Tuesday, May 27, 2008

On our trip to Cape Breton...

"We are an Island, a Rock in a stream
We are a People, as proud as there's been
In soft summer breeze, or in wild winter winds
The home of our hearts, Cape Breton..."

- The Island, Kenzie MacNeil - 1977.

This song is unofficially recognized as the Cape Breton anthem. To be in any bar or pub in the Maritimes and to have the local talent begin singing this tune, is to receive an instant education in Cape Breton culture. Everyone who hails from the Cape (and many who do not...) will take up the song with an obvious, heartfelt love and pride, regardless of their state of sobriety. There is something about the Cape and by extension, the people who live there, which renders it unique amongst any other place I have ever visited. And I have over the years, visited a great many.

My love affair with Nova Scotia itself, is long and well-known. It began in March of 1976, as my flight from Montreal circled Halifax International Airport for the first time. I was arriving fresh out of Boot Camp, to begin my Naval Training at Canadian Forces Base Stadacona, later to become Canadian Forces Fleet School Halifax.

Our trip last week led us first of all to Arisaig, NS. My better half's niece and her husband live there, in an older farmhouse. They are an adorable couple. We left Ottawa Friday evening, at about 1730hrs. We stopped near Rivière-du-Loup at about 2300hrs that evening, at a spot we had visited many times before (L'Escale in St.Pacôme). We departed after an early and hearty breakfast, at about 0730hrs. While traveling through New Brunswick, we spotted moose and deer (had a close call with one deer in particular, which decided to sprint out in front of us, not far passed Edmunston...). We arrived in New Glasgow at about 1600hrs Atlantic Time. We visited the local Atlantic Superstore to stock up on provisions, before heading out to Arisaig.

The main thrust of this working vacation was to do some renovating work and then some touring. And so we painted, built, installed and hung various items, making their abode a little warmer, a little more welcoming and cozy for them.

From their front veranda, you could see the Northumberland Strait. The back yard led you to a deep valley, maybe some 400 yards wide, with a towering mountain on the other side of it. Every day we were treated to traditional Cape Breton music and the occasional round of stepdancing performed by our hosts. It was on this trip that I was introduced to a marvelous regional brother/sister group of four, the Cottars. They have since disbanded (sadly) but even posthumously, they have gained an ardent fan. Nova Scotia has long been recognized as the centre of Canada's Celtic culture. But if that be true, the headquarters is surely located in beautiful Cape Breton. The list of great talents to emerge from this particular part of Nova Scotia is virtually endless.

Many of our mornings there started out with some rainfall, but that usually cleared out by late morning. We were often visited by eagles, bald and golden as well as rabbits. There were deer sign everywhere on the property, but they maintained their distance during our stay. We encountered several challenges normally associated with older homes, the major one being the substandard electrical set-up. For as much as the house power supply had been upgraded to 100A service, there were several building and fire code violations as far as the wiring and connections went. Lack of junction boxes, old and frail wiring and connection points where there might be 2 inches of wire to work with, all contributed to some trying times and frustrations for my better half. A new ceiling light for the master bedroom, the finishing touch as it were, had to remain uninstalled. There was old wire to contend with, no junction box to mount the light fixture to and no time to open up the ceiling and try to install one.

We stayed longer than we intended initially, as new tasks seemed to surface daily and add themselves to the list of things to do. This scenario is endemic to older houses, without fail. Still, we enjoyed every day of their warmth and hospitality while we were there.

The following Friday, we packed up our tools and headed out into a light mist, on the second leg of our vacation. I had to be back at work the following Tuesday, so I reckoned we had more than enough time for a leisurely drive back along the Cabot Trail. Let's face it, you can't simply go to the Cape and not do the trail. That would be tantamount to visiting Paris and never setting foot inside the Louvres...or visiting Ghiza and not taking in the Pyramids.

