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There is a moment in every adventure worth writing about that takes your breath away. If you’re an adrenaline junkie, it might be leaping out of a plane.  If you are anything like me, it can be triggered by a spectacular sunset or the sight of a sheer cliff dropping off into the turbulent sea below. On this particular trip,  an unnatural, diagonal line on the sea set my heart to fluttering.

I suspected it was emanating from Cape Chignecto.  As I sat in the kayak, mesmerized, I heard the imperative words of our guide, Luciano– “Backpaddle, now!” He did not want us to get sucked beyond that line until the tidal turmoil had subsided and we were good and ready for the crossing.  I paddled backwards furiously, easing the boat away from the invisible threat.  Here be dragons!

It was a trip that began, as these things do, with a simple suggestion from me to my wife that we should have a little fun before we packed up and headed back to Australia. We had both been working a fair amount since arriving back in Nova Scotia. My wife had been consumed with her part of co-authoring the chapter of a book. I had been trying to make some headway on a long list of things that had been neglected at the Stewart House, everything from having a dead tree cut down to cleaning up the carriage house.

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We hadn’t been to the other side of the Bay of Fundy in some time, and a little nosing around on the internet revealed that NovaShores, a kayak outfitter, was offering a three-day trip around Cape Chignecto. It was an opportunity to see some of the most spectacular cliffs in Nova Scotia. There were two significant question marks to be considered: the weather and our ability to handle this kind of paddling trip. If my wife had had more time to focus on the risk involved, she might have pulled the plug, but our contact with the outfitter and the guide was very reassuring.

Our immersion in Bay of Fundy waters had taken place over twenty years ago with one of the small companies offering Zodiac boat “surfing” on what is called the tidal bore. This refers to a wave that precedes high tide by a couple of hours. The rubber rafting companies offer tourists a chance to zip across the wave as it forces its way up the Shubenacadie, a large river near the end of the Bay.

Twice a day, the tide hits the river, sending salt water up and over the fresh water flowing into the Bay. The wave is usually not high, but it is powerful, and surfing across it in a Zodiac can be like white-water rafting on a field of liquid red mud.  Bald eagles often soar overhead.

I doubt if any of the companies still do this, but we were encouraged to jump into the river about halfway through our tour. With our life jackets in place we bobbed along like corks. The guide told us to take a good look around, then close our eyes for a whole minute. When we opened them the landscape around us had changed. We were moving very fast up the river, but couldn’t feel our speed because we were part of the flow.  It was a memorable experience, a Bay of Fundy baptism.

There are two places on the Bay of Fundy that generate serious turbulence. They stick out like scimitars into the most powerful body of tidal water in the world. Cape Split is only forty minutes from our place, and Cape Chignecto is the other, on the opposite shore. At Chignecto the incoming waters split in two. Part of the tide goes up into Chignecto Bay. The rest rushes into the Minas Channel, squeezing around the cliff called Cape Split, then shooting down Cobequid Bay and eventually up the Shubenacadie.

All of this takes place slowly at first, then gradually increases to fast walk, a trot a canter, then a gallop. Twice a day one hundred billion tons of sea water sloshes in and out of the giant, mud bathtub called Fundy. The water can travel five miles inland or five stories up, depending on the topography it encounters. The force is equal to 25 million horsepower. You don’t want to get caught around a headland when the tide is coming in, at one inch a minute.

It was the morning of July 5. The trip had been delayed one day by weather, but it was still on. Our small group gathered for a briefing at the home base of NovaShores in Advocate Harbour. Our fearless leader, Luciano, was a transplant from Quebec with Italian roots. The other guests looked to be in their late thirties. Glen and Marcia had driven all the way from New Jersey in a tightly packed Mini. It was their first time in Nova Scotia and the kayak trip was the centerpiece of their vacation. After signing the waivers and getting our gear, we piled in our cars for the drive to Spicer’s Cove.

Double kayaks may look roomy, but cramming the “essentials” (plus the gourmet goodies we all eagerly anticipated as a perk of hard paddling) into two tandems and a single is a fine art that requires patience, skill and experience. After lugging the boats and all the gear across the rock strewn beach, we were more than happy to leave most of the packing to our guide.

Our drive up had been through scrub forest, covering an area of amazing geological diversity. This was a boundary area of tectonic collisions, when a huge chunk of ancient Africa broke off and attached itself to the North American plate. More than a dozen rock types make up the plateau that formed the backdrop of our trip.

Our route would take us southeast, tracing a leisurely semicircle back toward Advocate Harbour. The cars would magically reappear at the end of our trip. Despite our early start, it was noon by the time we were ready to launch, and from our point of view the timing couldn’t have been better. In the time it had taken to get all the gear into the boats and our bodies into the PFDs and spray skirts, the tide had come in and the sea was lapping at the hulls. One push and we were off.

