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Unexpected friends in the Cape Breton backcountry

It had already been raining for a few hours when I started the hike into Fishing Cove - the only backcountry campsite in Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Highlands National Park. For me, the rain wasn't necessarily a bad thing. It meant I would probably have this beautiful spot, rated as one of the most scenic campsites in the country, all to myself. Who else would be stupid enough to be going there in this weather?

The eight-kilometre hike in was a treat. The trail followed the clear Fishing Cove River as it tumbled down toward the sea. And the forest above shielded me from the rain. But when I finally reached the oceanside campsite, I was disappointed. Two people - a couple in their twenties - were just setting up a tent next to the cove. I was going to have company.

I assumed the couple was probably as happy to see me as I was to see them. Still, we waved and smiled at each other. It was the polite thing to do.

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After setting up my tent, I decided to head down to the ocean. Unfortunately, the path from my site went right past theirs, so I'd have to walk through what I considered to be their personal space. When I got near them, I apologized for coming so close to their tent. No problem, they said. They then apologized to me - for spoiling my solitude by being there. It was one of those quintessentially Canadian moments. And that's when I realized I was happy they were there.

As it turns out, Anna and Jay weren't actually a couple, but good friends who'd come to the park for a two-day visit. She was up from Sydney, N.S., where she lived with her boyfriend, while he was from Ontario, and was just about to embark on a cross-country road trip.

During the next 24 hours, I learned quite a lot about their lives, and they learned quite a lot about mine. At times, we seemed like good friends, too. I built a bridge over a stream to help them cross it. And they alerted me when a moose was right outside my tent. But at other times we kept a respectful distance. They went for a swim on the stony beach, and I waited until they were done before I did the same. Again, it seemed the polite thing to do.

About three hours after I arrived, an American couple also showed up in the rain. They set up their tent a long way from ours, and though pleasant enough, kept mostly to themselves. They left the next morning - happily a sunny one - without saying goodbye.

A couple of hours later, Anna and Jay packed up, preparing to hit the trail. I decided it was time to go as well, and thought it might be nice to walk out with them. But I didn't want to intrude. So we wished each other well.

I only stayed at the campsite for another 20 minutes after they left. The place just wasn't the same without them.

James Little is editor of explore magazine.

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