(Nova Scotia’s South Shore)
July/August 2004

by Reinhard Zollitsch

The Celebration     

The year 2004 is a very special year for all Francophones along the shores from Louisiana to Maine, but especially for our Canadian Maritime neighbors to the north. 400 years ago, on June 26, 1604, to be exact, Pierre Dugua, “Sieur de Mons”, led 79 French settlers and traders to a small island in the St. Croix River along the present day CAN/AM border (between Maine and New Brunswick) to establish a permanent trading post in the new world.

It was the first permanent settlement of north Europeans on the eastern shores of North America (north of Florida). In return, the King of France gave Dugua a trading monopoly in the lucrative fur trade and the title “Lieutenant General of Acadie”.

With that act, French Acadia was born, which, together with the founding of the city of Quebec by Samuel de Champlain four years later, is the cradle of today’s 18 million North American people of French descent. It is of interest to note that the landing on St. Croix Island predates the first British settlements of 1607 in Jamestown, VA, as well as the Pilgrims’ leap off their Mayflower onto Plymouth Rock in 1620.

Sure, everybody knows that “in fourteen hundred ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue”, an event with monumental consequences, but remember, he did not really know where he was, he did not even know the American continent existed, and he did not stay. He came, he saw and left again, like so many other early Spanish and Portuguese explorers, as well as the Vikings at around 1000.

The first French Acadian settlement

The French 1604 expedition, unlike all other previous explorers, came over in five big sturdy sea-going ships, full of building supplies and provisions, trading goods, tools, arms, even guns. They meant business; they knew where they were going, they came with a purpose and came prepared to stay. This was no raiding party; they weren’t buccaneers or pirates, but peaceful, pious settlers and adventurous traders, but willing to protect their turf against other raiders and the native population, if necessary.

Right from the beginning, they tried to establish a good rapport with the native population, the Passamaquoddy, Malaseet and Micmacs, as the French have always done, especially in Voyageur country, because they needed them as guides and trading partners.

The St. Croix group of 79, I read, was part of a larger French project of five ships and 120 men, all making a first landing on Sable Island off Nova Scotia - what a feat in itself! From there, two ships with 41 men aboard went towards the St. Lawrence to trade, one ship went to Canso, NS, and the remaining two ships and 79 men, led by Dugua and Champlain, explored the south coast of NS and the Bay of Fundy.

The project

When I finished the first half of my solo circumnavigation of Nova Scotia in August 2003 (from Port Elgin, NB to Halifax; see my article “A Meeting at Sea” in the August issue of ACK), I immediately thought of completing my trip from Halifax to Yarmouth and Digby, paying special attention to the Acadians’ quest for the perfect site for a new home in the new world.

Fortunately we have Samuel de Champlain’s trip logs, charts and even diagrams to let us relive their audacious and perilous trip along this unforgiving, fogbound, rocky shore, rounding up into the tide-ridden Bay of Fundy. Paddling this stretch of 380 miles solo in my 17-foot Kruger Sea Wind sea canoe sounded like fun and a real challenge for a 65-year-old. I could not wait to get started and celebrate the Acadians’ historic event and my retirement.

Acadian Windjammer Parade route
Even though July and August are the foggiest months along these shores, according to the official Sailing Directions, I wanted my trip to coincide with the 2004 International Operation Sail Windjammer Parade, commemorating 400 years of Acadian presence along these shores.

The start was to be in Halifax on July 29 (just one day after my own start), and it was to end up in St. John, New Brunswick, August 15, stopping at various Nova Scotia ports on its way, including Lunenburg, Pubnico, Shelburne, Yarmouth, Meteghan and Digby, just as I was planning.

What a wonderful backdrop and escort, I thought to myself, and what a cause to celebrate along with 18 million French-speaking North Americans. But could I keep up with them? Only in my wildest dreams - I knew I had to plan my own trip through this island world and around those numerous points and capes.

I knew I would be lucky to ever really meet up with “the big boys”. But it did happen several times on my 18 day totally unassisted journey of 20 nautical miles (22.5 statute miles or 36 kilometers) per day. (As a matter of fact, I gave myself a one-day head start, and I also finished one day ahead of them!)

So here is a short summary of my 2004 Acadian venture.

The first leg: Halifax, heading southwest for 265 miles
I started in Halifax, which had recovered nicely from the devastating hit from Hurricane Juan on September 29, 2003. But I encountered the predicted fog and headwinds even before I got out of the Northwest Arm of Halifax Harbor.

