Trials on the trails: Dual sport riding in Cape Breton

The Cape Clear Snowmobile Club cabin was warm and dry, and most importantly, it was unlocked. After a day of hammering a Beta 498 RR down the highway, I was cold, wet and tired, and needed a place to sleep. The clubhouse furniture was a better solution than hanging a hammock in the soggy woods.

In the cabin was a map of the local trail system. I was here in Cape Breton to explore the gravel roads that cut through the middle of the island, and the map would help to plan the next day. Given the Beta’s light weight and buzzy motor, it hadn’t been an easy ride from New Brunswick, but the next day should be a lot better: I hoped the 498 RR would prove a good match for the tracks ahead. The offroading to get here had been fantastic riding, even if the scenery was a bit crap, and I thought the next day would only get better.

***

Saturday started with a quick rip through the hills, down dirt roads surrounded by hardwood trees, blueberry fields and old homesteads. Finally, I was out of softwood plantations and into proper scenery, down the roads originally built by Scottish settlers fleeing the Highland Clearances.

I’m not the fastest rider in the dirt, but the Beta’s raw power and supple suspension made the ride pure joy. The bike was ideal for the day’s offroading, handling bumps and ruts with aplomb, and leaving me with an urge to power slide through every corner; the trip was a roaring success until halfway up a mountainside, when I took a wrong turn on a poorly marked snowmobile trail.

The snowmobile map I found in the Cape Clear clubhouse (which was nowhere near Cape Clear) was quite a bit of help, although many of the side routes were impassible bogs (only usable by sleds once frozen).

Although major junctions are well-marked on Cape Breton’s snowmobile routes, sometimes you run across an unmarked fork and are left wondering which way to go. Faced with such a choice, I made the wrong guess and headed off into unknown, unmapped territory.

The trail narrowed and soon disappeared into a long, muddy water crossing, where beavers had dammed a stream and flooded the road. I knew this would be a bad place to get stuck. From the lack of tracks around me it seemed help would be a long time coming, and I really didn’t want to spend my weekend hiking down to civilization in a pair of muck-filled motocross boots.

It was a bad idea to attempt the crossing without backup, but my other option was to turn around and risk running out of fuel in the middle of the woods, where I hadn’t seen another vehicle for hours. This would mean the end of my weekend’s exploration, and that was unacceptable. I was too curious about what lay ahead to turn back now, so I decided to press on and tackle the mud hole myself.

Packing the bike at the snowmobile clubhouse. This was a welcome shelter when I rolled up in the rain.

The water wasn’t deep, but the bottom was pure ooze, and I soon bogged the front wheel axle-deep into the muck. After plenty of muscle work, I managed to pull the bike out of the filth and back onto the dry gravel, and assessed my situation: I was in rough shape. Now, I was soaked and filthy from wrestling the bike out of the hole, still running low on gas, still on the wrong side of the mud hole, and this time the bike wouldn’t start.

I hit the electric start — no luck. I tried the kickstarter; the only reward was a bruise on my shin from the footpeg. I checked the wiring harness, and nothing seemed wet. I was stranded in the middle of the woods.

Some of the gravel tracks turned into wide-open highways, where you could ride as fast as safety permitted. Of course, if you got lost and stuck,like I did, all bets were off.

Beta includes a top-notch toolkit on its bikes, so I drained the carb and checked the intake. All was good — no flooding — and after letting it dry out for a few minutes, the bike started up easily. When I checked the crankcase, though, I saw water had made its way into the engine’s bottom end. The gearbox was filled with milky, polluted oil.

So I was still in a jam. Not only was I stuck, with no real idea where I was except a crude line on the GPS indicating the highway was somewhere a few miles ahead, but now I had a bike that could potentially grenade its transmission if I tried to ride out. I couldn’t even call for help, as there was no cell reception. Nobody was about to drive by in a pickup and offer a helping hand.

I’d have to figure out my own escape plan, starting with the long mud puddle ahead.

