Prior to l980, I had little meaningful contact with Nova Scotias coastal
waters, although I had spent the better part of my life in this, my native,
province. I had lounged around the occasional beach in summer, visited Peggys
Cove with the tourists, taken a sailing course on the Northwest Arm, and even
crossed to Prince Edward Island on the ferry. But that hardly led to a significant
understanding of the Maritimes heritage. All that changed on June l6,
l980, when, after hugs from the family and a few swigs of champagne, Paul Potter,
Bert (his dog), and I left from Historic Properties on a voyage that was to
take us around the provincein a canoe.
During the next three months, I paddled over 2,500 km (1,552 mi.) along a winding
route of inlets, islands, headlands, and harbours where the only constant was
the unknown. Life leapt from one unpredictable event to another, leading my
intellect and emotions through regions I had seldom explored before.
We were battered by violent squalls one day and caressed by moonbeams dancing
off ebony waters the next. Local fishermen greeted us with lobster and scallops;
lighthouse keepers entertained us with stories (and rum); and we camped on isolated
islands with only the seals, sea birds, and the incessant lapping of the waves
for company. I viewed some of the most spectacular scenery in North America
as few have a chance to see it.
My journey took me to the very essence of our past, into the reality of our
presentand it changed my life. I left my job in central Canada and returned
to live in my home province, along the rugged Atlantic coast.
Twenty years have now passed since my circumnavigation. I still spend most of
my summer and earn my modest income plying the coastline of this and other Atlantic
provinces, but coastal paddling in eastern Canada is only now becoming known.
Perceptions have only gradually changed little toward an activity once seen
by many as either inherently foolish, devoid of interest, or both. Why risk
your life along miles of monotonous shoreline when lakes and rivers (not to
mention the warm water) lay just outside the back door? This sentiment was unfortunate,
, for although there are some risks (see Safety Considerations), these can be
recognized and mitigated with experience and good judgement. Happily, attitudes
are changing and more of us are finding a measure of escape and fulfillment
in discovering what has been beside in front of our eyes, but beyond our vision,
for so long - and the rewards for this adventurous spirit are endless.
The coastline displays a biological and geological diversity distinct from that
of the interior. Its unique life forms have evolved complex mechanisms to cope
with the great stresses inherent in a harsh environment. Every organism has
adapted to its position on the shore, and specific zones have developed between
low and high water. The salt spray even creeps inland to cover the trees its
reach deforms with moisture-loving lichens. On the barren offshore islands,
sea birds and seals embrace a rugged existence in return for protection from
humans and other predators, while the sheltered, warmer waters of the salt marshes
nurture an enormous biological productivity, ultimately responsible for many
of our commercial fish species. And unlike the inland realm, with its dearth
of wild edibles, native food abounds along the coast, and with some dexterity
and effort you can still live off the land.
Swept clean by the sea, the underlying geology in this stark landscape regains
a prominence lost inland to the vegetation. The colour, form, and texture of
rock and sand tell the earths history, a story laid bare by eons of incessant
erosion. And it is a story still being told. Headlands become beaches, beaches
become marshes and marshes become dry land. Sand bars can appear then disappear
overnight, and elderly dunes can be routed in a single storm. But the bedrock
remains, immovable, resisting the oceans onslaught as do enormous granite
boulders, often erratically positioned, attesting to the ice sheet that once
covered much of the continent.
Then, there is our own past. Who knows what your wanderings will find along
a coastline enshrouded in human history: perhaps some of the treasure, guns,
or shipwrecks lost at sea; perhaps arrowheads from a Mikmaq site; or perhaps
some strange engravings like ancient Phoenician script or Norse runes! The early
North American inhabitants lived by the sea for it provided their livelihood
and was their highway.
Today, hidden graveyards, abandoned settlements, and overgrown fields lie undisturbed
and forgotten, along with those who built them. Rusting iron and rotting wood
attest to our maritime past. But for those who arent biologists or who
cant be seduced by tales of buried gold, there remains the simple romance
of the deserted island, far from the bustle of everyday living. This is our
And dont forget those utilitarian advantages of coastal paddling routes!
