Saturday, September 08, 2007

Think like a cork, think like a cork…

I kept repeating that in my head, attempting to drive off the creeping tension in my hips and spine last weekend. Nine of us were riding the ocean swells on Nova Scotia’s Northumberland shore, and I knew that knuckling under to the enormity of the situation would result in instant capsize.




With the Pictou Island crossing jinxed by inclement weather for the third year running, our long-faced group of fleece clad paddlers adjourned from the wharf at Caribou Harbour to the local Tim Horton’s for coffee and commiseration. Little did we know that Al & Rich had a “Plan B” already conceived and hatched, with undertones of ulterior motive attached. They’ve been gradually kayaking large swathes of Nova Scotia’s shoreline each summer, with an eye to eventually completing a circumnav of the entire Province. Since the club’s Pictou Island trip was now scuttled by acres of whitecaps, Al craftily suggested we convoy to Bayfield wharf, the kickoff point for their journey’s next leg and hope for better conditions there. Fueled by a powerful mix of disappointment and 80-octane coffee we readily agreed to this impromptu expedition, and after much shuffling of boats and gear headed East on the Trans-Canada Highway towards Pomquet Island and God knows what.

Our only club member from down that way met us at the wharf and pronounced us “crazy” for attempting the disturbed waters that day, then went back to harvesting his carrots leaving us to our folly. To be fair, we had a close look at conditions and were aware that the winds were forecast to abate and eventually back to the Southwest overnight. Still, the prevailing Northwesterlies were blowing a steady 15 knots and gusting well above that. St George’s Bay was roiling, but whitecaps were few and far between. Having wasted half a day driving and dithering, we anxiously but cautiously nosed out around the breakwater and into the lee of Pomquet Island. After a quick head count and confab, we struck out along the coast hoping to make Havre Boucher or Linwood Harbour in time to make camp for the night. The waves built on our aft quarter as we entered more exposed waters, but we were comforted by the fact that the howling wind was onshore, and reasonable landing spots were plentiful if not ideal.

After our initial trepidation wore off and we found our sea legs or perhaps sea hips, the group relaxed and began to really enjoy the roller-coastering swells. Wave intervals were quite short, so a wary eye to seaward was required to remain upright. Fortunately impending whitecaps were easy to spot, and for the most part we were able to sprint or back paddle to avoid getting tumbled. Still, the occasional rogue wave would lift boats high in the air, allowing other paddlers to inspect our rudders, skegs and hulls for blemishes and imperfections. Wayne estimated these knuckle-biters to be about 5 feet from peak to trough, and I think he was being conservative. At any rate, I couldn’t tell you what the shoreline looks like along that coast, as the rare glance towards shore offered only a frightening view of enormous dark blue wavebacks marching towards landfall and obscuring the horizon. There were grins all around though, and the occasional “Wahoo!” from paddlers arcing over the wave crests.

Al somehow spotted a tiny seaweed-dampened beach just right for getting us ashore safely, and we enjoyed a short lunch break while our gear dried in the sun.
Our approach to Linwood Harbour a few hours later was somewhat hairy, with the outgoing tide rushing out through a narrow passage and colliding with the incoming swells. Quartering wind waves only added to the confusion. Wayne stopped and had a hard look at conditions, then judiciously sent Bill and I in to scout the passage. Bill made for the standing waves in the passage centre to see how bad they were, while I followed Wayne’s advice and rode the shoreline eddy at the near edge of the harbour. Finding this to be a relatively smooth route, I stood station in the harbour mouth and tried to guide the group in with frantic paddle signals. All arrived safely, and we were much relieved to find smooth water and welcoming beaches. After scouting an acceptable campsite on a beautiful sand and gravel bar at the harbour mouth, the group split up and searched for a more ideal spot to set up for the night. With radios in hand, three sub-groups engaged in a lively electronic debate over the merits of their preferred discoveries. After much wrangling and haggling (“We’ll trade you half the pot of chowder for the right to camp at this RV park with showers!”) we agreed to put ashore as a whole at the improbably named “HyClass Camping Park” in order to preserve peace (and daylight). This turned out to be a wise decision, and we enjoyed real bathrooms and hot showers while eschewing the wonders and privations of our planned wilderness camping experience. The campfire shenanigans that night are best left to the imagination, but I will say that Deb’s chowder was a big hit after a hard day’s paddling.

