94 km – Inverness to Pleasant Bay
The day is finally here. The day I have been dreading since we started this trip. The day we enter the Cape Breton Highlands.
Don’t get me wrong, this is one of my favourite parts of Nova Scotia, and I am very much looking forward to the incredible views that I know await us. But I also know what comes along with those views… hills. Incredibly long and steep hills. A lot of them.
As a beginner cyclist, I have always found hills to be extremely challenging. My training and progress through the trip so far has meant that I have become a lot more confident in my hill climbing ability, but I have never attempted anything close to this. And my legs still ache from our previous days of riding.
But as we leave the campground, the sun is shining, and my legs pump up the first climb of the day. As we crest over the hill, the wide and sparkling ocean is laid out before us, and a few tears slip down my cheeks as we fly downhill towards the sea. I can’t believe we are really here. That we really made it this far. I still don’t know how this is going to end, but whatever happens I am so proud.
We roll through the endless hills of grass I have come to associate with this distinctly Acadian landscape, passing by jewel blue beaches where people swim lazily in circles. We stop to eat at a little diner in Belle Cote and then we are officially riding on the legendary Cabot Trail. The sun is out in full force for the first time in days and I remember what it feels like to be hot.
We cruise into Cheticamp, where we stop at the local Co-op for our final grocery run and grab a beer at the Doryman, one of our favourite spots in town to catch live music. Unfortunately, we are a bit early and only get to catch one fiddle tune before we need to pedal on.
Shortly after leaving Cheticamp, we enter Cape Breton Highlands National Park, where the real fun will begin. There are a few different options for campgrounds tonight, as the park has several first-come-first-serve self-registration camping areas. We reach the first of these, Corney Brook, not long after entering the park. The first thing I notice as we roll in is that it lies at the bottom of what seems to me like a looming mountain. The second thing I notice is that, even though it’s only 3:00 in the afternoon, the campground is already starting to fill up. We use the toilets and sit in silence at a picnic table for a while. I lie on the bench and think about waking up and starting up that mountain first thing in the morning, until I abruptly sit up and tell Michael with conviction, “I don’t want to stay here”. He looks mildly surprised, but we pack up and head out. I’m dreading starting up the mountain now too, but at least my legs are well warmed up from a day of relatively easy riding.
The mountain is in fact French Mountain, one of the few named mountains that the Cabot Trail Road climbs, and it is a 455 meter climb to the top . We begin to climb, and my legs scream out at the initial steepness, but before too long the slope gentles just enough that I can keep pedaling. I stop every few minutes to catch my breath and let my legs recover, but amaze myself over and over again when I choose to keep pedaling. I don’t know how long we continue on in this manner, passing cars giving us incredulous stares, waves, or thumbs up.
Just before the summit, the grade becomes steep again and my legs decide they are done. We dismount and push our bikes the final stretch to the summit. The feeling when we crest over the top and see the road stretching out for miles ahead of us is indescribable. At the summit sign, we toss down our bikes and our bodies in a patch of gravel off the side of the road and rest. I can’t believe what I’ve just done, and I know now that I can make it to the end. All the doubt I’ve been collecting inside me begins to evaporate, just like that.
We eventually begin to ride again, rolling along through the stunted conifers of the highlands, keeping our eyes peeled for moose or other wild creatures slipping between the trees. I feel like I am flying, riding high on the top of this mountain that I climbed with my own two legs. Eventually we reach the other side of the plateau and see the great wide sea sparkling below us once more. There’s a pretty intense descent into the town of Pleasant Bay, and its unlike anything I’ve had to contend with on the bike so far, switch-backing steeply downwards, hands cramping up from squeezing the brakes with all my might, but eventually we reach the bottom in one piece.
I now need to face my next source of anxiety, which is the fact that it’s now solidly into the evening and we still have a few kilometers to ride to the next campground. I am terrified of arriving there and finding the place full, so we decide to see if there is anywhere we can stay in town. We stop in at the Rusty Anchor with the intention of simply asking the staff if they might know of anywhere with vacancy for the night, but somehow end up getting a table and ordering a strawberry shortcake. The cell service is terrible, but I manage to call around to a few places, only to realize that it’s a Saturday in August and of course everywhere is full. My heart is in my stomach as we ride out of town.
It’s only a few kilometers to the campground, but it feels much longer somehow, and I’m convinced when it finally comes into view it will be packed with tents and cars and campers. But, much to my surprise, when we do roll up the place is absolutely and completely deserted. There’s not another soul in sight. Michael and I look at each other and burst out laughing.
There don’t seem to be any marked campsites, so we explode our stuff on the lawn near a playground and set up there. There’s a pavilion nearby, and it is somehow the most luxurious thing we’ve experienced on the trip so far. It’s warm inside and entirely made of wood and smells like a dream. The bugs begin to come out in force with the setting of the sun, and so we retreat inside to make dinner. We spread our damp belongings all over the place, and I feel a bit guilty, but I don’t think anyone else is going to be using the place before we leave in the morning. And there’s no way I am going to pass up the chance to get all of our things dried out. There are even outlets where we can charge all of our electronics. True luxury. After we eat we retreat to our little tent and I fall asleep excited for tomorrow.