|Cape Breton on a Whim
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
Late in the day, with an ebbing tide but still sufficient water to float Kobuk in the small inlet next to the yacht harbor, David Brown showed up to launch her with his mobil crane. He positioned the machinery next to the rubble embankment while I ran the heavy straps under the hull. In only a matter of minutes, he was able to take Kobuk skyward with me on board, maneuver us out over the water, and then lower away. Kobuk's main engine started with the first turn of the key and for the next half hour I wandered aimlessly around the broad, protected estuary before heading into the Charlottetown Yacht Club harbor where Kobuk fitted nicely into one of the many vacant slips there.
I arrived in Charlottetown over a month ago. The idea was to prepare Kobuk for launch and get under way in about two weeks, but unexpected circumstances arose. It all started with a week of continuous rain and snow that delayed outdoor work on the boat and even complicated those things that could be done under the cover of canvas. When finally the skies cleared and the temperature warmed, there was more repair and maintenance to be done than expected. In particular, the paint on the forward deck had lifted and peeled in the manner of a house that has been neglected for a generation. There was nothing for it but to completely remove all topside paint and apply four new coats. It had been clear last fall that the topsides would have to be repainted in the spring, but at that time it looked like a simple job requiring minimal surface prep and only one new coat of paint. But the sight of Kobuk looking like an abandoned hull left the unshakeable impression that it was time for an overhaul. Not only would it be necessary to restore the topsides; the whole hull, inside and out, had to be repainted before I could feel comfortable.
There were also problems with repairing the damage to the keel that occurred last fall. There were two areas where the epoxy and fiberglass had been breached and the planking scoured away, allowing the subsurface wood to become waterlogged and vulnerable to rot. Digging out the bad spots and patching them is nothing new; I have done this sort of thing a number of times before. This time, though, problems arose because I failed to allow sufficient days for the excavated areas to thoroughly dry, thereby causing the first effort at patching to not cure and adhere properly. Eventually it got sorted out but in the process days were lost.
All the delays turned out to be more good fortune than bad. Well into June the weather continued to be distasteful, occasionally offering up a sunny day with pleasant temperatures but only after it had been paid for with two or three days of chill cloudiness and intermittent rain. If Kobuk had been ready for departure by the end of May as originally hoped, the first couple weeks of this season's voyage would have suffered from unseasonably gloomy weather. Perhaps this late start will improve the odds of seeing the grandeur of Nova Scotia in a better light.
There was another benefit arising from all these delays. In early June, I chose to take a break from the labor and travel by ferry to the Iles de la Madeleine for a little R&R. Situated out in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, about seventy miles north of Prince Edward Island, this little archipelago lies beyond the consciousness of many Canadians and nearly all Americans. It is a particularly intriguing piece of geomorphology since most of the islands are connected to each other by sandbars and beaches. A half dozen islands strewn over a distance of about 35 miles are characterized by rolling green hills occasionally cloaked in patches of dwarf fir forest. Their coastlines are a medley of red sandstone bluffs dropping down to water level with white sandy beaches at their feet. But currents in the Gulf of St. Lawrence have constructed those inter-island connectors of broad beaches and sand dunes and leeward salt marshes. Only the islands are inhabited; the sandy connectors are not. There is a highway, though, that uses the sandy causeways to knit the settled isles together.
The Iles de la Madeleine are a world apart. In winter, the pack ice closes in and the omniscient wind must lurk and prowl with chilled vengeance, but in summer the place has the sea breeze charm of Cape Cod and the beaded occupance of the Florida Keys. As a part of Quebec, the islands are the seaside retreat of choice for the French speaking denizens of Montreal and Quebec City, but the rest of the world slumbers in ignorance that such a balmy retreat exists so far north.
A visit to Madeleines has for some time been a hidden agenda of mine, but its offshore location discouraged me from taking Kobuk there. I am sure that Kobuk is up to the challenge but I have been thinking that my lack of open-water experience is too great for such a venture at this early point. Imagine my chagrin, therefore, when a visit to the local museum on Ile aux Mueles revealed to me that before the arrival of the Europeans the Mic Mac Indians used to paddle out here with their canoes for short term visits. And they didn't get there from nearby Prince Edward Island; they voyaged back and forth from the Gaspe which is at least twice as distant.
Thursday, June 21, 2007
On this the longest day of the year Kobuk lies moored as I do all the last minute repairs and errands that are unavoidable at the start of any extended voyage. In spite of the cold, cloudy conditions and the rain squalls passing through now and then, all goes well and all items on the check list have been crossed out by mid-afternoon. Even the weather forecast is promising: although Friday morning is supposed to be cloudy with intermittent showers, no wind is expected and that means small waves. On this, the final day before setting out for the Bahamas, I find myself with sufficient time to relax for a few hours and to consider the time I have spent here in Prince Edward Island.
Those in charge of tourism promotion have labeled PEI as "the gentle isle," and in this instance the caricature does minimal injustice to reality. The island is indeed a gentle landscape of swales and vales sufficient to execrate the flatland curse but so modestly and incompletely developed as to suggest the incipient sensuousness of an adolescent girl. But not just the land is gentle; the people are too. There is the quiet restraint of rural life of course, but these islanders also seem immune to the jostling and jockeying of competitive individualism. It is easy to be fooled by this appearance of spineless malleability, as I learned one day when talking with a native son.
I first met him last fall when Kobuk was made captive to Charlottetown by the strong southeast winds blowing up into Hillsborough Bay day after day. He is tall and thin, as slight and insubstantial as a darning needle. He owns and operates a summer business, but I cannot fathom what it is that keeps him busy during the rest of the year. He happened by Kobuk shortly after our arrival and immediately struck up a conversation. Before the week was over and I had decided to quit for the season, he took me home to meet his young wife and to spend a night in a real bed for a change. They live in a two-storey, natural wood paneled home on the shores of Tracadie Bay, with the hummocky sand dunes of PEI's coastal national park forming the skyline on the other side of the water. If a CEO for a major corporation were looking fror a summer retreat away from people and unadorned with glitz, he might make an offer on such a place.
One day last week he visited me while I was working on Kobuk. We were sitting on board near the end of the day, late enough that the light was casting shadows but before the afternoon warmth had begun to dissipate. Somehow the conversation turned to Colombia. I had visited there back in April and we soon discovered that we both had been to Santa Marta, a small city on the Caribbean coast, northeast of Cartagena. From Santa Marta a city bus runs a few kilometers over the coastal hills to Taganga, a picturesque little fishing village clustered on a small strand of flat land lying between a horseshoe bay in which a flotilla of fishing boats lie at anchor and a surrounding tangle of rugged hills as yet unspoilt by houses and roads. When I mentioned that I had spent a couple days there, he felt compelled to tell me a story about the town. He had been there many years ago.
