This was the day I’d been waiting for, and the reason I came all the way out to Cape Breton Island. It was time to ride the Cabot Trail. It’s a 298km (185 mile) loop around the northern part of Cape Breton Island. I’ve been reading about it for as long as I’ve been interested in motorcycle road tripping. Now I was going to experience it.
But not before coffee, of course. Fortunately, there was a Tim Horton’s next to the Irving station where I topped off the tank. I was up early because my air mattress had partially deflated on me overnight, and once the sun was up, I was up. But I had some time to burn before I could visit the Gaelic College, not far up the road, so I took my time with a couple of donuts and some coffee.
When I got back to my bike, a Harley with a Nova Scotia plate had parked next to me. I was still sipping my coffee, and when the Harley rider returned we chatted a bit. It turns out he’s a local school teacher, and when school’s out for summer, he spends a lot of time riding the Cabot Trail. He gave me some good advice for things to look for out there, but most importantly he told me to respect the speed limits – not because of speedtraps, but because there’s a lot of wildlife out there, and he’s seen many moose on the trail. Also, you know those little yellow signs they put on curves telling you to slow down to 25mph that mean you can actually take the curve at 60? Here, when there’s a little yellow sign telling you to slow down for a curve, they mean it – you really do need to slow to the suggested speed, because the curve really is that tight. That actually makes it easier to ride, I think, because I don’t have to guess at my entry speed – they hand it to me on a yellow diamond.
We were each soon on our way, and after passing through the middle of Baddeck again, I took 205 out of town alongside Bras d’Or Lake, then hooked back up with 105. Later I found out there’s a Bras d’Or Lakes Scenic Drive, which would have been fun to explore if I’d stayed another day or two. I’ll put it on my list for a future return trip.
Back on the Cabot Trail, it was a short ride to St. Ann’s and the Gaelic College, which is right on the Cabot Trail. I arrived shortly before opening, and waited for things to get going. While I waited, I was invited to go on a nature walk with their guide, who I had all to myself. I learned a great deal about the geology and biology of the area, and being somewhat of a science geek I found it fascinating. Many of the random facts and figures I’m mentioning throughout this trip report I learned from this discussion. Upon learning of my interest in history that brought me to the Gaelic College, and mentioning my visit to Fort Ticonderoga, she suggested I visit the Fortress of Louisville, which would make Ticonderoga look tiny. Again, regrettably, my visit was too short to give me enough time for this. I’ll definitely add it to an ever growing list of sights to check out on a future return visit.
What I did have time to see, and what brought me to the Gaelic College, was the Great Hall of the Clans, an extensive history not only into the Scottish heritage of Cape Breton Island, but also Scotland itself. Some have even called Cape Breton Island more Scottish than Scotland! I took several pictures of weapons and artifacts to share with my friends in the SCA, and did a little research of my own pending SCA persona. They have histories of most of the major and minor clans available for anyone to read through. There are also exhibits on the music of Cape Breton Island – fiddle, piano, organ, and of course the bagpipes. There are various demonstrations throughout the day. Unfortunately, once again my limited time in the area required me to skip a few things and get back on the road if I was going to complete my lap of the Cabot Trail.
Back on the road, I continued north for a while, and soon approached Smokey Mountain. From the nature walk, I learned that this mountain helped determine some weather patterns on various parts of the island. It could be sunny and warm on one side, and rainy and cold on the other. It’s not a particularly tall mountain at 1,067 feet, but as I approached the mountain a sign told me the road would climb 725 of those feet in a very short distance. So began the steepest and most technical mountain climb I’ve ever done on a motorcycle. The road was a squiggle of steep pavement all the way up. I have no idea what my speed was, as all of my concentration was on the road, but it wasn’t very fast, and I was probably in 2nd or maybe 3rd gear all the way. It was a lot of fun, though, and before long I was pulling over at the top to look around a bit. As I parked, the guys from Quebec I’d met at Tim Horton’s in Pictou also stopped in. We talked a bit more, and compared notes on various parts of the trail. They were riding the trail the opposite direction as me, clockwise instead of counterclockwise. They assured me I had a lot of great riding ahead.
Onward to Ingonish, I entered the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. If you’re just passing through, you don’t need to pay, but if you intend to so much as put a foot down anywhere in the park, you need to pay $7.80 admission. This is good for the whole day. I recommend just paying it instead of trying to get away with not. It’s worth it, it goes toward preserving a beautiful place, and it gives you the flexibility to stop anytime and anywhere you want within the park. There are even convenient pull-off or drive-through places to pay your admission as you enter the park from the south ends of Ingonish and Cheticamp (if you’re riding the Cabot Trail in the other direction). Yes, you will be going through the park a second time on your way back south again. Normally they have you tape the receipt they give you to your windshield, but they’re a bit more flexible with bikes. They advised me to just somehow leave it on my bike in plain sight if I walked away from it.
I stopped for a tasty sandwich at the Coastal Restaurant and Pub in Ingonish, then continued on. Soon after re-entering the park (you leave briefly in Ingonish) I took advantage of my ability to stop anywhere to check out Green Cove. This is a small peninsula looking east across the Atlantic, partly rocky, but also partly lush with brilliant green vegetation. The red granite of these rocks reminded me very much of Acadia National Park in Maine, and no doubt comes from similar geological origins. The colors of the plants were far brighter, though, as they are across most of Cape Breton Island. I walked around the rocks a bit and took quite a few pictures.
