Diving in the abundant waters of Nova Scotia


Walter Nicklin

THE WASHINGTON POST – “The CAT is back. The CAT is back”. Bilingual marketing for the high speed ferry is inevitable as I plan my 10 day trip to Nova Scotia. But why is it called the CAT? Cats hate water, don’t they?

It’s not until I drive our car into the Bar Harbor departure terminal and see the boat that I understand: CAT means a giant catamaran powered not by traditional shaft propellers but by jet engines. It is now “back” after a pandemic-caused hiatus – and no longer at its former berth further up the Maine coast in Portland.

The CAT’s high speed means the 98 nautical mile passage from Bar Harbor to Yarmouth takes just three hours, crossing the Gulf of Maine, one of four separate bodies of water that surround Canada’s maritime province.

The others are the Bay of Fundy, the Gulf of St. Lawrence and, of course, the Atlantic Ocean. With a resulting 10,000 mile coastline, Nova Scotia is considered “Canada’s ocean playground”, and no place in the province is more than 50 miles from the coast. My intention is to test the waters.

Will they be healing waters? Given the war in Ukraine and other disheartening current events, I feel a bit like narrator Ishmael in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. To escape “November in my soul”, he seeks “the watery part of the world”. I’ve always found solace in swimming and boating, in fact all water activities, and the waters don’t have to be warm (as they surely aren’t in Nova Scotia) to be therapies.

ABOVE AND BELOW: On the body of water known as the North Arm, the bow of the canoe points out to the Atlantic; and at the spectacular terminus of the Polly’s Cove trails is a perch overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. PHOTO: WASHINGTON POST

The rocky inlet off the Atlantic known as the North Arm offers plenty of boating and swimming opportunities close to the cottage where the author and his family stayed for a week.

The CAT arrives in Yarmouth shortly before 6 p.m. In fact, it is 7 p.m., I realize it late.

We lost an hour traveling between the Eastern time zone and the Atlantic time zone. The place I booked for the night is a couple of hours away, along what is called the “lighthouse road” from Yarmouth to Halifax. The rental cottage is not coastal but lakeside; in Nova Scotia, even the interior is home to bodies of water. According to the Nova Scotia Department of Environment and Climate Change, there are over 6,000 lakes larger than 2.5 acres.

The often memorable names of Nova Scotia’s bodies of water reflect the land’s history of settlement: from the First Nation’s Mi’kmaq word Kejimkujik (meaning “canoe-weary muscles”) to the French barachois ( coastal lagoon) through the Scottish loch.

Most of the lakes are of glacial origin. Just 15,000 years ago, the land the British would call with the Latin equivalent of “Nova Scotia” was covered in ice up to a mile thick. The now liquid lake our cabin is perched on is in the beautifully named Whynotts Settlement, just outside the old harbor town of Lunenburg.

Established in 1753 by Britain to assert control over lands claimed by both Indigenous peoples and the French known as Acadians, Lunenburg has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for retaining the layout and the original appearance of its British colonial establishment.

After a good night’s rest on the calming shores of the small lake, my wife, Pat, and her 25-year-old son, Thomas (visiting from Hawaii) want to see the vernacular 1800s architecture that Lunenburg’s waterfront is for is famous. The quaint fishing village of Blue Rocks, less than four miles offshore, also awaits. Then we head further up the coast to Halifax, where another fishing village, Peggy’s Cove, is so picturesque it’s usually crowded with tourists.

A few miles further, but away from the crowds, we reach the secluded waterfront cabin we’ve booked for a full week – our lily pad from which to make exploratory leaps.

The water here is known as the North Arm, a jagged inlet off the Atlantic Ocean. The cottage has a boating and swimming dock, which floats up and down with the incoming and outgoing tides. For paddling, we rent a canoe. At the entrance to the property is Black Duck Run, which feeds into the North Arm. But at high tide, the stream flows upstream, as if against the current, and widens into a brackish pond.

The tidal differential averages three to four feet and the water is cold, somewhere in the 60s. But I find it gets a little less cold if I take a dip at low tide.

However, I only stay in the water for a few minutes, just long enough to swim to a rocky outcrop revealed at low tide. Later in the day, as the rock becomes even more exposed, it serves as a favorite perch for a loon.

For Thomas, a big wave surfer on the North Shore of Oahu, the water is never too cold while he is surfing. So he gets in the car and heads to a surfboard rental spot on Lawrenceville Beach, a few miles northeast of Halifax.

Then he reports that the waves are just “OK” (compared to Hawaii), but still interesting and fun: a beach not of sand but of pebbles and pebbles, framed by pine trees instead of palm trees.

For Pat and I, our exhilarating aquatic adventure will be rafting the Bay of Fundy tidal bore as it travels up the rivers that feed the bay.

Thomas will join us, of course, anticipating a surf-like adrenaline rush. We make reservations for a two hour trip the next day down the Shubenacadie River, across the north side of Nova Scotia from our cabin, but only about an hour away.

Boarding the inflatable raft, fitted with a powerful outboard motor, is timed at low tide that afternoon.

It’s so low that the bank is a mudflat, and we slip and slide into the water. Our raft is one of three, each capable of holding a maximum of eight people, plus a guide at the controls of the speedboat. As we motor down the river, two bald eagles hover above us.

The Bay of Fundy, known for the most extreme tidal fluctuations in the world, is shaped like a long funnel. As the rising tide is forced into the increasingly narrow and shallower upper reaches of the bay, it collides with and reverses the river currents flowing downstream. The result is a huge cresting wave called a tidal bore – from the Old Norse word bara, meaning “first wave”.

The guide at the helm of the raft expertly navigates into the face of the wave, then zooms in and out, creating the feeling of riding a very bumpy roller coaster.

Everyone is splashed, even soaked; some howl with joy; nobody falls overboard, although it happens often (why life jackets are necessary). Standing waves are equivalent to a class three or four whitewater rapid.

Sharing our raft, giddy members of a bachelor party joke with the groom while tightly gripping the safety lines of the bouncing boat. Pat, speaking from experience, joins in the joke, “Marriage is like riding the tidal bore, up and down and wildly unpredictable”.

At the end of the trip, shivering, we were offered outdoor showers to wash off the mud before putting on dry clothes. Spraying hot water from the shower head has never felt so good.

Thrills can best be savored in retrospect, so that the next few days in our waterside cottage seem particularly restful and reflective. Relaxing in an Adirondack chair overlooking the dock, I can’t help but hear Otis Redding playing in my head: Sitting in the morning sun/I’ll ​​be sitting when evening comes. I’m also thinking about the notion of Lebenskunst (“the art of living well”), since the owners of the chalets are Swiss German.

The water here is never the same. When the prevailing southwesterly winds align with the rising tide, the surface texture is undulating, no longer smooth.

There is even an occasional whitecap. And the blue water always changes color, gradually, then suddenly, depending on the color of the sky and the angle of the light.

When the mist slips from the sea, the sharp shapes of the rocky shore soften, as if covered with a wedding veil.


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