Wednesday, February 17, 2016

A Lovely Winter Day's Hike - Exploring a New-to-me Beach and Enjoying a Leisurely Stroll Through a Desolate Winter Wonderland

When it starts approaching the Christmas holidays, I know the long wilderness hikes are done for the year. It gets too busy during those last few nice days we sometimes get toward the end of December and it's usually too cold to go on very long hikes in January.

The last two winters here on Cape Breton Island have been hellish to put it mildly. The most snow seen in decades. And not just snow either; snow layered with ice and slush. Not very ideal for hiking. I don't think I hiked even once during those two winters. I spent most of those dreary, snowy days inside a gym on the dreadmill trying desperately to keep in shape. So having experienced two winters in a row like that, I just assumed this winter would be the same. Fortunately, so far, this winter has been quite pleasant.
New Year's Day signifies the end of a very busy time of year for me and that signifies the beginning of a more laid-back time of year that allows me more time to enjoy my favourite pastimes. On the first day of 2016, I checked the long range forecast to see if, by some miracle, the nice weather was predicted to hold up long enough to allow me to get outdoors before the arrival of the inevitable bad weather that was sure to come eventually. I wasn't holding high hopes that it would but lo and behold, the forecast showed sun and higher than normal temperatures for the next two weeks. Ideas for day hikes started flooding my brain. So many hikes I could do!

The first opportunity to embark on an outdoor winter adventure came a few days after New Year's Day. I awoke to a beautiful sunny day with fairly mild temperatures and no wind. I rounded up some winter hiking gear and jumped in the car and headed towards the Framboise area thinking I would do a hike on Morrison Beach, drive around looking for deer on the back roads and grab a coffee in St. Peter's. However, during that long early-morning drive, I decided to make the most of the day ahead...and
that day turned into a memorable winter adventure.

I heard mention of people hiking along the beach at Belfry Lake but never attempted it. According to my father, I was there as a child but since I have no recollection of that visit, a hike at Belfry would be a new experience for me and it was the perfect day to explore a new beach.
I turned onto a dirt road lined with beautiful homes owned by Europeans judging by the German last names on the mailboxes. Many Europeans, mostly from Germany and other central European countries, flocked to this area in recent years. I'm not sure why but I imagine it has something to do with getting away from their densely populated cities back home and escaping to the scenic, rugged and sparsely populated coast on Southern Cape Breton. And who can blame them?

