The sun, which we had mostly lost on the way into Meat Cove, remained in hiding on our drive back east from Meat Cove to St Margaret Village and then south to Cape North Village, so we made no stops along the way. After refilling the gas tank, we headed towards North Mountain along the Cabot Trail. Although we knew that the Cabot Trail over North Mountain was closed, we nevertheless headed in that direction just to see how far up we could get before we had to turn around, as we fully expected that we would have to do.
Our first stop was at the Sunrise pull-off, from which one has wonderful views of the Cape North Massif (as seen in this 2010 June photo). Although the sun was out on Tenerife Mountain, heavy cloud cover and fog or haze mostly concealed the massif further to the north; moreover, the incredibly badly placed utility wires seriously mar every photo I took at the pull-off and finding the “sweet spot” from which that June photo was taken was altogether impossible given the high snow banks, so, sadly, none of the photos I took there are good enough to include in this essay.
When we reached Big Intervale at the foot of North Mountain, where the Cabot Trail reënters the Cape Breton Highland National Park, we found the big sign with lights a-flashing, indicating that the road over North Mountain was closed. Yet the road ahead, like the road on which we had been travelling, was, although snow-covered, in generally fine shape. So, in an exploratory mood, we started up the mountain. A very few minutes later, we pulled into the uppermost look-off on North Mountain, as the road ahead was blocked by a snow plough, explaining why the road so far had been in such fine condition.
I shot photo #1 looking to the southeast from the look-off; it shows a small portion of South Mountain across the North Aspy River where streams running into Little Southwest Brook have sculpted the terrain. As can be seen, there was some sun hitting the snowy cliff face just left of centre in this photo. This view is nearly the same one that is seen in its late spring foliage in the bottommost photo on this web page). Yet, how different these two views are, and not only because of the snow!
While I was busy snapping photos of the mountains across the Aspy River, which flows through the valley below the look-off, Mike walked over to the snow plough and tapped on the driver’s window, considerably startling the crew who had seen Mike turn the car around and thought we had gone back down the mountain. He asked them whether we could go on to the summit and was told that there was a snow blower up there at the moment and that we could follow the plough up there in ten or fifteen minutes when the blower would have made a place for the plough to turn around—there was simply way too much snow up there for the plough to make its way through unassisted, as it can only push a certain amount of snow before its weight simply becomes too much for the plough to handle.
So we waited patiently back in the car and a scarce five minutes later, the snow plough got word from the snow blower’s operator that he was ready for them and so it started on up towards the summit. Photo #2, shot through the windshield, shows the plough nearly hidden behind a trailing cloud of snow and the newly cleared road behind, up which we had no problem whatsoever ascending.
The plough, a goodly-sized vehicle seen in photo #3, turned around near the top of the mountain and went back down the Trail to widen the one-lane road it had cleared on the way up.
Photo #4 shows the banks it had made. We got out and took photos of the snow banks, the like of which I had not seen since the 1960’s, when I was teaching in Star Lake in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State (after one memorable blizzard there, I had to go out through my living room window because there was too much snow blown against the front door for me to open it).
Photo #5 is typical of the snow banks we saw on North Mountain. Better than any other I took this day, it illustrates how the wind had blown and sculpted the snow, even making a shelf at the top that extended out over the cleared highway in places, giving one the impression of a tunnel; one notices this shelf effect in photo #6 as well. The crew told Mike that there was more snow on North Mountain this year than in any since 2004 and that a snow blower was needed more than once this winter to reöpen the Cabot Trail across both French Mountain and North Mountain as there was too much snow in both places for a plough to cope with; they reported the snow depth as varying from 3 to 4.5 m (10 to 15 ft) on North Mountain. Rannie Gillis, whose columns for The Cape Breton Post are always fascinating to read, reported in a column published 2011 April 10 that “in order to clear the road, specialized equipment like a front-end-loader had to be used because the snow drifts were so high that the snowblowing machine could not discharge the snow over the tops of the banks. The loader would cut off the tops of the highest sections and deposit the snow in another location, where the banks were not so high.”
Photo #6, taken a bit further along the cleared road, shows Mike standing on North Mountain with his arm stretched above his head; in an e-mail in response to my query, he reports that “I stand 6 feet tall and reach to 7 foot 6 inches.” So the snow at that point is clearly at least 250 cm (8 ft) high and very probably higher, since the upper part of the bank is further away in the photo. Notice the lower of the utility lines in this photo and compare its height with that in photo #5 to get another idea of the height. The marks in the snow bank seen in this photo were made by the snow blower, with whose operator we also briefly chatted through the opened car window as we drove forward: he told us that the road ahead was snow-covered and one lane, but that we would likely have no problem with a four-wheel drive, equipped, as it was, with studded winter tires. (I regret that I did not get a photo of the snow blower, but we were too close to it for that to be practical.)
The road crews who keep the Cabot Trail open through the Cape Breton Highlands National Park are Parks Canada employees (notice the identification on the plough’s door in photo #4). The residents of Pleasant Bay and Red River depend on these hardworking crews for their only access to the hospital in Chéticamp and the high schools in Chéticamp and Terre-Noire (over French Mountain) and to the hospital in Neils Harbour (over North Mountain); it is also the only way commercial supplies can get into the village. These folks deserve everyone’s thanks for putting in long hours to keep this lifeline open under very difficult conditions—this was not its first closure this winter and, since the day we were there, it has been twice more closed again this winter! And they get Mike’s and my especial thanks for being so kind and understanding to us winter tourists as to let us us pass over an officially closed road—we were the first car to get through after this closure, which was lifted at nightfall.
The GPS coördinates given with the photos on this page are all estimates obtained from Google Maps, as I did not record GPS coördinates for any of the photos taken on this circuit of the Cabot Trail. From a previous trip over North Mountain, the coördinates of the sign indicating the summit, which gives its height as 445 m (1460 ft), put it at 46°48.998'N 60°40.331'W; all I can say with certainty is that all of these photos were taken at a few different points, well before that sign and not too far beyond where the snow plough turned around.