By Reinhard Zollitsch

John Cabot's 1497 landing in the new world

When I registered my new van ten years ago (1997), I was offered a generous choice of license plate numbers. The number 1497 C instantly grabbed my attention, as if it had to mean something very special. I took it, but did not really know why I had chosen it.  A few months later that same year, Nancy and I went aboard a replica of an old sailboat in Boston harbor, and then suddenly everything became clear.

The boat turned out to be a replica of the Matthew, which had just finished her voyage from Bristol, England to Newfoundland, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia and the eastern shores of the US. The year was 1997, exactly 500 years after its original historic sail under the command of John Cabot, aka Giovanni Caboto, in his home town of Genoa, Italy. I smiled as I noticed my memory being  jogged. I was immensely impressed by both feats, the sail then and now, having sailed a 45 foot schooner across the “Great Pond” myself not too long ago.

But ten more years went by, during which I had downsized to a minimal 17'2” Kruger-built sea canoe and had started retracing some of the other early explorers, especially Samuel de Champlain. It finally all came together last year when I read two books on John Cabot's original voyage in 1497 and that of the Matthew II in 1997 (see info at end). In 2007, even if that is 10 years too late for the 500-year celebration, I decided I was going to check out Cabot's landing at Cape North on Cabot Strait.

Sure, Cabot thought he was looking for a seaway to China and did not fully understand what he found; but neither did Christopher Columbus five years earlier, a tad to the south. It was still a great feat of seamanship and very chancy, as Cabot's trip the following year proved. All four boats of the expedition were lost, and not a single sailor lived to tell the tale. (Only the boat which was suffering gear failure a few days out, made it back to port.)

I read that 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 Cabot 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, and Newfoundland was simply out of reach for me at this point, I suddenly felt compelled to tackle this formidable, steep, harsh, lonely and windswept island  jutting into Cabot Strait.

The trip begins

So here was my plan: I would drive the almost 500 miles from Orono, Maine to the causeway at 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 Highlands National Park for day five of my trip. I had learned my lesson: no wild beach camping in a Canadian National Park.
Paddling from the Gulf of St. Lawrence through Cabot Strait, separating Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, into the open Atlantic sounded exciting, real 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.

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 out 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 strong 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.

Typical steep shoreline
Typical steep shoreline

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, dropping right down to the water. I would have to plan my runs very carefully, from one possible take-out to the next.

"Room with a view" near McDonald Glen

Just north of Cheticamp the Cape Breton Highlands 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 Cabot Trail auto road, Cape Breton Highlands Nat'l Park
Start of 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 of the Cabot Strait

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.

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. 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 was 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 in my books on John Cabot. I paddled right by that little beach, just before the lighthouse point. But surf kept me from landing there in my little boat, all by myself. Instead I dipped my cap towards the monument in acknowledgment 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 - very reassuring since the steep walls behind my tent would not have allowed me to seek higher shelter.

Leg three: Down the eastern shore of Cape Breton Island

140 miles done, 200 more to go, but most of the excitement was suddenly gone. The shore remained steep, take-out spots were few and far between, and fog settled in for almost the entire remainder of my trip. I made it around big Aspy Bay, though, past Dingwall, around White Point, Cape Egmont and the two huge semicircular bays to the north of Ingonish as well as Cape Smokey, and finally entered the most northern arm of the Bras D'Or Lakes at Cape Dauphin - this stretch seemed endless.

Fog over Ingonish
Fog over Ingonish

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

I was finally on more protected waters, 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 - Lake with the Golden Arms
Bras D'Or Lakes - Lake with the Golden Arms

It almost bit me on my crossing with 2.5 more miles to go, when the wind suddenly increased to 25-30 miles per hour, slamming onto my right bow, in thick fog to boot – a very trying moment.
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 stopwatch, i.e. dead reckoning - no GPS.
After Cape George, the lake funnels towards the locks at St. Peter's which spit you out into Lennox Passage, a very beautiful island-studded thorofare back to Canso Strait. But thick fog again reduced me to semi-blindness.

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

At Grandique Ferry, I finally got my visby back, and the rest of the day turned into the best day yet: the sun came out, and I got all my wet clothes and gear dried. My pre-picked spot for the last night of my trip also turned out to be splendid: I was set up on a black stone beach near Rock Point, at the western end of Lennox Passage, all by myself again, warm and dry for a change, enjoying a colorful sunset as well as a glorious sunrise the next morning. What a difference the sun makes.

Sunrise over Lennox Passage
Sunrise over Lennox Passage

End of trip

On my last day, Lennox Passage took me to the Strait of Canso and past Port Hawkesbury to the Canso locks ."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 waters of the Atlantic back to the Gulf of St. Lawrence in just a few of minutes.

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 greatly relieved. I got my car, packed up, checked out, and phoned Nancy, leaving a message saying I was starting my almost 500-mile long trek home to Maine.

End of another successful 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.

End of trip.

Home at last.

PS: Some historians, though, believe that John Cabot first landed on Cape Bauld at the northernmost tip of Newfoundland. In that case...stay tuned!



Strictly solo and unassisted circular trip of 340 statute miles in 16 days, clockwise around Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, from the causeway, around the island and back (no car shuttle) - 21 miles per day on average.
Boat: 17'2" Kevlar Kruger Sea Wind sea canoe (www.krugercanoes.com)
Carbon fiber Zaveral marathon canoe racing paddle (www.zre.com)
Luneberg lensatic, passive radar reflector from West Marine (so I show up on other boats' radar screens); 6' bicycle wiggle stick with orange flag mounted on stern deck (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)
Brian Cuthbertson: John Cabot & the Voyage of the Matthew. Formac. Publ. Co. LTD., Halifax, Canada, 1997.
Peter Firstbrook: The Voyage of the Matthew. BBC Books, 1997.

Cape Breton Highlands National Park of Canada
16648 Cabot Trail, P.O. Box 158, Cheticamp, NS BOE 1H0  Canada            

© Reinhard Zollitsch