Young and Smith-MacDonald were caught up in the Celtic music resurgence of the 1990s and learned to play with elder practitioners. The pair met each other at a show here 10 years ago. Now it’s they who are playing for their neighbors.
“There’s not a part of my life that the community doesn’t touch, including music,” Smith-MacDonald says. She teaches music at the local high school, and several of her students are at the square dance tonight. “To me, that’s huge.”
“Yeah,” sighs Young, 31. “I’m starting to feel old.”
The crown jewel of Cape Breton remains its coastlines. I take a day to drive through the epic Highlands National Park, located in the northern part of the isle, which is known to locals as the “top of the island.” Along the way, I pull off to gaze at steep seascapes or to hike forested trails that lead to cultural structures, such as a quaint reproduction of a Scottish cottage called the Lone Shieling.
The best thing about the top of the island is the diversity of habitats. Three forest types decorate the park (it helps to ask for a tree map at a ranger center to separate the Acadian from the Boreal from the Taiga). In each, there are picnic areas, hiking trails and raised walkways for any age group or adventure level. I soon see that the vast 366-square-mile park is just one part of the Highlands to explore. Side roads on the top of the island region lead to gentle coves and wind-swept cliffs trails. Moose lurk in the shadows and whales breach offshore. I’m aching for a tent, fishing pole and more time.
On the coasts, it becomes easier to appreciate the pioneering nature of Capers of any era. They settled this wild, rugged land and maintained it against all odds. Their kin stay here, clinging to the edge of the Atlantic.
I feel this keenly on the southern edge of the island. I’m at the lighthouse facing the Fortress of Louisbourg, the immaculately restored French fortress. There’s nothing to the east but the Atlantic. I can’t imagine a more dramatic place to conduct a battle. The fort was subjected to two sieges, fought over this coastal barren in 1745 and 1758. During both attacks, the British landed artillery in coves and rolled to an overlook to lob shells on the French forces. The weather today is gray, threatening rain, and the lighthouse is lonely for visitors. A mile-long trail winds along the pounding surf, past the cove where the British landed and into a soft forest of stunted pine. One’s sense of time becomes less distinct with each step.
A sign puts the feeling into perspective: “You are surrounded by ancient rocks that were here before life began.” This slab of thick pre-Cambrian rock — scoured by glaciers, ground down by the ocean’s waves and worn by weather — endures. This land is resilient.
I think about the Capers I’ve met and the way they refuse to yield their traditions and lifestyles. It occurs to me that some of the stubborn permanence of this tough plateau has rubbed off on its people. Here at the continent’s edge, the wind whipping me with a cold patter of rain, I feel the urge to settle in and join them.