CAPE BRETON ISLAND
[Scott Cunningham - Sea Kayaker Magazine July/August 2013]
Aware that the current would soon increase, we assembled our scattered gear from the light station lawn and prepared to launch onto unsettled waters of the Cabot Strait. I was apprehensive. Our early days in the voyage had taught us what to expect from protruding headlands and Cape North, at the tip of the Cape Breton Island, was especially prominent. I clipped on my spray deck and we moved out into the chop. We were prepared—or so I thought.
Then, scarcely around the corner of the cape, I saw a blanket of foam dancing and rolling over Bay St. Lawrence. In its midst, a multitude of dark shapes were rapidly advanced towards us, sparkling rays of sunlight glancing off black backs. They rushed beside and under me and, sometimes, it seemed they would fly over me too in a sea that was aboil. I was petrified.
Just as quickly as it began, it was over. Fear turned to relief, then to awe, and finally to disappointment as the Pilot whales disappeared down the coast, pursuing a school of mackerel. And after the rush of conflicting emotions we were exhausted and made for shore, landing as soon as we could find a scrap of beach
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 with a rambling shoreline that exceeds 2,000 km (1,200 mi.). It is somewhat smaller than Connecticut and since 1955 has been connected to the mainland by a causeway across the Strait of Canso. The island borders both the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and encloses a large saltwater lake, the Bras d’Or—three distinctive bodies of water that strongly influence the climate, the sea state and the paddling possibilities.
At the end of the last ice age, the first inhabitants followed the retreating glaciers into the area. The ancestors of the present Mi’kmaq settled the region a couple thousand years ago, and their descendants still live in several communities on the shores of the Bras d’Or Lake. The first incursions of the Europeans are obscure, though myth holds that a group of Irish monks were the first to find their way here. Little evidence exists to support this theory and there is not much support either for the claim that the Vikings, or later John Cabot, visited in spite of Cape Breton’s epnonymous Cabot Trail.
History does recall, however, the French and English dispute over possesion of this territory, along with the rest of North America, which lasted well over a century. The latter eventually won with the capture of the massive fortress of Louisbourg and the subsequent eviction of the French inhabitants. The reconstruction of this fortress, the most ambitious on the continent, accurately depicts 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. The immigrants left a lasting signature in the place names of Cape Breton Island, such as MacDonald Glen, Inverness and Loch Lomond, and with the continuing popularity of traditional Celtic music. Many of the dispersed Acadians also made their way back, settling on the rocky shores spurned by others. Isolation has preserved their language in communities such as Isle Madame and Chéticamp.
I’ve returned to Cape Breton Island many times since that first encounter with whales and I continually uncover new gems and rediscover old haunts. The following are some of my favorite paddling areas, offering something for every interest and skill level.
The coastline from Point Michaud to Gabarus is exposed,unpopulated, and for the most part, unfamiliar even to natives of the province. It wasn’t always so. In the l800s it was settled by the Scots and sheep farming was extensive. Most of these early farms were abandoned long ago, leaving numerous regenerating fields along the edge of the eroding cliffs, interspersed with rock piles and stone foundations. Open headlands support a dense heath cover, especially crowberry. There is little boat traffic as the inshore fishery has fallen on hard times and the already sparsely settled shore will become even more desolate as young people continue to move away. However, the adventuresome paddler will encounter a region of contrasting and challenging isolation.
You can put in at Point Michaud Beach or begin inland on the placid Grand River and exit to the sea through the sometimes shallow or choppy river mouth. Offshore, a tiny collection of grass-covered islets (the Basque Islands), are home to the only Eider Duck colony on this coast, and one of only three gray seal breeding colonies in the entire province. Other islands, so common along the Eastern Shore of the mainland, are rare. Parallel to the coast, resistant volcanic rock has formed a string of submerged shoals, interrupted by broad, exposed beaches linking the frequent drumlin headlands. I can recall vividly the stress of navigating the breaking water under constant threat of fog during a recent rough-weather journey. There are few sheltered inlets as the glacial deposits have been distributed the length of this shoreline, straightening it by forming spits over the mouths of bays and harbors. The landscape has a stark appeal although it is a route for experienced paddlers.