***

When the trail bottom was hard and dry, like this, the riding was great. However, that wasn’t always the case …

I removed all the luggage and manhandled the bike through the water on the left-hand side, where the muck was less deep (which, of course, I discovered after getting stuck on the right-hand side). I waded back and forth to retrieve the luggage and strapped it all back down, then after weighing my options, decided to ride the bike gently downhill toward the highway, hoping to find help at the bottom. I figured if I kept the RPMs down, I’d avoid damage to the gearbox, and with the Beta’s dual-sump design, I knew the oil in the engine’s top end was still clean, so the valve train would be unaffected.

To my relief, everything held together, and after a nerve-wracking ride down the mountain, I rolled out of the woods and into a backyard, where a woman was tending her vegetable garden.

I must have looked a mess, because the first thing she said to me was “Do you need some help? Let me get my husband.”

Saved! I pulled into my new friends’ driveway and got to work. After putting four jugs of oil through the crankcase, my bike was good to go.

It turned out my new friends had a workshop in their backyard and no plans for the afternoon. My own plans for high-speed dirt riding had to go on hold as we ran a few jugs of 10W-40 through the crankcase, cleaning out the water-polluted goop.

I suspect I was the most interesting thing to pass through this area in some time, as even the neighbours popped by, with one older farmer bending down to give a hand, cursing in Gaelic as he loosened bolts. Despite the best efforts of Hollywood to provide the world with a mindless monoculture, the people here still remember where they came from, and they still remember how to be good neighbours. They’re the kind of people who pitch in and lend a helping hand themselves, instead of offering to call a tow truck.

With the bike’s gearbox cleaned out, I was invited into the house for a classic Maritime meal of beef, mashed potatoes and canned vegetables. As a lifelong resident of Atlantic Canada, I’ve heard countless tourists praise our region’s hospitality and generosity. After experiencing it first-hand, I’ve got to say, I can’t think of a better place to break down.

Earlier in the day, I’d expected to make a call to the Beta distributor to say his bike’s transmission had turned into slag; thanks to my helpers, I was headed back into the hills, well-fed, with a working motorcycle. Surely, my troubles were over.

***

Since it was June 21, the longest day of the year, I figured I had enough daylight left to push on and still see some of the Highlands. I headed up the gravel roads of Hunters Mountain and was looking for scenic vistas when it started to rain hard and heavy.

Earlier in the day, I’d managed to lose my rain jacket; it had either escaped its bungee and fallen trailside, or been pinched at a gas stop. Either way, I was now soaking wet, and the gas station poncho under my riding jacket wasn’t doing much good. Instead of breathtaking lookouts, I was now searching for shelter, concerned for hypothermia.

Just outside the trail system, near Margaree Centre. This is a beautiful area, and I can’t believe it’s not a highlight of the east coast adventure riding scene.

It was going to be a cold night. Any potential firewood was soaked and I’m not enough of a bushcrafter to coax a flame out of it; instead of a tent, I’d brought a hammock expecting to find shelter, but now there was a cold northerly knifing through the mountains. Without much hope, I tried the door on the cab of an abandoned road grader, thinking it would be dry enough to get me through the night. Alas, the crew had locked it.

So I followed the greatest travel rule of all: When all else fails, consult a map. The snowmobile map from back in the cabin indicated another old clubhouse in my general vicinity, just outside Margaree Centre, so I pushed in that direction with minutes of daylight left, keeping an eye out for moose through the mist that was descending on the mountainside.

Moose hadn’t been a major concern through the day, when visibility had been excellent, but now, in the dusk and fog, the likelihood of bumping into one was greatly increased. I pressed on, hoping local hunters were doing their part to keep the road clear. Just as the sun set, I rode out of the woods and into a farm’s front yard.

The farmer was there and his six dogs gave me a sniff of approval. He said the snowmobile shack on the map wasn’t far away — it was just below his bottom field. I fired the bike to life, happy I hadn’t had to plead with him to sleep in his horse barn to get out of the weather, and rode down to the clubhouse.

