The fog thickened and we gradually lost sight of land. The wind picked up slightly
but we scarcely noticed it and managed the heavier swell with ease. We should
attached the spray cover as soon as we had perceived the change, but because
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 couldnt 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 beachtwelve 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 wasnt 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 Straitand 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 Scotias 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
modestunder 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 surroundingsthis 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 regionpart of a supercontinent named
Pangeawas 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 Mikmaq 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 ancestryin the largest
is New Glasgow, population over 9,000with 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
arent as readily spotted and dont 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