, you may want to try the alcoholic “Long Drink” that was developed to serve visitors to the 1952 Olympics. Locally the Long Drink is called a “Lonkero” and the original, a mix of gin and grapefruit soda, is made by Hartwall.

Not far from the Olympic Stadium is the Linnanmäki amusement park, which opened in 1950. The park is owned by a non-profit agency that operates the park to raise funds for Finnish child welfare programs. South of the park is Töölö Bay with a surrounding green space, walking paths and two important cultural centres, the Helsinki City Theatre and the Finnish National Opera and Ballet.

A couple of kilometers north of Linnanmäki is the 14,000 seat Hartwall Arena, which is the home of the KHL’s Jokerit hockey team. The arena was built in 1997 and is used mostly for basketball, hockey and concerts. In 2016, we had a large group of Canadian hockey fans in Helsinki for the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships, and the Hartwall Arena was the main venue for the tournament. Finland won gold with a team loaded with future NHLers Sebastian Aho, Patrick Laine, Mikko Rantanen, Kasperi Kapanen, Olli Juolevi and tournament MVP Jesse Puljujarvi. The atmosphere in the arena was electric with thousands of patriotic Finns erupting in joy at the final whistle. If Canada can’t win, the next best thing is to get caught up in the passion of the local fans.

In the fall of 2018, we had a group of Edmonton Oilers fans in Gothenburg, Sweden for the NHL season’s opening game against the New Jersey Devils. At the end of the tour, we took the overnight ferry from Stockholm to Helsinki. During our city tour, we stopped at the Hartwall arena and we surprised the group with a meeting with Oilers legend Jari Kurri. After many photos and autographs, Kurri, who was the General Manager of local team Jokerit, graciously talked hockey and watched practice with us.

The Suomenlinna ferry leaving from Market Square, the fortress walls and the dry dock.

Suomenlinna

The Suomenlinna, or Sveaborg, is an inhabited sea fortress built on eight islands south east of the city centre at the entrance to Helsinki harbour. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it was originally founded by the Swedes in 1748, but in 1808, the fortress was overtaken by Russia. It remained in Russian control until Finnish independence in 1918. The fortress welcomes over half a million tourists and locals annually. The summer months are especially busy and Suomenlinna can be easily reached by a short ferry ride from Market Square.

There are just under 1000 permanent residents on Suomenlinna and just under 400 people who work on the island year-round. Some of the reconstruction of the fortifications and general maintenance is done by volunteer inmates, who are part of an on-site minimum-security penal labour colony. A guided visit to the fortress includes Great Castle Courtyard, Piper’s Park and the large Dry Dock. There are various museums at Suomenlinna including one detailing the life of Swedish officers in the 18th century, a toy museum, a military museum, a submarine museum and a customs museum. The main Suomenlinna Museum, located in the Suomenlinna Centre, details the history of the fortress and its restoration.

The Silja Line ferry, leaving the Helsinki harbour, and the ship’s entertainment lounge. 

Ferry to Stockholm, Tallinn, Riga and St. Petersburg

Getting around the Baltic Sea is easy with the numerous daily sailings by large ferry boats that include onboard shopping, restaurants, entertainment, and cabin quarters for overnight trips.

From the Helsinki Harbour in the city center, there are two sailings per day to Stockholm, Sweden. The Tallink Silja line uses the Olympia Terminal on the west side of the harbour, while the Viking Line has their terminal on the east side of the harbour on Katajanokka island. The overnight ferries leave in the early evening, and arrive in Stockholm the next morning, about 17 hours later. Prices for a return trip are very affordable.

The newer West Harbour outside of the city center is where you can catch the numerous daily two hour ferries to Tallinn, Estonia. A day trip to Tallinn departing Helsinki in the morning and returning in the evening is common although I would recommend a stay in Tallinn if you have time. The West Harbour is also where you can take the St. Peters Ferry to St. Petersburg, Russia, and with a stay of less that 72 hours you can do it without a visa. These are the main ferry routes, but there may be ferry services to Latvia, Germany and other destinations available.

Lets Go To Helsinki

Even though Helsinki is young city by European standards, it is a great place to visit. In addition to the activities and sights I have outlined here, other parts of Finland, including Lapland, are worth exploring. I have found people in Finland to be friendly, warm, open and sincere. Finland is very safe, and the country regularly ranks high on the list of the best places to live in the world. With convenient and low cost travel by ferry to neighboring countries, it is an easy add to any itinerary of the Baltic region. I look forward to returning to Helsinki with a hockey or ringette group very soon, and in 2027, Finland is scheduled to host the World Juniors again.

 

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My European Favourites: Český Krumlov

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Gerry Feehan

Gerry Feehan explores Cape Breton Island

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The Cabot Trail makes for a beautifully colourful autumn drive.

The Canso Causeway connects mainland Nova Scotia to the island of Cape Breton. As we drove across the span on a crisp autumn day, the ebb tide was pulling westward, hard through the Canso Strait. We stopped at the Port Hastings visitor’s centre where a pleasant woman bid us welcome and told us we were in luck, “You’re just in time for the Celtic Colours.” Being an observant fellow, I had already noted the changing season—the brilliant oranges and reds of the Maritimes’ fall foliage. And I smartly told her so. “Oh, no,” she laughed, “Celtic Colours isn’t about the leaves. It’s our annual autumn festival.” For nine days every October the entire island hops with a chorus of Cape Breton traditions: ceilidhs, live music, spoken word and dance performances, all celebrating the island’s rich history and culture.