Seldom will you have to portage through dense spruce woods on trails scarcely
wider than the boat or over sphagnum bogs, knee-deep in anaerobic ooze. Your
route wont dry up in midsummer, stranding your fully loaded canoe on a
bed of wet rocks, and the bugs, although sometimes present, never reach the
epic proportions of the inland waterways. The sea breezes blow them, and your
cares, far away. You might have to bring your drinking water along with you,
but that is a minor inconvenience for this is a journey into a new realm of
experience. I paid my dues on the lakes and rivers and now return to them only
in late season, under fall colours and cool nights. Otherwise, its the
mystique of Nova Scotias saltwater shores.
As the title suggests, this book is intended as a guide, and with that in mind,
I describe specific paddling areas. It is not an exhaustive description of our
coastline. Rather it is an attempt to offer aspiring or experienced paddlers
some information that I have acquired in my notes over the years. Sections include
routes along the Eastern Shore and the South Shore, the Bay of Fundy, around
Cape Breton Island, and along the North Shore. This is not a treatise on sea
kayaking or coastal canoeing either. There are many such works already available,
especially on sea kayaking, (see the Appendices), although you wont learn
as much from reading a book as you will from doing the activity. Seek out and
travel with an experienced paddler or take an introductory course to learn the
basics. Join a paddling club or an outfitters association which often have guidelines
to encourage safe paddling. Gradually move on from there. Dont take needless
or foolish risks. Coastal paddling can be practised safely, but I must emphasize
that there are certain dangers inherent with taking a small craft on the ocean;
these should be understood and respected. In the following section on safety
considerations, I include a few important generalities on coastal paddling conditions,
especially as they relate to Nova Scotia waters.
The information contained in these route descriptions has been compiled from
years of paddling the coastal waters in canoe and kayak, and every effort has
been made to ensure accuracy. However, the author assumes no responsibility
for errors or omissions. This is especially true when it comes to safety! Coastal
paddling is not without some risk. Weather and water conditions can change quickly,
and it is up to each paddler to learn the proper skills and make prudent judgements.
The ultimate responsibility for safety lies solely with the individual.
You have got to be crazy! How many times did I have to explain my
apparent insanity to incredulous friends when, in l980, I announced my plans
to paddle an open canoe around the entire province of Nova Scotiaon the
ocean! For some, it seemed merely a waste of time, for others, though, it bordered
on suicidal. However, it was neither. I had no intention of leaving this earth
prematurely, and after three months, 2,500 km (1,552 mi.), and an extraordinary
summer, my paddling partner, his dog, and I returned to Halifaxour departure
pointtanned, fit, and unscathed.
Although taking a canoe or kayak on the ocean has some risks, their potential
can be recognized and reduced. With the proper equipment, the necessary skill,
and an understanding of the limitations of both, paddling coastal waters can
be a safe and enjoyable experience.
In analysing the safety issue, you should consider three factors: your equipment,
your technical ability, and your knowledge of coastal conditions. The equipment
list will vary depending on where, when, and with whom you will be paddling;
there is plenty of room for personal preferences and idiosyncrasies. However,
certain items (such as your craft) are fundamental and require special attention.
Kayaks come in all shapes and sizes; some of the differences are trivial, some
are not. The choice of a particular design will depend on the type of paddling
you wish to do (e.g., open water where tracking is important versus shallow,
rocky shores where manoeuvrability is an asset), durability, stability, availability,
and price. Floatation is required and bulkheads with hatches are now the norm.
