Friday, August 23, 2019

A Summer Hiking Adventure - Gabarus, Sterling and Framboise

Everyone in my family has a part of Cape Breton Island they love most.  My mother loved Cheticamp, my sisters and I love Ingonish and the Highlands and my father loves The Framboise area on the south coast.   While I still love Ingonish and the Highlands, over the last few years, my preferences have changed slightly.  Recently, the Highlands area has seen a huge surge in tourism and while I think this is fantastic for the island as a whole, I prefer more low-key places where there are less crowds.  Gradually, my summer drives and camping trips shifted to the other side of the island in Cheticamp, Margaree and Inverness and most recently, those day trips and overnights shifted to the even more remote areas of the south coast.

When I was a child, my family had a cabin in the Sterling area around Framboise so I became familiar with the area at quite a young age.  However, as a teenager, the bustling tourist village of Ingonish was more appealing as there were lots of young people and beach parties and bonfires.  Now, I prefer the seclusion of long, lonely beaches and remote wood roads through the forest.

Summer is not my favourite time of year for hiking.  I prefer the late spring and early fall when the temperatures are a bit cooler and the black flies and mosquitoes are not as bad.  However, a few weeks ago, I decided to embark on a hiking adventure in the Framboise area because our summer here in Cape Breton was off to a slow start. 

I started the day near the little fishing village of Gabarus.  I wanted to check out the old Oceanview Road which I was told once went all the way through over to Louisbourg.  I drove for a few kilometers and reached the point where the road was too rough to keep going.  I parked the car and contemplated which direction to go on foot. There were two old roads, one going to the right, the other to the left.  I took the one to the right, hiked for about 15 minutes before it got too muddy and turned back.  Upon closer inspection, the other road looked quite muddy so I didn't bother hiking it.  I should have known there would be mud since there had been so much rain the day before. So that ended the first segment of my adventure.
Next, I drove to the Sterling area.  My family's old cabin is no longer there but the land is and every time I pass it, I can still picture that old white bungalow with the big rose bush in front.  Something I remember vividly is asking dad to pull the shutters back so we could watch the bats awake from their slumber and fly away into the trees.  For some strange reason, the other thing I remember is a pillow shaped like a guitar that had been left there by the previous owner, a schoolteacher who also left behind some other interesting items. I slowed down in the area where I was sure an old pioneer graveyard used to be located.  My dad took me there a few years ago and while it was fairly easy to find back than, it proved a lot more difficult this time around.  Some trees had been cut in the area for pulp and the path that used to lead to the graveyard must have grown in because it was no longer a visible impression through the forest.  I drove back and forth looking for any indication of an old road and finally, I found it when I looked closely at a spot that looked more beaten down than the areas around it.  I was right; it led right to the old graveyard. When I wander these old graveyards and look around at the old headstones of the area's pioneering people , I think about what it must have been like to live in the area in those times.  These people once thrived here, had homes and farms and families.  I imagine it was much different from the ghost town it is today.  After wandering around and looking at some of the very old headstones for a while, I next headed to the old Sterling Mine site.

When I was a child, I was told that the old Sterling Mine site is haunted and even today, that place still gives me the creeps.  The older folks used to say that you could hear the workings of the mine long after the mine had closed.  Any time I've gone there, there was no one else around although there are plenty of signs of people being around.  Illegally dumped garbage, gravity sprayed all over the old foundations and crumbling buildings are evidence of human activity at the site however, I suspect this activity takes place in the dead of night and I would never dare go near this place after dark. On this day, the only recent sign of life was some footprints.  Deer, lynx and coyote footprints to be exact.
I walked over to the edge of what I nicknamed the "Cape Breton Desert" because of the wide open space devoid of trees (except for a few creepy dead ones) and crumbly terrain that resembled sand. It's not really a desert.  I'm not exactly sure how this landscape came to be but, due to the fact that the Sterling Mine site is the only place that has such a landscape on the island, my guess is it's directly caused by the mining activities that took place there.  I'm guessing the lack of trees was perhaps caused by chemicals used in the mining process and the sand-like ground is actually a spongy hard mud likely created by years of mine workings that destroyed the natural earth.  I've been to a real desert before and walking across this man-made desert is much like the real thing.  It's dead quiet, loose debris slowly tumbles across the landscape and a constant wind coming from the forest at the edges turns into a howling breeze that sends goosebumps down my spine and up my arms.  The only thing missing is cactus and and scorching heat.
It was quite eerie walking across that landscape, especially when it seemed like I was the only person who had walked across it in, well, forever.  There were no other footprints except for the lone trail of a coyote who must have scattered across earlier that morning.  I followed his trail to the little brook on the right edge of the desert landscape, hoping he wasn't waiting for me there.  I'm sure he wasn't far off, curious creatures that they are.  He was probably watching me through the trees the whole time, perhaps contemplating pouncing on the small hiker trespassing on his territory or perhaps simply interested in learning what on earth brought me there.  What brought me there was a childhood memory of crossing this exact vast wasteland decades earlier with my parents.  I thought it was spooky even then.  There were rumors floating around that gold could be found around the old mine.  My parents, ever the adventurous souls looking for a new adventure to embark on, bought some gold pans and we set out to strike it rich.  We found some.  Not enough to get rich off of though.  Just some fine flakes to stir enough excitement in us kids to make us naively think we might just strike it rich.
As I continued to walk across that desolate landscape toward the distant treeline, a light mist began to fall and the fog started rolling in and this made that creepy landscape even creepier. When I reached the treeline, I didn't dare go into the dark forest.  I had a strange feeling that something was watching me from the darkness within.  The mist turned into a light rain and eventually, I made my way back across the desert to the car.

When I returned to the car, the rain had stopped so I walked around the remains of the old mine site.  Some crumpling buildings covered in graffiti were scattered about but it's the little pond to the right of the buildings that sends shivers down my spine.  It is said, the pond, which is man-made and used to be part of the mine workings, is bottomless.  Well, I'm sure that is slightly exaggerated but it is quite deep.  The thing that really freaks me out about it is it doesn't get deep gradually; it falls off right at the edge.  So if you can't swim and end up slipping into this pond, you may never be found.

My next stop was new to me.  Yes, believe it or not, despite all the time I've spent exploring Cape Breton Island, in particular this region of the island, there are still places that are yet to be explored.  I drove toward Grand River and turned at the road I noticed many times but never bothered to drive down.   I was curious to know where MacDonald Road led and decided to make this my last adventure of the day.

I love driving on old wood roads that lead into the unknown.  I love not knowing what is behind every turn and this road is long, remote and has many turns.  I only worried a little when the road kept going longer than I thought it would but the worry quickly turned to curiosity, as it usually does, because now I had to know what was at the end.  Eventually, the road got narrower and rougher and I reached a point where I could not go any further.  I was next to a large field with an old cabin.  I exited the car and proceeded on foot along what remained of the old road.

I heard there was a very old bridge somewhere on this old road and when I realized I was walking alongside water, I figured I would be crossing it at some point.  I came upon a path that led to the water so, naturally, I followed it.  I reached the water's edge and had to turn right back around as the flies were too bad.  I continued for only another few minutes on the old road before reaching the water again.  This time, I found the old bridge.  Or, more accurately, what remained of the old bridge. I looked for a way to cross but there was none unless I walked through the unknown depths of the raging water that separated me and the other side.  I reached the end of the road.  Intent on not wasting my journey through the fly infested wilderness, I took a seat on some rocks near the water where there was a nice breeze and cracked open a cold usual ritual after a long day of hiking.  

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