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Nova Scotia: Cape Breton and Beyond

by Kristin Nord

Cape Breton Island, located in the northeastern corner of Nova Scotia, and separated from the rest of the province by the narrow straight of Canso, remains a world apart, blessed with extraordinary scenery and more than 1200 miles of ocean coastline. It boasts the highest hills, and in its legendary highlands, the oldest rocks in the province. Whether its steep sided coastal slopes, deserted sandy beaches, or the primordial shapes of stunted balsam fir on the highlands plateau, Cape Bretons landscapes tend to be dramatic and provocative. 

My favorite route, perfected after many summer visits, begins at the Canso Causeway and speeds me north on the TransCanada Highway to Whycocamagh, a hamlet adjacent to a reserve held by Nova Scotias native people, the Mikmaqs, then across to the sun-kissed Margaree Valley, a region famous for its salmon fishing. To the south along the coast are the predominantly Scots Catholic settlements of Judique, Port Hood, Mabou and Inverness. These are inhabited by hearty descendants of the Scots Highlanders who arrived from the early 1800s on. This is where youll hear the Gaelic in the music and and in the cadences of English as it is spoken. 
 The islands settlers clung to the oral traditions they brought with them -- and Cape Breton, even today, like a migratory route studded with pins, is a place showcased in its music and its stories -- some dating back to the Middle Ages, a legacy from pre-industrial Europe; others pure Nova Scotian, connecting the people with the provinces natural environment and history. A visitor quickly grasps that this oral tradition serves as a tribal language of sorts, imparting the cultures landmarks and re-enforcing common values. 

 If there is an instrument that people most readily associate with Cape Breton, its the fiddle. And fiddle music, in turn, remains rooted a form of rhythmic hardshoe dancing that is related to Irish stepdancing but performed essentially from the knees down, or as a Cape Bretoner would say, close to the floor. Cape Breton sets generally move from the sweet or mournful to the earthy and the exuberant, offering a musical spin on the full emotional experience. With a pianist adding a percussive accompaniment to the mix -- soon the hall is vibrating with rhythm. 

 For a first-time visitor, the best way to experience this music is to attend a concert or a parish festival, or one of the regions year-round weekly family dances.  Pay close attention to proper etiquette -- you are really a guest at these events -- and take your lead from the natives.  Chances are, and often without your knowing it, youll already be encountering descendants of the islands legendary musical and dancing families. Rankins, Beatons, MacMasters, MacIsaacs and MacDonalds play dominant roles in the Canadian Maritime musical scene...and youll see many a mailbox with these names in your travels. 

When you are in Margaree, call ahead to see if The Normaway Inn will be hosting a barn concert.  Or when you reach Mabou, catch a session at the Red Shoe Pub -- an establishment  named for a well-known Cape Breton fiddle tune -- where  youre likely to hear any of the leading lights, or the latest  up and coming young musician on the wooden platform.  Leaving Mabou youll pass through Inverness, a former mining town where youll  encounter vestiges of the towns history in the dilapidated red houses, built for the workers and their families, that still form a grid of streets in the town center. Alistair MacLeod, arguably Cape Bretons finest living author, grew up just minutes away from here, and I always try to revisit his stories when I come this way. Island life has never been easy -- and generations of Cape Breton workers have been forced to leave to find work in disparate parts of the world. Macleods stories often speak of this aching displacement. Its why the homecomings in the summer -- the large family reunions at the outdoor church festivals like the one at Broad Cove just down the road from Inverness -- seem so poignant. 

 Scenery and music seem to reinforce each other in Cape Breton, and its easy to encounter fine examples of both as you move north now, to Cheticamp, in preparation for entering Cape Breton Highlands National Park. From Belle Cote you are in Acadian country -- and this French region already looks and feels different from the Scots/Irish mining and fishing villages you have left behind. Here the original forests were cleared for pasture by Acadian settlers; now the crops appear to be primarily houses trimmed in bright maritime colors. From the shapes of the rooflines to the Acadian cooking and the bell-like cadences of French spoken in all the establishments, this region has a charm that is distinctly its own. I make a point of stopping in at Charlies Country Music Store at the outskirts of Cheticamp proper for an update on island musical gossip and recommendations on recent releases. High on the list this year is J. P. Cormier, a virtuoso fiddler and guitarist who lives in town and who is turning out to be a prodigiously talented songwriter. 

 Aim to arrive in Cheticamp in time for a heaping bowl of mussels at La Chaloupe, a little restaurant on the waterfront, and a concert at the Dorymans Beverage House or Le Gabriel. The next morning, senses sated, head into the Cape Breton Highlands. The views in this wilderness area become dramatic fast as the land rises steeply out of the ocean to the plateau that is over 1500 feet high in some parts. The park, which incorporates more than 590 square miles of land in the northern parts of Inverness and Victoria counties, is active for recreation year-round, offering nearly 125 miles of hiking trails. 

