Todayville congratulates our distinguished travel writer Gerry Feehan.
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Gerry Feehan explores Cape Breton Island
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.
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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Todayville Travel goes on a Yukon road trip Part 2 – Dawson City and the Dempster Highway
2nd in a 3-part series on a Yukon road trip – Dawson City and the Dempster Highway
Upon our return from six weeks exploring Canada’s north, friends enquired, “So what was your favourite place?” And each time, gazing distantly while recalling the amazing scenery, people and places we encountered, I answered: “Haven’t a clue.”
But Dawson City, Yukon is a good start.
I love Dawson. Unlike cruise-ship destinations on the nearby Alaska coast, Dawson is genuinely quaint. Colorful clapboard buildings line the streets, interspersed with heritage houses leaning drunkenly on a permafrost foundation.
Diamond Tooth Gertie’s is Dawson’s historic casino and dance hall. This landmark saloon was established over a century ago and, while Gertie herself is getting a little long in the tooth, the can-can girls are still high-kicking a vaudeville act each evening at 8:30pm, 10:30pm and midnight. Happy hour at Gertie’s is from midnight to 1am. The manager at our RV park – located a short walk from Gertie’s – winked when she said “the later the show the more the skin.” I suggested to my wife Florence – purely for journalistic purposes – that we take in the evening’s final performance.
“…Their public throes of ecstasy are disconcerting. And should a birder confirm the presence of an olive-sided flycatcher by its loud and clear “quick-three-beers” call – well, just stay out of the way...”
Our June arrival coincided with the midnight sun’s long summer appearance. It may seem frivolous to remark that it doesn’t get dark here in summer, but until you’ve actually experienced this phenomenon, it is hard to appreciate. Darkness never descends; not tonight nor the next nor the night after that. Daylight is a 24/7 thing for six weeks.
There is no respite from the light. One’s natural daily rhythm quickly shuts down, confused, as if dragged through perpetual jet lag. Soon you are eating dinner at 11:45pm, hanging out on the dusky streets ‘til all hours and sleeping past noon; 4am is just an overcast day, juxtaposed with the usual night sounds of street-laughter and squealing car tires. Birds sing non-stop. One night, in this altered circadian state, I found myself and my ukulele busking for cash at 3am outside the venerable Westminster Hotel with a couple of young Quebecois. And we didn’t do badly – after two hours I’d donated only thirty bucks.
Summer here is difficult to digest, but a season of endless darkness would be interminable, unimaginable. Only after a full winter hunkered down in the snow and ice of Yukon can one proclaim himself a genuine “sourdough”. A somewhat easier feat is attaining “sour toe” certification, awarded to all those who slurp up a $5 shot of Yukon Jack whiskey containing a pickled human toe – which your lips must touch. (I am now a proud member of the Sour Toe Club. Fortunately I was nearly as pickled as the toe when the deed was consummated.)
Although the Klondike gold rush ended more than a century ago, Dawson retains its frontier spirit. The streets are full of entrepreneurs and oddballs. Young drifters seek adventure, mingling with cagy old-timers. Secretive men and women still comb nearby creeks, moiling for gold. Astute shopkeepers mine tourist’s pockets. Individuals all, Dawson folk march to the beat of no one’s drum but their own.
Every person I’ve met who’s been to Yukon (don’t say the Yukon, that’s a dead giveaway you are a newcomer, a Cheechako, from the “outside”) returns home gushing about the Klondike story, an epic period in Canadian history. I too am now a convert.
On our last night in town, just shy of midnight, we drove to an overlook offering a panoramic view of Dawson far below. We chatted with a lovely young aboriginal woman picking wild herbs from the steep cliff-face. “I make tea with spruce tips, labrador, cranberry bush leaves… and sage,” she said, reaching for a sprig over the precarious edge. “The caribou pass through here in October. They love sage. Come look.”
The caribou may not suffer from vertigo but I wasn’t going near that precipice. Nearby another woman watched, quietly slurping beer – the same precocious gal who had inducted me into the Sour Toe hall of fame the night before. Dawson is not a big place.
Properly schooled in the art of brewing tea from local ingredients, we departed for a late night game of golf. We arrived at the Top of the World golf course after midnight, so I thought it fitting to ask the proprietress for the twilight rate. She looked at me blankly, shielding her gaze from the sun’s glare.
I decided not to quibble over the green fees, paid the full fare of $24, and off we teed into the grassy tundra. On the sixth hole sunset and sunrise collided, shared only by our twosome – and competing packs of wolves baying at the spectacle.
In the morning, seeking even more vitamin D, we headed further into the perpetual sunlight, north up the Dempster Highway toward Inuvik and the Arctic Ocean. Our tour up this narrow gravel road began with a stop at Tombstone Territorial Park where we chanced upon a weekend gathering of birders. Have you ever met a birder? At the risk of mixing metaphors I must say these odd ducks are strange cats. They make Trekkies look undedicated. Anyone who gets up early to tromp through muskeg in search of a lesser scaup or hooded merganser needs to have their head examined.
It is uncomfortable watching a birder identify the elusive Ruddy Duck. Their public throes of ecstasy are disconcerting. And should a birder confirm the presence of an olive-sided flycatcher by its loud and clear “quick-three-beers” call – well, just stay out of the way. But this obsession with things winged is surprisingly contagious. We attended an evening lecture at the Tombstone amphitheater where a bright young woman spoke on, “Why Birds Sing.” It’s about sex and war. Male birds make song to attract mates and to fend off territorial rivals; no need for physical confrontation. Have the birdbrains out-evolved man? Could we send our best tenors out to resolve border disputes? Think of the savings on anti-personnel weaponry.
After two days with our feathered friends we elected to fly the coop and continue our slow, muddy journey up the Dempster.
Our goal was the Arctic Circle but the owner of Eagle Plains Motel (the only accommodation and gas stop for hundreds of kilometers in either direction) told us that we should carry on a little further, over the Yukon border and into the Northwest Territories to see real tundra landscape. So we did. But the weather was miserable, the visibility poor and the shoulderless road hazardous. Our plan to bicycle across the Arctic Circle line was cancelled. Our bikes, hanging off the back of the van, looked like they’d been dipped in chocolate.
We retraced our path in search of the nearest wand wash. Back in Dawson and $23 in loonies later the RV began to reappear from its dark, molten lacquer.
There are different ways to experience our great north. You can read Pierre Berton novels which, while informative, are also useful as a sleep-aid – or you can go explore an abandoned Yukon River dredge yourself. And bring a pan – there’s still plenty of gold in them thar hills.
Next time: Kluane National Park, Yukon
Gerry Feehan QC is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He and his wife Florence live in Red Deer, AB and Kimberley, BC.
Click below to read Part 1 in Gerry’s 3-part series on the Yukon.
Thanks to these amazing local companies who make Todayville Travel possible.
Click here to visit our Travel section and see more of Gerry’s stories.
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