I peered from under my hat at the magical forms evolving overhead, visions of childhood fairy tales. The charging steeds, legendary sea creatures, and medieval castles with intricate turrets reaching into the sky took shape, disappeared, then reformed in the sky before vanishing into the deep blue background. I found myself relaxing for the first time in days, allowing the sun’s warmth to soak into my body—no warnings of UV rays in l980. The nagging back pains had finally dissipated, along with the seasonal fog, and the extended stretch of fine weather had allowed us to make up for lost storm days. We could now appreciate our surroundings. Although only a few hours by car from Tangier, the tip of Cape Breton Island could have belonged to another province, or country, given the differences. The salt-laden spruce near my home, coating a low relief of irregular boulders, had become a vague memory under these lofty highlands, draped in lush hardwoods and cut by valleys, streams, and waterfalls.

We knew that soon the current would increase and fight through the jagged shoals off Cape North. We packed up 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 over two months of travelling. We reached the cape quickly, but the expectation of wind and strong currents on the other side made us apprehensive. The Gulf of St. Lawrence is in constant motion, escaping to the ocean, and our early days in the voyage had taught us what to expect from protruding headlands. This one was especially prominent and we clipped on our spray deck. We were prepared—or so we thought.

Suddenly, amidst a blanket of brilliant white foam dancing and rolling over Bay St. Lawrence, and directly in front of our canoe, smooth dark shapes headed towards us, sparkling rays glancing off black backs. All at once, the swimming forms surrounded us. They rushed beside and under the boat, and sometimes, it seemed they would fly over it too, often less than a paddle’s length away. The sea was aboil. The waves were cresting and ominous darkened cliffs forbade a landing. I was petrified, not knowing what to expect and fearing the worse.

Then, just as quickly as it began, it was over. Our fear turned to relief, then to awe, and finally to disappointment as these Pilot Whales disappeared, pursuing a school of mackerel down the coast. After such a rush of conflicting emotions, we were drained, and since the wind was continuing to pick up, we landed as soon as we could find a scrap of beach. Our journey around Cape Breton Island would have to wait until the next day
My circumnavigation of Nova Scotia ended over a decade ago, but the vivid memories of those Pilot Whales will be forever etched in my memory. There were other surprises too, of course. Cape Breton is magnificent, and its geological and biological melange has drawn me back many times.
Cape Breton Island lies at the northeastern end of Nova Scotia. It is an irregular shaped triangle, less than l50 km (93 mi.) through the widest section, but has a rambling shoreline that exceeds 2,000 km (1,200 mi.). A causeway over the Strait of Canso links it to the mainland. Cape Breton Island separates the Gulf of St. Lawrence from the Atlantic Ocean, and its geology and topography vary dramatically from one side to the other. The ancient volcanic rock of the eastern shores has formed a string of submerged shoals, interrupted by broad, exposed beaches with few sheltering inlets, a good reason why divers search this area for wrecks. Fishing communities have developed in some relatively protected harbours, such as Forchu, Louisbourg, Garbarus, and Main-à-Dieu. Abundant drumlin material supplies the sediment for the baymouth bars that close off the inlets. Offshore islands, so common along the Eastern Shore of the mainland, are rare. Otherwise, the climate and vegetation is similar. The water is cold most of the year, resulting in a constant threat of fog, even well into the summer. The landscape has a stark appeal but it is only for the experienced paddler.

On the western coast of Cape Breton, the dearth of islands also applies, but that is where the similarity ends between the two shores. The coastline is relatively linear, and Port Hood and Chéticamp excepted, the gulf harbours of Cape Breton are narrow river mouths which often require dredging. Strong currents flowing over sand bars at the entrances can produce chaotic conditions. Rocky shoals are not as common. The water temperature is usually quite warm in summer, often exceeding l6°C (61°F), more reminiscent of Prince Edward Island than the Atlantic coast, and fog is rare. The highlight of this shore is the Highland region, beginning at the National Park in Chéticamp and continuing around the northern tip. Ancient bedrock has thrust up through a layered carpet of sedimentary strata. The oldest rock is over 1 billion years old, a tiny segment of the Canadian shield tucked into the Maritimes. The youngest rock dates from the Carboniferous era of fern forest and evaporating seas. Erosion has since carved them down to under 540 m (l,800 ft.), but they are still impressive when seen erupting vertically from the gulf waters—a powerful combination of sheer cliffs, incised valleys, sea caves, and pinnacles. This is one of the most rugged and impressive coastal areas in all of North America.

Hiking is a natural adjunct to a paddling tour and the perfect option when stormbound. A climb up to the denuded plateau highlights the undulating sequence of cliffs and coves weaving up the coast. However, good landing spots are scarce, and with the prevailing winds coming from the west (i.e., on shore), caution and experience are needed.

