Dan and Hannah Hike to the Waterfalls of the Macintosh Brook Trail in Cape Breton

After hiking to the cliffs above the Gulf of St Lawrence on the Skyline Trail in the Cape Breton Highlands Provincial National Park earlier in the morning, midday we take to the park road reminiscing of biking adventures past on the Cabot Trail.  How five years ago we barely pedaled up MacKenzie Mountain and later had to walk our hybrid bikes up the final half mile of the granddaddy of them all, North Mountain.


Cape Breton Highlands National Park – Five years we spent our first night in Cheticamp, our second night in Cape North, and our third night in St. Ann’s.

MacKenzie was a four kilometre climb at an 11% grade that five years ago had Hannah and me in our lowest gear pedaling successfully to the summit.  Enjoy the excerpt and pictures from our bike climb that day.

I don’t sleep well.  With the serious mountains of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park looming, Hannah and I wake before five AM 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?

Sky CT along the cliffs

Sky H biking up

Sky D at steep signs

Sky H with panniers

Today, after passing the marina at Pleasant Bay, we remember the unrelenting climb to North Mountain, our personal Waterloo.  After a kilometre of effort, we said no mas and could bike no more.  Dismounting but not defeated, we pushed our bikes to the mountaintop knowing that successfully biking up two out of three these bad boy mountains ain’t bad (homage to Meatloaf).

Midday, we have no such drama as our perky Prius takes the mountains as you might expect a car would do on paved road!  After lunching at a picnic table at the trailhead of the Macintosh Brook trail, we enter the forest for the second of our three hikes this day.

Mac B brook itself


Mac B D on trail by brookA mere twenty minutes to the falls, the level trail along the brook is rocky and rooted, but not challenging in the least.  Tree-covered the entire way, the wide path takes us to a waterfalls fifty feet away.  Our grandsons Owen and Max would romp to these falls in half the time.  Enjoy the video.

Mac B H at falls

Though modest, the trail gives us forty minutes of exercise and a few thousand more steps on our Fitbits.  We are living the vacation hikers dream on this island paradise that seems within sight of Greenland (a much coveted land mass these days).

Click here for the Day 2 blog of our biking the Cabot Trail.

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.


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 Prepare to Bike the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia

cabot trail map 3

There is a dynamic duo, a Batman and Robin, of Canadian Maritime biking trails.  Batman is the Confederation Trail of Prince Edward Island that we pedaled for 273 kilometres (~175 miles) last June.  Robin is the Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia.  The trail was named after Italian explorer John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto) who reached these shores in 1497, sailing on a mission for King Henry VII of England.

Though a little longer at 300 kilometres (~ 190 miles), the Cabot Trail has some significant differences from the bucolic Confederation Trail.

PEI map

The Confederation Trail is a secluded former railroad bed of crushed, hardpan gravel with never a grade in elevation more than 2%.  That’s easy going, side-by-side-talking kind of biking.  On the other hand the Cabot Trail is an entirely paved road that we will share with cars and trucks.  On the plus side, the paved Cabot Trail will allow us to pedal faster (~12 miles per hour) than the 8 to 9 mph we averaged on the gravelly Confederation Trail.

Cabot Trail

Cabot Trail

That said, there are parts of the Cabot Trail through the Cape Breton Highlands National Park that have sustained climbs at grades above 10%.  Some grades even reach 15%.  That’s Billy goat stuff.  To accommodate those hills we will take four days (anywhere from 25 to 65 miles per day) to complete this loop ride.

Our planning begins with finding bed and breakfasts conveniently located along the Cabot Trail.  On the road, we like to be welcomed “home” by locals after a day of bicycling.  A big country breakfast the next morning is just the ticket (meal ticket that is) before we burn the calories on the road.  As over-60 bike riders, Hannah and I don’t sleep on the ground in tents; don’t sleep in hostels with others in the room; avoid double beds.  Regally, we opt for a queen or king bed.

We’ve lined up these overnights.   (Click on these links below to learn more about each one.)

