Bras d'Or Where the Ocean Meets the Inland Sea
15 December 2018 | Abacos Bahamas
When Kona came up lame on our trip back to Indiana for our doctors visits we wondered if we’d ever get to Nova Scotia. The original “plan” was to work our way north through Maine across
to Nova Scotia then along the Eastern shore to Bras d’Or, the saltwater inland sea of Cape Breton. By the time we had Kona’s 2 week check up it was the 4th of July and he was to have a 12-16 week recovery with limited activity and physical therapy daily.
Plans for us usually develop day to day and we were waiting until we felt comfortable Kona could come and go from shore via dinghy. During our wait we stayed busy with boat projects and on one evening of camaraderie at our good friends the Hodgsons, I was complaining that we had lost the opportunity to spend any significant time in Bras d’Or lake with such a late start. B-Rad, a former pro snowboarder and liveaboard veteran of many years who is always cutting jokes and blowing people shit said, “whatdoya mean you can’t spend the time you want in Bras d’Or??? Why don’t you just sail direct and work your way back South for the winter?”
Yea, why don’t we? Because I’m a dummy and it never crossed my mind. This is what Pamela refers to as “the Christopher Columbus effect” of my leadership style. You know travel from Europe and declare you’ve discovered North America having landed in the Caribbean. Turns out Brad’s advice was one of the best pieces we got all summer. We filled the larder, fixed the majority of things, said our goodbyes and were underway. First stop P-town MA. Next stop? St Peter’s lock on the South end of Bras ‘d Or lake.
One reason we document our travels is to leave a bread crumb trail for those interested in traveling in our footsteps. When we were researching this passage we found little if anything written about it. Our plan was to make our way to Provincetown at the end of Cape Cod and then jump a calm window of SW’lies to our destination at the Eastern end of Nova Scotia. With a start date of late July it wasn’t hard to find a few calm days to make the 500 or so miles to our destination. Mostly motoring with some sailing but fog free and very smooth over what can be a turbulent Bay of Maine. If I wanted more sailing I’d advise to leave in June and be prepared for fog that is generated by the cold body of water with warmer humid southly airflow. Pretty much a rumbline to Brazil Rock, just SE of Cape Sable NS to stay clear of the current ebbing and flooding into the Bay. As it happened we ended up arriving on the ebb and so stayed inside Brazil Rock to catch a little push till we got to past the Cape. We picked up intermittent cell service as we cruised a rumbline to Canso at the eastern end of NS. There we made our turn North to the locked canal at St Peters. About 3 ½ days for us. We arrived in the early morning and comfortably waited at the wall just outside the lock.
With zero resources for cruising past St Peters we figured we could grab a cruising guide after we arrived. The first stop was the southern hub of activity on the lake, Lion’s Marina. We arrived on the 1st of August and had planned on the month at Cape Breton. It was hive of boats coming and going and we met most everyone there at the time and all vowed to see each other on the lake. We met a Hoosier, the past president of Earlham College in Richmond, a couple who just arrived from Washington state via the northwest passage and were heading to Ireland and a “Mainer” James and his wife Pat who gave us a copy of an annotated cruising guide they had just finished with and were heading home. Perfect.
We mapped our intended route, grabbed the cruising guide and headed out….but first, we enjoyed the Canadian Natal day celebration and all that St Peters had to offer. First up the organized canal swim that ended with 200+ swimmers in a closed lock singing ‘Oh Canada’ as it opened to the Atlantic ocean as part of Nicholas Denny Days. One day the community parade ended at our marina with disco night at the Lions hall. One night we thought we were going to a live music show at the bar in the Bras d’Or Inn that turned out to be the Campbells family reunion and a sing along that featured a member who was a big folk star. If we would do it again, we’d arrive to Canso in time for the Stan Rogers music festival, that is the last weekend of July. We always try to involve ourselves in the communities we travel to and this time was no different, waving to new found friends we met at the sing along the night before from the water as we swam in the canal.
Bras d’Or lake is an inland salton sea that is also fed by fresh water streams from the interior of Cape Breton. It has two entries, one at the south, a tidal lock that helps maintain the lake water levels. The other, a north entry, like a river that is tidal driven nightmare. We took a bird watching cruise that left North of Sydney out this tidal river. The flow was a circle with starboard shore as you head out an inbound current and the port shore an outbound flow with the middle nothing but whirlpools and eddies of water spinning as a result of the in/out flow. The flood was max at about 3.5 kts and the ebb around 6.5 to 7 kts. We tried to find a reference for ‘slack’ water and it does not exist. The result of the constricted water flow is the lake only rises and falls a few inches on each cycle. The shores of the lake were described as ‘bold’ with very steep drop offs. The beaches are a mix of slate and marble they used to mine in the 1800s an are able to hold a sheer more steeply than sand or mud. The locals drive their boats ashore bow in and carry a step ladder to deploy off the bow for visits to the land while they swim off the transom in deep water. The lake is divided into North and South pools with arms that reach East/West in both. There is the very famous city of Baddeck in the North that was the part-time home of Alexander Graham Bell, a Scotsman who married a woman from the states. There is a great Parks Canada museum dedicated to his time in the area with primary source documents and relics illustrating experiments in hydrofoils, manned air flight and even animal husbandry. There is another town in the east end, Sydney that is the only place around for car rentals and big box stores like Canadian Tire.