"Well, I was there," he said, in his cheerful, uncomplicated way. "I was down spending time in the Caribbean, running my sailboat between Dominica and Guadeloupe at night. You could buy marijuana cheap in Dominica and sell it for twice as much in Guadeloupe, so whenever it looked like I was going to run out of money, well, I would go over to Dominica and buy a little ganga and then run it across to Guadeloupe. You can get across the channel in just a few hours and so I could unload my cargo and be back living the beachcombers life before sunrise.
"There was another boat owner down there--a lot better off than me--who was living the good life, and one time when I was talking with him he admitted to having done some ganga smuggling himself. He had gone to Colombia and picked up a shipment that he had then sold in the Caribbean for big money. I figured this was how he got to be so well set up, so when he suggested I should do the same thing I was interested. 'How can a get a contact?' I asked him, and so he gave me the name of a man in Taganga who would sell me some.
"Well, I sailed down there alone, but I didn't want to just appear in the bay because, you know, the place was notorious for marijuana smuggling and my boat sitting around in that bay would be a dead giveaway to la policia. I sailed on past and down to Cartagena, and left the boat there before taking a bus back up to Santa Marta. I had to look around for some time before finally finding this guy, but eventually I made contact and he treated me like a long lost friend. He took me out to meet his family and he insisted that I go to the wedding of one of his relatives. I spent days with him doing this kind of stuff, until finally I got worried about all the money I was spending. I needed to get the deal done before I started eating into the capital I planned to use for the purchase. When I finally told this fellow that I wanted to get on with the deal, he said, 'Sure, no problem. You be in Taganga Bay on such and such a night and come ashore to this certain location at midnight. I'll meet you there.'
"So then, finally, I went back to Cartagena and got my boat and sailed back up the coast to Santa Marta. I got to Taganga Bay on the night the man said and went ashore where and when he had said, but he wasn't there. I hung around for a few hours, but he didn't show so finally I decided I couldn't just stay there like that and rowed back to my boat. I thought about leaving but then decided to hang around another day and go through the same thing the following night. Well, this time, I waited on shore for a little while and then sometime after midnight this man showed up. He greeted me and acted as if nothing had happened--and I didn't ask. When we started making arrangements, he said he could get me a hundred pounds of weed for five thousand dollars. Then he told me he had to have the money to give to the farmer when he bought the stuff and wanted me to give him the cash. Well, I gave him the money and we arranged to meet the same way the following night.
"The next night when he was supposed to deliver, I was waiting as we arranged but he didn't show up. I was thinking to myself, 'Well, that's the end of that money. I'll never be able to find this guy again so I guess I am going to have to eat my loss and sail out of here. ' I waited and waited, and finally he showed up. He had a couple guys with him and they loaded the stuff for me. He said, 'The farmer--he was happy with the sale so he threw in an extra hundred pounds of marijuana.' I left that night with little packets of marijuana stuffed into just about every nook and cranny I could find in the boat.
"I wanted to get the stuff back to Prince Edward Island and not just sell it in the Carribbean, but I didn't have much in the way of supplies on board. But at the same time I was too scared to stop over anywhere en route. I ended up sailing non-stop from Colombia to Prince Edward Island, living on cans of tuna fish for the most part. It was tough getting to windward in the Caribbean far enough to go through the Windward Passage, but the boat just barely made it close hauled and then I was in position to run through the Bahamas and up the eastern seaboard.
"Just heading into the passage between Haiti and Cuba, heading up towards Inagua, I saw a boat in the distance coming straight for me. Oh, I was looking as hard as I could though the binoculars, you know, wondering what I was going to do and thinking this was the end. The boat kept coming closer and closer without changing course, and eventually I could see that it was just a small skiff with an engine and when it arrived there was a grizzled old man and a young kid in it. They were and they wanted to sell me fish. Fish, eh? Well, that sounded pretty good so I scoured the boat to see what I could trade for fish. Finally, I came up with a couple T-shirts. This was a good deal to the old man. They were dressed in rags and looked half starved so I guess most anything would have looked good to them. Anyway, that gave me a little variety for my diet so I kept on going without stopping. But I was passing all these tropical islands, all these Bahamian isles with their sandy beaches and tropical trees and I kept thinking how nice it would be to stop. But I didn't dare, and I kept going. So I ended up sailing all the way from Taganga to Charlottetown non-stop, alone. And when I finally arrived back home I called my brother and he came down to help me unload the product. You know, later on when I sold the boat the guy I sold it to called me up after he had the boat a while and told me there was a little packet of mine that I had left on board. He told me he wasn't going to ask any questions but he thought I should come and get it.
It was only later after he had left that I got to thinking about the idea that the people of Prince Edward Island may not be so gentle and mild-mannered after all. Maybe they are not as simple and uncompetitive as I had thought. After all, with his inoffensive and unassertive manner he seems like the archetypical Islander, and yet here he is telling a tall tale that is as fabulous as it is unbelievable. I mean, it couldn't possibly be true, could it?
Friday, June 22, 2007
The harbor of Charlottetown is an estuary where two drowned river valleys come together before passing through a narrow neck and out into Hillsborough Bay. The bay itself is a ten-mile deep indentation into the PEI coastline. As I learned last fall, escaping from Charlottetown is largely a matter of getting out of that big bay and into the open waters of Northumberland Strait. For this first voyage of the season, Kobuk will be running southeast across the Northumberland Strait and over to a protected inlet where the town of Pictou sits on the Nova Scotian mainland, over fifty miles distant. The winds this morning are light and out of the southwest, so the seas are small. Hillsborough Bay, however, magnifies the size of the waves and bends them around until they come directly in at the bottleneck exit from Charlottetown harbor.
In early morning the wind is light and the seas cannot be large, so Kobuk and I set out. After having made two unsuccessful attempts to leave Charlottetown last fall, I am a little anxious about escaping from this harbor, so I decide that until we are well outside Hillsborough Bay Kobuk shall run like a scared cat. The conditions can deteriorate at any time--and usually do at some point in the morning--so getting out of the bay is a priority.
