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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.