Cape Breton Wilderness Retreat Seasons
Spring Retreats (May and June)
By the beginning of May the winter drift ice has usually disappeared, all the hiking trails are passable, and local lobstermen have begun fishing up and down the shore every day. I love waking up to the muffled lub-dub-dub of their diesels right below the cliffs while the sun burns off the morning fog. The hardwood slopes are blushing with pastel greens, peaches, and reds so that almost every tree is its own color. Migrant birds are arriving in numbers with colorful warblers flitting about, flutey thrushes filling the woods with trills, and local partridge (Ruffed Grouse) drumming on the slopes. I often spend hours watching the gannets diving offshore, or the eagles and ravens cruising along the cliff tops, or keeping an eye out for the tame neighborhood foxes, or a mama moose with calves trundling through the yard. By early June whales have moved back into the gulf for the capelin running in the warming waters of the shallow Gulf, and by mid-June the whale tours are making several trips a day up and down the wilderness coast.
Gannets diving just below the cliffs, late May.
Spring visitors should bring layered clothing and all-weather gear. Waterproof footgear is a must with the spring rains. With the threat of hard freezes past, the waterline becomes operational and more convenient for guests, but you'll still want a sunny afternoon to brave an outdoor hot shower. Fire up the woodstove for a warm sponge bath.
Summer Retreats (July & August)
The midsummer months are the peak tourist season for Cape Breton. On the sunset side of the island, the Gulf of St Lawrence is a shallow sea and by early July the water temps are already climbing toward a subtropical 70ºF and the swimming season has arrived. Sunsets are straight off the land and the Cabot Trail and the Park is alive with tourists, though still uncongested compared to any American or European park. The Ceilidh (kay-lee) circuit of Celtic Music is in full swing as well.
The Pleasant Bay boat parade on Canada Day (July 1) kicks off the summer season.
For hiking, swimming, birding, kayaking, fishing, whale-watching, live music, sight-seeing, or just basking in a private spot on a wilderness beach, you can't beat July and August. In Pleasant Bay, Snow Crab season begins mid-July and runs for a month or more while fishermen catch their quotas—buy them right off the docks to bring home for your own crab boil—a world-class treat when this fresh. By mid-August summer has peaked and later in the month some early migrants like the local cliff swallows, have already started to move south.
Bring bathing suits, but also some foul weather clothing—Cape Breton can be unpredictable. You'll also want footwear that you can get wet for swimming off the rockier beaches and crossing streams and small rivers along the trails. Bugs can be a nuisance anytime daylight temps are above 50º, primarily mosquitoes or black flies, and especially on days without a breeze. Bring bug dope, keep moving, go for a drive, or get thee to a beach.
Fall Retreats (September & October)
The Gulf has begun cooling in late summer and most of the whales will have left by the end of September. Summer tourists have also departed once the school year begins. The weather is getting colder, windier, and wetter. Watch out for moose at dusk and at night as this is the season the bulls rut and roam into the roads. The sun is noticeably lower and setting further up the coast and no longer straight offshore. Toward the end of September the hardwoods are coloring up and typically the foliage peaks the first 2 weeks of October. It's time to start firing up the woodstove more regularly, and cosy up to a book in the lookout with a hot cuppa. Hiking is still excellent, less so for swimming and boating.
Lookout (at left, while it was being built) seen from atop Black Brook
Windbreakers, warm and dry footwear, and layered clothing are a must. Moose hunting season is usually the tail end September into the first 2 weeks of October. Wear loud clothing on the trails or hike the National Park trails where hunting isn't allowed.
Winter is the season for serious retreat with shorter and colder days and a spectacular quiet when the winds aren't howling or the sea raging below the cliffs. Most winter retreatants bring a project or a practice. For extended non-engaging or silent retreats it's even possible to arrange grocery and mail deliveries with someone local. The waterline is drained at the end of October to prevent it from freezing and water has to be hauled from the brook in 5 gallon pails. Not a big deal really, once you stop being in a hurry all the time, these supposed inconveniences involving wood and water are precisely what grounds you in a healthier and more natural experience.
The February yard facing the East march of the highlands
Local trails are passable so long as there isn't snow or ice on the ground. Winds, snow squalls, and blizzards like you wouldn't believe can happen anytime from mid-November onward.The ice usually moves in anytime after New Years, driven by the northwesterlies onto the shore at the base of the cliffs where it can pile up in pressure ridges. In my experience, the weather settles some in January and February as arctic highs become the ruling pattern punctuated by less frequent but still intense storms. Seals pup along the shore ice right below the cliffs in February and are often preyed upon by coyote, lynx and bobcat. East winds coming over the highlands from the Atlantic side drive the ice far offshore, or leave it riddled with leads and rivers of open water. Snow can pile up to the eaves of houses and drift thick in the spruce, though the yard around the cabin is usually swept clear by the offshore winds. Occasionally there'll be mild weather in February or March, but not becoming regular until mud season begins with the April thaws.
Winter visitors should have an AWD vehicle for the local roads, bring extra layers for outdoor activities and waterproof footwear, and stock plenty of supplies in case you get snowed in for a few days. Snowshoes are a good idea Dec-March to be sure you can easily get up the lane to your car if more than a foot accumulates. The gravel road itself is great to ski or toboggan on. Fortunately the snowplow keeps the road pretty clear all winter and makes escape for supplies possible soon after even the worst blizzards.