Mainland Trans-Canada Highway 104 intersects with Nova Scotia Highway 105 as you cross the Strait of Canso onto Cape Breton Island. The August 1955 opening of the two lane causeway of stone and blacktop, was attended by thousands and 100 bagpipers were scheduled to march and play. In what still remains a mystery, only 99 bagpipers showed up. Unconfirmed rumors had Angus MacFee refusing to play with Tommy McDonald. Angus was quoted in the local pub as saying, “Tommy’s a poser. Ask his mum. I won’t pipe with a poser.”
I was scheduled to meet Peg and Duncan MacEachern in Baddeck, a small town on Bras d’Or Lake, an hour and a half north of Port Hawkesbury. They had gotten me a ticket for a Celtic Colours concert featuring Rhiannon Giddens, along with two groups of local artists. When I arrived at The Inverary Resort, we were joined by Uncle Mike and Aunt Amy. Like me, they were also staying at Duncan’s family’s place over in Judique on the other side of the island. But tonight, we were staying in Baddeck to listen to some music.
MacAulay Conference Centre is about 100 yards behind the resort and seats about 200 people. As we sat down Mike ordered a bucket of beers and we settled in. The night’s performers included, Ben Miller and Anita MacDonald, “blending the rich traditional sound of the Cape Breton fiddle, with the fiery edge of the Scottish Border pipes.” Along with The Hanneke Cassel Trio, featuring Mike Block on cello and guitarist Keith Murphy, “fusing influences from the Isle of Skye and Cape Breton with Americana grooves and musical innovations, this group creates a cutting-edge acoustic sound that retains the integrity and spirit of the Scottish tradition.” But the headliners were Rhiannon Giddens and Dirk Powell, “with roots in North Carolina and Kentucky, their musical heritage springs from places where the mix is particularly potent. Rhiannon brought African-American string-band traditions a new and beautiful vitality through The Carolina Chocolate Drops, and has launched a versatile solo career that confirms her status as a major American artist for this day and age.” Got all that? We were in for a unique evening of music, performed in a small intimate setting. Woo.
While I do not profess to be anything approaching an expert on music – in particular Celtic, Gaelic and Scottish music – I do have a pretty good ear. During the next hour, Ben Miller, Anita MacDonald and The Hanneke Cassel Trio, treated my ears to a joyous, raucous tour of fiddle, pipes and guitar playing. The best of which was done, so I’m told, in traditional Cape Breton style. Which to my untrained ear sounds a lot like the fiddle players my parents listened to on The Grand Ole Opry radio show when I was a boy. But the headliners…oh my. If you do nothing else after reading this, Google Rhiannon Giddens and find out were she’s playing, buy a ticket and send me a thank you letter the next day. She and Dirk Powell were beyond that good. It’s seldom that a performer can reduce an audience to complete silence in anticipation of a note. But she did. It is a rare performer that can hold an audience in the palm of her hand and coyly toy with them at will. But she can and did. Her version of the Patsy Cline standard, ‘She’s Got You’ moved every person in the room to the edge of their seat and then as if willed to levitate, gave her the standing ovation she deserved. It was a stunning display of stage presence, raw talent polished until gleaming with confidence and a voice that hit notes from the deepest bottom to the highest reaches. She was something to behold.
The following morning, Duncan and I drove across the island to the inn his father, Duncan Sr. had designed and built by hand, over a period of three years between 2000 and 2003. I had heard about the Inn on the Intervale for several years and it did not in any way disappoint. Carved out of the woods on a sloping bank of the Intervale River and built with the downed timbers, the 15 bedroom, 17 bathroom inn is a work of art, by a man who loved his home of Cape Breton Island. When I walked in the front door I instantly felt comfortable – at home. Duncan gave me a tour and you can’t help but come away impressed with Duncan Sr’s vision, skill and drive. He created a home for his large family of boys (8, 9, 10 – I forget how many Mac boys there are) and a family that extends in a thousand directions through aunts, uncles, wives, children, grandchildren and friends. It’s a masterpiece matched only by the hospitality of the innkeepers.
Most of the day was spent walking around the grounds, exploring the great barn, fishing hut and listening to stories. Peg and Dunc, along with Mike and Amy and their friends Connie and Gary from Alna, Maine who were also staying at the inn. Gary had pinched something in his back on a hike earlier in the week and had spent several days lying on his back in pain. Of course being an outdoorsman from Maine, Gary shrugged off the pain as a city dweller may offhandedly wave at a pigeon. It was impressive Gary. When I first heard of your plight I sloughed into the closest bathroom and cried.
As the end of daylight approached, Duncan asked if I was interested in taking a hike along a trail that borders the Gulf of St Lawrence – the body of water on the western side of Cape Breton. Of course. He said that the trail ran along the back of a few properties where the two women that take care of the inn, also are caretakers. Marie and Little Marie. “You’ll love em. Marie doesn’t say much, but Little Marie doesn’t stop talking. She has a story for everything.” So at dusk, we hopped into two vehicles and made the 15 minute drive with Gary laying down in the backseat of his truck. We were going to lead Connie to a point on the hill where she and Gary could watch the sunset without having to get out and walk. The rest of the group drove over to meet Marie and Little Marie.
