Spending hours with visual sensory deprivation is an interesting experience. Quickly one begins to crave even the slightest visual queue. A stick or shrub, a brief thinning of cloud, a speck of colour in the distance that offers contrast or an ice-crusted tree to provide relief from the eerie lack of information that our consciousness desires.
The Cape Breton Highlands rise 500 meters above the North Atlantic. Exposed to high winds, driving snow and often full cloud cover, the eastern plateau shrouds an area of the Highlands know as “The Barrens”. Sparsely populated by wind stressed Spruce and near impassable bogs, the late winter ice cover on top of 4 meters of accumulated snow allows speedy travel on skis in the inhospitable region. High in the cloud, the visibility extends a few hundred meters at best. Due to the lack of visual queues for navigation, frequent GPS fixes and careful observation of the wind direction allows for a reasonably efficient crossing.
Once at White Hill, the highest point of elevation in Nova Scotia (535 meters), the terrain becomes more variable providing heaps of visual stimulus to offset the Barrens – broad vistas of the Highlands, and when nearing the Eastern edge, the pack ice covered North Atlantic and her rocky shoreline.
Completing the 50+ km crossing with snowboarder extraordainare and marine mammal research associate, Jessie MacDougall in a little over 10 hours travel time was thanks to near perfect conditions. The wind was at our back while crossing the Barrens, and the sun flaunted her spring rays against the perfectly clear, blue horizon as we neared the midway point at White Hill.
This quest was my second across the Highlands. The first, with Paul Finney, occurred three weeks earlier, a year ago, with less optimal weather conditions. The North-South transit across Cape Breton Island is next on my “must ski” list.