The fog thickened and we gradually lost sight of land. The wind picked up slightly too,
but we scarcely noticed it and managed the heavier swell with ease. We should have
attached the spray cover as soon as we had perceived the change, but because of sloth
or a false sense of security, we did not; our minds were elsewhere. When the storm did strike, we were unprepared.

A huge wave arched up in front of the canoe and crashed over Paul, drenching him and filling the canoe with several centimetres of water. How we managed to avoid the second wave and thus complete submersion in St. Georges Bay remains a mystery. We were shocked out of our daydreams and into the frightening realization that we were l7 km (11 mi.) from shore. We couldn’t have picked a more inopportune time to be careless, and I was scared.

We acted quickly: Paul steadied the canoe in the heavy seas; I hauled out the nylon cover and began fastening it to the sides. It was not an easy job. The canoe was very unwieldy, made unstable by the large amount of water sloshing about the bottom, and I realized that one false move would put us under. We talked little. Only our six weeks’ experience in ocean paddling saved us from being swamped. With the canoe covered, all that remained was to pump the water out. Half an hour later, that also was accomplished. But the crossing was far from over. The wind, by then at least 20 knots and rising, churned up the ocean and visibility had dropped to under a hundred metres. We were tired and wet, and wanted to rest but had to struggle on.

Five hours after the wave struck we still could not see the shore, although the fog had partially lifted and a full moon shone through the mist. It was a scene of surreal beauty. We spotted a wharf light in the distance, and it became our destination, our guide to safety. In the early morning we finally hit the beach—twelve hours after we had left Cape Breton. By then the sky had cleared completely, the wind had died and the sea resembled a sheer black mirror. We had no idea where we were, nor did we care. All we desired then was sleep, and with our remaining strength we dragged the canoe onto the shore, unpacked our sleeping bags, and collapsed onto the warm sand. Early the next morning the sunlight crept lazily over the marine horizon and nudged us awake. Even our exhaustion wasn’t enough to keep us comfortable on the sloping sand beach, as the increasing warmth of the motionless air soaked into our bodies. The ocean was silent. Perhaps the previous night had been only a dream, but as I collected my muddled thoughts, I knew that it had been real.

Upon crossing St. Georges Bay, we left Cape Breton Island behind. We entered the Northumberland Strait—and the only period of true summer weather in our entire journey around Nova Scotia. For nearly two weeks we were bathed in warm, humid air while floating over a calm and temperate sea. Dense fog gave way to bright sunshine, and bulky clothing was changed for swimsuits and snorkel gear. After numbing our toes in the Atlantic, this was a real treat.

The North Shore is one of Nova Scotia’s four distinctive geological regions. It forms the southern rim of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where it stretches from the New Brunswick border, at Baie Verte, to the tip of Cape George, and then around to the Canso Causeway. The total distance is only about 200 km (124 mi.), but this would increase substantially if we measured all the bays and inlets. Prince Edward Island shelters the area somewhat, forming the Northumberland Strait, 15 km to 30 km (9 mi. to 19 mi.) across. Here, the coastal paddler will find some of the warmest salt water north of Virginia, certainly the warmest in this province. It can exceed 20°C (70°F) in the sheltered coves and marshes. Fog is rare in the summer. Large swells are absent and days will pass when there is barely a ripple. Be aware, though, that a steep chop will rise quickly when a strong wind funnels down the strait. The tides are modest—under 1 m (4 ft.) The currents are usually weak and travel mostly from west to east as part of the counterclockwise movement in the gulf. An exception is where the flow is constricted somewhat between Pictou Island and the mainland shore. The prevailing southwesterly winds carry a warmth and fragrance from the mainland that belies the surroundings—this is still the ocean.

This coastline is part of a large carboniferous basin that underlies the Gulf of St. Lawrence and much of northern Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. It was formed eons ago. The continents had coalesced, pushing Africa and Europe up against an early North America, and the whole region—part of a supercontinent named Pangea—was situated somewhere near the equator. Erosion from ancient mountains layered several kilometres of sediments into a landlocked basin which was intruded intermittently by sea water. Subsequent crustal uplift and a humid climate resulted in a system of deltas, estuaries, and flood plains supporting a lush ecosystem that was stable for millions of years. All these processes combined to produce the deposits of salt, limestone, gypsum, coal, and especially sandstone that now define the region.

The gentle topography of the coastal plain, which extends from Baie Verte to Merigomish Island, alternates low ridges with shallow valleys. The ridges extend into the Northumberland Strait as headlands in several places, such as Cape John and Malagash Point, with Pictou Island a remnant of one such ridge in the centre of the strait. The valleys have formed inlets and harbours where river estuaries have been flooded by a rise in sea level. Variable but ubiquitous glacial till covers the region. The soft bedrock and abundant sediment on the North Shore have produced numerous beaches, bay mouth bars, sand bars, spits, dunes, salt marshes, and mud flats. None of the original forest is left and white spruce and red maple characterize the wooded areas today. Further inland are stands of sugar maple and large areas that have been converted to blueberry barrens.

The extensive intertidal zones, formed by the very gradual slope of the sea bottom, are rich in invertebrate animals, such as clams, mussels, and marine worms. There are extensive salt marshes and eel beds in the bays. These are important waterfowl breeding and migratory staging areas. Ducks, geese, and shorebirds seldom seen elsewhere are common. Seals, dolphins, and porpoises can also be spotted. An exception to this low-lying landscape is the cliffs that stretch from Merigomish Island around Cape George and down part way to Antigonish. East of a fault that follows the shoreline are the older and more resistant igneous and metamorphic rocks of the Antigonish Highlands.

The North Shore was frequented by the Mi’kmaq who prized the large shellfish beds. When the French first arrived, they dyked and drained many of the marshlands, where they farmed until they were expelled by the English. In 1773, a large contingent of Scots arrived and founded the town of Pictou. Settlement spread up the coastline, and today there are several communities with Scottish ancestry—in the largest is New Glasgow, population over 9,000—with a diverse economic base in farming fishing, coal and salt mining, forestry, and pulp production.

The climate along this shore is more conducive to agriculture than on most other coastal areas in the province; there is even a prosperous vineyard and wine-making industry. Increasingly important is the tourism industry which takes advantage of the sun, sand, and warm water. Along with Prince Edward Island, the North Shore has become a mecca for the vacation crowd. Some camp in tents, some bring a motor home, and others stay in cottages that crowd popular beaches. Sail and motorboats compete for water space near the resorts.

For the paddler, a little seclusion can still be found, but wilderness campsites aren’t as readily spotted and don’t offer the isolation you may expect along the other shores. There are also practical concerns for the paddler more attuned to the chilly and rocky Atlantic shores: sand in the meals; butter melting in the heat; and mosquitoes and horseflies. It is a dramatic change from the rugged and moody Atlantic coast, both for the beginning paddler and the experienced tripper seeking a change. So bring your snorkelling gear and beach towel and prepare to relax.