There is an adrenaline-fed exhilaration associated with escaping from a box that has thwarted you on two previous attempts. Kobuk roars out the channel and across the bay. The oncoming waves are small enough to allow for a porpoising ride that rarely deteriorates into a belly flop. It only takes a half hour to get beyond Point Prim, the outer perimeter of Hillsborough Bay, but the stored anxiety from previous failures makes the time drip like a Chinese torture. This time, though, the passage is tolerably smooth and we are able to bear off down Northumberland Strait where the gentle seas accompany us on our southeast course.
To get things kick started this season, I have decided to burn some gas and keep the throttle down for an hour before turning things over to the miserly Yamaha. At the appointed time, in the middle of Northumberland Strait with a couple fishing boats nearby, I slow Kobuk to a stop and go aft to lower the Yamaha. After that, we carry on at the more sedate pace of seven miles per hour. A few minutes later, one of the two fishing boats runs up beside Kobuk, parallel and about ten yards off to port, matching our speed. I look out the opening slit of the clamshell top and wave to the two men on board who are staring at me, but even as I do so the captain of the fishing boat yells across the water "Whadja hit?" I am taken by surprise and answer honestly: "I didn't hit anything." There is a momentary pause before his retort: "Then why dja stop?" I am irritated by his attitude and give an opaque response: "I wanted to check something out." Nothing more is said. He spins his boat around and heads back to where he had come from.
This fisherman must have thought that I snagged one of his buoyed lobster trap lines. Surely this happens often for the buoys are a profligate hazard in Northumberland waters. Last September there were three different times when I did this very thing. Not this time, though, and the fisherman's surly manner actually served as a reminder to me that the people here in the Maritimes are remarkably friendly. Of all the people I have met in this part of the world, he is the first to have assailed me with a negative tone.
Once over to the Nova Scotian side of the strait, we thread our way up the serpentine estuary leading to Pictou. On the way in, we pass a shallows where the six foot reading on the depth finder begins to monopolize my attention, and as if to remind me that there is more to life than primordial ooze a seal bobs to the surface a few feet off the starboard side, swiveling his dark round head to survey 360 degrees. He is like a submarine checking things out with its periscope. He seems not at all impressed with Kobuk for our presence causes neither a pause in his survey nor a hitch in his businesslike level of activity.
Around the final bend, as the town of Pictou comes into view, a more disturbing sight confronts us. Moving across the estuary in the water is a bald eagle, evidently injured as he is making his way clumsily by using his wings as oars to propel himself towards shore. His ungainly motions and slow rate of progress make my heart shrink. I run Kobuk up alongside him only a boat length or two away and he glares back at me with the cold, malevolent look of a bald eagle. He remains uncowed and too proud to take any sort of precipitous action. He simply stands his ground, so to speak, and I am inspired by his courage.
Pictou Harbor: 45* 40.481' N / 62* 42.661' W
Distance: 53 miles
Total Distance: 4,930 miles
Saturday, June 23, 2007
Cape Breton Island is calling. All along, the plan has been to bypass it by running through the Strait of Canso and heading on down the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia, but those pictures of the Cabot Trail and the Cape Breton Highlands keep sniping away, whispering in my ear that this is literally the chance of a lifetime to see a spectacular coastline. Ever since it became clear to me that by doing a clockwise circumnavigation of the first half of the island we could do the second half by running right down through the middle of the island on the mythical Bras d'Or Lake my commitment to the shorter route has melted away like honey in hot tea. Why not go over the top? It would only take an extra week, after all, and what is time but a precious resource that will end up being spent anyway. Better to spend it on something special, I should think.
There are a couple problems, though. One is that the long finger of land projecting northward from the island points up into rather unpredictable weather conditions that could cause us to stay port bound for many days. The other is that this continuous curtain of rock bound cliffs dropping into deep water is the last place one would want to be with engine trouble and a strong wind. But Kobuk has two engines and right now both are running flawlessly. It is not a decided issue, but each day the lure of Cape Breton gets stronger.
That Cape Breton route, though, would take us to a collection of isolated little hamlets where Internet connections would be hard to come by. Since today is unsettled and restless anyway, with fitful outbursts of wind and rain, it makes sense to stay in port for the day, getting caught up with work--just in case. Much of the day passes with coffee in hand and the computer on a wireless connection, but eventually I do find time to visit the Hector, a replica of the ship that brought the first Scottish settlers to this area in the 1770's. Even though the original Hector was almost 300 years younger than Columbus' three ships, she does not look that different. Her bow is a pregnant belly and her three stout masts are held in place by standing rigging that looks even more oversized than the masts do. The hull is painted black. She is an ominous ship, a silent hulk. If clipper ships eventually became the greyhounds of the seas, the likes of Hector were the warthogs.
That does not mean I dislike her; it is impossible to dislike any ship that uses rope as standing rigging. Still, one would have to be under a witch's spell not to notice that Hector is an ugly stepsister. What a pity that Hector has no sails and has never been sailed. A replica of this sort could teach us a great deal about what worked and what didn't on those earlier vessels. Surely she was slow in the water and probably handled like a square rigged bathtub, but even at that she would be prettier to watch in action than to see her like she is now without any clothes on.
Last evening, a group of hard partying yachtsmen vacuumed me into one of their floating rum shacks and filled the hours with bawdy jokes, storys of minor mishaps, and general gossip. During the day I had talked with one of them for a while, a solicitous young man named Steve Brown, and at the end of the day he introduced me to the members of his inner circle. There was Davey, the fast talking prankster mayor of the town; Ruadh, the killer entrepreneur who presents himself as a naive adolescent; Loren, the silver haired gentleman with the looks, if the not the verbal agility, to be a lady killer. Except for Ruadh, all their wives were with them, no less engaged by the social environment than their husbands. They moor their boats near to each other about midway along a single finger dock (at the end of which Kobuk is temporarily tied). The socializing moves from yacht to yacht, a transit that never requires more than a few paces since their yachts all are tied off stern in so as to be directly accessible from the finger dock.
Now this evening I get invited in to this same circle. This time it is primarily on Ruadh's boat whereas last night it had been on Steve's. Everybody in the group is quite sure that I must need to do some shopping and they all urge me to use one of their vehicles to go to town. The vehicle they offer me is Ruadh's, actually, and when I learn that it is a Humvee I decide there really must be a few things I need to get before taking off in the morning. I have never even touched a Humvee before and so the prospect of doing something so gauche as to actually drive one is too enticing to resist. For those of you who wouldn't be caught dead in one of these gargantuan gasaholics, I am sure that you will appreciate knowing that they have come a long way since the days when they were military vehicles, pure and simple. In their original state they must have had highly functional interiors, but the reality of marketing is such that the only people who can afford to purchase a civilian version really don't want that sort of Spartan reality. They want comfort and luxury, but with the appearance of roughing it. The contemporary civilian Humvee is really nothing more than an SUV on steroids with every conceivable interior option installed. Driving one leaves you breathless with wonder that you have not made contact with the passing cars to the left and the parked ones to the right. Then again, maybe you did make contact that was undetectable because of your superior mass. When I got back, I walked around the vehicle once to make sure I hadn't hit anything.
Sunday, June 24, 2007
With all of last night's revelers still asleep on their nearby yachts and the low eastern sun occasionally piercing the overcast sky, I untie Kobuk from the end of the dock and we head out of the harbor. The waters lie flat and to landward on either side of the estuary, the gentle greenbacked hills cradle homes and highways that at this hour look frozen in time. There is a fair and gentle wind, and as we move out into the open waters of Northumberland Strait the dwarf seas pluck and pull at Kobuk with insignificant force. It is not such a warm day and Kobuk motors along with her cabin top dogged down and her side curtains zipped on, but there is something slow moving and languid about the day that gives it a summer feeling in spite of its spring temperatures. I stretch out on the bench seat and steer the little Yamaha inattentively. The hours pass and I become mesmerized by their sameness. The drone of the motor, the distant shoreline off the starboard beam, the broad stretch of sea running to the horizon off to port--these remain constants that bring me to the verge of unconsciousness. Often my head drops and I doze off for a moment, only to awaken and find that nothing has changed.
This particular stretch of Nova Scotian coast does not have much in the way of capes and bays. Harbors are few and any towns near shore are hidden away. Forest comes down to the water and although occasional houses address the sea from small clearings they are separated from each other by considerable stretches of undefiled nature. The verge between land and sea is neither beach nor bluff, but instead an unremarkable zone of grass and mud and dirt that is narrow at low tide and virtually absent when the water is high. From offshore, the perspective given by distance does not flatter so much. The word that comes to mind is "nice." It looks nice, but not dramatic and not particularly memorable. This is an artifact of distance though: from closer up the coastal zone is much more interesting--redolent with marine and avian wildlife in the marshes and along the small shingle shores that only can be seen when you are near them.
By starting early, we reach our destination in mid-afternoon. We round the one prominent cape of our forty mile journey and slip into the little harbor of Ballantynes Cove. Here at the end of the voyage the land has chosen to shrug off the sea and rise up to respectable elevations. The land slants precipitously down into the water and the rock breakwaters of Ballantynes Cove extend out from narrow sliver of flat land nestled in at the base of the steep-sloped bluffs. Here and there, wherever the land is sufficiently level to permit it, an isolated home will sit. There are a number of them, though, enough to suggest that if someone were to collect them all together down here by the harbor you actually would have a village. Without exception, the houses are modest and a few of them are less than that--a clear sign that most everyone here fishes for a living. The only real sign of a community cluster, though, is the harbor itself. Here the fishing boats lie tied up shoulder to shoulder and stem to stern, dozens of them in collusion.
Ballantynes is where a decision must be made: It guards the entrance to St. Peters Bay on its south side. From here we could go deep in to the end of the bay and enter the Strait of Canso, a narrow strip of water that separates Cape Breton Island from the rest of Nova Scotia and gives access at its eastern end to the province's eastern shore. This was always the plan. The other choice would be to cross the twenty miles of open water here at the entrance to the bay and head north along the western shore of Cape Breton Island. Although I did not realize it until now, the decision had already been made. In the morning, Kobuk and I will cross the bay and start around Cape Breton Island. My mind does not even weigh the two alternatives; it simply calculates the prospects for a morning crossing of the bay. The winds are forecast as favorable for an early start so after doing all the preparatory things I crawl into the bunk for a long night of sleep. The sun is still high in the sky but I feel a deep lethargy, a sort of immobilizing exhaustion. It is, I should imagine, the final release from spending so much time getting Kobuk ready for the water. In a way, this feels like the real start of the trip for this season.
Ballantynes Cove: 45* 51.525' N / 61* 55.137' W
Distance: 46 miles
Total Distance: 4,976 miles
Monday, June 25, 2007
Each time I cast off and we start a day's voyage, there is a little chill of anticipation that runs through me, an inarticulate sense that the unexpected is lurking nearby and will visit us before the day is done. In reality, there are many days when nothing much happens, but it turns out that "something happening" is often little more than a state of mind. Today as we set off across the broad opening of St. Peter's Bay, the southwest wind is sweeping up an entourage of little lumpy waves that keep us rocking and rolling. The excitement is not so much the nature of the conditions for we have handled this sort of sea state many times before; the excitement is the not knowing whether the winds will keep coming from the south and keep from getting strong. We will have about a hundred miles of wild and scenic coastline to run along with little but rock walls between the sheltering harbors. It will be a piece of cake if the weather holds, but of course it never does.
Wherever there are shallows throughout this region there are buoys marking lobster lines and fishing boats shuttling between them. They leave harbor early in the morning, often before the sun has begun to streak the east, and return to port by mid-afternoon. St. Peter's Bay is relatively deep, however, and so there is not a boat to be seen during the entire crossing. Once we close with the island off Fort Hood, however, the usual fishing scene reasserts itself with myriad buoys to avoid and jaunty fishing boats scattered here and there.
This is the coast of Cape Breton and only a few miles on is the first harbor, a narrow inlet with a fishing fleet in the lagoon just inside the breakwater and the town farther upstream. Almost as soon as Kobuk has closed with land it is possible using the binoculars to see the harbor entrance in the distance. Being here with the shore close, the harbor in sight, and the fishermen working away in the open aft areas of their boats--well, it leaves you feeling that the voyage is all but over. An uneventful passage this time, it seems, but then as I am working my way through a minefield of lobster buoys with boats around me on all sides, the enormous back of a whale slides up out of the water about fifty yards off the port bow, close enough to stir questions in my mind about whether there is any chance of contact. Does the whale know Kobuk is here? If not, then is there a chance of collision? If so, then why has he shown himself so close and does he have intent? I cannot identify the many different types of whales, but this one is the mottled gray that you sometimes see on horses It also has a dorsal fin that shades into black, just as gray horses sometimes have a black mane. The whale is large and where his glistening back breaks the water I can watch a single part of it slide up into view and move in a slow and stately arc until disappearing below the surface. I have seen many whales before, but this one so close leaves me in an elevated state.
