By Reinhard Zollitsch

John Cabot's 1497 landing in the new world

I had recently read two books on John Cabot's historic trip to the new world in 1497, and was absolutely spellbound by this brave venture into totally unknown territory. Sure, he thought he was looking for a seaway to China and did not fully understand what he found; neither did Christopher Columbus five years earlier, a tad to the south. It was still a great feat of seamanship and very chancy, as his trip the following year proved. All four boats of the expedition were lost, and not a single sailor lived to tell the tale.

Cape Bauld at the northern tip of Newfoundland or Cape North, the most northern point of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, are the two most likely “Prima Terra Vista” where he might have stepped ashore, raised the flag and a cross to stake his claim for the British crown. And since Cape Breton Island had eluded me on my 2003/2004 venture circumnavigating the province of Nova Scotia, I felt I had to tackle this formidable, steep, harsh, lonely and windswept island, and as usual, solo in my trusty Kruger sea canoe, and check out John Cabot's landing spot while I was at it. (Did you know that he was actually born as Giovanni Caboto in Genoa, Italy? His name was changed to John Cabot when he offered his services to the merchants of Bristol, England in 1494.)

In any case, I would drive the almost 500 miles from Orono, Maine to the causeway across the Strait of Canso, connecting the island to the mainland. I would try to leave my car at a safe place near the locks and paddle the 340 miles up the western shore to Cape St. Lawrence, across to Cape North, and then down the eastern shore into the Bras D'Or Lakes, which conveniently return you via the St. Peter's locks to the Strait of Canso, my starting point.

It sounds so easy, but always takes a lot of preparation, including reserving a camping spot in the Cape Breton National Park for day five of my trip. I had learned my lesson: no wild beach camping in a Canadian National Park.  In May I had “paddled to the sea” from Lake Ontario to Québec city in order to celebrate that city's upcoming 400th birthday, but this time I would really “paddle to the sea”, the Cabot Strait, separating Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, and to the open Atlantic. That should be exciting; I couldn't wait.

Cape Breton Map
Click to enlarge map

Leg one: Up the western shore of Cape Breton Island

I gulped as I followed one of the area's worst rain and hail storms to the island, got a room at the Cove Motel right at the causeway, and was allowed to park my car there for the duration of my trip, 16 days. Thanks, folks! Nancy was minding the fort at home in Orono, and I would contact her each evening at a prearranged time for my brief safety check-in via satellite phone.

Geared up and ready to go at the Strait of Candso, Gulf-side
Geared up and ready to go at the Strait of Canso, Gulf-side

First days on the water are mostly the hardest, but this day, June 29, 2007, was downright bad. Not only was the boat with all its gear and food for the entire trip at its heaviest, the wind was blowing 20 knots from the NW, onto my left bow. It had a very long fetch to boot, and waves were breaking everywhere. I was wet in no time and going nowhere. I seriously wondered what I was doing here. I could have stayed home watching the America's Cup and the Tour de France on TV, patting my aging but still very eager and appreciative dog by my feet, and enjoying Nancy's cheerfulness around me - not to mention getting to know my brand-new grandson in Maine, born June 25. I was close to giving up, but dug in harder when I noticed what my mind was doing.

I usually only do one big trip a year, but after my 350-mile paddle from Lake Ontario down the St. Lawrence to Québec city in late May, I suddenly felt the urge to go around Cape Breton, to complete my "Paddle to the Sea", but mostly because one never knows whether my aging bones would let me gear up for another big trip the next year. The fear of aging was finally catching up to me at age 68, especially when it comes to taking on formidable challenges like the very exposed Cape Breton Island.

After five hard and wet hours on the water, I ducked into Judique Harbor, having made it up the coast only 19 miles. I was spent and set up my tent on a small patch of grass near the town ramp. A belated lunch of PB&J and coffee slowly picked me up. I then learned that this day was the last day of the lobstering season - “and would I like to celebrate this occasion with a lobster?” a friendly lobster fisherman asked. I showed him my tiny pot. “No problem. I'll be back later”. And he was, around supper time, with a steaming, boiled lobster and a bottle of beer. "Enjoy! It's on me!" That did it: The trip was on for sure. Cape St. Lawrence and Cape North, here I come! And I never doubted myself again.

