It was a dark and stormy night..............and Billy and I headed out for Bar Harbor, ME on our way to the Cape Breton highlands in Nova Scotia. We met up with Mike, and his friend Bob from Virginia, and took the high-speed ferry to Yarmouth, NS the next morning. Then, it was a dark and stormy day, with big seas, and lots of seasick passengers. A definite harbinger of things to come.
We got to Yarmouth, and headed out for Cheticamp, on the north shore of Cape Breton Island. We camped there in the rain with our other companions Alison and Ray (Well, Billy had the good sense to sleep in the van and keep his gear dry), and wondered about whether or not our guide (Angelo from North River Kayak Tours on Cape Breton Island) would have to delay our trip for a day. As it turned out, the weather broke, and we were able to launch from Le Bloc, just inside the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The plan was a three-legged expedition ending in Meat Cove, on the outermost tip of the island. And once again, my Greenland paddle got some curious looks ("You paddle with that quill, eh? Can you keep up with us?") from our guide and his friend. So, it was up to me to show them that I could, and then some.
Launching from Le Bloc
Our first destination was Fishing Cove, about 8 miles to the northeast. The seas were about 4 feet and building, and both the waves and wind were at our bows. Good thing. I had never paddled the Caribou fully loaded in the open ocean before, and needed to get the feel of how she'd handle the situation. Quite admirably, in fact. I was very pleased. We also were a bit concerned about Bob, because he'd never paddled in the kind of conditions that we were expecting, so we kept an eye on him for the first day. Turns out he's got seawater in his veins, just like the rest of us. More on that later in the story. Along our way, we were visited by a pod of pilot whales. About 20 or so. They came within about 20 yards of us, and swam around us for about 10 minutes or so. One kept slapping it's tail fluke on the surface. An awe inspiring sight. Billy and I were at the back of the group, and two more whales surfaced about 20 feet off our sterns, and circled us before disappearing. We were on quite a high after that.
Anyway, we got to Fishing Cove, and landed. What a beautiful place! It's actually a glacial valley, with 100 foot high stone cliffs lining the entrance for about 200 yards, which end at a moraine, which constitutes the beach. There was a stream running through a breach, which impounded plenty of fresh water for drinking and bathing. There are platforms for camping all through the valley, and privies above the platforms. The only access to the area is by hiking in, or by boat. We camped on the northeast side of the cove on the side of one of the mountains that lined the cove. Spectacular. Then the rains came.........and my tent sprang about 5,000 leaks. I spent the night in the fetal position on my therma-rest sans sleeping bag. Only way to stay dry. I slept good in spite of it, and had a good laugh at my own expense in the morning. If handed lemons in the back country, make lemonade. Keeps you sane.
After breakfast, we all huddled around the marine radio to get the forecast. 25 to 30 knot winds, rain until noon, and 2 to 3 meter seas (6 to 8 feet). Doable, but we wouldn't be able to land safely at Pollet's cove in those conditions. And after 14 miles of paddling in those conditions, I want a safe landing. Decision time. Angelo, our guide, gave us the safe options:
- Stay in Fishing Cove one more night, and scrap the last leg of the paddle
- Paddle to Pleasant Bay, camp behind a dock, and make the third day a day paddle out of Pleasant Bay If the weather improves.
Alison called it --- we're in a real pretty place, and the marine forecast isn't favorable. Let's stay put, and enjoy the better campsite. We all agreed. The weather cleared about noontime, and I sponged out my tent. We looked out into the ocean, and the water was bigger than predicted. Good choice, Alison! We spent the afternoon poking around, relaxing, and feeding the blackflies. Now I know where they go when they leave Maine. About 5:00 or so, we decided to take a short afternoon paddle. The cove was calm near the beach, so launching and landing would be a snap. The seas outside the cove looked to be about 6 feet or so, and regular. No problem. We launched, and found that the seas were just slightly larger. Mike turned back, because his shoulder was hurting, and Billy stayed on shore because he wanted to hike the mountain behind our campsite, and also run the rapids in the river at the bottom of the valley. The joy of having a plastic kayak is that you can do that stuff. And Billy is a real good whitewater boater. Sorry I missed seeing it. The rest of us continued on out. Bob was grinning like the Cheshire Cat at the sight of the swells. He handled himself like someone who had much more experience. Good thing. The seas were building to 8 feet as we went out further, and he seemed to love it. Angelo's friend, Gary, had come along on the trip, and he was hooting it up like a rodeo rider. Big fun.
