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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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For readers who follow this narrative on an irregular basis (or those who have stumbled across the site playing internet hopscotch), here’s an update. Thanks to a semester break, my “partner” and I are currently hanging out in our old, family home in Nova Scotia. You can read all about it by going back a couple posts.

When we are not here, which is most of time, we rent it out on a weekly basis during the summer months, which is the only time tourists actually come to Nova Scotia. Sometimes circumstances conspire to drive us away even when we are here. It happened the week before last.

Several months ago, a nice couple from British Columbia inquired about renting the Stewart House for their daughter’s wedding. They had family coming from Europe and Australia, as well as Canada. Since she was getting married at the winery in our village, they needed a home base.

I thought it would provide us with the impetus to get out of the house and actually have a vacation, which never seems to happen when we are here. The reality was more work than I had counted on, but the idea was sound.

Our first stop was Antigonish, where we caught up with Eric and Clare just before they headed off to Ireland to sail their boat. I wrote about that last summer. Then we nosed the old Volvo up toward Cape Breton. If you have an active imagination and can picture Nova Scotia as a lobster, Cape Breton would form the claws. It is the only part of the province I have seen with rugged grandeur.

The claws are divided by a huge, inland estuary, called the Bras d’Or Lake. One beautiful island near Baddeck held the summer home and lab of Alexander Graham Bell, who invented the telephone and dabbled with many other inventions, such as the hydrofoil and a precursor of the iron lung. When Ann Sullivan and Helen Keller went up to see him, they stayed at the Inn directly across the road from where I’m sitting now.

Cape Breton came to be dominated by Scottish settlers as a result of the highland clearances. It houses one of the only colleges in North America dedicated to preserving Scottish traditions and the Gaelic tongue. Thanks to the Island’s geography, locals had to entertain themselves long after most Canadians had settled in front of the box for their popular entertainment. Their music scene is still vibrant.

The main draws for tourists are the golf, the music, the Bell Museum, whale watching, the spectacular Cabot trail, and Louisbourg, the largest historical reconstruction of an 18th Century French fortress town anywhere in North America.

Our last tour of Cape Breton was many, many years ago. We went mountain biking in September and it got so cold it could have snowed. This time around, we went for the hospitality, scenery and kayaking. We didn’t count on good weather, but we were blessed with sunshine on all but one day. What more could one ask for? Maybe it’s just luck, maybe it’s an effect of global warming. I hate to say it, but Canada just may benefit from something that is going to be very hard on Australia.

Two weeks ago we had the longest day of the year here in Nova Scotia and missed the shortest day back in Melbourne. I’m sure I’ll pay for that, somehow.  In the meantime, I’ll just enjoy the second summer.

P.S. For those of you who have been waiting patiently for the results of the unicycle race, your time has arrived. The intrepid team of unicyclists from New Zealand acquitted themselves admirably, with a total time just 18 minutes behind the the German Speeders. Next year, bring on the Aussies!

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