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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

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Gerry Feehan

The Olympic Peninsula by Gerry Feehan

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The Olympic Peninsula

On November 8, 2021 the land border to the USA opened again!

I love America. The weather is great, the scenery fantastic and the people hospitable. But the US has a problem: guns. We hadn’t been in the country twenty-four hours before we found ourselves staring down the barrel of a sheriff’s assault rifle—at a campground. After a lovely morning hike overlooking Washington State’s San Juan Islands we were skipping happily back to our site when a camouflaged sniper waived us to the ground. We crawled toward our motorhome—which had been commandeered for police cover.

Four muzzles were aimed from behind our RV toward an adjacent trailer. I heard the words, “domestic…choking…firearms,” crackle over the commander’s radio.

What would spark gunplay in a campground? Had someone made the campfire coffee too strong? Were the marshmallows charred? We never did find out. The police escorted us out the park gate—and we returned blithely to the meandering highway. We monitored the radio to ascertain the cause of the fireworks but learned nothing. Perhaps a nearby school massacre overshadowed the shootout at the OK Campground.

But after this first hiccup our Washington State experience was gun-free, peaceful and marked entirely by friendly encounters. Everywhere we were greeted by kind, attentive folk with a genuine interest in how their Canadian brethren were faring.

“Do you think we can get through the south shore road to Grave’s Creek campground tomorrow?” I asked.

The Rain Forest Resort sits along the shores of Lake Quinault in Washington’s beautiful Olympic Peninsula. The narrow road to the resort passes through a cathedral of towering Douglas fir, Sitka spruce and red cedar. The largest in the world of each of these species grows within spitting distance of the lake—and the quaint village provides access to one of the world’s great temperate rain forests.

bull Roosevelt elk

The Morrison family has owned this little jewel of a resort—and everything else in town (including the coin laundry and paid showers)—since the 1960’s. The town gets four meters of rain a year. The camp store sells a lot of quarters to soggy travellers trying vainly to dry hiking gear—while thawing chilled bones in a hot shower. In the 48 hours we were hunkered down, hiding from a brutal storm, 15 cm of rain bombarded the Rain Forest Resort campground. The lake rose and water began lapping up the wheels of our RV. There was a knock on the door. Don Morrison kept both feet safely on the running board of his old pickup as he pointed to the half-submerged post to which our electrical cord was plugged.

“We’d better get you to higher ground.”

“Neither rain, nor…”

We evacuated uphill, and plugged in at the local post office building (which, naturally, is owned by the Morrisons). So neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night can stop the post office from delivering—either the mail or electricity to a stranded RV. That evening, over happy-hour cocktails at the Salmon House Restaurant (which is owned by… guess who?), Don and his brother traded war stories about just how high the water can get.

“Remember ’94?” said Don. “That was the year we put the cabins up on stilts.”

“Yeah, but what about the summer of ’79 when we lost power for ten days?” responded his brother. “We threw out three freezers of elk, salmon and frozen clams.”

While they happily reminisced about past disasters Florence and I stared out the window at the non-stop deluge.

“Do you think we can get through the south shore road to Grave’s Creek campground tomorrow?” I asked.

“Hard to say,” said Don. “You’ll have to drive through Sasquatch valley, which can be slippery and there could be some trees down. There’s always the long way round, over the north shore.” He pointed across Lake Quinault.

Optimistically we struck out in the morning on the south route. On a narrow stretch ten kilometers down a muddy gravel road we rounded a steep curve. I slammed on the brakes. Fifteen or twenty massive, freshly fallen trunks lay across the road. A swath of ancient conifers had toppled, domino-like, rendering the route impassable. The locals call this a blow-down event. Where the trees had formerly stood, a narrow window of light shone brightly through the dark canopy, illuminating the carnage.

Now what?

We backed up for almost a kilometer before finding a safe spot to turn around. Intent on getting to the remote rain forest at Graves Creek, we drove around the lake and tested the equally tricky north shore road. We arrived at the secluded campground as darkness descended. The rain had abated from gale-force to storm-watch. In the morning we geared up for a wet tromp. An hour or so in we met Michael Butler on a remote hiking trail that had converted itself into a medium-sized creek. The sky was pouring buckets. The only people stupid enough to brave the elements were Mike and the Feehans. We were headed upstream and he down.

Banana slug meets mushroom (inset orange jelly fungus)

“It gets quite a bit worse up there,” he remarked, glancing over his shoulder, soaked to the bone and smiling. Water was running out the toes of his hiking boots. A banana slug floated by. We abandoned ship and turned back, down-trail with Mike.

He was from Long Island New York, sleeping in his car and subsisting on cold rice. His eyes were red. “I didn’t sleep much last night,” he said. “I have mice—two of them.”

We invited him for dinner chez Feehan for Florence’s famous Friday night homemade pizza. He acquiesced without an arm-twisting. Mike is a lanky kid, but like most twenty-two year olds can really pack away the groceries—particularly when served up in a dry, rodent-free establishment. Mike was travelling the entire “lower 48” carrying his grandparent’s ashes, leaving a trace in every State. He’d been on the road for six months but still had a bunch of places in which he’d not yet spilt his relatives’ remains. He’d taken a sabbatical from medical school to nurse his grandparents at the end of their lives. After they died he quit school entirely, disgusted with the insurance companies and the medical system in general. Did I say the US has a problem with guns? Apparently it also has health-care issues.

