White Hill – 1,745 ft
July 16, 2011
3hr 58 minutes car-to-car via Cheticamp Flowage route
“So what brings you boys here to White Hill?” asked Ian, a local Nova Scotian who with his three
companions had coincidentally decided to climb the highest point in Nova Scotia the same day as us.
It was a valid question. Was it the view that brought us? No, you couldn’t see more than 200ft into the clouds from the top. Was it conveniently-located, and we were just passing by? No, it had taken us 17 hours of driving from Boston and is located on the northern tip of Nova Scotia. Was it a tall, glaciated mountain? No, the summit is only 1745 ft above sea level. Had it been easy? No.
In the split-second that it took us to formulate an answer I glanced down at my bloody shins which had been thrashed by miles of bushwhacking. Our shoes were a pound heavier, full of mud and swamp water. We were drenched with sweat and a cold Canadian breeze was blowing in off the lakeshore. But we had done it. Our adrenaline was pumping as we ran and hopped along the rocky lakeshore on the way back to the car.
“We’re trying to climb the highest points in all the Canadian provinces and territories,” Eric answered. “We’ll be done with the State High Points in a couple of weeks so we decided to move on to the Canadian High Points.”
“Wow,” Ian answered.
To us it seemed like a valid quest, a logical next-step. About 300 people have climbed all the US state high points, but only 3 people have climbed all twelve Canadian provincial and territorial high points. It was the next sensible list to start working on. But it would be challenging. We’d read that getting to the base of Nunavut’s Barbeau Peak requires a multi-thousand dollar chartered flight to northern Ellesmere Island. The flight to the high point shared by Labrador/Newfoundland and Quebec (Mount Caubvick) is similarly expensive. And of course there’s Yukon’s Mount Logan, which is just as tough as Alaska’s Denali. No, the Canadian high points would not be easy. But we had to start somewhere.
Early in the summer we had concluded (from Google Maps research) that the high points in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick would be marginally feasible during a 3-day “weekend” (taking half of Friday off in addition to Monday). It would involve over 2000 miles of driving and a decent bit of hiking, but it seemed doable. The time for the trip came in late July. We picked up a Hyundai Sonata at Budget in Cambridge and sped off on Friday afternoon.
Now it wouldn’t be a legit adventure without a little stealth camping. We weren’t sure where we’d end up Friday night so I had looked on Google Earth the day before for some good stealth spots along the way. We headed towards the first prospective spot in southern New Brunswick (N45.58467 W65.70689) around 11pm AST. Luckily we had the Canadian road/topo maps on our GPS so finding the site was a snap. The site turned out to be perfect and stealthy and we had a good sleep. Luckily the Canadian border officer hadn’t asked us where we were planning to sleep.
We still had a long way to drive so we sped off after 5hrs of sleep. As we crossed into Nova Scotia we began to realize that Atlantic Canada is actually pretty big. Most US maps don’t show anything north or east of Maine. Well Eric and I are here to report that there’s an awful lot of Canada north and east of Maine.
By 1pm we arrived at the base of the road to Chéticamp Flowage, a large man-made reservoir in the central highlands of Cape Breton National Park, on the northern tip of Nova Scotia. Things were about to get interesting.
But we had done our homework. White Hill is not one of those high points that you just hike up to. It doesn’t have a trail. There’s no official route. The best route is still being debated (although I think we have now put the “best route” debate to rest). Some people hike up from the town of Ingonish—partially along logging roads, partially bushwhacking. In one report the hikers covered 23 miles in 15hrs. Some sources say it’s 26 miles. In another route starting from Chéticamp Flowage the hikers covered 15.5 miles in 10 hrs.
We did a little research on Google Earth and found that the best route looked to be one starting from the east end of Chéticamp Flowage. After a few more hours of research we discovered that it’s possible to drive to the reservoir along rough gravel roads. Then it looked like there would be about 5 miles of hiking along swampy old fire/logging roads and 1.5 miles of bushwhacking to get us to the top of White Hill.
We wondered if mountain bikes would speed things up a little bit. To answer this question we consulted with a decorated fellow highpointer named Jonathan Esper (http://www.wildernessphotographs.com/) who had finished the state high points and, like us, is now working on the provincial and country high points. He had done White Hill several years ago. In his email though he advised us to leave the mountain bikes behind because it was
“quite boggy and wet and soft, and sometimes overgrown too – not good mt. biking.” We took his advice to heart. But we still brought the mountain bikes along just in case the gravel road to the Flowage was “closed” and we figured we might use them later on Mount Carelton, New Brunswick’s high point. (We packed the bikes in the trunk of the car – shhh don’t tell Budget.)
