A canoeist's view

Reinhard Zollitsch
Pictures by Nancy Zollitsch
February 2014

The island province - "land cradled on the waves" (or stuck in the ice in winter)

I just turned my calendar to March and checked the outdoor temperature, as I do every morning: another zero Fahrenheit, or -17° Celsius, for you metric people. If you live in the Midwest or Northeast, as I do, you know that the winter of 2013-14 has been an extremely cold and snowy season. But I truly feel for our neighbors to the north, right smack dab under the ever-present polar vortex, the weather bureau's favorite term for this cold snap. So, what about the people in the Canadian Maritime provinces? How did they fare along the shores of the Atlantic and the Gulf of St. Lawrence?

Ever since Nancy and I have gone to Prince Edward Island (known to the native Mi'kmaq as "Abegweit", "land cradled on the waves"; then Île-Saint-Jean or St. John's Island) for our summer vacation, we have had a hard time picturing an island province, 400 miles around, engulfed in ice: piled-high pack-ice, closing in the Northumberland Strait, making it nearly impossible for the ferry boats to run from Cape Tormentine, New Brunswick across to Borden on the island side. Before the time of mighty ferries like the Abegweit, the only connection to the mainland was by weekly iceboats, wooden rowing-sailing boats of sorts, that would have to be pulled by the crew in leather harnesses across the frozen parts of the Strait. I have seen pictures of that, and had a hard time imagining what that must have been like, across 8 miles of pack-ice and ice-choked waters.

So, no wonder the province of Prince Edward Island (or PEI for short) wished for a bridge to the mainland, which finally, in 1997, became a reality when technology and federal funding made it possible. And what an impressive, elegant structure this Confederation Bridge is. That was 17 years ago, and many PEI people seem to have forgotten what it was like for their parents and grandparents to be cut off from the rest of the world, at least in the depth of winter.

150 years ago exactly (1864), the founding fathers (and mothers?) of Canada gathered in the PEI governor's mansion overlooking the large harbor of Charlottetown (formerly known as Port La Joye) and started to hammer out a confederation for Canada. Charlottetown was thus considered the cradle of Canada, but it took three years to decide what to name the baby (Kingdom/Dominion/Confederation – or just plain Canada) and get things in order for the first four provinces (NS, NB, ON and Québec, in 1867). PEI did not join the confederation till 1873, being the 7th province of the current 13 provinces and territories. But PEI is already planning to celebrate their role as the birthplace of Canada, with lots of festivities and events for 2014.

But what I really wanted to see, ever since I saw old pictures of the iceboats hitching their way across to the island, was the ICE. For many years, Nancy and I have always gone in June to see the glorious colors of the ubiquitous lupine and phlox patches along the roads, the rusty-red harrowed fields and the promising early spring-green of the potato and grain fields – a real, old-fashioned picture of a still functional farming community. Our kids liked the beaches and the dunes, while I preferred to paddle along the red sandstone shores, all the way around the island, as a matter of fact.

The Northumberland Strait

But the winter of 2014 finally was the time for Nancy and me to head to the island in the depth of winter, the end of February. And we were not disappointed. We picked a perfect weather window. It had been an exceptionally cold winter in this neck of the woods also. Two snowstorms had just clobbered the Charlottetown area, but a couple of high pressure cells were on their way, promising blue skies, wind and more cold. And the weather forecasters were right: the sun was out for the three days we were there, and it was properly cold and windy (zero Fahrenheit, NW 20-25 knots). It felt strange not having a boat on the roof rack, though, but I consoled myself saying that I was going to check out the local boats and boating activity in every harbor and bay I got to. It was going to be a different type of boating trip, you see.

We left Orono, Maine and got to the bridge in the early afternoon. We stopped at the (closed) New Brunswick info center, but were able to drive right up to the edge of the Strait, right under the bridge. Wow, what a sight! And yes, the strait was all frozen up, all the way across, all 8 miles. And the ice in the strong tidal flow under the bridge was piled up on the massive, rounded-off bases of the bridge supports. They did exactly what the design had intended: not to cut the ice with a sharp edge, like other bridges and the early ice breaker ships, but allowing the ice floes to ride up on the round base and break up under their own weight and then slide off to the side. A similar technique is used in modern ice breakers, by the way, which also do not cut the ice, but ride up on the ice with a rounded-off bow and break/crush the ice with the weight of the boat. So the term "ice-cutter" for ice-breaker is not really accurate.

Confederation Bridge across Northumberland Strait (NB side)

Nancy took lots of pictures before we drove over the bridge to PEI. There we had to clamber over considerable snow and ice to get to the "water's" edge – more pictures.

bridge 2
Confederation Bridge (PEI side)

The entire island was clad in deep snow, with rows of almost black spruce trees delineating the crop fields. Snow plows had thrown up considerable berms along the roads. We even saw people shoveling off their roofs, which is nothing new for us living in Maine, but I understand it does not happen often on the island. All rivers, inlets and bays along the Strait were frozen solid, but people barely noticed the unique severity of the freeze-up. All they could say was: "Yes, we are having a terrible winter!" None of them could understand why we drove 375 miles to see "all that snow and ice". Yes, we have more than enough snow and ice in Maine, but Maine is not an island, and most of our bigger bays and harbors (like Casco Bay and Portland Harbor) are not frozen in.

snowy fields
Snowy crop fields

Charlottetown harbor area

Next morning, at a nippy 0° F (-17° C), we started exploring the many bays and harbors around Charlottetown. We first walked in (floundered would be a better word) to the North River lighthouse, where I had put in/taken out my solo sea canoe many times in past summers. It was hard for my mind to accept so much ice, where I had seen green water over the shallow mussel beds. At ebb tide, there even is a considerable tidal rip, when the wind is against it.

"Put-in/take-out" at North River Light, Charlottetown: "Where is my boat, Nancy?"

It was distinctly too cold to linger long at the light in the NW 20 at 0° F. My L.L. Bean Gore-Tex coat and felt-lined tall Bean boots and heavy mitts kept me somewhat warm. But soon we swung around Victoria Park, past the Governor's Mansion, to the harbor proper. We again got out and walked, the entire length of the promenade to the Irish Settlers Memorial cross, not to be wimpy, and gazed out to the open sea through the slot at Fort Amherst/Port-la-Joye, where the waters of the Hillsborough, North and West Rivers flow into Northumberland Strait. Same picture: no flow, only solid ice; but wait, maybe there was a very thin line in the ice, where I remembered the shipping channel would be – an icebreaker may have gone through here some days ago, but all was frozen shut again.

Mouth of Charlottetown Harbor

And then, at the commercial dock, just beyond the main pier, where in summer the mammoth cruise ships tie up, was a huge cargo ship (about 10,000 tons) unloading coal with its own gear, three gargantuan scoops dangling from its three loading cranes, into large square receptors on shore, interconnected by conveyor belts. At the end was a long line of trucks waiting for their turn to be loaded up for the large power plant not more than 400 yards away.

Coal freighter unloading, Charlottetown

We then checked out the yacht club, where I had also put in or taken out (with their permission). Today there was nothing going on; all sail and power boats were on land and under shrink-wrap; everything was chained off, nobody was in sight – all were waiting for summer.

Nancy then wanted to check out the large tourist info center: nothing, only some workers doing repairs and painting up new sheetrock.

What about our favorite seafood restaurant on the corner of Water and Prince Streets?, I suggested. "Sorry, we are closed for the season", which reminded me of a small seasonal Maine store on Ambajejus Lake near Baxter Park that put up the following hand-written note in the window: "Closed for season. See you ice out". What more is there to say.

Back at our hotel we did some more research. So, what happens to the entire PEI fishing fleet in the winter? Can one get the world-famous Malpeque oysters, the clams and farmed mussels, not to mention lobsters? Well, lobsters are harvested along PEI's shores only during May to June, before the lobsters shed their outer skeleton (carapace and claws), and August to Mid-October, unlike Maine, where lobster-fishing is done year round.

