Dan Bikes the “Around the Mountain” Loop at Acadia National Park

As a student teacher in fifth grade in the spring of 1970, I would walk from my Irish Hall dorm on the campus of Arizona State University to Mitchell School in Tempe, maybe a distance of a mile.  I had no car and it was always sunny.  I literally mean, it was always sunny for the entire semester in the Desert Southwest that spring semester.  Our students had outside recess EVERY day.

ATM phoenix temp

As ones who lived for ten years in the Valley of the Sun (Phoenix Metro area), Hannah and I were used to a steady diet of 100+F degree days from the first of May until October.   Day in and day out for those five months, we could count on lows in the 80s or 90s and highs always above 100F, often well above.  It was not pretty.  The summer weather is as consistent in the Southwest desert as a Steph Curry three pointer.

Weather consistency is not the case in our adopted state of Maine.  Yesterday my UNH college buddy, Bill and I climbed the Beehive Trail at Acadia National Park in shorts and tee shirts in 68F of delightfulness.  (See the list of categories to the left of the blog, click on Acadia National Park, and voila yesterday’s Beehive hiking blog will appear.)

ATM 1  B at Jordan Pond

Bill from Au Canada at Jordan Pond as our ride begins

This late April morning Bill and I wake in Bar Harbor to light rain with a freshening wind that puts a chill in the air.  Welcome to the variability of Maine weather as today I will bike on the Carriage Roads of Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island in zipoff pants, heavy sweatshirt beneath my jacket with Thinsulate gloves.

ATM 3D  more of CR higher up

Carriage Road of Acadia National Park

Leaving our Best Western Acadia Park Inn after the morning rain abates at 930A, we drive the Park Loop Road past Eagle Lake and Jordan Pond without seeing another car.   Though National Park Service has added parking to the Jordan Pond area, we have no problem finding a parking spot right in front of the classic Jordan House this preseason April.

ATM 2 D with ATM sign

Bundled up in late April

Unloading the bikes, Bill and I bundle up against the cold.  Within two hundred yards, we are pedaling on the Carriage Road towards Jordan Pond itself.  The downhill coasting we do at the outset belies what awaits us as we soon will make our way around the mountain.

ATM 3 Jordan Pond from CR

Jordan Pond from the Carriage Road

Paralleling Jordan Pond on the road, we ride side by side on the 16-foot-wide hard packed gravel Carriage Road with a steady climb.  What must be annoying for Bill, I stop to take pictures as he pedals on.  As a Canadian, he fits all the stereotypes: he’s a genuinely good guy, understanding, thoughtful, not full of himself, and he knows I’ll eventually catch up.

The signage is excellent for the Carriage Roads and especially for the “Around the Mountain” (i.e., Sargent Mountain) Loop that we will take.  At sign marker 10, we head left and begin to climb as our pedaling becomes more labored.  Thank heaven for my 21 gears and a winter of rocking the recumbent bike at our Coastal Fitness gym.

ATM 3A  Bill with bikes higher up

Mountain Bill on the far side of the mountain

As a steady, slow grind up the mountain, our conversation ceases. The name of the trail is “Around the M0untain,” but we become mountain climbers this still chilly morning.  Soon my body produces heat as if I’m fueling a 1800s locomotive up over the Rockies; in time I de-bike and pack my jacket on my bike rack.

The day is raw and overcast with sprinkles here and light rain there as we are high above Frenchman’s Bay.  But there is no getting around the beauty of the setting, especially without the chaos of the summer season.

Justly rewarded with a downhill, I ride the brakes lightly as the hard packed gravel is, well, still gravelly and could give way with a quick turn.  We pass an athletic female runner with a Camelback water bag, then later a mountain racer zips by leaving us in the dust.

ATM 3C  view to inlet to the south

Somes Sound

The winding trail takes us high above Somes Sound with views to the mountains to the south and the Atlantic Ocean to the east.  Descending easily on this dream ride, I put my gloves and jacket back on.  Passing over many of Rockefeller’s stone bridges made from local granite, we later learn that the park has sixteen Carriage Road bridges that cross ravines or the motor routes through the park.

ATM 4B  D at waterfall again

Waterfall of Waterfall Bridge (look hard, it’s there)

Soon we come upon another bridge and hear voices.  Stopping to investigate, we spot the waterfall at the appropriately named Waterfall Bridge.   Built in 1925, the Waterfall Bridge, which spans Hadlock Brook, is 125 feet in length and flares at the ends. A pair of viewing platforms jut out on either side to take advantage of the view.

ATM 4C  selfie of B and D

Selfie of two UNH Wildcats at the waterfall

Upon returning to the Jordan House parking lot, we have had a 20 kilometer (12 miles American) ride “Around the Mountain” at a slow and steady pace over the past nearly two hours of spring chill on the coast of Maine.  Finished with our ride, we head into town to explore and perhaps discover why the town is called Bar Harbor.  And soon we will indeed find out why.

ATM looking from bridge street

The view from Bridge Street in Bar Harbor to Bar Island

Seeing on our Acadia National Park Hiking and Biking Trail Map ($4.95 at the Visitor Center) that there is a trail from town to Bar Island just off shore, we work our way to Bridge Street. There we see a concrete ramp sloping into the bay, with Bar Island, maybe 400 yards in the distance.  The tide is in and there is no way we are crossing without a boat.  What gives?  Where the h is the trail?

ATM  bar island road

The rocky sand bar from Bar Harbor to Bar Island

Fortunately, an Anglo Rastafarian (perhaps I’ve jumped to that conclusion because he has dreadlocks) comes by and notices our perplexity.  He tells us that for an hour and a half or two on either side of low tide, there is indeed a road to Bar Island that cars and walkers can cross.   But once the tide comes in, one is stuck on the island for 8+ hours unless one wants to wade through what must be 40-degree water today.

Once called Eden, the town’s name was changed to Bar Harbor in 1918 because of the sand bar that goes to Bar Island.  Bill and I light up with the possibility of exploring this island when we next visit; ever mindful of the low and high tides.

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Dan Bikes the Carriage Roads of Acadia National Park with his UNH Amigo

Nothing like being in the right place at the right time.  For me it was 1983 and it changed my teaching life forever.  Having taught 4th through 7th grade in public schools of California, Arizona, and New Hampshire since 1970, I had many students who seemed to enjoy coming to class; I did like being in charge and running the Show.  But I hid the obvious:  I really didn’t know what the hell I was doing.

Oh, I used the textbooks as guides, added my creative touch, and hoped my endless well of enthusiasm would carry the day.  But what were they learning?  Was it real and worth their time?  Thirty plus students to a class made me more a manager than a teacher.  The kids may have liked it, but I just didn’t know if I was doing anything more than making it fun.  I was floundering.

CR UNH

Having moved the year before (1982) from Arizona to Maine with Hannah (34), Molly (2), and Robyn (4 months), I enrolled in the three-week New Hampshire Summer Writing Program at the University of New Hampshire in Durham twenty miles from home.  There I learned to teach writing that was real and meaningful to kids.  I learned how to run a writing workshop built on individual attention to their specific needs.  I had kids experience what writing could do for them – tell their story and see that they had value.

