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Sunday, May 14, 2023

Uisge Ban Falls

Well, here we are, back again, in the heart of Cape Breton Island.  Originally the land of the Miꞌkmaq ("Mikmaw"), Cape Breton, along with Nova Scotia generally, had an early history of European settlement that involved a constant tug-of-war between the English and the French.  Eventually, many Scots would settle here, as well as French, giving the communities today their unique mixture of Mi'kmaq, Scottish and French cultures. Today, Cape Breton Island is part of the province of Nova Scotia, from which it is separated only by the Strait of Canso, with a short causeway (the Trans-Canada Highway) connecting them.

Cape Breton is a land of sharp mountains, rolling hills, lake valleys and ocean.  With a marine climate, truly, if you don't like the weather wait a minute...and it will get rainier.

We have one full day here before boarding the ferry onward to Newfoundland, and we wanted to do something locally that would be different than our visit to Cape Breton in 2018.  Our campground hosts suggested that we hike to Uisge Ban Falls, in Uisge Ban Fall Provincial Park, close by.  "Uisge Ban," which admits of various spellings, is a Gaelic word pronounced "ISSkee-ban" and means "white water."  We were told that the falls should be dramatic after the recent Spring rains.

And so, this morning, before the predicted noon rain showers, we took off to see the falls.  It was a chilly, damp 46F, so we dressed for the occasion:

The landscape surrounding Uisge Ban is a product of incredibly powerful forces which have shaped and reshaped the area over 5 billion years. Formation of the earth's landmass, tremendous volcanic activity, collision of continents, mountain-building, massive erosion and glaciation, have all played a role in shaping this landscape.  The signage at the beginning of the trail explained this and gave us a clue what we would see on our hike.

Uisge Ban lies in a steep-sided river canyon, part of the landscape which forms the interface between the elevated Cape Breton Boreal Plateau and the lower Central Cape Breton Hills landscapes. Major river systems, such as the Baddeck River of which Uisge Ban is part, originate on the boreal plateau, plunge down the steep slopes to eventually empty into the Bras d'Or Lakes.
The falls is located on (appropriately named) Falls Brook, which flows into the North Branch Baddeck River, and eventually to St. Patricks Channel of the Bras d'Or Lake.   As we walked, we first saw the North Branch Baddeck River and walked alongside it for a way:

We had hoped to take the longer version of the hike, including a loop up the North Branch and then back down Falls Brook, but we learned, to our dismay, that the bridge connecting our main path with the rest of the loop trail had washed out, and we would not be able to hike the extended loop:

As it turned out, the hike was dramatic enough without the loop.  Because it is early Spring and the leaves have not yet appeared this far North, we were treated to views of the dramatic heads of land forming the gap through which Falls Brook flows and from which Uisge Ban falls:

We thought it was Spring, but a trail warning signed informed us that it must still be Winter.  We decided to ignore the warning and continue up to the falls.

Eventually, we reached a bridge across Falls Brook --

-- from which we were given pretty views of the brook as it tumbled down toward the North Branch Baddeck River:

The Uisge Ban canyon is filled by deciduous, coniferous, and mixed forests, including sugar maple, yellow birch, beech, white spruce, and balsam fir.  Some plants in this canyon are rare in other parts of Cape Breton and Nova Scotia.  Rock types in this landscape include ancient granite, gneiss, and schist --- some of the oldest known.

As you can see in the photo above, the falls drop dramatically at the top and then run through cascades at the bottom.  Uisge Ban drops 330 feet over a run of nearly half a mile. While most of Uisge Ban is a cascade, the uppermost section is a horsetail waterfall dropping 52 feet in multiple steps, with a pool between sections of the falls.   If you want a sense of the power of the water roaring down the falls, here's a video of the whole length of the falls.

Kathy decided to brave the danger of the falls to pick up some pretty rocks, including some pretty gneiss schist -- or so she says. 

She even spotted a pretty pink granite inuksuk (in the lower right of the photo below) that someone had planted on the edge of the waters.  Whether it will survive the next Spring flood is anyone's guess.

This entire land mass was covered in the Canadian ice sheet during the last Ice Age, so, in that sense, there have not been more than 10,000 years for it to erode.  It was all the more remarkable, then, that we saw this small cascade picking its way down the granite rock face; we could see that it has worn its own little vertical channel down the center of the exposed rock:

We always enjoy running into trees that have survived and thrived despite challenges early in their woody lives.  This tree somehow started, rooted in earth on top of this boulder, sank its roots down and around the boulder, and then had to endure the loss of its earthen base, presumably due to erosion from rain and such.  In the photo below, Kathy stops to talk to the tree.  From this angle, you can't see how the tree lost its earthen cradle --

-- but, from this angle, you can see what the tree lost:

As we continued down the trail, we finally encountered some other groups of local hikers.  Evidently the Moms wanted a hike because it was early on Mother's Day morning, and no Mom in her right mind would be out hiking on Mother's Day without loving it. Or so we surmised.

Kathy got treated to a Mother's Day lunch of scrumptious lobster sandwiches on homemade bread, complete with whole milk lattes, at a local diner known, curiously enough, as Herring Choker Deli & Bakery.

We learned that "herring chokers" referred originally to Scandinavians who settled in the Maritime Provinces of Canada -- most especially in New Brunswick -- presumably because many of them fished for herring; but, now, the term generally refers to native residents of the Maritimes.

Well, if the landscape looks like this, and the hiking is like this, and the scenery is like this, and the cuisine is like this, where do we apply for Herring Choker citizenship?

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