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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.

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management for sponsoring this series.  Click on the ads and learn more about this long-term local business.

Exploring Gros Morne Newfoundland with Gerry Feehan

Gerry Feehan

Hawaii Five-O’s by Gerry Feehan

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Standing on an active lava flow is ill-advised. But our guide Steve demonstrated the art carefully, with a brief clamber onto the quickly cooling pahoehoe.

We were on the Big Island of Hawaii. Ten of us, five couples in our fifties (the Five-Os), were sharing a charming three-floor oceanfront home in Kona. Although we spent much of our two-week stay lazily floating in a private solar-heated pool watching humpback whales breach, spinner dolphins spin and surfers hang ten, we also took time to explore the many wonders of Hawaii’s largest, youngest chunk of land.

Posing papaya enjoys the view

It is labelled the Big Island for good reason. All the other islands of the 50th state could fit easily within its landmass. Driving from Kona on the western leeward side to Hilo on the wet eastern side is a three-hour drive one-way. But that’s where the lava is and it doesn’t flow uphill. So we hopped in the rental cars and made the overland foray.

Their motto is “go with the flow” … so we did.

There are few places on earth where one can view lava freshly vented from a magma chamber, oozing inexorably toward the sea, creating new planet. The Big Island is one of those magic spots.

Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of the Volcano, is tempestuous and unpredictable. As placation she insists on an offering of gardenia, plumeria or an equally entrancing native Hawaiian blossom. So said Steve as we embarked at twilight on our trek across twenty-year-old lava toward the fresh, gurgling stuff.

There are two types of lava, each easily recognized by its remnant trail. A’a’ flows are jagged and brittle, settling in an upright, dangerous posture. Our path was over the more subtle, titanium-coloured pahoehoe lava, defined by its often ropy, luxuriant and more accessible texture. Pahoehoe wanders hot and plentiful, vented from deep in mother earth’s mantle. A’a’, pushed methodically downhill, builds like windrows graded from a winter street. I prefer pahoehoe. It’s much more forgiving if you trip and fall.

Steve and his partner Ken purchased 23 acres of oceanfront Hawaiian land a decade ago. Recent transports from Montana, they intended to milk goats on their new abode. Lava had not invaded this parcel for 5000 years. But their nanny-milking ambitions were destroyed within three months of move-in when Pele unleashed her fickle fury on their whole tract of Hawaiian soil.

So they gave up the goat and took up lava tours. Their motto is “go with the flow” … so we did. They are a knowledgeable, informative and respectful team. We dutifully followed our guides across terra incognita. Ken led. Steve took up the rear.

The group begins their twilight traverse across pahoehoe lava

Twilight in the tropics is brief. After an hour slowly meandering across the shiny titanium landscape we halted. Utter blackness had descended, but beneath us the darkness evaporated. We stood mesmerized atop newly borne earth — the fresh molten evidence under foot, like a glowing red spider-web. And to our left and right fresh molten rock slowly flowed by, like incandescent rivers.

I proffered Pele’s floral gift directly into the path of the creeping molten stone. The flower wilted and disappeared beneath the hot rock’s onslaught. Nearby a large Koa tree caught fire, exploding in light, whistling and popping like Canada Day fireworks.

The author a little too close to the lava for comfort

When Steve stepped up onto pahoehoe that, seconds earlier, had been a red-hot sinuous mass of 1100°C flowing stone, we stood back, aghast. Fortunately, Steve is light on his feet. After a moment atop the smoldering lava he hopped back to safety, the bottom of his boots smoking faintly. Goddess Pele loves to see soles burn.

Steve prepares to pose atop the cooling lava.

Headlamps illuminated for the hike out, we carefully retraced our steps through a minefield of sharp lava. In the night sky the island’s persistent vog had evaporated. The Milky Way lay crisp and clear above us. We were one with the universe. Well not actually one. But pretty darn close.

Mahalo

The beachfront house at night.

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

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management for sponsoring this series.  Click on the ads and learn more about this long-term local business.

 

 

Vancouver Island by Gerry Feehan

 

 

 

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Gerry Feehan

Vancouver Island by Gerry Feehan

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Let’s face it. April in Alberta sucks. Beneath the snowy mantle cold and clean… lies a bunch of dead brown grass. Meanwhile on Vancouver Island, spring is in bloom. The cherry trees are in full magenta majesty. The land is bright with magnolia and rhododendron blossoms and colourful tulips punctuate the evergreen grass. Hummingbirds flit amongst the flowers, sipping spring’s sweet nectar.

I’m not stupid. Last year on the first of April my wife and I packed our cozy little motorhome and headed for the coast. Avoiding the customary Vancouver to Victoria ferry route, we elected to travel up the Sunshine Coast, on the mainland to Powell River, before heading over to the Island.