If all of Cape Breton looks like the little vale of Mabou then we are going to get along just fine. The emerald haystack hills with their fir forests and open meadows peel away from the estuary, touched here and there by whitewashed farmstead homes and rambling country roads. The town itself is a winding road with a few homes and shops on either side, staggering down a gentle hill before crossing the bridge over the river. A white clapboard church with a spire half way to heaven sits off to one side, surrounded by forest but projecting higher, much higher, than all the trees. It is as if the pointed firs are the congregation and the church the minister: all are supplicating with the multitude of little green spires emulating the slender white church one. In the middle of the streetside village there is a pub known as The Red Shoe. It is owned by the Rankin Sisters, famous for the Cape Breton songs that they sing. A number of years ago I was given a CD of theirs and it still so much appeals to me that I listen to it regularly on Kobuk. The Red Shoe has live entertainment as a regular thing, and on this evening I eat my dinner listening to the bagpipe music of a lanky young man whose name is as Scottish as the music. The establishment is nearly full; I think half the adults in town must be here.
Mabou Bridge: 46* 04.215' N / 61* 23.730' W
Distance: 32 miles
Total Distance: 5,008 miles
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
On rivers it never mattered much what time I set off each day, but here on the ocean early morning is almost always the right time to start. The wind is gentler then and the seas calmer. Once the day warms sun gets up in the sky a breeze will spring up and the surface of the sea will come to life. Of course there are plenty of exceptions, but more often than not the early hours are the quietest time.
Kobuk and I prepare to depart Mabou before the sun has come above the eastern hills, but when I cast off and try to motor away from the dock there is no thrust from the jet drive and its sound has a hollowness to it that signals a clogged intake grating. There is no choice but to take a morning swim and clear the intake. The water is cold, but not as bad as I was anticipating and with screwdriver in hand I dive below the stern to gouge clotted gobs of grass out of the seven slots that make up the grating. This extracurricular activity delays us a bit but we still manage to push off before six.
Once out of the estuary, we turn right and head north along the coast. All the way to Cheticamp there is a giant slab of land rising up from the water. Steep faced and forested, it is shorn on the top to a constant elevation. Valleys are rare, headlands rarer, and beaches rarest of all. It is a single monolithic mountain running for mile after mile. Almost nowhere is there even a hint of coastal lowland, but not far from Cheticamp the highland massif retreats inland a short distance, leaving a platform of coastal land where small farms and little white houses are scattered about. They are reduced to insignificance by the great bulk of upland that forms their backdrop.
Cheticamp is an Acadian enclave, a French speaking town in a land of transplanted Scots. When the Brits forced the French settlers to evacuate the Maritimes in the late 1700's, most moved on to distant locations like New Orleans and French Caribbean islands, but a few made their way back into the region. Some of them chose the inaccessible highlands behind Cheticamp, a territory too isolated to be of interest to the Brits. When British intolerance of French settlement waned, the French drifted down to the seaside and established the town of Cheticamp. The highlands were poor for agriculture, but a decent living could be made from the sea. Even so, Cheticamp remained a remote area, connected to the rest of Canada only by infrequent ferrys. Not until the 1930's did the first road reach the region.
The weather forecast had called for strong winds by the end of the day and very strong ones during the night. Kobuk and I pulled into harbor in early afternoon and only a few hours later the wind was snapping the flags and scuttering the litter. It made for an unpleasant night: Kobuk was tied off on a dock that appeared to be well protected within the small, rockwalled harbor, but all night long waves kept bouncing off a concrete wall that forms part of the entrance channel and creating havoc in our little corner of the harbor. Kobuk kept slamming against the wharf piers to which she was tied, shuddering with each impact. It was not sufficiently severe to damage the hull or anything on board, but it was more than enough to keep me from sleeping well. It is a lesson learned: in the future I will watch out for those concrete walls along entrance channels.
Cheticamp harbor: 46* 38.163' N / 61* 0.553' W
Distance: 53 miles
Total Distance: 5,061 miles
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
With its bright red roof and white siding, les Trois Pignons is three of something, but I don't know what. Anyway, the sign says it is a museum, and a museum with a name like that deserves to be visited. It sits on a small hill at the edge of town. The placard outside indicates that it is a hooked rug museum, but actually it combines this theme with early settler artifacts and adds on not just a gift shop but a visitor's center and Internet access site as well. One of the charming things about small towns like Cheticamp is that their establishments so often engage in this sort of multifunctionality. Such lack of focus may suggest something less than quality, but in fact les Trois Pignons is does justice to all its unrelated themes.
What makes this most remarkable is that the museum collections are almost entirely the donations of two little old ladies, one of whom was a spinster who collected "stuff" and the other of whom was a world renowned hooker of rugs. This craftswoman, named Elizabeth LeFort, became world famous because of her talent. In the early twentieth century, Cheticamp was the hooked rug capital of the region, but of all the women who involved themselves in the craft, none could compare with Ms. LeFort when it came to both quality and quantity of production. She was the acknowledged master of the art (Perhaps political correctness would have her called a "mistress," but to do so after already labeling her as a hooker would seem to be piling injury on top of insult). She designed and executed extraordinarily complex themes for her rugs, using dozens of different colors while depicting people, animals and landscapes. She did rug portraits of may famous people--the queen, the pope, many presidents and prime ministers. She even presented President Eisenhower with one of her portrait rugs.
To make a hooked rug, one uses a backing of burlap and passes a loop of material up through each interstice between the warps and wefts of the burlap. If the rug is to have a good finish to it, each loop must be pulled through a standardized distance, so once pulled into place the size of the loop must be adjusted. It doesn't take a very big rug before there are an awful lot of interstices to pull loops through (take a look, for example, at the number of interstices in just a square inch of the shirt you have on). A number of the larger rugs that Ms. LeFort hooked had close to 2,000,000 such interstices through which she had to pull loops of correctly colored material. Now, she was acknowledged to be an extraordinarily fast hooker (55 loops per minute) but even at her torrid pace it must have taken her 500-600 hours to pull the loops on just one of those larger rugs. Since it took me in the neighborhood of 700 hours to build Kobuk, I can appreciate that the considerable commitment that she made to complete just one of her many rugs. But really, the work involved for her was far, far greater than the hooking of material through loops. She hand designed each rug she made and transferred the design to the burlap. She selected the number and nature of colors to be used in the design (sometimes as many as sixty different colors). She prepared the material to be used to do the hooking and she hand dyed the material to all her chosen colors. In fact, by the time everything was ready to start the hooking, Ms. LeFort looked upon the project as practically completed.
