Monday, November 24, 2014

Nova Scotia - Day 6: Glenora, Tent Camping, Ceilidh

After a fine night in Cheticamp, we had a leisurely breakfast, then pushed on South. Our destination was the Glenorah distillery - the only producer of single-malt whiskey in North America. You can't properly call it "scotch," because it's not made in Scotland, but that is the kind of drink we are talking about. The grains are from the Canadian plains, the yeast is European origin, and the water comes from the stream that flows through their facility. They were preparing their grain elevator to receive the first of the 2014 grain harvest - another week or two and they'll be brewing and distilling. Although there is peat available in the Cape Breton Highlands, that's park land, and so is not available for commercial harvest. Therefore, Glenora produces a scotch that has essentially no peaty flavor, more in the style of the Scottish lowlands.
One of the other qualifiers about single-malt whiskey is that it, by tradition, it must be barrel-aged for at least 10 years before bottling and sale. Therefore, in order to make a go of it, on needs to distill and store product for a decade before you can expect to start recouping expenses. This presents a serious barrier to entry. But, as our (Scottish) tour guide explained to us, the backers of this project (Canadians of various sorts) had money to spare and were looking for a project. They could have taken up any number of money-sucking idle pursuits: horse breeding, yachting, vintage automobiles, etc. Instead, they decided to produce whiskey. Good for them.
We had a tour of their facility.

This is the kettle where the barley is boiled with the local water to create the wort, which is what gets fermented. What you can't see in the picture is that the kettle goes down almost two storeys from this level - that's a lot of grain!
These barrels are where the fermentation takes place. Apparently when that's going on, the CO2 levels are high enough that access is heavily limited. They are kept constantly filled (with water at the moment) in order to keep the wood swelled up against the hoops, keeping them water-tight. This also prevents the wood from absorbing liquid from the fermenting wort.
After the fermentation is complete comes the distilling. This is done in two passes, first on the right, then on the left. These distilling towers were hand-made in Scotland. They cost a pretty penny when the distillery was first established; today they would cost many times as much due to the increased price of copper, and have a yearlong lead time. The small case situated in between is the "spirit vault" where a final assay of the liquor's strength is made before transferring to the barrels for aging. The aging warehouse, alas, was not part of the tour.
It was during this time that our guide poured a small dram of their 10-year for each of us. I'll not embarrass myself by trying to describe it. Decent stuff.
The distillery has been around long enough to produce successive bottlings of 10-year, and are coming up on their first 21-year. In between they've experimented with various other things, like aging in sherry and ice wine barrels.
Here is the eponymous creek from which they get their water. To the left is the distillery. To the right is an inn and restaurant where we had a fine lunch.
We pushed on that afternoon to Port Hood, our destination for the night. Jasper has taken a liking to having half of the back seat down, so that he can be closer to the family, the sights, and the open window.
Hilary went to great lengths in her planning to find places where Jasper could stay. There was nothing available in Port Hood, however, so we ended up with plan B: camping. We'd brought a single, 2-man dome tent, sleeping bags and pads, with the intention that Hilary and I would cozy up in the tent with Jasper on his mat. B would end up in a B&B with her grandparents.
When we arrived, however, we discovered that the campground was really an RV park with a broad patch of grass for tenting. What is more, there was no one at the front office to accept us or show us where to set up. Undeterred, we took our cues from the maps and pitched in a likely-looking spot. (See above). About 30 feet behind me is the ocean, which was picturesque and all, but meant that there was nothing, nothing, to abate the substantial westerly wind coming off the water that evening. More on that later.
We had a hurried dinner in the very busy Clove Hitch bistro, then booked it a bit further south to the Celtic Music Center in Judique. The Center was hosting a fiddling concert to kick off the week-long Celtic Colours music festival. Hilary and I enjoy celtic music a fair bit, and B is handy with a violin, so it was a great fit.
The Celtic music tradition in Cape Breton has undergone a revival in the last generation or so. Most of the tradition revolves around the ceilidh (KAY-lee) - a jam session of sorts, usually done in someone's home, generally involving a solo fiddle with upright piano accompaniment, sometimes backed with a hand drum, penny whistle, etc. Lots of drink and home-cooked food are involved, too. You can imagine the draw for a community activity like this, far from major cities, in the dead of winter when there's no fishing to be done.
The concert was a fine, foot-tapping time. Each of the players on stage took a turn doing a set: a progression of three movements, each several minutes long, with progressively faster tempo. There's apparently a fairly well-known repetoir of a few dozen tunes, which most of the players learn by ear, rather than through sheet music. (back in the day, people would trade cassette tapes of performances and learn from those!) The guy on the piano is left to follow the timing and key changes, and did a fantastic job at that.
One small interruption came when, several pieces into the first half, the MC got on stage and asked if there was a doctor in the house. I kid you not. Hilary reported for duty. It was not exactly an emergency, but the ambulance response times can be lengthy. In gratitude, the organizers gifted her a CD of an earlier concert. (The Celtic Music Center has a recording studio and publishes a fair number of albums from local artists.)
After the concert B decided, for her own inscrutable reasons, that she would prefer to sleep in the tent, with Hilary and me, and Jasper. We hadn't reckoned on needing a third sleeping bag, but made do with jackets, a blanket from M, and other bits of outerwear. B squeezed in between Hilary and me, with Jasper on Hilary's other side. It was cozy, to say the least. It would not have been all that bad except for the wind, which rattled the tent all night long. Every time a strong gust came along, poor Jasper would start at the noise and the fact that the tent wall was attacking him! It was bad enough that, round about 2 a.m., I pulled the car around to serve as a windbreak, which was surprisingly effective. All the same, it was a restless night for the grownups.
(of course, now that we have two dogs, this kind of plan would be completely out. Next time, B gets to sleep in a tent between the dogs.)