The North Shore - the open Gulf of St. Lawrence

So we drove to the North Shore the next day to check out my favorite seafood supplier at Stanley Bridge on New London Bay. Closed. And the entire bay was frozen solid, all the way to the outer barrier dunes. Boats were pulled out, and even the marine channel markers. The red and green buoys were "parked" in the snow beside the iced-in boat ramp like over-sized flower pots. But suddenly we saw two boats coming towards us through the ice, no, on top of the ice, but leaving no wake, only double tracks. The speed was also much too high for boats – and then we saw it clearly: two pick-up trucks were pulling two plastic containers each on a sled. I wish I could have asked them what was in the bins, but they veered off to one side and disappeared. Do they manage to pull up the rows of dangling rope that mussels attach themselves to? But how? They would need a chain saw to get them out. I'll ask them this summer, when we'll be back.

Fishing boats waiting for Spring (North Rustico)

Marine channel markers at Stanley Bridge, New London Bay

We then drove along the National Park Shore Road from Cavendish to North Rustico. It was breathtaking to see the entire Gulf of St. Lawrence iced-up, not just along shore, no, as far as the eye could see. Standing on the high red sandstone cliffs, we only saw a thin strip of open water here and there, in which huge chunks of pack-ice were serenely floating along like icebergs, or at least bergy-bits and growlers. It looked so arctic. In my mind's eye I saw polar bears hunting for seals. How far did the ice shield extend, I wondered? All the way across the Gulf? And would the St. Lawrence River be ice-bound too, and the Great Lakes? (I just heard on the news that 95% of the Great Lakes are frozen over, a new record.)

North Shore and Gulf of St. Lawrence

Gulf of St. Lawrence at Covehead Light

Again, the harbors here were totally frozen in, all boats were lined up on shore, and everything connected with the sea was closed. I bundled up to walk out on the North Rustico breakwater and was rewarded by seeing a flock of Snow Buntings, wheeling over the dunes in a flock of about 100. They looked so white from below against the blue sky, and as cold as I felt at that point.

Driving around to the other half of the National Park Shore Road at Brackley Beach and Stanhope, we saw a small open patch of water under the Oyster Bed Bridge, which was almost filled with about 200 Barrows Goldeneyes (stunningly black and white, loon-like arctic ducks). From paddling this stretch I knew there was a strong tidal flow, which must have kept this restricted area open. On the other side of the bridge, an immature eagle was hunkered down on the ice. We could not see whether he was dining on fish or fowl.
A tad further on we saw four mature bald eagles circling high against the blue sky as well as a hawk checking out the edge of a small patch of woods, where the snow had drifted away.

Tracadie Bay was totally frozen, no surprise, so was the Hillsborough River, which usually flows down to Charlottetown. And that concluded our North Shore loop. A mid-afternoon hot shower felt great. That evening we found the only seafood restaurant on the island that is open year-round. Make a note, seafood lovers! It is the Claddagh Oyster House and Irish Pub on Sydney St. in Charlottetown, right at the impressive sandstone St. Dunstan's Basilica. There was a table for two at the cozy gas fireplace. Round granite beach rocks radiated welcome heat into the properly dark Irish establishment. And I am telling you, the mussels were supreme, so was the draught Guinness beer. Our waitress learned a bit also about winters on the island. She naively thought/maintained the boats were still going out: however, the chef in the kitchen set her straight, saying that mussels are kept in saltwater holding tanks at the mussel processing plants during the "non-fishing season".

Charlottetown: Claddagh Oyster House and St. Dunstan's Basilica

Author enjoying mussels and Guinness

Let's do it again

All in all, a most interesting, exciting and unique experience, bordering on being historic! To see both the Northumberland Strait and the Gulf of St. Lawrence totally frozen in, turning the province of Prince Edward Island back into a true northern winter island, is absolutely spectacular and well worth a winter visit. But thank God (and the Canadian Government) PEI citizens no longer have to be cooped up on the island till the next ice- or ferry boat makes it through the Northumberland ice, but can now speed at 80 km/50 mi per hour over the two lane 8-mile long bridge for $45 (round trip for one car).

Till then, sit tight. I'll be back in June, with my boat, for sure. And what about doing a 400-mile loop around the island in my solo sea canoe to join in PEI's sesquicentennial celebration of the Charlottetown Conference that led to the creation of Canada. My start and finish will of course also be Charlottetown. I'll let you know.

Signing off for now,


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© Reinhard Zollitsch