Mount Carleton – 2,690ft
July 17, 2011
Few mountain names would strike less fear into the mountaineer’s heart than Glen Valley. It actually
kind of means the opposite of mountain. But that’s what locals call the height of land in the province of Prince Edward Island, and thus it was on our list.
Our alarms woke us up at 5am Sunday morning, camping deep in the heart of the Cape Breton Highlands in northern Nova Scotia on the shores of the Cheticamp Flowage Lake. We had just completed a sub-4-hour, 15.5-mile speed bushwack of White Hill Saturday afternoon – a trip that, from all other online reports we had found, takes people between 10 hours and 2 days to complete. Our goal was to climb the highpoints in the provinces of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick over the weekend and PEI was next on our list.
I got behind the wheel at 5:30am to begin the 8-hour drive to Glen Valley. Even the road to the start of the bushwack to White Hill had proved difficult – 15 miles of pothole ridden, windy, gravel logging roads that took an hour and a half to navigate. We were in a low-clearance rental car that probably wasn’t allowed to go off-road, so had to be especially careful to avoid bottoming out. I made it out to the coast with only a few small scraping incidents, and then started cruising south on smooth highways.
All of the town signs on Cape Breton have two spellings: one in English and one that looks like Gaelic or Welsh or maybe some local dialect. It made us feel like we were even farther from Boston, though we were still pretty far (17-hours by car).
By 1pm we made it to the Confederation Bridge – supposedly the longest bridge in the world that spans ice-covered water in the winter. The Prince Edward Islanders have a clever scheme to attract/capture new residents: it’s free to enter the island via the bridge, but costs $43 to leave.
We had done our homework on this mountain and had the gps coordinates, topo map, summitpost descriptions, and google map directions. By 2pm we hit a dirt road outside the village of Glen Valley, and soon pulled into a farmer’s field to park the car. There was supposedly a faint trail into the woods at the edge of the field, but I guess the local maximum isn’t popular enough for the trail to see much traffic, because we never saw it. Instead we plunged into the woods at the height of land, wandered around awhile following the GPS, and at 2:16pm found ourselves on the roof of the Island – Glen Valley. There was a little summit register mailbox on a post at the high point and we could see the past decade’s history of ascensionists. I counted 55 ascents over 11 years, with the previous one being 7 months ago (November 2010). So we represented 20% of the annual number of ascents!
We fooled around long enough to get the standard juggling and jumping pictures, and then headed back to the car. We still had a 5-hour drive to Mt Carleton, New Brunswick, and were hoping to get the 6-mile hike/bike in before dark. Driving back through PEI we had expected the island to be like the Martha’s Vineyard of Canada, with a bunch of rich people and resorts all over the place. Instead it was all rural farms in the interior. We could have easily been in Nebraska and not known it. I guess the fancy resorts are probably on the coast.
We surrendered the $43 to leave the island and started heading north. We drove through Moncton (pronounced “munk-ton”), Miramichi, and Bathurst before turning west on route 180 into the heart of the human-free part of the province. Actually, a lot of New Brunswick is uninhabited, and we went for a good 60 miles seeing nothing but forest. By about 7pm we reached the turnoff for Mt Carleton Provincial Park, and the road abruptly switched to gravel. It reminded me a lot of Baxter State Park in Maine, and we hoped they wouldn’t have as many hoops to jump through before we could climb the mountain. We got to the gate around 7:45pm and a ranger walked out to greet us.
“Bonjour, hello,” he said, French obviously being his native language.
“We’re here to climb Mt Carleton,” I said.
“Oh no, it is too late. It will be dark by the time you start hiking.”
“We’ll be fine, we have headlamps,” Matthew said, producing said item from a backpack.
“No, it is too rocky and dangerous to do at night, and we close the gate at 10pm”
We suspected we might be able to get up, down, and out by 10pm, but didn’t want to argue, especially since the ranger wasn’t all that fluent in English and we weren’t any more fluent in French.
We asked if we could camp out in the park, and then he brightened up and said of course. It was $10 per night and we could get a permit to camp at a spot halfway up the trail to the summit. We filled out the paperwork and continued up the gravel road into the park, getting to the trailhead around 8:15. We had an hour left of official sunlight and were determined to get to the top before it got too dark (don’t tell the rangers). We had heard they actually allowed mountain bikes in the park, and had brought ours along in the hopes of speeding up the descent, if not the climb.
Mountain biking over technical terrain with a heavy backpack is actually pretty difficult, as it turns out. We loaded our packs, put together our bikes, and got about a mile up the trail before realizing that walking would actually be faster both up and down. So we stashed the bikes in the woods and continued hiking up. By 9pm we were at the campsite, and dropped our gear to head for the summit. The trail got rockier and rockier, and a mountain bike would certainly
have been a liability up near the top. Eventually we popped out of the trees onto a steep, rocky ridge. We looked around and it was forest in every direction as far as we could see – not a single sign of civilization, not even a light. Such a wilderness location is hard to come by in the US outside of Alaska, and it’s comforting to know wilderness of that size still exists within a day’s drive of Boston.
We scrambled up the ridge and reached the true summit at 9:30pm. There was a little two-story observation structure on top held down by steel cables, testifying to how bad the weather must get there in the winter. It was windy, but surprisingly warm – quite a far cry from the upper 40s on Cape Breton that morning. We got a few jumping and juggling pictures and then headed down to camp. It was a late night – we didn’t get to be til 11pm – but we were successful in hitting all three highpoints in the weekend. I bet an ambitious person could even touch their toe on all three points in one day, perhaps if they camped out on the summit of white hill and started hiking down at midnight.
It would officially be a 9-hour drive back to Boston from Mt Carleton, so we could have theoretically driven through the night and gotten back to campus bright and early Monday morning. But we had put in some extra hours in lab the previous week that gave us enough buffer to sleep through the night and drive back on Monday. We didn’t want to simply drive straight back, though, since we were already planning to not work much that day. So on Monday we headed north. Not too far, but just enough to see the Saint Lawrence Seaway in Quebec, and then drive back down through Quebec City and rural Maine.
We got back to Boston at a reasonable hour and even had time to clean off all evidence of any off-roading from the car.