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Nova Scotia - Day 5: Whale Watching, Cabot Trail Bike, Cheticamp

We woke up a second morning in Dingwall - the only time we stayed in the same place twice during this trip. H, B, J, and I made hasty preparations to load up the car again and make the trip back to Pleasant Bay, where we had been the afternoon before. This morning we would be going on a whale watching trip!

We made Mr. J as comfortable as we could in the car, where he would hang out in the slight chill and overcast skies. There are several companies that operate out of the harbor. We ended up with Captain Mark's, which came well recommended. (Fun fact - one of the captains buses the local kids over the Cheticamp during the school year. Other fun fact - our guide on this particular day is a fishing boat builder during the off-season.)

In order to get close to the animals, they operate using of tricked out Zodiacs. Because they are small craft, low down on the water, one needs to wear exposure gear:

Although a variety of whale species migrate through this area (right, humpback, blue), the only ones that stick around for long are pilot whales, which look like very large dolphins with a blunted face. After cruising along the coast for 20-30 minutes, we spotted a pod not far off, and went in for a closer look.

These creatures work in groups to hunt, sometimes using bubbles to corral schools of small fish into a tight group, then one by one cut through the center to snatch a tasty treat. Unlike our dolphin watching in New Zealand, we didn't see much above-the-water antics. But like New Zealand, we saw young ones boppin' around. I had the GoPro with me, and so we do have some video. But like usual, I haven't edited it down for public consumption yet. Too late, the captain suggested I dunk the camera under the water to get some shots. Oh well. After a while the pod relocated and we lost track of them. Around the same time the wind picked up and made things pretty choppy, so we headed in closer to shore and started on our way back. We saw groups of seals, some of then quite large. For the most part we could't get too close because they are quite shy. This young'un was curious though.

Then gone in the blink of an eye!

There are also bald eagles that nest along the shoreline. This particular nest was easy to pick out from the white streaks on the cliff below. (click to embiggen - see if you can pick out the eagle perched on top)

Back at shore we met up with Mark and Holly. Just a little ways south of Pleasant Bay along the Cabot Trail the road starts switchbacking steeply up. We wimped out a bit and drove up, about halfway, to an overlook. According to the signs behind the benches, at certain times of year you can spot migrating whales from here.


After a hasty picnic lunch, Hilary and I geared up and hopped on the bikes. Mark and Holly each took one car (and B, and J) and pushed on to Cheticamp - about 40 km farther on. The road continued upward:

And leveled out a bit as we pass a trailhead that leads down to Fishing Cove:

The road continued gently upwards for many miles across the wooded, boggy plateau of French Mountain. This is national parkland. At this time of the year, we more or less had the whole place to ourselves. The colors and vegetation were reminiscent of what one might find in parts of the White Mountains, but we could spend ten or twenty minutes without encountering so much as a passing car. The only thing that made it a bit unpleasant was an unrelenting headwind.

