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Surpassed by our sons on spectacular Cape Breton

Pictou to North Sydney, Nova Scotia, 556km (Tour total 1,532km)

“I’m finished. I don’t think I can make it!”

“Just one more kilometre to go.”

“But it’s another uphill!”

“We’ve already biked 84 kilometres today. Just one last push.”


“C’mon, Dad, you got this!”

“Ugh, okay.” 

There may have been more whining in Ed’s head than just this, but the last-ditch encouragement from his sons certainly helped him cross the finish line after an excruciating day crossing over the magnificent, mountainous spine of Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Highlands.

We’ve mentioned before that bike touring is a superb way to foster resilience in our kids. Since they were old enough to wear a helmet, we’ve met all kinds of challenges while cycling every summer. We’ve scaled the Alps in Austria, the Southern Alps in New Zealand, the Rockies in Alberta and the Cascades in Washington. We’ve faced ferocious headwinds for hours on end in Portugal and Germany and British Columbia, and pummeling rain in Australia, Denmark and the Olympic Peninsula.

When you’ve surmounted obstacles like these, we hope, everyday hurdles back home like ski races, math tests and emptying the dishwasher will feel a little easier.

But it doesn’t mean we always model that resilience ourselves.

As our teens grow on their saddles, physically and mentally, they’re gaining strength, experience and perseverance. As we parents get a year older with each annual trip, it seems we… just get older.

Earlier that day, we were riding up the 12% grade of North Mountain in the midday heat. Ever since they were mini-cyclists, we’ve developed the habit of sandwiching the boys between us, but when Dad the leader needed to pull over to stretch his back, he said offhandedly, “You guys go ahead if you want.”


They’d been waiting for that invitation, apparently. Off they went, gliding smoothly up, up and away around the steep switchbacks.

Sitka even pedalled standing up for most of it.

When we eventually caught up at the 1500-foot summit (even Ed’s eyebrows appear to be thinning, as he had to stop three times to wipe the stinging sweat out of his eyes), Heron and Sitka were calmly sipping from their water bottles.

“We saw a moose, right here!” enthused Sitka, pointing to his tires.

“It’s still in the bush, there, if you can spot it.”

Joce - calm and steady, the true model of resilience on our family (her eyebrows evidently still work) - didn’t end up seeing the moose. She was just glad to be at the top. And that the boys don’t mind waiting for us.

Of course, the boys are still working on their resilience, too - if they can’t find their e-book reader or have to wake up early for a ferry - but the bigger problems and disappointments don’t really faze them any more:

Getting drenched and pelted by hail-hard rain at 35 knots on a whale-sighting boat with no whales in sight?

“We got some serious air on those swells!”

Have to bike an 11% grade for 90 minutes up to French Mountain’s 500-metre summit in a drizzly fog? 

“That didn’t take as long as I thought.”

Flying down Mackenzie Mountain’s 13% hairpin downhill in a thick, soppy cloud where you could barely see the outline of the rider in front of you, let alone the reputedly stunning coastal views?

“That was awesome, especially when the road lines suddenly turned right in front of my wheel!”

Only way to cross the Great Bras d’Or Strait between Englishtown and Boularderie Island is the two-lane, shoulderless climb up to the 100-foot-high Seal Island Bridge?

“It wasn't fun, but it was bike-able.”

We’ve left behind our reserve battery pack, had our tent fly ripped to shreds, and Heron even broke a spoke this week on his rear wheel - on the dreaded cassette side - in the middle of nowhere.

“Hey Dad, how ‘bout I fix it myself?”

“I think I see a cafe ahead,” observes Sitka. “Hey Mom, let’s go get a snack!”

I tell them that there’s no problems, only solutions,” Ed has quoted Lennon to the boys since forever. Apparently it’s beginning to stick.

It didn’t hurt that we spent the past ten days in one of Canada’s most extraordinary natural playgrounds - along the beach-laden north coast of Nova Scotia and onto Cape Breton Island with its two striking coasts, spectacular national park and reinvigorating Gaelic and Acadian culture.

It’s also a province ravaged by unprecedented wildfires earlier this summer, and by abnormal flooding during the week we were riding through - a sobering reminder that rising climate-change-related events are making nature adventuring more challenging, and resilience ever more important.

Indeed, for the first time in memory, we were forced indoors by the torrential 36-hour downpour that took the whole province by storm (by pure serendipity, we had planned an off-bikes day in a cabin in Ingonish Beach). We overcame the disappointment at missing our scheduled hike on the forested peninisula with board games and movies - an unprecedented no-movement day that left us all with an unfamiliar stir-crazy feeling (except for Ed, who volunteered to get groceries 8k away, so donned his bathing suit and blared his underappreciated Spotify playlist under the heavy rain splotches and through the deep roadside puddles).