Unique to Cape Breton Island is the Bras d’Or Lake. This is a large saltwater basin occupying much of the interior and it is essentially landlocked, open to the sea via two narrow passages and the canal at St. Peters. This lake holds the warmest of all Nova Scotia’s coastal waters. In winter, though, large expanses become a solid sheet of ice. It is the preferred realm of the sailor, sheltered from the storms and fog of the open Atlantic Ocean, although the long fetch in some sections can result in an acute chop. Well-appointed marinas and small villages share the surrounding rolling hills with rich deciduous forest and open farmland. If empty wilderness is your destination, then you may have to look elsewhere, although the paddler can usually find some undisturbed shoreline, even on the Bras d’Or Lake.

Tidal range around Cape Breton is modest—0.6 m to 1 m (2 ft. to 4 ft.) in the gulf and 0.9 m to 2 m (3 ft. to 6 ft.) on the Atlantic, and negligible in the Bras d’Or Lakes. The currents are light, except around prominent headlands and in narrow passages, such as Cape North or between Scatarie Island and Main-à-Dieu; here, when combined with opposing winds, they can be treacherous. The ocean currents, usually counterclockwise, predominate over tidal flow in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The Cape Breton coastline is home to an assortment of sea birds and marine mammals, some of which are seldom encountered elsewhere in the province. This is the southern limit of the Black-legged Kittiwake, which nests at only a few places along the eastern shore, and the site of Nova Scotia’s only significant Atlantic Puffin colony—the Bird Islands, not to be confused with the Bird Islands on the Eastern Shore of the province. Bald Eagles are common in the Bras d’Or Lake and along the Cape Breton Highlands, where Pilot Whales pursue mackerel and squid—a sure sight in the late summer. Larger whales, such as Minke, Humpback, or Fin, are occasionally spotted further offshore. Both the Grey and Harbour Seals frequent the shoals. There are no exotic large mammals inland, but you may catch sight of black bear, deer, or moose in the Highlands. There have also been unconfirmed reports of cougar.

The human history of Cape Breton dates to the last ice age, when indigenous peoples in the south followed the retreating glaciers into the area. Little is know about these early inhabitants, and they eventually disappeared. The ancestors of the present Mi’kmaq settled the region a couple thousand years ago, and their descendants still live in several communities on the shores of the Bras d’Or Lake. The first incursions of the Europeans are obscure. Myth has it that a group of Irish monks, prone to wander the North Atlantic in search of converts, were the first to find their way here. That may be fanciful thinking, for there is no evidence to support this romantic theory; nor is there evidence to support the claim that the Vikings, or later John Cabot visited.

What is known for certain is that the French and English disputed “ownership” of this territory, along with the rest of North America, for well over a century. The latter eventually won out with the capture of the fortress of Louisbourg and evicted the French inhabitants. The reconstruction of this fortress, the most ambitious on the continent, depicts accurately the life of those times. Following the expulsion of the French, Britain encouraged immigration to the island which was accelerated by the “clearances” in Scotland. Powerless tenants were evicted from the Highlands to make way for large sheep farms. Many of the immigrants ended up on New Scotland’s shores, where they have left a lasting imprint in the place names, such as MacDonald Glen, Inverness, and Loch Lomond, and in the continuing popularity of traditional Celtic music. Gaelic is still spoken by a few of the older folk and is taught at a local college.
Many of the dispersed Acadians also made their way back, settling on the rocky shores spurned by others. Isolation has preserved their language, and in communities such as Isle Madame and Chéticamp, a bountiful ocean led to prosperity, until the recent collapse of the Atlantic fishery
Coal was discovered around the island and mined in thick seams that ran well out under the ocean. Iron was smelted, and an industrial economy developed around the deep-water port of Sydney—the province’s third largest city with a population of about 26,000. Changing economic patterns have left a legacy of unemployment and industrial pollution, which have burdened the island for decades.

Tourism is offered as a hope for the future as more visitors arrive each summer to sample the island’s diverse and accessible fare. No less an illuminary than Alexander Graham Bell chose Baddeck, overlooking the Bras d’Or Lake, to spend his summers and conduct much of his research. Although he had travelled the globe, he found that Cape Breton “out rivaled them all.” However, the seasonal employment provided by this industry will
not compensate for lost jobs in the resource sector.

Due to the dramatic variations in coastal features, climate and water conditions, a detailed discussion of these is reserved for the specific routes that follow: Isle Madame, the East Coast, Scatarie Island, the Bird Islands, the Highlands, Mabou/Port Hood, and the Bras d’Or Lake.