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Old-World Nova Scotia

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

Whales make a sound so unique that when you hear it up-close, you don’t need anyone to tell you what it is. That, at any rate, was the way it was for us when we heard a whale expelling an immense amount of air through its blowhole. Immediately, we knew the source, for there is absolutely nothing else that makes a similar sound. Whoompf. Whoompf.

We heard the unmistakable sound while on a whale-watching tour out of Pleasant Bay, Nova Scotia, and just as the captain had guaranteed, we found pilot whales. Because the species exhibits such curiosity, we not only heard these large mammals but saw them over and over again. So far, however, the sightings had been too brief to photograph, and I wondered if our captain could deliver on his promise for photographic opportunities.

Such compelling prospects resulted from our travels along the Cabot Trail, a 185-mile road that scales mountain peaks to peer over ocean vistas and magnificent bays and then descends – almost plummets – down into small fishing villages where at times you may be introduced to languages with exotic images and romantic sounds.

But that wasn’t all. As we wandered past these features we discovered the trail also provided proximity to an imposing and most influential fort; to a campground that doubled as an oyster farm; and to the home of Alexander Graham Bell, who proclaimed to have searched the world for beauty, but could find nothing more appealing than Cape Breton. Now we wanted to see what this land of endless possibilities could offer two dedicated RV travelers who had driven more than 2,500 miles from their home in Montana.

The Cabot Trail is named for John Cabot, a man who attempted to discover a new travel route to India and in doing so became the first explorer to actually set foot in the New World. Remember, in 1492 Columbus never got beyond the West Indies, but five years later John Cabot landed near what is now the little town of South Harbor, a spot along the northeastern shore of Cape Breton Island that now comprises part of the Cabot Trail. Historically, there’s not much to see, but if you love long sweeping beaches, you’ll want to include a stop along the eastern portion of the trail, and then pay homage to Cabot – perhaps the most underrated of Old World explorers.

Chronologically, we began our explorations near Chéticamp, a small fishing village that is also the gateway to Cape Breton Highlands National Park, a Canadian park of lofty peaks and vast seashores that provides a beautiful campground at its western entrance.

Today, the romantic sounds of French-speaking peoples surface constantly in the town of Chéticamp, helping to recall harsh times in the mid-1750s when the English expelled all Acadians, a specific group of Frenchmen and women who settled in Nova Scotia. As well, the town features Les Trois Pignons Interpretive Center, and it focuses on Acadian history.

On the day of our visit, Jacqueline Burton was providing a tour of the complex and explained that the English had expelled Acadians because they wanted to remain neutral in the ongoing conflict between England and France.

“We call it the Great Expulsion, and it was inhumane,” said Burton. “It tore families apart, relocating members to such distant points as New Orleans, where they survive today as the well-known Cajuns.” Continuing, she said that in 1765 the British relaxed their ruling, allowing her family and other Acadians to return to Chéticamp, where they had settled in the early 1700s. Separation from other ethnic groups was easy then because of the constraints imposed by the virtue of vast mountains and huge lakes. In other words, although Chéticamp became French Acadian, it remained an isolated ethnic group, surrounded by Celtic in­fluences, easily accessed now by the Cabot Trail.

About 30 miles south, for instance, is the village of Inverness, noted for the Ceilidh Trail and the Celtic Music Interpretive Center in Judique, which we visited. While there, Andrea Beaton was performing, and her fiddle playing coupled with the stomping of her bare feet created a unique sound that later came to fill our rig (following the purchase of several of her CDs).

Other villages surrounded our Cape Breton campground, and as a guide we used the DVDs of Russell Daigl, another Acadian descendent whose photo studio we visited, and whose travel suggestions we followed. One day we drove to South Harbor and Capstick, which became our favorite of his suggestions – until we drove to Meat Cove, the most isolated and most northern and eastern of all villages in Nova Scotia. Here, from a precipitous bluff, we peered down on the ocean and saw a lone whale in the distance, where it tantalized us with unrealized photographic possibilities.

On another day we made the relatively short drive south to Margaree and considered it to be one of the most photogenic of all the harbors. That day, it was our favorite Daigl suggestion. We saw a fishing boat rolling easily in the soft waves, backdropped by a quaint church with a steeple that rose into a dark blue sky. In turn, it was complemented by the turquoise waters of the Atlantic Ocean, held tight here by Margaree Harbour.

We were discovering that, because of the Cabot Trail’s steepness, remaining at one campground and then making several excursions in our dinghy vehicle best served our interests. One day we drove to the highest point in Cape Breton National Park and found a hiking trail many campers had been telling us about, explaining that the boardwalk often provided great moose sightings. With that thought in mind, we made the drive and entered a land of muskeg. Moose tracks abounded and then, peering at us from the brush, we saw a cow with calf. Discretely we backed away, and watched the pair as they turned away to be swallowed by the boreal forest.