A wealth of interconnecting lakes, streams and marshes lies inland from the bays and beaches. You can paddle through them parallel to much of the coast, should weather or sea state deteriorate en route. Prior to Fouchu you can enter at Framboise Cove and exit several kilometers further into Forchu Bay at MacKay’s Point, albeit with a little portaging along the way. A short distance off Winging Point, between Belfry Lake and Cape Gabarus, Guyon is the only significant island along this coast—a treeless outpost surrounded by a multitude of shoals. A sensation of isolation permeates the panorama that spans dozens of miles up and down the coast. The lighthouses are now automated and the keepers’ houses were still standing as of 2012 but are rapidly deteriorating. The total distance to Gabarus is about 70 km and while there are plenty of landing and camping options, take-out points with easy vehicle access are less plentiful. These include L’Archeveque and Forchu.
One overnight tripping option combines a lake/river component with extensive sand and cobble barrier beaches and offshore islands. You can put in where the road skirts the shoreline of Garbarus Lake, enter the ocean at Belfrey Head, and end up in the village of Garbarus only a short distance from where you launched. Camping possibilities include Belfrey Head, Guyon Island and Gull Cove, another deserted village of open fields, root cellars and stone walls.
As you approach Louisbourg the topography changes dramatically and the broad beaches, sand spits, and drumlin headlands have mutated into an irregular series of serrated bedrock cliffs and shoals. In a calm sea you can weave in an out of these rock gardens in a seemingly endless progression of passages - a paddlers delight, where you can pick and choose depending on your skill and interest. In rough conditions, however, it is to be avoided. You can launch in Louisbourg Harbour at the slipway by a waterfront campground (run by the local merchants association and adjacent to the village theatre) and spend the day exploring harbour. It is tempting to land at the Louisbourg Fortress but regulations and their enforcement do change with time, so be discreet if landing unofficially, or check ahead of your arrival for what is acceptable. A classic lighthouse stands at the harbor enterance on the ruins of the first lighthouse built in Canada. The tower overlooks Battery Island, fortified during the French era but destroyed during the siege. The bunker remains are still evident, covered with brilliant orange Xanthoria lichens and imbued with history. If the weather and water conditions permit, you can exit the harbor and continue to Little Lorraine in a day-paddle.
A two- or three-day journey will take you to Main-a-Dieu along a low relief bereft of trees and an irregular combination of cliff, cobble beach and incised coves. It is best viewed close to shore with its intimate juxtaposition of land and sea. Haul out and savor the open, bleak panorama that hasn’t changed since Beryl Markham crash-landed her plane in 1936 near Kelpy Cove, completing the first east to west solo flight over the Atlantic. The open terrain offers great hiking and some extraordinary campsites. The Chameau Rocks were named for the French supply ship that foundered, resulting in the loss of more than 300 lives and the payroll for the Louisbourg garrison. After some complex sleuthing, divers rediscovered the wreck and recovered the treasure in 1965.
Coastal islands can have a raw hold on the senses and one that helps us break through our predictable view of the world. I came close to visiting Scatarie Island during my circumnavigation of the province more than 30 years ago, but on that particular day it was draped in fog and buffeted by wind. We didn’t dare land. Only years later, on an extended visit I shared with the remnants of Hurricane Bob, did I finally set foot on this forlorn outpost. It has become one of my favorite paddling destinations on Cape Breton, and with much to explore on a two- or three-day trip.
Scatarie, over six miles (10 km) long, is one of Nova Scotia’s largest offshore islands. The perimeter combines undulating bluffs of crowberry mat, sand and cobble beach, trail and barren that encourage a freedom of movement so often denied by streams, lakes and dense wood elsewhere in the province. It reminds me of the English moorland or the Scottish hills where the only barrier is your own endurance. It has always been a windswept and difficult world, and not a very pleasant landfall to many early visitors from across the Atlantic. Only Sable Island and St. Pauls Island have claimed more sailors’ lives. It was settled during the French period but today it is deserted and has been designated a provincial Wilderness Area. Two years ago a massive Great Lakes freighter being towed to Turkey for scrap broke a line in a storm and drifted onto the island. There it remains, still only marginally broken by the sea, a fascinating destination for sea kayakers.
