We journeyed by ferry from Wood Islands, Prince Edward Island to Caribou, Nova Scotia early Tuesday morning, after spending the night at the Northumberland Provincial Park campground just a few minutes away. The campground was quite nice and had a beach that we didn't really see, because we got there at night in the rain and left before 6 AM the next day. The staff was very helpful and the bathrooms were clean, and that was pretty much all we needed for the quick stopover. We bade farewell to PEI at dawn and enjoyed breakfast while making the quick 75-minute journey across the Northumberland Strait aboard the mv Confederation.
As soon as we drove off the ferry in Caribou, we knew this province would provide a completely different experience than what we had in the others. We were instantly awestruck by the landscape. While PEI had peaceful, pastoral views of calming agricultural pursuits, Nova Scotia appeared dramatic and rugged, with cliffs that erupt into the sky and plummet into the sea. In some areas, the mountains expose bare, glistening granite. In other areas, mixed growth trees cover the hills, while elsewhere, there's nothing more than a verdant frosting of low-lying scrubland.
Nova Scotia's dramatic coastline: cliffs, forests, scrubland, and sea
With such an early start to our day, we headed directly to Cape Breton Island to try our luck at getting a campsite in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The park includes a great portion of the Cabot Trail, which loops around Cape Breton Island and is a place that all of our ad hoc Canadian tour guides have agreed is the number one must-see on Nova Scotia. We chose to take the route going north on the west side of the island, so we took a left after crossing over the Strait of Canso.
We quickly learned that the Cape Breton Island is a mixture of cultures. The traffic signs appeared in English and Gaelic, in Mi'kmaq, and then farther up the coast, in French and English. As we passed through the Ceilidh section of the trail on the southern part of the coast, we saw signs for Celtic music festivals and gatherings. Farther north, many people displayed the Acadian flag on their properties, with or without the Canadian flag. The farther north we travelled, we saw more French, with some establishments showing no English signs at all. It was a bit challenging at times because neither one of us is very proficient in French and when I tried to speak French to a man at the gas station, he just looked at me funny and asked me what I was speaking. Eventually, he said "Bienvenue" to which I replied a sincere, if somewhat sheepish "Merci," after being reminded that I quit taking French in 1978 for the very reason that the instructors seemed to lose patience with my inability to mimic the accent exactly. Oh well. At least I tried.
Acadian and Canadian flags
Acadian flag made into a lighthouse, Chéticamp, Nova Scotia
We arrived at the national park just north of Chéticamp to receive the excellent news that there was only one campsite available and it fit our needs perfectly! We hung up a clothesline and tied our bikes up to the picnic table to mark it, and then headed down to town to have some lunch at a restaurant next to the harbor. We were pretty tired after our very early morning start, so we hit the sack early. The campground was very peaceful, and even though it was full, it didn't feel crowded at all.
The next day, we took a 20-minute drive up the coast from the campground to the Skyline trailhead. This trail goes through three different types of forest: Acadian, boreal, and taiga. The Acadian designation was new to us, and basically is the mixed vegetation of conifers and deciduous trees that grow after previously cleared agricultural land is abandoned, providing environmental evidence of the area's cultural history. Skyline is famous for its sunsets, but we had heard that the weather might change for the worse by evening, so we wanted to get the hike in before we missed it altogether.
This is where the real drama of the Nova Scotia landscape unfolded for us! We hiked past rocky hillsides:
We saw sheer cliffs that plummeted into the sea:
We found scrublands surrounded by forests:
And enjoyed views across the sea, so vast that they disappeared into the horizon:
There was even a boardwalk with several seating areas to contemplate the sheer magnificence of this place:
Words to describe this trail fail me. It was just too big, too grand, and too impressive to be identified with mere words. But something occurred to me as we completed the loop back to the trailhead. I remembered that there is a Buddhist monastery just a little farther up the coast from here. The principal teacher there has written a lot about acceptance, letting go, and approaching life's uncertainties and difficulties with kindness instead of bitterness. And I thought to myself that a person who lived in this place, this vast place where human size is so insignificant by comparison, would be compelled to identify how small an individual's concerns really are on a universal scale. I though that if a person could recognize the relative size of his or her worries in this place, it could make the act of letting go of anger or disappointment or heartache seem--well--easier. Surely, I thought, the weight of one person's difficulties could be absorbed by this massive place, if one were simply to let them go. And surely, the relief from letting them go could feel as massive as the views from this place itself. I think that perhaps, for me, this is the greatest gift of all from this breathtaking location.