CR NB mapThat summer I hung out with Bill Buggie, who had come down from New Brunswick, Canada to take the same course.  We stayed in touch over the years, visited each other’s home towns, and found we had similar values, online Lexulous (Scrabble-type game) and loved being active.  Now living in Fredericton, New Brunswick, today Bill drives some four hours to Acadia National Park near Bar Harbor, Maine, which happens to be a similar distance for me from York, Maine.

Eagle Lake at Acadia National Park

Eagle Lake at Acadia National Park

Arriving a little after noon this last Friday of September, we head to the Hulls Cove Visitor Center to prepare for an afternoon of biking on some of the 45 miles of Carriage Roads that John D. Rockefeller had built from 1913 to 1940.  Thinking that late September will mean that we will avoid the crowds, we are mistaken.   We discover that the season for visiting Acadia lasts well into October.

CR CR map of roads

At the Visitor Center, the ranger gives us a map with distances to the tenth of a mile noting that there is a connecting half mile bike trail hill to the Carriage Road system itself. He cautions to us watch out for bikers careening down the hill at high speeds as we pedal up, for this is the steepest climb we will encounter all day.

CR 1A CR sign

Right he was, as we steadily pedal on a gravelly trail at a speed where a plodding runner passes me by.  It’s true.  I am what I am – a 67 year old bike rider.

Carriage Road on east side of Jordan Pond

Carriage Road

Once at the southern part of Carriage Road system, we pedal onto hard-packed gravel with gentle grades as you might expect necessary to handle the horse and carriages of the last century.  The road is never mushy and we ride side by side talking easily, catching up after our morning drives to the park.

Witch Pond

Witch Pond

Passing Witch Pond to our left on this 60 degree afternoon, we appreciate our sweatshirts that ward off the wind chill of riding 8 to 10 miles per hour and 15+ mph on the downhills.

Bill on the Carriage Road with the irregular coping stones for a guardrail

Bill on the Carriage Road with the irregular coping stones for a guardrail

Large blocks of granite, called coping stones and endearingly nicknamed “Rockefeller’s teeth,” line the motor-free roads as guardrails.  Numbered rustic wooden signposts keyed to the map that the ranger gave us make the roads easy to explore.

Billy Boy at Eagle Lake

Billy Boy at Eagle Lake

As we approach Eagle Lake, we see many retirees as well as families with school age kids (got to love home schoolers who have come to Acadia on a school day for some excellent beyond the “classroom’s four walls” education).

Ithaca Bomber at Bubble Pond

Ithaca Bomber at Bubble Pond

Passing Eagle Lake with the mountains between us and the Bar Harbor coastline, we leisurely bike on to Jordan Pond.  Stopping and taking pictures as I establish that the transition is complete from my VCU loyalty to the Bombers of Ithaca College, where our son works in the athletic department.  The Carriage Roads are happily busy on this Friday in late September.

Clouds dominate the sky and by 330P temperatures are dropping on a day when by next morning they will be in the low 40s.  With wine and crackers & cheese back at the Best Western awaiting, we pedal on the Carriage Road to the east side of Jordan Pond, which is much less traveled.  This video that I take while I bike will give you an idea of the Carriage Road at this point.

Bubble Pond

Bubble Pond

Approaching 4P, my fingers are chilled to the point that the warmth of the Best Western Acadia Park Inn looks pretty sweet.  Passing cormorants at the Bubble Pond, we pause just briefly for pictures with our 18 miles of leisurely biking in the books.

Bill after an afternoon biking the Carriage Roads of Acadia

Bill after an afternoon biking the Carriage Roads of Acadia

Welcome to the best set of relaxed, conversation-inducing, motor-free byways in America.  Add the Carriage Roads of Acadia to your bucket list.

 

 

Dan and Hannah Bike the Wilder Ranch Bluff Trails in Santa Cruz, California

SR1 UCSC signBack in the mid-60s, I first heard of Santa Cruz when Mitch, my high school buddy, applied to go to its brand spanking new school of higher learning – the University of California, Santa Cruz. The Universe had other ideas for Mitch; he wasn’t accepted at UCSC, went to Whittier College in southern California instead, and met the girl of his dreams.

Comfort Inn in Santa Cruz, California

Comfort Inn in Santa Cruz, California (the Jacuzzi is to the far lower left)

Driving 85 miles north on the Pacific Coast Highway from our hike at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur, we arrive at our Comfort Inn in Santa Cruz just before dark. Settled into a poolside Jacuzzi, we look up from the swirling, steaming waters and count our lucky stars one by one.

Already fans of good motel breakfasts, we hit the mother lode the following morning. The biscuits are thick and flaky and make the excellent coffee even more excellent. The sausage links for Hannah and the crispy home fries for me are worthy of the Luxury Diner in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I return for another buttered biscuit; the kind of biscuit that makes grown men cry.

The crashing surf of Wilder Ranch State Park

The crashing surf of Wilder Ranch State Park

Returning to Santa Cruz where we hiked the bluff trails just one year ago, we vowed to rent bikes this year and pedal the entire trail and into the foothills of Wilder Ranch State Park.  In the past we rented 7 speed bikes from Billy’s Rentals on Sanibel Island, FL for $12 for four hours. Why the last time we were in Hilton Head, we rented single speed cruisers for $25 for the week from Bicycle Billy’s with 50% off for the second bike!

SR1 Epicenter cyclingThis being California, good deals in bike rental are not so easy to come by. The best we can do is rent mountain bikes for $45 each for 24 hours at Epicenter Cycling. They recommend 21 speed mountain bikes for the rough bluff trails of Wilder Ranch.  Since we are not biking in traffic today, we opt for the free spirit feel of no helmets.  Not so fast suggests the clerk, You’ll be ticketed in the State Park if you don’t have helmets. We grudgingly rent the $5 helmets.

WR1 H by signWhile we ride hybrid bikes at home, we are not used to leaning over the handle bars as we must do with these mountain bikes.  Slowly adjusting to our bikes, we take Mission Street to the bike path along the Pacific Coast Highway and on to the bluffs of Wilder Ranch State Park. Immediately we see that the mountain bikes are made to order for this bumpy trail with ruts and muddy potholes from recent rains.

Migrant workers shacks

Shacks of migrant workers just off the trail

Soon we pass three mothers pushing strollers. Then we see a line of people in brightly colored shirts who I think are here for a park tour by the Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks. As we approach we see that they are, in fact, a single file of migrant workers heading to pick artichokes and Brussel sprouts this January morning. The contrast between these seasonal workers and these upper middle class women and vacationers like us is unsettling. Why us? Why them?

Dan helmeted above the surf on the Wilder Ranch bluff trail

Dan with his $5 helmet above the surf on the Wilder Ranch bluff trail

Within minutes we stop for pictures of the Pacific coast bluff trail in all its foaming glory.   The mountain bikes navigate the rutted path easily as the trail hugs the coastline and gives us stunning views of the crashing surf.

