For years, I have heard of a place in Northern Cape Breton Island that is home to wild horses along with moose, seals, bears and coywolves. When I turned 20, my mom and sisters and I drove up to Meat Cove – the most Northern tip of Nova Scotia to spend time with the cliffs and water. I dreamed of doing the long mythic hike with my family only to learn that it was a 2 day hike from there! The dream slowly faded away, just to reignite occasionally when I glimpsed what I really wanted in my life. Nature, connection and a union between body and spirit!
In June, Jamie and I decided to stay in Cape Breton for a week just to hike and detach from everything. Read books, listen to talk radio, make simple meals, sleep with tired bodies under a starry sky. Our plans for hiking were to go places that dogs were allowed and that we had never been before (Skyline Trail for instance, does not allow dogs and trust me there are Parks Canada employees all over the place at this very popular trail).
While browsing some blog posts about hiking in Cape Breton – we came across Pollett’s Cove – a 19 km (there & back again) hike to a cove of wild horses! The post discussed the difficulty level and advised camping over night, making it a 2 day trek. We started discussing seriously if we could do it in a day. Jamie and I have a record of really under estimating hikes. When we traveled to Ireland in 2017, wearing our jeans and regular shoes, we decided to hike up Croagh Patrick. Not even a water bottle on us, we began the ascent marveling at the view of the Clew Bay (seriously beautiful, definitely suggest getting up that mountain if you’re in County Mayo). Other hikers had walking sticks and decked out in full gear to climb the peak while we looked like we were going for a leisurely stroll! Once we got to the peak and you are literally climbing with rocks slipping out from under you and dozens of people around you trying the same thing – we were cursing our shoes and lack of water (we may have taken desperate measures with the water… lol). Anyway! Never will we not be prepared while hiking on mountains, even if we are coming back the same stretch.
So, we decided with some food, our pocket stove and some water we could do the 19km hike in a day. The sun was shining brightly, burning off the fog that continued to roll in off the Atlantic. After a breakfast, we drove out to Pleasant Bay, turned up the road that will take you up the coast rather than into the park. There are many cottages and homes along this road and it ends at the Gambo Buddhist Monastery. On a very bumpy dirt road, you will come to the parking lot for the trail. We read that a local who won the lottery bought the land to preserve it and keep it accessible to hikers (bless this very soul!). There are only 2 ways to reach the cove – you can charter a boat from Pleasant Bay or you can hike there.
There were 2 other vehicles parked. I love hiking in remote places, so this was extremely exciting for me! All this beautiful nature to explore and be one with! With our back packs and Henry on her leash (there are so many wild animals that you don’t really want to disturb them with a off leash dog which was tested on multiple occasions with Grouse protecting their young), we set off under the blazing sun – the mountains ahead were shrouded in a blanket of fog. The ocean and sky, a brilliant welcoming blue.
The trail is well marked – even though it’s not maintained in the same way that the park trails are (there are rivers to cross and fallen trees to bend under). At times it’s very narrow but never did we ever hesitate over where we were walking. The path took us along open areas, overlooking the ocean and then into the forest, to climb, up, up, up. It felt like a lifetime of climbing the steep mountain side. I love climbing because my mind focuses on the slow steady burning in my legs and my breath. It might sound strange, but it’s one of my favourite things. I feel a wholeness with my surroundings.
The 9 km in (I have read so many varying distances – some day it’s 20 k return, others 19, others 17 – so I’m not entirely sure!) took us over 2 mountains. One of these mountains had 2 peaks so it felt a lot more like 3 mountains. We counted the number of magical trickling streams – 7. There was one small rocky river that you have to cross. We actually took our shoes off. I’m use to hiking and wading through rivers to continue trails. At my Mom’s, there is a shallow river that we regularly cross. I normally just wear water shoes on the entire walk (it’s roughly an hour). I think this is why I underestimate hikes – when I think of myself wearing water shoes! The river on this walk that you cross is stunning! Walking through grassy pasture lands, you descend into this valley with a crystal clear river that empties into the vast ocean. I wouldn’t mind being the hermit and keeper of this river :D.
When we passed this river, we finally met up with one of the other hikers. He was heading back to the parking lot and told us about the horses, etc. Henry continued to bark and bark at him – she is extremely distrustful of camping packs! Any large inanimate object warrants a ferocious bark from our sweet girl – especially if it’s attached to someone’s back (whats hiding in there? – Can’t be good clearly).
The Forest was stunning. The further you get from accessible land, the more complete forests feel. Huge Maple and Birch trees covered the mountain sides. Trees that you rarely see reach that size due to human interference. It felt closer to what our East Coast forests should look and feel like rather than Conifers, Conifers everywhere.
The intensity of the hike and the length allows you to really just get lost in being present in the moment. Perhaps I shouldn’t refer to it as being lost because it’s the opposite – it’s a sense of your immediate environment and peace descending in your mind. We are lost when we’re addicted to our phones, social media and netflix. Our whole society thrives on us being lost.
When you finally reach the Cove – there is no question that this is your destination. After hiking through bush and dense conifers near the end you come out into a wide hillside pasture. Horses graze balanced between earth and water. The waves cut out a half moon beach and the clearest river divides the cove. We steered clear of the horses and decided to set up on some drift wood to make beans and coffee and just rest a little while before heading back. It only took us 2 – 2.5 hours to hike into the cove – really not that bad!
We spent a whole 2 hours sitting in the cove. We brought some fuel and a pocket stove – ate a can of beans, some trail mix and drank some black coffee. I knit the sweater that I was working on and we just rested while watching the horses. A mother horse and her foal were grazing near us, this was so special to see! I took my socks and shoes off and actually just lay down for a while. I could have fallen asleep and drifted further into the hills.
The campers started to pack up while we were sitting and hike the journey back. While they were crossing the river, we decided it would be a good time for us to explore the other side of the cove. So as they crossed, so did we. In the above photo, we hiked to the other side just looking at the views, imagining what life must have been like for the people who once lived there. We were startled by a very loud neighing of a horse (perhaps one in the photograph) and watched in amazement as it charged down the hill at the 4 hikers!! We both just stood there frozen watching as every horse (there were about 7 not counting the mom and the foal) in the cove charged at the hikers. They all grabbed sticks and looked genuinely frightened (I can’t really imagine, I love horses but if 7 wild horses were charging at me I think I would think this is the end) while the horses surrounded another who was lying down. The 4 hikers walked as far away from the horses as possible and left the cove. It was an amazing sight for us with a full view of the scene and incredibly moving to see that they were protecting the sick horse that was lying down very close to the hikers chosen path.
Now, I just dream and plan to go back! I would love to do what the campers did. We spoke to them on the trek back (all while Henry barked at their packs relentlessly) and learned they stayed in the cove, camping for 2 nights.
The walk back really wasn’t that bad and felt shorter than the trek in. As I lay in bed that night, my legs were burning but what hurt more was my upper back from my heavy backpack (yes, I did need to bring my knitting and a heavy camera that I didn’t even use! ). I was surprised though because, hiking the next day in Clyburn Valley and I felt completely alive and well!
During our research, we came across this website https://www.seawalltrail.com/ I am so hopeful that we can do this trial in the near future. I hope that this may inspire you to just google Pollett’s Cove or Cape Breton Island. It’s a beautiful piece of this planet and one that I personally feel so honoured that I can tread on.
Thank you so much for joining us for this trek, Peace!
**Update September 2019**
A local hiker found his way on this blog and left some very insightful comments that I felt the need to add to clear up any misgivings about the horses at the cove as well as the difficulty after Hurricane Dorian, Thanks so much Peter!: