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.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Of Orion, Ovenbirds and Old Route 5

Even without consulting the calendar we know it is mid-September. The night sky is altered: Orion hangs fetchingly over our road at 5 in the morning. The traffic on Old Route 5 is sparse. Most telling, our favourite morning eatery, Jane’s, has switched to autumn hours, no longer availing the depraved eggs-bacon-onion breakfast we both love so well.

On the trail to Dalem Lake it is the time of year when every few footsteps delivers a faceful of spider web. Red maples flaunt the first scarlet leaves that will be legion on Kelly’s Mountain a month from now. The forest is riotous with mushrooms of every hue: brindle, red, purple, yellow, white. Birds no longer sing in the woods but at night, from the sleeping porch, we hear them in the night sky discussing which way to negotiate their perilous journey to Panama or Hispaniola. 

We cross paths with itinerant troupes of warblers intent on getting out of Dodge while the getting is good: magnolias and myrtles, blackburnians and black-and-whites, ovenbirds, parulas. Paying attention, we are occasionally rewarded with a bird out of the ordinary: a migrant rusty blackbird, a member of his clan shyer than his gregarious relatives from the redwinged and Brewer’s branches of the tribe.

We still swim. At Dalem the loons that raised a family this season in Dalem’s marshy edges still yodel their oh-so-Canadian anthem of the northern woods. Curiosity pulls them closer when we’re in the water. What are the strange beasts, they wonder, crooning a song of their own: If you should survive ‘til a hundred and five . . .

Out on the Great Bras d’Or we hear telltale wing-whistles: scoters have returned from their northern breeding grounds, readying for fall and winter. Among the hummingbirds it is the young of the year who are the laggards at the feeder. The rubythroat mums and dads who raised them have already fled for warmer climes. Do we do the youngsters a disservice by continuing to ladle out the sugar water they like so well? 

I look for dead and dying birch and maple to convert to firewood for the Drolet woodstove that provides so much cozy comfort on evenings no longer hot and humid. Pal Derrick organized a posse to help transform his own small mountain of eight-foot cordwood into stacks of stove-length bits. A decade older than most everyone else in the work party, I was intent on not embarrassing myself. Operating a chainsaw for eight hours, I was keen not to flag, not to give near-septuagenarians a bad name. ‘Turns out I didn’t. Afterwards Donna told me that her friends assumed I was an honest-to-goodness lumberjack, a logger. I do not lie.

It took longer this year – is it because we were absent in 2015? – but the snowshoe hares are finally used to us again. They no longer flee when we emerge from the cabin in the morning but remain, ruminating on the nature of things as they carefully chew the grass availed just outside our door. We hope the bunnies will not be dangerously tamed five or six weeks from now when we are replaced by men in plaid jackets carrying shotguns.

Bald eagles were plentiful when we arrived in June then disappeared for the superior fishing offered by the Bird Islands in summer. Now the eagles are back. No matter how compelling the book either of us happens to be reading in the front porch, we pause to look whenever an eagle alights on one of our tall spruces and lingers to study the passing scene.

Only two weeks remain before an historic event unfolds: for the first time ever Jan and I will depart Cape Breton separately this year. I was robbed of my CB time a year ago and aim to make up the loss by remaining here well into October. Jan and Doris – my beloved Mum – are united in a fretful worry: that left to my own devices I will through sheer half-wittedness starve or chainsaw my leg off or burn the cabin down. Oh ye of such little faith, how do they imagine I coped in those antediluvian, pre-Janice days when I did manage to find my way across Old Route 5 without someone to hold my hand?