We were met by two women and a friendly golden dog. The women looked like a textbook page labeled ‘mismatched clones’. Marie wore blue jeans, a blue beanie, a hoodie under a navy jacket and big rubber boots. She also carried a large walking stick and had a ready smile. Little Marie was, well…little. She also wore blue jeans, a blue jacket, rubber boots and carried a walking stick. Her cheeks were as red as a freshly picked rose. You got the sense that one was a no nonsense type of gal, while the other never met a joke she didn’t repeat. I immediately liked them both and when we shook hands I knew I was being led by two Cape Bretoners. You could feel it in their hands.
We walked along a trail that curved above the open water a hundred feet below, never more than a few paces from the edge. Then through a brief stand of pines before opening once again to the sea. The sun was beginning to dip, yet on this mostly cloud covered night, still managed to throw light on its decent. As we made our way back along the trail, Duncan turned to me and said, “Where else can you walk along a stretch like this on private land, where the owners encourage people to take in the view? Not many.” I would agree Duncan. It was a remarkable stroll.
The next day was moving day. Mike, Amy, Connie and Gary left before dawn. They had about a 12 hour trip south to Alna, Maine and wanted to get an early jump. When I woke up an hour or so after they left, my first thought was we hadn’t really said a proper goodbye. My second thought was hoping Gary could get comfortable on what was to be a long day. Peggy and Duncan were also leaving to begin their journey back to Michigan, the inn was closing for the season and it was time for Marie and Little Marie to begin care-taking duties in earnest. My plan was to head up to the Cabot Trail, eventually making it to the northern tip of Cape Breton and spend the night in Meat Cove. So after the pumpkin tossing ceremony, I said goodbye to Peggy and Duncan, thanked them for their warm welcome and hit the road. Meat Cove was a long drive and I knew there would be countless stops along the way.
Virtually every year, the Cabot Trail, named after the explorer John Cabot, is voted one of the world’s most beautiful drives. Whether winding along both raggedy coasts, dipping to the sea, following the Margaree River or turning inland to cross the spectacular rugged highlands of Cape Breton Highlands National Park, the Cabot Trail endlessly amazes. My journey took me up the west coast of the island, before leaving the trail at Cape North, heading northwest to remote Meat Cove. My plan was to spend the night in Meat Cove and then finish the rest of the Cabot Trial on the eastern side of the island the following day. So onward and upward I traveled. Until all semblance of a normal road ended. But just as suddenly as it ended, pavement began again. Then stopped. Then magically appeared again….You get the picture. Where there was road it was decent blacktop. Where there was no pavement, it was a rutted dirt, rock strewn, narrow, cliff hanging 5 miles per hour test of will. The good folks of Meat Cove know how to keep people out. But when I arrived at the top, a saw that a few of us had made it through. Two RVs to be exact. One which was mysteriously on the other side of the rope in the Meat Cove Campground, obviously and unfortuntely closed for the season. Undaunted, I walked over to the one fellow traveler parked next to me and told him I had planned on spending the night. “Me too.” Not much separating us from a spot to park. Just that rope. I say we take it down. “Tell you what. You take it down and I’ll put it back after we park on the other side. That way we are both complicit.” I walked over to the rope, clicked the carabiner and he drove in. I followed suit and he returned the rope. Co-conspirators at the top of Cape Breton.
The next morning my fellow camper – from Rhode Island – and I repeated the rope removal process and were on our way. I was heading to Ingonish Beach, historic Keltic Lodge and the trail leading to a point jutting into the sea behind the lodge. Ingonish Beach is made up of two distinct materials, one following the other, but rarely overlapping. When you first approach the beach through the sea grass, you are greeted by smooth rocks of all shapes and sizes. Literally a beach made of stones. As you walk further toward the sea, a great mixture of surfaces and textures on your feet, the rocks give way to perfect golden sand, stretching down and into the water. It’s as if the ocean has pushed the rocks back so that the sand can flourish. And I appreciated that.
A short drive around the bay – I think the drive up the property is longer – the Keltic Lodge regally sits, flouting her elegance and dominance over Middlehead Peninsula. Built on land that was expropriated from Thomas Edison’s good friends Henry and Julia Corson of Akron, Ohio, the Keltic Lodge was in operation for two seasons, before the government closed the hotel in 1942. In 1946, after the end of the war, the hotel reopened and has been a landmark destination ever since. Tucked behind the lodge is the trail-head that leads you to the end of Middlehead Peninsula. About a two mile walk through posted coyote country – pardon? – the trail leads through pristine forest that teases you with small glimpses of the ocean between their branches. This day was sunny and uncommonly warm and by the time I reached the point I had shed my coat and shirt – down to just a tee shirt. The roar of the surf, taking out the end of its thousands mile journey on the rocks, was deafening. The wind added its vocals to the symphony and I sat for a long time listening, before rising and heading back up the trail. I was off to Bay of Fundy and Maine below.