Dan and Hannah Have Coffee with Laverne in Cape Breton

Coffee map york to baddeck

While Hannah finishes her shower upstairs at the Baddeck Riverside B&B, which sits in the far reaches of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, I head to the kitchen to chat up Laverne as she makes breakfast.  Encouraging me to pour a cup of coffee (regular), she and I talk of our families and the drive along the 300 kilometre (190 miles) Cabot Trail that Hannah and I will take today; it’s the same route we biked five years ago over four days.

Though a decafe drinker, I pour myself a full half cup (so the coffee stays warm) and settle in for conversation with Laverne.  You see, in June 2014, she welcomed us like family by having Hannah and me sit with her family for an evening glass of wine before our biking began.

Coffee blueberry pancakes

Blueberry pancakes a la Laverne

This morning, as she makes blueberry pancakes, we back and forth in conversation as I risk a second half cup of regular coffee, daredevil that I am, knowing that too much caffeine makes me jittery.  Throwing caution to the wind, I figure ‘what the hell’ as I feel at home in our conversation about hummingbirds, gardens, adult children, her two and our three, of complicated lives, and small town living.

Reveling in the morning and not thinking twice of how caffeine will later have its way with me, I pour a third half cup of coffee as Hannah seamlessly joins in.  It’s not so much the subjects but the feel of connection and sharing in personally meaningful conversation.

Cape G 5 H and Laverne

Hannah and Laverne

Ever the bon vivant, I have a piping fourth half cup then follow it with a fifth.  Morning coffee with friends is on the “A” list of things I love doing.  Throughout this time Laverne doesn’t know, and I never mention, that I usually drink just decafe.  I readily understand the consequences of my actions and take full responsibility.  Moments like these don’t come along every day.

Though I will have the buzz of caffeine and then its crash by late morning, not to mention the multiple pit stops on the road, I’m digging the morning that I don’t want to end.  In these moments of friendship, I’ll pay the price to keep this feeling going as long as possible.

Cleanse Beddeck River

The view from the front porch of the Baddeck Riverside B&B

You see, as I pour a sixth half cup, I feel a warmth of coming home 700 miles away from our place in York, Maine.

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 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.