Saturday, September 6, 2014

Cape Breton Highlands National Park/Cheticamp

Monday we left Baddeck and drove to Cape Breton National Park, just past Cheticamp (pronounced SHEDDY-camp) on the Cabot Trail.  We love staying in national parks, be it in the US or Canada.  It's a lovely park, and we were able to get a good site quite easily, as Labour Day, as it's spelled in Canada, marks a significant drop in vacation travel, just like in the US, as kids are starting back to school.  Anyway, en route we encountered a group of cyclists who were on the 3d day of their trek around the whole 186 miles of the Cabot Trail.  They had left our campground in Baddeck on Saturday morning, and apparently had support vehicles carrying their gear; we figure they probably did it in roughly equal days, staying the last night in Cheticamp before heading back home.  The first two days of their trip were gorgeous, weather-wise, but Monday not so much.  It was raining off and on and at times a bit hard.  Most of them looked none the worse for wear as they approached, but a few of them looked like they were struggling--very understandably since we had done the Trail in our car on Saturday and there are some really, really steep inclines.  I can only imagine the effort it took to do this on bicycles!

Got to the campground and got set up and then drove back into Cheticamp.  This is the heart of Acadian country and it was so fascinating to listen to these folks talk.  Everyone is bilingual in French and English, and French is clearly the language of choice when the locals are talking with each other.  But, though we couldn't understand it, there's a lot of Acadian spoken as well.  The Acadians have been in this part of the country for many generations, but were the subject of what came to be known as The Dispersion in the mid-1700's.  A lot of Canada's history is the story of the battles and wars between the English and the French for control of the territory, with a lot of back and forth as to who was in control.  When the English prevailed, they feared the Acadians were too loyal to the French, so they expelled them from their land, sending many to the American colonies; a lot of these folks ended up in the Cajun country in Louisiana.  Eventually, many returned to this area, and Cheticamp in particular.  When most of these folks speak English it's with a fascinating accent that's not really like what you expect to hear from native French speakers who learn English--a musical lilting sound that's really beautiful.

These folks were really poor and barely eked out a subsistence living fishing and living off the land.  Eventually in Cheticamp, a family named Robin came and established a large commercial fishing operation but, sadly, the history here is all too typical of those in power exploiting those on the other side.  Like the coal mining regions of Appalachia, the Robins set up company stores, paying the fisherman meagerly in the form of credit at the company store, so the real workers never had any cash to spend on their own.  Eventually, in the late 1930's the co-op movement began to take hold, when the fishermen realized that by banding together and acting collectively they could begin to exercise some element of control over their own destiny.

We visited a museum called Les Trois Pignons (The Three Gables), which housed a lot of antiques and artifacts from the early days of Cheticamp and the surrounding area, particularly hooked rugs.  While rug hooking was, and now still is, a fixture pretty much throughout Nova Scotia, the rug hookers of Cheticamp have become known for their distinctive style of hooking solely with wool yarn, rather than strips of fabric, as we saw a lot of in Lunenburg.  The museum told the story of how rug hooking began in Cheticamp, basically with the women using any scraps they could find to hook rugs into old burlap from seed bags to help warm the cold wooden floors in the winter.  In the late 1800's and early 1900's this was all just a matter of necessity.  Then in the '20's peddlers began to see the value that these rugs could bring elsewhere and started trading their wares for rugs hooked by the women of Cheticamp.

Eventually, a woman named Lillian Burke from New York, who was something of an artist, came to Cheticamp in 1927 and saw what these women were doing and realized how she could sell these rugs for a lot of money in New York.  So she began organizing the women to do custom rugs of her design, or modifying designs by local women, and paying them for the rugs.  She became quite a controversial figure, as she is credited with turning rug hooking by the women of Cheticamp into a commercial enterprise--something that never would have happened without her, as this was the first time any of the women had ever been paid money for their rugs.  On the other hand she paid them just pennies for their work, really really ridiculously underpaying them.   One woman had done a very large rug, involving untold hours of painstaking labor, and Burke had paid her only a few dollars for it.  She later happened upon a newspaper article that the rug had been sold to Henry Ford for his yacht for $4000.  When she complained that Burke was paying the women next to nothing to hook the rugs and then selling them for huge profits to herself, Burke turned a deaf ear.  Eventually, as the co-op movement began to take hold for the fishermen in at the late 1930's, the women began to use the same approach.  When they asked to be paid a dollar per square foot, Burke refused, and a number of women started their own competing enterprise, while others stayed loyal to Burke.   Burke sued, lost and eventually had to pay the dollar per square foot rate.  The museum also houses many works from a woman named Elizabeth Lefort, who was an expert rug hooker, blessed with the artistic gifts of a painter.  She made hooked rugs for the Queen, Prince Charles, several American presidents, and became amazingly proficient at doing portraits.  A hooked rug portrait of Jackie Kennedy is in the museum and it is truly amazing.

Tuesday we hiked the Skyline Trail in the park, about 6 miles that led us through some forest, some wildflower open areas, and eventually right to the edge of the cliffs overlooking the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with some spectacular views.  At the edge, they have a boardwalk that is stepped down partway from the top of the cliff toward the water, but the wind was so fierce it felt like we were going to get blown off the boardwalk so we didn't go all the way down.  It was a great hike, though, and we really enjoyed it.