Fortunately I felt reasonably comfortable with that, relying on my years of experience of ocean travel and dead reckoning (no GPS), and a new high-tech, compact lensatic radar reflector (from WEST Marine) mounted on my stern deck. But the sun eventually came out for a bouncy but stunning rounding of the bare granite headland of Peggy’s Cove and for crossing the mouth of St. Margaret’s Bay early next morning.

Mahone Bay and the area around Lunenburg, especially the Blue Rocks area, were truly a paddler’s delight - a myriad of islands and intricate passages and mostly fog free. No wonder this area turned into Nova Scotia’s ocean playground. But most of the boats I saw there were sailboats, not noisy power boats or Sea-dos - nothing like our New England or Maine coast; more like a friendly throw-back to the 1960s or 1970s.

La Have Bay, Champlain’s first Nova Scotia landfall in 1604, is another sea kayakers’ delight and offers great gunkholing through its inner clump of islands, and it has great beaches. I spent a night on Bush Island, while Champlain’s chart shows his boat anchored off mile-long Crescent Beach in Green Bay. I noted that these stunning beaches are now also accessible from shore and thus can be quite populated and noisy during the peak tourist season. So I gave them a wide berth.

I then passed “Por du Rossÿnol”, now known as Liverpool Harbor, to a spot Champlain had marked with his boat logo as his anchoring spot on his “Port au Mouton” map.  It was another remote beach campsite just outside of today’s Port Mouton, which locals, by the way, pronounce something like “Matoon” as in “a spittoon in a saloon”.  The story goes, Champlain lost a “mouton”, a sheep, overboard. I am afraid the poor thing drowned and was served for supper. The Sieur de Mons party stayed here with their two big boats for almost a month, while Champlain and eleven men scouted the route into Fundy Bay in a smaller eight ton pinnace.

This was a great spot to camp for me too, the best one so far, by the way, and right at the edge of the Canadian National Park Kejimkujik, a 10 mile stretch of no camping and no trespassing for boaters.

At Shelburne (formerly known as Port Razoir) I finally caught up to the windjammer parade, but their moorings were ten miles out of my way, and I felt I had to press on. Tall masts and a few sails five miles up the bay had to do, as I headed towards another headland named by Champlain, Cape Negro, “Cape of the black rocks”. But thanks to some eager sailor/settlers who dug a quarter-mile-long narrow canal at the head of the bay (in 1828), connecting it to the next bay over, Port La Tour Bay, I was spared bounding around those black rocks.

 I knew I would have my hands full with the next point, big bad Cape Baccaro. It was a doozie, and I was taxed to the max. I had planned a dead-low rounding, but when I got there the tide was still running hard, on top of some big swells from Hurricane Alex. I then decided prudently to go inside of Cape Sable Island and portaged over the causeway connecting it to the mainland, an agonizing 100 minutes, but this time fully in control on terra very firma. (I had hoped for a bridge.) The tiderips off Cape Sable are said to be legendary, and after Baccaro, I wanted none of it.

Turning the corner

I knew I had turned the corner when I was suddenly headed northwest, then north, and eventually northeast. The tides also suddenly began to flow with a real purpose into and out of “French Bay”, the Bay of Fundy, that is. I knew I had to work  with them and plan my point roundings very carefully, hopefully at slack tides.

This shore past Pubnico, Yarmouth, Meteghan and all the way into St. Mary’s  Bay is truly Acadian country, my charts and info books revealed. Despite the cruel, inhumane expulsion of the Acadians by the British between 1755 -1778, French town names survived, and many former Acadians eventually came back, and so did their language and culture.

There is Cape Forchu at the entrance to Yarmouth (pronounced something like “horseshoe”, meaning “Forked Cape” - a dual headland shaped like a pickle fork), Chebogue, St. Aphonse, Meteghan, Saulnierville, Comeauville, Grosses Coques, Belleveau, St. Bernard and my favorite, the Sissiboo River at Champlain’s “Port St. Margaret” (Weymouth), an English corruption of the French name “Six Hibou”,  “The River of the Six Owls”.

Joining the parade
At Meteghan I finally caught up with the windjammer fleet again and marveled at Nova Scotia’s symbol of former fishing, boat building and sailing greatness, the two-masted schooner BLUENOSE II out of Lunenburg. (Yes, I had also spent an entire day in the Lunenburg area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but found the town turned into a museum, a good one, I admit, but sadly wrung out, as towns are, when they lose their main sources of income in a short span of time. Both fishing and boat building went belly up, and have already turned into history. People here now live off tourism and their past - not my kind of a town, sorry.)

The next morning Hurricane Bonnie was approaching, as Bluenose II  left port for the  Petit Passage in Digby Neck, cautiously, with foresails only (no mainsail). I headed out in Gore-Tex, hugging the right shore towards the inside of Digby Neck, for a tiny town at the head of the bay, Barton, to be exact. I was glad I had decided to stay inside of Digby Neck, because next morning was even worse: torrential rain and minimal visibility, but a strong wind from behind and a flood tide made the ride quite exciting. I distinctly felt it was time to get off the water.

