Cape Breton and Bras d’Or Lake on the V-Strom

cape Breton motorcycle tour

On a “Long Way Round” of his own, Frank Simon circumnavigates the Cape Breton  great inland salt sea, beautiful Bras d’Or Lake.

“V” to Shining Sea

I’ve been to Cape Breton many times over the years, riding alongside, over and around the various arms of the inland sea called Bras d’Or Lake but never in thousands of kilometres have I ridden completely around this partially salt, partially fresh body of water. That was about to change.

I loaded the Suzuki with the basics leaving the detachable saddlebags at my home on Prince Edward Island. I was traveling light, with only the trunk, tail bag and magnetic tank bag. I set off early on Saturday morning, taking Route One to the Wood Islands ferry crossing. Once in Nova Scotia, I pushed on to Sydney where long time friends Dana and Danny hosted me as they had many times in the past. We first met in Fort McMurray when Dana took the National Motorcycle Training Program I operated in that northern Alberta city. I’d covered the 550-odd kilometres at a rapid clip, not leaving any room for sightseeing or dawdling… I figured there would be sufficient dawdling the following day. 

BRAS D’OR LAKE HAS AN AREA OF 1,100 SQUARE kilometres with dimensions of 100 by 50 kilometres running mostly northwest to southwest. I decided to ride the loop clockwise, thereby putting the sun at my back for the early morning part and again during the late afternoon. Over the years, on my way to Sydney or Louisburg or the Cabot Trail, I had ‘dipped my toes’ into the great salt lake, but this time I was going to go for the proverbial dunk. I would follow the shoreline on those stretches where there was pavement, gravel or even sand tracks, around the entire lake, making as tight a loop as the road would allow. I didn’t know what services I would find for fuel or food, hence the decision to ride the V-Strom. She carries enough fuel that I should have been able to ride it on a single tank.  Of course, I’d fill up whenever possible. 

cape Breton motorcycle tourSydney area city dwellers flock to Bras d’Or’s shores in droves during the short summer months as evidenced by myriad cottages, RV parks and camp grounds but even though it was a pleasant mid-September most had boarded up the doors and windows and put the cottage key under the flower pot. I had my GPS unit but as per usual, “Brandi” wanted me to ride the main highways. I don’t know what it is with her, but I’ve learned to ignore her continually telling me to, “Turn around when possible!” There would be no turning around. I calculated that a complete loop would be around 350 kilometres. I was wrong.

THE FOLLOWING DAY I LOADED THE gear and pulled on my cold weather duds. It was after all, a Maritime fall weekend. I would ride the eastern arm of St. Andrews Channel first. I’ve ridden this piece several times in recent years when visiting Dana and Danny. 

Route 223 is the quintessential Cape Breton back road, full of charming scenery, good pavement, blind bends and hills and creeks with many views of the channel to my right. 

The posted speeds are typically 90 kmh and normally I’m not interested in exceeding that, but the DL does have a fairing and the six well-spaced gears made for interesting changes as the needle approached redline in the lower gears, a rather delightfully throaty song emanated from the high mounted exhaust with only forest creatures to hear its song. Keeping me from a faster pace was the thought of deer crossing the highways, which is a common sight in these parts.

In the early morning I pulled off at the local Boisdale area fire hall to have a chat with the fire chief for the area. He pointed me to the crossover that would bypass the village of Eskasoni and cautioned me that having been through the hills the day before on his ATV, the freshly graded gravel road was very treacherous. He didn’t advise riding the heavy V-Strom through there, saying; “There’s at least six inches of fresh gravel.”  

I appreciated his local knowledge and it was fine with me. I wanted to see a close-up of my previous day’s route, which I had ridden in intense sunset, so I continued through Beaver Cove, Shunacadie and Christmas Island where I caught up with local route 216.  I pulled off at Eskasoni Petro Canada to fill the tank, after I wandered through the hardware store that carried washers, dryers, barbecues, rope of various widths and widgets.

I came out to two smiling young kids chowing down on popsicles eyeballing my bike. Could have been six or eight years of age, the one boy asked me nonchalantly, “How can you ride such a big motorcycle, you’re so small?” 

I couldn’t help but chuckle; I sometimes wonder the same thing!

If this had been the total of my ride, I would have been pleased, it was fast and wickedly curvaceous. But it was not to be a short ride that day; I would be on the road until past seven that evening. 

THE 216 DETOUR DROPPED ME AT the Highway Four East Bay junction, where I turned southeast retracing my route from the day before hoping to get some dazzling photos. I’d hurried through tired and sore… and it was getting late even though the sparkling blue of the Bras d’Or beckoned. I hoped I could take the photos today. but it wasn’t going to happen. The early morning was foggy, some dew on the road and the magnificent views of the previous day were hidden to me.  This may have been a blessing as I got through this stretch of Cape Breton quite quickly as opposed to my typical pace between 40 and 100 kmh, taking many photo stops. 

I pulled off the road in lovely St. Peter’s, my vote for the prettiest little burg on the island. My stop at the swinging bridge coincided with a section of it opening (swinging aside) to allow marine traffic to motor up the channel.  I had never seen this phenomenon before.  

