You just couldn't ask for better weather ! In contrast to the humidity and smog alerts of Toronto, the high in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park was a mere 24C with a low which dropped into the single digits. The air was noticibly cleaner and the sunny blue skies blended in with the blues of the Altantic ocean. The weather had been like this for the past week and the forecast called for more of this for the days to come. A perfect forecast for a tourist but a nightmare for someone wanting to enter the backcountry.
Approximately ten months ago, I failed to reach White Hill due to a Fire Ban which made it illegal to enter any of the non-maintained trails - and this year was no exception.
Fortunately for me, the duty warden I had talked to was a lot more sympathetic than the last one and tried his best to accomodate my needs despite the fire ban which loomed above us. One of his suggestions was to access the hill from the south via logging roads and by traversing around the eastern shore of Cheticamp Lake - an area out of National Park jurisdiction. I tried to convince myself that this was a viable option but decided against it since I happened to be driving my Camaro. (I was stupid enough to drive it on some logging roads during my trip to Ishpatina Ridge. This resulted in some damage to the bottomside of my car.)
That's when I asked him if he'd let me do White Hill via the Lake of Islands if I could do it in one short day. I told him that I could probably do the entire trip in 10 hrs with the use of a mountain bike and GPS - thus negating the requirement of an overnight stay. He was a little hesitant at first but after listening to my offers to clean his swimming pool, mow his lawn and redo the siding on his house, he reluctantly agreed to let me go. Alright... I made up that last part but at least you're awake. The warden made it clear that he was bending some rules on my behalf and asked me to call him at home after I returned in the evening. I assured him that I wouldn't let him down...
The next morning, I managed to wake up the entire Broad Cove campground at 6:30am as the deafening silence was broken thanks to the rumbling exhaust from my 350cc V8. Yes ! It was now time to conquer White Hill !
A short drive later, I was at the trailhead to the Lake of Islands. The air was cold and dry and the open gates seemed to becon me further. But from past experience, I knew that this wasn't an easy leg of the journey so I resecured my straps, clipped into my pedals and started forward without wasting a second of time.
The first stretch up to the lookout point was nearly 100% uphill and required a lot of stamina. Surprisingly, I was able to ride most of the trail with the exception of one of the larger inclines but I figured that even pushing a bike was better than hiking all the way to the Lake of Islands. After all, you could easily make up for the lost time on the downhill sections. There is one thing I should mention though: If you ever approach a pile of 2x4's on the side of the trail, hit the brakes as soon as you can 'cause it usually indicates a big gap which is "about to be" bridged. And trust me... I know. ;)
After the lookout point, I passed a small shelter on the right when the trail suddenly turned downhill and entered some thick bushes which did a great job at scratching up my exposed forearms. It was like bushwhacking on a bicyle ! The lack of broken branches and footprints made it fairly obvious that this trail was hardly being used. One of the highlights of my trip occured just before the turn off to Branch Pond when I spotted the largest moose that I had ever seen. It must have had antlers almost 2m in diameter ! I even imagined it flying off the ground as it galloped away from me at a high speed.
After the Branch Pond turnoff, the trail crossed a small stream and progressively worsened until it finally led me to the Lake of Islands Turnoff. (Following the turnoff to the right will lead you to a decomissioned wilderness campsite which would've made a nice stopover if it weren't for the fire hazard.) Although I made it to this point last year, I definitely noticed a major difference in the trail conditions - this year was much wetter than before ! In fact, almost a quarter of the trail after Branch Pond was submerged in water ! At this point, the time was almost 9:00. I took a moment to hide my bike before entering the hiking phase of my trip.
My next checkpoint was a Ranger cabin which was located appx. 2km away. The trail was overgrown in places and obviously unmarked but was fairly easy to follow due to the contrast with the surrounding areas. However, it was very wet ! Some areas were muddy while other areas were completely flooded. Most of the flooded areas had some rocks or a small patch of earth on its edge which offered a soggy footing but for some others, it was a complete write off.
The largest of these flooded trails was found appx. 300m NE of the cabin and required required careful routefinding to get around it. Affter about an hour of rock hopping and mud splashing, I finally came across the Ranger cabin which was a lot bigger than I had expected. It was the size of a small cottage and judging from the tall grass which surrounded the pathways and enterance, it hadn't been used in a very long time. Tipover Lake could be seen to the north and according to the map, it looked as though it was the closest point on the trail to extract water. I made a mental note of this and continued onwards.
The trail beyond the cabin was a little harder to recognize but was still obvious thanks to some areas of higher ground which presented a path paved with white stones and rocks. After about 3.5km of this, the trail seemed to turn into a small cascading waterfall but I continued onwards until I finally reached my next checkpoint - a junction which intersects an east-west trail. At this point, the time was just after 11:00 and I was right on schedule. After a quick session of "Let's see how many litres of water I can squeeze from my socks", I was ready to hit the trail again.
I turned towards the east at the junction and continued along a trail which started off as a solid rock encrusted trail which was unusually dry. Unfortunately, this didn't last for long as it quickly turned into the muddiest section of the trip. In fact, there were at least 3 instances where I actually sunk down to my hips in a disgusting mud and decomposing-tree mixture. It took quite a bit of upper body strength to get myself out and when I did, I was suprised at the fact that I wasn't really wet... although I was treated to a nice whif of decomposing organic matter. White Hill Lake could be seen to the south and in the far distance, a large hill could be seen on the horizon.
After about an hour of this solo mud wrestling, I finally came to a point directly north of White Hill and from the view to the left, it was fairly obvious that the hill in the distance was in fact the highpoint of Cape Breton. I did another sock squeeze and started my bushwhack towards the summit.
