North Mountain Fairy Tale

It was described on national television this week as a “Dramatic rescue on the Cabot Trail.”

A little embarrassed, I cringed as CBC National News Network told the story of our March 16 rescue from a remote section of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Was I part of a weird fairy tale, one that included a “happily ever after,” real live action heroes, a near-death experience and a videographer known as the Cape Breton Princess?

Heck, when I think about, our two rescuers arrived in a violent storm on a white steed of sorts — a white king-cab truck belonging to Parks Canada (shown here, barely visible even with its flashing light, as we followed behind during the rescue).

Parks Canada truck in snow

White steed? (Photo by Tera Camus)

The story did begin “once upon a time,” on a spring-like day under blue skies with a hot sun melting away the long winter’s snow and ice.

The Cape Breton Princess — a vlogger friend of mine whose real name is Christina Joe —  picked me up in her carriage, a brand new Ford Fusion hybrid. Everything was going well as we headed to Ingonish to shoot video and photos for her own and other media sites. With such great shooting weather and lighting and having spent so much time cooped up and COVID-crazy lately, we decided to continue further north — dialing 511 to check on road conditions first.

“Passable,” we heard the province’s electronic Transportation messaging system say.

So off we went to complete the entire 300km Cabot Trail, looking for seals on the ice that packed the western side and other potential winter images of our moose, bear and coyote.

 

Now, this 120km stretch between Ingonish and Cheticamp usually takes just over an hour for a local to complete, but for us that day, it took four.

The problems began quickly. About 10km from the base of North Mountain, we started to see snow and snow-covered roads. But we decided to continue, knowing there’s a secondary alert system in place at the base of the steep mountain that includes pylons, warning lights and signage to block the road in hazardous conditions. When we arrived, we found clear pavement from salt — so up we went.

Emergency Sign in snowstorm, North Mountain, Cape Breton

Photo by Tera Camus

We soon learned that word “passable” needs a better definition for the northern pass: something like, “passable for a locals or anyone with a 4×4, studded tires or a truck.”

North Mountain is among the province’s steepest peaks, part of the 480-million-year-old Appalachian Mountain range. Its two-lane road has an 11% to 15% grade as it twists and turns skyward, around rocky cliffs, to a height of 467 meters (about 1,500 feet) above sea level. It is taller than nearby Cape Smokey, MacKenzie Mountain and French Mountain.

It’s also the worst (or best) place in the province to find snow banks as high as the wires on the tall utility poles. Most years on North, the banks don’t melt until May or June.

We were on one of the many sharp, blind turns, when the Evil Queen of Winter decided to take it up a notch and whip up her fury against the Cape Breton Princess and I near the peak of this steep mountain. The car began to lose traction and started sliding sideways toward the opposite side the road and then backwards with gravity, stopping within inches of the guard rail protecting vehicles from plunging into a deep ravine of old growth forest.

Stuck in a white car, on the blind turn facing potential oncoming traffic, we decided to switch positions, both of us nearly falling on the icy road in the process.  An SUV and truck were forced to stop behind us as I got behind the wheel and, with a combination of gravity, speed, wheel adjustments, swearing, begging and praying to every spirit in the universe, somehow inched back over to the right and slowly gained traction to move forward.  It took another hour, with vehicles passing us, to cross a distance equivalent to a football field and reach the emergency hut on the top of North Mountain.

 

CBC reporter Brett Ruskin told the News Network’s Heather Hiscox on March 29 that Parks Canada confirmed our call for help was the first made with the new $11,000 satellite phone recently installed in the emergency hut on North Mountain.

According to Parks Canada, they installed it after a vehicle caught fire last fall trying to climb the same mountain in good weather conditions.  No cell coverage meant would-be helpers had to race to Pleasant Bay, many kilometers away, for assistance. By the time help arrived, the car was a melting heap of rubble.

The satellite phone looks more like an intercom, like the ones in secure apartment buildings that allow you to talk to someone at the main door. But for the hut on North Mountain (and two other emergency huts in the Cape Breton Highlands) that main door is located more than 5,000km away in Alberta’s Jasper National Park, where calls are answered 24/7, 365 days a year.

