By Jon Tattrie
Highway 107 is a road people take to get home, not to get away. The two-lane route nicknamed Marine Drive clings to Nova Scotia’s rugged eastern shore, passing through fishing villages like Oyster Pond, Jeddore and Tangier. The people cling to the ocean, too, pulling a meagre living from the water.
Newcomers move to the coast for the views and build houses facing the ocean. Locals face inland. Face each other. Face away from the darkness beyond the shore.
If Nova Scotia is Canada’s Ocean Playground, as its license plates insist, then this is the province’s ocean workplace. For generations, Mi’kmaq people, European settlers and their descendents have extracted a living from the sea. All too often, the ocean takes a life in return.
In Tangier, Scott Cunningham continues the tradition. A marine biologist by training, his life changed 30 years when he took a break to paddle the coast of Nova Scotia. If the shore was straightened out, it would stretch to England and let settlers walk home. He had the ocean to himself.
When he returned, he started Coastal Adventures to share his passion with others, and to pull his own living from the ocean. He leads kayak tours along the eastern shore. Some go a half-day, others a full day. Some last the better part of a week.
Our group paddles out of Tangier Harbour. The ocean swells as we cross open water. Cunningham, a seafaring Red Green, provokes thoughts about the ocean, about how it shapes the land, and how it shapes the people.
“For most people it’s enough to go out into this natural world and just breathe deeply,” he says. “They’ve never seen the province from this perspective before. The smells, the views, just seeing the coastline from water. Most of us don’t see that. To be on a kayak where you can go around these nooks and crannies, it’s totally novel for most people. And that’s enough.”
But for those who want more, Cunningham has a story for every plant, a fact about each bird and a deep history of all the stones.
We paddle past small islands. To a dull-eyed city dweller, it looks like pristine wilderness, but Cunningham sees more. A glance tells him if people ever lived here.
The ocean tides press under our kayaks as we cross to Baltee Island and slip through the rocks to come ashore. Cunningham decodes the landscape as we hike. An overgrown rose bush indicates a garden once lovingly tended. Apple trees show a food crop that helped sustain generations. The forest undergrowth indicates a field once cleared. A cavity shows the remains of a root cellar. A house stood over it and a field surrounded it. The home probably fell a century ago.
Cunningham says all of the islands are abandoned. When he was younger, the old folks who once lived on them visited for a few weeks in the summer. Their children came out for weekends; their grandchildren will come out one day. He rambled around the pathless island the first time he visited, and then fell into the same route the second time. Now, his narrow path guides visitors.
We scramble up massive, exposed rocks at the Atlantic face of Baltee Island. The ocean crashes against the base of long-crushed mountains. When the great continent of Pangea ripped apart, Nova Scotia was pulled from its embrace with Morocco. The rocks here are matched only there.
Cunningham tells me you can still see how roads in Tangier, Nova Scotia, run into the sea, only to resume their course inland on roads in Tangier, Morocco. Of course, he also tells me the crab shells we see along the high rocks are leftovers from the great Crab Migration into the woods.
We return to our kayaks and the quiet is interrupted only by waves sloshing against the hulls and paddles cutting the water. A seal bobs along watching us. An eagle passes overhead. The grey sky matches the steel water.
Cunningham beaches his kayak and leads us inland a few paces to an old Mi’kmaq midden. For generations, people came here, harvested the ocean, and tossed the trash at the edge of the sand.
British colonists pushed into the wilderness to scrape a living out of the shallow land and deep water in the 1700s. Mi’kmaq warriors fought back, swarming British ships with canoe fleets, seizing vessels and attacking other European crews along this shore. The Mi’kmaq pirates won many battles, but lost the war and were pushed into central reservations.
The settlers’ descendents are leaving now. This coast is part of Halifax Regional Municipality, but while the distant city grows, the outposts shrink. A recent map of the province circulating on local social media listed the eastern shore as Terres Inconnues – Land Unknown.
We return to Tangier eight hours after we left. Pulling the kayaks out of the water, I daydream we are landing on a remote island during a month-long tour. I pull onto Marine Drive and have the dark road to myself as I head back to the city.
Coastal Adventures operates from early spring to late fall. While they are often fully booked, the routes they take are never heavily travelled. They cater to beginners and experts. Day trips run along the Eastern Shore Islands route outlined above, but vary with conditions.
Multi-day trips include one departing the historic Louisbourg fort in Cape Breton and paddling to Scatarie Island, where you’ll encounter a massive, and very recent, shipwreck. Other tours explore Peggys Cove, the Canso Barrens, the Atlantic Coastal Islands, the Cape Breton Highlands, the Bay of Fundy and several excursions off Newfoundland. Some of the trips involve camping en route, while others are Inn-to-Inn tours. Learn more at Coastaladventures.com.