I had planned to average close to 20 nautical miles (22.5 statute miles), and I did just that: 21 statute miles for a total of 336 miles in 16 days - no time off for wind or fog; I paddled through everything. In three days I paddled past Port Hood, Mabou (watch out for the very strong ebb tide at its mouth) and Margaree Harbor to the biggest fishing port along this western shore of Cape Breton Island, to Cheticamp. Every day the wind stayed more or less in the west and increased with each hour. So I decided to start my day at 5:00 a.m. Atlantic Time, which seemed awfully early, even before sunrise. The tide the first six days up the western shore was ebbing from 5:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., while the flood tide took over the remaining 12 hours – a strange diurnal tide pattern, which I was familiar with from the north shore of Prince Edward Island. On clear days I had PEI on my western horizon for a long time, till it finally dropped out of sight behind me.

"Room with a view" near McDonald Glen

So far the shoreline had been steep right from the beginning, mostly twisted sedimentary sandstone or igneous bedrock, ranging from red to black. But there were some harbors now and then to run into for shelter, if needed, or small pocket beaches to land on, in an emergency. From Cheticamp on, though, my charts indicated that harbors and pocket beaches would be fewer the farther north I went, and the shore would get even steeper right down to the water. I would have to plan my runs very carefully, from one possible take-out to the next.

Just north of Cheticamp the Cape Breton Island National Park starts. On a sunny day, the shore is absolutely stunning, while mist or even fog will continue to hang over the highland moors. A lone pilot whale greeted me at the entrance, and a few more passed by me unperturbed later. Up on the steep hills to my right I occasionally saw cars on the famous, spectacular coastal route, the Cabot Trail.

Start of the Cabot Trail auto road, Cape Breton Highlands Nat'l Park
Start of the Cabot Trail auto road, Cape Breton Highlands Nat'l Park

I made it fine to Fishing Cove, the only park campsite accessible from the water. I pitched my tent on the nearest tent platform, watched several hikers drop in, and had a wonderful, sunny and restful day. All my gear got dried, a real triumph for a small boater.

Leg two: The big task - rounding the two capes

Now for the two northern capes. I had planned to stop short of Cape St. Lawrence on a seawall in Lowland Cove and then sneak around the two capes in the calm of the next morning. That sounded great; only the wind sprang up from the NW again as I passed Pleasant Bay, increasing while I was trying to get past the last 5-mile long High Capes. Scott Cunningham calls this area “most spectacular”. He even mentions waterfalls – sorry, Scott, I missed it. I had my eyes on the breaking waves on my left and could not appreciate the stunning views on my right. All I knew was that I had a fiercely steep and very hard shore downwind from me on my right. It was rugged looking all right, but I had no leisure to enjoy the beauty of it all.

Pleasant Bay/High Capes - typical steep shoreline
Pleasant Bay/High Capes - typical steep shoreline

Well, I made it into Lowland Cove, but found I could not possibly land in the surf on the designated “beach”, which was more of a hard seawall anyway. So I tucked into an even smaller but slightly better protected seawall cove just before it, noticing later that the brittle sandstone cliffs behind my tent were breaking up, showering rocks to either side of me. I analyzed the situation, worked out the gravity forces, put my bullet-proof Kevlar boat behind my tent as a rock-catcher and stayed. (I did not have much of a choice in that tiny cove anyway.) It rumbled all afternoon and night, but never hit my humble abode with me in it.

Tomorrow was going to be the day I had been looking forward to for quite some time, with some trepidation, I must admit. Rounding the two most northerly capes, Cape St. Lawrence and Cape North, was definitely going to be the high point of my Cape Breton Island trip. I had studied my charts carefully, as well as read Scott Cunningham's sea kayaking guide for Nova Scotia, and had transferred all pertinent information onto my charts. I knew all the options I had, traversing this forlorn, desolate and fierce looking shoreline, 22 miles to a waterfall I had picked for my next stopover on the other side.

I skipped making coffee in the morning and had an even earlier start. The tide was still going out, but the wind was in the NW again, breaking on all off-shore rocks. I anticipated a tidal confusion at the tip of the first cape, but was able to tuck right behind the sheer cliffs and found an absolutely surreal calm sea off the most stunning rock formations yet. The dark, layered rocks were twisted and contorted like taffy. Thin streaks of brilliant white quartz underlined the agony this shore must have gone through when it was formed. I even found a large rock arch spanning into the water like a flying buttress of a mighty cathedral. I was spellbound and really enjoyed being here. This was it all right, and definitely made up for the High Capes I had missed yesterday.