And when I arrived at the designated point at exactly 10:00 a.m. on August 14 on the high tide, as planned four days before, and met up with Nancy, who had driven up from Orono, Maine to pick me up, I suddenly felt very accomplished, smiling from ear to ear. Thanks, Nancy, for all your support which made this trip possible.  And as we drove over to the ferry in Digby Harbor, the Bluenose II  was already there and would eventually follow us across the Bay of Fundy to St. John, NB, its last stop of the Acadian Windjammer Parade.

Reflections on the first Acadian settlement

I had originally wanted to stop in “Port Royal”, just a few miles up the bay from Digby towards Annapolis Royal, but the weather was not cooperating, and time was running out. Pierre Dugua and Samuel de Champlain had stopped here on their first arrival and liked this place, but they too eventually crossed big Fundy Bay and settled instead on tiny St. Croix Island at the mouth of the St. Croix River where it opens into Passamaquoddy Bay. The two leaders and 77 men felt even more protected there, but had to learn a bitter lesson in climatology during their first winter, when 35 men died and 20 more had to be nursed back to health due to cold, starvation and scurvy.

Being good sailors, they were always thinking in latitudes and had thought that 45 degrees north on the western shores of the Atlantic (like in Maine) had more or less the same climate as 45 degrees on the eastern shore of that ocean (like in Bordeaux, France). What they did not know was that there is a significant difference between having a large, rapidly cooling continent to your west, or a much more slowly cooling large body of water.

But they were quick learners and left the next August, exploring the entire Atlantic coast down to Cape Cod. However, they eventually returned to their first choice, up Digby Gut to “Port Royal”, which was somewhat milder than Maine. And this time they built their habitation on shore, not on an ice-bound island.

Happy ending

All’s well that ends well, and from this little settlement and the founding of Quebec City two years later (by Champlain also, by the way), today’s 18 million French-speaking North Americans arose. And this year, the year 2004, they were all celebrating their 400th birthday in a joyous fashion with Acadian (Cajun) music, dance, food and flag-waving, the French tricolor with a gold star in it, that is.

It was a pleasure and a privilege for me to be part of this celebration, be it only in a small way, but I immensely enjoyed seeing their ports and homesteads and even trying my by now quite rusty school French. I marveled at and admired how these quiet, strong people made a living along these harsh and unforgiving shores.

And for you boaters reading this, trust me, there are some very rough segments out there, but also some very kind and beautiful island-filled bays. But wherever you go, remember, the water is brutally cold, and outside help is not as easily available along Nova Scotia’s remote shores as it is in New England.  

Salute to the Acadians!


Info sources:
NOAA charts, Halifax to St. Mary’s Bay: see Canadian chart catalogue for numbers (absolutely necessary; do not leave home without them; there is no substitute)
Sailing Directions, Nova Scotia (Atlantic Coast) and Bay of Fundy. Fisheries and Oceans, Ottawa, Canada.
Scott Cunningham: Sea Kayaking in Nova Scotia. Nimbus, 1996.
H.P. Biggar (ed): The Works of Samuel de Champlain. Vol. I, The Champlain Society, Toronto, 1922. (great reading with maps and pertinent footnotes; bilingual text)
Saint Croix Island. National Park Service, US Dept. of the Interior, GPO 2002. (free hand-out)
Reinhard Zollitsch: A Meeting at Sea. (Part I of my Nova Scotia circumnavigation). Atlantic Coastal Kayaker. Ipswich, MA, August, 2004.
Reinhard Zollitsch: The Acadians Have Landed. (St. Croix Island Settlement). Messing about in Boats. Wenham, MA, September 15, 2004.
A full 13-page travelogue of this trip appeared in the November15/Dec.1/Dec15, 2004 issues of MESSING ABOUT IN BOATS, Wenham, MA.

Verlen Kruger 17’2’’ Sea Wind sea canoe (Kevlar) with rudder and spray skirt
Zaveral Whitewater/Expedition carbon fiber bent shaft marathon canoe racing paddle (11 oz)
Ritchie deck-mounted compass with course memory bezel
Lensatic passive radar reflector (from WEST MARINE) mounted on stern deck
Iridium satellite phone and VHF marine radio telephone with NOAA weather stations
Standard camping gear and food, for beach camping
Expenses other than gear, food and car shuttles: none

Distances given in statute miles, unless specifically given in nautical miles (as on all charts).

© Reinhard Zollitsch