The next morning dawned bright and warm, with the sun drying our gear nicely while we breakfasted and broke camp. Our exit from Linwood Harbour was uneventful, and the winds were Southerly as promised, giving us lots of impetus. The chop was short and steep, and its irregularity forced most of us to remain more alert than the previous night’s revelry may have allowed. Al and Rich guided us superbly through the rebounding seas around several headlands, choosing lines through the mess that were entirely invisible to me. There were lots of opportunities to surf some of the larger rollers, and we took advantage of them.

The trip around Cape Jack into Canso Strait was mostly uneventful, save for Cathy’s hilarious encounter with a determined seagull bent on shooting an approach to the foredeck of her WS Inukshuk. Rather inhospitably, Cathy yelled discouraging words at the luckless bird while jabbing her paddle lance-like at his beak. A startled Mr. Gull wisely veered off for a water landing, feathers ruffled.


Before entering the Strait, we stopped at a beautiful sandy beach for a spot of lunch, and pulled driftwood logs together to make a convivial corral for seating. The last of the cold beers were produced and distributed, with no guilt given the sheltered waters and short distance remaining. We dawdled perhaps longer than necessary, looking for driftwood and other treasured flotsam along the shore. Al found several skate egg cases tangled in the seaweed, and there was no shortage of odd and interesting rocks littering the strand.
The tiny villages of Troy and Creignish were visible cuddled under the tree line of Cape Breton’s distant mountains, providing a breathtaking backdrop. These communities are home to wunderkind fiddlers Natalie McMaster and Ashley MacIsaac respectively.



Our approach to Auld’s Cove and our lone shuttle vehicle was anti-climactic. Indeed, several members suggested we continue to the Canso Causeway itself and perhaps lock through to the other side, but time was beginning to pinch hard and we went ashore instead. The shuttle drive crew departed, and four of us were left to unpack and make ready for pickup. Bored, we approached a group of Motel cabin tenants and asked if we could use their picnic table to finish off the dregs of our camp food while we waited. The folks turned out to be BMW bikers from Oklahoma, and were delightfully charming and generous. They insisted on giving us a bottle of fine French wine to wash down our trail mix and leftover sausages, and even stayed to chat for a time. Nice people indeed!

The denouement to our adventure was truly bizarre, as we experienced good old-fashioned Acadian hospitality at a run-down roadside lobster bar near our takeout.



The owner/host was eccentric beyond words, and kept us constantly amused as we ate wonderful seafood and Acadian fare. When we innocently inquired as to the distance from Canso to the locks at St. Peter’s in Cape Breton, nothing would do but he call the Coast Guard and find out exactly! Added to the fireworks the man set off in our honour at our arrival and the constant barrage of sales pitches and staff introductions, his honest eagerness to please wore a bit thin with us before we hit the highway for home, showers and real beds.

As others in the club have mentioned, for a plan B, this sure turned out to be an A+.
Well done Al and Rich. video

3 Comments:

Blogger Richard said...

Great stuff - tough paddle, all landed safely - we all need an occasional touch of tense-time to remind us what the water can do. We had a similar punch-up with a really tough headwind early this week - over an hour of brutal slogging along to make good a final km. in an enclosed barachoix, taking solid water continuously over my forehatch for the first time in the seven seasons I've had this 'yak. Today, a different story -about 15 kms., glas-smooth going, about 18" following waves coming back. Guess it's all good when you're sitting at home, recollecting...

9:29 PM  
Blogger Glenn said...

Amen Rick, it's all roses when we're sitting on the couch with a cold Keith's! Headwinds I like, beam winds I love, tailwinds make my head hurt.

12:18 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

Ya gotta love those under-the-hull views big waves can give ya!

1:11 PM  

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