Archway in Cabot Strait
Archway in Cabot Strait

I had a hard time tearing myself away from this grandiose landscape, but I still had to round another cape, Cape North, sticking even farther north into Cabot Strait with the open Atlantic on the other side, rather than the Gulf of St. Lawrence - there is a distinct difference between the two.

The two tiny harbors of Meat Cove and MacDougal Harbor could offer minimal shelter, if one needed it between the two capes. I, however, wanted to get to Cape North as fast as possible. But rounding the last 8-mile large St. Lawrence Bay seemed to take forever, 2 hours that is. By then the wind had picked up again from the SW, and rounding the cape as well as the lighthouse point one mile later were exciting, to say the least. What a stunning, steep and rugged corner this is. My chart has this mountain range at almost 1500 feet above sea level. It must therefore be visible from sea for miles. And this is exactly what John Cabot may/must have seen on his first venture to the new world in 1497, according to the Bristol school of historians.

Cape North lighthouse
Cape North Lighthouse

I loved seeing a picture of the reenactment of Cabot's landing in the little cove to the east of Cape North in 1997 (500 years later) in my books on John Cabot. I paddled right by that little beach, just before the lighthouse point. I dipped my cap in acknowledgement of the seafaring prowess of crew and master, then dug in again to get to that little beach near the waterfall on my charts, another seven miles down this very steep shore, now running to the SW.
And there it was, and the beach was fine sand and wide and high enough to be safe on at high tide in a breeze. (The steep walls behind me would not have allowed me to seek higher shelter.)

Leg three: Down the eastern shore of Cape Breton Island

Next day started fairly calm, but foggy. I made it around big Aspy Bay past Dingwall, but when I rounded White Point and Cape Egmont the wind suddenly picked up from the SE accompanied by huge swells. They got fiercer by the minute and started breaking menacingly from over my left bow. I worked hard to get into the nearest harbor which was New Haven, 1.5 miles short of my target, Neil Harbor.

I was glad to be in, even though I had picked a noisy, smelly, untidy place with a lobster canning factory right on the docks - but I had no choice. Thick fog greeted me again the next morning, but I was off, working my way towards Ingonish Harbor, with its two huge semicircular bays to the north and steep Ingonish Island squatting there at the entrance like an overgrown drumlin-shaped watchdog. Recent archaeological digs on the island suggest that it was occupied as a summer fishing camp by the Portuguese as early as 1521; they may even have overwintered here, which would make this island one of the earliest "European settlements" this side of the Atlantic...

I felt my way into the harbor and pulled out just inside the large harbor-bay.
Then it rained - time for a hot cup of cocoa, some fun reading, then studying my charts for tomorrow's haul and a brief 3-minute phone call home on my sat-phone, the high point of each day.

Fog over Ingonish
Fog over Ingonish

After dark and gloomy-looking Cape Smoky, the coast would run straight SW past hostile sounding Wreck Cove and Wreck Point, without any significant or even insignificant bight or bay or sheltering string of islands. I had to make sure I knew where I was along this still very steep shore and keep going till I got to the first harbor, Briton Harbor, sixteen miles down the stretch. I called it a day, because there did not seem to be a good take-out spot for the next thirteen miles to St. Ann's Harbor. I started drying my gear, when a sudden violent thunderstorm put a halt to that endeavor.

Leg four: On the "Lake with the Golden Arms" (The Bras D'Or Lakes)

It seemed endless to get to the entrance to the Bras D'Or Lakes from Cape North, but I finally did. When I rounded Cape Dauphin, which the local fishermen naively call Cape Dolphin (it was named after French royalty, not an aquatic mammal), I noticed the tide was still running out, and it was ebbing so hard at the mouth of the narrows between Carey and Noir Point, that I was about to get out of my boat and pull it around the gravelly tip. But a fisherman in high waders beat me to it. He grabbed my bow line and kindly gave me a boost around the very point.

I had read that tides were negligible in the lakes, but I guess not at the outlet narrows. As a matter of fact, I saw a train of standing tidal waves along the SE shore almost six miles up to the first road bridge, while I found a decent, equally long eddy current along the opposite shore. Just short of the bridge, so I would not hear the traffic, I pulled out on a small pocket beach, just big enough for my tent. Swimming that afternoon was great, and much warmer than around the capes.

