white hill, nova scotia

a hike to the highest point in nova scotia

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I visited White Hill on May 25 2007.  Although I had done some reading about this place before I went, the trip was essentially spontaneous.  When Mick and Laura announced in mid-May that they were planning a cycle/auto tour around the Cabot Trail, I suggested that I could fly out to meet them mid-trip.  They graciously agreed to work a visit to White Hill into their itinerary. 

The ignominiously-named White Hill is 532 metres (1745 feet) above sea level, which isn’t very high, especially when one considers that most of the climb is probably done using a vehicle on the approach.

However, White Hill is a moderately-challenging place to visit given its relative remoteness.  Some other websites have referred to it as “extremely remote” but I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration.  Our visit there was about 10 hours, including lunch and breaks, although the uber-fit could likely do it faster. 

White Hill is in Cape Breton National Park (CBNP).  It is about as far from a maintained trail in that park as you can get, although hiking along a lake and then following a disused gravel road can get oneself to within 1km of the summit.  We bought day-use permits and registered for overnight camping in Broad Cove.  In retrospect, we probably should have discussed out hiking intentions with Park staff.  I am not sure what their policy on off-trail use is.

The terrain of Cape Breton Highlands can be described as gently undulating highlands that are covered by bogs, fens, and low scrubby brush.  Because the terrain is fairly uniform, approaching the hill can be done from several directions.  Jack Bennett and Ken Takabe have reached the point by trekking past the end of marked trails from the east side of CBNP. 

 A few years ago, while looking at maps of the area, I began to suspect that the easiest way appeared to be from the south, via gravel roads that lead to Cheticamp Flowage, aka Cheticamp Lake.  While searching for additional information on the Internet, I came across J.A. Esper’s website, where he documents this exact trip.  The photographic evidence on his website showed it to be an easy-enough route. 

I don’t have any misperceptions about how “back-country” Cape Breton Highlands are.  I recognize that the area is probably well-traveled by ATVers, snowmobilers, hunters, and fishers, not to mention natives and perhaps forestry workers in years gone by.  Still, I had mixed emotions on learning that Esper and his family had already completed this trip.  On one hand, I was disappointed to learn that this wouldn’t be a relatively untested trekking route.  On the other hand, I was glad to know that I wouldn’t travel out to Nova Scotia, only to be foiled by some unforeseen obstacle.  Another potential route may exist from the west, following an old road from the Cabot Trail near Cheticamp. 

I flew from Toronto to Halifax on Thursday morning, and was at the Ingonish gate to CBNP by 4pm local time.  We camped at Broad Cove, and were up at a reasonable hour.  We drove south, back down to Wreck Cove, and turned off the Cabot Trail onto a paved road that leads past a hydro-electric installation.  From there, the road turned to gravel, and although there are lots of potholes, the road was in good condition and the junctions are easy to spot. 

We brought NTS maps 11 K/10 and 11 K/9 to help with navigation.  The drive is 40 or 50 kilometres one way, so bringing tire-changing equipment is also an important consideration.  We did not see any other people after leaving the paved road. 

The landscape of the Highlands is a departure from the dramatic scenery present along the coast.  The land in the interior is fairly flat, punctuated only by the occasional human-made reservoir.  We stopped at one of these reservoir lakes (the road travels along the top of the impoundment) and inspected the scenery.  To the west, the lake was as still as glass.  I can’t remember ever seeing a lake that mirrored the scenery so perfectly.  We threw some rocks in the water and watched as the ripples made their uninterrupted way to the other side of the lake.  To the east, we could see where the materials for the dam had come from—the land here was rather devoid of vegetation.  It is hard to say just when the dam was constructed (parts of it seem to have been touched-up recently) but my map indicates it is at least a decade old (and probably much older).  The lack of regeneration here inidcates how fragile the vegetation in this landscape is.

 Not far past the dam, we hit a roadblock—literally.  A large patch of snow, at least two feet deep, and about 30 feet long, blocked a low-lying patch of road.  Although I had expected patches of snow in spots, I had thought that the road would be clear by late May.  We got out and considered our options.  Clearly, the tire tracks in the snow indicated that a larger vehicle had recently tried to cross the snow and had encountered trouble.  We decided to backtrack, taking an alternate, much narrower road that Michael jokingly referred to as the scenic route.  

Finally, after more than 1.5 hours of driving, we reached the end of the road:  Cheticamp Flowage.  From where we parked the car, I could see that a drainage canal had been blasted through bedrock, bridged only by a small dam structure, which was surrounded by impenetrable fencing. 

 

 

 

 

 

If I were to do this trip again, I would consider bringing a canoe and paddling across Cheticamp Flowage.  This would eliminate the long hike around the lake, and also take care of any worries about getting across this potentially-dangerous canal. 

Once across the canal, I really started to enjoy the scenery.  There is a rugged beauty in the plants that live in this landscape.  I spotted the carnivorous pitcher plant, which survive in their low nutrient environment by capturing insects.

The entire Cheticamp lake shoreline is strewn with beautiful driftwood.  Presumably, the lake is now much bigger than it once was, due to the massive dam projects in the area.  This driftwood may be the remnants of the woods that once covered what is now lakebed. 

 

We tried to pick our way along the most efficient path, which alternated between wet shoreline, ankle-busting driftwood, mucky bogs and fens, deep snow, and thick vegetation.

 

There are lots of interesting things to look at along the way, including what I think is a remnant block of peat, dislodged by erosion.

 

Eventually, we rounded the lake to the north side, where we reached a small but deep creek.  Fortunately, there was a single snow bridge that we used to cross.  