You can reach the island with a short paddle from Main-a-Dieu harbor. Choose slack water and calm weather to cross the 1 ¼-mile (2 km) passage or “tickle”, a local colloqual term used to describe a narrow passage as the ocean currents constrict and accelerate through the narrow channel. Once across, the Northwest Cove offers a sheltered landing on a generally inhospitable north side. When the sea state permits you can also land farther along by the shipwreck or at the abandoned light station overlooking the Cormorandière Rocks. Adjacent to the light tower is a tiny picket fence and a small grave, where one of the former lighthouse keeper’s children is buried.
On the southern side of Scatarie, an appropriately named Hay Island is the nesting site for colonies of gulls and Eider Ducks, and the surrounding waters are home to the largest gray seal colony in the province. Sometimes present in the hundreds, these huge beasts haul out on the shoals and bob about among the kayaks. Caution is advised, as the sea is shallow and easily churned up by any swell. Farther along, Howe Point affords a magnificent view of the island as well as the mainland coast. It is marvelous hiking terrain, characterized by open bluffs, rock outcrops and bogs, where bakeapples (in the raspberry family) are plentiful in season. About a mile (1.5 km) west of the point a textured rhyolite (volcanic granite) has been fashioned into a mass of beautiful cobbles on a steep beach.
And if you enjoy weaving in and out among shoals and ledges as I certainly do, Tin Cove to Hatchet Rocks offers superb “rock hopping”, perhaps the best in the province.
The long, slender outposts of the Bird Islands live up to their name, offering a chaotic display that attracts bird-watchers from far afield. This is the only major nesting area for the parrot-like Atlantic Puffin in Nova Scotia and one of the few breeding sites for the Black-legged Kittiwake. These are joined Razorbills, Leach’s Storm Petrels, cormorants and guillemots, and the islands have been designated a Wildlife Management Area. Steep cliffs with protruding sandstone ledges, whitewashed with bird guano and infused with fern fossils surround the grassy-topped islands. Paddlers are asked not to land before the end of the nesting season (mid-August) and, in any case, the spectacle is best viewed from the water.
Opposite the islands, near the tip of Cape Dauphin, the Fairy Hole has a fascinating series of connected chambers, leading through the soft limestone into the mountain. I’m not certain how far it extends but certainly well beyond the distance I felt comfortable with. If you plan to explore, and claustrophobia is not an impediment, bring powerful flashlights and spare batteries.
The Bird Islands are the continuation of a shallow underwater ledge that connects with Cape Dauphin, and the currents in the passage can be significant. Visit only during calm weather. You can launch at Big Bras d’Or or New Campbellton and either return there or continue on to Englishtown.
The southwest coast of Cape Breton Island is hillier—the Mabou Highlands rise over 300 m(1000 ft)—than the Atlantic coast and the temperate climate has replaced struggling conifers with a richer forest of maple, ash and oak. This was the site of early Scottish settlement many of the coastal hills were cleared for pasture. Some are still farmed but the rest have been abandoned to the regenerating forest. The shoreline weaves around modest headlands and into broad coves where landing spots and beaches are common. Coal seams are exposed in the sandstones and shales north of Mabou, remnants of an industry that defined much of early Cape Breton’s economy. Mounds of tailings overlook the water and railway ties protrude from cliff faces where abandoned shafts once ran under the ocean.
Mabou Harbour is the largest inlet on this side of Cape Breton and you can begin a trip well up the placid river. Once in the Gulf, the route is exposed to the prevailing southwesterlies, and a considerable chop can develop as the winds flow unobstructed up the Northumberland Strait. The currents at the entrance to the harbor and between Henry and Port Hood Islands can be quite strong but elsewhere they are minimal. The warm water, infrequent fog, and extensive beaches make this an appealing alternate route when poor weather cancels an Atlantic coast trip.
