Hush now,” John ordered, the sea and sky reflecting in his wraparound sunglasses: “Listen.”
Our banter stopped; we laid our paddles across our kayaks and strained our ears. Just above the lapping of the waves I could make out what sounded like a pack of excited dogs.
Beckoning us to follow, John rowed around an islet just ahead. Here, the barking became much louder. Then I saw its origin: dozens of seals covered the rocks. Again we rested our paddles and drifted – and suddenly there were black, white and grey flashes and splashes all around as the braver and more curious in the colony came to investigate. A moment later, just a couple of metres off my bow, one of the seals stuck its glossy head out of the water and regarded me, black eyes staring, whiskers twitching, before diving back below the surface.
A rugged, Nova Scotian version of the Californian surfer stereotype, John is an oceanographer when not guiding trips. “The name ‘grey seal’ is a bit more flattering than the Latin,” he told us. “That translates as ‘hook-nosed sea pig’.”
We were paddling through The Rackets, an archipelago of islands and islets, some no more than rocky ledges that just broke the surface, like shattered, black teeth. They were treacherous in foul weather for mariners past; in a forgiving mood that day, they proved to be a marvellous spot for an introduction to sea kayaking.
Most visitors come to Nova Scotia to drive the spectacular Cabot Trail, hike in Cape Breton Highlands National Park or tap their feet to lively Celtic music. But I wanted to see Canada’s second-smallest province – almost wholly surrounded by the Atlantic, the Bay of Fundy, and the Cabot and Northumberland Straits – as generations of immigrants and mariners had done before me: from the sea.
My multi-day sea kayak journey – a series of paddles tracing the best sections of Nova Scotia’s forested South Shore – would take in deserted beaches, uninhabited islands, a string of fishing villages and appealing towns – as well as providing endless insights into the region’s rich seafaring past.
But the best bit? After a hard day’s paddling I’d be slumbering not under hastily erected canvas, but in a series of luxurious inns that blended centuries-old character and modern comforts – with the odd four-poster thrown in for luck. Not only that, my evening meals would not involve heating up camp food on a wobbly gas burner; instead I would dine at some of the South Shore’s best restaurants – and possibly squeeze in a few nightcaps at the local pubs.
My South Shore trip started in the Unesco World Heritage-listed town of Lunenburg, 100km from Nova Scotia’s lively capital, Halifax. I wandered the Old Town, which tumbled down a steep hillside to the sea. Most of the streets were lined with well-preserved 18th- and 19th-century wooden edifices, many of which now house B&Bs, restaurants, shops and art galleries. I passed impressive wooden churches, brightly painted houses and horse-drawn carriages full of sightseers. Many of the lanes offered views down to the harbour below.
After breakfast the next morning we were driven to our put-in point, the quiet little fishing village of Stonehurst. My previous sea-kayaking experience consisted of one short session 20 years ago, but the instructions from guides John and Veronica were easy to understand, and my kayak felt robust and stable. It took little time to get used to manoeuvring, and to establish a reasonably efficient paddling action.
The sun was out and the last few wisps of sea mist were burning off as we paddled out of Stonehurst’s natural harbour. As we hugged the wooded shoreline, undeveloped save for the odd dilapidated fishing shack, I was surprised to find myself skimming along beside the others with relative ease. Before long, we reached the village of Blue Rocks, where the cries of seagulls and the gentle lapping of waves provided a soundtrack to the perfect maritime scene: a blaze of pink, blue and purple lupins; colourful fishing boats bobbing in little harbours; fishing shacks, clapboard houses and piles of lobster pots. But our close encounter of the seal kind was the undoubted highlight.
The next morning also began in the Lunenburg area. We propelled our kayaks past the grand houses on the shore of Second Peninsula: all around was the shimmering blue sea, the greens of the trees and lawns, the brilliant-white and shining chrome of sleek yachts, and the deep blue of the sky.
At one stage we were taking a breather when a large, dark fin popped out of the water. All eyes were fixed on the rippled patch of sea. Various shouts went up: “Whale! Shark! Dolphin!”. But almost simultaneously John and Veronica declared: “Ocean sunfish”. The fin re-appeared twice more before disappearing from view.
“Ladies and gentleman,” announced John, “no whales today, but you have just seen the world’s heaviest bony fish species – an average adult weighs in at about 1,000kg”.
Later, some of my fellow paddlers saw a leatherback turtle swim close to their kayaks.
