Years ago I attended a concert by Rita McNeill at Rama Casino while visiting my stepmother in Ontario. The thing I remember most is how she turned a large concert hall into a homey kitchen party with stories about life in Cape Breton.
In my shameful geographic ignorance, I thought Cape Breton was in Newfoundland, and neither The Dude nor I knew it was an island. Following the no-nonsense voice of GPS Gertrude, with frequent references to our dog-eared atlas, we crossed a nondescript bridge called the Canso Causeway, which in comparison to Confederation Causeway, is like a worm to a snake, leaving mainland Nova Scotia for the magical island of Cape Breton.
Once arrived, Gertrude directed Big Dodge to the shorter inland route to Sydney, which parallels the shore of Bras d’Ors Lake. During the drive, I’m struck by the forests we pass and by how in each tiny town, even the ones with a smattering of houses, a large roadside church, old but immaculately kept and almost always white, guides the faithful to safe haven like a spiritual lighthouse. Maritimers appear more rooted in religion than we are in Lotusland. Is that why they’re all so friendly? Hmm…
Our campground in North Sydney is breathtaking at first sight, across a bridge spanning the narrows of a scenic channel stretching out to infinity on the ocean side. A towering red slash of rock overlooks the campground, where dynamite and the hacking of big machinery loosened thousands of tons of material to construct the causeway. A yellow back hoe sits among loose rocks at its base, next to a sign warning about falling rock. It’s like a camping lottery, nice location – chance of death by boulders.
(A quick aside for a pet peeve. Why do campgrounds advertise themselves as close to attractions when in reality they are a half hour’s drive from anything interesting?)
Our campground, though not close to any attractions except for an excellent seafood restaurant back across the bridge, is near the starting point for the Cabot Trail, a two-hundred kilometer-plus scenic drive around the circumference of the island. The road is a winding nightmare for those subject to car-sickness, full of hair-pin turns, breathtaking views, and numerous opportunities to purchase souvenirs.
It seems that every “artist” with a paintbrush, blowtorch or pile of wood has turned his/her home, garage, former outhouse into a quaint little shop with the prerequisite special tourist pricing, meaning expensive and an occasional bout of buyer’s remorse, especially when your Made-In-China, Puffin Clock, stops keeping time the first hour. Perhaps we are jaded at this point in our travels, immune to the vistas that the trail offers, but we are not awed by the drive. It is beautiful and if it had been the first stop on the adventure it may have made a bigger impression.
Something did impress. The humble puffin. Known as ‘clowns of the sea,’ puffins can spend up to five years without touching land. One sighting explains their clown status. Black and white, with plump bodies and thick red, yellow and black beaks, they bring a smile to a cynical travellers face. We replaced the clock in our poor broken puffin with a circular locket of a lighthouse. It resides, not on a great ocean but in a favoured place on our limited counter space.
We got close to the clowns on Donelda’s Puffin boat tour to Bird Island. Bird-watching boat tours are a big draw here. Donelda’s operates out of what vaguely resembles an old smoke shack. Donelda and her husband fish lobster in the area and rise at five in the morning to set and retrieve traps. They switch boats
for the tour, with Donelda as our plain-spoken guide and the taciturn lobster fishermen expertly maneuvering through the ocean. You’d want these two in your corner if the apocalypse hit.
Between throwing fish chum out to attract bald eagles for photo-ops, Donelda shares her knowledge of the rocky Island coast. The birds react to her sharp whistle, soaring above the boat before swooping to snatch their prize in flight.
“Follow the fish, not the bird,” Donelda commands.
A boatful of extended cell phones and cameras shift from the sky to the waves, capturing an empty sea or at best eagle tail feathers, as the bird heads for shore. Not to worry. It was a practice run.
“Focus on the fish,” Donelda says, no doubt silently noting that it is easier to train eagles than tourists.
Not surprisingly, given my limited photography skills, I miss the ‘money shot’ everyone else seems to be getting.
“There they are!” Donelda shouts, pointing to two soaring eagles off the port side, or maybe it was aft. I’m a bit hazy on my nautical terms. I just hope the boat doesn’t tip as well-fed tourists lean out the windows while everyone else aboard shifts to one side.
A few things I didn’t say about puffins: they are small, shy and incredibly hard to find squinting into your camera window. I felt like a weather-vane turning to and fro as people shouted out sightings of the pudgy little buggers.
I had better luck with the seals. Forget about cute depictions from childhood that show seals as happy dog-like mammals flapping their fins (arms? legs? wings?) together while balancing a ball on their noses. In the water, with only their doggie heads bobbing above the waves, they are graceful predators. Beached, they are something else.
The bad boys on Bird Island don’t do tricks for tourists. Not when they can heft their immense, bloated bodies onto a rock and lay motionless, like a seal skin sack of fat, and soak up rays. On land, they become sea monsters and I can’t help but wonder at the number of fish consumed by this colony on a daily basis.
It’s hard to top a day filled with eagles, puffins and sea monsters. Enter Alexander Graham Bell, he of the famous line,”Mr. Watson–come here–I want to see you.” But wasn’t Bell an American or Scotsman? Why is there a museum in his name in the small town of Baddeck, Nova Scotia?
Turns out the prolific inventor moved to Ontario in his twenties for health reasons and in later life vacationed in Baddeck, fell in love with the area, and built a complex with a laboratory to continue studies on a whole range of his passions including aeronautics, hydrofoils, eugenics and an exhausting list of other sciences.
Way to make the rest of the world feel inadequate Mr. Bell. Plus the guy was a humanitarian. Enough already, maybe he secretly made prank phone calls on his own invention.
Close by, in Sydney, is the ferry terminal for Newfoundland. It offers two choices, an eight-hour ride to Port Aux Basques or a sixteen-hour passage to Argentia. Ultimately The Dog and his unfortunate need to urinate and the ten-hour drive to St. Johns makes the decision for us.
Newfoundland will have to wait for another trip. Cape Breton, with its friendly music loving people and great seafood will have to do for now.
Next…Beer and Submarines in Halifax