Morning broke over a small lake in Eastern Cape Breton with a light so soft it almost didn’t seem like dawn. The fall colors were muted but perfectly clear, each stem and leaf fully in depth of field with no glare or sharpness. We ate eggs and drank coffee and eventually broke camp to simply continue north, with no idea what we would do.
Ten or fifteen kilometers up the Cabot Trail — Canadians measure things in kilometers, which is like a mile only less so — there was a sign that said something about a falls, so I turned. Seeing a falls of some sort seemed a nice way to start a day. Plus, it was a dirt road, and I like those. An hour and half later, we had not seen any falls or even a creek or river capable of creating a falls. The road had gone from dirt and gravel, to dirt, to a two track with a sign that said no maintenance proceed at your own risk. We had cut trees and locked axles and forded flooded sections, and crept foot by foot in some sections, but my God, we had seen some spectacular country. The falls, if there even were any, couldn’t compare to a morning spent looking and creeping and being slightly fearful at times of a completely unknown place. And marveling at it all.
Cape Breton is a fascinating mix for me. Having seen most of the lower 48 united states in a fair amount of detail, it is difficult for me to find a comparison. In one moment it feels very much like Appalachia — dense and and damp and verdant; in another high west rocky, wire grass and evergreen; and then Sierra sharp granite and bare half domes; finally northwest Pacific coast crashing and smashing against the cliffs. As a part of Nova Scotia – or “New Scotland” – I can certainly see some of the resemblance, but geologically, Cape Breton and the rest of Nova Scotia came from completely different places — Cape Breton is a remnant of the landmass that we now know as South America and the rest of Nova Scotia is a remnant of a landmass we now know as Africa. Throw in the shared relationship of the Northernmost end of the Appalachian Mountains, a few million years of shifting and faulting and eroding, and you can find a piece of almost everything from everywhere up here if you root around enough. Maybe that explains the mix I feel when I try to find a comparative landscape. In the far northeast, along the coast in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, I said it looked like someone dropped part of Yosemite on the edge of Olympic National Park and filled in the gaps with the Smoky Mountains. Then the road reached the top of the mountain, which isn’t really a top as much as a massive flat spot, and it looked like the stunted evergreen taiga — nothing over 20 or so feet high, and a sparseness of density that made you want a sandwich.
I was trying to make sense of it all at a place called Meat Cove on the northernmost tip of Cape Breton. It’s a long way out a dirt road and consists of two massive cliffs of sheer rock about 300 feet or so high, broken just open enough for a speedy freshwater stream to force its way through to the Gulf of St Lawrence over a beach of fist sized stones. The sea crashes as seas do, and the cliffs yield ground grudgingly with a slab here and there falling away to make exciting formations in the surf, but the most striking thing to me about Meat Cove was the sound. If you think about a beach with crashing waves, you have a sound in your mind, even when the sea is especially violent. A sound that is sort of a mix of the boom from the waves and the hiss of the water moving up and receding from the sand. Here at Meat Cove, there is no sand — the beach is a collection of all sorts of stones, again, around the size your hand; so the sound is the booming of the surf and the clattering of stones thrown first up on the beach and then dragged against each other back off the beach, over and over. I’ve not heard anything like it before, and can only say that it sounded like screaming, but in an oddly calming way. And it was very clear that if we could stay long enough, the screaming would stop and the hissing would start as the stones became ever smaller and quieter grains of sand. I carried a rock around with me as I walked around the beach and studied the cliff walls and listened to the screaming and watched the sea lions stare at me no doubt wondering what I was wasting so much time trying to figure out. Then I set the stone on the beach with all the others and headed away to the other side of Cape Breton.
We are across the top now, sleeping in Aspy Bay on a great piece of land overlooking the oyster beds. The guy who owns the land, owns the oyster beds. You can get place to camp and, if you go early enough, a plate of fresh oysters shucked by the guy who made them. And he actually makes them. He takes oysters from the bay and brings them to his hatchery where he tricks them into thinking it is summer so they spawn. Then he collects the seed, feeds it algae that he grows, nurtures it until it is a baby oyster the size of your little fingernail, then puts 1000 of those babies in a 4 foot by 4 foot cage and puts them back in the bay for 5 years. Then he pulls up the cages, brings the oysters to his place here and shucks them for you. You can only get these oysters here. He told us all sorts of other fascinating things about oysters, like a single oyster filters 45 gallons of sea water in one day. 45 gallons. In one day. An oyster can be frozen solid for however long you want, and if you put it back in the bay, it will thaw out and be just fine. His oysters were remarkably delicious and unlike any others I’ve eaten. And he was knowledgeable and delightful.
I’m a jumble of experiences that are inspiring and befuddling and which sort of build up a pressure of frustrations as I try to fit everything together, until I don’t do that. And I just listen to the screaming stones and eat the fresh oysters and enjoy this very special place. I don’t know how to make sense of every little thing, I just know that taken together, it all makes sense.