  1. First and last nights, Baddeck Riverside B & B, Baddeck, Nova Scotia
  2. Night #2 – Auberge Doucet Inn, Cheticamp, Nova Scotia
  3. Night #3 – Country Haven B & B, Cape North (near Dingwall), Nova Scotia
  4. Night #4 – Pamela’s B & B, near Indian Brook, Nova Scotia
Coastal Cabot Trail

Coastal Cabot Trail

Baddeck, Nova Scotia is a common starting point for the circumambulation (or circumbicyulation?) of the northern part of Cape Breton Island.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let me set the stage for this highland adventure.

nova scotia 1


Getting to Nova Scotia: We’ll drive 360 miles from our home in York, Maine to Fredericton, New Brunswick, we will stay overnight with my University of New Hampshire buddy Bill and his wife Karen.   From there it is still six to seven hours of driving through much of rural New Brunswick and into even more pastoral Nova Scotia to the Cape Breton Island.  Arriving Sunday afternoon, we will scout out Baddeck and toast the ride with an evening glass of Malbec.

Four Days of Biking

CT preview picture 2

Day 1 (Monday) – Baddeck to Cheticamp  91 kilometres (~57 miles)

As the one-time summer home of Alexander Graham Bell, Baddeck is a little burg of 700.  There is nary a bike shop there, despite it being the traditional starting and ending point for this 190 mile loop for bicyclists.  We leave Baddeck, crossing Cape Breton from east to west and then head north on the coast of the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the town of Cheticamp.  We choose the counter-clockwise direction to take advantage of the prevailing winds so as to have them at our back on our second day through the mountains.

Elevation of Cabot Trail

Day 2 – (Tuesday) – Cheticamp to Cape North 75 kilometres (~47 miles) 

Cheticamp is home to Velo Max Cycling, the one bike shop on the Cabot Trail.  This is one bad-ass day.  We’ve got the mountains of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park staring us down.  We will encounter climbs of 15% grade (click on the above scary graphic), such as we have only seen in the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.  We will see just how tough we are.  We do have Trek bicycles with 21 gears.

CT 3 day 3 to the north

Day 3 – (Wednesday) – Cape North to near Indian Brook 101 kilometres (~63 miles). 

We leave from Cape North, the northern most point of our Cabot Trail loop.  We’d like to divide the remaining 89 miles of our last two days more evenly, but bed and breakfasts are few and far between.  Rather than make the third day from Cape North to Ingonish Beach just 26 miles of biking, we have our longest riding day.  Going into the prevailing winds, we think we are man and woman enough for the challenge.

Day 4 – Thursday – Near Indian Brook to Baddeck 43 kilometres (~26 miles)

It’s a sweet short day on level terrain after the hills of the previous two days.

CT day 2 along the coast

The training

Fact is, after one cold and snowy winter, its mid-April before we can bike outside even once a week.  How do you prepare for 15% grades?  One, we are not spending a week in the Alps to train.  Two, we’ve been exercising at our local Coastal Fitness gym five days per week on ellipticals, recumbent bicycles, and treadmills throughout the year.

Dan at Coastal Fitness pedaling his heart out

Dan on the bicycle recumbent at Coastal Fitness pedaling his little heart out

We are also upping the ante outside this month of May as well.  We’ll bike outside every other day on the hills of Bog Road and the Fall Mill Road Extension here in York.  Though we don’t know their grade, these hills require us to get in the lowest gear and often stand when pedaling to make it to the top.

During the first week of June, the sun sets well after 8P so we have 12 hours plus of daylight after breakfast to complete the 25 to 65 miles on the roads of the Cabot Trail. We are not too proud to walk our bikes up a serious mountain.  Hannah’s surgically-repaired left tibia remains an unknown and gives us pause.

What if it rains?

We’ll adjust.  We might get wet.  Mist and drizzle we can do.  Flat out rain means a day off from the road.  Maybe it’s a five or six day ride.

CT day 4 along the coast

Bike preparation

Readers of this blog know we had quite the challenge with flat tires when we biked the Confederation Trail last year (click on Canada to the left of this text to see that Dan and Hannah biking adventure).  We’ll have our tires checked and thorough tune-ups at our local Berger’s Bike Shop.  Extra tubes and a small tool kit to be sure.  We have  heard talk that after this brutal Nova Scotia winter bike riders need to be wary of anti-tank ditches (i.e., potholes).  Packing all our clothes and lunches in panniers, we always have our Visa card as a safety net.  We are indeed counting on the kindness of strangers.  For heaven’s sakes, they are Canadians.

Dan's bike with panniers

Dan’s bike with panniers


Nova Scotia has had our Maine winter and more so this year.  Kathleen of Country House B & B in Cape North says we will probably see snow on mountains in early June.  We’ll have biking shorts, and tights if necessary, fluorescent vests, and lots of Bag Balm for those bicycle seat sensitive areas.

Cabot Trail, here we come!