We decided to stop at Wally-World (Wall Mart) in Antigonish for a quick oil change before heading out, as we had received a warning light on our dashboard to this effect, shortly before reaching Nova Scotia. That and the fact that I had experienced a blow-out in one of my sneakers, so a new pair was in order. Those old $40.00 Brooks sneakers lasted me for the better part of 9 years, so they didn't owe me a thing.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the lad who took care of our vehicle. His name is Mike and he is not only a good man, but a stand-up person and an honest mechanic. He found 2 terminals that had been disconnected and had been giving us dire messages on our instrument panel. This was a previous garage's gamble to obtain more business from us that was actually required by the car. He also found a flat spot on one of our rear tires. People like Mike in the service industry are a rarity. People like Mike in the garage business, are virtually non-existent. God bless him...

So armed with this new-found sense of invulnerability (and light-footedness, thanks to my new sneakers), we headed off to tour the Cabot Trail. We took the 104 out of Antigonish and stayed on it until we crossed the Canso Causeway at around noon. We stopped in at the McDonald's just over the causeway and could not believe our luck. The lobster season was open for that section of Nova Scotia, so they had available their famous McLobsters. These are small submarine sandwiches filled with large chunks of fresh lobster. Can you say OMG!! We ordered 3 of them (it came to just over $18.00 in total, a steal believe me...) and we feasted on these as we made our way onto the 4 North to Sydney.

It rained pretty much the whole day, though not in torrential downpours. Just a steady, light rain which necessitated the constant use of the wipers. Still, we sighted deer on the way there, always a treat. Through Barra Head, Soldier's Cove and Middle Cape. It stopped raining as we reached Big Pond, home of Rita's Tea Room. We stopped in, even though it had yet to open for the season. When open, there is always a chance you'll meet the owner herself (Rita MacNeil) as you enjoy the fare and the ambiance. I took a couple of photos of my wife, sitting forlornly on the front steps, under the large "Closed for the Season" sign.


Then it was on to Ben Eoin, East Bay, Sydney Forks and then Sydney itself. In North Sydney, we cruised by the ferry terminal which would have taken us to The Rock. One day we'll board the M/V Joseph and Clara Smallwood...I can hardly stand the wait. I want to see the look on my better half's face when she gets to experience it for herself.

We then rounded up to Sydney Mines (home of the Barra MacNeils...) and then across to Englishtown, where we hooked up with the 105, literally the start of the Cabot Trail. It is hard to describe the Cabot Trail to anyone who has never been. You begin with long, steep climbs...the signposts advising you that you are about to ascend 240m over the next so many kilometers. Past St.Ann's, the North Gut and Skir Dhu... ever upwards, towards the heavens. Every now and then, it levels off for a spell...only to start all over again. Hairpins, switchbacks, severe grade hills...Not for the faint of heart. And we had yet to reach the 'exciting' part...

Along one flat section after French River, we stopped for gas at a small outlet in Wreck Cove. My wife was expressing concerns that we were braving the Trail when the weather was not at it's best, either for driving or sightseeing. The rain was falling harder now and many areas were fog-shrouded as well. The temperature gauge on the dash was reading 5 degrees as the outside ambient temperature. I had to agree with her but I knew that we were there at that specific point in time, for a reason. I am of the viewpoint that everything we do, everywhere we go in our life, has meaning, has purpose behind it. We are never anywhere, simply by hazard...

We rounded Cape Smokey and threaded our way up and down the winding roadway, until we reached the outskirts of Ingonish. I was starting to give some thought to finding a place to pull over to, when providence (fate, karma, kismet... call it what you will) literally took the wheel. It also took my power steering, my water pump and my generator. At the time, we were in a long, though gentle downward corkscrew, which turned first to the left, then to the right where it levelled out in an area bordered by perhaps four or five houses. Still, when I lost the steering it felt as though I was trying to manoeuvre the front wheels through wet cement. We coasted to a halt by the side of the road, as I turned our 4-way flashers on.

