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Closed for the season

Time is a wonderfully malleable thing. We think that have just 24 hours in a day, 60 minutes in an hour, 60 seconds in a minute – and while we do, how we use that time can make it stretch interminably or just fly by. Nova Scotians manage to stretch time beyond endurance. They never seem to be in a hurry and yet find a multitude of ways to cut corners, reallocating time they might spend (read: waste) doing one thing to doing another.

IMG_5088 (800x600)The drive to Baddeck could have been done by road, but we were reliably informed that by driving 7 km out of our way (anti-intuitively), we could catch a ferry that would take 25 minutes off our total trip. So we did. And it worked. We  didn’t even have to brake before rolling onto the ferry – perfect timing – and barely had time to cut the engine before it was time to roll off again.

IMG_5098 (800x600)Baddeck is a lovely little town on the edge of the Bras d’Or lake (try as I might, my tongue refuses to budge from a Brass Door pronunciation). Known by the Mi’kmaq Indians as Petoo’bok – a long dish of salt water, the French preferred the more arty Bras d’Or – arm of gold. At first we thought it was as series of lakes but no – apparently it’s Canada’s largest inland sea – of sorts. It’s both saltwater and freshwater (as in both species live in it) with five rivers and two ocean channels feeding into it. UNESCO has named it a biosphere reserve (a new one on me – apparently a place where people live in harmony with nature; I have to wonder whether it was the people or the nature that won the appellation).

IMG_5099 (800x600) (2)IMG_5096 (600x800)Apart from being known for its yacht club and the start and finish of the Cabot Trail, Baddeck was also the summer home of Alexander Graham Bell – and it makes the most of it. We resisted the urge to visit the interactive Bell museum, and instead spent the time debating whether he or Marconi could lawfully claim the telephone as their own. But we debated over coffee in full view of the lighthouse with the sun reflecting on the water – as good a place as any to have a friendly bargy in the early hours of  Thursday morning.

We were heading to Prince Edward Island via Pictou, the birthplace of Nova Scotia. On a search for a particular type of jam (an unsolicited bring-back) I asked in one shop and came up empty. But the woman of the house directed us to the waterfront, telling us to take a left by the boat. mmm… a harbour with one boat? If only I’d studied my North American history…

IMG_5131 (800x600)IMG_5122 (800x600)It was here, in Pictou, back in 1773 that 200 Highland Scots disembarked from the good ship Hector and went about making the town their home. So successful were they that others followed in their wake and pretty soon this wave of migration gave rise to the birth of New Scotland. A replica of the ship is docked in the harbour today and it’s generally assumed that if you visit Pictou, that’s why you’re here. But, needless to say, if you visit in October, the museum and the heritage site will have closed for the season – like most of the town.

IMG_5130 (800x600)Perhaps it was the Scots that set the tone for firsts in this town – they’re not exactly short on temerity – but it was here, too, that Canada’s first and only black battalion was born. The boys fought in WWI, forming their own segregated unit when they’d been turned away time and time again from recruitment centres. Although based in Pictou, they included men from Ontario, too, and the  Honorable Captain William Andrew White – the only Black Commissioned Officer in the British Army in WWI. Not bad for a small town.
IMG_5123 (600x800)While the Pictou Academy was the first school in Nova Scotia that any student could attend, regardless of their religion, men were also put in the pillory for three hours for kissing their wives on a Sunday. One has to wonder at religion and its motives. The old post office is apparently the only building in the world (the world, imagine) with a window in its chimney. And before it got the name it has today, the town was at various stages known as Coleraine, Alexandria, Donegal, Teignmouth, Southhampton, Wamsley, New Edinburgh and New Paisley. That in itself tells a story.
IMG_5140 (800x600)What I liked best about it though was the display of black-and-white photos on the walls of a side street detailing its history. From these, like the one above, where a bunch of lads with nothing better to do bought a bag of hats and decorated them with lilac, it’s clear that Pictou is a community in the truest sense – one that hasn’t time for pretentiousness as it’s too busy being itself. That said, I think I’d go stir crazy had I to live there. Lovely to visit, but…
IMG_5146 (800x600) (2)From there we headed to Caribou to catch the ferry to P.E.I. (aka Prince Edward Island, home of the spuds) at Wood Island. It was time to leave Nova Scotia and venture into Canada’s smallest province. As we sailed out of the harbour, the gulls lined up to watch. An amazing send-off, almost like a guard of honour, that did Cape Breton proud. The journey would take 90 minutes and although parked in line for nearly 45 minutes before departure, we were one of the last to board. Of course, we’d forgotten it was Thanksgiving weekend in Canada and the world and her mother were either going home or going to PEI for the long weekend.

I popped by the Ferry’s information desk and asked for a map of the island – just to be prepared. The ever-s0-helpful Margaret asked me where I wanted to go on P.E.I. I said I wanted to see Pugwash. ‘Oh dear’, says she, ‘that’s in Nova Scotia’. Okay, I thought, once again cursing my geography (or the lack thereof), what about Green Gables? She thought for a while before dropping the bombshell – ‘It’s not a great time to visit, dear, as the whole place practically closes after the season. Best stick to Charlottetown – it’s sure to still have some places open.’ With a vague stirring of disquiet, I went out to the viewing deck and shared the good news. Still, at least the world that was passing us by was worth looking at. IMG_5150

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thin bloodlines and lone stars

You sure you know where you’re going? he asked.
Absolutely – Meat Cove – most northerly point in Nova Scotia. It’s at the end of this road, isn’t it?
Sure is. But are you sure you want to go there? he persisted.