 A visitor could spend his entire vacation in the park, attending lectures about the history and geology and animal life, and hiking and camping. There are 27 signed and well-maintained trails to choose from, each with something significant to offer.  Id suggest the newly refurbished Skyline Trail  and The Bog Trail for starters. On the Skyline Trail youll pass stands of tamarack, black spruce, balsam fir and white birch as you make your way out onto a headland cliff that overlooks the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It was on this trail that my husband and I encountered our first moose, and sighted our first bear through binoculars.  The Bog Trail with its harsh landscape of stunted spruce and tamarack, and its tanin-tinted ponds, is another favorite. Follow the well-marked naturalists signs in search of fringed orchids, hooded ladies tresses, bog rosemary and sheep laurel. 
 The switchbacks traversing the northern edges of the park are best taken slowly, as many a car has burned out clutches and brakes here.  One summer my husband and I had just successfully navigated a particularly steep descent when our steering mechanism failed on level ground.  We were about  40 miles from the nearest service station, but blessedly near an emergency telephone. 

 On less eventful trips we try to schedule an overnight at The Markland Resort, a place with simple pine cabins and a fine chef who has done his best to invigorate a cuisine that has tended to be overly dependent upon on creamed sauces and cooked carrots. The Markland overlooks the Aspy Mountain range -- and the deserted beach is restorative in the best sense of the word. This is also an excellent place from which to take a whale watch excursion. In the evening check out the Octagon House next door for entertainment. Though youre in one of the most  sparsely populated spots on the island,  Cape Bretons finest fiddlers routinely travel to venues like this throughout the summer. 

 Take a short diversionary route the next morning to Neils Harbor, the little fishing village where the wood frame houses have the same steep pitched roofs youd encounter in parts of Newfoundland. Theres a reason for this, as many of the people who live in Neils Harbor hailed originally from there, and the traces of the Newfie turn-of-phrase can be heard here in everyday conversation. Were heading to Ingonish, a resort town that has long been known for its elegant province-owned-and-operated Keltic Lodge.  The Lodge, with its ornamental plantings, its young female guests outfitted in smocked dresses and the boys in navy blue blazers and brandishing croquet mallets, feels Edwardian almost, a perfect Merchant and Ivory location. 

We are heading south now, bound for St. Anns Bay.  Well stop briefly at Mount Smokey, to look out over the Atlantic Ocean,  if fog has not obscured the view, then on to tiny North Shores The Clucking Hen, named after a piping tune, for some of Nona MacDonalds  fish chowder and fresh-out-of- the-oven bread and biscuits.  Nona has been operating this establishment out of her house in North Shore for the last five years, and her cooking has enabled her to close up shop at the end of the season and head south most winters. 

 Well always take a ferry if were given a choice, and theres a little one on an alternate route that connects us to Englishtown -- where were within striking range of the Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts, and within an easy drive of Baddeck, a yachting town on the Bras d0r Lakes. Baddeck has always seemed to us to get more sunlight than the rest of the island, and on clear summer days, its cheerful harbor is often full of children learning to sail, manning the tillers of Optimists owned and operated by the local yacht club. Alexander Graham Bell fell in love with Baddeck in the early part of this century -- and his descendants continue to summer here at Beinn Bhreah, the familys hillside estate.  The Alexander Graham Bell Museum, operated by Parks Canada,  offers a fascinating look at the life and discoveries of this important inventor. 

 The Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts operates intensive sessions in piping, fiddling and dancing and Gaelic during the summer months, and is well worth a visit. For many of the weeks the grounds are awash in pint-sized kilted youngsters who work and play hard when they are living there. Midday concerts are offered on weekdays with evening concerts scheduled until the end of August. 

 On this ideal trip of mine, there are still days for side trips that could extend your stay a while:  The Miners Museum, for instance, in Glace Bay, where retired miners serve as tour guides and lead you through an abandoned mine shaft. Or a boat trip to the Bird Islands, to see the puffins nesting. And do take a full day trip to visit Fortress Louisbourg, where the islands French and British history of governance is played out. But be sure to leave time for a leisurely dinner at The Lobster Galley in St. Anns Bay, where you can watch loons dive for fish through the restaurants bank of windows while you polish off a salmon dinner. 

 Our final  stop would have to be Glencoe Mills on a Thursday night at the height of the summer season. Traveling to the tiny church hall miles and miles down a dusty dirt road, you have the sensation of moving into the center of the earth somehow -- until abruptly, you see lights ahead, and a field filling up with cars. 

With luck Buddy MacMaster will be the featured player -- and by the time you arrive, the sets will be in full motion. Now 76, with his rock solid timing intact and his customary blend of sweetness and zeal, Buddys music never fails to take me to a deep place where the body is humming and the mind is in synch with each bow stroke on his fiddle. 

Music in the Maritimes, Ive come to see,  is performed not simply as a hobby but as a mission, in the religious sense -- and often as a gift to the parish and community. 

And on evenings like this, theres magic in the dimly lighted hall, the men in dark pants and white shirts and hard leather shoes swirling the women arm to arm. The wooden floor is vibrating from the taps of a hundred or so dancers. Soon one couple is in the spotlight in each line that forms a human chain, tapping favorite steps as they move from the head of the line to the bottom. Buddy digs deeper and deeper into his extensive repertoire as the dance continues from late evening to early morning.  There are tunes he may have just learned mixed with tunes he has known for much of his life, tunes conjuring people he has loved and lost, those whose memory he would invoke and honor. One goes out, happily exhausted, into the still coal-black night,  and imagining this scene will replay itself for generation after generation. It is images like this, which become imprinted memories, that will pull you back to Cape Breton. 



Nova Scotia's Tourism page: http://www.gov.ns.ca/tourism.htm

 

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