It is only human nature in such instances, to immediately question whom we might have pissed off before leaving. Which deity did I offend to warrant such a depressing turn of events? Heartsick, I popped the hood and clambered out of the car to go investigate. Upon raising the hood, my suspicions were confirmed. We had in fact thrown the serpentine belt, that ran the water pump, power steering and generator. It had not broken mind you, as it was laying off to the side, still largely threaded through the various pulleys. Lying just below it however, was the plastic wheel portion of one of our tensioner pulleys. It had actually separated from the bearing it was riding on... Not good news...

I returned to the car to bring my lady up to speed on this recent development. Predictably, she got this look that I'm sure most passengers aboard the Titanic got, when they realized their final hour was upon them. "Can you fix it?", she asked. I love this woman. Over our years together, we have taken on many, many new projects and challenges. Most of which we have never attempted before. She has told me many times that she is constantly amazed at what I am able to accomplish. Clearly, this has instilled in her an almost childlike faith in me, one which has left her convinced I can probably even weld toilet paper together, if I had the right tool.

I looked at her and felt my heart being gently squeezed. She was a little tired, a lot worried and totally reliant on me to sort this problem out. I sighed and answered: "I don't think so, Hon. I can't thread it back on and we're missing a pulley." "Maybe we can ask someone if there's a garage around?" she asked hopefully. "I'll go see", I told her. I walked perhaps 40 yards to the nearest home and knocked on the door. A woman in her late forties appeared and smiled at me. "Yes?" she said. "Hi... our car just died in front of your place. Do you know if there is a garage or a mechanic around these parts?" She thought for a moment then called out: "Hun...'ave we gots a garage to?" Her husband appeared from outside the kitchen and spoke to the both of us. "Yes...just down in the village. If you hold on, I can drive you down there", he said. I briefly explained our situation to him and thanked him profusely for his offer of help. "It's a small t'ing...we do for each other", he stated.

I returned to the car to advise my wife. She looked frankly upset at the prospect of being left alone with the car. True, this wasn't Compton in L.A. or Overtown in Miami, but my wife is not the first person to trust strangers, even though she is from Nova Scotia herself. I promised her it wasn't far and suggested we lock the car and she could come with if she wanted to. "No...I'll be okay. You go ahead", she said. I rejoined our newfound savior and we headed into Ingonish Beach. As it turned out, we were about a kilometer from the town itself. We arrived at the local Esso station, operated by the Doucettes. The young lad there advised me that he had pressing social obligations (he was not surprisingly, a local musician as well...) and had to be out of the shop by 1800hrs. If I could get the car to him before then, he could have a look at it for us. It was presently 1740hrs. After hearing my tale, he advised removing the offending belt (so as to avoid entanglement with the other and creating a far worse scenario...) and limping the car in to his station. My new friend graciously offered to drive me back, following a brief stop at the local convenience store for his young daughter.

We arrived back at our stricken vehicle, much to my wife's delight. I quickly explained the situation and then set to trying to remove the belt. As I was puzzling with this, I caught out of the corner of my eye a large flatbed truck with a white cab, stopping down the road from us. He threw the truck into reverse and started backing towards us. When he had reached us, he climbed down from the cab and asked if he could be of any help. I explained the situation to him and he produced a knife and began cutting the belt. With the belt now removed, we were free to get to the station. As a sailor, I have spent years with a knife of some type constantly on my person. It is a habit I had been slowly letting go of, for reasons as yet unknown to me. Never again! It is always better to have a knife and not need one, than to need one and not have one. Our friend with the flatbed offered to follow us into town and we gladly accepted his offer.