The kayak should have deck lines with fore and aft toggles, which help during
rescues and carries, and at least one extra paddle per group should be firmly
attached and accessible. Rudders are very useful in doubles but optional in
singles. With canoes a good deal of freeboard is recommended to add an extra
margin of safety. I use a 5.6 m (l8 ft.) aluminum model to which I can attach
a spray deck when I anticipate rough water, but I have also used many other
Flares should be considered, along with a VHF radio or EPIRB, especially in
remote regions. Recent advances in telecommunications have also brought us cellular
phones and GPS receivers. Soon satellite phone service will become affordable
and eliminate the last barrier to 24 hour coverage anywhere in the world - a
technological achievement of mixed blessing, to be sure. Include a map and compass
and know how to use both, as well as repair and first aid kits. Pack fresh water
(many islands have none), food, and a means for making a hot drink. Wear a wet
or dry suit if the water is cold and if you plan to travel offshore. Also a
good waterproof paddling jacket, poggies (specialized mitts for use with kayak
paddles), and nonslip footwear are recommended. Store extra clothing and a bivouac
sack (or tent and sleeping bag). Of course, bring a life vestand wear
it. An itemized list of suggested equipment is given in the Appendix.
If you have the funds, all the equipment your fantasy trip requires can be bought.
Developing your ability and acquiring knowledge of the marine waters is another
matter. The notion that you can buy experience (and, hence, safety) with certain
equipment is a pervasive and dangerous misconception. The best equipment will
not help much if your skills and knowledge are inadequate. Of the mishaps that
have occurred on the west coast and, more recently here, almost all have been
due to major errors in judgement, usually combined with inadequate paddling
skills. Very few accidents have been due solely to inappropriate equipment.
Inexperienced paddlers often overestimate their ability and underestimate possible
problems, and the ocean can be quite unforgiving. Therefore, before venturing
into unsheltered waters, you should first master the basic paddling strokes,
be able to brace effectively, and be capable of a self-rescue should the need
A flawless eskimo roll is the first and best means of rescue after a capsize
(in a kayak) and the only method to be relied upon if travelling alone. With
a group there are several acceptable assisted rescues. Learn and practice these
in a swimming pool or lake with the help of an experienced friend or through
a course. Then practice them in the colder ocean, since that is where you will
actually have to use them in an emergency. Learn to launch and land in a moderate
surf and to control your craft in strong tail or beam winds.
Understand your paddling environment. This is essential, without which no amount
of high tech equipment or fancy paddling strokes will protect you. It is in
this domain that coastal paddling differs most from inland touring. Much will
be common sense but much is also novel and will have to be learned gradually.
The coastline is a high-energy, dynamic world where the land, sea, and air often
meet in confusing and complicated fashion, although these constituents are sometimes
easily understood when examined separately (see Related Reading).
Unique to the coastal environment is, of course, the sea. Its single most important
feature for paddlers in our latitude is its temperature, which can be very cold.
Books have been written on hypothermia and what it can do to an immersed body.
Suffice it to say that it can be deadly. Be particularly wary from April to
July, when a warm, calm day can breed a false sense of security, just when the
water is the coldest. As the summer season progresses, the temperature increases.
Along the North Shore and in sheltered inlets it can even become rather warm,
over 18°C (65°F). On the other hand, in the Bay of Fundy, the upwelling
keeps the water cool in the outer reaches. Whether you should sport a wet or
dry suit will depend upon several variables, including the degree of personal
risk you are willing to accept.
Current strength and tidal range vary considerably in Nova Scotia, and they
are discussed in the introduction to each region. They seldom pose a problem,
except in the Bay of Fundy or when opposing wind produces standing waves and
erratic currents around headlands or through narrow channels. Waves are usually
a permanent feature of the seascape and can result from either local winds or
a distant offshore storm. They can be short, steep, and cresting or barely discernible,
long sequence swells. Sometimes they arrive from different directions, meet
and cancel out or reinforce one another. They are of particular concern in shallow
areas where they can break unexpectedly over an underwater shoal. Cliffs pose
a special problem as they will reflect incoming waves back out to sea, sometimes
creating extremely turbulent conditions. Always be conscious of what the water
is doing, from where the waves are coming and to where they are travelling.
