I peered from under my hat at the magical forms evolving overhead, visions of
childhood fairy tales. The charging steeds, legendary sea creatures, and medieval
castles with intricate turrets reaching into the sky took shape, disappeared,
then reformed in the sky before vanishing into the deep blue background. I found
myself relaxing for the first time in days, allowing the suns warmth to
soak into my bodyno warnings of UV rays in l980. The nagging back pains
had finally dissipated, along with the seasonal fog, and the extended stretch
of fine weather had allowed us to make up for lost storm days. We could now appreciate
our surroundings. Although only a few hours by car from Tangier, the tip of Cape
Breton Island could have belonged to another province, or country, given the differences.
The salt-laden spruce near my home, coating a low relief of irregular boulders,
had become a vague memory under these lofty highlands, draped in lush hardwoods
and cut by valleys, streams, and waterfalls.
We knew that soon the current would increase and fight through the jagged shoals
off Cape North. We packed up our scattered gear from the light station lawn, loaded
the canoe, and launched into the swirling waters of the Cabot Strait. It was already
mid-July and we still had over two months of travelling. We reached the cape quickly,
but the expectation of wind and strong currents on the other side made us apprehensive.
The Gulf of St. Lawrence is in constant motion, escaping to the ocean, and our
early days in the voyage had taught us what to expect from protruding headlands.
This one was especially prominent and we clipped on our spray deck. We were preparedor
so we thought.
Suddenly, amidst a blanket of brilliant white foam dancing and rolling over Bay
St. Lawrence, and directly in front of our canoe, smooth dark shapes headed towards
us, sparkling rays glancing off black backs. All at once, the swimming forms surrounded
us. They rushed beside and under the boat, and sometimes, it seemed they would
fly over it too, often less than a paddles length away. The sea was aboil.
The waves were cresting and ominous darkened cliffs forbade a landing. I was petrified,
not knowing what to expect and fearing the worse.
Then, just as quickly as it began, it was over. Our fear turned to relief, then
to awe, and finally to disappointment as these Pilot Whales disappeared, pursuing
a school of mackerel down the coast. After such a rush of conflicting emotions,
we were drained, and since the wind was continuing to pick up, we landed as soon
as we could find a scrap of beach. Our journey around Cape Breton Island would
have to wait until the next day.
My circumnavigation of Nova Scotia ended over a decade ago, but the vivid memories
of those Pilot Whales will be forever etched in my memory. There were other surprises
too, of course. Cape Breton is magnificent, and its geological and biological
melange has drawn me back many times.
Cape Breton Island lies at the northeastern end of Nova Scotia. It is an irregular
shaped triangle, less than l50 km (93 mi.) through the widest section, but has
a rambling shoreline that exceeds 2,000 km (1,200 mi.). A causeway over the Strait
of Canso links it to the mainland. Cape Breton Island separates the Gulf of St.
Lawrence from the Atlantic Ocean, and its geology and topography vary dramatically
from one side to the other. The ancient volcanic rock of the eastern shores has
formed a string of submerged shoals, interrupted by broad, exposed beaches with
few sheltering inlets, a good reason why divers search this area for wrecks. Fishing
communities have developed in some relatively protected harbours, such as Forchu,
Louisbourg, Garbarus, and Main-à-Dieu. Abundant drumlin material supplies
the sediment for the baymouth bars that close off the inlets. Offshore islands,
so common along the Eastern Shore of the mainland, are rare. Otherwise, the climate
and vegetation is similar. The water is cold most of the year, resulting in a
constant threat of fog, even well into the summer. The landscape has a stark appeal
but it is only for the experienced paddler.
On the western coast of Cape Breton, the dearth of islands also applies, but that
is where the similarity ends between the two shores. The coastline is relatively
linear, and Port Hood and Chéticamp excepted, the gulf harbours of Cape
Breton are narrow river mouths which often require dredging. Strong currents flowing
over sand bars at the entrances can produce chaotic conditions. Rocky shoals are
not as common. The water temperature is usually quite warm in summer, often exceeding
l6°C (61°F), more reminiscent of Prince Edward Island than the Atlantic
coast, and fog is rare. The highlight of this shore is the Highland region, beginning
at the National Park in Chéticamp and continuing around the northern tip.
Ancient bedrock has thrust up through a layered carpet of sedimentary strata.
The oldest rock is over 1 billion years old, a tiny segment of the Canadian shield
tucked into the Maritimes. The youngest rock dates from the Carboniferous era
of fern forest and evaporating seas. Erosion has since carved them down to under
540 m (l,800 ft.), but they are still impressive when seen erupting vertically
from the gulf watersa powerful combination of sheer cliffs, incised valleys,
sea caves, and pinnacles. This is one of the most rugged and impressive coastal
areas in all of North America.
Hiking is a natural adjunct to a paddling tour and the perfect option when stormbound.
