We struggled along the serpentine channel of the Missaguash River towards its entrance as a difficult wind, sweeping in from the hidden bay, pressed the grass against the exposed dyked fields. Staccato salvos jumped over the soft banks to buffet our canoe and our bodies, gradually draining what little energy remained in our exhausted shoulder muscles, sore from the long journey through the marshes. When we finally rounded the last bend into the full fury, we could not go further. Neither did we want to, for before us, and as far as our sight would reach, a chaos of white caps covered the open waters. Here it was, the Bay of Fundy, and the big unknown of our voyage around the province.

We found some shelter for our tent behind an irregular jumble of rectangular granite slabs, remnants of the ill-fated ship railway. Cattle and their well-seasoned paddies were our only companions. To the east, the fields and dykes hid the highway from view. To the west was the bay, and a vast plain of marsh, mud, and confused water stretched into the horizon. Mesmerised by the cyclic ebb and flow, we watched as the river mouth disappeared, exposing its wet bed of glistening brown mire. The entire upper region of the Cumberland Basin exchanged its murky solution for mud flats and the throngs of sandpipers which gorged themselves for their flight south. We saw this formidable spectacle reverse itself six hours later. It was an ominous sight, which gave us cause to ponder our situation and our decision to cross the Bay of Fundy.

If you have heard of the Maritimes, you have probably heard of the Bay of Fundy. If you live here, you were probably aware of its reputation early on in life. It is a unique world of salt marsh and mud flat, of labyrinthine creek and channel, and of ingenious dyke systems guarding fertile farmland. However, it also boosts the highest cliffs on mainland Nova Scotia, where gemstones hide in volcanic rock; dinosaur bones are concealed in its layered sandstone; and it hosts some of the largest animals that have ever existed—the baleen whales. Above all, the Bay of Fundy is the domain of the highest tides on earth.
The Bay of Fundy is a funnel-shaped tongue of ocean separating Nova Scotia from New Brunswick. It stretches over 200 km (120 mi.) from its mouth in the Gulf of Maine to its upper reaches at Amherst and Truro. About three-quarters of the way, Cape Chignecto splits it into Chignecto Bay and the Minas Basin. Its influence extends well beyond the ill-defined boundaries, blending into the Gulf of Maine and edging around Yarmouth, onto the South Shore.

It has few islands, and except for the Fundy Isles and Brier Island at the entrance, the only ones of note are Isle Haute, and, in the Minas Basin, the Five Islands. Most are basalt reminders of an earlier geologic era, when crustal distortions unleashed lava flows that covered the surface. Basalt cliffs also define the Nova Scotia shoreline from Brier Island to the Minas Basin. Most of the upper regions of the Bay of Fundy, particularly the Cumberland and Minas Basins, are lined by softer strata (sandstone and shale), and erosion has produced extensive, gently sloping sand and mud flats and vast areas of salt marsh.

The Bay of Fundy traces its origins into the Triassic era and the age of the dinosaurs, over 200 million years ago, when all the earth’s land mass had been compressed into a single megacontinent, called Pangea. The area that was to become Nova Scotia was then situated near the equator. The terrain was relatively uniform, the climate hot and arid. Eventually the convection currents, responsible for bringing the crustal plates together in the first place, shifted, and Pangea began to break apart. Initially, the surface subsided and the depressions were filled with sediment eroded from the surrounding highland. As the separation progressed, the crust faulted severely, allowing lava to pour out. The final rupture occurred along the continental shelf far to the east, leaving a segment of early Africa attached to North America—part of a future Nova Scotia. With time the rift valley widened, continued to subside, and was gradually invaded by the new Atlantic Ocean. Consumed by the sea and scoured by the glaciers, the new bay deepened, and recently, about five thousand years ago, developed the extreme tidal range. The ocean is continuing to rise relative to the land in most areas, and the shoreline is eroding at a rapid rate.