“Hello, can you hear me,” I said repeatedly during the call, as recorded on video by Cape Breton Princess that day.  It became clear the Parks Canada employee couldn’t hear me, as she said hello four times.

Emergency Shelter North Mountain, Cape Breton Highlands National Park

North Mountain emergency shelter. (Photo by Brittany Wentzell/CBC)

Without my glasses and in my panic, I couldn’t see the instructions written on the intercom in English as they were in raised black letters on a black surface but fortunately someone, likely from the Cheticamp side of the Park, decided to tape instructions in French too, using bigger block letters on white paper that I could clearly see and understand.

“Hi, we’re on the top of North Mountain and barely just made it, it’s extremely slippery and…I don’t think we can get down,” I said after I pushed in the tiny dime-sized, silver button to talk.

“So this is the Cape Breton Highlands,” the operator replied.

“Yes, Cape Breton Highlands, North Mountain, right on the top, it’s extremely slippery and has real thick snow,” I said again.

“What’s your location right now?” the operator asked.

“We’re in the emergency hut on top of North Mountain,” I said again. “I can go down but we’ll be sliding hard and I’m wondering if there’s a salt truck or plow coming anytime soon…we’re prepared to stay until the spring thaw if necessary.”

She advised us that the highway division for Parks Canada would come to us and that a plow from the Cheticamp side of the Park was also en route. She told us the mountain had only reopened that morning.

While the Cape Breton Princess and I waited for our rescuers — it was over an hour before they arrived — we built a fire in the wood stove. The hut was equipped with fire-starting materials, including a bundle of dried seasoned wood, kindling, paper, matches and fire starter. There were two wooden benches to sit on.

As we contemplated how to prepare for the night there, we saw a flashing light through the window of the hut.

“We’re here to rescue you,” one of the smiling Parks Canada men said when the door opened.

“Do you want me to drive?” the other man offered as we stepped back out into the storm. We learned he was another plow operator who works the mountain pass daily, including earlier that day.

 

During the rescue, they refused to give us their names,  “We’re just Parks Canada, just doing our jobs,” one said to Christina as she shot video.

He said finding the roads can be difficult in winter and they’re often forced to close them. Hurricane-force winds are common on the mountains of northern Cape Breton.

“It’s the worst spot,” he said of North Mountain. “We drive the same road every day, five or six times, so you get used to it but there’s times we’re driving 5 kilometers an hour and you can’t see.”

Large markers — as tall as trees — line the road to give plow operators a guide to the road’s edge, but seeing them in blinding conditions is a challenge.

As we continued up and over MacKenzie Mountain as well as French Mountain that day, we were thankful to return to the low lands and roads with fewer cliffs. My friend was so traumatized she didn’t drive again for five days. It still interrupts my sleep and I’m sure it won’t be something I’ll soon forget.

Afterwards, when I asked the Cape Breton Princess for her advice to the travelling public for this story, she said:

My advice would be to always have an overnight kit bag in your car such as blankets, food, change of clothes and toilet paper. The system is great but we cannot control the weather.

Getting to the shelter was a terrifying experience but knowing someone else knew we were there made it much better. We didn’t feel so alone.

The Parks Canada Superintendent said the rescue wasn’t the first on the mountain, and he predicted it wouldn’t be the last.

“We’re just doing our jobs,” said Rob Howey. “Unfortunately these situations aren’t that uncommon and our staff, they constantly step up to the plate and deliver and I am really, really proud of our team for that.”

Sure enough, just five days later, another mountaintop rescue occurred, this time involving nearby French Mountain (almost as high as North) and two hikers who got lost on the snow-covered Skyline Trail, one of the Park’s most scenic hiking trails that literally drops to the sea, more than 1,500 feet below.  Their rescuers were RCMP officers who’d swapped their steeds for snow mobiles.

 

Born and raised in Whitney Pier, Tera Camus has been a journalist for three decades,  investigating, writing, editing and shooting photos for a variety of national and international outlets including CBC Radio, the Chronicle Herald, Toronto Star, Orlando Times and Canadian Geographic. She has been recognized for her reporting on Cape Breton murderers and misuses of municipal funds and for her investigative work mapping toxic hot spots in and around the former Sydney tar ponds/coke ovens.