That night we returned to our camp, realizing we’d been in Cape Breton National Park (adjacent to Chéticamp) for almost a week; we could linger no longer. The next day, we headed 75 miles north to Hideaway Campground & Oyster Market, located in South Harbor on Asby Bay. As we drove, we passed an interpretative display describing the various species of whales common to this part of the Atlantic. Peering through binoculars, we searched for whales and seals but saw nothing. How, I was beginning to wonder, would we ever see whales up close?

Continuing, we descended one of the steepest passes I’d ever negotiated, and I dropped the transmission into a lower gear, glad for the recent mechanical examination of our brakes. That afternoon we pulled into the Hideaway Campground and, as luck would have it, arrived the same evening as a group from Holland. The group of about 30 had rented motorhomes and, appropriately, campground owners Alex and Susan Dunphy had planned a night of music in their recreation hall, drawing on the talents of local dancers and fiddlers. The Dutch visitors were ecstatic and I couldn’t resist asking a retired doctor why his group had chosen RV travel.

His response was classic and echoed my own belief. “Because of the freedom,” he said, adding that no other form of travel could serve their needs so well.

That night as we walked back to our rig, the wind was kicking up waves on the shores of nearby Asby Bay – where we kayaked earlier that day. Though the sight of 6-foot-high waves illuminated by moonlight was a delight to watch, it wasn’t that way for all people and certainly not for Alex Dunphy, who leads a double life. One life is, of course, the owner of Hideaway Campground, while the other is a man who can claim to own one of the more unique businesses in Nova Scotia.

As well as being campground owners, the Dunphys also run an oyster business, and Alex had invited us out for a very early morning examination of his farm. Powering away in his jonboat from the small harbor, we soon arrived at one of the immense lines containing the man’s oyster trays. But what a mess the wind had made.

“Just part of the business of growing oysters,” said Dunphy, who then began the hour-long project of untying the mess.

Dunphy said it takes about five years to produce a mature oyster, meaning not just one oyster but the 70,000 oysters he produces annually for diverse markets, mostly in the Cape Breton area. Susan separates the oysters and, depending on size, some will be sold to the cocktail market, others to restaurants that purchase them for entrées. And, of course, campers can buy all they want.

By now we had been traveling the Cabot Trail for almost 10 days and wedecided it was time to drive 50 more miles to the eastern terminus of the trail, where we pulled into St. Ann’s Bay Campground (just across the harbor from Englishtown). The campground placed us close to the Alexander Graham Bell Interpretative Center, where we were introduced to all the other inventions this genius had created besides the telephone.

The campground also provided easy access to Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site of Canada, and although the fort is actually an hour-long drive from the Cabot Trail, it is an attraction all provincial literature includes when discussing the Cabot Trail. After two daytrips to the site, we now contend the fortress may provide one of the best of North America’s Living History programs. Regardless, make the drive, and we promise you’ll be glad you did.

Essentially, Louisbourg owes its early-day existence to the fishing industry and the Catholic religion. Because of its location, Louisbourg not only became a trading post for fishermen (particularly cod), but also a fortress, for whoever controlled this entrance also controlled much of the interior of North America. As a result, the British and French fought over its possession twice, once in 1745 and then again in 1758. Finally, to prevent Louisbourg from falling yet a third time, British soldiers bombarded and burned the fortress until most of it was rendered unusable.

And so it remained until 1950, when more than one-third of the fortress was restored to its original condition in a massive multi-million dollar project intended to provide the area’s out-of-work coal miners with employment. Their work was first-rate, for everything was meticulously restored down to the square handmade nails holding the buildings fast.

Though we took in the old church, ate period food and watched the firing of cannons and guns, one of most engaging of the living history interpreters was a man called Sylvere Samson. Samson personified the old fort’s executioner, and his story was engaging because he was actually following in the footsteps of one his ancestors. Samson said he was related to the first beheader who arrived in North America. “He worked near Quebec City,” said Samson, “and even though no Samsons worked here, Louisbourg did have an executioner, and, here, that’s my role.”

In our continued search to photograph whales and to learn more about these leviathans, we visited a whale museum in Pleasant Bay and talked to local boat captains. All guaranteed sightings and some promised photo opportunities, but eventually we settled on Captain Mark’s Whale and Seal Cruise, for the captain promised to place us close to whales. He also offered some photography tips and had an intense interest in the species’ biology.

“Whales,” said Captain Mark Timmons, “often leap from the water to rid themselves of barnacles in behavior biologists call ‘breaching.’ They also ‘spy hop,’ attempting to survey their surroundings. And they swim together in small pods, the way you’re most likely to see them.”

Though I watched for all these activities, there was no spy hopping or breaching, but suddenly a pod appeared near the boat, diving around us, and once again I heard their characteristic sound of air being expelled from the blowhole.

Whoompf. Whoompf.

Though I had several chances, each was brief, requiring that in the one fleeting instant when several surfaced I had to focus, adjust for exposure and frame the picture.

“It’s not easy,” said Timmons, “and you won’t know until you load them onto your computer and examine your results.”

That night back in our rig, I studied the images, and, yes, I was satisfied. But as I looked at other images, I realized the Cabot Trail had fulfilled all its promises to a couple that had traveled a long, long way from their Montana home.

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