I started up the car and we headed out. It did not take long for the engine temperature gauge to start creeping up. The steering was becoming harder to use with every turn. We were close to the village now and on yet another downward slope. The engine temperature gauge was hard over now and I was debating pulling over to let it cool some before carrying on. I looked at my watch. It was 1802hrs. Crap! No time... Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead! We finally arrived at the Esso station to find the young lad waving me towards the opened garage door. It took a couple of tries to line the car up with the door, as by now steering had become a quasi-Herculean task.

I popped the hood and the young lad assessed the situation rapidly. "You'll be lucky to be able to get the parts tomorrow, it being Saturday and all. And they won't be available locally...probably have to come from Sydney, if anyone is either going there or coming from there. Still, you could have broke down in worse places along the trail, what?" We both agreed with this. I looked around to find and thank the young lad with the flatbed, but he had quietly left, once he was satisfied that we had made it safely. The discussion then shifted to accomodations. The mechanic advised us to call between 0800 and 0900 the next morning to obtain a prognosis on the car. He then offered to call the Keltic Lodge for us (less than a kilometer away...) and have their shuttle come and pick us up. We accepted the offer and after he had dialled the lodge, I spoke with the front desk. Having secured a reservation and the shuttle pick-up service, I rang off with them. We obtained the mechanic's card for the shop and watched him drive off as we retired to the car, now back outside, to wait for the shuttle. The rain continued beating down...

We shared one of those moments, where we knew we were still not in the clear, but at least we could look forward to a hot meal and a warm bed for the night. The thought of a nice hot shower and a dry room was all of a sudden very appealing... regardless of what it cost. I was dirty from my wrestling with the belt and pulleys and wet from the rain. I was ready to call it a day... After some time, the shuttle appeared and we bundled into it, headed for the Keltic Lodge, warmth and food.

For those unfamiliar with the Keltic Lodge, it is perhaps one of the premier lodgings available in Cape Breton. It is uniquely situated astride a point of land which juts out into the Atlantic Ocean. It is a little on the pricey side, true...($156.00 per night for double occupancy and a queen-sized bed, which includes a fabulous breakfast) but it offers comfortable and well-appointed suites, a marvelous dining room, friendly and attentive staff and probably best of all, great showers!


We probably looked the sight as we straggled in. We decided to book a room at the main Inn itself, rather than in one of the outlying cottages. We were given room (206) and headed up immediately. Upon opening the door, we froze. "Don't go in...there's someone in there!" my wife hissed. There were sneakers by the bed and the unmistakable odor of a shower which has only just been used. I remember appreciating the smell of whatever soap or lotion the room's occupant had been using. We closed the door and headed back downstairs. The clerk apologized, informed us that they had only opened the previous Wednesday and that they were still ironing out some bugs. He then proceeded to book us into another, although this time unoccupied room (210). As mentioned, the room was very comfortable and had a wonderful view of the waves breaking on Ingonish Beach from the bedroom window. We washed, rested up a bit and changed for supper.

We had supper at the Purple Thistle dining room. The fare was excellent, the surroundings beautiful and the service first-rate. Our waiter Eugene was bright, affable and attentive. His recommendations (notably for the dessert, which we both reasoned we deserved after such a harrowing day...) were spot-on. At no point during the evening, did our conversation revolve around anything negative. We both pretty much accepted that the car died on purpose, so that we could slow down, discover and enjoy our stay at this wonderful lodge. For this breakdown to occur at this particular spot was no less than a blessing. From the Highland Sitting Room came the strains of local Celtic entertainment. In my old drinking days, I'm sure I would have whiled away a few hours there, but this evening...it was all about the bed. Neither of us lasted too long, once we were under the covers.

Morning came early and with surprisingly very little rain. We took our time getting dressed then headed down to the Purple Thistle for our breakfast buffet. It was exquisite. Everything you could possibly want on a breakfast menu and as much as you wanted of it. I think my wife's favorite was the small pancakes with the Oxford blueberry compote. Oxford is the blueberry capitol of Nova Scotia. Aspey Bay is famous for it's oysters, Digby for it's scallops, the Annapolis Valley region for it's apples, etc... So there we sat, in this bright, comfortable dining room, with a window seat... watching the fishermen in their Cape Islanders wheel around below us, hauling and checking their lobster pots as we enjoyed our meal. It was quite simply grand...


