In Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, the Cabot Trail is a hilly, sometimes mountainous 300 kilometres (~190 miles) of paved road, much of it along the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Atlantic Ocean. It has character, personality, and highlands (read: mountains) with climbs with a 15% grade. Though this is no walk in the park, Hannah and I have been thinking of biking this loop trail since we completed the Confederation Trail in PEI (Prince Edward Island) in 2013. We are ready to find out if were up to the test.
Leaving early Saturday morning on the last day of May, Hannah and I drive north on the Maine Turnpike for Baddeck, Nova Scotia, the starting and ending point of the Cabot Trail. It will take us two days to drive the 730 miles to this northern Maritime province.
Stopping at the Mount Katahdin viewing area on I-95 north of Bangor, Maine, we see the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail for the first time. Usually the mountain is covered in clouds and hidden from our view. Some might see this as a good sign.
Renewed and energized by a night in Fredericton, New Brunswick with our longtime friends Bill and Karen, we weave our way along the Trans-Canada Highway through New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. What does it take to climb 10 to 15% grades for kilometres on end when we have never done it before? Have our three to five minute climbs up the Bog Road and Fall Mill Road Extension hills here in York, Maine prepared us? We shall see.
Over breakfast at the Baddeck Riverside B & B in Cape Breton on Monday morning, Laverne (the innkeeper) rustles up eggs Benedict (she picks spinach from her garden as we watch) to satisfy our hunger and energy needs. Soon we are cracking to go.
Today we have 94 kilometres (~60 miles) of biking to the Acadian seacoast town of Cheticamp (pronounced Shetty-camp) in what is described as moderate biking conditions. Biking six kilometres from our B&B, we turn south on the Cabot Trail on the Trans-Canada Highway, our pavement home for the next four days.
Over the first kilometres of rolling hills, we pedal steadily up the inclines. But no big deal. As we will have reinforced over the next four days, Canadian drivers move over without fail to give us our space as we ride. In our experience, Canadians have a richly deserved reputation for being just so damn thoughtful.
Ten kilometres down the Trans-Canada Highway, we make a right turn inland onto a country road with no shoulders towards the Gulf of St. Lawrence. As I will for 97% of our ride, I pull up beside Hannah so we can talk as we ride side by side. It’s the first week of June, two to three weeks before the tourists descend on this vacation island, so we have the roads to ourselves for the most part. There will be stretches where no vehicle passes us for five to ten minutes. Riding in a clockwise direction on this loop trail, we take advantage of the prevailing winds and, as we will learn later, avoid the steepest climbs on the trail.
Within the first hour we have our first climb to the top of Hunter Mountain. It’s a 5% grade for two kilometres which requires steady pedaling in lower gears. It turns out to be very doable and our confidence builds. Zipping down the other side, Hannah leans over her handle bars and rockets down the hill. A little less steady and less confident, I sit tall in the bike saddle to let the wind resistance slow my rapid descent.
In tee-shirts and shorts, for the next two hours, we pass fields with gently rolling hills along the Margaree River Valley and think biking this Cabot Trail is not so tough. On the straight-aways, we can pedal up to 15 mph. Anyone fit enough can handle this ride, we say out loud to ourselves.
Just after noon, we arrive on the seacoast at Belle Cote. As we enter this coastal town of modest houses and vacation homes, we are passed by the only other Cabot Trail bicyclists we will see during our four day ride. Six thirty-something women from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan are biking the Trail (as the locals refer to it). We will meet these moms and longtime friends tomorrow after we bike the mountains of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
Today we lunch at picnic tables at the Belle Cote Community Center on turkey sandwiches and apple slices. The wind is picking up from the south, which means we will sail along the coast at maximum speed with minimal effort. With 20 some kilometres to Cheticamp, we cruise along the Cape Breton coast thinking we are definitely ready for the mountains of Cape Breton Highlands National Park tomorrow. (In the distance, the highlands hear us talk and shake their heads; they think us sad and naive for they have other plans for us.)
Arriving at our evening motel, the L’Auberge Doucet Inn high above the Cabot Trail in Cheticamp at 230P, we feel ready for another hour or two on the bikes. Alas, there is no place to stay the night further down the road since the Cape Breton Highlands National Park is just outside of town. Thanks to Hannah’s innate sweetness, the innkeeper upgrades our room to one with a king bed.
With time to explore Cheticamp, we find a bottle of Shiraz for our late afternoon of wine togetherness. We pick up a Pinto Noir for tomorrow night after our ride through the highlands.
Stopping by Velo Max Cycling, the one bike shop in Cape Breton, we are both sobered and encouraged by our conversation with Andre, the bike store owner. He tells us that just inside the park there is a 15% grade climb over a kilometre long. Then there is French Mountain at 8% grade over six kilometres. Finally the granddaddy climb of North Mountain has a 10% grade over four kilometres. As an experienced bicyclist himself, he stands to pedal up North Mountain. This must be some bad mountain. He warns us of false flats, where the road seems level, but it is a climb nonetheless.
Throughout our twenty minutes together, he says at separate times, you can do it and I don’t want to scare you. When someone says they don’t want to scare you, they have planted the seeds to scare you. Have we trained enough? Where could we have found such long, steep mountains to climb near our home in York, Maine? Are highlands really mountains? Having already done nearly 60 miles today, we wonder how our bodies will react to an even tougher day on the bikes tomorrow.
Under 70F skies at 5P we sip a glass of Shiraz with our popcorn. Dinner comes from the local Coop; potato salad over mixed greens with bran muffins for dessert. We are reminded of Alaska by the sunset after 9P in these parts. But the late sunset is not the reason we won’t sleep well tonight. Day 2 through the mountains of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park awaits.