I have been killing time in Cheticamp because the winds are strong today. They were forecast to let up in the afternoon and do indeed calm down shortly after lunch time. Tomorrow, though, the forecast is for strong winds out of the southeast followed by a shift around to the northwest. If I can get Kobuk to the top of the peninsula before the northwest winds set in it will simplify things considerably, so even though it is late in the day today I depart as soon as the winds die down. All afternoon, Kobuk and I run north past the bold relief of Cape Breton National Park's powerful coastline. Mountainsides tumble into the sea from towering heights and a single highway traces a bobbing path along its precipitious flank. With the wind gone, there are no extraordinary booms of murderous surf pounding the rocky shore, but burly swells left over from the recent wind sweep silently by, rolling Kobuk through slow pendulum arcs before obliterating themselves on the rocky shoreline. The swells are mottled and dented, marked all over with chips and scallops. These are the residual signs of the recent wind, minor defacements in the overall configuration of each swell but sufficient to make little Kobuk stutter and stagger as she rolls to the rhythm of the unstoppable swells.
It is a run of only a few hours, but it gets us up to Pleasant Bay, a fishing harbor situated less than twenty miles from the top of the peninsula. By the time we arrive there the day has turned sunny and golden and the air has begun to feel like summer. Pleasant Bay occupies a small valley that runs back only a short distance from the mountain wall before giving it up as hopeless and surrendering on all sides to high ground. It is, in short, the sort of place that feels like a hidden enclave--the kind of place where a young child could find the secret, special world that all healthy children fantasize about.
Pleasant Bay: 46* 49.838' N / 60* 47.888' W
Distance: 18 miles
Total Distance: 5,079 miles
Thursday, June 28, 2007
Yesterday evening, shortly before sunset, a man stopped by to take a look at Kobuk. Pale in complexion and round faced, he had the sort of softening layer of baby fat that makes middle age look more like aging youth. He was a fisherman, of course, and found himself perversely attracted to the exotic appearance of little Kobuk. I showed him around and we stood on board for some time talking about the boat, Pleasant Bay, and the life of a fisherman. We discussed the weather forecast and when I mentioned that there were supposed to be strong southeast winds coming off land in the morning he agreed that that is what he had heard too. I told him about my plan to sneak up along the shore in the lee of the massive uplands but he cautioned me against treating those winds too casually. "They come down off those mountains real hard," he said. "Whenever they forecast 'em for 15-20 knots the come on a lot harder than that." We discussed this further and eventually he seemed to agree that my best strategy would be to go out with the fishing fleet around five in the morning and run up to the top of the peninsula as fast as possible with the big engine, and then duck into Bay St. Lawrence for cover. This would take advantage of the morning calm--if there is one--and would get me to Bay St. Lawrence in less than a couple hours. Bay St. Lawrence is at the top of the peninsula where Kobuk could start running down the east coast under cover of land as soon as the wind backs around to the northwest.
The muted sounds of fishing boats powering up and casting off awakens me in the morning, and when I get up there already is a sinister breeze blowing out to sea. The twilight sky is reddening in the northeast as I undo Kobuk's lines. With nothing being said, the last fishing boat in the harbor maneuvers over to my windward side to give me shelter and waits for me to clear the dock before spinning around like a top and motoring out through the breakwater channel. I am the last boat out of the harbor.
Yes, the wind is already up and even fifty yards from shore the water is developing a healthy chop. Kobuk flees north at 22-24 miles per hour, the maximum speed possible if the hull is not to be subjected to an occasional hammering. There is tension in the air--will we get to Bay St. Lawrence before the world around us becomes unmanageable? The brooding upland looms over us and sunrise is delayed by the prodigious mass of land. Clouds are moving in and moving fast. The chop turns to small waves and Kobuk is forced to slower speeds, but we clear the northern point before any serious deterioration in conditions and head the last few miles towards the harbor of Bay St. Lawrence. The bay is at the northern extremity of Cape Breton with upland promontories on either side, defining it like the horns of a bull. When we pass into protected waters we find ourselves in a small, round lake called McDougall's pond, too shallow for boats in most places, but deep enough along its eastern side where docks have been constructed. The surrounding land is a swale of rolling hills on all sides, even small ones on the neck of land separating the pond from the ocean. We tie to a floating dock and as I make up the lines the heavens release a downpour and the wind rises precipitously. I batten down and go to bed with the canvas rattling and the rain pinging.
In the afternoon when the rain abates, I cycle up to the road past a scattered array of small buildings that some might call a village. Overlooking McDougall Pond from a small hill a mile or so away, there is a lonesome church and not far from there a shallow vale with a coop store next to the road. This I suppose is enough to justify the village title, and as such Bay St. Lawrence has the look of a contented encampment in an isolated wilderness. From the little hillock on which the church is located, one can look at all the surrounding hills and mountains and down on McDougall Pond with its harbor clinging to its eastern shore. The wrinkled ocean is here and there visible on the northern horizon. With a murderously black sky lowering there to the north, the rich green landscape looks emerald and the little boats look impossibly white whenever a shaft of precious sunlight pierces the overcast.
McDougall Pond: 46* 59.976' N / 60* 27.784' W
Distance: 26 miles
Total Distance: 5,105 miles
Friday, June 29, 2007
Getting out of Bay St. Lawrence and past the formidable eastern headland is an hour of thrashing around in this new northwest wind, but once clear we will be free to run along the coast in the protected lee of the land. The headland itself is ragged cliffs dropping down out of swirling mists, looking like a Viking landfall. No other boats are about and the peninsula itself is too harsh for any sort of established human presence. The only sign that this is not an undiscovered land is the lobster trap buoys floating on the water near shore. In earlier times, even before the Vikings, this might have been a site of choice for a medieval Irish monastery. The gray skies and rocky shores and leaden waters give it the stark, imposing aesthetic appropriate to such a life of self-denial.
Once we pass the promontory with its lighthouse that has at last come into view, the waters calm, the skies begin to clear, and the steep-sloped coast takes on a more inviting look. There is a large bay here--Aspey Bay--that we cut across in these less challenging conditions, and once out away from land the whales begin to appear. With their dark bodies and small size and rakish dorsal fins, they look like pilot whales. Their backs and fins briefly break the water all around, often in pods of two or three and never in sight for long. Every day of this Cape Breton passage I have sighted a whale or two, but never more than one at a time and never in pods. Now of a sudden more than a dozen of them appear virtually simultaneously. Their carefree, frolicsome behavior is that of dolphins, and so is the occasional synchronized surfacing of two or three together, but they really do not look like dolphins.
