Sea Canoeing Around Nova Scotia, Canada

By Reinhard Zollitsch


I had pitched my little tent on a more or less level 5X7 foot chunk of almost white granite in a protected cove just west of the infamous Cape Canso. You’ll find it about 200 miles to the northeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia, or just a tad west of Cape Breton Island. It had taken me 10 days to get here from Port Elgin, NB, 250 miles along the so-called North Shore of Nova Scotia, through the Strait of Canso and around huge Chedabucto Bay.

Eight bailer scoops of finer gravel took care of the cracks and crevices in my overnight ledge, and I had a very peaceful and amazingly comfortable night. I needed that, since the second leg of my trip, 200 miles on the open Atlantic, to Halifax, was beginning on tomorrow morning’s early flood tide.


I had always pictured the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia to be more or less straight and steep, with a couple of bays, of course, but nothing like our Maine coast with its myriad of islands, ledges, deep cut bays, tidal estuaries and inside passages. How wrong I was: the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia is like Maine, only more so, but with fewer harbors, people, boats, markers and lobster buoys.

I first realized that when I got my nautical charts. After the initial gasp of “how will you ever find your way through all that with such minimal buoyage and without GPS”, I got real excited about the navigational challenge. In a nutshell, this coastline is a sailor’s nightmare, but a sea kayaker’s delight. You add the fog, which I hear is the dominant weather feature most of the year, and as a sailor you would have to stay so far off shore, you could as well be sailing anywhere on the Atlantic.

But a small sea kayak or sea canoe like mine can go almost anywhere and experience the shore, and in bad weather take advantage of all those countless little passages between bays, thus avoiding rounding most of the big exposed points. I could not wait to get started. Getting into Portage Cove was only the beginning.


I had visualized and now immensely enjoyed going through Little Dover Run, Dover Passage, behind Whale Island and many more islands to Eastern Passage. I would then pass White Island on my left, a huge chunk of almost white granite, and get to the mouth of Whitehead Harbor.

There, I knew, I had to gather my wits, take on some food and water and make sure I was set up right for the very exposed rounding of Flying Point, a formidable headland sticking way out into the open ocean. The wind at that time had also freshened to 20 knots out of the southwest on top of long older swells.

It was an exciting setting, to say the least, especially when you are out there all by yourself. There wasn’t even a town or harbor in sight, not even a solitary house. As a matter of fact, there was not even a road along this shore for about 25 miles. Needless to say, I felt totally committed and knew I could not afford a mistake. 

The waves were thundering on the ledges and the steep shore of Flying Point. I was super alert and made sure I stayed well outside of all this mêlée.  I watched each wave as it approached, picked the right spot on it and powered over it. WAVES, that is all I think about in a situation like this, the next wave and the wave train ahead, nothing else, no distraction, especially not about other people. “Stay away from the breaking part, anticipate, and keep up speed,” I told myself over and over again.

And then, when I had just finished rounding the point, I saw about seven sea kayaks bobbing in the waves, coming towards me. I was totally surprised to see anybody else out here. On my entire trip so far I had met only one other group of sea kayakers at Pictou Harbor Light, and then the lockmaster at Canso Strait. Those were my only human contacts in 10 days. This eastern part of Nova Scotia looks deserted from the sea, and the landscape very desolate and raw.
I must have surprised them at least as much as they surprised me. Who else is crazy enough to be out here in sea conditions like this, I thought to myself. This is no place for beginners day-hopping around the next point. It could only be a group of expert paddlers, most likely led by Nova Scotia’s sea kayaking guru Scott Cunningham. So when we met up, I voiced my suspicion and asked them point blank which of them was Scott. They all pointed to a bearded fellow in the #2 boat.

“Nice to meet you, Scott. I am Reinhard from Maine.” And he recognized me also from my trip write-ups in Messing about in Boats , Atlantic Coastal Kayaker and KANAWA. We talked briefly. I learned they were headed for White Island and Canso, where I had been this morning. They looked at my sea canoe and were surprised to see me out here with that “broken kayak paddle”, my Zaveral bent-shaft racing canoe paddle, that is. The rest of my boat passed inspection, since it looked like a regular sea kayak with rudder, and spray skirt held up by suspenders. They even noticed my wet-reentry pole with float bag lashed on deck.

I enjoyed answering their next question, where I had put in and where I was headed, a bit too much, I admit: “Port Elgin, New Brunswick, headed for Halifax, 450 miles.” Most of them thought I was putting them on. Nobody does that but their trip leader, who circumnavigated Nova Scotia with a friend and a dog in an open canoe in 1980 and who wrote the book on Sea Kayaking in Nova Scotia. But they calmed down a bit when they read the trip stickers on my boat, especially the one about my “1000 miles around the Gaspé” and the one reading “Boston, MA to St. John, NB”. They were expert kayakers and knew what that meant.

The whole meeting did not take more than a few minutes. I pointed out the surf off Flying Point. They nodded, we parted, and each went his own way.
I still had another formidable task ahead of me for today: crossing huge Tor Bay. I decided to island-hop across it along the string of Sugar Harbor Islands and then cross the last two miles of open water, straight into the wind, to my target for the day, the lighthouse point at Berry Head.


This first day on the open Atlantic was truly memorable, the desolate rugged spruce- clad shoreline with the mighty surf crashing onto almost white granite, and then meeting Nova Scotia’s “Mr. Sea Kayak” with entourage out on the water. A day of great accomplishments, I wrote in my trip log. I had worried about this out-of-the way stretch before the trip. I had hoped I would rise to the occasion and meet the challenge, which I normally do, but I also knew one could never count on it.

It was a great start towards Halifax, a great confidence builder. I thought about this chance meeting at sea many times while hauling my way towards Halifax at a 25-mile-per-day pace. And that is how my 2003 trip around Nova Scotia ended.

But when we drove back to Maine via the Digby-St. John ferry, I was already thinking about next year’s trip, which might take me from the same place in Halifax, along the South Shore of Nova Scotia and around Cape Sable to Yarmouth and Digby, another 375 miles; and that too happened as planned during the Summer of 2004.

Canadian Charts: Port Elgin to Halifax (for numbers, see Canadian chart catalogue)
Sailing Directions, Gulf of St. Lawrence. Fisheries and Oceans, Ottawa, Canada.
Sailing Directions, Nova Scotia (Atlantic Coast) and Bay of Fundy. Fisheries & Oceans.
Scott Cunningham: Sea Kayaking in Nova Scotia. Nimbus Publishing, Halifax, 1996.
Atlantic Geoscience Society: The Last Billion Years. A Geological History of the Maritime Provinces of Canada. Nimbus Publishing, Halifax, 2001.

17’2” Verlen Kruger Sea Wind sea canoe (Kevlar, with deck, spray skirt and rudder).
Carbon fiber bent-shaft canoe paddle (whitewater/expedition lay-up) by Zaveral, NY.
VHF marine radio telephone (with NOAA weather stations)
Iridium satellite telephone.
Distances given in statute miles.

© Reinhard Zollitsch