By SEAN DROHAN*
February / March 1999, Number 24
IMAGINE a place in Nova Scotia where you can look around and see four provinces. The place is White Hill and from a distance it doesn't look like it will reap such rewards, being only 73 metres high. But this mountain in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park sits on top of a 457-metre plateau, so its total elevation is 530 metres, making it Nova Scotia's highest point.
Wanting to see White Hill's vistas is one thing, but getting there is definitely another. The mountain is surrounded by the natural fortification of a thick barrier of wind- and rain-stunted Tuckamore Spruce trees. Tuckamores can grow for 150 years and stand only two metres high and their gnarled, intertwined branches form a nearly impenetrable wall, keeping all but the most determined climbers from the top of the mountain.
Nearly three years ago a friend of mine tried to summit White Hill. After hiking-in through the Lake Of Islands and going south on the Old Fire Road, he set up camp at Tipover Lake. After a night's sleep, he hiked down to the crossroads and attempted to summit the hill. Whether it was the weather, the trail or the trees -- he couldn't say -- he left later that day without reaching the top.
After hearing the details of my friend's story, I soon understood that perseverence and a lot of hard work would be needed to successfully summit White Hill. I made it my goal.
Snow usually coats the unruly Tuckamore Spruce in late winter and I've heard that many snowmobilers and skiers use this icy cover to reach the summit. I decided to use the snow to my advantage on my first attempt at White Hill.
In Late November of 1997, my friend Scott Kerr and I decided to tackle White Hill together. I began planning my strategy by using three dimensional aerial photographs of the area to find a feasible trekking route. After what felt like a month of combing over the photos, I found two lines representing what I thought was an antenna tower on the summit. I wrote to Clarence Barret, park warden and somewhat of a guru in the Cape Breton back country, to confirm my discovery. Clarence verified it was an old tower that had blown down a few years earlier. He also said we had a good chance of success if we followed our chosen route.
After registering with the warden, Scott and I headed up to the Franey Trail parking lot where we chose the right veering Fire Road to make our way up White Hill. Keeping on track on this 30-year-old road is a challenge in itself because the only things that distinguish it from the rest of the bush are the trees in the middle of it which have a diameter of less than 16 centimetres. You know you are off the road when the trees are more than 20 centimetres in diameter. That didn't leave us a lot of room for error.
Half an hour of our trekking time was eaten up each time we were forced to make a circuitous route skirting the edges of sizable bogs surrounded by Alders which dot the trail. We tried to go around each bog on one side, and finding it impossible we tried the other side. This continued for the rest of the journey.
Franey Mountain has three peaks, and just past the first one we put on our snowshoes to make travelling easier over the deep snow and partially frozen bogs that we kept crashing through. For every thousand feet up the temperature drops around three degrees which accounts for the deeper snow in the highlands than at the coast.
Our snowshoes helped us negotiate very difficult terrain -- dead fall, scrub, several (thousand foot) ascents and descents even though they started to snowball (adding an additional three pounds per foot). When you're climbing with snow heavy shoes you can think of nothing else but the added weight that's slowing you down. But the ascent up the mountain gives you more wondrous things to contemplate -- the sun shining on the end of the White Clyburn Valley, the stark silence of the winter conditions and most importantly, the first sighting of White Hill -- our goal.
Next we had to get around the very difficult Dauphiney Brook area. It goes without saying that we were way behind schedule. The Dauphiney Brook area is a wide open space in winter. We couldn't tell where the still waters, ponds and fields were located and climbing without an aerial photo is like climbing in the dark without a flashlight. Because we had never been in this area before we probed all of the terrain in front of us with our trekking poles. If we broke through the water here, this far in, we would be in serious trouble. We added to what little bright orange flagging tape decorated the trees.
When we cleared Dauphiney Brook it started to get dark. We were supposed to be at the base of White Hill by now. We continued up the ridge to our next goal which was the crossroads. The maps and photos didn't show this area to be a ridge, so I thought it was a wide open highland plateau. I was wrong. As it got dark we put our headlamps on and continued climbing. We came to a slight bend just before the crossroads but couldn't tell where it went. Good time to make camp. Nine hours of hard conditions, three hours of setting up camp, melting snow for drinking, eating something warm and good night!
The next day we awoke and headed toward the crossroad leaving our camp intact. The crossroads were only fifteen minutes away. We continued across the fire road in a westerly direction. Scott showed me where he had tried to get through three years ago. My route would take us past White Hill until we couldn't see it, and cut up the back moderate slope. We headed in through a section of trees killed by the spruce budworm. We found a field that was only a few hundred metres past Scott's previous attempt. After getting through a few more trees we made it onto the back slope. The snow made an beautiful white blanket but belied large air pockets trapped between branches which made for treacherous walking. We found a large rock at on the north summit which Scott mistakenly thought the summit. From my research I knew the summit was more on the South side. We started in that direction.
After a few minutes I spotted a neon blue marker against the brilliant snowy backdrop which appeared to be a metre wide and nearly double that in height. When we got to the summit, the marker was only a foot high sign attached to a metal post that was canted at about a fifty degree angle. Below this was a stamped rock and off to the side was the fallen antenna of the tower I had spotted during my research. This was the summit, our goal, the ultimate. Success.
The truss antenna had been held up with rope and not steel cable; I now understood why the tower had blown down years before. It appeared everything, including the trees, on the White Hill summit was bent at a fifty degree angle, a testament to the high winds whipping off the ocean.
The trip down comprised three nine-hour days of snowshoeing in hard conditions before we arrived at the car where we met a warden. This was our second check with park officials. I guess we had caused some worry because he told us if we hadn't arrived when we did, he was going to have to make a partial hike to see if he could find us because our check in documentation mistakenly said we would be back by noon and it was now two thirty. He continued to tell us that if he had have checked us in he would have run a thorough check list of our equipment and further evaluated our experience. Most people, he said, don't get past the Dauphiney Brook area and, if they do, they take another day to get out. I'm not boasting, but the warden's lecture helped us understand the seriousness of the adventure we had just completed. It's not to be entered into lightly. If you want to summit White Hill, go with someone who's been there before.
Any proposed adventure into the back country of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park is not allowed unless it is over an "official" park trail. This just happened recently and I think it is utterly ridiculous. I do not feel this way toward Zone 1 Protected Areas. I think that the park should spend more positive energy and educate people on registering with a warden, and exercising "NO TRACE CAMPING".
NO TRACE CAMPING means that you do not have a fire, you simply use a stove, and leave nothing behind except your footprints and the footprints of the tent. By closing the door to back country hiking and camping they are opening the door to a great deal of "underground trekking and camping". The type of people that currently go to these areas are mostly no trace campers. When it goes underground it will bring in more of a negative "outlaw" element. The net result then will be more impact on the park.
If you have any strong opinions on this matter I suggest that you call the Parks Canada Office at the Historic Properties Mall in Halifax.
Soft snow, snowshoeing.
Descending from White Hill, in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, a few kilometres from the trail head. Cape Smokey lies in the background
White Hill -- the Summit, the peak, the ultimate, the highest point of Nova Scotia. "We left our mark."
Summit Team of Scott Kerr and Sean Drohan on November 22, 1997, with marker: "I see blue."
Summit Day marker.
About as far off the beaten track anyone can go -- The Clyburn Valley in northern Cape Breton. Heading back to trail head on November 23, 1997
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