I was in, on the lake with the many "Golden Arms", as the name implies. Paddling on the central Bras D'Or Lake, though, is everything but paddling "On Golden Pond",  the quaint little lake in the well known "Fonda" movie which was filmed on New Hampshire's tiny Squam Lake.  Bras D'Or Lake has a 15-square-mile center, extending 20 or even 40 miles in places. A perfect body of water for sailors and power boaters, but a tad too big for small man-powered boats when the wind springs up. Picture Penobscot Bay in Maine, and you get the idea.

Bras D'Or Lakes - sunset over
Bras D'Or Lakes - sunset over "Lake with the Golden Arms"

My first goal was Baddeck, the only town of any significance along this large lake. I was somewhat surprised to see miles and miles of steep grayish-white limestone shore on my way there, after seeing nothing but red sandstone, gray granite and mostly black, slate-like metamorphic and igneous bedrock. When I finally rounded the last significant promontory, Beinn Bhreagh (don't you love that name?), Baddeck proper finally came into view. It was the first active port I had come to since Cheticamp. There were lots of big sailboats moored; some power boats as well as surf skis were whizzing about; there was a sail board, and a junior sailboat lesson in progress. This was a true vacation spot with restaurants and motels ashore, even a museum, the well-known Alexander Graham Bell Museum.

"White Cliffs" near Baddeck
"White Cliffs" near Baddeck

But it was lunch time. I hung onto the inside of Kidston Island, munched down my minimal lunch, while quietly watching the busy scene and enjoying the rich smell of a large clump of wild beach roses along my shore. Then I pushed on towards my next stop, well before Barra Strait, the narrows between the two biggest of the Bras D'Or Lakes.

When I got there the next day, I again encountered a noticeable tidal flow of about 2 knots. The big lake then dished out thick fog again, taking away all visibility. I had to carefully navigate through lots of islands and many convoluted points and peninsulas to a protected little beach I had picked, just before Fiddle Head Point, a perfect jump-off spot for tomorrow's cross-over to Cape George. I got in before the predicted 30 knot winds sprang up, which felt good.

Thick fog greeted me yet again the next morning for my very intricate course to Cameron Island and then 3.5 miles across open water to Pringle Island; and yes, there was yet another strong wind warning for later in the day. So I hustled. I made all my way points, till one mile out into the lake, when out of the blue (you better make that gray, since the fog was still hanging around) I was unexpectedly slammed by a sudden 25-30 mile per hour SW wind, smack dab on my right bow. It was not supposed to hit till this afternoon! Its timing was real bad.

I was stopped in my tracks and was forced  to veer off a bit to the east to make any headway. The waves were steep and wet, as I angled over them. I had to switch beyond race-mode into overdrive to reach shore - and all this without any visibility. That made it even rougher on the old bod as well as the mind. Two and a half miles can be a very long stretch under those conditions.

But I hung in there and was able to fetch the next point, a good mile down the shore, and after a brief rest, slugged on towards Cape George -  another taxing six-hour paddle for the day. I stopped just short of the Cape, which I could barely make out and holed up for the rest of the day after a quick skinny dip in the nicely  warmer waters of the big lake.

At that point I wondered what I would say after my trip when asked "How did you like the Bras D'Or Lakes?" I would have to answer that the water seemed big, and that I missed seeing shore in the constant thick fog. And when it finally cleared, I saw nothing but wooded rolling hills with some farmland in between but only very few small communities here and there - a lonely, far-away place.

Leg five: Through St. Peter's locks and back to the Strait of Canso

More dense fog the next day, which meant more accurate navigating for me by chart, compass and stop-watch, i.e. dead reckoning - no GPS. No, I am not an old stick-in-the-mud, afraid of modern technology, but rather enjoy doing this as an intellectual challenge and being a minimalist.

After Cape George the lake funnels towards the locks at St. Peter's, where I could not see from one gate to the other. Two big sailboats, headed for Pictou Harbor, NS, locked through with me, but decided to dock on the Atlantic side to wait out the even denser fog here. We were going the same direction, and I knew they must have been somewhat embarrassed when I quietly pushed off with a gentle smile. You see, I like fog. Maybe they were even thinking of siccing the Coast Guard on me or holding me back physically, so they would not have to rescue me off the rocks somewhere. In any case, I liked their concern, but I was off again.

