Exploring Cape Breton & The Cabot Trail

I have family in Nova Scotia, 4,800 km away on the other side of North America. Canada is huge. My wife was scheduled to attend a conference in Halifax, so naturally I was eager to tag along and check another province off my list. After spending a few days in Halifax (a town I now really like), we drove north to Cape Breton Island to spend several more exploring the rocky coasts of Cape Breton Highlands National Park. This was my seventh Canadian National Park in two years.

The drive north to Ingonish from Halifax took a bit longer than Google Maps predicted. Sticking to the shortest route, it took 6.5 hours with little traffic and only three short stops. Google said it would be only 4. It took 6.5 hours on the way back as well. I’ve found (especially here in Alberta) that you need to add 20-30% more to your expected travel time in the north. Again, Canada is huge.

That stop we made at a grocery store in Who-Knows-Where, Nova Scotia before reaching our Airbnb was a smart move. The small grocery store (there’s only one) in Ingonish closes at 6pm. We arrived much later. Conveniently, our place was located next to the Coastal Restaurant & Pub, which is open until 8pm and serves excellent local seafood.

The Cabot Trail was being repaved, and very loud construction was happening right in front of our Airbnb. We almost opted to stay elsewhere…. Here we were on what was supposed to be a relaxing and quiet retreat in nature, and all we could hear was the drone of heavy machinery. It was quieter in downtown Halifax! Construction continued on into the night. We were livid. Luckily, much to our relief, the workers moved on the next day.

We spent each day driving up and down the Cabot Trail, taking in the beauty of it all and enjoying a few hikes. Unfortunately, Spring was late to arrive in the highlands. It was (somewhat ironically) colder in Nova Scotia than Alberta. We left summer warmth and spring flowers in the west and were surprised to find barely a budding leaf in Nova Scotia. I was hoping for wildflowers, but a cold and damp winter was keeping Spring away for a couple more weeks. Nonetheless, the coastline was still spectacular, even if the highlands were drab and still had patches of snow in early June. The famous Skyline Trail did not live up to it’s reputation without foliage, so I didn’t even bother taking a single shot on that hike.

Lackies Head, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

Lackies Head, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

Waterfalls & Rocky Shores

I turned my attention to waterfalls (Cape Breton has plenty) and the dramatic eastern coastline. Sunrise and sunset didn’t cooperate much during the trip; it was mostly rainy and foggy…typical of Spring in the maritimes. I did enjoy one colourful sunset, however, at Lackies Head. This became one of my favourite spots along the Cabot Trail. The cliffs on this side of the island, made of igneous rock, are bright pink!

The plus side of it being so early in Spring was that we barely saw another person at any of our locations within the National Park. We had most experiences all to ourselves.

Tide Pools at Sunset, Lackies Head, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

Tide Pools at Sunset, Lackies Head, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

Sunrise, Lackies Head, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

Sunrise, Lackies Head, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

We visited famous Mary Ann Falls one foggy morning. With no one else around for a couple hours, we explored the areas around the falls, and I made several pictures. It was so quiet and peaceful. The only sound was cascading water. It reminded me of shooting waterfalls in Appalachia. I love shooting waterfalls, and damp-foggy weather makes the best conditions for it, in my opinion. I would love to return to this area in Autumn when the foliage is bright.

Mary Ann Falls, Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Nova Scotia

Mary Ann Falls, Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Nova Scotia

My favourite waterfall along the Cabot Trail seems to be unnamed. It’s no secret. It cascades over a cliff and into the ocean via a beach covered in smooth stones. The area is called Black Brook Cove Beach and the 3-4 metre waterfall is visible from the pull-off. I couldn’t find a name for it, but it was a nice surprise. I photographed it from so many different angles; unfortunately, we had to cut our visit short - the tide was coming in around the falls.

Waterfall at Black Brook Cove Beach, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

Waterfall at Black Brook Cove Beach, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

Waterfall at Black Brook Cove Beach, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

Waterfall at Black Brook Cove Beach, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

As the fog and tide rolled in on our last evening, I tried to capture a scene I’d been hoping for the whole trip. I wanted smooth stones with waves rolling over them, preferable with good light and a cliff in the background. Well, I didn’t get the light, but I did get loads of atmosphere. The fog was thick and the wind was howling. Waves were crashing hard on the beach. They were intimidatingly loud. I was very careful not to get too close to the waves (I learned the hard way in Iceland that rogue waves can come out of nowhere to try and sweep away unsuspecting photographers). In a few dozen frames, with my camera, tripod, and wide-angle lens set up just at the waterline I was able to capture the image I wanted. It’s all about waiting for that perfect wave. It’s a very long exposure. I wanted to blur the foamy sea water as it moved over the rocks, exposing some and obscuring others. Luckily I didn’t even get wet…though my tripod legs took on a bit of sand and water.

Somewhere on the Cape Breton Coast, Nova Scotia

Somewhere on the Cape Breton Coast, Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia Wildlife

Of course, I’d been hoping for more wildlife opportunities on the trip. We spotted zero moose and saw very few seabirds. I saw few gannets one morning near Lackies Head and some cormorants were gathered on an island way up near White Point. Other than that we only saw a few deer and a couple foxes running across the highway on our way out. We did have one interesting wildlife encounter with a juvenile bald eagle. It was perched near the fishing boats in Ingonish. I pulled the car up close and shot out the window, trying to include as much of the environment as possible. The ocean, cliffs, and driftwood provide a sense of place. A simple (and very typical) close-up portrait wouldn’t have the same affect.

We watched for a while. Eventually, a seagull decided to harass the eagle, and after several noisy areal assaults by the gull, the eagle flew off. I was hoping for mature eagles, but this stately (though a bit dishevelled) juvenile will have to do. Juvenile baldies are often mistaken for golden eagles, but the latter are very rare east of the rockies.

Juvenile Bald Eagle, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

Juvenile Bald Eagle, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

Though our experience in Cape Breton got off to a rough start, we enjoyed the rest of our trip. As I mentioned, we have family in Halifax, so we won’t be away for long. I got a good crop of images….which is always a relief. I never know what’s going to happen even with a plan and detailed shot list. I never know if I’m going to come home with good shots. My last two trips to the rockies before the Nova Scotia experience were not all that fruitful. Truth be told, I was in a 6 month slump and beginning to wonder if I needed to hang it up for good. Nova Scotia revived my interest in photography and travel. Though I felt a bit of pressure to make great images, I tried to keep that at bay as much as I could. I also need my wife to enjoy the experience. My work and her vacation often collide with friction and the results are mixed. I’m working on balancing the two.

I’ve learned, especially when it comes to landscape and wildlife photography, that I have no control over the conditions and have to do my best with what I’m given. I also find that when I’m relaxed and taking it slow, I tend to make more meaningful images. I just got back from the rockies, and made a hard, conscious effort to roll with the weather instead of trying to force things to work. I have some new images from Alberta’s mountains to share with you soon. Stay tuned.

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