"Admiral, there be whales here!"
Then they came --- more pilot whales. Lots of them. And they didn't keep their distance this time. Guess they didn't read the Marine Mammal Act. Ray and I were 10 feet apart, and two whales surfaced and blew between us. I looked around, and saw that we were totally surrounded by whales. There were also whales under us and between us. Alison was shouting "oh my god" over and over, and then said "they're under me!". The whales would come within inches of the kayaks, and dive. Never touched us once. You could literally reach out and pet them as they went by. One surfaced within inches of Gary and blew, soaking him. Another slapped it's fluke next to Ray. This continued for over 20 minutes. The whales seemed to be having as much fun as we were. They left as suddenly as they came, and we paddled back to the cove on an incredible high. 7 foot following seas were a piece of cake that afternoon for some funny reason. We surfed into the cove, and landed, all shouting like kids. Ray jumped out of his boat, ran up the hill, and made sure that Mike & Billy knew they blew it by not going. Good thing we're all friends. We built a fire, and drank tea with single-malt scotch in it while we watched the tail end of the Perseid meteor shower play out above our heads. A fine day after all.
The next morning, we got up to yet another bad marine forecast. We had enough time to make it to Pleasant Bay, our emergency take-out, before the seas would turn ugly. But not much more time than that. We packed up, and headed out. The Cape Breton Highlands are simply spectacular from the water. The mountains come right to the ocean. Very pretty to see, and dangerous for paddlers who don't know the area. There are only a handful of safe places to land, and some are as much as 15 miles apart. I'm real glad we hired a guide. We made it to Pleasant Bay with building seas following us with time to spare, so we went in, and had lunch on the bank. After lunch we went down the coastline until the seas built to about 6 feet or so, and headed back to Pleasant Bay. Mike & Angelo went in, and the rest of us overshot the bay to play in the big waves. Gary was shouting at the top of his lungs at every big wave. Bob was right behind him. Bob had earned his M.S.W. (Master of Squirrely Waters) degree by this point, and Ray and I bestowed that honor upon him, which he gracefully and cheerfully accepted. Right after that, a big wave hit me across my beam, and washed over me. I braced hard into it, and shouted at the wind that it would take a lot more than that to make me swim this day. I was having fun, and even rolling would have to be my idea, not the ocean's. We went back in, and got a shuttle to our vehicles from a whale watch captain who is friends with Angelo.
This ended our guided trip. We had dinner with Angelo and Gary at a local restaurant, and said goodbye to them. Good people. We then got together, and decided to finish the paddle on our own. We drove to Meat Cove, camped there for the night, and set out early towards Pollett's Cove. We'd still miss about a 15 mile stretch of the journey, but Angelo had said we would have seen the best parts if we could get 5 miles southeast of Meat Cove before we doubled back.
Arch southwest of Meat Cove
Meat Cove is just incredible, and about as remote as you can get. I can't even begin to do it justice by trying to describe it. The cliffs were shale, infused with quartz, and crumbling in huge blocks into the sea. We paddled through a natural arch over the water, and a bit further down. Everyone except for myself, Billy, and Bob were paddling right on shore. Well, until a rockslide landed in the water right in front of Ray. I yelled in that that's why I keep my distance from cliffs. Rocks hurt if they land on you, or if you get surfed into them. I've experienced the latter, and it sucks. Then we doubled back, and overshot the cove by a couple of miles, and came in. I gathered up some rocks, and built an inukshuk on the beach to mark the journey's end. Not sure why I did -- I don't normally do things like that. Alison and Ray continued on by themselves, and came in just as the rest of us were leaving for the mainland. They were staying a few more days. I'd have liked to have stayed a bit longer, too, but it was not in the plan. The rest of us were off for Mahone Bay, NS, and then Mt. Desert Island, ME.
Overall, it was a great experience. Hiring a guide who was prepared for what eventually ended up happening was a great asset, as Angelo said that it's happened to him before there. "You pay for the trip, but the weather you get for free." And it's not always a bonus. We saw some fantastic scenery, eagles, a moose, and let's not forget our cetacean friends who like to swim around kayaks. Go there if you can. It's great. Be prepared for bad weather and big seas, and say hello to the whales for me.
Article By- Wayne Smith -- Ellington, CT
Submitted by North River Kayak Tours