That evening we went into town to the Doreyman Pub and Grill, a local institution of sorts, well known for their live Cape Breton music.  While in a rug hooking shop earlier in the day we had heard that a local legend named Marc Boudreau was going to be fiddling there on Tuesday evening, so we were excited to get to hear him.  He's only 27, but has been playing Celtic fiddle and step dancing since he was 9 and has now made a couple of CD's.  We had seen his CD's in gift shops over the last several days.   He was accompanied by a woman on the electric keyboard and they were really good--very high energy, and it was as much fun to watch their foot work--as to hear the music.  It's hard to describe the style of piano accompaniment but it's sort of a foundation rhythm for the fiddle tune.  The fiddle sets involve a good deal of repetition, so it was hard for us to see exactly how she knew when the fiddler was about to finish the set, but somehow she did.  And the physical energy they both put into the performance was amazing--really like a workout at the gym.  Though both of them were sitting, their legs were constantly in motion, not just toe tapping, but more like foot stomping, but in a fascinating pattern.  The fiddler worked up such a sweat during each set he was constantly going for his towel to dry off!  Just a great time here!!

Pretty overcast on our drive from Baddeck to Cheticamp, but even with fog, clouds, mist and light rain it's still beautiful

 This house sits high up on a cliff overlooking the Gulf of St. Lawrence--fabulous view, all by itself, just so classically typical of Cape Breton
 Church (unusual to see brick) and cemetery coming into Cheticamp

 These low hanging clouds or fog, whatever, gave this scene an eerily haunting feeling--just fascinating!
 This is in the museum in Cheticamp, a picture of the woman who had collected historical artifacts that told Cheticamp's history; she left all of it when she died to form the basis of the museum's collection
 Some dolls she had made
 Picture of her in earlier days
 Someone made this life-sized doll of the woman, in one of the displays in the museum--they had it arranged like different rooms of a typical house
 Self portrait done by the most prolific and famous of the Cheticamp rug hookers--Elizabeth Lefort, and this is a hooked rug!

Photo of Lefort at work

 Different rugs hooked by Lefort--she would custom-dye all of the yarn specifically for each rug she was going to make, involving numerous subtly different shades of beige and brown, for example, to get the effect of the beach sand
 The Nativity--she was also something of an obsessive compulsive, as each rug had a card telling exactly how many stitches she had in each rug, and how long she had worked on each rug--amazing how fast she could do this
 Jesus as a young boy

 This hooked rug portrait of Jackie Kennedy was just amazing!
Jacqueline Burton, accomplished rug hooker, demonstrating her technique at the museum
A bit of the story of the fishermen's plight
 How rug hooking got started
 A bit about the Acadians of the area around Cheticamp
  A little about the beginnings of rug hooking as an enterprise
 Remarkable pattern on this one--the burlap, sometimes called jute canvas, that is used for the backing, has 140 holes per square inch, and every hole is hooked with yarn, so in a pattern like this one this means changing colors many times within a single square inch--very tedious, labor intensive work, indeed!

An evening drive up along the Cabot Trail to a look off where we watched the sunset over the Gulf of St. Lawrence
Love these shots where we can capture reflections in water!

The different shades of color in the water were really fascinating

The steeple of the Cheticamp Church in the distance, from the look off

 Sophie says, okay guys, I've seen enough sunsetting, let's go back to the RV!
 Another of Trisha's Knitting Wonders!  She just finished this cute octopus hat for our niece--just love it!
Starting out on the Skyline Trail hike, the first part was more like a road than a trail

Early morning dewdrops still on the pine needles
Not sure what these berries are, but they were pretty against the green pines

More lovely wildflowers

The white birches here are so pretty

Huge, huge ferns along the trail

Now beginning to see the water down the cliff

Met this lovely couple from Toronto and hiked with them for a while; they took this pic
And here they are, leading the way

The boardwalk, leading down the side of the mountain toward the water

You can see how the wind is blowing my beard--I mean it was ferocious!

Rest of the boardwalk
A little friend crossing the trail in front of us on the way back--even though there were no Yield signs on the trail, we figured we'd better yield to this little bugger anyway!
Looking down on a portion of the Cabot Trail, winding through the mountains

As we drove back to Cheticamp, took this pic of folks up on the boardwalk, where we had been

Trisha loved how "home" here was the operative word, as the second pic is the funeral home--looked just like the other houses along the road

The Cheticamp Lighthouse
Buoys, freshly painted, drying on the line behind a house
Sign for a gift shop where we met the proprietor, a delightful woman, who's trying to talk Trisha into coming back next fall for a rug hooking workshop!--we got a kick out of this sign, which is a picture of a hooked rug on one wall in the shop--you decide what these guys are doing!!
At the Doreyman Pub--Marc Boudreau and Hilda Chiasson, his pianist

Trisha thought this was a hoot--someone's yard art decorations!!
Leaving Cheticamp, heading back along the western shore of Cape Breton

Inverness, a small town along the way, where many Celtic musicians make their home

Lovely stone church in Inverness
In this Interpretive Center, they have lots of detailed information and displays of old photos, telling the story of the development of Celtic music on Cape Breton--they even had one room where you could watch a short instructional video on how to play some simple notes of a typical Cape Breton fiddle tune, with some fiddles hanging on the wall, encouraging you to pick one up and play along.  I gave it a whirl, and suffice it to say, Marc Boudreau doesn't have anything to worry about, I sounded horrible!


  1. Totally entertaining...the rugs, the scenery and the blogger!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Mary Lou. On some of Elizabeth Lafort's rugs, she listed nearly 2 million stitches--just amazing. And the pictures, like those of so many places we've been, just don't do the actual scene justice at all.