Bicycling along the  Wilder Ranch bluff trail

Bicycling along the
Wilder Ranch bluff trail

With the trail 50 feet above the incoming tides, we keep back from the unstable cliffs. Hunched over the handle bars of the mountain bikes, every so often we stretch our backs like our cat Sadie to work out our soreness.  Over 60, we find riding a mountain bike is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Hannah gets creative with this shot

Hannah gets creative with this shot at Four Mile Beach

On a week day Tuesday, there are very few others on the bluff trail so we can often ride side by side. As with other bluff trails, there is little shade and no available water. Taking a break from our biking body contortions, we check out the surfers at Four Mile Beach.

SR3A another crashing waveAs a Jersey boy in the Sixties, I thought that nothing was cooler than surfers. The Beach Boys and Jan and Dean spoke to my yearning to be all things California; and, I have to admit, to escape Jersey.  By the way, I followed that itch and took my first teaching job in Anaheim, just 20 miles from Newport Beach in southern California.

Wildflowers along the Pacific Coast Highway

Wildflowers along the Pacific Coast Highway

The two hours on the trail have been more than enough as we never really adjust to the leaning over position necessary to ride these mountain bikes. With no interest in riding into the foothills of Wilder Ranch, we take the direct route back to town on the Pacific Coast Highway.

West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz, CA

West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz, CA

Back weary from the mountain bikes, we pedal slowly in town above the Pacific on West Cliff Drive.  With other bicyclists and recreational walkers, we bike along the trail that takes us to the Santa Cruz Lighthouse and towards the Boardwalk at Santa Cruz Beach.

Within inches of falling over the cliff

Within inches of falling over the cliff

Wanting no part of the 20 hours left on our rental, we return to Epicenter Cycling and leave the wiser. We are not mountain bikers. Give us smooth country roads with our hybrid bikes with upright handlebars.   Are we soft? I guess that is pretty obvious.

The Comfort Inn Jacuzzi listens to our tale of mountain biking woe and soothes us without comment or advice or judgment. Many of us have a lot to learn from the Jacuzzis in our lives. In the cool California night, we mellow out in hot tub appreciation.

Dan and Hannah Knock on the Door of Big Sur in Cambria, California

AM map of big sur

Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo are just south of Morro Bay

Big Sur is not a town; it may be a state of mind; but it’s definitely a 100 mile stretch of California coastline from Cambria in the south to Carmel in the north. The Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) from Cambria to Carmel was built over 16 years (1921-1937) at cost of nine million dollars. Of course, those were depression dollars that put many men to work.

After four days in the coastal mountains and on ocean bluffs for hiking, we decide to chill this Sunday in mid-January.  A minor crisis arises as we pack up to leave Pismo Beach – I can’t charge my iPhone; stick with me – it’s the camera for my blog.  You might think WTF (Why the [long] face?).   I text and play Words with Friends and Lexulous (Scrabble games) to connect with mi amigos. But it’s the camera that I need. Fortunately we discover that there is a Verizon store in San Luis Obispo open this Sunday.

Before we head north to the gateway of Big Sur in Cambria, our plan is to find a little morning meditative peace at the Unity of San Luis Obispo service. With a small congregation of 25 or so, similar to our Unity of the Seacoast in Dover, NH, the service brings some calm to our world where we can be a little too focused on being productive and efficient.

CP verizonArriving at the Verizon store in, as the locals say, San Luis or SLO (pronounced es-el-oh), I explain my iPhone situation to the young woman who greets us. Immediately she says, I know just what to do.   Minutes later she returns with my charger working and my undying gratitude. Pocket lint builds up. I just used a heavy duty hand fan to clean it out. There is peace in my valley again.

CP1 motel sign

Thirty-five miles north on the PCH we arrive at the Cambria Palms Motel. Given high fives by former visitors on TripAdvisor.com, we find it the best deal in town, too. It’s AFC championship Sunday as our New England Patriots play the Indianapolis Colts for the right to go to the Super Bowl. Another plus of California is that sporting events start three hours earlier than they do in the East.

Greeted by a delightful, eager to please couple, we see that they have free bikes, wine glasses for our use, and a gas fire pit out back for guests.  Arriving early afternoon, Hannah and I have time to take the one speed cruisers to Moonstone Beach Drive before the game.

The bluff off Moonstone Drive in Cambria, CA

The bluff off Moonstone Drive in Cambria, CA

As the gateway to Big Sur’s amazing California State Parks – Julia Pfeiffer Burns, Pfeiffer Big Sur, and Andrew Molera – Cambria has the feel of Sedona, Arizona and Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Trendy, boutique-y in a small town way.

With the Cambria Palms not providing a morning breakfast as our Quality and Comfort Inns do, we figure we’ll breakfast in town at some funky diner. There are no funky diners to be had. Classy bistros and cafes where $8.50 gets you what’s known as a “simple fare breakfast” with one egg, toast, and home fries.  No thank you.

Thanks to another helpful Canadian

Thanks to another helpful Canadian

There is relaxing vibe as we pedal our cruisers four miles down the main drag. Crossing the Pacific Coast Highway, we head down Moonstone Beach Drive with no crush of traffic; the beaches and coast trails are active on this holiday Sunday of Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend but certainly not summer-time-on-the-Jersey-shore busy.

Our one-speed cruisers from the Cambria Palms

Our one-speed cruisers from the Cambria Palms

At Moonstone Beach, we ask the first person we meet to take our picture. Nicest guy. What a surprise. He’s Canadian. Let the stereotyping begin. We tell him you match all the stereotypes of Canadians – friendly, accommodating, pleasant. He’s from Alberta and says if that’s what you think of Canadians, I’ll take it. We’d like to take him home with us.

Windsor Drive front yard sign

Windsor Drive front yard sign

One speed bikes are ideal for the level ride along Moonstone Beach. As we bike up the hill to the upscale neighborhood of Windsor Boulevard, we see evidence how the local residents deal with the ban on watering their grass or plants – harvesting rainwater.

The bluff beyond Windsor Road

The bluff beyond Windsor Boulevard

At the end of Windsor Boulevard, we bike a wide, hard-gravel trail at a city park along the ocean while walkers follow the bluff path by the sea. Heading back to the Cambria Palms, Hannah stops to shop while I check out the beat down that our Patriots are administering to our son Will’s Colts; it’s on to the Super Bowl.

Early morning on Main Street

Early morning on Main Street

As we leave town the following morning to hike on the Big Sur coast, Hannah spots four players lawn bowling right along Main Street. In teams of two, they are playing what seems to be a variation of bocce. We stop, get out, and chat them up. They invite us to play and offer us coffee from the court-side pot.  Though Maine is home, I could get used to the small town California feel of Cambria, especially in January.

Dan and Hannah Bike the Cape Cod Rail Trail to Chatham

Map of Cape Cod

It’s the worst.  Bar none!  Traffic to Cape Cod in the summer is the worst in all New England, maybe the known world.  As residents of New England for thirty plus years, we wouldn’t dream of going to the Cape during July and August.  Conveniently, my high school classmate Lenny has invited us to the mid-Cape in September.

