The Cabot Trail

Middle Head, Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Cabot Trail. Picture: Michael Gebicki
Mike Gebicki

MICHAEL GEBICKI drives through a corner of Canada that will forever be somewhere else

Just as I was about to tuck into my lobster at the Purple Thistle dining room in Nova Scotia’s Keltic Lodge, 30 other patrons rose as one and surged towards me. I was mildly troubled until the crowd passed by for the window behind me, the better to see a pilot whale threading across North Bay Ingonish below the lodge.  Apart from my lobster and the whale, the third memorable note in this scene was music. In one corner of the room, a fiddler was sawing out a lively reel accompanied by a bearded man on a squeezebox – Gaelic with a twist.

A freshwater stream along the Cabot Trail near Baddeck. Picture: Michael Gebicki

Canada’s Nova Scotia – ‘New Scotland’ – feels like a slice of Scotland hived off and heaved across an ocean. There’s a sea-fretted coastline with rocky shores, glacial valleys, fishing villages, scalped hills and the Gaelic greeting –  Céad Mile Fáilte –  ‘a hundred thousand welcomes’ – on signs along the roadsides.

I was driving the Cabot Trail, a 300 km loop around Cape Breton Island, the north-eastern quarter of Nova Scotia. It begins at Baddeck, which lies at about the centre of Cape Breton Island. On a hillside on the town’s outskirts is the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site. After a visit to Baddeck in 1885, Bell bought a large tract of land at the tip of Red Head, a peninsula  across the bay from the village, and built a house which he called ‘Beinn Bhreagh’. It was an exciting time for the great inventor who had patented a telephone in 1876. By the time Bell arrived in Baddeck, there were more than 150,000 telephones in the USA alone.

Yet for me, the most remarkable of all Bell’s accomplishments was this; he got a dog to speak. A speech therapist by training, Bell taught the dog to warble “ow-ah-oo-garama” (“How are you, grandma?”). People came from miles around to see this wondrous feat. Well, you would, wouldn’t you?

I came outside to brightness and birdsong. Fog had lifted to reveal Bras d’Or Lake –  Arms of Gold –  and down at the marina off Water Street men in overalls were backing boats with trailers into the water.

From Baddeck the Cabot Trail winds along the edge of the lake.  It’s gaspingly pretty. Shimmering water winked at me through the birch trees. There were shingled barns sunken in green fields. I drove in a happy trance.

Lobster boats at work off Greeen Cove, Cabot Trail. Picture: Mike Gebicki

It was just about midday when I coasted down the driveway of my home for the night, Keltic Lodge, set on Middle Head, the peninsula that separates the two bays of Ingonish. In the afternoon I took a hike out to the end of the peninsula along a forest trail. I was alone but ahead of me, four reddish-brown cubs paused from their tumbling play and regarded me for a moment with an untroubled gaze before bounding off into the thick undergrowth. “They’re coyotes,” said Sheila, my waitress in the Purple Thistle. “They take cats, and even small dogs. My cat disappeared a while back and you can bet it was a coyote.”

Beyond Ingonish is the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, the section of the Cabot Trail that most visitors recall with extravagant adjectives. The coastline is a succession of comely coves of pink granite, surf and coastal vegetation. At Lakies Head, small lobster boats bobbed in the waves just a few metres off the rocks, while the crewman hauled in the pots. It’s dangerous work but close inshore is the best place for lobsters.

Near Sugarloaf, Cabot Landing Provincial Park is the likely landfall of John Cabot, aka Giovanni Cabato, a Venetian sailing under the British flag. It was Cabot who is generally credited with the discovery of North America in 1497, since Christopher Columbus managed to miss it and landed in the Bahamas. “That’s garbage,” said Ray Fraser of Oshan Whale Watch. “The Portuguese were fishing along this coast for a century before Cabot, but there was so much fish here that they didn’t want anyone to know. And the Vikings were here long before that.” He’s right.

Black Brook Beach on the Cabot Trail; Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Picture: Michael Gebicki

Archaeological evidence suggests that a Viking settlement existed in Newfoundland at around 1,000 AD, which makes Cabot something of a Giovanni-come-lately.

I was aboard the Oshan, a 42-foot fishing boat piloted by Ray’s dad, Cyril, heading out from Bay St Lawrence Wharf to try and spot some whales. “Catholics fish one side of the harbour, Protestants the other,” said Ray as we came out of the protective arms of Dingwall Harbour into the Atlantic swell. “It’s always been that way.”

We headed north toward Cape St Lawrence on the Protestant side, but it was too early in the season for the humpback, minke and pilot whales that appear virtually on cue between July and October, although there were plenty of seals and dolphins, and a bald eagle watching from the cliffs as we made our way back towards the keyhole that leads to the harbour. The government keeps a tight rein on the lobster season these days, and like many fishermen, Ray and Cyril have turned to other pursuits to earn an income.

The next morning the Cabot Trail took me high into the forests of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park and across the island’s mountainous spine for a walk along the Skyline Trail. It was a lovely stroll, although the forest has been almost stripped bare by grazing moose and the meadows were full of  shattered junipers and birches.

After about 90 minutes of walking, the trail ended on a high promontory, above the Gulf of St Lawrence. On the return journey a branching trail offered the possibility of a loop walk so I set off through thicker woodland this time and startled a grazing moose. It had stumps rather than antlers, as befits a springtime moose. He went crashing off and was swallowed by the forest in seconds, but it was a thrilling encounter all the same.

On its northwestern flank, Cape Breton Island takes a sudden French turn. French-speaking, Roman Catholic Acadians were among the first European settlers to colonise Nova Scotia, and the province had changed hands several times in a tug-of-war between the French and British. After the Acadians were expelled by the British in 1755, many ended up  in Louisiana, where they re-established their culture in the city of New Orleans, and “Acadian” became “Cajun”. The names along this seaboard – Grands Falaise, Cap Rouge, Petit Etang – bear witness to its French heritage, and French is still the lingua franca in many of these coastal villages.

Model Boat, Neils Harbour, Cabot Trail. Picture: Michael Gebicki

The grey sky was leaching rain so despite the attractions of the Museum of the Hooked Rug and Home Life Sunset Art Gallery featuring William Roach folk art, I drove on to my overnight stop at the Glenora Distillery, North America’s only single malt whisky producer. After the tour of the distillery with a bracing sample, a long evening stretched ahead of me so I headed into Mabou, home of the Red Shoe Pub, famous for its Gaelic music. It was a quiet night, with no music and only a few patrons inside, but I pushed in anyway.

“Will ye nae hackle me girdle?” said a man at the bar when I sat down.

“Pardon?”

“Dan frummock na goblins!” said he a little louder, as if speaking to a simple person.

“He asked: ‘Did you have a great day?’” said the girl behind the bar.

Had he perhaps just come from Scotland I asked him? Hell no. His family had been here for the past 200 years. He hadn’t strayed beyond Cape  Breton Island for more than seven years now. For the next hour, as we sipped our ales, I barely understood a full sentence that Donald said. But as is so often the case in Gaelic company, we laughed like whales, consumed more than was wise, had an astonishingly good time and parted the very best of friends, sworn to fight injustice, iniquity and oppression wherever we found it. Which – on a Tuesday night in Mabou – was something of a tall order.