Saturday, December 7, 2013

Conquering Franey Mountain

Cape Breton Island is known for many things. The small island off the coast of Nova Scotia in eastern Canada has been voted one of the most scenic islands in the world and there are many ways to see the spectacular coastal beauty of the island. Most chose to drive the Cabot Trail in the comfort of a car. The adventurous types prefer to drive around the island by motorcycle. The extremely fit (and maybe slightly crazy ones) cruise the steep hills, mountains and hairpin turns via bicycle. It is the fit and outdoorsy ones who see the most and best places the island has to offer; they are the ones who combine one or more of the travel methods above with hiking.
There are literally dozens, maybe even hundreds, of hiking trails on Cape Breton Island. Some are quite easy like The Skyline Trail or Warren Lake. Others, like North River and Pollett’s Cove, are much longer than the average trail and more difficult. Franey Mountain is another one of the trails that is considered to be more difficult. Over the years, pretty much everyone I know made the hike up to the top of Franey Mountain…except me. Their accounts of the long, steep hike up and difficult hike back down convinced me that I would just have to resort to listening to those second-hand accounts of the hike because I had no intention in partaking in a hike that some deemed “torturous”. But as the years went by and I checked off almost every other hike on Cape Breton Island off my “to hike” list, I once again set my eyes on Franey. After all, the one good thing I heard over and over again was the view from the top was spectacular and well worth the hard hike.
For a few more years, I toyed with the idea of eventually hiking Franey. I would make a pact with myself to do the hike before the end of the season but summer after summer passed without even making an attempt. I asked many people to join me on the hike but no one ever wanted to. Apparently, everyone else I knew had already hiked it, loved it…but will never hike it again. I soon learned that, for many people, the hike up Franey Mountain is a once-in-a-lifetime deal.

This past summer, the idea of hiking Franey came up again but, after hearing more testimonies to the beauty at the top of the mountain, I became even more determined to hike it even it I had to do it alone. My dad often hiked with me and I he always said “no way” when the idea of hiking Franey came up but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask him again. Surprisingly, he said “maybe” and I think it had to do with a conversation he had with my sister who hiked that trail a few years previously. Her account was the same as everyone else’s. It was the hardest hike she had ever done, the view at the top was out-of-this-world but she would never do it again. Maybe hearing about the trail from a close family member opened his mind more to the possibility of doing the hike.

The end of summer was closing in when dad mentioned hiking up Franey Mountain. I was taken by surprise. I didn’t even have to coax or bribe him. He was all for it. “Sometime early next week, we’ll take a shot up to the Highlands and do that hike you always wanted to do”. I was game and so was he.

I packed a light backpack full of necessities, some water and a walking stick and placed it by the porch door the night before. Dad arrived early so we would make it there before the mid-afternoon heat settled in. I’d suffered heat exhaustion twice in the last few years and didn’t want to take any risks by combining such a hard and long hike with soaring temperatures. We arrived in Ingonish mid-morning and became concerned when we noticed the outside temperature gage on the car read 26 degrees Celcius. By the time we reached the trail head a few minutes later, it read 29 degrees. Temperatures were steadily rising and it was dangerously hot out with no clouds in the sky. After some deliberation, we decided to try and make it up the trail.
I’d say we might have hiked a little more than a kilometer when the heat really hit me. My breath was short and my head felt like it was going to explode and these were the warning sings I had experienced in the past with the onset of heat exhaustion. We had to turn back. I was disappointed but even more determined to complete that hike before the end of the season. We made a pact to wait until later in the fall to attempt it again.

The weather was still fairly dry and warm in mid-September so we again made the two-hour drive to Ingonish in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park to finally conquer Franey Mountain. There was to be no turning back this time…no matter what. Fortunately, the weather was just right for a long hike – sunny but warm with hardly any wind. We made it to the point where we turned back the first time and the trail got very difficult just around the next turn. It was straight up from there all the way to the top on a narrow, rocky trail that hovered dangerously close to a ledge in some parts. I try to stay in shape and thought I was in pretty good shape but at times, I was so exhausted and out-of-breath, I wanted to turn around. I kept pushing through and every time dad asked “you want to turn back?” I just responded with a firm “no” and pushed myself along. While the trail was very steep, it was still nothing like what I had heard from others and it didn’t seem very long. The stories of the view from the top were, on the other hand, very accurate. We were literally on top of the mountains with a view of the ocean and surrounding coastline, Middle Head Peninsula and the Keltic Lodge, Ingonish Island and the peaks and valleys of nearby mountains. The top of the trail was well equipped for more adventurous types who wanted to remain in the area overnight. There were outhouses (cleanish as far as outhouses go), a small cabin with bunks and a notebook for trail conquerors to sign and let everyone know they had made it to the top and an Adirondack chair placed on a ledge overlooking the view. Perhaps these facilities were more for people who just couldn’t make it back down the trail and needed a nap before heading down. Either way, the option is there if bad weather comes up or you want to rough it on top of a mountain for a while.

I relaxed for a bit and took in the view from that giant Adirondack chair before we made our way back down the mountain before darkness fell and we ended up being stuck in that overnight shelter. The hike down was not as hard but it wasn’t easy either. Walking downhill on gravel is not an easy feat but we made it out before dark without any broken ankles, heat stroke or wild animal encounters. And I must say I am mighty proud of myself for finally conquering that mountain…and I am one of the few who would gladly do it again!

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