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On the water, a kayak trip soon turns into variations on rhythm, the stroke of the paddle, the counter stroke of wave against boat, the dip and pull of another stroke. We launched in fog, but by lunch time that had burned off and the rest of our trip was fine. The first day established the pattern– a late start dictated by the demands of breaking down the camp, rolling up mattresses, having breakfast, brushing teeth and then packing everything back into the tight confines of the hatches.

And we had serious tides to consider. Hauling the kayaks up above the high tide mark was essential to avoid having our sleep interrupted by sea water. Our journey would take us past Squally Point, the Three Sisters, Seal Cove, and French Lookout.  Two spots were haunted by memory– Eatonville and Refugee Cove.

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Each party in a group adventure of this kind brings something to the table, jokes, anecdotes, songs or some ability that others don’t generally take for granted. Glen and Marcia brought the candor and off-beat humor that New Yorkers seem to cultivate as a mark of the tribe. Marcia’s artistic temperament came into focus as soon as she discovered a rudimentary driftwood creation on the beach. By the time we left it had been transformed into something worthy of an exhibition.

Luciano brought his paddling skills, of course, navigation, trip coordination, culinary talents, and a repertoire of songs.  My wife brought stories and her inimitable skill at starting fires the old-fashioned way.  I brought along my own stock of anecdotes and enough cameras to cover a wedding. Unfortunately, only one was waterproof.

Refugee Cove and Eatonville represent two eras in Nova Scotia history– the unhappy end of the Acadian saga, and Nova Scotia’s golden age of sailing ships. The Cove is the only significant break in the southern escarpment.  It is fronted by a high cobblestone beach littered with logs and a sheltered flood plain beyond the beach. Acadians fled here in 1755, at the time of the Great Expulsion, struggling to survive one winter on game and fish. Later, a logging operation would operate here for some time.

In the 1870’s the Eaton Brothers established a settlement at an anchorage on the western shore of Chignecto Bay, naming it after themselves. Twenty-one boats were built here, including one that weighed over 1,550 tons.  The lumbering and wooden shipbuilding industries would soon be replaced by iron and steam, however, and the community was abandoned by 1920.  It was a peaceful, beautiful spot, offering us a fine place for a gourmet lobster lunch.

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Our progress toward the Cape was slow but inexorable. All the while my wife’s anxieties about the traverse had been gnawing away at her. On previous trips, we had both encountered waves for which we were wholly unprepared. I had been dumped unceremoniously into the freezing waters of the Nahanni, and twice into the Bonaventure River.  Both immersions had been from canoes, however, not kayaks.

We both knew the Bay of Fundy was no cakewalk, but I had more faith in the stability of the the big, Quebec-built tandem than she did. Fortunately, the weather on the day we encountered the Cape was absolutely perfect. Our timing was a little off thanks to our habitually late start.  We had arrived about three hours before slack tide, so when Luciano told us to back paddle, we did not hesitate to do as he suggested.

We retreated to the nearest beach and sought shelter from the sun until the time was propitious for the crossing. It was a quiet time, a little tense. In the interest of balancing our strengths, we switched paddling partners. The water crept up the beach. It was time to go. When we reached the mesmerizing line that had extended out from the Cape, it had disappeared.

We were near slack tide, and the waves would carry us on into West Advocate with very little effort required to keep the boats moving.   As we shot around Chignecto, atabatic winds barreled down off the bluff, whipping up the water and nearly tearing the paddle out of my wife’s hands.  In no time at all, the Cape was behind us. The rock formations of the cliffs were stunning, but we were moving too fast for more than a couple of photos.  I could not do them justice with my waterproof camera.

We were past the Cape, moving fast and it felt good.  We were on our way home.

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Thanks to an abundance of sunshine  in the Valley and a longer stay than usual, it was difficult to tear ourselves away from Nova Scotia this year.  We had guests this summer, both friends and family, in greater numbers than other years. It was a challenge, but it gave us an appreciation for some aspects of life in Grand Pre that we may have started taking for granted.  The friends just up and down Old Post Road, the amiability of the local population, the wonderful fresh produce at the farm stands, and the amazing art.  We managed to squeeze in a vacation to Newfoundland and take several long swims across Lumsden Pond, but a couple of magical moments arrived right before we left.

The first came completely out of the blue.  One of my wife’s former colleagues at McGill University arrived in the area with his wife and sons in tow to attend his niece’s wedding.  Let me be the first to say that I am not, by nature, a wedding crasher. Neither is my wife.  But when we learned that the wedding would take place out on a spur of dyke land just outside Wolfville, and that the bride would be transported to that particular spot on a wooden boat that the groom had built, well, we just had to see it.