Before too long I’d emerged on the north side of the park and made it all the way to Dingwall. I made a turn off the Cabot Trail and headed up Bay St. Lawrence Road, which was a nice ride to nearly the northern tip of the island. It brought me out in, appropriately, the town of Bay St. Lawrence, a small fishing community. I followed the road to the end and ended up on a pier looking north into the ocean. Three other bikes – a Goldwing, an ST1300, and a Harley – were already there. I parked next to them, took advantage of the photo opportunity (an all Honda lineup from this angle), and enjoyed the scenery for a bit, as well as the boats going in and out of the bay. One boat coming in had a very full load of lobster.
These three were traveling from Ontario. The Honda riders were used to long trips and had been out here before, while the Harley guy was here for the first time, and loving it. They were heading out to Meat Cove. This is where the guys from Quebec told me they were staying. They also said part of the road there was dirt, so I let these guys know about that. They didn’t seem to mind. I was running low on gas, so I decided to head back to the Cabot Trail.
The PC800’s fuel range isn’t the greatest, and it’s not like there’s a gas station on every corner here, so I had to be conservative on how far I tried to go. Particularly since I didn’t know the area, I didn’t want to go on to the next gas station, only for there not to be one before I ran out. I ended up backtracking slightly to a gas station I passed near Neils Harbour to fill up. Although later realized I was right at the intersection to go into town and take a scenic detour along the coast, I didn’t know it at the time, and I missed it. Something else for next time.
Refueled, I continued my counterclockwise loop, and was soon back into the national park. The Cabot Trail went into the mountains here, and what amazing mountains they are. No, they’re not even as tall as the mountains where I live, which are nothing compared to the Rockies, for instance. Size doesn’t matter – it was the beauty of the place, the natural scenery, unaltered except for the road I was riding. Some of the trees here are hundreds of years old, with trunks so large you can’t get your arms all the way around them. The weather was perfect, the road in excellent condition, and it was extremely enjoyable.
I was already stopping at one scenic pulloff for some pictures when I saw a couple of other bikes parked there. Naturally I rolled on up to them, and as I did so I noticed Massachusetts license plates. It turns out one of them lived near me, and went to high school in the town I now live in. What a small world this is.
After passing through the small town of Pleasant Bay, I saw signs for Mackenzie Mountain. Unlike Smokey Mountain, where the road was quite a squiggle, the road up Mackenzie Mountain was a series of well defined hairpin turns connected by short straights. It was a different sort of climb than Smokey Mountain, but still fun. At the top, I once again had to pull over and take in the view. At 1,366 feet taller than Smokey Mountain, but who cares – the view was among the most beautiful I saw the entire trip. It also showed just how much the road climbed, rather than traveling lateral distance. A BMW motorcycle with a distinctive exhaust note passed by going downhill, and I could hear it for several minutes before it finally came into sight far below me, but not too far from where I was standing. That’s a heck of a climb, and a heck of a view.
Down the road I stopped at another scenic area with a few cars and bikes there. Randomly hanging out there was a park guide with a piece of rope with various tags on them demonstrating the sizes of different types of whales. He also had some samples of whale bone and baleen to show off. Not something you typically see at a random scenic overlook! But, as he explained, this was a very popular area for whales to hang out in. I didn’t see any myself, but he said that if you watch the water carefully from this location, you can often see whales coming up for air. There are many opportunities to take whale watch boat rides along this side of the island – yet another item for my to-do list next visit.
I also met yet another biker from Massachusetts. Well, not “from,” specifically – he lives there now, but is actually from Brazil. He said that later this year, he intends to ride home, back to Brazil, over the course of about a month or so. Wow. That involves going through some places I’d certainly rather not visit. It makes this whole adventure seem like a quick trip around the block.
Soon I found myself slowing down and rolling into Cheticamp. Though Cape Breton Island is best known for its strong Scottish influence, the French were here first, and through a series of wars in the 1700s they eventually lost their land in modern day Canada to the British. (And in America too – for example, Fort Ticonderoga, which was originally Fort Carillon under French ownership.) Cheticamp is most definitely an Acadian town, with signs returning to their normal English/French languages. There aren’t nearly as many trees here, and most of the industry here is related to fishing or tourism.
The trail turned inland, away from the short, and before long I went through the intersection with the Ceilidh Trail where I’d picked up the Cabot Trail yesterday. At that point, I’d ridden the entire Cabot Trail. But I still needed to complete my lap – if nothing else than to get back to the campground – so it was a repeat run from Margaree to Baddeck. After a shower I went back to Baddeck, had an OK dinner, and picked up some beer for the evening.
After sitting by the lake at the campground for a while, a couple who had set up camp across the field from me said hello as I walked back. We got to talking, and I ended up hanging out with Bob and Carolyn for most of the evening. They’re from Florida, but are traveling, and had just gotten back from Newfoundland (just like the couple from Ontario the previous night). They offered me some homemade rhubarb pie they’d picked up at a bake sale in Newfoundland, and although I’ve never been to Newfoundland, they made sure I’d been properly “Screeched in.” I shared some of the Propeller Pale Ale I’d picked up. We talked while the sun went down until, once again, the bugs became too fierce and we retreated to our respective tents for the night.
The Cabot Trail is at least as awesome as all of the posts and articles online had led me to believe, if not more awesome. As you can see, there are many things I would’ve liked to have done and didn’t have time for – not to mention riding the Cabot Trail in the opposite direction, clockwise. I really didn’t want to leave Cape Breton Island, but I had a reservation at Fundy National Park the following night, and I couldn’t afford to stretch the time or expense of this trip out too long. I’ll have to go back someday and try to see some of the things I missed this time around. I love this place.