St. Peter's locks - double doors to the foggy Atlantic
St. Peter's locks - double doors to the foggy Atlantic

I headed WSW into Lennox Passage where 9 miles later, at Grandique Ferry, I finally got my visby back. The rest of the day turned into the best day yet;  even the sun came out, and I got all my wet clothes from the last three days dried. My pre-picked spot for the last night of my trip was a black stone beach near Rock Point, at the western end of Lennox Passage.

What a difference the sun makes. Island-strewn Lennox Passage was beautiful and full of bird life, including loons. The rest of Cape Breton Island had impressed me as very quiet, except for the constant raucous calls of the ravens, the shrill, adamant cries of the terns, and the gentle wheezy whistles of the Black Guillemots. I also saw and heard several bald eagles, but not until now loons and ospreys. On the whole, it has been a quiet journey compared to other trips of mine, and it has been at least as foggy as the south shore of Nova Scotia.

End of trip

My trip was winding down for sure, and it could not have come at a nicer place: no man-made structure in sight, no noise of human habitation, just me in my little tent at the edge of a large ocean. Tomorrow, Lennox Passage would spit me out into the Strait of Canso, which could either take you out into the open Atlantic to the SE, or to the NW, up to my put-in point at the Canso causeway and locks.

Last day of the trip - sunrise over Lennox Passage
Last day of the trip - sunrise over Lennox Passage

I passed the large freighter Heather Knutsen, anchored in one of several  designated holding areas, waiting to be escorted into Port Hawkesbury with all its industry and large port facilities. And I was right. Another freighter was just leaving its berth when I was about to paddle past. I thought better of it, backed up and gave freighter and hard-working tugboat plenty of room to swing free.

And then, there it was, Porcupine Mountain to the left of the causeway, and the entrance to the locks on the right. "Canso locks, Canso locks; this is sea canoe Sea Wind, sea canoe Sea Wind, approaching from the SE." "Stand back, I'll open one wing", was the instant reply, just as on my 2003 trip through here. And with that I transferred from the Atlantic back to the Gulf of St. Lawrence in just a couple of minutes.

Strait of Canso locks - back to the Gulf of St. Lawrence
Strait of Canso locks - back to the Gulf of St. Lawrence

And as I paddled the last couple of miles across the Strait back into the cove where I had parked my car at the motel, I breathed a big sigh of relief. "You did it once again, Reinhard; good job, and right on schedule, and again without any damage to boat, gear, body or soul. Maybe you aren't as old as your passport says." I chuckled, as I noticed I was talking to myself after 16 days alone at sea.

It was only noon, July 14, 2007, as I finished today's 18-mile stretch, grounding out my boat at the little Cove Motel beach. A large group of people in a very festive mood welcomed me in. "What's up?" I asked. "A big wedding!" was the answer. I was relieved. I got my car, packed up, checked out, and phoned home, leaving a message saying I was starting my almost 500-mile long trek home to Maine.

End of another sucessful solo trip
End of another successful solo trip

Eight and a half hours later, with only one brief gas stop, as well as a slightly longer stop at the border, I rolled out of my little VW Golf onto the driveway in front of my house.  I got my face licked by my trusty old yellow Lab and my wife Nancy, who was then kind enough to pick up the pieces and get me indoors.

Home at last
Home at last

End of trip.



Strictly solo and unassisted circular trip of 340 statute miles in 16 days, clockwise   around Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, from the causeway to the island and back (no car shuttle) - 21 miles per day on average.
Boat: 17'2" Kevlar Kruger Sea Wind sea canoe (
Carbon fiber Zaveral marathon racing paddle (
Luneberg lensatic, passive radar reflector from West Marine (so I show up on other boats' radar screens)
6' bicycle wiggle stick with orange flag (for enhanced visibility in fine weather) Regular beach camping gear; all food for 16+1 days; 5 gals of water (topped off twice)
NOAA charts, Ritchie compass and stopwatch for navigation
VHF radio telephone with weather stations
Iridium Satellite telephone (which I use only for short outgoing calls home)
Peter Firstbrook: The Voyage of the Matthew. BBC Books, 1997.
Brian Cuthbertson: John Cabot & the Voyage of the Matthew. Formac Publ. Co. LTD., Halifax, 1997.

Cape Breton Highlands National Park

16648 Cabot Trail, P.O. Box 158, Cheticamp, N.S.  BOE 1H0 Canada

© Reinhard Zollitsch