Fall vignettes: off the beaten path

The trail to Lowlands Cove

"…with moose, gulls and whales"

By DAVID LAWLEY / Photograph courtesy of Inverness County

shunpiking, October / November 1997, No. 16

 Photograph courtesy of Inverness CountyDriving along the quiet roadways of Cape Breton always gives me a good feeling. But it is meandering through the hardwood valleys and uplands in the fall when every tree exposes its own uniquely-coloured leaves and enlivens my sense of sight that I feel absolutely wonderful.

The phenomena of nature are never the same twice. Autumn is a vivid testament. Just as we humans are each different, so too every leaf and tree exhibits its own individuality. Yet there are similarities; which how a botanist categorizes individuals into species. And then we come to leaves! Even on the same tree, they show great differences in colour, hue and shape.

This week I hiked to the most wild, northern, rustic, colourful area of Cape Breton to Lowlands Cove. I could look closely at each tree and found that most that were showing red or orange leaves were sugar maple, red maple, pin- and choke-cherries and sometimes ash. Birches, mountain maple, moose maple and beech become golden yellow. Yellow also are the leaves of the trembling aspen, large-tooth aspen and the balsam poplar. Ash can be any colour from purple to brown. Ironwood and larch both become very yellow as do the rare Arctic birches. The great variety dazzles our eyes!

So my day started, as I hiked from Meat Cove, Cape Breton's most northern village and, by the way, most northern and most beautiful campground, perched on a cliff overlooking the sea. It's hosted by the McLellans who have lived here since Europeans first cleared the land, many decades ago.

The hike to Lowlands Cove passes under a canopy of multi-coloured hardwoods. It is the season too when spiders and other small animals climb or fall out of the trees and begin burrowing under the soft new blanket of leaves for winter. The air is fresh and clean: this is shunpiking at its very best.

After passing over hill and dale for what seemed a very long time, the horizon opened up to a most gorgeous valley in full fall crescendoing hues. Lowlands Cove, with its headlands and rocky shores splashing with white, violent waves. A strong wind was blowing, yet the sensation of wind on my face was just right.

After hiking around the headland, I saw a gigantic bull moose. What a magnificent animal. It was almost pitch black in colour. The moose waved its huge antlers around as it trotted along slowly looking for a mate, or so I thought at the time.

After lying on the grassy headlands for an unknown duration of dreamlike time, I began hearing sea gulls; the waves had quieted. Pilot whales made splashing sounds just below me. The day went on forever; wind in my face, feeling great, lots of pilot whales surfacing, slowly feeding on something just below the surface of the water. The sea was deep blue that day and the whales appeared black as they surfaced, and dove again and again. I knew from experience that pilot whales -- as well as fin and minke whales -- will be here until Christmas or later, but it was time for me to leave.

Wind, waves, sea gull calling loudly, and the strong smells of fall leaves made this one of the most memorable experiences, I thought, later, as I started my car. "Farewell, North Cape Breton, until another time," I said aloud.

If ever you want to feel free, a little wild and very distant, you might guess where to go.
David Lawley, author of A Nature and Hiking Guide to Cape Breton's Cabot Trail, is shunpiking's northern Cape Breton field editor and well-known naturalist. Dave's most recent work, Guide to Whale Watching in the Maritimes (Nimbus Publishing), was published in May, 1998.