But the gravel road was indeed open and relatively manageable in our low-clearance car. It would have been nice to have higher ground clearance to get around the muddy pot holes and clear the larger rocks, but Eric drove slowly and the car managed. I had marked all the turns on the GPS beforehand so we arrived at the “parking area” of the Flowage without incident after 1.5 hours.
Next came the crux of the adventure. It was 3:15pm and we had 5.5 hours until sunset. We predicted a 14 mile trip including some bushwhacking so we got moving quickly. Despite what Jonathan had said about the non-mountain-bike-ability I still wanted to see for myself so we put the bikes together and headed to the start of the route. From the satellite photos it looked like a simple creek crossing at the very beginning. But it turned out to be a very steep-walled canal cut to drain the lake that would be dangerous to hop over. Fortunately there was a secret tunnel near the big sluice gate that we could cross. It was guarded by barbed wire on each side but we found a safe way over. It didn’t seem like a good idea to drag the bikes over by rope so we ditched them and started hiking.
We started out in dense low bushes but soon discovered that the going was much faster along the lakeshore. We wanted to finish the (what we expected to be) tough bushwhacking before dark so we started running. I said to Eric “this is why we run every day. It’s not really because I like running, it’s because I want to be in shape for these kinds of adventures.” “That’s right,” Eric replied.
Soon we came upon a mysterious green canoe parked on the beach. Could there be other hikers on White Hill today? we wondered. No, that’s extremely unlikely. They must be hunting or something, we thought. But as we continued running we saw several sets of footprints in the sand leading the same way we were headed. We were astounded. We didn’t think more than a few people did White Hill every year, so what are the chances they’d be hiking the same day as us? Well then again, we thought, this is probably the best time of year to hike it because there’s no snow, plenty of daylight, and it’s reasonably warm. That’s why we chose this weekend.
We hiked for a couple more miles along the rocky lakeshore and then it was time to head off into the bush. After a little bushwhacking we hit the first waypoint on an old logging road the running became relatively easy. We guessed that since the weather was so harsh up here and things didn’t grow too fast, as a result this old logging road stayed pretty apparent even after years of abandonment. Unfortunately though it was extremely boggy and probably nine out of ten footsteps ended with a squelch of mud. Pretty soon we were both kicked out of the dry foot club, and forsake all hope of keeping our socks dry.
We continued running and noticed that the footsteps in front of us kept going. Soon we passed into a clearing and were amazed to see a group of four other hikers on their way back. It was two middle-aged guys and two kids. “Wow, we definitely didn’t expect to see anyone else climbing White Hill today!” I shouted. They were just as surprised as us.
But they were concerned (understandably) that we were being too reckless.
“Now you guys know that sunset is at 8:50 right?” Ian (one of the guys) asked.
We knew, we also had a GPS, we figured our 4 remaining hrs of daylight would be enough. The top was only 2 miles line-of-sight away.
“I really don’t think you guys are going to make it, and I think you should turn around. We spent a few hours today and still couldn’t even find the start of the bushwhack. Have you been up there before?”
No we hadn’t been there before. But we had the GPS coords we had planned with Google Earth.
“We were up there a few years ago,” Ian said, “and it’s not easy bushwhacking to the top. Does anyone else know you’re here?”
Our parents and girlfriends kind of do, we answered.
“Does the Cape Breton National Park warden know?”
No, we didn’t know there was a warden.
“Well do you mind if I give him your names and phone number? He ought to know you’re here. You should give him a call on your way back to let him know you’re all right.”
We reluctantly agreed.
“If you guys are going to have any chance of making it to the top you should be running.”
We talked a little longer and Ian tried to give me the coords he had for the start of the bushwhack. (But I later realized that I hadn’t entered then correctly in my GPS.) I was getting a little nervous and wanted to start moving again. “God bless you guys, good luck,” they said. We parted ways and kept running.
I was getting a sinking feeling that maybe we wouldn’t make it to the top after all this effort. We were both a little upset too that he had told us we “probably” wouldn’t make it to the top.
But the more we thought about it the more we began to see things from his perspective. We had started the hike at 3:30pm. No trip report we found quoted a round-trip time less than 10 hours, which would put us back to the car at 1:30am. But hiking in the dark would be bad news because there wasn’t a really trail we could follow, just a faint old road that wouldn’t show up in the dark. The start of bushwhack would be nearly impossible to find in the dark. Plus we were in the clouds and there was a frigid drizzle blowing through the air. We didn’t have tents, so we absolutely had to get back before dark. Yeah, I guess he was justified in being a little concerned. (For the record, when we later spoke with our mom about the hike she was glad to hear that they were looking after us. She would like to thank Ian for being so considerate.)
