Coastal Paddling Routes of the Eastern Shore

- Introduction

The fog had just moved in and shrouded our island campsite on the Eastern Shore in a thick mist. The silence was absolute. I made my way under the lichen-covered spruce in search of mushrooms for the evening meal, anxious to return to the warmth of the fire. My gaze wandered over the moss-carpeted forest floor to what, at first, seemed only to be one of those uniquely positioned stones left by the retreating glaciers. I took little notice. This scoured coastline is littered with such remnants of our geological past. Then another stone caught my attention, and another-all three in an unnatural alignment. Curious, I edged towards them, unable to suppress the feeling of unease rising in my stomach. Suddenly, the explanation dawned on me: I was in the middle of a graveyard! Inscriptions on the markers and depressions in the earth removed any doubts. Other observations I had made now fell into place -- the pile of rocks, the large hole in the ground, and the well-spaced trees with the developed understory branches, unusual for this type of forest. We had made camp in an abandoned settlement.

The Eastern Shore extends from Halifax to Canso, along Nova Scotia's Atlantic coast. The direct distance is approximately 250 km (155 mi.), but if you follow all the inlets and bays, it easily exceeds three times that distance. The coastline is very irregular, interrupted by numerous harbours and headlands and highlighted by a narrow band of offshore islands. Faults, perpendicular to the shore, have created the deepest harbours in the province, Halifax and Country Harbours, along with numerous smaller coves where tiny fishing communities are sheltered. Salt marshes have developed in a few shallow inlets, especially Chezzetcook and Petpeswick, but for the most part only exposed rock confronts the ocean.

This is a young coast, and when the glaciers scoured the region they took most of the soil with them, depositing it far out to sea. What little there is now comes from sediment carried in rivers and from erosion of loose drumlins scattered along the shore. Weathering of rock to replace the soil takes much longer than the ten thousand years that have elapsed since the last ice age. The bedrock is predominantly greywacke (quartzite) and slate. These were initially deep-water sediments deposited on the eastern side of the Atlantic off Africa, transformed under extreme heat and pressure, and thrust up against North America during continental drifting, millions of years ago. Igneous material later pushed up through this metamorphic cover to form the granite outcrops at the eastern extremity around Canso.

It is the island archipelago that distinguishes the Eastern Shore and what makes the region such a pleasure for the paddler. Nowhere else in the province will you find the number and variety of shoals, islets and islands as along this neglected coast. A few are large, hundreds of acres in size, but most are more modest, and some barely rise above the surface at high tide. Some are tree covered while others have acid bogs and scrub bush. The smallest are mere lichen-draped rocks, fringed with seaweed. Collectively they offer many sheltered routes and protection from a capricious ocean. These days, none are permanently inhabited and only a scattering of cottages and camps interrupt a wilderness trail. You will be sharing them with only the seals and sea birds.

A harsh maritime climate coupled with the lack of any significant top soil has resulted in an impoverished vegetative cover. In some places this is entirely absent or restricted to the lichens and hardy shrubs which can find a hold among the crevices. Elsewhere, a forest of dense spruce creeps up to the water's edge, stunted and deformed by the omnipresent salt air. This is not farming country. However, the coastal waters are clear and clean, and the littoral vegetation blossoms. Mollusks, crustaceans, and fish that have not yet been caught by offshore trawlers thrive in the nutrient rich, cool sea. You will occasionally spot a porpoise or a whale (rarely, though, for their feeding grounds are elsewhere). The main attractions are the sea bird colonies and the seals. Gulls, guillemots, petrels, terns, and cormorants nest on the islands along with Eider Ducks, Ospreys, and occasionally, Bald Eagles. The Harbour and Grey Seals are common, and it is an unusual trip where you won't find them basking on the shoals. Deer live on the forested islands, sometimes year-round and sometimes only during the summer, swimming out and back. Bears are absent, though, so you need not take any special precautions about your campsite in that regard.

The ocean moderates the temperatures considerably. During the winter, the little snow that falls is often interspersed with rain, and thaws are frequent - still it is not pleasant kayaking weather! Summers are much warmer, although the temperatures are several degrees cooler than inland readings, averaging 21 C (70 F) in the daytime and 15 C (60 F) at night. A sweater and hat will be needed by the campfire later in the season. The water temperature seldom reaches comfortable bathing levels, let alone allows an extended immersion due to a capsize. An exception is the protected, shallow inlet. Until July it is particularly cold and sometimes not much above freezing. By September it ranges from 13 C to 20 C (55 F to 68 F).

Expect plenty of fog from May to July (even later in some years) as warm, moist, continental air condenses over the ocean. The Eastern Shore experiences slightly more fog than the South Shore and considerably more than along the Northumberland Strait. Prevailing winds are from the southwest, and storms, when they occur, are usually short. As in other places, the topography influences local weather conditions, but rapid and dramatic changes, such as catabolic winds and twisters, are very rare. Beware, however, of the funneling effect around headlands.

The tidal range is only about 1 m to 2 m (4 ft. to 8 ft.) and the currents are negligible (under 1 knot), except for a few narrow channels or around headlands. The outflow from the rivers is insignificant since the drainage basins are small and the summers relatively dry. Large swells will occur in areas exposed to the open ocean, but inside the island belt these are usually attenuated. On a windy day, you will experience a chop which is often at an angle to the swell(s). Special attention should be given to shoals (of which there are many). Even on a calm day, a seemingly innocuous swell can break unexpectedly over these rocky areas.

Of particular interest is the history of the Eastern Shore. Human habitation goes back several thousand years, when natives traveled along it in birch bark canoes. They have left their mark in names such as Musquodoboit Harbour, Mushaboom, Necum Teuch, and Canso. The first European to have recorded his visit was Champlain during one of his voyages to map the coast. Fishermen soon followed and made use of the many islands and sheltered coves to salt and dry their catches. Some remained throughout the year and supplemented fishing with a little subsistence farming. Small settlements arose along the shore, taking advantage of the rich inshore grounds. Dozens of fish plants, shipyards, and lobster canneries opened.

Canso was the largest of these communities, and in the early 1700's hundreds of vessels called at the port, annually. By the early part of the twentieth century, economic conditions were changing. The interior of the province had opened up and road transportation became practical. People moved to the urban centres and the coastal population began to decline. By the end of the Second World War, there were few permanent residents left on the islands. Today there are none. The recent crisis to the Atlantic fishery has only hastened a long-established trend. Most of the islands, once private, have reverted to public ownership and the remainder are rarely used. Except in lobster season (mid April to mid-June), you will seldom encounter another craft on these waters. Even the lighthouses, operated manually until the '80's, have all been automated. What was once a prosperous shore is slowly reverting to wilderness. Even the two largest towns have fewer than one thousand residents.