We took a brief break at pulloff to use the bathroom. This spot had a boardwalk trail through a prototypical alpine bog. (says the helpful sign that reads "Bog")

I was curious to see it, but didn't want to spent a lot of time on it (we had many km to go, and it was chilly being stationary). So while Hilary was using the facilities, I checked it out on two wheels:

Navigating the boardwalk at modest speed while also taking a selfie is only slightly stupid.

A bit further up the way we topped out - the highest spot on the road. Not much to speak of, except for this ICBM...water heater...voodoo influencer...phallic symbol thing.

Not long after cresting the top and enjoying a well-earned gentle downhill, we suddenly spotted a moose across the road!



He was, I suppose, mildly curious, but paid us no mind

The road eventually gave us a pretty sweet downhill. We next to no cars around, I felt like I was bombing some descent in a alpine stage of Le Tour.

The road rejoined the coast at this overlook. Ahead you can see the road leading to Cheticamp. Hilary and I posted this picture to the Capital Multisport facebook page (our monthly team meeting was that evening), and tried not to look too boastful.

For the next several miles, the road undulates up and down, sometimes with only the guide rail between you and the Atlantic. This stretch is the one that gets into all the tourist materials. The overcast skies lessened the effect slightly, but it was still amazing. Here's the same stretch, but looking back north from the other end.

After a few more miles, the road makes a large bight around an inlet, then you pop out of the National Park and are on the outskirts of Cheticamp. We felt welcomed:

We met up with the rest of the family at our lodging for the night - the Cheticamp Outfitters Inn. We had adjoining halves of a small cottage. The place has some shore frontage, although it's a collection of boulders and not a beach per se.

After some stretching, but before getting too cold or showering, I decided that I ought to go for a brief swim. Why? Well, mostly to say that I've swum in Nova Scotia in October:

Yes, it was cold, but not horribly so. I did a very quick circle - maybe 40 feet all told - then picked my back onto the rocks and into the shower!

That evening we went out to dinner at the All Aboard Restaurant, where we had a very pleasant time. Among our many culinary delights, we had a bucket of mussels delivered from the boat just a few hours before. Tough to beat that!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Nova Scotia - Day 4: Dingwall, Cabot Trail Biking, Pleasant Bay

We awoke in Dingwall to a beautiful day by the shore!

After a nice breakfast up at the main building of The Markland, we went back down to the beach for practice - why not?

Although B gripes about practice as much as any six-year old might, she playing is coming along nicely.

Mark and Holly enjoyed B's performance, and the ocean's, from these chairs that just happened to be at the beach. Jasper romped in the sand and surf like a crazed animal!

Since we would be staying here a second night, we did not have the usual scramble to get packed up and on the road. We even took advantage of the Markland's washing machines to do a bit of laundry. This left us with some time to kill. Hilary sat in the sun for some reading (not realizing the need for sunscreen until much later!) Brynna convinced me to teach her how to play chess. There are many skills that I, humbly, claim to possess, but chess isn't one of them. She did respectably for a first timer, but did ultimately lose. She was keen to explain things to Hilary.

In the afternoon the plan was for Hilary and I to take our bikes and do a stretch of the Cabot Trail from Dingwall, up and over a climb, and down to Pleasant Bay.

It was a bight sunshiny day, but cool.

The first part of the climb gently heads up a loooong glacial valley, which this afternoon was in full autumn splendor.

Then it gets steeper and starts switchbacking.

And steeper still! Near the top there are several extended sections of 10-13%.

Eventually it flattens out onto a broad plateau with tall grass and short trees to either side. It was a prime spot for moose-watching. Brynna, Mark, and Holly apparently did see a moose on the side of the road when they buzzed past before us.

Then for the reward: several km of steep downhill! Neither H nor I are particularly fearless or accomplished descenders, so there was much squeezing of the brakes the whole way down. Even so, there were some open stretches that allowed me to open it up to about 40 mph! The descent was cold, though!

We met up with Mark, Holly, and B in Pleasant Bay, at the Rusty Anchor restaurant. What a find! The food was excellent, the veggie options original and tasty, and the beer selection quite satisfying. One would not have expected such a place, here way out at the end of the island. I asked the hostess if it'd be getting quiet in these parts come winter. She chuckled and said they'd be boarded up in another twelve days.
The Rusty Anchor also has an impressive view of the Bay. At various times, one can spot whales just off shore. More on that in Day 5.

After this fine picture at sunset just outside the restaurant, we loaded ourselves back into the car, with the bikes hanging off the back, and backtracked our route to The Markland, where we had another pleasant night.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Nova Scotia - Day 3: Baddeck, A.G. Bell Museum, Biking the Coast, Dingwall

We woke up to a glorious morning overlooking the water

After scrounging for breakfast, B and I hung out at the playground for a bit

I watched a large group of cyclists head out for a day on the Cabot Trail. The Cabot Trail is a 185-mi loop of 2-lane roads that circles the northern half of Cape Breton Island, and is a popular multi-day bicycle tour. For long stretches it hugs the coast, and in others passes through highlands not unlike those of Scotland. Hilary and I would be doing segments of it on this trip. Within New Hampshire, one could liken it to the triple-notch century that encircles the White Mountains. Much like the Kancamaugus Highway between Lincoln and Conway, prior to the establishment and improvement of the Cabot Trail, it was very difficult and time consuming to get from one far-flung community to another. Today it is merely time-consuming.

Then we headed back up to the cottage for practice

and headed into town to the Alexander Graham Bell museum. What an unexpectedly fine place! First off: it is large and well maintained, not just a handful of artifacts in a rundown one-room building. Secondly: it is not merely the story of the telephone. That's a part of it, and the part that most people know, but there is also an awful lot about his other work and experiments, particularly in the years after the telephone when he lived in Baddeck. He was an endless tinkerer, and the collection at the museum bears that out. (There is even a section with artifacts that no one knows what they are or were used for.) There was his work with the hearing impaired (his father's work, too), the phonograph, sheep husbandry, water distillation, and flight.
There's actually quite a lot to see there about his interest and experiments in flight, stuff that I had never heard about before. He had this fascination with tetrahedral kites, and used them to build up truly massive structures that could carry one or more people.

He and several fellows designed, built, and flew a series of experimental aircraft at around the same time as Wright Brothers. These culminated with the Silver Dart, which made several flights from the frozen surface of Bras d'Or. The museum has a replica and many original parts.


The torpedo-looking thing in the background was an experimental boat that reached unheard-of speeds using hydrofoils and a pusher prop.
After the museum we had a fantastic late lunch at the home of a retired co-worker of Holly's, just up the road from Baddeck. Their home was beautiful, and the setting hard to beat:

Among other conversation topics over lunch: where should the Baddeck community advertise in order to recruit some young docs to the area. Much like the North Country in NH, this area has a tough time recruiting and retaining young professionals to be so far from everything.
By the end of lunch it was getting on to mid-afternoon. Hilary and I were jonesing to get on our bikes, and sensitive to sunset being around 6. We still had about two hours' drive to our destination for the night - Dingwall, near the northern tip of the island. We drove along picturesque winding roads along the coast and through woodlands in autumn color. We stopped on the northern shore of Ingonish Harbor and got geared up. The cars would lag behind and pick us up farther down the road: Mark in our car with B and J, with Holly driving behind - a caravan of white subarus! Hilary and I finally hit the road around 4:30 just at the entrance to Cape Breton Highlands National Park. (It was a little unclear at the park entrance if we were supposed to pay or not. We stopped to pay, since we'd be in and out of the park over the next few days, but every car just sailed through. Oh well, of all the many expenses in this trip, a park fee is the least grumble-worthy.) It took some miles, but the road eventually came close against the coast, where we were treated to beautiful evening skies.



Good to finally be on the bikes (practicing the bike-selfie)

The exposure in that image is deceptive, because it was after sunset by this point. We had reflectors, we had lights, and the road was only lightly trafficked (only one car per minute in either direction), but the temperature was falling and it was getting dark. It had been a short outing - only about an hour - but very satisfying. Hilary and I pulled off at the appointed meeting spot in Neils Harbor and got picked just a few minutes after.
The town of Dingwall is a bit off the main road, and right on the water. We stayed in a cottage at The Markland, where we would actually be for two consecutive nights. We'd had a full day by that point, and a late lunch, so we scounged in our provisions for a light dinner. It's just as well, since there's not much for restaurants in and around Dingwall at this time of year.
After getting B off to bed, Hilary and I took Jasper for a much-needed long walk. A long sandy beach under the moonlight was just five minutes' stroll from our door, and made for a perfect setting. Jasper still seems to show surprise every time he gets a taste of salt water.