With each passing hour the skies improve, the temperature creeps upward, and the waters become more docile. It is as if we are moving away from the perils of the north at supersonic speed. By mid-afternoon we pass between an island and the mainland, and into the large bay of Ingonish where mountains tumble to the sea on both sides and a deep valley runs far inland between them. Ingonish has an arcuate sandbar beach with a lagoon behind, and the passage through the lowland strand of sand is a very narrow channel that on a day of strong east winds must be a heart stopping rollercoaster for any distressed mariner seeking haven from the storm. In the large lagoon, though, it is very, very peaceful, and on this day that has turned sunny the surrounding scenery embraces the best of both highland magnificence and coastal marshland peace.
After securing Kobuk at the small public wharf where the local fishing fleet hangs out, I cycle up hill and down dale to get around to the other side of the lagoon where the small town of Ingonish is located. Just beyond the town a knife-edged peninsula juts out into the bay, extending elevated bluffs a couple miles seaward but usually with no greater breadth than a couple hundred yards. Richly forested and green, the peninsula appears to be as high as it is wide, and midway along its course there is a grand old building with red roof and white siding. It has a solid, boxy look with triangular rooflines but the overall effect is somehow aesthetically pleasing. It so dominates the midsection of the peninsula that when you are out on the water it stands proudly visible from either half of the bay. It is the Keltic Lodge and its powerful presence drew me to it. To get there I have to pay to enter the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, but the expense is worth it for when I arrive I am able to eat dinner in a grand restaurant with walls of glass that afford panoramic views down on the northern half of the bay.
There was no place to get an Internet connection in Ingonish, but I figured that surely the Keltic Lodge would be equipped with a wireless hotspot. When I ask one of the employees in the restaurant about this, he shakes his head and says he's not aware of any wireless in the lodge. "But," he says, "the employee housing just down the road before the golf course is all wireless and you could sit on the steps there and get connected. The building is Badmanor and its name is over the entrance door." I use his directions to find Badmanor (a German-Scottish name?) and spend an hour or so getting my work done with sunlight glittering off the distant bay and filtering through the nearby fir trees.
I think there is some significance to the fact that an expensive, upscale hotel does not yet find it urgently necessary to provide its guests with wireless Internet connection but evidently feels a need to do so in order to attract the youthful employees who do all the work here. Could there be any more telling evidence of the generation gap that exists when it comes to computers?
Ingonish Harbor: 46* 37.783' N / 60*23,386' W
Distance: 36 miles
Total Distance: 5,141 miles
Saturday, June 30, 2007
Ingonish is a good way down the eastern side of this highlands peninsula: one more day of travel will get us off the open ocean and into the relative protection of the Bras d'Or Lakes. There is a southwest wind today, a headwind that will be punching us on the nose all the way. The breeze is moderate, but when you get hit in the same place over and over again you eventually get a little sensitive to the mistreatment no matter how gentle the taps. Kobuk and I start at dawn to capitalize on the lighter airs, but to no avail: even at that hour the wind is coming at us enough to be an irritant--tolerable and non-threatening, but an irritant nonetheless. Even when we finally close with a windward shore and enter into the long, slender channel giving access to the Bras d'Or Lakes, the orientation of the channel allows the wind to develop a boisterous chop that is all the more nasty for being in opposition to the flowing tide. The day is long and arduous--nearly nine hours on the water--but because of the early start we arrive at the little town of Baddeck before the afternoon has slipped away.
These Bras d'Or Lakes are unique. Here in the heart of Cape Breton Island, elongated troughs scoured by the glaciers trend northeast-southwest on the landscape and occupy a vast and complex area. All the parallel troughs are filled with water and they all are interconnected by narrow passages. The water is brackish because the entire system is open to the sea on both the northern and the southern sides of the island. In fact, because of this it is technically possible to think of Cape Breton as being two separate islands jigsaw-puzzled apart by the Bras d'Or Lakes system that separates them. The passages to the ocean, however, are exceedingly narrow and the one at the south end is particularly so. It, in fact, has been engineered into a canal with a single lock in order to civilize the stretch of reversing rapids that used to inhibit through traffic by boats. The system of interlocking lakes is really very large, particularly considering that they are located on an island. But the system is far larger than quantification would suggest since the stretch of water is so thoroughly partitioned into separate arms and bays and is studded with a goodly number of islands.
Best of all, the Bras d'Or Lakes are not overrun with development. There are homes and summer cottages broadly scattered to be sure, but to give some idea of the embryonic stage of the development process, consider the nature of Baddeck (pronounced with the accent on the second syllable). Baddeck is well situated for convenient boating access to the many arms of the lake system and has for some time been the principle town in the region. Its picturesque cluster of whitewashed homes and small scale commercial establishments is the permanent residence of less than a thousand people. Summer tourists come and go, of course, but such a small town acting as a service center for a large part of the Bras d'Or Lakes system suggests that the hinterland here does not have a particularly high rural population density. Motoring along the Big Bras d'Or confirms this for vastly greater amounts of waterfront land remain in a natural state than have been altered to suit the needs and desires of people.
When Kobuk and I finally arrive at the Baddeck wharf, there is a party going on. The sights and sounds of a carnival atmosphere pervade the waterfront and after securing Kobuk for an overnight stay I come to discover that the curious decision has been made to celebrate Canada Day on June 30th instead of July 1st. The rationale for this appears to be that the festivities should not fall on a Sunday, but various people express their skepticism about the wisdom of the decision and the general consensus is that the attracted crowd today is less than in previous years. In any event, there are outdoor beer tents, the smell of dogs and brats roasting on the grill, people milling, and rock music seeping out from various nearby establishments. The Chamber of Commerce might be displeased but I find the size of the crowd to be ideal--large enough to be exciting but not so great as to make every move a contestation for space.
