My Tenure On High: The Cape Breton Highlands and the Majesty Therein

The dawn chorus, as it’s known, takes place at first light particularly in spring and early summer, a consequential time for the myriad species of nesting bird across Nova Scotia. It begins timidly, with a few of the more light sensitive species piping up first, marking territories, attracting mates or carrying out any number of mysterious biological functions. Within minutes more chime in, until the air is lit with hundreds of ethereal voices.

Their songs continue in one form or another all day, but their crescendo was just before 6am, waking me with more charm and promise than any alarm clock ever could. I’d never experienced the dawn chorus so close before, typically frustrated by thick, homestead walls or a complete lack of wilderness, but here in the Cape Breton Highlands, the former was replaced by an unsubstantial nylon tent, and the latter surrounded me in wondrous abundance.

Until visiting this most exceptional of national parks I’d lived and explored much of eastern Canada, from southwestern Ontario to Prince Edward Island and most of mainland Nova Scotia, places diverse in their people but less so in their landscapes. By choice to visit the Highlands wasn’t simply to camp, but also to see mountains…

Cape Breton Highlands
Cape Breton Highlands.
Zack Metcalfe photo

An Initial Summit

Approaching the Highlands by car is like coming upon a line in the sand, drawn there by geology and its workings over millennia. For hours there is flatness, perhaps interrupted by the occasional rolling hill when, entirely without warning, the landscape erupts into a spectacular collections of smooth, green giants. Such upwellings of Earth were described by Jack Kerouac as mighty buddhas, meditating away the centuries in absolute peace, and it was an appreciable description. These ancient peaks, rounded by time, stood as their own self contained kingdom, shadowing the nearby community of Chéticamp.

I spent the evening admiring them, never having seen anything remotely mountainous in my life. Some say it isn’t a true mountain unless it exceeds 1,000 metres but I think, within reason, it should depend on the beholder. The tallest point in all of Nova Scotia, for example, is White Hill at 535 metres up, standing among these very peaks. For the time being, they would do for this lowly Maritimer.

The dawn chorus struck on my first morning in the Highlands, and spurred me on to climb my very first mountain, the highest one then available at 450 metres up. This was the Aspy Trail on the park’s northern boundary, its driveway fenced off for whatever uninviting reason and obliging me to hike even for the trailhead. The sun was punishing and the gravel was dry, giving me no inkling of the majesty just beyond.

At the trailhead there waited a waterfall, a sloping cascade of bulbous rocks matted by downcast moss and showering everything nearby with bouncing streams of water. Immediately the dead air was made moist and cool, a state of affairs which would follow me throughout Aspy. It was maintained first by an exceptional stand of mature forest, its canopy allowing only clear beams of sunlight to pass here and there, its undergrowth of ferns host to an enduring cloud of fog. To the left this forest stretched upward and out of sight, and to the right it devolved into messy deadwood bordering a stream, at that time flowing quietly.

As you progress the trail inclines gradually, mimicking your average hardy hike until you look down and see the river, once alongside you, rests at the bottom of a precipitous drop. The mature forest of before slowly gives way to shorter bush and the trail itself becomes thrillingly narrow. A company of four, once capable of walking abreast, now becomes a line, led by them with the longest walking stick.

Eventually every step must be calculated because the slope from left to right is considerable and the trail at times consists of old, mossy wooden bridges over several small streams. There is another waterfall, tall and slender, drenching one of these bridges to the anxiety of everyone crossing. At each turn the plantlife is sublime, growing with the full force of unhindered wilderness. I am immensely grateful upon reaching the top.

Here you find a peak of weeds and grasses and the very occasional tree, windswept and gnarled. There is also one of Parks Canada’s signature red chairs, encouraging you to look back at your accomplishment. Here was my first true vista, a height from which you can appreciate all sizes and spaces. I stood atop South Mountain, and across an immense gap was North Mountain, its canopies covered with the whiteish hue of distance. The aforementioned river had carved a valley between the two, lost somewhere between these twin giants and their trees. When I sat, I sat heavily, surrendering myself to the heights of my first mountain, now as thoroughly addicted as the mountaineer John Muir.

Cape Breton Highlands
Cape Breton Highlands.
Zack Metcalfe photo

Lone Shieling

I asked the staff of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park where I might find outstanding forests and they pointed without pause to the Lone Shieling Trail. There, they said, stood a hardwood old growth forest which had never known the axe, a small portion of which was accessible by trail. They described it as “virgin forest,” rarer in Nova Scotia than the unicorn.

The morning I visited was one of heavy rain, but I resolved to get wet rather than miss out on this eastern treasure. The Lone Shieling Trail is among the shortest in the Highlands yet easily my favourite. Stepping into its forest was an exercise in worship, seeing for the first time nature at its full potential. Sugar maples over 350 years old stood like the beams of some great cathedral and the undergrowth consisted chiefly of saplings awaiting their chance at the sunlight.

Far from ruining the experience, the rain brought this forest’s stream to life and filled most leaves with suspended pools of water. So sizable were some of these pools that they could be slurped by all who passed, the hardwoods giving this trail a sweeter aroma than there softwood counterparts, and the light reaching us hikers was manipulated to the brighter end of the spectrum. When the sun returned it reached the ground as soft reds and yellows, as through passing through a stained church window. The trees themselves were deserving of individual attention, each growing with visible personality to heights in excess of 25 metres.

What astonished me most about this trail wasn’t the plantlife but rather the stream it sheltered, pooling quietly just beyond the walkway. I went to its bank and couldn’t believe the purity of its water, so flawlessly cleaned by the surrounding forest that I couldn’t tell where water ended and air began. Fish swam through it as though airborne and I watched them entranced. Everywhere I’ve lived, the actions of even light rain would muddy all nearby streams, a testament to the inadequacies of our fleeting wilderness. Here is how a stream ought to look, and a forest ought to function.

Cape Breton Highlands
Cape Breton Highlands.
Zack Metcalfe photo

The Bear

It was getting late on my last day and I still hadn’t seen the moose for which these Highlands are known. So, I took to the Acadian Trail, leading through a gorgeous river valley to a winding trail 365 metres up. Here is a peak overlooking the lowlands on which Chéticamp is built, appearing immensely beautiful as the sunset emphasized its wide river and bathed everything a deep red. I could also see the steep cliffs along which wound the Cabot Trail.

On this hike, which lasted many hours, I refrained from making even the slightest of sounds. All words were whispers and all steps were gentle. There were no strangers on this trail so my odds of seeing a moose could not have been better. My head, on a swivel, scanned every possible corner in which a moose might be hiding, standing so still it might blend with the rock. I never did find one, but my caution had a spectacular unintended consequence.

Only one lookout remained on this trail, again overseeing Chéticamp, and approaching it on tiptoe I stopped just short of turning the wooded corner. Through these few trees I saw a small face, round and brown, considering me with interest, and perhaps a smidgen of apprehension, from the lookout.

This was a bear. More to the point this was a baby bear whose mother no doubt lurked within earshot. I’ve been told time and again that Black bears aren’t generally aggressive, but whenever their cubs were involved, all bets were off. I had watched Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Revenant only days prior to my visit and a fatal mauling was chief on my mind.

But I couldn’t move. Here I had been pursuing moose and come across something far more rare, so I sank slowly to my knees and watched this intrepid youngster, examining his adorable features and trying that telepathic communication apparently extant between all living things. He must not have appreciated my overtures of friendship because after a few minutes he began howling. He also turned and ran into the woods, confirming with dreadful certainty the location of his waiting mother.

I picked up my walking stick and continued down the mountain at a deliberate pace, casting glances behind me and laughing nervously all the way.

Cape Breton Highlands
Cape Breton Highlands.
Zack Metcalfe photo

A Debt That’s Owing

The Cape Breton Highlands National Park has nearly thirty established trails and every single one of them – particularly the three profiled above – is deserving of your time. You own it to yourself to stop at its frequent lookouts and find its oceanfront cliffs. It’s your responsibility to be woken by the dawn chorus rather than your cell phone. And for the love of all that is wild, when you arrive to this modern paradise, ripe with life-enriching opportunities, turn off your phone, leave your computers behind and tolerate no disrespect to this place or its creatures. I had several such failed explorers camping on either side of my small tent, drilling artificial lights into trees and spending their days typing away on laptops, missing one of the finest experiences in the Maritimes.

The season is upon us to admire this park once more, and I insist that you seize it.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, author, and writer active across the Maritimes. This article was originally published with Your Local Atlantic.

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