We arrived in Nova Scotia from PEI on the ferry in Caribou, riding south over the Pictou Causeway to New Glasgow for a glimpse of African-Canadian history (in addition to being a hub for Black Loyalists and freed slaves, it’s where trailblazer Viola Desmond civilly disobeyed segregation laws in the local theatre almost a decade before Rosa Parks boarded that Alabama bus) and another cousin visit with Ashley and adorable family, then along the Sunrise Trail scenic route toward Cape George Point, fossil seeking at Arisaig Beach, down to Antigonish for a brief campus tour of St. Francis Xavier University (parents more impressed than teens) and eastward on quiet farm roads and through Mik’maw communities to Cape Breton.

We crossed the shoulderless Canso Causeway with little trouble thanks to patient drivers giving us oodles of space, and thankfully met a couple who told us the first few kilometres of the Celtic Rail Trail are currently washed out until the town of Troy. There, we merged onto this glorious groomed path for 80 kilometres over a couple days of shallow sandy beaches, steep and stellar coast views, and of course lots of live music.

We lunched in Judique at the Celtic Interpretive Centre, taking in the local custom of fish and chips with a healthy side of brilliant fiddle, guitar and piano by a band of locals. Ed was in his happy place, playing Ashley MacIsaac’s Sleepy Maggie on repeat on his head all the way to Mabou, where we cleaned up and dined at the famed Red Shoe Pub on more haddock and fries (homemade bean burgers for the boys) with more live Celtic music. For 48 hours, the Spotify hip-hop shifted to upbeat Celtic classics - yes, including the Rankin Family, part-owners of the Red Shoe - with the boys bopping merrily alongside Mom and Dad.

After a refreshing ocean dip at Margaree Harbour, we rode shoulderless road up the Acadian coast, as the bluffs in our foreground grew gradually larger and more imposing until Chéticamp, southwest corner of Cape Breton Highlands National Park. 

“It’s important to keep a bear-safe campsite, folks,” recited the recent high-school grad at the entry booth to the beautiful campground on fast-flowing Chéticamp River.

“We’re from the Yukon,” we explained why we didn’t need the pamphlet for the nth time. “Where are your bear bins?”

“Oh, I don’t think we have any. Linda, do we have bear bins? No, we don’t have bear bins.

“I guess you can just put your food in whatever you usually put it in. We don’t really get bears.”

“I’ll find the garbage bins so we can put our food bags in the back part with the bear-proof handle,” offers Heron, nonplussed. Another solution our family had concocted over the years on two wheels.

Our day off at Chéticamp featured the splendid three-hour Acadien trail hike from maple-and-fern rainforest to the stunted spruce and berry bushes atop the highlands, then a ride into town to the funky Freya and Thor cafe, and finally that ill-fated whale tour (“guaranteed” so we were offered our money back, but we took the half-back option since we caught all that air, and also were jazzed by the close-up looks at the soaring, 500-million-year-old pink granite cliffs and an adorable colony of dozens of huge harbour seals). We’d rinsed our bike clothes in the rushing brook next to our campsite just before the rain set in, so Sitka Google-mapped a local laundromat to dry them in.


No sweat - figuratively and literally.

We hiked the popular Skyline Trail through moose habitat to the fabulous boardwalk at the edge of those beautiful bluffs, just after that foggy climb up French Mountain. When the cloud parted momentarily, we could stare down at the windy, sketchy highway we’d just conquered.

“Wow, I’m glad I couldn’t see that road while we biking it,” mused Sitka.

After the cloudy blind descent down Mackenzie, we emerged in Pleasant Bay, where the super-friendly local host at the impressive Whale Interpretive Centre suggested a second shot at whale-boating.

“Sorry, it’s too foggy out for the rest of the day.”

“I really wanted to see whales,” bummed Sitka, who had been deeply affected by the displays showing the evolution of human appreciation of cetaceans, from blubbery commodity to revered fellow mammal. Then a glint in his eye. “How about tomorrow morning?”

And so it was that we met a small pod of elusive minke whales - 35-foot wonders surfacing a few times before arching their graceful, angular dorsal fins and diving a few hundred feet for food.

And so it was, too, that Ed was so exhausted after a late start to that day up North Mountain and along the Aspy Fault, then up another steep climb over to the east coast of the Highlands - even after a stop at Neils Harbour’s lighthouse ice cream parlour (cash only, so Dad darted into town, found someone to fix the local ATM, and returned a hero with two twenties) - before the final kilometre in Ingonish Beach threw up one last uphill he couldn’t handle.

Until his physically and mentally stronger-than-ever teenagers showed him otherwise.



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