The Bras d’Or Lake (“Arm of Gold” in French) is a large saltwater basin occupying much of the interior of Cape Breton Island where rising seas have cut it from the soft strata that still border the resistant highland bedrock. It is essentially landlocked, only open to the sea via two natural channels and the manmade canal at St. Peters. The limited exchange with the open ocean results in a negligible tidal range and, combined with the freshwater run-off from the surrounding hills, a reduced salinity—less that half that of the Atlantic.
In winter the lake is frozen solid, but during the paddling season the water is even warmer than along the perimeter of the island (including the Gulf of St. Lawrence). Fog is rare. The soft shoreline is easily eroded, undermining trees that collapse, bleached and tangled, onto a coast devoid of a littoral zone. The liberated sand collects into innumerable narrow spits and beaches, which often imprison a shallow pond. Only the seaweeds, seashells and salty water confirm the lake’s marine nature. You will encounter the largest bald eagle population in the province. A mosaic of open farmland, old fields, small villages, cabins and meandering roads skirt much of the lake. In autumn, the hills are draped in vivid colors. Isolated wilderness camping is at a premium, but beaches are plentiful and you don’t have to worry about a flood tide washing away your domicile.
Expect pleasure boats in season, as this is a prime sailing destination. If pristine wilderness is your preference you may have to look elsewhere. However, the Bras d’Or Lake is still worth a paddle, especially when weather or skill level, rules out more exposed coasts. You can put in almost anywhere and poke around a pastoral landscape unique to the province. A favorite route of mine begins at River Denys and ends up at West Bay Village, combining a winding river and open basin, forested island, sheltered marsh and gentle beach.
The Cape Breton Highlands occupy the northwestern third of the island and they’re a favorite destination for visitors to Nova Scotia. Visiting the highlands has certainly been a thrill for me, and since that eventful encounter with the pilot whales years ago I have returned many times. The Cabot Trail (named for John Cabot, the fifteenth-century Venetian captain who may, or may not, have visited these shores) is a scenic drive that rivals any on the continent. Cabot Trail’s winding path clings to rugged terrain that separates the Gulf of St. Lawrence from the Atlantic Ocean.The rich hardwood hills belie the fact that it is much further north than the stunted woods surrounding my abode on the Eastern Shore.
The Highlands are reminiscent of northern Scotland, with which they share geological history although with most of the trees remaining. Paddling in a kayak under 1000’ cliffs that often slide into the gulf waters in enormous sheets is a humbling experience indeed. The sea caves, arches, and overhanging crescent amphitheatres provide a perspective that car campers can only dream of. Isolated valleys open up an otherwise formidable barrier to some idyllic camping sites and a view into the past when every accessible stretch of our coastline was settled.
Bald eagles peer from their vantage points, seals sunbathe on the numerous reefs and from the water I’ve observed black bears picking berries on the slopes. I’ve encountered moose when roaming up the hills in search of that special view from a summit. Most impressive of all are the pilot whales, which make up in numbers what they lack in size (12-20 ft in length). Pods often exceeding a few dozen individuals range close to shore in pursuit of a meal of mackerel and squid and often you’ll get to paddle with them. Larger whales, such as humpback, or fin, are occasionally spotted further offshore. Much of the Highlands have been designated a National Park, and a few small communities cluster on the perimeter. Chéticamp (a French-speaking Acadian settlement) and Ingonish are the largest. Some of the more isolated outposts, such as Fishing Cove and Lowland Cove, have been abandoned.
The Highland coastline is relatively linear, with no sheltering islands. St. Pauls Island is 15 km (9 mi.) offshore and getting to it can be a challenging paddle. There are few significant breaks in the escarpment and they may only offer a surf-washed cobble or boulder beach. Good campsites are also well-separated. The prevailing summer winds are southwest, and strong sea breezes are the norm on sunny days. These will push the confident paddler briskly up the western side of the island. But the Gulf does not have the fetch of the open ocean and when the wind dies the sea state soon calms. Late in the summer a strong northwesterly flow is the norm and the fair-weather window is diminished. It may leave you stranded on the beach for days to watch dumping surf, in which case a departure on the eastern side may be in order. You should always be alert when rounding headlands, particularly Cape St. Lawrence, Cape North, and Money Point. Although they may be flat calm one day the next they can be quite turbulent. On the positive side, the ocean temperature here can reach 20°C (68°F) providing a welcome safety buffer. Even after rounding Cape North into Aspy Bay and mixing with the colder Atlantic, the temperature is still largely influenced by the warmer Gulf.