Mahone Bay was dotted with a multitude of forested islands. I asked John how many there were. “Folks say there are 365, one for every day of the year, but actually there are about 100.” He told us that a couple of centuries ago British and American ships chased each other through these waters and, during Prohibition, rum-runners used their superior local knowledge to dodge customs boats here.
“Pirates also used to love this area as there were plenty of places for them to hide,” he told us. “By the way, can anyone see a burning ship?”
Although it had been destroyed in an explosion in 1813, the American privateer schooner Young Teazer has reportedly been sighted several times, aflame in the bay. We scoured the horizon in all directions but saw not a trace of the phantom vessel.
Just as our arms were beginning to tire, our destination for the day came into sight: a wonderful picture-postcard view of the town of Mahone Bay. Before dinner I wandered the main street, past galleries, craft shops and eateries.
There were several tourists about but the pretty town felt relaxed and lived-in rather than over-commercialised. After a rather good dinner, the day was rounded off with a beer on the waterfront deck of the Mug & Anchor. Back in my room, half an hour in an antique clawfoot bathtub did wonders for my aching limbs.
“Buried treasure and pirates,” announced Veronica at breakfast the next day. She was a teacher in the sea-kayak off-season, and – over buttermilk pancakes, fresh raspberries and maple syrup – told us a long (but fascinating) tale. It was the story of Oak Island, the incredibly complex network of booby-trapped tunnels uncovered there, and a 215-year search for concealed booty.
When we were out on the water, more intriguing facts and theories were forthcoming, but both guides warned us that Oak Island’s story was more interesting than its reality. Sadly, they were right: millions of dollars may have been spent in search of its treasure – and several lives lost in the process – but there wasn’t a lot to see as we kayaked past what looked like any other forested island.
Hillside Chester – our next overnight stop – seemed more sophisticated than anywhere else we’d been so far. Veronica pointed out the surfeit of swanky sailboats, explaining that Chester is one of North America’s top sailing destinations. With its beautiful bayside setting, glistening marinas and stately houses, it felt like a less crowded and less expensive version of a chichi New England seaside village.
The following day was spent winding through the 20 or so LaHave Islands. The islands were one of the earliest fishing bases in Nova Scotia; for centuries they were home to healthy human populations, all dependent on the riches of the bountiful sea.
“Things change,” John said. “These days, most of the houses you see here are holiday homes.” He explained that the fishing industry – so long such a major part of Nova Scotia’s economy – had been decimated in the last decades of the 20th century. “Never mind fish,” he continued, “far more deer than humans live on these islands now.”
The LaHaves were a succulent cocktail of tiny harbours, tree-lined shores, shallow bays, remote coves, wharves and fishing shacks – many of which now sat abandoned, white paint peeling. Veronica pointed out a cove where wooden sailing ships once sheltered during storms, and a long-closed post office – the postman used to do his rounds by rowing boat.
Our island lunch stop was on the white-sand beach of a horseshoe-shaped bay. As we ate we watched a lobster fisherman pull traps. “Look up there!” exclaimed John as an osprey circled overhead, a fish clutched in its claws.
Our last day at sea was the toughest. We set off to round the Aspotogan Peninsula, which separates Mahone Bay and St Margaret’s Bay, threading our way between islands – and then through increasingly open water. The wind became stronger and my sunglasses misted over with sea spray. Rounding a headland we paddled in our largest swell yet. My heart pounded rapidly, partly with effort, partly with unease. A mix of perspiration and sun cream made my eyes sting. Ever alert, John and Veronica stayed close as I puffed away, and ensured that I didn’t let my kayak swing side-on to the waves. Their presence and encouragement gave me confidence: I gritted my teeth, dug deep and – top half drenched in a mix of sweat and salt water – finally reached calmer seas.
A tiny beach on a little island was the venue for a hard-earned picnic. “Anybody feel like a bath?” asked Veronica as we were polishing off the last crumbs. She pointed the way to a natural rock pool and I seized the chance for an invigorating soak in the warm water.
Later that afternoon we reached the end of our watery road and paddled our trusty crafts ashore for the last time. I looked back on five invigorating days, oh-so comfortable nights and wonderful food – dinners, gourmet breakfasts and tasty picnic lunches. I had breathed lung-fulls of salty Atlantic air, been warmed by the sun and cooled by the sea’s spray. But best of all, from my floating, sea-level look-out, I had peered beneath the skin of this land shaped by the often angry ocean and seen part of its soul.
The author travelled with Freewheeling Adventures
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