By the time we finished eating and made our way back to our room, it was time to check in with the garage. Stephen Doucette would be our contact for the remainder of the day, as far as information on the car went. It was a little after 0900 when I first called and asked for an update. He informed me that he had located some of the parts. The only problem was in getting them to Ingonish Beach. He stated he had yet to find a belt as well, although he had not yet gone through all his old stock. He advised me to check back with him by about noon. That pretty much sealed the deal for us and we were then resigned to spending Saturday in Ingonish as well. We promptly advised the front desk. Being somewhat sympathetic to our situation, they offered to provide us with our second day's lodging at a reduced rate ($130.00 including breakfast). I thought that was rather gracious of them and thanked them accordingly. We also commented on how good the breakfast had been.

As we were still feeling rather full from our wonderful breakfast, the clerk suggested that we might want to take the hiking trail, which would lead us to the tip of the point and some great scenery along the way. The overall trek was 2km and would take us about an hour and a half. We grabbed our camera from the bedroom and headed out. We felt some spits of rain as we started the trek, but were well dressed at any rate. Most of the trail was in the shelter of the surrounding woods, which kept us dry. We noticed the presence of deer and moose scat as we made our way along the trails. Red squirrels scampered among the tree limbs and chattered their alarm calls as we approached. At regular intervals, the trees had been cleared to our right, so as to afford a wonderfully clear view of the wood's edge and the water below. These were normally accompanied by sitting areas. Wild rabbits greeted us as we reached the tip of the isthmus. The trek was great and gave us some unique photo ops, as well as some quality "us" time.

We returned to the Lodge at about 1230 hrs. I wanted to do a little 'cool down' walk to the beach area, which was located a little further than out initial departure area. As we stood in the parking lot debating our next move, I noticed a charming little bird near the edge of the roadway. It was a soft brown colour, with patches of orange and white on it's sides and breast. My wife was quite taken by it as well and stepped a little closer to my side, to better observe it. As she did so, a peregrine falcon in full power dive mode, came streaking past where my wife had been standing, at perhaps three inches above the ground. It merged with where the cute little bird had been, there was an audible 'thwack' when the talons took hold and, in a nanosecond, they were both gone. The whole incident might have taken 2 seconds to unfold. My wife was dumbfounded. She stood there for quite a few seconds, as her brain registered and processed what her eyes had just witnessed. It was almost incomprehensible that we had been accorded the chance to witness such an event. There are wildlife photographers who strive to capture such moments for years. She looked at me in outright amazement. "Where did it...go?" I told her that I could scarcely believe our good fortune, for as bad as I might feel for that adorable little songbird. I could tell she did not know whether to feel bad or blessed. It was one of those absolutely singular moments in time and we had actually been able to share it together... We walked towards the exit for the Lodge grounds for a few more minutes, before deciding to turn around and head back towards the room. She remained preoccupied by that event for some time afterwards.

Our breakfast, as wonderful as it had been, was now but a faded memory. Those 2kms of trekking through the woods, wind, spray and salt air proved a little more arduous that I had foreseen. It was time to consider some lunch! We recharged ourselves with a quick lunch at the dining room, then headed back to the room to check on the progress with the car repairs. Stephen informed me that he had located parts and that they were on their way via the Englishtown Ferry. He was not thoroughly convinced that his parts supplier had sent him the right serpentine belt however. He anticipated the parts arriving about 1430hrs that afternoon and would better be able to inform us at that point. I asked him when he closed for the day and he advised me it would be at 1800hrs. If the parts weren't right, we would have to wait until Monday, at the very earliest. I decided to be optimistic...

I will complete this entry of our East Coast saga a little later on.

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