Finally, we reached the north side of the lake, where we had lunch.  There were some faint tire tracks in the vegetation here which I thought might lead to the road which would in turn lead us to the White Hill. 

 

Unfortunately, we couldn’t spot the place where the road ducked into the woods and climbed the ridge.  We decided that perhaps the entrance was overgrown.  After continuing north, along a stream for a safe distance, we bushwhacked up the ridge, hoping to intersect with the old road. 

Here, the snow was quite deep in spots.  The sun had come out and the glare off the snow was high.  We found the road fairly easily, following a compass bearing. 

 

The topographic map in this area has delightful names on it, including “Everlasting Barrens,”  which I think is wonderful and dread-inspiring. 

 

The road was quite snowy in some points, and quite wet in others.  Eventually, after a few kilometres, we got our first view of White Hill.  It certainly doesn’t look very impressive in this photograph.

 

My topographic map shows two streams crossing the old road.  I had planned to use the second stream as a “jumping off” point from where we would bushwhack to the summit.  Here, Laura crosses the first stream.

 

When we approached the second stream, we noted that the vegetation had suddenly gotten a lot thicker and taller.  We discussed back-tracking a little to get around the thick stuff, but we decided to try to push through instead.  What followed is some of the most difficult bushwhacking I’ve done.  Our progress slowed to less than 0.5km/hr in some spots, as we encountered deep water, thick bush, and deep snow.  Eventually, we got out of the thick stuff, and made our way into a fen, which matched a white spot on my topo map.  Walking through the fen was easy, but soon we were into a difficult section of low-lying brush as we climbed up White Hill.

For most of the bushwhacking, I was following my GPS using summit coordinates that I got from Jack Bennett’s book.  However, doing this was frustrating because there is no clearly discernable summit mound—I wasn't sure I was heading towards the summit.  All I could do was continue to head up.  Then I saw a toppled communications tower that previous visitors had written about, a clear sign that we were finally near.  “Dan, I think I see it!”  Mick shouted from over my shoulder.  And then I was there.   

I call summit pictures “glory shots”, but they could just as easily be called “ego shots”, because that’s probably what they are all about.  We each took turns taking benchmark portraits.  I love benchmarks.  I’m not sure why.  This benchmark is known as 23105, aka NORTH BARREN, according to the Canadian government’s CSRS database.  The database also tells me the elevation of this point is 532.700m and the UTM coordinates are Zone = 20 N = 5174910.061 m E = 683577.400 m

More from the database (I especially like the use of the hypen in "heli-copter"):

“Accessible by helicopter and a walk of less than 50 m
ON A LARGE, FLAT HILL, COVERED BY SMALL SPRUCE TREES, IN THE S PART OF CAPE BRETON HIGHLANDS NATIONAL PARK, APPROX 33 KM NE OF CHETICAMP AND 18 KM W OF INGONISH. REACHED BY HELI- COPTER IN 1976. MKD BY A GSC BR TAB SET IN THE TOP OF A CONC PIER ON A SMALL BEDROCK OUTCROP. STA IS STPD 23105 AND IS REFERENCED BY 3 REF MARKS STPD 23105A, 23105B AND 23105C ACCORDINGLY. A SURVEY SIGN POST WAS SET IN ROCK 0.92 M S.” 

On the summit, we celebrated.  Don’t we look excited?

Actually, this photo is interesting because you can see that someone (not us) has built a tiny little cairn that is topped with some sort of aluminium pole.  Also, the blue sign that was on the sign post is now missing.  You can see what it looked like on Greg Slayden’s website:  http://www.peakbagger.com/peak.aspx?pid=6680

 I plugged some new coordinates into my GPS that would take us back down to the road, closer to the first stream.  I had hoped that this would give us the advantage of missing most of the densest bush.  Going downhill gave us the advantage of being able to scout our route a little bit better.  We headed through this open area, where I saw two moose.

Unfortunately, we were soon enough back into some very dense vegetation.  In retrospect, we probably should have tried to skirt the wetland that is south-west of White Hill.  Laura, here, is smiling, but not for long. 

 

Eventually, we found the road, and trekked back to the lake.  We discovered a small cairn at the beginning of the road that we hadn’t noticed before, perhaps built by the Espers.  The cairn is a useful feature, because as noted above, the beginning of the road is quite overgrown and difficult to spot.  During out visit, it looked much more like a small stream.  

By this part of the trip, I was quite satisfied and enjoying the fine scenery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our boots were quite wet by this point, so we decided that the most efficient route would be to walk along the shoreline, regardless of how wet it was.  This decision saved us quite a bit of time on the return trip.

 

We made it back to the car well before sunset and started the drive home.  The driving and road conditions (and the potential of a breakdown in the backcountry) were probably the part of this trip that had me most worried.  Thankfully, we made it out safely.  Over the next two days, we travelled the rest of the lovely Cabot Trail.

 A special thank you to Chief Documentarian Laura, who lent her eye for iconic moments to this expedition.  Also, thanks to her assistant Mick.  This interloper thanks you both for allowing me along on your  honeymoon redux.

If you are following along at home, here are some of the waypoints that I used that day.  These aren't based on actual observations--most were estimated using a NTS topo, although the summit co-ords were taken from Jack Bennett's book.  They are all UTM zone 20.

Wreck Cove turn-off:  697600E 5155100N

Car park:  680700E  5167800N

Lake to Road Transition:  682300E 5170300N

Spot near the begin/end of bushwhack:  684300E 5173300N

Summit of White Hill:  683434E 5174542N