A climb up to the denuded plateau highlights the undulating sequence of cliffs
and coves weaving up the coast. However, good landing spots are scarce, and with
the prevailing winds coming from the west (i.e., on shore), caution and experience
Unique to Cape Breton Island is the Bras dOr Lake. This is a large saltwater
basin occupying much of the interior and it is essentially landlocked, open to
the sea via two narrow passages and the canal at St. Peters. This lake holds the
warmest of all Nova Scotias coastal waters. In winter, though, large expanses
become a solid sheet of ice. It is the preferred realm of the sailor, sheltered
from the storms and fog of the open Atlantic Ocean, although the long fetch in
some sections can result in an acute chop. Well-appointed marinas and small villages
share the surrounding rolling hills with rich deciduous forest and open farmland.
If empty wilderness is your destination, then you may have to look elsewhere,
although the paddler can usually find some undisturbed shoreline, even on the
Bras dOr Lake.
Tidal range around Cape Breton is modest0.6 m to 1 m (2 ft. to 4 ft.) in
the gulf and 0.9 m to 2 m (3 ft. to 6 ft.) on the Atlantic, and negligible in
the Bras dOr Lakes. The currents are light, except around prominent headlands
and in narrow passages, such as Cape North or between Scatarie Island and Main-à-Dieu;
here, when combined with opposing winds, they can be treacherous. The ocean currents,
usually counterclockwise, predominate over tidal flow in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
The Cape Breton coastline is home to an assortment of sea birds and marine mammals,
some of which are seldom encountered elsewhere in the province. This is the southern
limit of the Black-legged Kittiwake, which nests at only a few places along the
eastern shore, and the site of Nova Scotias only significant Atlantic Puffin
colonythe Bird Islands, not to be confused with the Bird Islands on the
Eastern Shore of the province. Bald Eagles are common in the Bras dOr Lake
and along the Cape Breton Highlands, where Pilot Whales pursue mackerel and squida
sure sight in the late summer. Larger whales, such as Minke, Humpback, or Fin,
are occasionally spotted further offshore. Both the Grey and Harbour Seals frequent
the shoals. There are no exotic large mammals inland, but you may catch sight
of black bear, deer, or moose in the Highlands. There have also been unconfirmed
reports of cougar.
The human history of Cape Breton dates to the last ice age, when indigenous peoples
in the south followed the retreating glaciers into the area. Little is know about
these early inhabitants, and they eventually disappeared. The ancestors of the
present Mikmaq settled the region a couple thousand years ago, and their
descendants still live in several communities on the shores of the Bras dOr
Lake. The first incursions of the Europeans are obscure. Myth has it that a group
of Irish monks, prone to wander the North Atlantic in search of converts, were
the first to find their way here. That may be fanciful thinking, for there is
no evidence to support this romantic theory; nor is there evidence to support
the claim that the Vikings, or later John Cabot visited.
What is known for certain is that the French and English disputed ownership
of this territory, along with the rest of North America, for well over a century.
The latter eventually won out with the capture of the fortress of Louisbourg and
evicted the French inhabitants. The reconstruction of this fortress, the most
ambitious on the continent, depicts accurately the life of those times. Following
the expulsion of the French, Britain encouraged immigration to the island which
was accelerated by the clearances in Scotland. Powerless tenants were
evicted from the Highlands to make way for large sheep farms. Many of the immigrants
ended up on New Scotlands shores, where they have left a lasting imprint
in the place names, such as MacDonald Glen, Inverness, and Loch Lomond, and in
the continuing popularity of traditional Celtic music. Gaelic is still spoken
by a few of the older folk and is taught at a local college.
Many of the dispersed Acadians also made their way back, settling on the rocky
shores spurned by others. Isolation has preserved their language, and in communities
such as Isle Madame and Chéticamp, a bountiful ocean led to prosperity,
until the recent collapse of the Atlantic fishery.
Coal was discovered around the island and mined in thick seams that ran well out
under the ocean. Iron was smelted, and an industrial economy developed around
the deep-water port of Sydneythe provinces third largest city with
a population of about 26,000. Changing economic patterns have left a legacy of
unemployment and industrial pollution, which have burdened the island for decades.
Tourism is offered as a hope for the future as more visitors arrive each summer
to sample the islands diverse and accessible fare. No less an illuminary
than Alexander Graham Bell chose Baddeck, overlooking the Bras dOr Lake,
to spend his summers and conduct much of his research. Although he had travelled
the globe, he found that Cape Breton out rivaled them all. However,
the seasonal employment provided by this industry will
not compensate for lost jobs in the resource sector.
Due to the dramatic variations in coastal features, climate and water conditions,
a detailed discussion of these is reserved for the specific routes that follow:
Isle Madame, the East Coast, Scatarie Island, the Bird Islands, the Highlands,
Mabou/Port Hood, and the Bras dOr Lake.