This is my Cape Breton: Winter in the Cape Breton Highlands

Photo by Wally Ellison Pictured are winter conditions on French Mountain along the Cabot Trail.

The sun was shining bright, the temperature wasn’t too cold, and it was a great day for a late winter drive.

  The topic at Tim Horton’s was often about the amount of snow on the Cape Breton Highlands and how good it was for ski-doing. So off we went. How many of us have been around the Cabot Trail in mid-winter? Not many would consider this drive to compare with a beautiful autumn drive. But it is a pretty spectacular trip on a fine winter day.

  This would probably not be the case for the folks in Pleasant Bay whose children get on a school bus every morning, some to travel to Cheticamp. Some big ice was still packed in around the shores telling us that winter wasn’t over yet. The road up French Mountain was nice and clear as most of the mountain portions of the Cabot Trail usually are. There was not too much snow along the first part of the trip as the ocean has a moderating effect on the climate.

  The top of French Mountain was a different story. The farther up we drove, the heights of the snow banks grew. Around French Lake on the top, only the tops of the scraggy black spruce trees could be seen across the desolate barrens. Around the bog exhibit, the drifts seemed to be the highest. The nice even cuts in the snow banks pretty well told the story that a large snow blower had been used to keep the road open.

  Weather forecasts, even in the early part of winter, tell us that heavier snowfalls are forecast for the highlands. The influence of altitude on precipitation is such that temperatures drop several degrees for every 1,000 feet of elevation. The Highlands of Cape Breton receive the greatest amount of snow in the entire province with 10-12 feet on average.

  Snowmobilers seek the snows of the highlands all winter following many roads that were cut out for harvesting lumber off the plateau. It is common for good snowmobiling conditions to last well into May. Near Forester’s Lake, snow drifts up to 20-feet high have been estimated some years. The riders have fun tying ribbons on the protruding tops of trees only to come back when the snows are gone to really see how high the winter drifts were.

  During those early days of clear cutting the forest, it was easy for howling winter winds to scream across the barren and create immense drifts. In the early 1970s, I took a small group of Grade 11 students up to study the pulpwood harvesting operations. In places on the main Highland Road, drifts looked to be around 10-12 feet or even higher with a great deal of snow simply bulldozed back in attempts to keep the haulage roads open.

  Winter provides snowmobilers with a good opportunity to look down into deep ravines and gorges of many of the larger rivers that flow off the highlands. It is certainly a good chance to see the ice-cascaded waterfalls that tumble from the highlands plateau to the river valleys below.

  What must life be like for some of the wildlife of the highlands during winters with heavy snowfall? Moose have been recorded in large numbers on the Cabot Trail in some severe winters, likely searching for some refuge from the deep snows of the barrens and the forested areas. Warnings about encounters are an everyday occurrence. Once on the road, they have great difficulty getting over the high snow banks that line the road.

  Moose were introduced into the Cape Breton Highlands National Park in the 1940s and have since flourished. As the moose is mainly a browser, clear-cut areas provide the greatest amount of food for them in the form of young succulent buds on the saplings of maple, birch, and other hardwoods. These tend to be the earliest trees that succeed in the regeneration of a clear-cut forest.

  The highlands plateau may possibly be the last wilderness bastion of the lynx and possibly the eastern cougar in Nova Scotia. The highlands form a distinct landscape component of the island of Cape Breton, and winter conditions there add to its desolate and sometimes very remote beauty.