I came to Cheticamp for a five-day stay and I only left six months later. Wait, did I really spend ¼ of my Working Holiday permit in this town lost in the middle of nowhere, Nova Scotia? Phew. It went by fast.
This was my first ever Canadian winter. I’ve seen it, I’ve lived through it, and I’ve survived it. I got first-hand experience of what it’s like to live in a wintry landscape, and I’ve discovered that snow is beautiful but… challenging.
Snow is lovely… until you get snowed in
Let me start by being lyrical about winter. The scenery is stunning when winter blankets the Cape Breton Highlands National Park and all you can see is snow, more snow, and white mountains. I’ve hiked or drove the Cabot Trail—the mythical loop around the park—on sunny days under a big blue sky when everything was covered with snow—fir trees, cemeteries, roofs, road signs—and it was gorgeous. Below, blocks of ice were drifting in the sea. One evening, the sunset was casting a warm glow on the snow and the scenery was breathtaking. And the snow-covered fir trees everywhere give a festive Christmas atmosphere six months of the year. That’s for the “I love snow” part.
Now, some days, I would look out the window of my living room and it looked like a laundry detergent ad—whiter than white! At one point, the calendar did say it was definitely spring but I woke up to 50 centimetres of snow, courtesy of the latest winter storm. As a result, I was stuck at home on Cheticamp Island for three days. The dirt road that connected the house to the road was way too snowy, even the plow truck couldn’t get through. Anyone in Cheticamp who owned a backhoe had their phone ringing non-stop. I had to wait for three days for one of them to come and plow the road.
As I said, snow can be a big challenge. Interested in reading more, “damn winter” stories? I have a bunch, but here are two to start.
Canadian winter experience #1 — Snow plow vs. snow squall
The first one took place when a blizzard hit Cheticamp one morning. My dirt road was seriously starting to fill up with snow. A friend drove over with his plow truck (literally a big SUV with a plow at the front) and kindly started clearing it for me. I was watching him while eating breakfast.
But a few minutes later, the truck got stuck in the snow. I went out to help him out but before I could, I had to somehow manage to open the front door, which was stuck because of the wind and a 1.5-meter-high pile of drifting snow accumulating behind it.
It took me ten minutes to make my way outside with a shovel. I was still wearing my pyjamas, and here I was, buried mid-thigh in the snow, trying to dig around the truck and battling wind gusts as strong as 120 km/h. Yes, I was freezing. And we weren’t even able to clear enough snow around the truck so we had to call another friend.
Once the truck was unstuck, I climbed in and my friend took me to the town centre for a quick grocery shopping trip because there was no way I could take the dirt road with “Jonathan” (… my van). We couldn’t see much along the way and sometimes we couldn’t see the road at all because of the snow squall—imagine blowing snow and strong, gusty surface winds—so we had to stop in the middle of the road.
At one point we spotted a vehicle in the ditch. The car and the driver were fine. We stopped to help out and so did many other drivers. About ten of us started pushing the car, pulling it, shovelling the snow around it and eventually another vehicle managed to tow it out. The guy thanked us and drove off. All good? Nope. Another driver who had stopped to help out got stuck. So the entire pushing, pulling, shovelling and towing routine started again.
We made it to the town, I bought my groceries and I found myself making my way on the damn dirt path to the house, with snow up to mid-thigh, balancing groceries and desperately trying to shield myself from the freezing wind that made me feel like my skin was peeling off my face. I ended up on all four negotiating snow drifts, pushing the box full of groceries. What a day…
Canadian winter experience #2 — Power outage
The second story took place at home. After days of cold and humid weather, I got sick, and I had a fever. It was Saturday night. Suddenly, at 6:30 p.m., the power went out—goodbye lights, heat and stove… and it was -16 °C outside.
I was told that power should be back on around 11:30 p.m. never mind, I started the wood stove and I cooked dinner in the dark—fortunately, I had a headlamp and a backup gas camp stove. Then I took an Advil and buried myself in bed under two blankets and my hat on. Really the definition of a shitty night.
