Dirtbag Diaries: Journey Around Nova Scotia

By Ed Martin

On August 11, 2017, Peter Bojanic and I set out from Hubbards in Saint Margarets Bay to circumnavigate Nova Scotia. It was the first time the two of us had ever paddled together.

Peter and I had met the previous October at the Sea Kayaking Cornwall Annual Symposium. We stayed in touch and it emerged that Peter wanted a partner to paddle round his home province of Nova Scotia. I also wanted to do an expedition but didn’t have a partner and lacked the confidence to paddle alone. By the end of January, we had formed an unlikely partnership and committed to do the trip together the following August. We allowed 50 days to complete the 900 nautical mile journey.

I started paddling in 2015 so had relatively little experience in a kayak. I am, however, an experienced sailor, and I’ve covered thousands of miles on long-distance cycle trips so I felt I had a lot to contribute to our partnership. Peter is a certified BCU 5 Star paddler and it was reassuring for me to know that he would have the skills to help me out if I got into trouble.

On the day of our departure we were blessed with perfect blue skies, a flat sea and a light following breeze; it felt good to be finally underway. We stopped for ice-cream at the iconic Peggy’s Cove and ended our day at East Coast Outfitters in Lower Prospect where we were treated to lobster dinner. Over the next few days we encountered more challenging conditions, but I felt myself settle into the rhythm of expedition life.

During that first week, Peter and I were learning how to operate as a team, and although it didn’t feel like the most natural partnership, I still felt confident that we would find our feet. It was encouraging to notice that we were paddling at similar speeds and I was glad that we had both committed to buying the same boat for the trip – a three-piece Rockpool Taran 16′.

By the end of the first week, I felt stronger and more relaxed on the water. Peter, however, was struggling to sustain the distances we needed to cover each day and was clearly affected by the discomfort of expedition life. We were consistently falling short of the mileages necessary to complete our journey as planned. I was frustrated because I felt we should be capitalizing on the favorable weather. During one discussion about our progress, Peter suggested that if we failed to make it round in the time we had available, he could finish it bit by bit the following year. This was shocking to hear and it was a comment I was unable to forget. I had made considerable sacrifices to do the trip and now I was determined to complete it.

By the end of week two, a number of factors led me to make the difficult decision to continue the trip alone. I was anxious about the prospect of a solo journey and very aware of the increased level of risk. I was disappointed that Peter and I had failed to develop a strong partnership, and I was concerned about the impact my decision would have on him. In the end though, despite my efforts to encourage and support Peter, I really felt that I had no choice. Sadly, our partnership did not end amicably, and Peter abandoned his trip the next day. We never spoke again and I suspect we never will.

After Peter and I separated, I paddled on for hours without stopping and eventually landed just after sunset. It had been an emotionally draining day and as I paddled, my thoughts settled; I knew I had made the right decision. The following morning, I launched into choppy conditions and paddled towards Sydney Harbor. I needed supplies to continue the journey alone. In particular, I needed a new iPhone (mine had died a couple of days earlier), stove fuel and some more food. After an unpleasant couple of hours of paddling in strong winds, I landed at South Bar. Soaked and exhausted, I walked up the lane and came across a man sat in this yard in the sunshine. I approached him and said, “I’ve had a really shitty few days. I could use some help”.

Ralph Allen told me to take a seat and his wife Doris brought me homemade blueberry muffins and coffee. Ralph took me into town to try and buy a phone. In a Walmart car-park, we bumped into his son Trevor who insisted that he’d help me find a better deal. Twenty minutes later, he had found a nearly new iPhone in the local classifieds. 150 dollars later, it was all sorted. My phone was my lifeline for weather information, navigation and communication and essential to my trip, so this was a great relief. I spent the afternoon reorganizing gear and preparing for my onward journey.

The next day I was on the water at 6 a.m. I paddled out of Sydney Harbor carrying a two-week supply of food, enough fuel to last the rest of the trip and a three-day supply of water. I had a $10 road map of Nova Scotia in a map case on my deck and Navionics navigation software on my phone. The feeling of freedom as I watched the sunrise that morning was a powerful experience. I wanted to challenge myself and find out what I was capable of so I pushed hard in challenging conditions. In the end, I covered 50 miles (80 kilometers) that day. The atmosphere of the journey had been transformed from being stressful and frustrating into something joyful and rewarding; with every paddle stroke my contentment grew.

I continued around Cape Breton Island and the landscape became more and more beautiful. The coastline in the north of the island has long stretches of intimidating cliffs which give way to deep bays and inlets with beautiful beaches. This part of the province is abundant with wildlife and in some of the more remote areas, it has the qualities of an unspoiled wilderness.

As I paddled farther, I was able to judge my speed more accurately, navigate with greater confidence and identify dangers beneath the surface by reading the water. The more time I spent in bigger conditions, the more faith I developed in myself as paddler and in my Taran as an outstanding sea kayak. It was interesting to notice how much my skills advanced after I went solo. The feeling of vulnerability you get when you paddle alone forces you to make considered decisions. You really pay attention to your environment and the changing weather conditions. You become acutely aware of the potential dangers and learn to identify which risks are worth taking and which risks carry unacceptable consequences.

