Sea Kayaking in Nova Scotia
A Guide to Paddling Routes Along the Coast of Nova Scotia
The revised and updated book by Scott Cunningham
from Nimbus Press
Prior to l980, I had little meaningful contact with Nova Scotia’s 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 Peggy’s 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 province—in 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 present—and 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 earth’s 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 ocean’s 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 Mi’kmaq 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 aren’t biologists or who can’t 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 last wilderness.
And don’t 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 won’t 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, it’s the mystique of Nova Scotia’s 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 won’t 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. Don’t 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.
“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 Scotia—on 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 Halifax—our departure point—tanned, 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 types.
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 vest—and 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 arise.
A flawless eskimo roll is the first and best means of rescue after a capsize (in a kayak) but if you're not there yet at least learn other efficient self rescue techniques 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.
And, especially, 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 eastern Canada is its temperature, which can be very cold - even in summer. 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.However, you don't have to fall into cold water to experience the perverse effects of hypothermia. It can creep up insidiously when you push yourself (or, often, an inexperienced companion) too far to fast, with improper clothing and food and water. 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. Don’t rely on the forecast. It is frequently wrong and even a correct one won’t 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 won’t 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 don’t let it lull you into a false sense of security. A life vest, radio, and flares won’t 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 environment—and 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, don’t 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 wouldn’t 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 one’s 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 don’t 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 one’s 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 couldn’t 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 don’t 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 owner’s 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 didn’t 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.
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.