Cape Breton is historically a steel and coal center that drew Europeans to an already vibrant culture of indigenous people. At one time, France’s largest seaport in North America was Louisburg dedicated to catching and preparing cod for shipment back to the motherland. There is a terrific Parks Canada living museum in Louisburg depicting the lives and times of the French in their heyday with reenactors interacting with tourists. The most famous destination on the Cape is the Cabot Trail, a park located in the North dedicated to John Cabot, the Italian explorer who in 1497 under the British flag is credited with rediscovering the coast of North America since the Vikings of the 11th century. Its coast features sweeping seascapes and rolling terrain best compared to Ireland or Scotland. The culture is a mix of Scottish, French, Acadian and Celtic that is known for is musical heritage of ceilidhs. These informal musical get togethers feature Celtic, Irish and English folk dance music. In most non-indigenous towns, ceilidhs still occur nightly. There are indigenous reservations that keep their traditions alive by education and practice of Mi’kmaq and First Nation People of Nova Scotia that have been in place for 10,000 years. In October Celtic Colours International Festival is 9 days of music, dancing and celebration of history on Cape Breton. We alas could not stay to enjoy but did take a weeks long driving trip around the Cape staying at the amazing shoreside cottages on the North shore, Markland Coastal Beach Cottages in Dingwall. They overlook the Cabot strait and St Paul Island, known as the ‘graveyard of the gulf’ (of st lawrence) for the number of shipwrecks that have accumulated over time.
Our cruising calendar for August was 23 nights at anchor, sharing only 3 nights with other boats. On most days and nights in Bras d’Or it was us, the eagles, seals, sun, moon and stars. We stayed in the anchorage that the Cruising Club of America was co-founded in-part by the Notorious AGB himself! We sailed every day the direction the wind took us arriving midday to our anchorage to swim, explore and walk the dogs on the beach. We stayed near a summer camp for the Mi’Kmaq that taught youth that had traveled from all over NS the ancient ways of their ancestors. We anchored at the base of a marble quarry where giant perfectly squared off chunks of marble were common which I used one inside a monkeys fist for a handheld depth sounder. Our favorite anchorages were johnstown harbor, little harbor, orangedale, macrae cove & maskells harbor. We made new friends at the Ben Eoin Marina & Yacht Club where we laid up for the week we traveled by car. They were just adding a 50T travel lift and had plenty of space for winter storage with lots of deep water and a full service marina with fuel and an awesome clubhouse that served dinner and drinks a few times a week. The rates for dockage/moorings throughout the area were a very pleasant relief after our time in New England, especially with the going exchange rate at $1.25 CAD for each $1 USD. It was easy living that seemed to fly by before it was time to make our way Westward along the coast of Nova scotia towards the USA.
We hopscotched West stopping each night. We were alone at most anchorages until Mahone bay. We discovered what a gem this area is, just East of Lunenburg. We met and learned quite a bit about the makeup of this part of NS with the endless supply of quaint cottages mixed in with sturdier year-round places for hardy locals. The cottages were filled mostly with retirees from all over including a german couple we anchored in front of for the night. The towns were filled with summertime tourist destinations including a tidal cement pool in Chester and a bustling bakery on the LaHave river that had a skateboard park on the third floor. In Sheet Harbor we found a brewery that had a dinghy dock and while anchored in front of the owner’s house who, at night blasted heavy metal playing ping pong with his buddy. In Halifax we stayed at a war of 1812 era prison that was now the Armdale Yacht Club. There was a magical inner harbor near Canso that we lingered at before making our way down the narrow and scenic Andrews Passage. We passed by Oak Island that is still being excavated looking for buried treasure from Captain Kidd’s days. So many, many beautiful anchorages. So little time.
Halifax is about halfway between Canso in the East and Cape Sable at the West end of NS. This oasis of culture and food was greeted warmly by the crew of Big Frisky. We stayed a week and could have stayed all fall but time was marching on and we needed to be across to Maine by the 1st of October as the lows were coming more frequently and the severity was steadily increasing. Once east of Mahone Bay we found white sand beaches becoming more and more frequent with our hands down favorite, Port Mouton and the beautiful crescent beach we anchored right off of. We had an uneventful ‘inside’ rounding of Cape Sable that allowed us to cut through the schooner passage prior to our arrival in Yarmouth. We sat out a gale in Yarmouth and got a chance to enjoy the locals while docked along the downtown wharf. We learned the traditional folk song, Farewell to Nova Scotia. This from a local store owner where I found Pamela crying as she read a children’s book featuring it. We had a sing along of the same with our new friend, dynamite Mike over beers at the local brewpub. Our next call was 0330 the next morning to head across the Bay of Maine…..I woke Pamela up with the playing of Farewell to Nova Scotia and we roared
“Farewell to Nova Scotia
And your sea bound coast
Let your mountains dark and dreary be
When I am far away on the
Briney oceans tossed
Will you ever heave a sigh
Or a wish for me”
as we headed out of harbor with the rising sun at our back lighting our way to the USA.