Our friends had invited us to share a feast at the lobster restaurant in Hall’s Harbour the night before the wedding.  We drove out there in a downpour.  The ferocity of the rain, which taxed the capability of the wipers and the patience of the back seat drivers, did not bode well for a late morning, outdoor ceremony the following day.

But the next day broke with a smile.  It was Saturday, the day of the farm market in Wolfville.  We had convinced ourselves that it would be gauche to crash the wedding, but when we drove into town and looked out over its little harbour, we could see the wooden dory just getting underway.  It was too good to miss.  We joined the throng of familly and friends in their fancy clothes and braved the muddy path.  They had chosen an idyllic spot for the ceremony. When the applause subsided, we slipped quietly away.

The Bay of Fundy is part of the Atlantic, a long inlet with the highest recorded tides on earth.  It is a large, mud bathtub that fills and empties twice every 24 hours, about twenty minutes later each day.  Geographers tell us that the amount of water that runs in and out is equivalent to all the water in all the rivers on the planet.  At low tide, one third of the bottom of the Bay is exposed to the sun.

We have a tide clock in the parlour which keeps reasonably good time.  I had promised my wife that we would go for a swim in the Bay before our departure for Durham.  On the very last day, in the middle of packing and putting away any number of things, local high tide arrived at noon.  It was 1 or 1:30 before we reached Hidden Beach, a stretch of rock and mud where  semipalmated sandpipers stop to feast on mud shrimp before taking off again for their long journey to South America.

These tiny birds come in the thousands from their summer habitat in the far north. They settle in the same spot for a couple of weeks and do nothing but eat, doubling their body weight in the process.  They are spectacular in flight, synchronizing with one another, flashing alternating colours as they bank and turn, low as bats over the surface of the water.  We try not to disturb them because this is their rest period before the long flight South.  Right now, their mud shrimp are covered with salt water, and the birds are biding their time.  A handful of fishermen nearby cast their lines.

We slip into the ocean, surprised by the buoyancy of the water after a summer of freshwater swims.  It is warmer than Atlantic water has any right to be, baked by the sun over the long summer.  It will get warmer still, but we have run out of time.  The tide rocks us, massaging the water against our skin.  Occasionally, a handful of sandpipers take flight, alarmed by some danger invisible to us. They are beautiful, flicking through the air with the grace of aerial ballerinas.

We float and swim and stare at the puffy clouds, not going anywhere.  We feel strangely comfortable, at home in in the bath of the Bay.  It is natural magic.  It is the kind of day you want to last forever.


Back in the days when I ran a bed and breakfast business in the Stewart House, I was always on the lookout for attractive words and phrases I could plug into the minimal amount of advertising we did for the place.  The tourism season was very short (basically July and August), so it really didn’t pay to put a lot of money into marketing.

The province of Nova Scotia offered the best advertising around, a write-up in a telephone-size book called the “Doers and Dreamers” guide.  The books were widely distributed to tourist offices up and down the Eastern seaboard.

In the early years, I took great pains to put together an attractive brochure,  and get them distributed in time for the summer season.  They disappeared off the tourist bureau racks, but I never saw anyone walk in with one in hand.

At some point in our decade of doing business, the title of this post made it into our advertising.  I used to kid my wife about it, because it was her doing. We are only three kilometers from the Bay, but the trees across the road make it difficult to see more than a band of silver when the sun glances off the water. The attic has the best view, but our guests never went up there.

The phrase reminded me of “Fawlty Towers”, which was my favourite John Cleese vehicle, for obvious reasons.  At the end of every season I would get grumpy, beginning to identify with the irascible innkeeper in the show. In one episode, an unpleasant older lady with a hearing problem takes Basil to task for the rather ordinary view from her window.  Basil retaliates:  “It is Torquay, madame.  What did you expect to see, thundering wildebeasts?”

My guests at the B&B would inevitably ask, disarmingly, where they could see the tides.  That was is a difficult question to answer without seeming evasive.  The Bay of Fundy tides are the highest in the world.  One hundred billion tons of water rush in and out of the mud bathtub twice a day, but the land surrounding Grand Pre is flat, so instead of climbing up the side of a cliff, the salt water covers and uncovers vast areas of mudflats.

During low tide, one third of the basin is exposed to the sky.   Many thousands of migratory birds take advantage of that, stopping to stuff themselves with mud shrimp before tackling the long trip down to South America in the fall.

It is difficult to get a true sense of 17 meter (fifty-five foot) tides without a wharf or bluff or a very small harbour where fishing boats can be seen sitting on mud one minute, then heading out to sea the next.

For a good time-lapse view of the tidal change, have a look at this video– http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_J2AtORivSY

Check out the “Not Since Moses” video to get a playful picture of the kind of a one of a kind race held once a year on the other side of the Bay of Fundy.  It is truly amazing–  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3LBYX4aj340

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