Keep an eye on the weather too, especially when it is unsettled. Dont
rely on the forecast. It is frequently wrong and even a correct one wont
tell you if or when that isolated rain squall is going to pass just over your
head. This is less of an issue when you are meandering among an island archipelago,
a mere five or ten minutes from a safe landing, but it is crucial during open-water
crossings. Fair-weather sea breezes can pick up in the afternoons to a good
clip (over 20 knots), and in some areas you might have to restrict your paddling
to the morning hours. Choose your campsite judiciously or you may be blown away
or washed out. Beware of fog. It is common in Atlantic Canada, especially early
in the year when warm, moist, continental air condenses over the cold, coastal
waters. That thick bank lying harmlessly offshore for days could suddenly move
in and blanket you and the entire coastline in a cloud so dense that you will
scarcely see beyond the bow of your boat.
Bring good charts or maps during your trips and make a habit of relating them
to what you are actually seeing. They are a great source of information, especially
on topographical features like islands, shoals, headlands, beaches, and cliffs.
The soundings on marine charts are of more use to larger craft but will help
you anticipate where you might encounter currents or breaking seas. Navigational
aids will indicate where larger vessels should be heading and thus where will
be the usual dangers of marine traffic.
Learn to adjust to depth of field playing tricks with your mind. On a clear
day, the far away objects will appear much closer than they actually are, much
the same effect as in the Arctic. Haze and fog have the reverse effect. Time
your speed under different conditions so that you may estimate your progress,
especially if you have to travel in fog. Much more can be said about coastal
conditions, and I recommend past issues of Sea Kayaker magazine or The Fundamentals
of Kayak Navigation by David Burch.
Finally, good judgement is what links your equipment, skills, and knowledge
for a safe paddling trip. Without good judgement you wont be long in getting
yourself into trouble. It is important that you realistically assess your level
of expertise and whether it is sufficient for your particular destination. It
is far more important to avoid a potentially dangerous situation altogether
than to rely on a technique that may fail you just when you need it the most.
Ultimately, you are no match for the sea. There is much to learn about the ocean,
how it interacts with the shore and the boat, and this will come only with time.
Be wary of the rules of thumb, such as never paddle alone and always
wear your life vest. Although I agree with most of them most of the time, they
may supplant independent thinking and give a false sense of security. Situations
tend to develop that require immediate and creative solutions. Anticipate problems
before they arise and prepare for the unexpected. Leave a trip plan with family
or friends, but alter it if conditions dictate. Carry safety equipment, but
dont let it lull you into a false sense of security. A life vest, radio,
and flares wont help you much if you capsize offshore in the foggy Atlantic
in springtime and can't get back into the kayak. The proper judgement comes
with an understanding of the coastal environmentand lots of experience.
The foregoing was just to point out potential problems that can arise in a paddling
environment, which may be unfamiliar. The reality is that during over twenty
years of paddling all sorts of craft on the ocean under variable conditions,
I have yet to have a major mishap. That may indeed happen someday, but I feel
safer in my kayak than in a car where a split second miscalculation by someone
else could lead to tragedy. Most problems that do arise are those familiar to
all wilderness travellers, such as sprains, splinters, minor cuts, and sunburn.
In concern for major events, dont ignore these more likely possibilities.
Tread lightly over the seaweed-covered rocks, watch for nails in the driftwood,
and protect yourself from the elements.
Many of us seek the freedom and isolation that coastal paddling offers in an
increasingly populated world. Fortunately, Nova Scotia shores can still fulfil
these expectations and have thus far escaped the bureaucratic tentacles of regulators
only too willing to extend their influence into another sphere. For the most
part, we are able to paddle where, when, and how we please. In the past, I have
been somewhat selfish in exercising this privilege and have belatedly come to
the realization that I, too, am responsible for my actions and am part of our
collective impact on the natural world. We must act accordingly.
This concern, of course, is for the state of the environment, and in these days
of increased environmental awareness, it would be difficult to find someone
now who wouldnt give it at least lip service. The problem lies in dealing
with the specifics. What should be done to minimize the impact of our actions
on the environment? What exactly is ones responsibility? Discussions on
these matters can (and sometimes do) take up the better part of the evening
chatter around a campfire. In the end, they often dont lead to complete
agreement on the problems or the solutions. However, even asking yourself questions
can put you on the right path towards awareness. The issues about the environment
and our responsibilities for it are not always clear, especially in a society
that stresses consumption without regard for the ultimate local or global consequences.