I use the word ‘mainland’ loosely since, although technically attached to the continent, there is no direct road to Powell River. Getting there entails travel by ferry—two ferries actually. After departing Horseshoe Bay in North Vancouver, the first stop is Gibson’s, made famous by the old CBC series The Beachcombers. We combed Molly’s Reach unsuccessfully for Bruno Gerussi and Relic before navigating the steep road up and out of town and onto the Sunshine Coast Highway.

Soon we were serpentining through massive stands of hemlock, western red cedar and Douglas fir. We encountered the sea again at lovely Sechelt where we enjoyed a quiet hike through a towering old-growth forest—and a lively overnight stay with Sechelt friends. In the morning we followed the meandering road to Saltery Bay where we boarded our second ferry for the leg to Powell River.

We had hoped to avail ourselves of some Sunshine Coast tourist amenities—perhaps a day trip to Desolation Sound, a floatplane into Princess Louisa Inlet or a zodiac ride to Sechelt Narrows—but none of the operators had yet opened for the year.

Unfortunately, with a few notable exceptions, this became a recurring theme during our April trip to the wet, er I mean, west coast. That it was quiet was just as well. Highway 101 (which apparently originates 15,000 road miles away at the tip of South America) terminates at Lund, BC. And I mean, terminates. Had there been a couple more cars parked in front of the historic Lund Hotel, I’d still be trying to turn the motorhome around.

After retracing our path south to Powell River, we caught the late afternoon ferry for the run over to Comox on the Island. Our arrival was inauspicious. Rain poured down through the night. In the morning the windshield wipers were flapping time all the way to Port McNeill. Literally flapping. They were broken. But when we pulled into town the sky cleared and we enjoyed a lovely, crisp evening. The town was deserted. We had the world’s largest burl, a Port McNeil must-see, to ourselves.

For the uninitiated, a burl is an abnormal outgrowth on a tree, like a wart, or a giant blemish. This particular burl is six meters in diameter and is estimated to weigh 30 tonnes. That’s one big zit.

A few kilometres up the road is Port Hardy, which bills itself as a salmon fishing mecca. But the charters were all in dry dock. The run of spring salmon had yet to arrive. And the orcas that eat them were nowhere to be seen. So forget whale watching.

Perhaps this whole ‘Vancouver-Island-in-April’ thing was not such a great idea after all. But of course, it was. Sure, we got a bit wet here and there and, yes, some of the more touristy things weren’t yet open for business, but there was the quiet solitude, gorgeous hiking, camping in peaceful remote forests—and spring’s bright blossoms.

I unfurled my fly rod and spent a delightful day wading the Marble River, near Port Alice, casting every manner of lure onto those pristine mountain waters. Alas, I didn’t land a thing, despite digging deep into my fly box for the finest of flies. Clearly, the fish of Vancouver Island are either blind—or very stupid.

We had the Island’s campgrounds to ourselves

Pursuing more quiet isolation, we headed for Telegraph Cove, located on a dead-end road just south of Port McNeill. We phoned ahead to see if the campground was open but the pre-recorded message simply thanked patrons for ‘a great season’ and offered an encouraging ‘see you in the spring’.

We weren’t optimistic. We resigned ourselves to a night of boondocking in some remote pullout. Still, we pressed on and pulled into the cove just as the setting sun glimmered red on the calm, gorgeous bay of the tiny hamlet.

Telegraph Cove

Look up ‘quaint’ in the dictionary. There’ll be a picture of Telegraph Cove. The small harbour is surrounded by cute, rustic lodging; converted fishing shacks and charming motel units hang precariously over the water.

At the end of the pier stands the iconic rust-red Telegraph Cove Lumber & Trading Co., which now houses the Whale Interpretive Centre. Everything was shut fast. I peeked through the smoky windows of the local cafe. In a far corner, tables and chairs were upended and neatly stacked. Suddenly, out of nowhere, an older fellow, with a hitch in his gait and a sharp tool in his hand, appeared. ‘Can I help ya?’ he inquired, hoisting a hacksaw. I looked at Florence and shivered. It was reminiscent of The Shining.

‘We were hoping to find a spot to camp for the night,’ I mentioned nervously. ‘No problem,’ he said. ‘we’re not officially open yet but you’re welcome to pull in anywhere and hook up. No charge.’ He pointed up the hill toward a steep gravel road leading into the forest and a sign that read, ‘Camping.’ I turned to thank him. He was gone.

Still, we slept peacefully that night, lullabied to sleep by the rhythmic swaying of giant Douglas fir. In the morning we moseyed down to the boat ramp, intending to launch our inflatable kayak. The wind was gale-force. Outside the harbour entrance, the roiling sea was grey and angry. And we’d been warned that even on calm days, navigating the tide at Telegraph Cove can be challenging.

Deflated, but not defeated, we stuffed the limp kayak back into its lair in the rear of the RV and pointed the wheel toward Tofino on the rugged west side of Vancouver Island… where we would soon encounter a real adventure on the ocean.

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

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management for sponsoring this series.  Click on the ads and learn more about this long-term local business.

Heavenly Valhalla by Gerry Feehan

 

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