For a week-long trip, you can put in at Cheticamp or Pleasant Bay and, weather permitting, end up at Dingwall or Ingonish. This area also has many enjoyable day-trip and short overnight options: Cheticamp to Pleasant Bay (overnight in Fishing Cove), Pleasant Bay to Meat Cove (overnight in Pollett Cove and Lowland Cove), Bay St Lawrence to Dingwall (overnight at Money Point), Meat Cove to Cape St. Lawrence/Lowland Cove, North Pond, and Dingwall to White Point/Ingonish Harbour.
Bay St. Lawrence
As a child I once toured the Cabot Trail with my family during summer vacation, sunburning on Ingonish beach, camping in prime mosquito habitat, and missing my friends – an experience that hardly led to a significant understanding of this unique island. That all changed during my circumnavigation where life leapt from one unpredictable event to another, leading my intellect and emotions through regions I had seldom explored before. And I viewed some of the most spectacular scenery in North America as few have a chance to see it. No less an luminary than Alexander Graham Bell chose Cape Breton to spend his summers and conduct much of his research and, although he had traveled the globe, he found that Cape Breton “out rivaled them all.” He was an insightful man.
The Atlantic coast remains cool throughout the summer (55° – 60° F) while the Gulf shores and the Bras d’Or Lake will warm up throughout the summer, sometimes reaching 70° F. Daytime air temperatures vary from 65° to 75°F (l8°C to 22°C). Prevailing winds are from the southwest with strong sea breeze, a consideration when paddling exposed shorelines (particularly in the Highlands with few landing spots). Later in the summer, when the evenings begin to cool, strong catabatic winds can descend from the Highland plateau and have more than once leveled a misplaced tent. Be aware of possible funneling effects around headlands. Summer storms are uncommon and when they do occur they usually pass through quickly. Expect fog from May to June (even later in some years) along the Atlantic coast, as warm, moist continental air condenses over the ocean.
Along the island’s perimeter the tides are semi-diurnal and range from three to six feet(1-2 m) but are negligible in the Bras d’Or Lake. The currents are generally insignificant, less than two knots, except where they constrict and accelerate around headlands (e.g., Cape St. Lawrence, Cape North, Money Point) or through narrow passages (e.g., Main-a-Dieu Passage). River outflow along this coast is insignificant and only a factor when you are entering or exiting (e.g., Mabou, Grand, North Pond).
Gray and harbor seals are common and you will usually encounter pilot whales during an extended trip around the Highlands. Seabirds nest on most of the offshore islands and on the mainland you may see the signs of white tail deer on the lowlands. I’ve rarely spotted black bears, and only on a remote hillside in the highlands viewed from my kayak and I’ve never needed to concern myself with when, where or how I stored by food. There are no poisonous snakes or spiders and the black flies and mosquitoes are rarely a nuisance. The coastal breeze will blow them away.
I bring my own drinking water but innumerable streams provide abundant fresh water for cooking and washing, even in the driest of summers.
As elsewhere in the province, camping is rarely an issue and is permitted on public land. On private land, technically, the owner’s permission should be obtained, but this is often impractical or impossible. Be considerate and clean up when you leave. We still enjoy the friendly, open, mentality that makes this province so attractive to visitors.
HOW TO GET THERE
Cape Breton is about a six-hour drive from the Maine border with a four-lane highway most of the way. Once on the island, an extensive road network reaches even the most outlying areas.
MAPS AND CHARTS
Sea Kayaking in Nova Scotia (Nimbus Publishing, 3rd Edition 2013)
Cell phone coverage is available along most of the coastline. Check with your provider. In Canada the primary providers are Bell and Telus. Parts of the Highland route still have spotty coverage and you might need to climb to get service.
VHF: Continuous marine and inland weather forecasts
For general tourist information: