I have long wanted to see Cape Breton in its winter garb, but have been unable to make the trip prior to this year: my sister and I had an agreement where she would keep my cat in the summer while I was in Cape Breton if I would keep hers in the winter while she is in Florida. The cats in question have now both passed on, so this year I was free to be away from the house for an extended time during the winter.
Last year’s Cape Breton’s Winter Colours essay, which I put together from photos generously contributed by several photographers in Cape Breton, awoke me to the beauties of winter there and made it very clear how much I had missed. Besides the scenery under a mantle of snow, I was also very curious to see the sea ice with my own eyes: I have seen plenty of fresh-water ice in the winter time on the St Lawrence River, where I grew up, but have always found it very difficult to conceive of how salt water could form ice in any but the coldest of climes; Cape Breton is certainly not frigid to the same degree that say, Iqaluit, is—indeed Cape Breton’s winter temperatures these days are reasonably comparable to those here in New Jersey, where the ocean never freezes.
Thanks to the Nova Scotia Department of Transportation and Infrastructure’s web cameras, I have been keeping track of the Cape Breton’s winter weather on a near-daily basis for the last four years and discovered that late February and early March is normally the sunniest period of its winter months. Thanks to Environment Canada’s fine ice maps,¹ one can follow the evolution of the sea ice daily as well. It does not always form (there was not much in 2010) and did not begin to take shape until February this year.
When I left home in heavy rain on Monday, 28 February, for a house concert in Lebanon (New Hampshire) featuring two of Cape Breton’s finest musicians, Wendy MacIsaac and Andrea Beaton, although I had packed the car, I was still very unsure whether I was going to continue on to Cape Breton: the ten-day weather forecasts were for generally mediocre weather during the time I was to be there and the sea ice was mainly in St Georges Bay with very little present elsewhere along Cape Breton’s coasts. However, the next morning dawned bright and sunny, a considerable amount of new sea ice had formed and been blown overnight onto Cape Breton’s western coast, the 10-day weather forecasts for Cape Breton showed more sunny-weather days than when I had left, and the roads were bare, so I decided to drive east to see how far I could get without running into a mess. I made it to Moncton that evening and to Mabou the following afternoon, with bare roads and clear weather all the way! Thursday, however, proved to be a thoroughly rotten day with howling winds and blowing snow and I spent it holed up in Mabou, except for an outing to Judique in the evening for a musical jam session at the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre once the storm had died down and the roads had been put in better shape. Friday was a much better day; my friend, Mike Little, had generously offered to take me around the Cabot Trail in his four-wheel drive vehicle and we had a glorious trip with lots of clouds but with the sun out mostly whenever it mattered. Saturday turned into a nearly perfect day for photography, with clear blue skies, lots of sun, and a bit warmer temperatures, enough so that you will see some evidence of melting in the photographs; in spite of an afternoon cèilidh at the Doryman in Chéticamp, I just could not keep myself from photographing the gorgeous scenes spread out before my eyes and so arrived an hour and a half late to the music, an almost unheard-of occurrence for me. Sunday was cloudy with grey skies, but warmer than it had been and with fewer winds; I got in a photography session around Whycocomagh Bay and at the Strait of Canso before the afternoon cèilidh in Judique. Monday was a wet, rainy, windy day for the most part, with mild temperatures and occasional attempts by the sun to pierce through the clouds; I drove along Cape Breton’s southern coast to Point Michaud and then back to Mabou by West Bay, Marble Mountain, and Whycocomagh. I was torn about returning to New Jersey on Tuesday, as I had not seen any of northeastern Cape Breton, but the forecasts were for more stormy weather later in the week and I did not want to get caught out on the roads in a major snowstorm (which did materialize in the Maritimes, but not before I was safely home, again on bare roads all the way).
So this was a very quick trip—only five full days in Cape Breton—but I took well over 1100 photos and have been hard pressed to boil them down to the few that I can show in a photo essay. I have been compelled to add another ten pages to this essay, as I simply couldn’t bear to not show off Cape Breton’s stunning white beauty.
Rather than following the time sequence given above, I have reärranged the selected photos to form a continuous tour around the parts of the Island I was able to visit. Like all of my visits to Cape Breton, it starts at the Canso Causeway; after a jump east to Point Michaud, it returns west via West Bay and then north to Marble Mountain and Whycocomagh Bay; it continues north to the Bras d’Or Look-Off and the St Anns Look-Off on the Trans-Canada Highway (NS 105), and then follows the Cabot Trail north to Ingonish and Cape North Village; after a superb excursion to Bay St Lawrence and Meat Cove, it comes back to the Cabot Trail, continues over North Mountain, up MacKenzies Mountain, down French Mountain, and on to Chéticamp; views of the Margarees, Mabou, and St Georges Bay at Creignish complete the tour. It was a wonderful time and I was incredibly lucky to have had the weather I did. The next time someone tells you you’d be crazy to visit Cape Breton in the winter time, just reply that you’d be crazy not to, at least once!
Victor Maurice Faubert
2011 April 20
¹ For the Cape Breton visitor, the most useful ice maps on the referenced web page are those labelled as “Gulf of St Lawrence” in the groupings “Concentration” and “Stage”. To understand these maps, you must first understand “egg codes”, which are well described here. These maps are not updated beyond the end of ice season, which, as of this writing, is very near—only minor amounts of ice are currently present in the Gulf. But, check them out again next winter—it’s fascinating to watch the ice form, collect into floes, and then move around driven by currents and winds, shifting shape nearly every day.↩