Monday, October 3, 2016

Going Where No One Goes

My mum, bless her tender heart, saw to it that she raised a son who counts his blessings. I consider myself lucky that she did so. Being mindful of one’s good fortune, it seems to me, makes good things all the more golden.

For the first time since we teamed up two decades ago Jan and I are, only for a while, doing our own thing as summer turns to autumn. After three months at the summer shack it was time for her to return to her musical passions on the west coast and to Victoria’s myriad charms and attractions. A year ago health problems cost me the entire season at Bigador – I felt robbed – so I am hell-bent on making up the loss this year: I am intent on spending my full four-month entitlement here – and reveling in Cape Breton’s October allure for the next two weeks.

Yes, I miss my mate but I am determined to confound those – my dear old Mum in particular – who fear that left to my own devices I may starve or accidentally burn the cabin down or perhaps chainsaw off a leg. When I last glimpsed Jan beyond the security line at Sydney’s McCurdy airport I admit to having felt more than a little sentimental but I quickly decided that the best way to fend off lonesomeness is by maximizing busyness and productivity. I do the pre-breakfast Dalem walk just as I did in Jan’s company. I conduct selective tree-cutting, make firewood, enjoy small projects around the Bigador compound. I don’t waste time. If the rain stays away I spent almost all the daylight hours outdoors; after dark I produce a proper supper; CBC Radio is my constant companion.

One of my top blessings is that despite my advanced age and lack of personal charm, Lynn and Louise continue to allow me to join them on their expeditions into the untraveled Cape Breton hinterland. I describe my twin cousins – with no exaggeration or lazy bias – as the most formidable backcountry people Cape Breton has to offer. 

Do you want to join us for an off-trail ramble in the hills above the Cheticamp River canyon, they asked. Absolutely, I answered. The collected me early Saturday morning and by mid-morning we were at the trailhead on Cape Breton`s opposite coast. ‘Trailhead’ is perhaps a misleading term: the twins don`t much like prepared trails. As soon as it can be arranged they like to get away from the road well traveled and head for places no one ever goes.

Saturday morning was a case in point. For a short time we followed a route that had been a formal national park trail until it was decommissioned at some point in the 1980s. Soon enough, as a steep hill loomed to our right Lynn spotted a grazing cow moose. I managed to get an excellent shot of its butt end before the cow realized our presence and skedaddled. We followed the big beast up the slope, through mature forest, over and around fallen logs.

Moose signs proliferated as we approached the summit: moose trails, moose-browsed trees, pressed-down spots marking places where cow or bull had chosen to bed down for the night, frequent piles of moose pellets. What there wasn’t was any sign of human presence: no beer cans, candy wrappers, or old campfire sites. 

We climbed to the summit of the twins’ mountain, a mountain that has no name on topographical maps so I cannot tell you it. At a rocky promontory overlooking the Cheticamp River gorge and the village of Cheticamp on the distant horizon, I asked Lynn and Louise to make an educated guess: when was the last time a person other than themselves had been in this spot? They gave the question careful consideration before Lynn ventured this: perhaps the 1930s. How marvelous it was to imagine that she might be right, that we could briefly visit a spot sufficiently remote that no one else had trod in eighty years. 

Which is not to say we were devoid of company. Selecting another promontory overlooking the deep Cheticamp Valley we settled in for a hawk watch. Only a few songbirds remained in this place on the first day of October, most of their kind having departed for points south but we did see birds, big ones: several bald eagles, a merlin, and two individuals of a species the twins could not remember ever having seen before in Cape Breton – peregrine falcon. Yahoo.

I am grateful to Doris Irene, my friend and mother, for bestowing upon me a constitution decent enough that I can still bushwhack up trackless mountains in my seventieth year – and of course a clear sense of how lucky I am that that is so.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Meandering Meat Cove Mountain with the Magnificent Monozygotes

I know of no finer elixir than the one that results from saying Yes when the monozygotes – Lynn and Louise – propose a hike to some out-of-the-way Cape Breton destination we have never laid eyes upon. On Saturday we followed their lead to the root of an ancient Appalachian mountain behind the present-day hamlet of Meat Cove. Meat Cove is as far north as you can get by road in Nova Scotia. Beyond Meat Cove there is only St. Paul’s Island: to get there you need a boat and resistance to seasickness far stouter than my own.

The trailhead to Meat Cove Mountain lies beyond the end of the blacktop, not far from the absolute end of the road. The initial steep climb leads through a mature forest that features hardly any conifers but an abundance of oaks, poplars, birches and maples. En route up the hill one finds no culturally modified trees – there are no stumps to indicate that the giants of this forest have ever been felled by sawyer and saw.

What awaits those who slog right the way to the ridge beyond through the leafy woods is a very grand landscape: 360-degree views east to the big headland at Cape North; south up the steep valley of Meat Cove Brook; west along the treeless, windswept ridge of Meat Cove Mountain and hilltops beyond; north to St. Paul’s, the Gulf of St. Lawrence and – on a clear day – the mountains of southwestern Newfoundland.

The weather availed us was sublime in every way but one. We had sun, warmth, terrific seeing in every direction. We also had wind, and much of it. I had no anemometer with us – Jan’s smart phone is not quite that smart – so no one is able to challenge my assertion that the gusts we encountered sometimes reached Force 8 on the Beaufort scale.

From time to time we were drawn to shelter in the lee of a boulder or tight knot of krummholtz to savour the vistas and ingest granola bars and hard-boiled eggs. At this altitude berries were legion – blueberries and foxberries in particular. With such a surfeit I wondered where the black bears were. Was it too windy even for them?

