Headwaters of the North River at St. Anne's in the Cape Breton Highlands in winter. 

Joe feeding the Snow Dragon. Cape Breton Highlands 

Our 5 slice toaster hard at work in our hut. Cape Breton Highlands 

Obie Dupree and Joe on a cold day. Cape Breton Highlands

 Winter camping on Cape Breton Island

 My friends and I were avid cross-country skiers living in the Margaree Valley on beautiful Cape Breton Island on the north end of Nova Scotia. Being situated on the western shore of the Northumberland Strait we were dumped on by plenty of snow throughout the winter. Winds would pick up moisture from the Strait, cooling it as it climbed over the mountains and releasing it into our valley.

We had fantastic ski conditions most of the time. Our enthusiasm for the outdoors grew to a passion as groups of us would ski along the river and the hills surrounding our little paradise.

An exhausting climb up the east side of the valley (1,500 feet up) brought you to the area called the Cape Breton Highlands. 800 square miles of forest with a few access roads used by the pulp company who logged it in summer. There is nothing but trees, lakes and wildlife to see. In summer a few folks would travel the area to fish the lakes, but in winter it became a heaven for snowmobilers.

Three of us decided to travel to our small camp in the highlands for some skiing. Bill and Obie would take snowmobiles with all of our gear and I would ski the 9 miles to the camp. They went on ahead while I climbed slowly up the trail leaving our beautiful valley behind.

Reaching the summit, I discovered the beautiful fluffy snow that had fallen previously had blown away into the woods by strong winds leaving the deep snow cover with an icy crust behind. Cross country skis don’t work on ice. Mine had to. The wind was howling and the temperature was steady at -35C. I had no choice but to press on. After a couple of miles it began to snow. I soon hit the main road, turned north and another couple of miles now in blinding snow arrived at a tiny hut. It stored fire gear in summer but was empty now. Inside it was pitch black. No windows. I wanted to eat my sardine sandwich but it was frozen solid. No water.

With 3 miles to go I set out. A small creek lie ahead, frozen of course. A few feet to the side stood a mysterious Canadian Lynx. I wondered what it was thinking. Hardly anyone ever visit’s the highlands except on snowmobiles so the Lynx has little fear of man. They have huge paws to get about easily on snow. They feed almost exclusively on snowshoe hares. In winter their fur coat turns almost white with only a very light sprinkling of gray hairs.  

The route to our hut was downhill and covered with ice. I fell as I tried to control my icy descent splitting my pants wide open. Pushing on I arrived at the hut. My buddies had a fire going. 80 square feet of living space. For three guys. We slept on the floor. Everything was frozen at that level.

I took this photo. Just prior to the shutter going off I realized my split open pants were just that and quickly moved to cover them with the camera bag. The photo above is the result.

We had this little stove set up in the corner. With a few pieces of dry wood burning inside it, the sides would turn red hot. As hot as we could get the fire going it still wasn’t enough to heat the area near the floor. The bottom two feet of the walls and floor remained frozen.

In the morning we ate breakfast. Obie, noticing how the sides of the stove were red, placed a slice of bread on it and it stuck to the side as if it were glued. He turned down the draft control and in a few moments the redness turned to a slight glow. By doing this he was able to control the toaster and proceeded to create more toasted masterpieces for each of us.

After our breakfast, we snapped on our skis and spent the day exploring the headwaters of Ste. Anne’s River. The temperature stayed at -35 Celsius for most of the day with not much wind. We found a way that we could go down the 300 feet or so to the base of the falls on the river. Everything was frozen with only a huge hole where the river flowed. It was beautiful and we enjoyed a lunch at the base area before re-tracing our trail to the top.

We found an area covered with lynx tracks and plenty of rabbit fur showing the end of another bunny. It was on a hilly area and we enjoyed skiing through the trees for a distance.

After a steak supper (Bill sure knew what food to take along) we turned in at around 7 pm. Not only were we tired but three guys in a tiny hut in the pitch dark sure cuts the gossip session.

I had the urge to use the toilet at around midnight and since we didn’t have the luxury of one, I got dressed and stepped outside. The word UNBELIEVABLE comes to mind. Imagine now, I arose from a deep sleep in the pitch dark and didn’t use the flashlight while dressing. Once outside there wasn’t a light in any direction as we were probably 30 to 40 miles from any town so the only thing one could see were stars. Big, bright, amazing sky totally full of them. They were brighter than I ever saw in my lifetime. Everything was cracking as the -40 Celsius temperature froze the moisture inside the trees and caused the wood to crack and split. It was so incredible I just had to wake up my buddies so that they could experience the beautiful night.

Next day we loaded our gear onto the snowmobiles and headed home. That was one mother of a trip I will never forget. 

Return to Home Page