The camera bag is packed, lenses are cleaned, and a couple of extra cameras tell me that I am ready.

Cape Breton’s main roads are inviting, but the colours of autumn and the first light snowfalls are telling me to get going. I am off on some of the island’s less traveled country roads. Some are paved, some are gravel, and some are only meant for ATVs. Some of these roads are favourites that demand an annual excursion. Some are literally tunnels of colour where the trunks of the trees are so close we can almost touch them and their branches close off the sky.

An ice storm blankets the trees along a backland road.
An ice storm blankets the trees along a backland road.

I am thinking of a couple of roads in particular. One leads up on to River Denys Mountain, right by the 70-footwaterfall known as Myles Doyle’s Falls, to the little pioneer church on the mountain (St. Margaret of Scotland-built in 1841). Up there is a network of backland roads that will take the amateur explorer to Judique, Mull River, Glencoe, and many other places.

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But Cape Breton is an island, so there must be some interesting back roads that would take us along the seacoast. Autumn’s gales are soon upon us, whipping the ocean into the frenzy that the coming winter likes to show us. The northwesterlies relentlessly beat the coastlines. But it is not a day to stay at home. The pounding surf sends spray skyward up the sides of cliffs. The sea is awash with whitecaps and foam.

Quiet backroads make their way from Port Hood through Colindale, to Mabou, to Mabou Harbour, and Mabou Coal Mines, and even to MacKinnon’s Brook. From Inverness, to Sight Point, from Broad Cove, to Dunvegan, to Margaree Harbour, magnificent vistas of cliffs, rocky headlands, vacant farms and beaches are all the rewards of using a less-traveled road.

A sharp turn in the road opens up a new view, one that demands a stop, and a picture, or just a chance to catch your breath. Maybe that old wharf is worthy of a stop or the boats that have been drawn up on the shore for the winter, or the graying shanties that have outlived their usefulness and are just waiting to be photographed.

Some of my favourite roads take me deep into the interior of our island, along river valleys and lakes, to places I haven’t been to for several years. Each one seems to have built up some new surprises. Many were leading into small rural settlements that have since passed into oblivion. Isolated pasture spruce, forgotten rhubarb patches, old stone cellars, tell the tale of land once farmed and now forgotten. Around the next turn in the road might be an old iron bridge (one of a vanishing structure) or a tumbling brook with its hidden waterfalls. Maybe a rock cut shows the inner workings of our geological past.

Too often we travel from one place to the next on one of our bigger highways and see nothing. The need to get quickly to our destination almost obliterates the changing landscapes and environments that we pass through. The roadside bogs and ponds and barrens, the cattails and ferns, the sedges and low shrubs, the wild roses and blueberry patches all take on autumn colours that suggest they too are getting ready for the next season. Did you bring your lunch and folding table? Did you bring a sweater, since the days of fall are a bit more brisque that those of summer?

Cape Breton’s wonderful back roads slow us down and awaken our senses of seeing and noticing the natural and cultural changes that have taken place since we last traveled this particular road.