We shifted into second gear and sped towards the waypoint that we had marked for the beginning of the bushwhack, based on satellite imagery. Soon we ran into a dense thicket and thrashed through the bushes, eventually emerging on the other side after a few more scrapes on our already bloodied legs. We walked for another couple of minutes along the road and then headed into the woods on a faint user/herd trail at the specified coordinates.
The bushwhack turned out to be far easier than we had expected. We stayed along the herd trails for as long as we could and then plunged into some waist-high bushes. But occasionally we picked up a herd trail and the hiking wasn’t too bad. We headed towards the summit coords using the GPS and arrived without incident at 5:29pm AST—1 h 59 minutes after we had left the car.
There wasn’t much of a view from the top. The summit was socked in with clouds and we could only see about 200 or 300 ft. With our jumping pictures, juggling pictures, and the collection of some small summit pebbles our traditional summit rituals were complete. We wanted to hang out for a little longer on the top, but I couldn’t push out of my mind the worry that they’d be sending some kind of search party looking for us. We knew we would be fine, I just didn’t want the park service concerned about us. So I was ready to get down.
At first we tried to follow from memory the route we had taken up, but soon we gave up and had to pull out the GPS. With the clouds all around us every direction looked exactly the same. There were no landmarks in the distance that we could aim for. One scrubby bush was the same as any other. Without a compass or GPS things might not have gone so smoothly. For the first time on any of our hikes, we were almost 100% reliant on our GPS. If the GPS quit working we would have to use the compass, but with a compass it would be very unlikely we’d rejoin the trail in the same spot we had left it. We hastened our pace back towards the trail and to our relief regained it quickly and easily.
We continued along the old fire road and arrived back at the lakeshore after 45 minutes of running. During the final bushwhack to the lake we experienced our first casualty of the trip: Eric’s pants. A scrubby spruce tree tore a huge gash down the front of his shorts, rendering him totally indecent in the presence of others. I felt bad because he had spent hours sewing up an old rip in those pants just a few days earlier. Luckily for him there weren’t any others except me, so he doffed the pants and continued the run without them.
We rejoined the rocky lakeshore and continued running. Our boots were already so saturated that we actually tried to jog on the soft mud instead of the uneven rocks. We didn’t really know why we were running, we just felt compelled to run. We still had 2 hours until sunset and would make it back to the car with plenty of daylight to spare even if we walked. We figured it’d be kind of cool to have a new speed record for White Hill, so we kept running. We wanted to finish strong. Note to future hikers: much of the trail is runnable, so it won’t save you time to bring a mountain bike. Running shoes are a lot more portable than a mountain bike.
Soon we rounded another point on the lakeshore and to our astonishment saw Ian and his companions in front of us. We figured they would have been back at their van hours ago. They were equally astounded to see us. We told them we had hit the bushwhack just right and made it to the summit without incident. Eric and I were glad to see that they were doing well. Their kids were real troopers to make it so far on this 15 mile slog through the mud. They said that they had originally planned to canoe to the far end of the lake, saving a few miles of stumbling over the rocky lakeshore. But the water had been too choppy so they ditched the boat near the beginning.
With a handshake and a few photos we bid them farewell and continued our run. We looked at our watches and determined it might be feasible to get back to the car just under the 4 hour mark. We summoned our reserve energy and kept running. Running along the lake was a little tricky. One minute we’d be running on soft beach sand, the next we’d be stumbling through a massive pile of white driftwood, then we’d be bumbling over large rocks, and then we finally came to what looked like a suspiciously easy flat expanse of dirt.
What’s this dirt doing here, we wondered. It looked like it would be the first easy hiking of the whole trip. But we were skeptical. Why would there be dry dirt here when the rest of the hike had been like hiking through a swamp? I took one experimental step onto the “dirt” and sank in up to my knees. It was quickmud! Also known as the Nova Scotian mud monster! I hastily plowed through just in the nick of time. Of course, I had to pause in the middle for Eric to take a picture.
On the other side of the mudpit we picked up the pace. 3 hours 50 minutes… 3 hours 53 minutes… just 7 minutes left. We thrashed through the bushes while hundreds of sharp little leaves and twigs tried desperately to hold us back. With the dense undergrowth we couldn’t see where we were stepping. Was that a tree, a rock, or mud below our feet? It didn’t matter. We had to keep running. We had to beat 4 hrs. And at the 3 hr 58 minute mark we arrived triumphantly back at the sluice gate. We took the secret tunnel back across and were at the car.
We pitched our tent next to the car in the “parking area” and had our traditional celebratory pasta feast. I tried fly fishing in the canal but came back empty-handed.
Nova Scotia’s White Hill had been much easier than we had expected. But we didn’t know if we’d be so lucky tomorrow on Prince Edward Island…
PS: Thanks again to Ian and Rob for looking out for us.
Click here to view Ian’s Picasa photo album