The Urban Dictionary describes Cape Cod as a small peninsula off Massachusetts that sucks money out of tourists to survive since the fishing industry is slowly dying. Basically we hate tourists, but without them we’d be totally impoverished.

You can find VCU Rams everywhere

You can find VCU Rams everywhere

Leaving after the morning Boston rush hour commute, we take I-95 south and then follow I-93 through the heart of Boston.  Gliding onto route 3 on the South Shore, we will have major highways for 98% of our 150 mile drive to the Cape Cod Rail Trail.

Once over the Sagamore Bridge onto the Cape, we take to the four lane route 6 which leads us east through the heart of the Cape.  Along the way we stop at the visitor center for bike maps and fortunately learn of the side bike trail to Chatham.  Nearby at their picnic tables, we lunch on our obsequious Subway Tuna and Chicken Salad subs.

Getting ready to roll

Getting ready to roll

The Cape Cod Rail Trail (CCRT) is a 22 mile walking and biking trail from Dennis to Wellfleet.  As the Cape grew as a destination for vacationers in the early 20th century, the Old Colony Railroad transported travelers throughout the Cape.  Then, Henry Ford had the bright idea to mass produce automobiles and with that came the death knell of the railroad on the Cape.  With the building of the Sagamore and Bourne Bridges over the Cape Cod Canal in 1935, the rail lines soon fell into disrepair.  The silver lining of this playbook is that the Cape embraced biking as recreation and made the one time railroad into a modern day bike trail.

Cape Cod Rail Trail

Cape Cod Rail Trail

Exiting route 6 at exit 9 onto route 134, we pass malls, gas stations, and a barbecue grille store to find the trailhead parking lot on the left with room for 40 to 50 cars.  Since the elevation on the Cape never seems to change by more than a few feet, biking here is easy going and leisurely.  Ten feet wide with a dividing yellow line in many places, the CCRT on this Monday in mid-September has little bike traffic so Hannah and I can ride side by side.

Hannah as the trail begins

Hannah as the trail begins

The trail bisects the Cape Cod peninsula, which is a good thing considering its vulnerability to the inevitable rising sea due to global warming.  On this sunny day in the 70s, it is ideal for biking, but here is the rub – it’s not great for picture taking by amateur photographers like myself.  The sun through the trees on the trail picks up the light and darkens my pictures.  You might be thinking, Wah-wah-wah.  Give me a break; you are on the Cape with Hannah on a 70 degree day.  You got me there.  Mea culpa.  Sacre bleu.

Picked over cranberry bog

Picked over cranberry bog

Passing one of the many cranberry bogs on the Cape, I later learn that cranberries grow on vines in bogs layered with sand, gravel, and clay; some vines are more than 150 years old.

Biking east to Chatham

Biking east to Chatham

After three miles we break off the main CCRT and take the Old Colony Rail Trail to Chatham (Chatham is thought of as a drinking town with a small fishing problem – thank you Urban Dictionary).  Throughout our twelve miles of biking we never see the ocean as we pedal under spreading canopies of still green leaves.

Biking in 70 degrees is all it's cracked up to be

Biking in 70 degrees is all it’s cracked up to be

Finding the ride an excellent work out, we have a trail wide enough to easily pass others without slowing down. Though Hannah’s bike bell alerts others, many times walkers or bikers don’t hear it; just about everyone has ear buds and has zoned out listening to their favorite tunes.  With a strong wind to our backs (we are fortunate that much of our lives are that way), the pedaling is easy and the ride mellow.

Crosswalk courtesy

Crosswalk courtesy

Cape Codders are the new Canadians. Throughout our entire 24 miles of biking, not one car raced through the crosswalk as we waited to cross.  Not one.  Lenny suggests police enforcement may have a lot to do with that.  Even so, I am sticking with the Canadian heritage angle to explain their courtesy.

Hannah at Chatham Lighthouse

Hannah at the Chatham Lighthouse

The trail ends in Chatham; its over-priced Main Street of shops is easy to navigate on this Monday in September.  Like much of the Cape, Chatham is suffering from an exodus of young people and young families due to the high cost of housing and the lack of suitable employment. The majority of Chatham homes sit empty in the winter.

Hannah at Chatham Beach on Nantucket Sound

Hannah at Chatham Beach on Nantucket Sound

I have yet another lament to break your heart.  Beach walking is over rated.  There I’ve said it and I sense a lot of nodding heads and Amen, brothers.  Others are again thinking, Wah-wah-wah.  I get that, too.  Hear me out.  The beach sand is soft granules that give way with each step.  With no rhythm to our walk, we plod and plod some more.

I think you can feel my pain

I think you can feel my pain

Then at the shoreline, the bank to the water is so steeply angled that we are stepping four inches lower with one foot than the other. Give me the flat beaches at low tide in Scarborough, Maine or Hilton Head, South Carolina.  I sense very little love for my position on beach walking.  Give me a midday forest trail or a seaside road at 630 AM any time.

Heading back to the trailhead

Heading back to the trailhead

The twelve miles back to the trailhead is into a steady wind that has us pedaling in middle gears.  Even so, the trail is bracketed by 6 to 10 feet mounds much of the way and we catch a consistent pedaling rhythm here in paradise.

Mileage marking along the Cape Cod Rail Trail

Mileage marking along the Cape Cod Rail Trail

The Cape Cod Rail Trail and biking spur to Chatham are delightful “walk in the park” kind of bike rides. Let me tell you that coming to the Cape in the fall is all it’s cracked up to be.   I can see why tourists come despite, well, the tourists.

Dan and Hannah Bike the Cabot Trail – Interested?

cabot trail map 3

Does the idea of biking the Cabot Trail intrigue you?  If you are one who thinks that you couldn’t do that, think again.  With the proper planning, it just may be possible.  Here’s what Hannah and I learned about biking the 300 kilometre (~190 miles) loop trail in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.

Have a damn good reason to take on the challenge.  Though doable, this is no walk in the park.  When you get weary in the third, fifth, or seventh hour of biking, you’ve got to have a good reason to stay motivated.

Coastal road skirting French Mountain

The Cabot Trail in Cape Breton HIghlands National Park, Nova Scotia

For me I was taken by the physical challenge of just seeing if I could actually ride 190 miles and hills in faraway Cape Breton.  As those who know Hannah will not surprised, she wanted to push herself beyond her everyday boundaries.

The Maritime Provinces of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia

The Maritime Provinces of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia

We are country mice.  Getting away is our “go to” choice.  When we travel, we often choose the mountain West, coastal California away from LA and SF, and the Maritime Provinces of Canada.

There is no time like the present.  How much longer will we be able to do such physical challenges?  My Phoenix, Arizona elementary school principal, John Laidlaw, said, Tomorrow never comes.  Chew on that while you carpe your diem.

Let’s be honest.  The cool factor plays into much of the challenges I take on.  It seemed cool to run a marathon so I ran the Fiesta Bowl Marathon in 1981.  It seemed cool to visit all 50 states as a family (49 down with Hawaii to go!).  And it seemed cool to learn how to juggle and now I am hired out for parties (Not really, but I can juggle).  Certainly it being cool is not enough of a reason by itself, but it is cool to say we’ve biked the Cabot Trail.

