One of the best things about growing up in an isolated place is the unspoiled nature you encounter in your day-to-day life. Whether that includes spotting a mama moose and her babies grazing in your front field on the way to school, catching trout after delicious trout in the brook down the road (and eating those trout, pan-fried, later for supper) or your neighbour sharing her bounty of massive, foraged chanterelle mushrooms she found growing near the river, it’s something that stays with you for the rest of your life – whether you remain at home or, like me and so many other Cape Bretoners, have moved abroad to live, work and raise a family.
I know I’m not exactly living in downtown Dublin here in Tipperary (yes, I’m back! More on that later!), but this lush farmland can feel cultured compared to the wild, tree-blanketed mountains where I grew up.
While we were home in Cape Breton, I felt the need to bring my husband to a place I had only previously visited once. I felt it was important, though. Not only because the place we were going was fun to visit and had beautiful, lush scenery. It was more than that. I wanted to take him to Gairloch Falls so he could better understand where I come from.
I know he understands where I come from. Maybe that’s not what I should type. There is a part of my life and heritage and family he’ll never know, because the people who played the big roles passed on before he could meet them. It’s not sad, it’s a fact of life. There were no tragedies (that I’m aware of) or fallings out. There were wonderful people who filled my childhood and, as I get older, I want to understand what made them tick. Hiking out to Gairloch Falls was going to help.
This is not an ordinary hike with a trail. The only way you get to the falls is as follows: know the starting point (I didn’t; luckily my father does), follow the taped trees and then use the ropes to climb down the steep hillside. It’s not a hike just anyone should take. There are bears, coyotes and moose in the woods and humans rarely visit. It’s mostly members of my extended family and neighbours that know of (and care to) climb down to the Falls.
The hike begins where my grandmother’s life began – at the foundation of a house that no longer stands and a field that my ancestors laboured to clear when they came from Scotland. I should mention that the field is no longer a field, but part of the forest. You need to be with someone, like my dad, to know where the house and barn and fields were. It’s amazing how the mountain was once a thriving, well-populated community. Now, it’s a road where most cars can’t drive and the thickest forest with a clearing every now and then; reminders of where a house once stood.
When my grandmother’s people came from Scotland, all the good land had been taken. This was the land in the valley, closer to the river. They didn’t care; they took their plot in the highlands and made the best of their situation. They had a thriving Gaelic community – a school, a midwife and a good road that went all over Gairloch and the neighbouring mountains. And then they all left.
Some left for the States, others moved down the mountain as more room became available. Slowly,the community died away. My grandma was the last baby born on the mountain.
And all that’s left of her house is a foundation, covered in ferns.
That’s why it’s important to visit the falls: so we don’t forget where she was born and how far her family has come, considering beginnings that many would consider humble.
So we took the half hour walk, starting from Grandma’s house and following the taped trees to the steep slope of the hillside. Some kind soul has tied rope around the trees, giving you something to grab as your try to climb down with your fishing rod.
After a slippery descent we arrived at the amazingly beautiful waterfall, seen and enjoyed by so few. We put a few worms on our lines and tried our luck in the cold, black pool. We caught the same, tiny trout about eight times before we gave up on fishing (also, Pat lost his bobber in a tree).
We thought a lot about my ancestors and how there were no ropes in their day, and we thought they probably didn’t use Eddie Bauer rain jackets and special hiking sandals. And they probably didn’t have ultimate-strength fly repellent. They must have been pretty tough.
Then we climbed back up the hillside and made our way to where my dad was waiting in his truck. He had a few cold beers for us in the cooler (what? We’re in the middle of nowhere.). We had a beer and he drove us further up the mountain so he could show us where the other houses used to be.
Maybe, sitting here in my half-finished farmhouse in Ireland, I’m just being nostalgic. I mean, I went on some amazing guided tours all around Cape Breton while I was home, thanks to Tourism Cape Breton. But this simple afternoon spent with my husband and dad, being driven around in the back of his pickup truck over the bumpy dirt road (just like when I was a kid) was the best tour I had all summer.
Really, when you remember them and do your best to understand their lives, the ones you love are never far away.