The special nature of the Bay of Fundy follows from its extreme tides. These range from about 6 m (20 ft.) at the entrance to a record of 18 m (58 ft.) at Burntcoat Head, in the Minas Basin. This unusual phenomenon is partially due to the funnel shape of the bay itself—a progressive narrowing and shallowing that accentuate the tides at the apex. However, there are plenty of similar shaped bays about the globe that do not have Fundy’s tides. Resonance also plays a role. This refers to the natural oscillation inherent in every body of water, which means that it tends to slosh back and forth with a certain rhythm. The period of oscillation is dependent upon the size and shape of the basin. If that oscillation approximates that of the tides, which is the case in this bay, it will augment them.

Tides affect the coastal paddler. Extreme tides will, at times, have an extreme effect. The degree will depend upon the shoreline and sea floor features, the weather, and your position in the tidal cycle (i.e., neap, spring, or somewhere in between). Your initial concern at the beginning of a trip will probably be the distance you will have to lug your boat to the water. In areas with a steep slope, such as Cape Chignecto, this distance may be minimal. However, along the low lying upper reaches of the bay, a landing or launch at an inappropriate time could involve carrying or dragging the boat hundreds of metres over a soft ooze that can “crawl” up to your knees.
En route, keep a sharp eye on the water level—and your gear—when stopping for a break. On more than one occasion I’ve had to scurry after a precious piece heading off to New England. Conversely, inattention may leave you and your fully laden kayaks stranded hundreds of metres above a rapidly receding shoreline. When setting up camp, pay more than cursory attention to your tent site! Be wary of that soft, level, “grassy” area, especially during the full moon.

Once on the water you will have to deal with another direct consequence of tides—the currents. It is here that the coastal paddler must be particularly vigilant in the Bay of Fundy. Under some circumstances, their velocity can exceed 8 knots, and in a few rivers, such as the Shubenacadie, a bore will sometimes form at the leading edge of an incoming tide. When wind opposes the current, dangerous standing waves can evolve rapidly. This will often follow a change in the tide. Particularly delicate areas are headlands, such as Cape Split and Cape d’Or; narrow passages, such as the one between Brier Island and Long Island; and sudden shallowing over reefs and shoals. These are all situations where the currents speed up in order to get through, around, or over an obstruction. Whirlpools that will grasp your kayak and pull you under are mythical musings, but large eddies do exist and can be confusing. Although you might be going “with the tide,” you might still be paddling against the current.

Fortunately, with experience, critical situations can be recognized and avoided. In calm weather and during slack tide, many of the most potentially treacherous areas can be navigated safely. Once, we dallied in the kayaks to pick dulse at the very tip of Cape Split, where at peak flood, you will be swept into an impossible jungle of standing waves. Along linear coastlines, such as the Cape Chignecto fault, frictional drag close to shore will slow the currents, and it often matters little whether you are paddling with or against the flow. On the other hand, in calm weather the bay can lull you into a false sense of security. Ocean swells are absent and there may be no surf—features reminiscent of an inland lake. However, this serenity is often transient and can change as rapidly as the tide. The wind may increase dramatically, transforming a peaceful scene into a caldron of white caps and standing waves in minutes.

Another extremely important feature of the Bay of Fundy is the water temperature. It is cold! The constant turbulence, mixing the colder bottom with the surface layers, maintains a temperature that rarely exceeds 13°C (55°F), even at the height of summer. An unexpected plunge into this milieu, without adequate protection, can have tragic consequences. It is important to remember this fact, since the dramatic contrast between the ambient air and water temperatures can lead the unwary to take foolish risks. Consider wearing a wet or dry suit. An exception to this generalization is in the upper bay, where the shallow water can warm up considerably as it flows over the intertidal flats.

The climate in the Bay of Fundy is similar to that along the Atlantic coast. The air temperatures are lower than those found inland, and wind is more frequent. However, less surf means less salt spray. Fog is a common companion, and it isn’t unusual for it to be sunny and a warm 27°C (80°F) inland, while a chilling mist drapes the coast. The warm, moisture-charged continental air condenses rapidly as it crosses the bay, and summers have passed in which the sun hid until August, especially in outposts like Brier Island.