Lastly this trip gave us an opportunity to stay at B&Bs where we could toast our day’s ride with a glass of Shiraz, interact with some local Cape Bretoners, and have a family home breakfast before we hit the road.

Beginning the assault of North Mountain

Beginning the assault of North Mountain

Fitness.  As over-60 athletes, we have been exercising for 40 some years.  Not uber-exercisers, we just put in the daily work.  The downside of running for 30 years is that our knees have said no mas to any more running.  The upside is that as over-65 athletes we are now “going to the gym” fit.

I did have right knee issues after both the second and third days of biking 7 to 8 hours.  That said, each morning after, I could ride again just fine.  Once the entire ride was done, it was three to four weeks before my right knee felt totally right and six weeks before my energy returned to its pre-ride level.

Mountains.  French and North Mountain in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park are beasts.  They are more than two miles of long, steady 11 to 13% climbs.  We did walk up part of North Mountain with our bikes.  To train for these steep grades, we did not seek out the highest mountains in Maine.  We biked some local hills and left it at that.

Camping or Bed and Breakfasts?

For us, it is B&Bs with a queen bed and breakfast each morning before we hit the road.  We stayed in four B&Bs and the reviews are below.

A4 Baddeck Riverside B&B sign

Baddeck Riverside B&B in Baddeck, Cape Breton – $90 Laverne, the innkeeper, is par excellence; she has personality, spunk, and a sweetness; we felt like old friends right away.  For privacy, it can’t be beat as it is a one room B&B.  There is an additional room, even two, to let, but that’s only if everyone knows each other.  The bathroom is spacious; there’s an expansive bedroom view of the Baddeck River.  This B&B is four miles from the Cabot Trail out a rural road, but well worth the drive.  Bikes can be conveniently stowed in their barn.

We rest after the first day on the Cabot Trail

On the Cabot Trail in Cheticamp, Cape Breton

L’Auberge Doucet Inn, Cheticamp, Cape Breton – $85 + tax – With eleven rooms it is more motel than B&B right on the Cabot Trail.  The private bathroom and spacious interior make it feel luxuorious. Since we were preseason, they upgraded our room to one with a king bed which had room for our bikes.  There is a café rather than a dining room for breakfast; we ordered off a small menu.  With an outside deck that looks across the bay to Cheticamp Island, it was ideal for that evening glass of wine.

Hannah with tomorrow night's dinner in front of the Country Haven B&B in Cape North, Nova Scotia

Hannah at the Country Haven B&B in Cape North, Nova Scotia

Country Haven B&B, Cape North, Cape Breton – $80 – In this family home with two B&B rooms, it is quite private with a modern bathroom and access to their comfortable living room.  Andrea’s Restaurant (4 of 4 stars) on the Cabot Trail itself is conveniently located 100 yards down the hill.  To supplement breakfast these innkeepers had a side table with cereals, especially helpful for the energy demands of bicyclists.  They adjusted the breakfast time when we got up early.

Leaving Pamela's B&B in light rain

Pamela’s B&B on the final morning of our four day ride on the Cabot Trail

Pamela’s B&B, St. Ann’s Cape Breton – $70  – Pamela and Donald are a likeable couple who asked us when we wanted breakfast rather than offering a specific range of breakfast serving times.  With two rooms for guests, the one bathroom needed to be shared.  And the small tub has only a hand held nozzle so getting a good soaking shower after a day on the road was not easy.

Along the Margaree River Valley to the Gulf of St. Lawrence

Along the Margaree River Valley to the Gulf of St. Lawrence on the Cabot Trail

Seasonal Timing. By biking during the first week in June, we took advantage of pre-season rates at the B&Bs.  Since there is far less road traffic at that time, Hannah and I were able to ride side by side for 97% of our ride.  There is a peace and calm to be found on the island of Cape Breton during the preseason.

Hannah rides the Cabot Trail along the seacoast of Cape Breton

Hannah with panniers packed on the Cabot Trail along the seacoast of Cape Breton

Suitable clothing and biking gear.  Temperatures during the first week of June can be mornings in the 40s and daily highs in the 50s.  That said, our first two days on the road were 75F.   We were prepared with sweatshirts, biking tights, jackets, and gloves.  Rain can come at any time so our ponchos were a must.

Crossing the Ingonish River with Cape Smokey Mountain in the background

A good sport and fun-loving

We each took all that would fit into two panniers (bicycle saddle bags).  We wore biking shorts, black biking tights, long sleeve tee shirts, sweatshirt (Hannah two jackets), reflective yellow vest, and Merrill sandals for biking.  I had extra dry-fit Under Armour-type shirts, socks and underwear, open toe sandals and extra shorts for the evening.  Each morning I liberally applied Bag Balm to my thighs.

Biking tools?  We had an Allen wrench for adjustments and spare tires and tools for changing flats. With only one bike shop in Cheticamp, small vehicle repair shops may be able to fix tires as they did for us on Prince Edward Island last year.  If we did break down irreparably, we were going to hitchhike; there were locals with pick-up trucks to transport our bikes and us, if need be.  We never did test this theory.

Find someone compatible to ride with.  For us, the experience was heightened and made legendary by biking with each other.  For me, the ride doesn’t happen without Hannah.

Descending Cape Smokey Mountain

Descending Cape Smokey Mountain in five minutes

Sense of adventure.  If you look to experience what you have no idea that you might experience, this may be the ride for you.  Are you curious and wonder about the people beyond your geographical area?  This may be the ride for you.  Are you resilient and have faith that you will find a way when things don’t go as planned, then this may be the ride for you.

Take four days, five, even six or seven to complete your ride.  Be at one with the road.  More commonly, people drive the Cabot Trail.  Maybe that is your cup of tea.  Our cup had two wheels, each other, and the wind at our backs.

When biking long distances, know thyself and thy limits.  Be prepared.

Dan and Hannah Bike the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia   Day 4 of 4

cabot trail map 3

Awaking a little after 6A at Pamela’s B&B in St. Ann’s, Cape Breton, we are pumped for our final day on the Cabot Trail.  With only 34 kilometres of biking to complete the 300 of the Trail, we feel like we have it made in the shade.  We are as cool as the other side of the pillow.  As I peek behind the bedroom curtain, I see that clouds and fog have descended down the mountain to the backyard of the B&B. Pleased that my debilitating right leg cramps of yesterday are just a memory, I’m ready to rock and roll on the roads of Nova Scotia.

After three days of six to eight hours in the bicycle saddle, we look forward to a simple few hours of coastal bike riding back to Baddeck, Nova Scotia where we began our trek three mornings ago.  Breakfast is simple; pancakes and bacon for me (I give the pig to Hannah) while Hannah has cheesy scrambled eggs and toast.