I came to the end of the road and parked the car off to the side. I scanned the area; a rocky beach on one side, a lake on the other. I headed right to the beach and hiked toward a river that I hoped would be crossable if the tide was low enough. The air was very warm for that time of year. There was no wind so there wasn't even a spray coming off the ocean. It was like a spring day. I regretted wearing my long, heavy Colombia parka and thermal socks. Unfortunately, what I didn't have was waterproof boots to cross the river that blocked me from going any further. Had it been summer, I would have just taken my shoes off and walked or swam across. I headed back towards the car but kept going further down another section of beach while being watched by a couple of seals offshore.
I crossed over some dunes and came to the lake side where I took a little break to have a snack, skip some rocks in the lake and take some pictures. Just as I was standing up to continue along the lakeshore, I saw a large mass come out of the water and make a loud splash. Judging by the wake it left, it had to be something quite big. At first, I thought it was a beaver as they make lots of noise when they feel threatened. Otter was my next guess. However, when the mystery creature resurfaced and again made its presence known, it was revealed to be a seal. The curious little bugger who scared me half to death must have followed me all along the beach.
The hike at Belfry was supposed to take eight hours but since I only got an hour of hiking in there, I had to find somewhere else to hike so the day wouldn't be wasted. It's a long way to go to hike for only an hour especially on such a rare, nice day. I left Belfry and continued towards Framboise and turned off the highway again when I reached Crooked Lake Road.
The road leading to Crooked Lake is more populated than some of the other roads in that area and there are plenty of interesting dwellings along the way. A totem pole decorates the lawn of one resident and someone recently built my dream home - a log cabin overlooking the lake. The last time I tried to drive down crooked lake road a few weeks before in the late fall, it was so muddy I had to turn around and head back to the highway. This time, the ground was frozen and I was able to make it all the way to the beach. Well almost. The giant pool of water at the end of the road looked frozen but the ice turned out to be thinner than it looked. I heard the unmistakable sound of ice about to crack and just managed to back my front tires onto the dry ground when the ice gave way. I don't think it was very deep but probably deep enough to get stuck or even do some damage to my car. I didn't have enough room to turn around and face back towards the highway so I just backed the car off to the side and shoved the thoughts of having to make a 48-point-turn with a giant puddle in front of me, a steep embankment to a lake on one side of me and trees on the other side out of mind for the time being.
Light snow was falling but the late afternoon air was still warm with not a breath of wind when I started my hike along the Crooked Lake Beach. I love this beach. It's long and surrounded by steep cliffs that to me, look almost otherworldly compared to other beaches in the area. It's hard to say which beach along the south coast is my favourite but Crooked Lake is high on the list.
The surf was rough and the tide was coming in so I quickly made my way along the beach to a trail further down. The rocks I was walking on were freshly wet which meant the waves reached quite high just before my arrival. I tried to walk as quickly as possible to the little hill up to the grassy trail that lead through a section of woods and onto an old wood road. I turned to the left on that wood road and went deeper into the woods. Someone had very recently followed the same route as there was fresh footprints. Sometimes the footprints veered off into the woods where there were rabbit snares.
The last thing I thought I would happen upon was a house out there in the middle of nowhere but happen upon a house I did and what a house it was! I don't know who managed to build all the way in there but whoever they are, they built my dream house in my dream location. I didn't go beyond that point and turned back towards the main road as it was starting to get dark and the coyotes would soon be on the prowl.
Although the sky was quickly dimming into twilight, it was still easy to see due to the snow-covered ground which also made it easy to see the fresh prints that must have only appeared on the road a few minutes earlier. This alarmed me because there were no animal tracks on the road on the way in. My fears subsided after close inspection revealed the prints to be that of a deer. A few deer by the looks of it. A buck, a doe and a younger doe. I followed the tracks right to a fork in the unexpected fork in the road; I thought that one road was it and it would lead me back to my car. I had no idea where the other road went but being the audacious, curious soul that I am (some might call a young lady who ventures off on a trail in the middle of nowhere in coyote country at dusk a little foolish), I did what any adventurous soul would do and I took the road unknown.

A very brief wave of anxiety came over me when I crested a steep hill and looked down to see that the road kept going as far as my eyes could see. The anxiety quickly subsided at the realization that this just meant I would be spending more time in the woods doing what I love most. I started to hear little rustles in the trees but the comfort of knowing those deer were close by and were not on the run, reassured me that there were no predators in the area.
I rounded a bend and almost abruptly, the road ended and I was back on the other old wood road that I started on. The unknown road must have been newly put in for cutting pulp. A few minutes after that, I was back on the main road and could see my car ahead in the distance. I had made a complete circle and although it was dark and lightly snowing and I had been walking for a few hours, I was sweating. I removed a couple of layers and threw them in the car but I didn't get in the driver's seat; I kept walking back toward the beach. This time I walked in the opposite direction. The snow was starting to subside and there was a faint twilight still left in the sky, enough to allow me to see the silhouettes of those steep cliffs and the cresting waves.
Earlier, I noticed a footpath going up the hill in the parking area. Yes, you know me well. Of course I followed it. It was steeper than it looked but the climb was worth it. What a view and it was evident that someone else once thought the same thing because there was a beautiful monument for a someone's dearly departed who once spent time there.
I didn't want the night to end. I regretted not taking my camping gear. Had it been in the trunk of the car, I think I would have built a fire and set up camp right there for the night. Would it be too cliché to say it was magical? Surreal? It was something. It was a night I won't soon forget.

The Framboise area always had a kinda creepy, spooky feel to it at night. It's remote, there are not a lot of people around, street lights are sparse and it's an old community with lots of abandoned Victorian houses, old graveyards and stories to go along with them. And speaking of old graveyards, there's one just off Crooked Lake Road. An old one from the 1800's. It's in the woods, it's not marked and it's no longer used but it's pretty easy to find if you know where to look. The headstones are still in decent shape and it's interesting to read them and see who they belonged to.

I heard voices nearby and started back to the car in case someone thought I was perusing the neighbourhood looking for an easy way to break into cabins. I paused for a minute in the middle of that dark road while giant white snowflakes fell around me and took in the utter stillness of that lonely country road. I could live in a place like that.

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