A realistic perspective on how to live responsibly on the planet and in our
own communities is often only reached after much analysis of ones own
goals and expectations. I have yet to reach total enlightenment myself, but
I stumble along, sticking with some views and tossing out others, never satisfying
all those insidious questions. I tend to avoid slogans and blind adherence to
rules (much as with safety concerns), however well-intentioned and useful they
may be in some circumstances.
As a biologist, I have come to realize that very little occurs exactly as the
textbook example suggests or popular myth dictates. Variety and diversity are
the norm; the ecosystem is much more complex than we imagine and often throws
little wrenches into our pat theories. We must adapt to specific situations;
behaviour appropriate in one location may be totally inappropriate in another.
I recall an incident of fanatical environmentalism at summer camp when leading
an extended paddling trip. We were canoeing along the Northumberland Strait,
not far from Pictou, and stopped to camp for the night. We prepared and ate
supper, after which one of the kids brushed his teeth, washing with a glass
of fresh water that he subsequently spit into the strait. Noticing this, another
counsellor reprimanded him harshly for polluting the environment. The poor kid
couldnt grasp what he was doing wrong; neither could I. Aside from the
etiquette of spitting within sight of the camp (which I suppose some would take
offence to), the actions of that camper in no way deteriorated the environment.
The natural absorbing capacity of the coastal waters was immeasurably greater.
And what was more, this misguided indignation overlooked the odorous smoke plume
of a nearby pulp mill, a structure that would pollute more in one hour than
this child could in a lifetime of effort. No wonder he was confused and less
than impressed with that example of environmental rhetoric.
Keep an open mind. What is appropriate in the wilds of Canada may not be acceptable
in the White Mountains or a city park, and what the Eastern Shore will tolerate
may differ considerably from the arctic coastline. You dont help the environment
by forsaking a campfire if you drive a hundred kilometres to the put in with
a boat stuffed with high tech gadgets and processed food, all of which consume
considerable energy in their making. In fact, you only perpetuate a smug contradiction,
while the reality of your actual impact grinds on. That said, be gentle with
our shoreline. If your passing leaves too great a mark, you damage the experience
for yourself and for others.
Our coastal environment is reasonably forgiving, but not limitlessly so. Camping
is permitted on crown land. Technically, on private land, the owners permission
should be obtained, but this is often impractical or impossible, since many
islands are owned by nonresidents. Be considerate. Years ago during, my circumnavigation,
and for many years since I would launch most anywhere and camp wherever. No
one ever harassed me. Just the opposite. If near a dwelling I would ask permission
(whether to launch or to camp) and it was always gladly given. I still have
little problem since I have gained the experience of when and where and how.
However some areas are now being used more frequently by paddlers and not everyone
cleans up like I think I do. Mess caused by motor boater is also sometimes attributed
to kayakers. Occasionally some animosity has arisen and landowners, who didnt
care much before on the rare occasion when someone launched from their land,
are now annoyed by cars blocking their access and people assuming the right
to transit their land. In my first edition of Sea Kayaking in Nova Scotia I
have been unwittingly guilty of encouraging some of this and therefore have
made a special effort to be sensitive to landowners concerns. Ask if in doubt.
We still enjoy the friendly, open mentality that makes this place so attractive
to visitors and, within reason, you will find people accommodating.
I pack out most of what I bring in (although I'll probably leave that extra
leaf of lettuce to compost under the seaweed on the beach) and leave a tidy
campsite. If making a campfire, use dead wood. It burns better, and there is
usually plenty on the beach. Douse and clean up when you are through. I have
returned to some sites after a year and found, to my pleasure, no obvious traces
of a previous visitation. Occasionally, in a well-travelled location, I establish
a fixed campsite, if only to make sure others will use this one area and avoid
a myriad of fire rings. As for toilet etiquette, be discrete. Choose a concealed
spot in the woods, well away from the camp and off any trail, and when done,
cover with a layer of twigs and needles. Better still, use the zone below high
water and cover with a beach rock. Above all, be realistic, and be open to change.