Leaving Pamela's B&B in light rain

Leaving Pamela’s B&B in light rain

Packing is quick and easy since we have brought only what we can fit into each of our two panniers.  After yesterday’s afternoon rain, we’ll put our gloves and rain ponchos near the top of these saddle bags for easy access in case of more rain.  As we step out into what we thought was just a dense fog, light rain is falling and out come our ponchos.  Even if the rain were to be bone-soaking, we still should arrive before noon.

Hannah heading for Baddeck on the Cabot Trail on an early June Thursday

Hannah heading for Baddeck on the Cabot Trail on the first Thursday in June

Following Hannah on the very small paved part of the shoulder of the Cabot Trail, I push my sweatshirt sleeves above the arms of my poncho so as to keep them from getting wetter; I settle into a steady pace on this 58F morning.  Always most concerned about being cold, Hannah has three layers beneath her poncho, biking tights, and two pairs of gloves.

Rain or shine, we roll on

Rain or shine, we roll on

For the fourth day on the road, we have very little vehicular traffic so Hannah and I ride side by side with her closer to the edge.  After getting thumped by North Mountain on Day 2 (see blog of June 21, 2014) and hitting paydirt with Wally and Phyllis on Cape Smokey Mountain on Day 3 (see blog of June 28, 2014), we look forward to a morning of relatively level coastal riding along the Great Bras D’Or channel.

Hannah along the Bras d'Or

Hannah along the Bras d’Or channel

What would normally be a spectacular ride along the coastline is just a ride in a fog bank between evergreens with the spray coming up from Hannah’s back tire.  Having experienced spectacular for three days, we accept what the weather gods give us this morning.  It can pour and pour and we will just marshal on for the Baddeck Riverside B&B, returning to Laverne and Gordon’s place.

D6 D on trail in poncho

Since it’s a warm rain Hannah feels no morning chill.  Genetically sunny, Hannah pedals on as she has for three breathtaking days on the Cabot Trail.

The last 15 kilometres on the Trans-Canada Highway

The last 15 kilometres on the Trans-Canada Highway

Turning right onto the Canadian Highway with its wide shoulders 20 kilometres from Baddeck, we are just smiling.  Our bicycle chains and gears have gone 300 kilometres without a breakdown.  The flat tires of last year’s ride on the Confederation Trail in Prince Edward Island are just a distant memory.  Our bicycle steeds have come through like California Chrome in the Kentucky Derby.

D9A river scene on trail

We are bowed but not beaten.  We ride quietly and pay humble homage to the Cabot Trail in all its glory.  It was tougher, much more challenging than we had imagined.  But we made it.  The Cabot Trail has exacted a physical toll for riding her roads.  We have paid in full and have had the ride of a lifetime.

Gordon, Laverne, and Hannah

 

About 1030A, after two plus hours of biking, we exit the Cabot Trail and get to Big Farm Road to the Baddeck Riverside B&B; there, innkeepers Laverne and Gordon, welcome us as if old friends.

 

Tonight we will go to the Baddeck, Nova Scotia public library to hear Laverne talk about her hike of the Camino in Spain.  (The El Camino de Santiago is the 790 kilometre (~470 mile) pilgrimage route in northern Spain to honor James, the apostle, whose remains are said to be buried there.   Martin Sheen stars in the 2010 movie, The Way, about the Camino.)

Camino map

At one point during her presentation, Laverne introduces us as her overnight B&B guests who have just finished biking the Cabot Trail.  Surprisingly, the audience of 30 Cape Bretoners loudly, collectively oohs and aahs in appreciation.  I am a little bit shocked.  As hearty daughters and sons of 19th century Scots, they are impressed with our ride when I thought they might think anyone can bike the Trail.

After Laverne’s media presentation in front of thirty of her neighbors (Baddeck has a winter population of 700), her husband Gordon surprises us by inviting us back to their living room for a glass of his chilled homemade red wine.  They take us in like family.

The Mainiacs with Laverne

The Mainiacs with Laverne

Later that night Laverne recites her own poem, the Hall Lamp. (She recites from, literally, beneath the hall lamp on the landing of the stairs to the second floor.)  Here words speak of the family history that connects her life with generations past and the joy and love she has for Gordon.  Touched that we have been included in such intimacy, we have come to know what is good in Cape Breton.

So what’s next for us?  What about going to Spain to hike the Camino in all it’s nearly 500 miles of glory?

Nah, Hannah keeps our adventures in North America and that’s just fine with me.

Dan and Hannah Bike the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia   Day 3 of 4

cabot trail map 3

Walking to the bathroom just before dawn, I find that my tender right knee shows none of the balkiness and cramping from yesterday’s ride.  With 113 kilometres (~70 miles) of biking today, I can do the math: we have eight give-or-take hours in the bicycle saddle and I need two good knees.  Fortunately we have none of the steep mountains of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park today.

Dan and Hannah in front of the Country Haven B&B ready to roll

Dan and Hannah in front of the Country Haven B&B ready to roll

With my panniers lined with plastic to protect my clothes from the forecasted drizzle (Hannah’s yellow panniers are waterproof), we have overcast skies after two sunny days in the 70s.  Relieved that our monster day through the mountains is over, we know that a long day in the saddle this Wednesday means we have only 30 some kilometres of biking tomorrow.

Heading up South Mountain on a chilly, foggy morning

Heading up South Mountain on a chilly, foggy morning

Pedaling out of the wee town of Cape North, we reenter the Cape Breton Highlands National Park.  Our first ascent is South Mountain, a welcome change to its big brother, North Mountain, who bullied us yesterday.  Chilly and damp, our morning ride requires sweatshirts and jackets with Hannah in her biking tights and I in my biking shorts.  At the beginning of the biking day, we steadily climb the 6% grade of South Mountain.  Now, whenever we have a climb, we say, It’s not North Mountain. (See last week’s blog [June 21, 2014] about the ass kicking North Mountain gave us.)

There is still a morning chill in the air entering the national park

There is still a morning chill in the air entering the national park

How do we pass the time riding side by side on the Cabot Trail for hours on end?  We search for meaty topics and dive in.  Today we talk about what we want when in conversation with others.  Often conversations begin with the sharing of information.  Clearly, that can be an important prelude to meaningful dialogue.  What takes conversation to the next level is the back-and-forthness of genuine interest and curiosity.  Thankfully, the distraction of this conversation takes us kilometres down the Cabot Trail.

Taking a break near St. Ann's Bay

Taking a break near St. Ann’s Bay

By noon, we arrive in Ingonish but sadly learn that there is no Coop grocery store in town for salads and fruit for our lunch.  Buying two bananas for a dollar, we split one and head for Cape Smokey Mountain; we’ll lunch on peanut butter on bagels and last night’s pizza once we find a picnic table.

Crossing the Ingonish River with Cape Smokey Mountain in the background

Crossing the Ingonish River with Cape Smokey Mountain in the background

At North Bay, we pass Ski Cape Smokey Mountain, which should have been our first clue that this part of the ride will be no walk in the park.  Though the guide says we have 5% grade over three kilometres, we take the guide with a barrel of salt since it has erred before on its calculations of the grades of mountains in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park; we will soon learn that it has erred again.  We climb and climb some more.  It’s a persistent, unrelenting climb on a cloudy, overcast day.