I woke up around 6 a.m. because I was freezing cold. The alarm clock on the bedside table was still off, a clear sign the power wasn’t back on. I brought a thermometer to the bedroom, just out of curiosity—it was -1 °C and it felt like it!
This Saturday night power outage lasted a full 24 hours and it certainly didn’t help my cold. “Saturday Night Fever,” ha, ha.
No, I’m not a masochist
I’m sure some of you will say “oh, sweet summer child, what did you expect, coming to Canada in winter? If you’re too French to handle cold weather, you should have applied for a Working Holiday permit to Australia!”
But I’m happy I had the chance to experience winter in Canada. This doesn’t mean I enjoyed it. Like many people, I was looking forward to seeing leaves sprouting and colourful flowers growing. I couldn’t wait to hear fat little birds singing to spring atop trees.
That said, I had no regrets. The five months I spent in Nova Scotia were a unique chance to explore Acadian culture, identity and traditions. At the end of my stay, I found it normal to be invited for a 3 p.m. dinner, eat game meat, hear local gossip (apparently, I was dating some guy in town… not!).
Ah, small town gossip… “Rumeur,” a French song, describes it very well:
“C’est bien plus fort qu’un mensonge, ça grossit comme une éponge
Plus c’est faux, plus c’est vrai, plus c’est gros et plus ça plaît
Calomnie, plus on nie, plus elle enfle se réjouit
Démentir, protester, c’est encore la propager.”
(“It’s much stronger than a lie, it expands like a sponge
The further it is from the truth, the truer it becomes, the weirder the claims, and the happier people are
It’s slander, but the more you deny it, the more people talk about it with delight
And it spreads if you attempt to deny it or defend yourself”)
What to see on Cape Breton Island in summer
This is what should be on your travel list if you decide to explore Cape Breton Island in summer (good choice!).
Cape Breton Highlands National Park
This park should be at the top of your list. There are plenty of viewpoints along the Cabot Trail (and I think there should be more!). If you like hiking, the Skyline trail is a classic choice and it’s not too difficult. I loved the MacIntosh Brook trail and the Bog trail for the atmosphere (they’re both short flat trails).
If you’re taking the Cabot Trail, going east, right after South Harbour, you will get to a bridge and a sign that says “Effies Brook.” Go left and take the Alternative Scenic Road, also called Coastal Loop. You won’t regret it! The Cabot Trail takes you inland but this Coastal Loop takes you… well, along the coast, with gorgeous views of Aspy Bay. Go through Smelt Brook, stop at White Point (it’s a small fishing town but the sea colour makes you feel you’ve travelled all the way to the Caribbean!), cross New Haven and take the Cabot Trail again at Neil’s Habour. Keep on driving to Ingonish but watch the road—there’s a curved bulge right in the middle and vehicles with low ground clearance are likely to hit it.
Oh, and don’t forget to check out Meat Cove, supposedly the most northern settlement in Nova Scotia (questionable statement but don’t start arguing with the locals!). it’s worth the drive but watch out for muddy roads if it rained and keep in mind it’s a long, windy cliffside road. Give yourself plenty of time!
There’s a lovely sand beach. Except I only saw the snowy version.
I’d say it’s the perfect “base camp” because of its location on the west side of Cape Breton Highlands National Park. You will find everything you need on the main street—motels, bars, groceries, gas stations, banks, hospital, etc.
The “back road” (parallel to the main) takes you to the start of a trail to a former gypsum quarry, now a lovely lake surrounded by mountains.
For live music in Cheticamp, head to The Doryman Pub and Grill, Le Gabriel Restaurant or just to the waterfront. Enjoy!
There are plenty of experiences I missed because I was here in winter. Many people told me to stay for the summer but I had to move on! That said, I had the chance to celebrate the local version of Fat Tuesday and it was totally worth it.