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Nova Scotia's Masterpiece
I can taste the sea in the air I breathe, I hear it lapping at the shore below the trail, but I can't see it through the thick fog. The trail passes by a stack of lobster traps and an old fisherman's shed. Our guide uses the opportunity to explain the workings of the traps and a little about lobster fishing.
That first fog-enshrouded hike along Cheticamp Island served as the introduction to a week of walking, a week of natural and cultural immersion in the beauty of Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island. The journey, with a company called Country Walkers, would focus on walks in Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
Geologists say that Cape Breton originated as an island off the coast of Africa several hundred million years ago. The tectonic plate shifting and collisions as she made her way across the Atlantic have resulted in the raw natural beauty we observe today. Her exposed rock is some of the oldest on earth, and the rugged, tectonically crumpled hills are pressed right up against the ocean's edge, resulting in steep cliffs and boulder-strewn beaches. The Cabot Trail edges along this meeting of mountains and sea for one of the world's most scenic drives.
Cape Breton has two distinct cultures flourishing on her shores: French-Acadian and Scottish. Her isolation has served to preserve these two cultures side-by-side for the past 200 years.
The French-Acadians settled Cheticamp in 1755, after being expelled from Acadia by the British. (Acadia was a French colony that covered part of today's Maritime Provinces of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick.) Scottish tenant farmers came a little later, being driven from their Scottish Highland homes by landlords consolidating land holdings for sheep farming. The pressures which formed these island cultures have served to produce some of the world's best music, including many international musical artists such as Natalie MacMaster and Ashley MacIsaac, along with untold local favorites. The music expresses the isolation and hardships faced by the islanders, expressing the resiliency of the human spirit--that people will make it through the difficult circumstances of life.
We spent an evening in Cheticamp enjoying the music of Donny LeBlanc, a local favorite. (Evenings are spent soaking up the local culture.) Donny's French-Acadian style sounds very similar to the Cajun music found in Louisiana, and no wonder considering the common heritage in the British expulsion (expelled from Acadia, some stayed in Cheticamp, others made their way to Louisiana). "Cajun" is a corruption of the word, "Acadian." Music is taken very seriously on Cape Breton.
Fresh fish dominates the dockside air of Cheticamp, a small Acadian fishing village on the western shore of Cape Breton. Cheticamp was our base of stay for the first few days of the trip. From Cheticamp we would drive along the Cabot Trail to the trail-heads for our hiking excursions. We followed a daily schedule of a hike after breakfast, and another hike or two after lunch, walking 3-12 miles a day. We hiked each day, rain or shine. (I recommend bringing along rain gear.) Our guide offered us a barrage of information on the flora and fauna we encountered along the trails.
Country Walkers uses local guides on all the company's trips. This ensures that the guide is thoroughly familiar with the area being covered. Our lead guide, Jean Timmons, had previously been a naturalist for Parks Canada (equivalent to the US National Park system). His knowledge as a naturalist is top-notch. His knowledge of the cultural history of the region is also pretty amazing. The hikes vary in length depending upon hike difficulty and the mood of the guests. Each hike is one of discovery--the abundant wildlife: from moose to snowshoe hares, to birds without number; the deep blue lakes and sea, the verdant green hillsides--the beauty of Cape Breton is astounding.
A favorite hike is the Benjies Lake trail. This lovely lake, located atop a hill, is a favorite stop for wildlife. Moose feed along the shallow lake edges in the evening dusk. We spent a good deal of time lakeside, taking in the scenery. Other hikes took us by tannin-stained, tea-colored streams.
I went expecting to experience the natural beauty of Cape Breton, by foot. I did that. However, I wasn't prepared for the overall educational experience. I left Cape Breton with a greater understanding of her people and her history, as well as a greater understanding of her natural history.
This mix of natural and cultural beauty demonstrates that Cape Breton is truly a masterpiece of creative forces--Nova Scotia's Masterpiece.
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Text and Photos Copyright Thomas R. Fletcher