The turbulence in the Bay of Fundy not only prevents thermal stratification but it also recycles nutrients which would otherwise settle to the bottom. This has made the Fundy one of the most productive natural areas in eastern North America, supporting a prolific food chain that ranges from microscopic phytoplankton to the enormous baleen whales. Fin and Humpback Whales visit regularly in the summer and early fall to feed at the mouth of the bay, and this is the only known breeding ground for the endangered Right whale. The extensive salt marshes are also highly efficient producers of biomass, and even the seemingly sterile mud flats will reveal a profusion of invertebrate creatures, including the soft-shell clam, upon closer examination. During the migration period, shorebirds congregate in the thousands on these flats to rest and to gorge themselves for their long journey. Brier Island and Grand Manan (in New Brunswick) are among the best bird-watching destinations in the country.

The Fundy shoreline typically displays a transition between a true coastal forest and the more “lush” interior, a reflection of its somewhat more sheltered geography. However, it also touches both extremes of the vegetation spectrum. Arctic alpine relics cling to exposed basalt cliffs, while nearby saltwater marshes, flanked by rich deciduous woods, accompany tidal rivers many kilometres inland. Large areas of these salt marshes have been dyked and converted to agricultural land. Where rock underlies the littoral zone, low water unveils a colourful tapestry of dulse, laver, sea lettuce, and rockweed—a deceptive beauty that can test the most nimble walker.
Humans have long harvested from this natural mecca. Native Americans hunted and gathered in these waters twenty-five hundred years ago, long before Samuel de Champlain explored the Bay of Fundy in l604, on his way to a disastrous winter in the St. Croix River, New Brunswick. The next year Champlain established the first permanent French settlement in North America at Port Royal, in the Annapolis Basin. Fishermen and more settlers, mostly French, followed, and by the middle of the l700s the best fertile marshland had been dyked and drained.

The entire basin would probably still be French speaking today if it were not for the Expulsion of l755, immortalized in Longfellow’s poem, “Evangeline.” The British, who had gained control of mainland Nova Scotia, feared that the Acadian inhabitants would side with the French regime in future hostilities. Although that would have certainly pleased their country of origin, the Acadians wished only to be left alone to farm their lands. They wanted nothing to do with the endless European squabbles. However, British fear took precedence, and the Acadians were rounded up and shipped out. Many ended up in Louisiana. Their land was confiscated and distributed to new settlers—many from New England—and following the War of Independence, another influx of “Loyalists” arrived. Some Acadians escaped the Expulsion or returned later and established on the southwest shore, near Yarmouth.

In the l900s, the age of sail transformed the region. Nova Scotia, and particularly the borders of the bay, prospered. By the end of the century every cove, inlet, and river mouth that could be adapted for anchorage became the site of a mill or shipbuilding yard. These glory days were short-lived, and with iron and steam replacing wood and wind, hard times returned. Entire towns were abandoned and many never recovered. Reminders of these early years can be seen in the elaborate homes of obscure villages which are no longer mentioned on the maps and in the rotting wharf pilings that poke through the shifting mud and sands at deserted river outlets.
However, the fishery in the bay is diverse—herring, scallops, and groundfish—and although not immune to the current problems plaguing the industry, it hasn’t been as devastated as the fishery in Newfoundland. Lobster fishing is successful, weirs are still capturing herring, and aquaculture is growing rapidly, particularly with Atlantic salmon.

The reputation of the Bay of Fundy is cloaked in myth, folklore, and fact concerning its tides, currents, and whirlpools. This has coloured people’s perceptions, distorting the reality, and many who are suspicious in general about paddling small boats on the ocean would consider a trip on the bay foolhardy. I have paddled for years on the Fundy and have learned to respect this unique body of water. Although potential risks are real, several routes do exist which can be paddled safely during calm weather, by experienced paddlers, and a number of them are exceptional. The following descriptions include details about five of the best.