Florence and Mike have different perspectives on life.

When we left in the morning, Mike was still sawing logs, mouth agape, driver’s seat splayed back. Through the foggy windshield I spied a mousetrap, set for action. We quietly left a note under his wiper:

“I can see a pair of mice by your dashboard lights.”

As we drove out, through an ancient grove of large-leaf maple trees draped in wet club moss, the rain stopped. For the first time in days the sun began to shine.

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.

 

We will travel again but in the meantime, enjoy Gerry’s ‘Buddy Trip to Ireland’

 

 

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Gerry Feehan

A Necropsy in Friday Harbor

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Friday Harbor – by Gerry Feehan

On November 8, 2021 the land border to the USA is open!

The quay at Friday Harbor Labs.

I had no idea what a necropsy was until we visited the marine lab institute at Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. It might have been better had my vocabulary been left unimproved, since a necropsy is not for the faint of stomach.

San Juan Island is in the United States but is actually much closer to Victoria, B.C. than it is to the U.S. mainland. British Columbia’s capital is just a few kilometers away, across the Juan de Fuca Strait. San Juan can only be reached by small plane or, as in our case, via ferry. We embarked with our motorhome at Anacortes, Washington and, after weaving through and around a multitude of conifer-clad islets, disembarked an hour or so later in Friday Harbor, the quaint town of 2200 people that serves as County seat and is the largest town in the San Juan archipelago.

We had come to visit our daughter who had recently accepted a position as postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington marine labs in Friday Harbor. Colette’s area of expertise is the interaction between sea urchins and kelp—that’s what urchins like to eat.

The harbor seal under scrutiny had been floating lifeless for many days and decay had set in.

Friday Harbor Labs is a true scientific research facility. It attracts renowned marine biologists from around the world. Small laboratories hug the shoreline of the lovely grounds. We strolled the shore, peaking in windows, spying pumps, beakers and aquariums full of life. It was exciting and mysterious watching lab coat-clad scientists recording data while carefully poured funny-looking liquids into test tubes.

It is encouraging and reassuring to see real science being performed—and adequately funded. Fortunately a good relationship and camaraderie exists between Canadian and U.S. researchers, particularly in the marine science field. Data is shared and papers co-written, without regard for border fences.

For most of our stay we were “in residence” and treated hospitably by everyone we encountered, from the maintenance people and dining hall staff to the doctoral candidates and tenured professors. Colette’s mentor invited us to dinner and served up a tasty dish of coconut curry soup while we watched sunset from the deck of her rustic home high atop a hill overlooking the San Juans.

The islands thrive with wildlife. On our walkabouts we saw river otters, harbor seals, dolphins and orca whales swim, jump and cavort offshore. On shore deer, bald eagles, raccoons and fat native foxes frolicked in the autumn mist.

In the San Juans, there’s lots of life—both below and above surface.

One brisk afternoon we hired a local guide for a sea kayaking tour in the cold fecund waters off Lime Kiln Point State Park. Colette and her oceanographer husband Mike pointed through the clear water at colourful sea urchins clinging precariously to rocks in the swell below. Colette gets pretty excited when she spots an urchin—particularly when a healthy bed of bull kelp floats nearby. Our guide reached into the kelp and handed me a raw blade. “Here, try this,” she said.

I munched. It was palatable. Nice texture, not too salty, with a kale-like flavour. Our spiny urchin friends have made a good dietary decision.

Drifting in a bed of kelp.

A necropsy is to an animal what an autopsy is to a human: an examination of a dead body to determine cause of death. Fortunately the procedure we observed took place outdoors—on the quay at the Lab. The harbor seal under scrutiny had been floating lifeless for many days and decay had set in. I was careful to remain upwind from the carcass. The necropsy was performed by a renowned local marine veterinarian, Joe Gaydos. He carefully dissected the entire animal—from flipper to brain. No organ was left unchurned: heart, lungs, stomach, glands, even the tongue, were surgically, skillfully removed and splayed out upon the dock in the crisp salty air for all to see. As he cut, Dr. Gaydos carefully explained each step in the process and what role each body part played in the life—and death—of the animal, in a matter-of-fact, good-humoured fashion.

Apparently the animal died of a chronic lung infection. At least that’s what I learned after I was revived by the smelling salts.

The necropsy.

Our last night on the island was a stargazer’s dream. We checked out of the marine lab residence and into the campground at San Juan County Park on the west side of the island. Across the Juan de Fuca Strait the shimmering lights of Victoria seemed a mere stone’s throw away. Florence knit while I lit a roaring campfire. An occasional cloud drifted by to briefly mask the moon and the Milky Way. Camping made perfect.

In the morning back in town Mike and Colette treated us to a hearty farewell breakfast before we caught the ferry back to the mainland. As we sailed away I snapped pictures of Friday Harbor Labs from the ferry deck.  A young couple was out on the windy bow taking selfies. I pointed to the cozy buildings lining the shore and said proudly, “My daughter is a scientist over there.”

They nodded vaguely but I don’t think they heard me.

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

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

 

 

 

 

Revisiting the “All-inclusive” in Cozumel – by Gerry Feehan

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