The Spectacular Northwestern Inverness County Coast

Introduction

For a long time I have wanted to see Polletts Cove, surrounded by the Polletts Cove-Aspy Fault Wilderness Area.¹ The Polletts Cove Trail runs from the trail head at Archies Brook (at the end of the Red River Road beyond the Gampo Abbey north of Pleasant Bay) over the Black Cliffs, Black Brook Mountain, and unnamed coastal mountains north of Otter Brook to Polletts Cove, as described in Michael Haynes’ Hiking Trails of Cape Breton, 2nd edition, pp. 97-99. He rates the arduous 15 km (9.4 mi) round trip as 5: “[suitable] only for experienced and very fit outdoor people.” On 2007 October 17, I made it up Black Brook Mountain, as described here, less than 2 km (1¼ mi) from the trail head, where I abandoned the trail due to the day’s bone-chilling temperatures; I judged it, to the point where I turned around, plenty hard but no more physically challenging than other Cape Breton trails I had successfully hiked. In the years since then, I haven’t made it back because it requires not only advance planning and positioning for an extra-early start but also long days, a spell of excellent weather, no music along the Cèilidh Trail, and no other commitments, a rare set of coöccurrences at the times I’m in Cape Breton.

Since I turned 70 on my last birthday and am moving even slower than in previous years, it seemed as if I was never going to lay eyes on this storied spot. This past spring, when I spent four great days in Meat Cove, my host and friend Hector Hines, knowing full well my deep interest in this coast and in Polletts Cove in particular from our discussions around the marvellous winter photos of the area he had generously contributed for my Cape Breton’s Winter Colours photo essay (see here and especially here), proposed a late August boat trip to Polletts Cove from Bay St Lawrence, when the music would have wound down and he would no longer be lobster fishing and be able to spare a day in which to make the trip. During a whale-watching cruise on 2009 August 5 with Oshan Whale Watch out of Bay St Lawrence, I saw the coast from Bay St Lawrence to a bit past Cape St Lawrence and I have twice hiked the loop trail from Meat Cove to Cape St Lawrence to Lowland Cove and back to Meat Cove, once in each direction, so I had good close-up land views of the area as far south as Lowland Cove (see my Cape St Lawrence and Lowland Cove photo essay for photos from the first of those hikes), but only distant views from there and from MacKenzies Mountain (such as these winter views and this summer panorama) of the rest of the coast south to Black Brook Mountain. Such a trip as Hector proposed would bring much of the rest of this coast far closer to my eyes (and camera) than any views I had seen heretofore, so I, of course, leaped at the chance! I arranged with Hector to stay at Hines’ Ocean View Lodge Tuesday and Wednesday nights and assumed we’d go for the boat trip on the first excellent-weather day on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday.

Accordingly, on Tuesday, 2012 August 21, I made my way north with the events from a wonderful week-end of music fresh in my mind and with the tunes still reverberating—Mike Hall and Kathleen LeBlanc Poirier at the Doryman in Chéticamp, Wendy MacIsaac and Jackie Dunn-MacIsaac at the West Mabou dance, the Cape Breton Fiddlers’ Association Festival of Fiddling at St Anns, and the Brook Village dance with Kinnon and Betty Lou Beaton, Rodney MacDonald, Robbie Fraser, and Joey Beaton. When I left, it wasn’t the most magnificent of days, still recovering from Monday’s rains, so I took my sweet time driving north to Meat Cove, assuming the weather there was the same as I was experiencing. I explored the Jersey Cove Road for the first time; stopping for photos at South Ingonish Harbour, Ingonish Beach, and the wharf in Ingonish; taking the longer, but vastly more beautiful detour off the Cabot Trail from Neils Harbour to White Point to South Harbour; and all of the many mandatory stops for the breath-taking views along the Meat Cove Road. The photos I took along the way show plenty of clouds and not too much sun, though there was some; even at Bay St Lawrence, clouds descended below the top of the Cape North Massif and some haze lay in the air. At Meat Cove, however, the skies were blue, the sun was bright, and the air was crystal clear: upon arriving late in the afternoon, I found Hector fretting that I hadn’t gotten there earlier, as the weather in Meat Cove had been like that all day long, making it a perfect afternoon for the planned boat trip. Had I but known, I could easily have been there before noon!

Wednesday, I was up early and found some light overcast above, through which the sun was breaking pretty encouragingly; the waters were reasonably placid—some visible currents and patterns in the water, but no white caps in the light and variable winds. When Hector called, I was ready to go and he thought, as did I, that the overcast would soon burn off, as it had so many days this summer (and actually did later in the day), making ideal conditions for the trip. Accordingly, we agreed to meet at the Bay St Lawrence Marina for a 9h15 departure. Hector didn’t take his own lobster fishing boat, but had arranged for a fellow lobsterman friend of his, Floyd MacKinnon, to pilot us in his; we were joined at the wharf for the trip by a couple staying in Hector’s cabin in Meat Cove and by the captain’s daughter and her boy friend.

When I arrived in Bay St Lawrence, the sun was out, but there were clouds over the massif still and white clouds covered most of the skies to the south over Aspy Bay. It was still pretty good looking out Cape St Lawrence way and accordingly, we set off at the appointed time. I didn’t take many photos from Bay St Lawrence to Cape St Lawrence in order to conserve my memory chips for the coast south of Cape St Lawrence (and I already had the 2009 photos), but by the time we passed Meat Cove fifteen minutes later in sunny weather, the cloud cover over Aspy Bay had moved over the Highlands south of Meat Cove as well, though the air itself then remained clear of any haze.

Once we'd rounded Cape St Lawrence about 9h45, I began shooting photos with abandon—I took 1640 photos on this trip—that’s a little over 6 photos a minute, so I was a busy guy! The winds picked up, definite white caps made forward going rougher, and a squall line moving north and east from the south and west of us in the Gulf paralleled the coast. The sun soon disappeared behind the cloud cover and the photos quickly started to deteriorate as we reached Lowland Cove, but, by then, it was far too late to abandon the trip for a later try another day.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, my late uncle, an excellent and avid sailor, was kind enough to include me on numerous several-day sailing trips on his sailboat, some on Lake Ontario, where the winds have a wide sweep and raise the waters to prodigious heights (I remember a couple of days where the waves towered over the mast as we rolled down into the trough of a giant wave), so I fortunately have no problems of seasickness and actually enjoy rough, rolling waters; nothing I experienced on this trip came even close to the waves I remember from then. So, holding on against the constant heavy rolling motion of the seas as best I could with one hand whilst I shot with the other (the camera’s image stabilization generally performed amazingly well), I gazed enchantedly at cliffs dropping into the Gulf from the height of the Cape Breton Highlands Plateau; cols; valleys carved by brooks and streams; mouths of brooks; waterfalls; sand/gravel/rock litter left behind by landslides and exposed by erosion; fantastic eroded rock formations; caves; rock pillars; trees; and green coastal plains above the cliffs as they succeeded one another while we went south along the spectacular northwestern Inverness County coast. Alas, many of the photos I got here are dark as the sun was absent; the storms in the squall line moved towards the land and the winds freshened even more, making the going very rough indeed. Then the squalls hit, briefly dumping down rain as we all scrambled inside the cabin—a couple hiking between Cape St Lawrence and Lowland Cove reported that they had to take shelter under trees from the hail falling there.) The squalls were gone in less than five minutes, replaced by blue skies and sun asea and to the north, with some fluffy white cumulus clouds to the west, but grey rain clouds persisted to the south and over the Highlands and added a considerable amount of haze to the air. By the time we reached and passed to the south of Polletts Cove, where we turned around for the return trip, the sun was just beginning to brighten up the local scene once more and thereafter the sun became increasingly stronger as we continued north on the return trip to Bay St Lawrence. As a friend of mine recently put it, “when it comes to weather on the coast, a lot can happen in a matter of minutes.”

I wish the photos of Polletts Cove were brighter—I have worked diligently to squeeze every bit of clarity from them that I could—but they are what I have, they reflect what I saw, and they caught most of the details of the scenery. Having at least some sun on the way back allowed me to reshoot the coast that was in the dark on the way south, so I actually ended up with fairly good photographic coverage of this incredible coast. We rounded Cape St Lawrence on the return trip a bit past 13h, reaching far calmer waters and pure blue skies.

Hector Hines
Hector Hines

What a joy it was for me to make this trip; I wasn't alone: the captain, his daughter and her boyfriend, and Hector hadn't made the trip recently and the other couple, like me, had never seen the coast south of Lowland Cove from close up. We all had a grand time, rolling seas or no, looking at this stunningly beautiful coast. It was a trip I’ll never forget!

When I began writing these words just before New Years Day, I assumed it would take me three months to complete the essay; instead, it has taken nearly six months for me to put it all together: it’s a good thing it is now finally complete, as I will be leaving on my first 2013 trip to Cape Breton in a few days!

Mostly from the photos I took that day, but including a few from the following day, a few from my hikes, and a few from the 2009 boat trip, I have assembled here a remembrance of the amazing scenery we saw from Rhu Pillinn east of Cape St Lawrence to just south of Polletts Cove (and with a final long-distance look at the coast south to MacKenzies Mountain). The topographical maps do not supply place names for many of the features of this now unpopulated coast, so I have introduced some of my own creation for convenience in the descriptions; such convenience names are always enclosed between double quote marks to indicate they have no other standing whatsoever.

This essay is ordered from north to south and, to avoid repetition, I have intermixed the photos taken going and returning, choosing those, even when they were somewhat darker and less photogenic, that best illustrate the geographic features in question. In recent years, I have come to regret that I am not better grounded in geology and natural history, but a geologist I am not, so my speculations and observations made with an untrained eye should be taken with a large grain of salt; I hope those who are geologically up to speed will find the photos of great interest and I would love to hear knowledgeable explanations of the incredible forms seen all along this magnificent coast.

I know of very few photos of this area (and especially the coast between Lowland Point and Polletts Cove) that are on the web—those by Dave Hope seen here and the sixteen available here are two of the few exceptions—so I am especially pleased to contribute these. I dedicate this essay and these photos to Hector, without whom I’d never have been able to see this spectacular coast. How lucky I am to have such a friend!

Victor Maurice Faubert
2013 June 9

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Note 1: For this essay, I highly recommend the Parks Canada Map of Cape Breton Highlands National Park, which is available as a PDF file for free download here (this is the same map as appears in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park of Canada Park Guide and Map that one obtains on paying the entry fee at the Visitors’ Centre at either entrance to the park). It labels many of the geographic features that are named on the topographic maps, which, of course, have better detail.

Note 2: See the description here for the notation I use for GPS (Global Positioning System) coördinates, most of which are those recorded with the photo by the Nikon GP-1 GPS accessory attached to my Nikon D5100 camera. Those dated earlier than 2012 were taken by correlating Griselda’s track logs with the time the camera recorded and could well be off a bit in the second and third digits.

Feedback on the photos and the accompanying commentary, including corrections, is always welcome; send it to the address in the footer below. All of the essays in this series are archived here.


¹ 120 hectares (about 300 acres) at the end of the Polletts Cove Trail, including the shore lines of the Polletts Cove and Blair Rivers and the coast at the mouth of the conjoined rivers along the Gulf of St Lawrence, is in private hands. Its boundaries are shown neither on the Parks Canada map nor on the topographical map, but are given in The Nova Scotia Atlas. The provincial government foolishly declined to purchase this parcel when it came on the market some years ago, claiming that the “asking price [of $1.65 million] was too high”. Matthew Moore, a conservation-minded Pleasant Bay native who had “won $14.9 million in a Lotto 6-49 draw in December 2006” and a descendent of a family that owned the property in the past (the area was populated until about 1940), purchased the tract in October of 2007 in order to keep it out of the hands of foreign developers, according to an article dated 2007 December 7 by Laura Fraser published on-line by The ChronicleHerald (Halifax) [I have a private copy I saved at the time, but the article no longer appears to be available on-line]. The new owner “won’t bar people from visiting the property. [¶] ‘Rest assured there will be no No Trespassing signs going up any time soon,’ he wrote in an e-mail [to Ms Fraser].” An article dated 2007 October 31 by Chris Hayes in The Cape Breton Post is still on-line here: it relates that “Polletts Cove has been in the hands of the same family since 1873. It was originally a Crown grant to the MacLean family in 1861. It passed to the present owners, the MacGregor family, 12 years later.” It also reveals the appraised value of the spectacular “300-plus magnificent acres with a 3,000-foot beach on the ocean, cliffs, two rivers and a river valley, meadows and waterfalls” was just over $500,000, the figure the provincial government used and one that turned out to be “preposterously wrong”, although the actual sale price was not made public.

Photos

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