Music festival. Check. Film festival. Check. Shakespeare festival. Check. Chinese lantern festival. Check.
I’ve been to ’em all. Or, so I thought. Then I encountered the festival of all festivals, the kind that an outdoor enthusiast’s dreams are made of. Yes, indeedy, a HIKING festival. More specifically, the Hike the Highlands Festival on Cape Breton Island.
There are numerous activities planned as part of the festival throughout the late summer and early fall. The Three Peaks Challenge is one of them. It included – you guessed it – not one, not two, but three beautiful, breathtaking summits to enjoy (conquer) in one day. Teams for Quebec, PEI, Mainland Nova Scotia and Cape Breton challenged themselves to hike Franey, Fishing Cove, and Acadien Mountains on July 20th, which as luck and Mother Nature would have it, happened to be the hottest and most humid day on the island, so far.
With Lilly in tow at the crack of dawn, I geared up and met with Paul and Sherry Finney, dear friends, fellow outdoor enthusiasts and proprietors of gear shop Escape Outdoors in North Sydney who were kind enough to invite me to fill a vacancy on their team. I guess we could say that Lilly filled the fourth spot on our team. That ‘lil K-9 whippersnapper lead the way, scurrying back and forth between our team and other hikers who took a quick liking to our pint-sized mountain guide.
While the Three Peaks Challenge isn’t a competition, we toyed around with the idea of trekking up all three summits as quickly as possible, so we could clock our time and log some serious cardio while taking in the scenery. I’m delighted to report that we not only survived the challenge and the humidity, we thrived. That said, since it wasn’t a race per se, we still made time to grab a bite on the beach for lunch and to take a quick dip in the Atlantic to commemorate the event, which was kicked off by a long trek up the seriously scenic Franey Mountain.
The Franey climb was 366 metres and 7.4 km. It was a delight for this biologist as we encountered numerous little creatures along the way. We also enjoyed a panoramic view of the Clyburn Valley and Middlehead after hiking through mixed woods to a cliff-top look off with some pretty breathtaking views of the surrounding highlands, extending ridge upon ridge into the distance. We were told that we’d be in the domain of ravens and eagles that often soar among the walls and buttresses of the cliffs, and so we kept our eyes peeled along the trek which took just under 3 hours.
The Fishing Cove summit followed. It was a piece of cake initially, including a short descent through hardwood Acadian forest to a small cove on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which was once home to Acadian families and a small lobster cannery. Now, it’s a beautiful home where eagles, gannets, and kingfishers roam. As the old saying goes (well, kinda), what goes down, must come up, and up, and up! The return was a balmy, two hour trek uphill.
The next aspect of the challenge – Acadien Mountain. The long, steep climb was 365 metres above the Chéticamp River. Along nearly all of the 8.4 km hike, panoramic views of the Acadian coastline, the Chéticamp river valley and the park’s highland interior greeted us. Along the way, we were on the look out for black bear and moose, but alas, I have no encounters with large beasties to report.
After 7 hours of hiking – or in Lilly’s case, 7 hours of frolicking – we finished the challenge, ending in Cheticamp, which also happened to be the best place to stock up on Snow Crab. With my mother and my partner’s nephew in town for summer vacation, I had hoped to show off the ample and affordable lobster stash on the island. But, the season was over in what seemed like the blink of an eye, and all the pounds and tanks were lacking the presence of those yummy, ‘lil red snappers. So, the crab discovery at the Cheticamp wharf satiated my craving for buttery covered goodness of the crustacean variety from the cold waters of the Atlantic. Paul, Sherry and I packed up a large tub of crab, and we headed home to exhale and to celebrate the completion of the Three Peaks Challenge in culinary style.
While cracking crab shells, we began planning to participate in the next aspect of the Hike the Highlands festival, which includes several hikes over ten days in early fall to commemorate the 10th Anniversary celebration of the festival. Check out the hiking schedule here. There’s nothing quite like hiking Cape Breton Island in late September/early October as all the autumn splendor in the mountains begin to turn vivid shades of red, yellow, and orange. It’s quite a sight, so, I’m sure we’ll catch you on many of those trails in September. You really couldn’t miss us if you tried. That little black and white dog with the the orange collar hopping around the trails and through the forest brush like a crazed jack rabbit is pretty hard to ignore.
Until then, happy trails.