From a fair distance, it looked as though the hill was covered in some plush green grass - the type of stuff you see on baseball fields and golf greens. Well, that was obviously a trick of the mind 'cause the green stuff was actually a densely packed bush which conveniently covered the uneven terrain underneath. After several curses and a couple of face plants in that green stuff, i finally emerged at the top of Nova Scotia where a fallen antenna and stone marker greeted me with open arms. The time was just before 13:00 and although it took me nearly 6 hours to get here, I was fairly confident that I could easily trim at least 2 hours off the return time.
After a quick lunch of gummi bears and gatorade, I took out my compass for the first time and started bushwhacking to the north. The going was a lot easier as my mind was off wandering... trying to decide between a lobster dinner or a crab dinner. And that's when I realized that I was bushwhacking for almost one hour. A quick GPS reading told me that I was actually north of the trail ! Huh ?! How could that be ?!
Well, it was easy; the trail was faint at most to begin with and the multitude of moose had created a countless number of "fake" trails which mimicked the official trail. I had been tricked... and to make things worse, I had forgotten to calibrate my compass for Eastern Canada so I was actually heading off at an angle ! Great ! Just F*ckin Great !
I recalibrated my compass and headed south but found too many trails which led nowhere so I eventually laid out a bearing which intersected the trail to the north of White Hill Lake and bushwhacked for about a kilometer before finding the trail again. By the time I reached the junction of trails, it was already 16:30 and I was fairly tired. I continued forward and reached the Ranger Cabin at 18:00 and took some time to replenish my water supply from Tipover Lake.
By 18:30, I was on the final stretch towards the Lake of Islands junction when I came across the largest section of the flooded trail. What I should have done was to walk through the knee-high water to get to the other side but instead, I decided to bushwhack around it to keep my mud-soaked boots dry. Ok... Whatever ! I carefully took to the left side and kept the bank in sight when I reached a dead end - which made no sense at all. I then crossed over to the other side and traced it back when I hit an endless maze of rivers. A quick glance at my map made me realize that there was a small marsh running perpendicular to the trail from Tipover Lake !!!
A small hint of panic went through my mind as I realized that I could possibly be spending a long cold evening in a mosquito filled marsh in single digit temperatures with just a Goretex shell, T-shirt and a pair of fleece pants which were ripped to shreds by the horrendous bushwhacking.
But it was only 19:15 and I still had some sunlight left. One option was to return to the Ranger cabin via GPS but I figured that it would only tire me out and prolong my suffering. Instead, I took out my GPS and set it to find the Lake of Islands turnoff and proceeded to bushwack for another 30 minutes until I was clear of the marsh. At that point, I used my compass to find a perpendicular bearing to my present direction and followed it to the degree until I rejoined the main trail.
By the time I recovered my bike at the junction, it was just after 20:30 and was getting dark fast. To my surprise, the bike riding was a lot easier than I had expected since it involved the use of different leg muscles. In fact, I found it to be very comforting to sit down on the saddle and pedal.
I was able to reach the stream crossing by 21:00 but I knew that it was just a matter of minutes before the sun would completely dissapear. Surely enough, by the time I reached Branch Pond, it was completely dark and my only source of light was from an LED headlamp which would only illuminate an area 3 to 4m ahead of me. But this failed to stop me as I continued to scream through the downhill sections with both hands on the brake levers. In fact, the only thing that stopped me was a large rock which I failed to see until the last moment. Well... technically speaking, the rock stopped my bike but I kept on going. I ended up landing on my left knee but that was ok because I was still running on adrenaline. I wouldn't pay for it 'till the next morning...
I finally reached my car at 22:15 and drove back to a payphone where I left a message for the warden. I then proceeded to wake up the entire campsite with my loud exhaust at 23:00 before collapsing in my tent.
Hint & Tips
Interesting in doing this highpoint yourself ? Here are a couple of tips which will give you a slight edge over me.
First of all, get yourself a good 1:50 000 topographical map - Ministry of Natural Resources 11K/10 is the one you want. If you've got a GPS, enter the following waypoints into your unit :
The first section to the Lake of Islands campsite is relatively straightforward. The path is a highway amongst trails and 90% of it can be done on mountain bike. It'll require some endrance on the way there but the ride back to your car will make it all worthwhile. Front shocks and a good set of brakes are highly recommended. Bring a bicycle light or a Halogen equipped headlamp just in case you return after dark.
The hike from the campsite to White Hill is a little harder due to overgrowth but the trick is to have "faith" in the trail. This area is inhabited by a countless number of wild animals which will always do their best to confuse the human population by starting their own trails. If the trail you're following suddenly deteriorates to the point where you're pushing aside trees and bushes, turn around immediately 'cause you're on the wrong path ! Overgrowth is always a factor in the wilderness but it'll still take a few decades before the path is completely unrecognizable. If you've got a GPS, mark off a waypoint every 10 or 15 minutes just in case..
The only areas to watch out for are the flooded areas between the campsite and the cabin. However, there is one trick you can use which'll work most of the time. You'll eventually realize (from the tracks) that the most frequent users of this trail are not humans but moose. These large animals help in minimizing overgrowth and be rest assured... if you're standing on the edge of a flooded trail (which resembles a small pond) - staring in disbelief, the chances are that the moose have done the same thing as well. If you ever find yourself in this situation, take a look around 'cause you'll probably find a detour which will take you to the other side. If you're running behind schedule or lacking a GPS, you can always walk through the entire pond - thus guaranteeing a safe passage to the other side. After all, wet feet is nothing compared to the anguish of getting lost in this inhospitable terrain.
Alternate Route ?
As mentioned earlier, there may be an alterate route to White Hill via Cheticamp Lake to the south. Here are some sketchy details which I was able to obtain :
Interested in learning more ? Up to the challenge ? Then give me a shout and I just might be interested.