The summit of the mountain is a long, wide-open ridge with plenty of geology to consider: steep, rocky drop-offs, ranks of hills to south and west, deep green valleys on either side of the ridge. The terrain put me in mind of the open mountain ridges I love to hike on the continent’s opposite coast. 

At such a place in mid-September I expect to see migrating hawks. The wind might have kept many more close to ground but we did in fact see hawks – northern harriers, bald eagles, sharp-shinned and red-tailed hawks – and imagined how much better the hawking might have been on a calm day. Perhaps there are no calm days. We passed the occasional brave three-foot spruce or fir that might have stood its ground sixty years or more whose shape suggested it is constantly buffeted by powerful nor’westerlies. 

Strong winds or not, in the later afternoon I felt reluctant to leave the mountain – when might I get here again? – but descend we did, only to climb another, lower peak close to the village where we looked in vain for pilot whales but did manage to see gannets and a big sunfish lazily going about its business just offshore.

On this second hill we crossed paths with an American, Peter from Kansas City, with whom I struck up a conversation about the state of the world, particularly that part of it currently contemplating the opportunity of electing D. Trump President of the USA. The conversation was so congenial that we swapped cards and vowed to meet again for further dialogue three years hence when Peter plans to return to Cape Breton – provided of course that we and our world survive what US electors decide on November 8.

If there was a disappointment on this day it was a minor one. It turned out that the village canteen was closed: we were thus denied the snow crab roll we’d all anticipated as our reward for climbing Meat Cove Mountain. So we went to Neill’s Harbour where – oh joy! – we found five-star steamed mussels and snow crab sandwiches on offer. Some days it seems nothing can go wrong.

Communing with Ghosts

On a blithe and beautiful late-summer Friday we took a trip down memory lane.

I have a fascinating old photograph now close to a century old. In it my great-uncle Harrison Livingstone stands on the platform of the Shenacadie rail station together with several other passengers. He holds what appears to be a large bed roll on his right shoulder, a lantern in his left hand. He looks young, healthy, happy. Two of the fellow passengers are young women wearing headbands, having the look of those who would come to be known as ‘flappers’ in the 1920s. The photo is undated but there is a strong likelihood it was taken in the late spring of 1919, the year my uncle returned from the Great War. 

A half-century ago Harrison told me that the day he came home from the horrors of the Western Front, to Cape Breton by train and to Big Bras d’Or, his Boularderie Island home, on the old sidewheeler Marion was the happiest day of his whole life. Given what I have come to know about his experiences in Flanders and France, it is no surprise that he might have felt that way.

Jan and I went to Shenacadie in the hope – perhaps a foolish hope – of beholding the Bras d’Or Lakes as he’d have done on that euphoric late-spring day 97 years ago. The old wooden Shenacadie rail station is of course long gone. We found a gravel road that led down to a straight stretch of the old rail line. Nowadays tall weeds flourish between the rusted rails. Apart from an occasional annoyed query from a squirrel as to what business we had there, silence was complete. In this place there is a broad widening to one side of the tracks. It is there I imagined Harrison stood in 1919, charged with joy, as he awaited the arrival of the Marion to deliver him on the last leg of his journey home.

From Shenacadie we carried on to Marble Mountain where Harrison was the laird of five hundred acres and where he spent the final, very happy two decades of his long, rich life. Back in 1965, when Harrison was 68 and I 18, the age at which he became a soldier of the Great War, we took the first steps at refurbishing the old house he had acquired. We cut trails through his woods to access the outer reaches of his wonderful Cape Breton estate.

One morning our trail-cutting work revealed something special: we chanced upon a small cemetery engulfed by forest. At the time the scene moved me considerably: gravestones long forgotten, long ignored among the firs and spruces towering above them. When we landed at Marble Mountain last Friday I asked my cousin Laura – Harrison’s granddaughter – and her spouse Anthony whether they’d ever come across the old graveyard. Yes they had. Indeed, just an hour earlier they had visited it, still hidden away in Harrison’s woods. I asked them if they’d be willing to lead me back there. Now. They were. They did. With Anthony in the lead we clambered over and around fallen trees and made our way to the old graves. 

Cemeteries – especially lost cemeteries almost the whole world has forgotten – move me significantly. Such sites are ideal places to contemplate the transience of things, the ephemerality of human endeavour.

There are only a few still-legible stones still standing in Harrison’s lost cemetery. Some stones are toppled, not by the usual cause – vandalism – but by natural forces. In the head-on collision of a little grave-marker and a big storm-felled conifer the marker will always be the loser.

Sketchy though they may be, the stories hinted at by the old markers can touch an observer afflicted with a somewhat tender heart. Stories such as that of Mary Campbell, beloved wife of John McKenzie who departed her life in the summer of 1816, aged 22. Or the story of Catherine McRae, who had emigrated with her husband John McDonald from Lochalsh, Ross-shire in 1828, and who left McDonald a widower on Christmas Day in 1863. Or that of another John McDonald who died en route to Halifax in July, 1858, aged 23. All of them Scots pioneers in this part of Cape Breton.

We pondered the stones and imagined lives lived two centuries ago, lives of which lichen-encrusted stones avail only the barest details. Anthony and I managed to raise one of the old toppled stones and wrestled it back onto its base: just a small gesture of solidarity with fellow humans who trod this pioneer neighbourhood in the years before there was a Canada.