Out of nowhere we have another major climb, albeit slow and steady; but unexpected on a day when we thought our biggest challenges would be just pedaling 70 miles along the east coast of Cape Breton.  With no place for lunch on the side of the road, we bike on for the next hour.

At the summit, we find a picnic area atop of old Cape Smokey after what I am guessing has been a relentless climb of 12 to 15 kilometres.  Cycling in on the gravel road to the picnic tables, we have been on the road for nearly six hours with miles to go before we sleep.  While the greying overcast looms, Wally and Phyllis from the States welcome us over to lunch with them.

Hannah with Phyllis and Wally on Cape Smokey Mountain

Hannah with Phyllis and Wally on Cape Smokey Mountain

Over the next hour, we learn that Wally and Phyllis are the daily double of friendship: they are interesting and interested.  A winning combination in couples.  We connect immediately over the joys and challenges of raising children, biking throughout the Northeast and Canada, our life journeys, and eventually learn they have a child with leukemia, as did we.  Interestingly, how when you feel safe with others and there is mutual interest, these stories of the heart come out.  We hug them good-bye as if we are old friends.

Descending Cape Smokey Mountain

Descending Cape Smokey Mountain

While they drive off, we know that we still have three hours of biking til we arrive at Pamela’s B&B in St. Ann’s.  The descent of Cape Smokey Mountain to Wreck Cove (ominous name indeed?) is something out of downhill racer.  Braking most of the time, we descend the mountain in less than five minutes when it took us more than an hour to climb the other side.

Our rain gear comes out.

Our rain gear comes out.

Making good time on the level coastal ride and feeling good, I then feel the first rain drop on my left hand just after 3p.  Then another.  A steady drizzle forces us to the side of the road to change into our rain ponchos.  By this evening, 90% of our bike riding of the Cabot Trail will have been completed so we just push on.  We can do what it takes to get to Pamela’s as we pass through Skir Dhu (Gaelic), Little River, and North Shore.  (These “towns” are, in fact, a few houses on either side of the Cabot Trail.)

Moving on down the Cabot Trail

Moving on down the Cabot Trail

The showery rain goes from drizzle to serious rain and back to showers.  Without roadside kilometre signs, we have no idea how far we have gone, but every pedal gets us one meter closer to our night’s B&B.  Beyond the point of wanting to take pictures with my iPhone, we pass the occasional farm house and craft shop, but our focus is the rain spitting road ahead.

Told by Pamela that we will turn at a long white church, we think it’s got to be close since we have pedaled for two hours since our Cape Smokey picnic.  Finding it, I dismount and walk to the door of the church with my right knee cramping and barking.  No one is about, and I hobble back to my bike and painfully remount.  I will pay for having dismounted.

When looking back down the road from where we have come, we see a sign that indicates we have come 91 kms from Cape North.  Doing the simple math, we calculate that we still have 22 kilometres (~ 14 miles) to go.  Crushed and dispirited, I was hoping we were so much closer.  The pain shoots up and down my right leg and hovers around my knee; I say to Hannah I can’t go on.  You go ahead.  She suggests I get back on the bike and see what happens.  I say, Please ride ahead and have Pamela come back to get me.

Hannah pedals on and I give it a shot and put my feet in my toe clips and let the left leg carry the load.  Fortunately, I find it easier to bike than walk.  The rain having stopped, I decide to pedal as far as I can until I can go no more.  The faster I go the less painful my right knee is.  So I go for it.  In minutes, I race pass Hannah hoping to just make it as close to Pamela’s as I can before keeling over.  My right knee/leg cramp doesn’t allow me to pedal on the downhills, but it goes along for the ride when my left leg takes on the hills.

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The Journey's End - Pamela's B&B

The Journey’s End – Pamela’s B&B

Having no idea where Pamela’s is, I make it the ride of my life.  One pedal after another.  And then, as life deals me good cards again, I spot the Pamela’s B&B sign some 8 kilometres (~5 miles) this side of the village center of St. Ann’s.  My thirty minutes of bent-on-hell biking gets me to the uphill driveway leading to Pamela’s.

Limping, I am greeted by Pamela and Donald.  Parking my bike under the wood pile tree, I wait for Hannah, who will arrive ten minutes later.

I can’t believe I made it – that we made it!  Thankfully I won’t have to get on the bike for another 15 hours after biking 106 kilometres over the last eight hours.  We are so fortunate the rain held off til after our ski slope descent of Cape Smokey; so fortuante that Pamela’s was on this side of St.  Ann’s; and so very thankful that we only have 34 kms tomorrow to Baddeck to complete the Cabot Trail.

After warm showers, we toast our good fortune in the B&B living room, and feel like we have basically finished the ride with 90% of the 300 kilometres of the Cabot Trail in the books.  We do await what surprises lie ahead tomorrow- our last day on the road.

Dan and Hannah Bike the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia Day 2 of 4

Cape Breton Highlands National Park

Cape Breton Highlands National Park

We don’t sleep well.  With the serious mountains of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park looming, we wake before 5A as dawn streams in around the shades this third of June.  Uncertainty lies before us.  We have no idea what to expect and have little choice but to pedal on into the mountains as our Hyundai Elantra is 60 miles back in Baddeck.  We like to think we are resourceful in the face of such physical challenges.  Well, let’s just see if we can walk the walk?

I slice up pancakes for breakfast while Hannah gets her bacon fix with eggs over hard.  Packed and pedaling down the Cabot Trail through Cheticamp, an Acadian town of 3500, Hannah in her biking tights and two jackets and I in my biking shorts and sweatshirt, see the distant mountains and wonder what lies ahead.

The highlands trail begins

The highlands trail begins

At the visitor center thirty minutes later, we pay $6.80 each as seniors to learn what obstacles we will turn into opportunities.  After the wife of an older couple takes our picture at the park entrance, he says, I was born on this spot.  You got to have a good heart [to bike these roads].  It turns out I find comfort in his words since good hearts are what we have after exercising at the gym all winter long.  Now let’s see how our mountain climbing legs measure up.

Pannier packed, Hannah is ready to rock and roll

Panniers packed, Hannah is ready to rock and roll

Nicely paved, the roads lead us along the rolling coastal hills above the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  Told the first climb is the steepest but shortest at a kilometre with a 15% grade, we await its arrival as we pedal on.

Before we know it, we shift to a low gear as I follow Hannah up the steep cliffside.  Head down, aware of every inch of the pavement beneath me, I focus on one pedal at a time.  And voila, we are at the top.  That wasn’t so bad. What’s the big deal? we think.  Of course, that was the baby brother of French and North Mountains.  Still, one down, two to go.

Coastal road skirting French Mountain

Coastal road skirting French Mountain

After cruising down the other side of this first climb, we see the ribbon of highway (thank you Woody Guthrie for that image) ahead of us.  French Mountain is to our right, the sea to our left, but it doesn’t seem overwhelming at first glance.  Are we missing something?

