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.

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

Clothing

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!