I met Eric on the Cabot Trail, about 11 km from Meat Cove. He drives a gravel truck. We were stopped by a flagger on a road under construction and we got chatting. As you do. He told me that bloodlines were very thin in Meat Cove. And that the cops dared not venture in. Shoot-outs weren’t unusual and, as Chuck (another trucker) would tell me later, the foundations we would see were not new houses waiting to be built, but old houses that had been burned out ‘cuz the locals didn’t like ’em. 

IMG_4993 (800x600)IMG_4995 (800x600)We were on the Cabot Trail. We’d left Margoree Harbour that morning and had driven into the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The scenery was nothing short of spectacular. It was like driving through a Monet exhibition, had the great man ever painted autumn. As the day progressed, we wended our way in and out of the park, stopping here, there, and yonder, with little aim other than to reach Ingonish by six-ish  or seven or whenever.

We ran into Chéticamp, famous for its hookers – and no, I don’t mean boats or prostitutes, I mean rug hookers…people who use hooks like crochet hooks to make rugs. The things ya learn on the road. We sailed past Pleasant Bay and declined all offers that guaranteed us a whale sighting – it was if we’d been divinely inspired and knew what awaited us at Meat Cove.

IMG_5030 (800x600)IMG_5032 (800x600)We stopped at Cape North where the North Highlands Community Museum was closed (qu’elle surprise) but the local cemetery was open – and full of McLeods. The Settlers Garden represents, in miniature, the natural and cultivated world of the early European settlers who made their homes in the North Highlands of Cape Breton. I tell you, these lads have it sussed – simplicity all the way and ten times as effective and emotive than the grandest of displays.

IMG_5044 (800x600)From there we took the road to Meat Cove, as advised by Gordon, our host the night before. Some miles in, we hit construction, where I met Eric. Some might well have been put off and turned around … but I’d never seen a thin bloodline or witnessed a shoot-out with shots being fired and I was curious. When we finally got to the end of the road, it was beautiful – yes. There was a humpback whale playing in the water, and he a shameless exhibitionist at that. Magnificent. There were two restaurants – one of which was closed and the second didn’t have enough veg in the kitchen to make a salad. Enough said.

Waiting for the flagger to take us back up the trail, I got chatting to Chuck. He’d been part of a work crew there to lay gravel for 12 days and he couldn’t wait to get home. He was a big man. A tough man. And he was casting furtive glances over a massive shoulder and speaking in whispers. We didn’t hang around. Before we left though, I did ask one of the four locals I saw (there are nine families in total….) why it was called Meat Cove.  Back when, I don’t know the date, sailors used to drive by and see caribou. They’d get out and hunt and so it came known as meat cove. Enough said (I said that already, didn’t I?). Still, I got to chat with Chuck and Eric and have breaded clams from Dingwall, enjoy the thought of a salad, and see a whale relatively up close and in mammal. Not bad for a Thursday afternoon in the boonies. IMG_5054 (800x600)With the petrol light blinking a violent orange and three successive gas stations closed, we were happy to ride on vapours into Neal’s Harbour and find a gas station open. The map had conveniently pointed out the gas stations, but hadn’t said when they were open or closed. This part of the world is getting ready for the last hurray of the year – the Celtic Colours Festival – after which the place shuts up and half the occupants snow-bird it to Florida – the other half have already left 🙂

IMG_5047 (800x600)We thought we were staying in Ingonish but we were actually 45 minutes further up the road, closer to Baddeck. Prompted by some sixth sense (in honesty, more to do with the number of ‘closed for the season’ signs we were seeing), we dropped by the one liquor store we’d seen in two days. These Bluenoses are a clean living people – they don’t smoke, don’t seem to drink, and always obey the speed limit, even when there isn’t a cop within a hundred-mile radius. The place is pristine clean with not a rubbish bin in sight so they don’t litter either. Did I use the word ‘surreal’ already?

IMG_5068 (800x600)IMG_5070 (600x800)We passed plenty of churches of all denominations, shapes, and sizes. I wonder how so many of them make do with so few people – but they seem to work and what’s more, they’re open. Regular readers will be familiar with my rants about closed churches in Europe and how difficult it is to find one open and with candles. It was a pleasant surprise to see a sign, no less, saying that St Peter’s was open for prayer (without the candles though). Unfortunately I can’t remember exactly what part of the road it was on but I think it safe to say it was the Baddeck side of Ingonish because we were still praying we’d find the Sea Parrot Inn before dark.

IMG_5066 (800x600) Mind you, stopping as we did every ten minutes or so to marvel and something that was just as gorgeous as what had gone before, it was a wonder we got there at all. There are no words to describe the beauty of it all. A thousand adjectives couldn’t do it justice. Billed as the most spectacular drive in the world, the Cabot Trail, in the autumn, has to be as close as you get to perfection on this earth. I would challenge the staunchest atheist not to wonder if there is a God because it is difficult to ascribe this sort of beauty to anything other than miracle. IMG_5061 (800x600)We made it to the Sea Parrot by six, with time enough to catch the ONE restaurant – The Clucking Hen – open for miles before it shut at seven. We got a take-out and coated up, braving the cool evening to dine al fresco and watch the sun go down over the Atlantic from the deck of our top-floor room. We had the place to ourselves. And it was lovely. It’s been a while since I’ve sat looking out over the ocean with a glass of good wine (who’d have thought there were vineyards in Nova Scotia? I’m a convert…), in good company, with nothing to see for miles but a few lights on the horizon and one lone star in the night sky. An old childhood rhyme came to mind:

Star light, star bright, the first star I see tonight
I wish it may, I wish it might, this wish I make come true alright

Here’s hoping…

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