THE CAPE BRETON HIGHLANDS
Soon the current would increase and whip through the jagged shoals off Cape North, the upper most point of the province. It was time to go. We collected 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 more than two months before us.
The early days of the voyage had taught us what to expect from headlands protruding into the frigid Atlantic, and this one was especially prominent. The Gulf was in constant motion, and it escape to the ocean and the expectation of wind and strong currents make us apprehensive. We clipped on our spray deck in preparation.
Scarcely had we left the safety of the shore when suddenly it happened. Directly in front of our canoe, amidst a blanket of brilliant white foam dancing and rolling over By St. Lawrence, the smooth,dark shapes headed towards us, sparkling rays glancing off black backs, shooting into our eyes.
All at once they surrounded us, streaming beside and under our boat. Sometimes it seemed that they would even fly over us. They were often less than a paddles length away in a sea that was aboil. The cresting waves and ominous cliffs forbade a landing. I was petrified, not knowing what to expect and fearing the worse.
Then, as quickly as it had begun, it was over. The fear turned to relief, then to awe and finally to disappointment as the pilot whales disappeared into the background, pursuing a school of mackerel down the coast. Our intense, conflicting emotions flowed after them. Drained, and with the wind continuing to pick up, we landed as soon as we found a scrap of beach. Our journey around Cape Breton would have to wait.
Cape Breton Island juts into the Atlantic off the northeastern tip of the continent.The Highlands comprise the upper peninsula and were formed when the ancient bedrock was thrust up through a layered strata. The oldest rock is over a billion years old. The youngest dates from the Carboniferous era of fern forests and evaporating seas. Erosion has since worn them down to less than 1800 feet, but they are still impressive when abruptly erupting from the Gulf waters. The ancient plateau is cut by several prominent valleys, carved by river sand and enlarged by glaciers. Draped in a rich hardwood forest the slopes belie the fact that they are much farther north than the stunted spruce/fir woods of my home on the Eastern Shore.
A sea kayaking trip is the ultimate means to explore this imposing coastline. Gone are the impediments of a dense forest, a bottomless bog or an impassable rock face as you travel unobstructed along the base of the highest mountains in Nova Scotia. No tourists here - at the most a few whale watching tour boats in search of these elusive beasts who once sent such a chill through my body, and whose companionship I now actively seek.
This is an exposed shoreline of jagged spires, sheer cliffs and dark sea caves alternating with a few major river valleys, tiny coves and pocket beaches. Perhaps the most idyllic is Pollet Cove, a former settlement of Scottish farmers and fishermen. All that remains today are regenerating fields flanking steep hillsides, stone foundations and a hidden graveyard. And, of course, the cows and horses that have been left unattended until the fall frosts - and that have acquired a taste for salt covered tents.
Streams and waterfalls drop from the coastal scarp revealing the powerful tectonic motions that is continually reshaping our world. The textures, forms and colours of the folded layers are striking even to those who have little interest in their origins. Harbour seals bask on exposed shoals. Bald eagles peer down from their perch while whales pursue a meal offshore. The Cabot trail (named for the 11th century Venetian captain who may, or may not, have visited these shores) clings to this rugged terrain that separates the Gulf of St. Lawrence from the Atlantic in a scenic drive that rivals any other on the continent.
This one of the few areas of Nova Scotia where hiking is a natural adjunct to a coastal paddling tour. Climbs up to the denuded plateau highlight the undulating sequence of cliffs and coves weaving up the coast. It is readily apparent why the highland Scots felt at home in their new country. On a clear day, Quebecs eastern outpost, the Madgalen Islands, can be discerned floating on the horizon. The largest moose population in the province clams these upper barrens where they meander through the bog and into budworm infested forest. The cougar, thought extinct in eastern Canada, has also been reported in these hills.
My circumnavigation of Nova Scotia ended over two decades ago but the vivid memories of these blackfish will remain in my mind. There would be other surprises during the summer that allowed me ot discover my native province as few others have had the chance. The Highlands of Cape Breton are indeed spectacular, offering a geological and topographical melange that has drawn me back many times.
This article first appeared in Canoe and Kayak Magazine.