I Kissed the Face of North Mountain

Wednesday, September 2
I kissed the face of North Mountain

We awakened to superb weather. No wind. Cool but sunny and bright.

Everyone said, “If you ever wanted to attempt North Mountain, today is the day to try.”

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Jack and I had been talking about today for months. We’d read about the Cabot Trail’s “epic” climbs. Honestly, I had never seen Jack so spooked by the prospect of mountains. But when he had read Allen’s report that North Mountain had several 20% inclines, and then he told me that our “training climb,” Rocky Knob was a 6% (mostly) crank — well, I began to get a little intimidated, too.

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On the other hand, Sue, the Nova Scotia native who was babysitting our Roomba reported that she’d climbed North several times on a bike. And she’s just a slip of a thing, and about our age.

But none of our group, except Nick (who described it as “riding a bicycle up a wall”) had ever done it before. Few of us had even seen it, much less driven or cycled it. Some of our gang had accompanied Allen and Mary on a cycling trip to Portugal, and they had asked for a comparison of North to the toughest hill they’d encountered on that trip. Allen said, “That was easy compared to North. If that was a 5 on a scale of 1-10, North is a 9.”

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Allen offered us several “outs” if we were going to give the mountains of the Cabot Trail a go. The first was something called Corney Brook overlook. I believe all of our group got that far — and it wasn’t an easy trek, I can tell you.

We entered through the gate where you have to pay to be on National Park Service property (not all the Cabot Trail is National Park), and the first climb that met us was severe, if short (relatively speaking). It was definitely a chug — unsure what the incline was, but it was far steeper than our hometown Rocky Knob.

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Just a little something the Cabot Trail throws at you to get your attention.

We climbed a bit more and then enjoyed an enormous straight-away downhill with great pavement. I won’t say how fast I got going because I think my mother will be reading this. But suffice it to say that it was the fastest my cycle computer has ever clocked my speed — and even Jack reported that his fastest time for the day was screaming down that hill.

Several of us were still together at this point, and we rested at an overlook, taking pix of the cliff face that was right behind us. Woody came along and asked, “Isn’t that a bald eagle sitting on the cliff?” Lo! It certainly was — I could not get the photo with my camera, so I hope Bruce will send it when he gets home and downloads his image to his computer.

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Bruce, Jack and I totally missed the Corney Brook overlook, where many folks caught the shuttle to the Skyline Trail hike — a ridgeline hike of about 6 miles round trip, out to the high viewpoints of the water and back. We linked up with them after a while and had some snacks from the support vehicles, and a washroom break.

But first, we unexpectedly saw a sign indicating we were beginning to climb French Mountain — a warm-up for North. Since we had missed Corney Brook, and the tipsheets said French came after that, Bruce and I discussed our situation: Bruce thought we were crawling up French, where I thought maybe it was still to come. But he was right. The tipsheet for French reads: “The grade is 11% for the next 6km.” Ugh.

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Yeah. French was really hard. But it was early in the day, so I still felt pretty good by the time I got to the top. The sign said it was 455m at the top. Oddly, the top was quite flat, and while we couldn’t see too many seaside views, there were a couple of inland lakes sitting on top.

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We enjoyed a downhill after French, and probably lost as much as 200 or more meters as it switch-backed along.

Next came MacKinzie Mountain (355m) and a lovely two-tiered climb with significant downhills in between to assist the following climbs. MacKinzie was a dream mountain to climb, and like French, flat along the top.

After MacKinzie, we were still quite significantly high, and the steep, twisty downhill into Pleasant Bay was riddled with potholes and crap pavement, so we had to be very careful on the descent. Happily, there were some nice pull-outs where we could stop and take photos. Bruce took our picture somewhere along that descent, at an overlook from which we could see our lunch stop.

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Pleasant Bay was quite pleasant, indeed. We’d left Chéticamp at about 8:30A and arrived at our lunch stop, The Rusty Anchor, at approximately 11:30A. We were still completely fired up and not tired much at all.

Rusty Anchor Sign
Rusty Anchor Sign
Look who pulled up as we were eating -- a 1743 (fixed roof) Alto!
Look who pulled up as we were eating — a 1743 (fixed roof) Alto!

Mary was already there, but we sat with her and ordered seafood roll-ups. Mary (one of our leaders) is a strong rider and she had no equivocation when we asked her if she was going to climb North. “Of course.”

If you’re going to try, today’s the day.

I think Bruce and Jack were still unsure, but with a bit of peer pressure and igniting our innate competitive spirits just talking about it (“how often are we going to be here, get this chance with this weather?”), we all decided we’d do it too. Craig caught us at lunch, and the five of us set off toward North after lunch (Mary left when she was finished with her meal, so she was ahead — I didn’t see her again until the end of the day).

We were right to be intimidated. It was unrelenting. Almost 4 miles of “cycling up a wall.” I think if you did it straight up without stops, you’d be pedaling nonstop for an hour.

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Zero gentler grades to use as “rests” before you approached the next slope. Zero places to stop without having to start again on the incline. Zero shoulder. If we couldn’t make it pedaling, we’d have to walk our bikes (we like to call that “cross-training”).

North mountain climbs away from the coast, so it got hot. There were a couple of waterfalls and lots of trees. But no respite even for a breath-taking sea scape view. Just climb and more climb. I’ve never worked so hard on a bicycle in my life. Man, I missed my three-ring, Super-Granny gear.

I stopped on the way up 3 times to give my legs, seat, and lungs a rest. And to drink water. Lots of water. There wasn’t much to take photos of, but I did anyway, to buy more time.

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Jack and Bruce reported they stopped 2 times (I was last up so didn’t see anyone for a long time). Craig said he stopped several times to take photos, but Jack said Craig, who had been behind him and Bruce, caught them at the summit. Craig was a machine going up North. Mary was far ahead of us all.

But all five of us made it. Allen was waiting at the “false top” where a long flat stretch allows busses and tour vans to collect folks or give energy bars or whatever. I ate a date bar and drank (and replenished) more water. The actual summit wasn’t too far ahead and we’d accomplished all of North Mountain’s serious climbing by the time we met with Allen.

Jack waited for me at the top, while Craig, Bruce and Mary had gone on ahead.

The downhill was also one to be quite careful about, as there was both bad pavement and also sharp switchbacks headed off the back of North.

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Couple of dudes were flying a drone taking aerial footage of the Cape Breton Mountains.
Couple of dudes were flying a drone taking aerial footage of the Cape Breton Mountains.

For the rest of the ride Jack and I pretty much stuck together. Our ostensible finish was Dingwall, where our lodging for the night rested — but at lunch some of us had discussed going past Dingwall to White Point Harbor, which was highly recommended for the seaside views North Mountain didn’t offer. My impression was that Allen was going to be waiting with the Starship Enterprise to take us there, but we rode it instead.

The road out to White Point was severe. One or two of those climbs were as steep (and not so short) as that first eye-opener we’d experienced with fresh legs in the morning. But it was pretty.

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The second 20% climb I hit going out to White Point, quite frankly, totally crushed me. I was so tired by that time, that when Allen came by with the Enterprise, I grabbed a ride — not much farther, it turned out — to White Point Harbor, a lovely little place with a gentle walk across the rocky terrain to the dramatic cliff-view of Aspy Bay. Jack rode the entire way and met us as we were getting out of the Enterprise van. Only Jack and Mary rode from Chéticamp to White Point.

Jack’s computer registered that he’d climbed very nearly 5000 total feet. OMG.

We shuttled back to the Markland, a rustic fishing lodge with cabins and a restaurant for our last night group dinner (and a shower). Unfortunately, I didn’t even have enough energy to walk the pretty little beach just a skip/jump away from the front porch of our little cabin. I felt like I remember feeling in my 20s, after a rugby tournament weekend. Shot at and missed, sh&t at and hit.

Next time.

Next time, I’ll save pedaling White Point for another day, or drive it after climbing North Mountain.

Champagne at dinner (I treated myself to a steak, rare) was shared by all, along with high fives for those of us who kissed the face of North Mountain. Everyone had a great day, whether they’d hiked six miles along the Skyline Trail or made it to Corney Brook overlook.

What an epic ride. I feel like I’ve been training my whole life for this day, and it was excellent.

Some pix of White Point and its Harbor, plus the sunrise from our front cabin porch (next day) at the Markland.

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