The other side of Cape Breton

Photos: Charles Landry, Matt Peachman, Zac Kurylyk
Video: Matt Peachman

Five minutes from leaving home, I experienced a minor breakdown — a mysteriously collapsed fuel line brought the Suzuki to a halt. Ten minutes from leaving home, I almost sideswiped a concrete barrier when my RF900R’s rear tire reacted violently to a mid-turn tar snake.

“So THAT’S the kind of ride this is going to be,” I muttered. Last time I took the 900 out, I hadn’t had any trouble, but that was a short trip, in dry weather. This time, I was going a lot farther from home, and chances were, it was going to rain. Wet weather had proven a very dicey proposition on the last really long ride, and in general, a 21-year-old machine is always a potential disaster. So far, things weren’t looking good.

I checked to make sure everything was still okay with the bike, then got back on the road. I met my riding partner Matt Peachman in Sackville, and we bombed our way north-east to Cape Breton on a combination of back roads and highway, arriving at Port Hawkesbury’s Maritime Inn well after dark. You know you’ve put in a long day on the bike when you’re riding the longest day of the year, and you still get out of the saddle long past sunset.

Off-Trail excursions: “There’s nothing there but dirt roads”

The whole point of this trip was to explore the “non-Trail” corners of Cape Breton; riders always hear about the Cabot Trail, but the rest of the island gets a lot less publicity. But while Matt and I scanned maps at breakfast and charted a trip around the island’s eastern end – a loop around Bras d’Or Lake, with a bit of a side excursion through the Isle Madame area – a local walked over and immediately told us we were wasting our time. He poo-poo’d our route, warning us to avoid the stretch we’d planned north of St. Peters (“There’s nothing there but dirt roads!”) and that the Gabarus-Grand river section we’d planned for later in the day was a waste of time (“There’s nothing there but trees!”).

We decided to take our chances anyway. After a scoot around Isle Madame (a lovely, open ride through Acadian towns that looks just like the Magdalen Islands), we headed north at St. Peters, wondering what we’d find.

“Hold my calls—I’m hard at work!”

What we found was an amazing road along the south side of Bras d’Or Lake, with beautiful views of the water, plenty of curves, fairly good pavement surfaces, and lots of hills. It was gorgeous country, with lots to see, and goes to show local advice isn’t always trustworthy, especially if coming from non-riders. Had we listened to the senior citizen at breakfast, we would have ended up missing a beautiful chunk of riding.

Even when the pavement got really, really bad (as in, some of the worse I’ve seen in my life) after we turned north at Marble Mountain Road, the view was still spectacular. Things got a little more woodsy after that, but the whole stretch through Whycogomah Portage was great fun. You certainly don’t have to stick to the Cabot Trail to enjoy Cape Breton! We did have one short gravel stretch to cross, but after five minutes of easy, graded road, we were back on pavement.

Beautiful views, and decent curves: This was the “dirt road” area the local expert told us to avoid …

After Iona (we skipped the Highland Village because we ran out of time), we headed through the Eskasoni reserve and around Sydney to the 22, taking a right to the Trout Brook Road on a whim.

What a stroke of luck! This short stretch of road along the Mira River is truly one of the unknown gems of the Maritimes: the pavement is in great shape, the river is beautiful, and the curves are some of the best you’ll find in Atlantic Canada. Up front on the Honda 919, Matt was over the moon with glee, powering around the corners. I caught up when we got to the Gabarus Highway. “Highway” — sounds like a boring, straight stretch, right? Wrong! This length of secondary highway is just as fun. The turns are more open, but the sightlines are better, so you can carry a lot more speed through here safely, as the road takes you to the coast.

The old guy at breakfast hadn’t been entirely wrong. After this, the ditches of the St. Peters-Fourchu Road were basically tree-lined wilderness, and the road surface itself was pretty bad, with kilometres of potholes. The pavement was especially bad on the bridges, which delivered bone-shaking jolts if you hit them at speed, but because much of this is protected wilderness area, there were very few houses and little traffic. Matt and I didn’t mind the bumps so much, as we just concentrated on having fun. A car-free road is a motorcyclist’s dream, and this is what we had. We could handle the bumps.

Pro tip: If you’re looking for supper in Nova Scotia, a chip wagon is always a good choice, as long as the fish is fresh.

But that much bashing and bumping does wear you out, and after dinner at a chip wagon in St. Peters (home of the St. Peters Canal lock, well worth a peek if you’re in the area), we headed north on Rt. 4 to our night’s accommodations at The Birches in Ben Eoin. The sun was setting on the lake to our right for the entire trip. A relaxing night’s stay in a quiet country inn was the perfect way to end the day’s ride.

Except, it wasn’t just Matt and myself who’d been worn out by the day’s ride. He’d replaced his front tire before the trip but left the rear, figuring he’d get the ride done, then change it. By supper, it was clear that wasn’t going to happen. The tread was completely gone from the tire’s centre and sidewalls. Even if he eked a few hundred more kilometres out of it on Saturday, it would be very dangerous, and there was no way he’d get home with it on Sunday, especially if it rained. Could it all be going CMG?

9 thoughts on “The other side of Cape Breton”

  1. Oh how I wan’t to retrace your ride! I already bookmarked it and if it’s not going to be this fall, it’ll be next year.

      1. Yes please Zac. I would love to get more detail info, especially on the places you stayed overnight. How do I contact you through PM?

  2. We did the Cabot trail and around the Bras d’Or by car several years ago. We concluded that ‘scenic’ on the route signs was actually Gaelic for ´pothole’! Beautiful country and friendly folks, though.

  3. The ride report is excellent! And thanks for adding in the google maps feature, that is brilliant! I’ve done this rip about six times now, but you managed to add a few roads to my list for my next trip out that way.

    Can’t wait for the next tour, On the DR650? 🙂

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