The people of Nova Scotia were a highlight for me. It seems there is something fascinating about a lone kayaker paddling into some out-of-the-way place. I never had to wait long after landing before someone would approach me and start chatting, and I never once felt lonely. Many of these harbor-side meetings ended up leading to a meal, a shower or a bed for the night and on many occasions all three. I met some wonderful characters along the way and got some incredible insights into the lives of the locals.

My Taran was exceptional in all respects and stood up to a lot of abuse. On a solo expedition, a boat definitely takes more punishment because at times you invariably have to drag it up beaches and over rocks. The Taran was fast and stable when fully loaded and would surf eagerly even in small wind chop, enabling me to capitalize on down-wind runs. I could comfortably carry three weeks of food and fuel without impacting the boat’s performance. The three-piece construction always felt rock-solid and meant I could split the boat into pieces to carry it up tricky shorelines. I did this a number of times. I could carry each section up the beach without having to unpack my boat. I’d found my ideal kayak.

As the trip progressed, I became increasingly acclimated to my nomadic lifestyle. I became better at living well with less. I searched out places to sleep which would save me the effort of putting up my tent. I slept in the back of a truck; I slept under a bridge; I slept in abandoned cabins; I slept in fishermen’s huts on harbor wharves. Several times I got chatting with lobstermen and was offered a bunk on their boats. When I camped in remote areas, I would spend my evenings reading beside a campfire, skinny-dipping in phosphorescence or looking up at the stars and listening to music. It was easy to overlook the discomforts of this way of life and focus instead on the beauty of the natural environment.

After a month of paddling, I arrived at Tidnish Bridge on the New Brunswick border where I got a lift across to Aulac at the top of the Bay of Fundy. The Bay of Fundy has the largest tidal range in the world. Currents are very strong there and the tide-races can be extremely dangerous. I had been becoming increasingly apprehensive about this section of the trip and this anxiety was exacerbated by the stories I was told by locals. Nevertheless, I set out at 4:30 a.m. and headed out in darkness into the last of the flood tide to pick up the ebb to carry me west. After a nervy start, the sun came up and I found myself enjoying the favorable current and making good progress.

The following day, I made it to Advocate Harbor from where I planned to make the 10-mile crossing of the Minas Channel over to the opposite shore. I sought advice from some fishermen on the wharf and was told categorically not to attempt the crossing. I was even asked if I was on drugs. I had studied the tidal atlas, and the weather for the following day was perfect. I spoke to some other people to try and get a more balanced opinion. One local warned of twelve-foot breaking waves that can occur in the race off Cape d’Or and insisted that the spring tides were huge at the moment. As he told me this, I was looking over his shoulder at a perfect half moon and I began to realize that his advice was not to be trusted. Eventually, I spoke to a retired fisherman who gave me some sensible advice about when to cross the race and his suggestions tallied with my own calculations. I went to bed early in preparation for a pre-dawn start the next morning.

I was afloat at 6 a.m. There was no wind and the sea was calm, but the visibility was down to about 50 yards thanks to heavy fog. Despite this, I knew that this was my best weather window for the foreseeable future so decided to go for it. I picked my way out of Advocate Harbor against the last two hours of the flood tide and worked along an eddy line close inshore to carry me down towards Cape d’Or. The locals had said the tide would be running hard against me right up to the shore so I had given myself plenty of time to paddle against the flow. In the end, I just drifted down in the eddy and waited for slack water before crossing the race. Finally, twenty minutes before slack water, I set out into the fog and left the booming foghorn of the lighthouse at Cape d’Or behind me. The water was oily calm as I crossed the notorious tide race. A couple of hours later, the opposite shore came into view.

The crossing of the Minas Channel taught me to have faith in my experience and ability. I had done the research, picked my weather window, and made the journey safely in calm conditions without any drama. That evening I posted on social media: “I could have done without the thick fog today but otherwise the crossing of the Minas Channel was a piece of cake…the moral of the story is to tune out scare-mongering bullshitters and trust my own judgement.”

Fog became my nemesis for the remainder of the trip. It brought a new dimension of pressure and forced me to make some committing crossings to avoid hazardous shoals close inshore. The combination of adverse conditions and time pressure, if I was to make my flight, reached a climax on the final day. The weather forecast that day was far rosier than the weather I experienced. The visibility was poor, and I had agreed to finish at 5 p.m. so that a press photographer could take some photos of me for a newspaper.

I battled strong headwinds and a big, confused sea as I crossed Saint Margarets Bay. It took me nearly 4 hours to make a 7-mile crossing, but eventually the lighthouse at Peggy’s Cove appeared out of the gloom. I needed to get off the water and rest but the conditions at the harbor entrance made making landfall quite difficult. In the end, I pushed on and made it to East Coast Outfitters at exactly 5 p.m.

That last day was the hardest thing I’d ever done and I knew I’d taken unacceptable risks. I put ego before seamanship and pride before good sense. I felt like I had only just gotten away with it. Nevertheless, I had completed my circumnavigation in 47 days and it felt amazing.

My journey around Nova Scotia has become a defining experience for me. Paddling solo afforded me the opportunity to really challenge myself physically and I discovered that I’m capable of more than I ever imagined. Traveling alone also allowed me to meet more people, and I experienced incredible generosity and kindness everywhere I went. It truly was an unforgettable adventure.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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