The bridge had been built to allow passage to Shedabucto Bay across this narrow isthmus from the salty Bras d’Or during the boom years from the mid 1800s to the early 20th century. Today you might get to see a schooner or two take passage on the eight-kilometre channel. The locks themselves were first built in 1854 – 1869 and replaced an overland route that dated to 1650. I could practically breathe the history. While I watched, two modern sailing vessels lined up to run the passage to the Strait.

Cape Breton’s St. Peter was in the middle of Pirate Days, private homes, every shop, every restaurant had some kind of Pirate motif going on… even the local Tim’s was done up. My concern was finding the route out of town during the mayhem that would really begin my round the lake ride.  

The island has seen tough times. Employment was scarce and out of work miners seemingly everywhere, but tourism, if my trip was any indication, had certainly taken over.  There were RVs, SUVs and pickups towing power boats, while hundreds of motorcycles of every description rode the main arteries of the Cape. Don’t let anyone tell you we aren’t good for the economy!

Motoring north I rode alongside the lake where huge homes overlook the bay through French Cove, Dundee and West Bay. Though fabulous, the views from the Marble Mountain overlook took the cake. High upon the cliff, I looked down at what could very easily have been mistaken for the Adriatic or Ionian Sea’s emerald green/blue water, clear as a bell. 

I began to peel off and stow my outer riding clothing, the temperature was fast climbing past 30C. I sat for 20 minutes soaking in the warmth and transporting myself mentally back to Croatia and the Istria Peninsula 10 years ago. Is there anything out there that rivals exploring a country by motorcycle?

 I rode through tiny Malagawatch, Valley Mills and Orangedale, where I left pavement and took a decidedly dicey sand road through West Alba and on to Estmere, in many cases just yards from the lake. We rode through McKinnon’s Harbor and into charming Iona, where I crossed the permanent bridge to Grand Narrows.  

I was now nearing the halfway point in the day’s travel. Having taken photos from both sides of the channel I rode back across the steel structure past the now defunct swinging railway bridge that was once the longest in Nova Scotia. 

Again, there was literally no traffic on the roads; it seemed I had all of Cape Breton to myself. I detoured through Iona to Washabuck and found potholes so deep and wide they could have been trout filled ponds during the rainy season. My little detour was likely the sweetest, most outstanding 20 kilometres of the entire day. This is what riding an ADV is about, with its longer travel suspension, nimble handling and fuel capacity. 

THE LITTLE NARROWS CABLE FERRY took me to the TCH 105 for the short trip to Baddeck. I was getting saddle sore and my stomach was rumbling, so I decided to stop at Baddeck to eat.

The current highway bypasses Baddeck but geez if you have to do a bypass, do it elsewhere. Baddeck is so pretty, so tidy, so inviting and so historic, you MUST stop in.  

From here you can take a sailboat cruise in the bay, enjoy photo-ops down at the working harbor or spend an hour or two at the Graham Bell Museum. Baddeck was the summer home of the Bell clan. It’s also significant for the first ever heavier than air flight in the British Commonwealth—Graham Bell’s ‘Silver Dart’. It was a frigid winter day in 1909, when John McCurdy piloted the Silver Dart to a few feet above the ice of the frozen lake. There is a replica of the historic aircraft hanging from the ceiling at the unique museum. 

I continued up the coast, following St. Patrick’s Channel to St. Ann’s Bay where you cross an amazing bridge and once over, immediately turn inland again to tiny Ross Ferry, on a twisty paved road that turns to gravel shortly after passing through the village. You can bypass the gravel just above Ross Ferry if you like. 

Rounding the point I thought this would not be a good place for a breakdown. Miles from anywhere, sun going down, boarded up silent cottages and me on a 250-kg ADV bike navigating a trail better suited to my Yamaha 225 Serow or maybe an ATV…

cape Breton motorcycle tourI came up for air finally at Florence where once again I stopped and fueled up the Suzuki.  

By this time it was getting quite chilly and I took a few minutes to don warmer gear before running the gauntlet on Route 105 to the Leitches Creek exit. I arrived back at Danny and Dana’s right around 7:30 pm or almost 12 hours since I made my first left turn in the morning.

THE SUZUKI V-STROM AND I HAD logged a total of 468 kilometres through Cape Breton and completely around Bras D’or Lake.

We had traveled most excellent Trans Canada highways, scenic and beautiful two lanes both graded (and not), gravel roads and even sand track and trail. As a bonus, on the next day’s homeward leg, I passed on the ferry, to take the beautiful Sunrise Trail/Route Six from Pictou. By the time we landed, we had totaled up nearly 1,600 kilometres in three fun-filled days.

Having ridden the Cabot Trail many times in years past, but always feeling that I was “just another tourist” on a motorcycle,  I finally I got into the guts of Cape Breton Island, the gritty beauty of her, the ramshackle fishing villages and the mega mansions lining the best views. There was also the satisfaction of doing something that probably has never been done before.  

It may not have been Charley and Ewan’s Long Way Round, but Cape Breton trip may have been my most pleasurable adventure in 50 years. 

  • Frank Simon, Canadian Biker #343

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