Hannah high above the Gulf of St. Lawrence

Hannah high above the Gulf of St. Lawrence

After fifteen minutes of climbing, we stop to take in the coastline at a parking area vista.  Easily remounting our bikes, we take the S curves on the side of the mountain and think, An eight per cent grade doesn’t seem so bad.

Roadside snow

Roadside snow

A photo op by the snow patch provides us with another break, but we are not yet winded or heavy-legged.  It’s actually kind of cool scaling this mountain on bikes.  Few cars pass us this preseason late spring day; the ones that do, give us a wide berth.

Spotting the French Mountain sign at the top, we are feeling, quite literally, on top of the world having biked for some 50 minutes.  Checking the roadside sign we are stunned to learn that our climb of six kilometres (nearly four miles) with an 8% grade really has been a climb up an 11% grade.  Well, that’s very cool.  Two down, one to go.

It turns out French Mountain was steeper than we thought.

It turns out French Mountain was steeper than we thought.

 

 

Hannah atop French Mountain with the flat highlands ahead

Hannah atop French Mountain with the flat highlands ahead

Flat highland biking restores our energy and refreshes our legs.  Taking a break at the overlook to the Gulf of St. Lawrence on MacKenzie Mountain, we fortunately only have to descend this monster of a mountain.

Ready for the descent of MacKenzie Mountain

Ready for the descent of MacKenzie Mountain

At 25-30 mph, we sail down towards Pleasant Bay on dry pavement that has me braking 70% of the time.  A local café waitress cheerfully allows us to fill our water bottles on this day of full sun in the mid 70s.  Having taken four hours of steady biking to go 26 miles, we are not breaking any land speed records at 6.5 mph.  On the plus side, we have just 18 miles to go.  On the flip side, North Mountain stands between us and our B&B in Cape North.

Beginning the assault of North Mountain

Beginning the assault of North Mountain

The advertised picnic area mocks us. It is in the woods down an embankment near a creek that has a summer long mosquito and black fly convention in progress.  Driven away, we finish our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches sitting in the gravel at the side of the road.  Right now food is fuel; it’s energy for our bodily machines.  North Mountain is right there, staring us in the face.  We are at the feet of the monster with our bikes of 21 gears ready to attack.

Hannah giving it her all on the North Mountain climb

There is no prelude, no preamble to North Mountain as the climb begins immediately; we press hard on our pedals to climb the steep esses of the road.  Already, we are in for the battle of our lives.  Going so slowly, we feel like our bikes would fall over or tip backwards at any moment if we go any slower.  I with a tender right knee and Hannah with a surgically repaired left leg push and push the pedals some more with power and conviction and hope.  To maintain her focus, Hannah spells out her grandsons’ names with each pedal stroke – O-W-E-N, M-A-X-W-E-L-L – on her climb to the top.

It's not getting any easier

It’s not getting any easier

At the one kilometre mark, with three kilometres to go, the task is daunting.  We are wavering; doubt creeps into our minds if we can really make it to the top at all.  We continue to pedal so slowly, and the mountain top is nowhere in sight.  And then, we have no more to give!  We dismount, grab the handlebars with the left hand, push on the seat with the right, and plod up the mountain.  We have no choice.  North Mountain is kicking our butts and taking no prisoners.

In five minutes, we remount but pedal for just a few hundred yards before we dismount again. Still unbowed and unbloodied, we press on for the summit.

Again, the climb is steeper than we were told.

Again, the climb is steeper than we were told.

After three kilometres we arrive at a plateau and resaddle our bikes.  This has been the hardest physical test either of us has ever taken.  Arriving at the summit ten minutes later, we learn that the incline has been 13% not the advertised 10%.

Though we have been manhandled by the mountain, we still have 20 kilometres to our B&B in Cape North.

Though Hannah’s left leg is fine, my right knee is tender and cramping.  Pedaling high above the Aspy River, I favor my left leg as the right is aching and just along for the ride.  I have little choice but to pedal on, however painful, for the next hour to Cape North.  The headwind from the north doesn’t make it any easier as the temperature drops 20 degrees to 50F.  Once in tee shirts, we are now bundled with jackets and sweatshirts.

Resting mid-way on the descent of North Mountain

Resting mid-way on the descent of North Mountain

With nothing left to give, I focus on one pedal at a time.  It’s a long slog to the Country Haven B&B, but the innkeepers Kathleen and Alfred take us in; a shower soothes me from top to bottom.  After thirty minutes lying in bed, we uncork the bottle of Pinot Noir we brought over the mountain.  Sitting in their living room in triumph, Hannah repeats three or four times, I can’t believe we did it.  We have slayed the beast.

Feeling well enough to walk the 100 yards down the hill to Angie’s Restaurant for a fantastic 18” veggie pizza, we meet up again with the six women from Saskatoon.  One tells me gleefully that she had no intention of biking up North Mountain and just started walking her bike up.  A maintenance truck approached her and the driver asked how are you doing to which she responded, it’s a struggle.  Are you in distress, he asked?   No, it’s just a struggle.  Well, only if you are in distress, can I take you and your bike to the top of North Mountain.  I am in distress! she agreed and got the ride of her life.

Hannah with tomorrow night's dinner in front of the Country Haven B&B in Cape North, Nova Scotia

Hannah with tomorrow night’s dinner in front of the Country Haven B&B in Cape North, Nova Scotia

Our monster day is in the books and now our big mileage day of 113 kilometres (nearly 70 miles) looms tomorrow. We wonder what the 100 miles of biking over the last two days will mean to these bodies of ours.

After two fantastic days of warm and sunny weather, drizzle is in the forecast.  Still with the monster mountains behind us, it feels like it is all downhill.  We sleep well, but we couldn’t be more wrong about what lies ahead.

Dan and Hannah Bike the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia Day 1 of 4

cabot trail map 3

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.

A1 D and H Katahdin

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.

A3 Nova Scotia 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.

A4 Baddeck Riverside B&B sign

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.

300 kilometres to go!

300 kilometres 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.

Rolling onto the Trans-Canada Highway to start the Cabot Trail in Baddeck, Nova Scotia

Rolling onto the Trans-Canada Highway to start the Cabot Trail in Baddeck, Nova Scotia

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.

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Riding down the Cabot Trail on the Trans-Canada Highway

The Cabot Trail on the Trans-Canada Highway

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.

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With packed waterproof panniers, Hannah is ready for all the Cabot Trail has to give

With packed waterproof panniers, Hannah is ready for all the Cabot Trail has to give

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.

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Along the Margaree River Valley to the Gulf of St. Lawrence

Along the Margaree River Valley to the Gulf of St. Lawrence

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.

Hannah at the Gulf of St. Lawrence

Hannah at the Gulf of St. Lawrence

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.

Hannah rides the Cabot Trail along the seacoast of Cape Breton

Hannah rides the Cabot Trail along the seacoast of Cape Breton

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.)

Dan above the sea cliffs on the way to Cheticamp, Nova Scotia

Dan above the sea cliffs on the way to Cheticamp, Nova Scotia

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.

Bonjour

Bonjour

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.

We rest after the first day on the Cabot Trail

We rest after the first day on the Cabot Trail

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.