Instead of a damp night in the woods trying to keep a fire going, I found a dry building with firewood and a pullout couch. The clubhouse hadn’t been used for years, but the stale old cocoa powder in the kitchen was still palatable, and inexplicably, the power was still connected.

It might not have been heaven, but it was a lot better than hypothermia.

***

The next day’s riding was the best of the weekend; the trails outside Margaree Centre started off tight, but eventually opened up to fast-flowing gravel roads, with great sight lines. I found a fork that headed westward to the coast — a narrow, boulder-bombed side leg that would have been very challenging on a full-sized adventure bike.

This loose trail snakes down a mountainside and spits you out just outside Cheticamp. Not only was the riding good, but the scenery was also some of the best I saw all weekend.

There were several long water crossings. I pre-walked all of them after learning the lesson from the mud hole and managed to avoid any more calamities.  Rolling down the side of the mountain into the town of Cheticamp, I was glad to be on a sure-footed enduro, as the trail here got very tight, with lots of loose rock under my tires and a steep drop-off on one side of the road. The misery of riding a rattly single-cylinder all the way from Saint John was worth it now.

The Beta was plenty of fun once I left Cheticamp and headed up the Cabot Trail, too. The bike’s light weight was a treat in the twisties, letting me fly through the corners just as quick as I dared to push the dual sport tires. This was my first ride on the Cabot Trail, and in some sections, I turned the bike around at the bottom of a particularly good descent, rode back up the cliffside, and hit the corners again. From here on, I stuck mostly to asphalt, returning at the day’s end to the original snowmobile cabin for another evening punctuated by the gnawing of noisy mice. On Monday morning, I rode out of the woods toward the causeway at Port Hawkesbury on the south end of the island, for gas and coffee and a return to the mainland.

Freewheelin’ down the Cabot Trail! Some kindly South African tourist snapped this as I rolled by.

Sitting in the service station parking lot, watching the world go by, I felt at peace with the world. People were hurrying by in every direction: vacationing in Cape Breton, hauling cars to Newfoundland, rushing for a week in Halifax. Soon I’d be bucking the slipstream of traffic, vibrating behind the bars of a trail bike ill-suited for highway travel, but the thought wasn’t a concern. I’d hit the trails, overcome a potentially disastrous mechanical problem, escaped hypothermia, and seen the Cabot Trail. I was here, now, living in the moment with a cup of coffee in my hand that tasted better than any gas station coffee has a right to. I’d call that a successful trip.


GALLERY

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12 thoughts on “Trials on the trails: Dual sport riding in Cape Breton”

  1. Great story. I am a descendant of those Scottish pioneers who ventured to Cape Breton under the leadership of Norman McLeod, and who later migrated to New Zealand due to the potato famine that also affected Ireland and Europe. They built their own ships, had trading ventures, and were very self reliant. Thanks for the pictures and tales of hospitality. I admire your pluck.

  2. Cape Breton is a wonderful place. I’ve ridden there twice when I lived in Ontario and we rented a house for a week in East Margaree, not far from Cheticamp and five minutes from the Cabot Trail. Both times we bought fresh lobster right off the boat at the Cheticamp docks. We actually considered moving there when we retired because property is inexpensive and the people are amazing but the winters…….. Yikes. Everyone back east should make it a “must see” at some point, especially on a bike.

    1. Glenn at Mojo actually had a couple properties up there, but I think he might have sold them.

      I went to CB a lot as a kid, on family vacations, and I worked on the Bras D’Or lakes as a teenager, building a house for an Internet millionaire. But all those times I went, I never got very far off the beaten track. Not, of course, that Cape Breton is a very beaten track to start with.

      Anyway, if I had my way, I’d spend a couple weeks there every year with the wife and offspring and a motorcycle …

    1. Best guess is a vent line. It didn’t come through the airbox, because A) That would have gotten the top end oil soggy, which didn’t happen, and B) there wasn’t really any mess in the airbox.

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