But before we did any festival going, it was exploration time. Cape Breton is a marvel of twisting vistas, glorious hikes, great food—and friendly people. En route to the world-renowned Cabot Trail in Cape Breton Highlands National Park we took a circuitous path, skirting Bras D’Or Lake (not really a lake, more a brackish inland sea). Along the lakeshore near Big Pond we stopped and paid homage to Rita McNeil at the late singer’s eponymous Tea Room. When we finally arrived at Ingonish Beach Campground on the National Park’s southeast border, it was late in the day. We ate dinner and hit the hay. There was a big hike planned for the morning: Franey Trail, a long steep climb to a panoramic viewpoint from which one looks down on the Clyburn River canyon spilling into the Atlantic Ocean. Admiring the view at the summit, we chatted quietly with a young local couple who were proud to tell us the history of the region, their Scottish heritage and the hard lives their ancestors had endured on land—and at sea, which they wistfully stared out as they shared the memory.

That evening we dined luxuriously at the historic Keltic Lodge and later, over a digestif in the leathery lounge, struck up conversation with a European tourist. “Don’t you think Cape Bretoners are the friendliest people on earth?” I asked. We had been overwhelmed by Maritime hospitality. Looking puzzled, he answered dryly, in a thick accent, “I have had only a few weeks here, so I am not yet able to arrive at this conclusion.” Tough sell, those Germans.

When we awoke the air was cool, crisp and clear—a perfect day for an autumn sojourn on the Cabot Trail, which loops for 298km around the northern tip of Cape Breton. We cruised counterclockwise from Ingonish. Our first stop was White Point where the harsh Atlantic  batter stony cliffs along the island’s unprotected north shore. Then we began a twisting ascent through the lush Acadian forest to Cape Breton’s central highlands. The display of foliage was magical. Maple, beech and birch all boasted their brightest fall colours in hues of red, orange and yellow. And, as if frozen in the windless air, the trees had yet to drop a single leaf. It was a palette of autumn perfection.

I pulled the motorhome into a serene overlook. Florence and I sat in silence, gazing through the windshield at the crimson and gold majesty. Suddenly, and before I could exit the vehicle to snap a picture, three vanloads of tourists pulled in, sprung from their seats and began frantically taking photos. Abandoning the hope of any verdant solitude, I instead jumped into the cacophonous human fray and started taking shots of tourists taking pictures.

We set up camp that evening at quiet MacIntosh Brook near Lone Shieling, where 350 year-old sugar maple trees stand sentinel over a long-abandoned Scottish crofter’s hut. Despite the quiet, I didn’t sleep well that night, for there was a menacing giant lurking in my future: Cabot Cliffs Golf Links.

You may have read my charming story about golf in Ireland – and how the Irish courses were the most beautifully humiliating courses I had ever encountered. Well, Cape Breton Island has retained its Celtic tradition not only in music and dance but also in its fondness for brutal but alluring links golf. Cabot Cliffs is equal to the best of its turf cousins across the sea. I was fortunate to secure a tee time—and a private caddy—to enjoy this spectacular course.

Another ball prepares to meet the briny Atlantic.

After the (humbling) golf interlude, we re-dedicated ourselves to exploration by foot with a last hike, on the Skyline Trail on Cape Breton’s west coast. Although crowded, the traipse was enjoyable and the ocean views breathtaking. On a clear day (which we experienced) one can see the white cliffs of Quebec’s Magdalen Islands shining distantly in the Gulf of St Lawrence.

With tired feet—and badly in need of food and drink—we arrived late at Cheticamp Campground. I noticed a sign announcing that the Harbour Restaurant in this quaint Acadian village offered a free shuttle for patrons. I phoned, booked a reservation and requested a ride. 15 minutes later a car pulled up to our campsite and a pleasant lady with a French-Canadian accent said, “Hop in.” It was Lorraine LeBlanc, the restaurant owner. And after a great chow down on Morue en Cabane (slow-cooked cod, chives and pork scraps) and Lorraine’s famous Apple Garden cake, she returned us to our campsite. Now that’s Cape Breton hospitality! Despite my inherent thriftiness, I left a reasonable tip.

Our time in the Highlands was coming to an end and still there was the Celtic Colours to enjoy. The festival venues are island-wide but many artists bunk each night at the Gaelic College in St Ann’s near Baddeck (Alexander Graham Bell’s summer stomping grounds). Widely scattered venues result in a long, dark drive on narrow roads back to St Ann’s after a day of performing. But for the tireless musicians the party carries on—with impromptu jam sessions lasting well into the wee hours.We arrived in St Ann’s on the last night of the Festival. We boon-docked in the Gaelic College parking lot. The Celtic Colours finale was scheduled to begin very late, past 12:00am—and well past our bedtime—so, after a parking lot BBQ, we lay down for a disco nap, awaking after midnight to the sound of instruments being tuned. It was a raucous evening, hosted by the effervescent humour of singer-songwriter Buddy MacDonald. It was past 4 am when the last fiddle was packed unwillingly into its case. We trundled off to bed…  and enjoyed a well-deserved Celtic sleep in.

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Kimberley, BC.

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Exploring Gros Morne Newfoundland with Gerry Feehan

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