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Exploring Cape Breton Island
By Charles Shugart, Jr.
This interesting destination is part of Nova Scotia, but the locals have there own ideas about that
Cape Breton Island is politically part of Nova Scotia Province and is now connected by a mile-long causeway; yet the Cape Breton people have their own history and are proud of it. Asked where they’re from, they don’t say “Nova Scotia.” They say “Cape Breton.” But there seems to be no animosity between them and the real Nova Scotians
After crossing the man-made causeway that connects Nova Scotia to Cape Breton, I followed the west coast northbound and found an ocean-side provincial park where I parked my trailer for the night. Strolling along a boardwalk, I sat on a bench and watched the sunset. The wooden walkway had been built to protect the fragile wild grasses growing along the sandy beach; it was a place to watch seabirds, a place for quietly enjoying the gentle coastal scenery
The next day at Margaree Harbor I turned off the highway, searching for a spot from which to photograph the harbor itself. The neighborhood street soon ended and became a dirt road leading 500 feet to nowhere. Finding just the right place above the harbor, surrounded by wild rose bushes, I took some photos and enjoyed the view. There was nary a person nearby.
Winding down the hill to the tiny boat harbor, I drove to the other side of the small bay. There were several dozen black-backed gulls, and they were gigantic! Their nesting ground was near an old, small building, a mere hundred feet away from other houses. This was not an island. I drove to within 20 feet of the adults and their fledglings before they casually walked away, clearing a path for my truck. When I stopped, they stopped walking.
A man came out of what I’d thought to be the deserted building. I asked if the birds had actually nested on this tiny sand spit, right next to the boat harbor. He replied, “Sure they do. Come take a look.” Six inches from his door were three large eggs in a scooped-out hollow.
And it was on the ground! I was amazed. The man pointed, “Over there are the parents. If I make a move toward those eggs they will physically attack me. In the defense of their nest, they are totally fearless.”
Obviously, all the residents of this small fishing community, kids included, respect the nesting rights of the gulls. People of Margaree Harbor, I salute you.
Much More To Do
Following the John Cabot Trail, I continued through Cape Breton Highlands National Park to the top of the peninsula at the small town of Dingwall, and then out to Cape North and an RV park located in Meat Cove. Well, RV park is stretching it, but it was a beautiful location.
The next day I drove down to beautiful Bras d’Or Lake. I was going to spend a couple of days in the area, so I found a proper RV park and unhooked my trailer. I took a couple of sightseeing drives around the many-fingered lake.
Leaving the lake district, I headed for the eastern side of Cape Breton Island and the historic town of Louisbourg. While approaching town I saw a sign that advertised “R.V. Park on the water.” Almost in the middle of this little town, the RV park was right next to the docks, where there was a nice boardwalk for strolling and looking at the moored boats as well as watching others coming in and heading out. The cost at the R.V. park was modest, so I found a space very close to the walking path, backed in, disconnected, hooked up to the electricity, and went walking.
There were a couple of small fishing boats tied up at the dock. Peering down into the water, I saw dozens of jellyfish. Although there was very little movement of the water, it nevertheless seemed to be the main determiner as to where the jellyfish went. I’ve always been intrigued by jellies. I know they’re animals and I think they control their own movement even though they don’t have brains; it’s just that they don’t look like fish or any other creature of the sea. And they don’t look capable of controlling the directions they go. But it’s always fun to watch them when they’re in shallow, clear water.
While reading the tourist brochures I discovered there were evening performances of traditional “Cape Breton Folk Music” (real Scottish stuff) held throughout summer at an authentic old-style theatre. There would be different musicians for every performance, so I went that evening. A Hollywood movie company had built the theatre and, after filming was over, they’d given it to the city. It was reminiscent of the small theatres of Shakespearian times, with a warm and friendly character. I arrived early to insure getting a good seat. The trio consisted of fiddle, guitar and piano, and they played authentic Cape Breton Scottish Folk Music, with the fiddle leading the way for most of their selections. In some respects, the Celtic Folk Music played on Cape Breton is more traditional and authentic than it is in Scotland, due primarily to the fact that it has been isolated from other musical influences for a couple of hundred years. In any case, it was an exciting evening of music unlike any other.
Awakening early the next morning, I hopped into my pickup and headed out the “Marconi Trail,” or, as the park owners’ young daughter called it, “the Macaroni Trail.” Apparently Guglielmo Marconi did some of his early telegraph work here, and the locals have been trying to capitalize on that fact ever since. My reason for following the Trail was because the road followed the rocky coastline, dipping into little fishing ports along the way.
Returning to Louisbourg by early afternoon, I circled to the other side of the picturesque harbor and out to the lighthouse—the oldest in Canada, built in 1734. As with most of the lighthouses I had discovered on my trip, this one was very simple, yet functional. It was white with some red trim, had a powerful light on top, and was surrounded by rugged, rounded rocks and lush ground cover that consisted of mosses, lichens, tiny flowering plants and other delicate life forms.
By pure coincidence, the day I went to Louisbourg Fort was Canada Day. It was free admission! I put my wallet back in place and got on one of the buses they had for shuttling people from the parking area to the fort. Stepping out, I walked toward the first building, a typical Acadian farmhouse. It was jammed with all the people from the two buses that had arrived at the same time, so I kept my camera in its bag and listened to the young person explaining everything to us. The brochure said, “Costumed ‘animators’ will guide you through a typical day in 1744.” For years I had wondered what actually went on during a typical day in Acadia in 1744 (you hear so many conflicting stories that you don’t know whom to believe). Well, this pleasant young college student, playing “dress-up” and talking funny, set me straight. I jest, of course; this approach brings history to life far better than merely reading about it.
Getting through the gate wasn’t, however, as easy as one might imagine. Two young guards, wearing what almost certainly were exact copies of the clothing and shoes of the period, challenged those of us who had arrived at the gate at the same time. Fortunately, there were two giggly girls who were having a great time with the stern questioning by the guards. I was permitted passage without being hindered.
Wandering into various buildings, through courtyards and gardens (that were actually growing vegetables), and along dusty streets, I had a dandy time.
At about noon the delightful smells wafting out of an open window seemed worthy of investigation. It turned out to be an authentic “period” eating-house, with delicious-yet-simple food served to visitors seated at old wooden tables. I ordered gruel and grog, but ended up with a tasty stew, freshly baked bread and a Coke. Then it was back to my explorations of the fort.
As the Town Crier walked by, he announced that the firing of the cannon would be taking place in about thirty minutes. So I directed my feet to where it would happen. At the appointed hour, the uniformed troops marched in, went through the lengthy procedure of packing all the various necessities down the barrel, and then fired the huge cannon. Everything was authentic except they didn’t put a cannon ball down the barrel, so all we saw shooting out were some rags and a bunch of black smoke. Still, it was pretty neat. And very loud.
After several hours of strolling throughout the fort, taking photos and investigating all the nooks and crannies I could find, I headed back to the shuttle bus—happy and fulfilled.
Cape Breton Island is another worthy destination among the Atlantic Provinces. Beautiful scenery, Celtic folk music, and fascinating history that’s brought to life—it’s hard to beat that.
And don’t forget the people. Engage them in conversation, ask them questions; in other words, be friendly. You’ll be highly rewarded, because they will return your friendliness many times over. It’s up to you.