When bringing Kobuk up for mooring, I am assisted by two women, one of whom is partner in a schooner charter business. Her name is Bev and her husband John is out sailing with a group of paying guests. When he returns to port with their black-hulled, teak-trimmed vessel named Amoeba, this sight of nautical beauty distracts me from the cheaper pleasures of dockside revelry. Amoeba is a real sailboat, a reminder of earlier times when sails were large and numerous, masts tall and rigging oversized, hulls shapely and sensuous. Bev and John invite me aboard for a beer and while we sit and talk in the spacious salon below deck, I learn that she has a ferrocement hull and that John's father built her over a ten year period. He carried the dream to fruition by taking his family aboard and sailing to the Caribbean where for a few years Amoeba earned them living as a charter vessel. When finally returned to the Bras d'Or Lakes, she once again became a charter vessel, but this time from the little harbor here in Baddeck and for short outings of an hour or two at a time. The lakes are big enough for her, though, and when out on the water she looks comfortable and free. The winds appear to be sufficient to keep her satisfied, and the open stretches of water sufficiently wide to give her adequate "sea room." As a backdrop to her black hull and golden teak and white sails working with the wind, the waters of the Bras d'Or Lakes run out to the green fir forests of the distant hills.
John and Bev Bryson are proud of their boat and dedicate their life to her. After years of hosting charter guests, John has an uncanny ability to shift effortlessly between superficial banter and serious conversation. Bev, on the other hand, has a more consistent conversational style. She seems to take a constant interest in the lives of other people but does it in a musing manner that leaves the feeling she is privy to a secret not to be shared. This fascinating blend of engagement and aloofness is made all the more exotic by her residual British accent. A few years ago, John and Bev took Amoeba south for another look at the Caribbean, this time for just six months, but with their two teenage daughters. I find extreme satisfaction in being around people who do the beautiful thing and not just that which will yield a comfortable life.
Baddeck: 46* 05.972' N / 60* 44.844' W
Distance: 51 miles
Total Distance: 5,192 miles
Sunday, July 1, 2007
Alexander Graham Bell lived here. He was a Scot, but his father moved the family when Alec was still a child. He became an American but his real home--his summer retreat and his favorite place to be--was here on the tip of a peninsula just a short distance across the water from Baddeck. With income from invention of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell purchased the entire peninsula and had a stately mansion built out at its tip. The estate remains in private hands, owned by the inventor's descendants, but on a hillside near the town of Baddeck the government of Canada has created an interpretive center designed to further public awareness of Mr. Bell's accomplishments.
There are many famous people in the history of Canada and the United States. Any number of them might serve as appropriate role models for the young to emulate, but few would offer a more wholesome and uncompromised example than Alexander Graham Bell. He was motivated by a desire to serve others, and particularly to help the deaf. He lived his passion by marrying a deaf woman and the two of them loved each other until death at an advanced age. He was ambitious to succeed at discovering new things but his ambition never made him downplay or diminish the worth of others. He gave all the stock in his telephone company to his wife, even though she was already rich and he was born into very modest circumstances. He was largely self-educated and his intellectual curiosity never flagged even in old age. He used ingenuity and experimentation to invent things, but he never become so obsessed with a project as to neglect family and friends and he never allowed his focus to exclude all manner of other intellectual questions. Not insignificantly from my point of view, he founded the National Geographic Society. Although he invented the telephone while in his twenties, something that made him wealthy while still a young man and created a standard of accomplishment that would be virtually impossible to surpass later in life, he went on to make other meaningful discoveries and construct other valuable inventions. In other words, Mr. Bell was a success in most ways and not just in the limited sense of having invented the telephone. The spirit of Alexander Graham Bell is, I believe, at least as important as his worldly success.
In his early adulthood, Bell was particularly preoccupied with finding ways to help the deaf overcome their disability. His father had developed a system for converting aural sounds to a new type of alphabet that was based on what a person must do to make a particular sound. The sound of the letter "M," for example involves holding the mouth closed, opening the nasal passage, and vibrating the vocal cords. By coding each sound according to its distinctive manipulation of the lips, mouth, tongue, nasal passage, and vocal cords, Bell's father was able to assign a series of symbols to all the different sounds that humans can make. The son used this system to develop methods of teaching deaf people how to speak and in one of the more benign ironies of history it was instrumental in helping him discover how sounds might be converted to an electric current and then back again.
Other things that Bell invented include a wireless method of transmitting sound across long distance (conceptually, although not technically, a precursor to radio and cell phones), an aircraft developed independently of the Wright Brothers (and the first to fly in the British Empire), and an efficiently designed hydrofoil that lifted his prototype boat out of the water and allowed it to set a world speed record of over a hundred kilometers per hour. All this before World War I.
In some ways, his most remarkable accomplishment was to destroy the myth that nothing very large could fly because of the widely understood principle that increase in size inevitably increases an object's weight much more substantially than its surface area, and yet surface area is the the characteristic that sustains flight. This suggested that flight of something large would require an impossibly large source of propulsion. Bell overcame this undeniable truth by the simple expedient of stringing together a large number of small tetrahedrons, each capable of flight. The geometry of tetrahedrons allows them to have enormous strength and rigidity even when constructed out of very light materials, and when each one is covered on two of its four sides it can be flown as a kite. Link hundreds of them together and you have hundreds of wings all working in concert. There are faded photos of the old man flying these enormous honeycomb kites, and one photo in particular of his wife Mabel pulling hard to hold one from getting away from her, with a look of delight and amazement on her face.
John and Bev had suggested that I could if I wished go out on one of Amoeba's charter cruises today, so in the mid afternoon I walked aboard to spend a couple hours under a blue sky littered with scudding clouds, slicing through the little ripples of the Bras d'Or with the wind heeling Amoeba to a respectable angle. "And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying / And the flung spray and the blown spume and the seagulls crying."
Monday, July 2, 2007
Last night in a small meeting hall at the top of the main street there was a Ceilidh that I decided to attend. A Ceilidh is, I gather, the Cape Breton equivalent of a hoedown, a rousing medley of local music intended to get the feet stomping and the heads bobbing. This event is held every night during the summer season (although last night was its premiere for this year) and the paying guests seem to come in droves. The little meeting room had seats for only about a hundred people, but every seat was full and the musicians were hemmed in on all sides by attentive faces. The piano and an amplified fiddle were the only instruments and the musicians consisted of three young women who each took turns on them. They were local gals whose stage presence suggested that they must be experienced amateurs: they knew how to work a crowd but their banter was clearly unpracticed. The youngest of the three was eighteen and the oldest must have been in her mid-twenties. All three played a fine, rich sound on the fiddle (the piano was little more than a background percussion instrument), and of course you cannot even approach a Cape Breton fiddle tune if you're not awfully agile with your finger work. Occasionally, one of the gals would get up and dance as well, as would the odd stranger in the crowd. Really, though, it was all about the fiddle and the lively tunes were full of bounce and energy. Even the pieces intended as laments were not so soulful and sad as all that--their sound had the studied effectiveness of a well-trained child whose conversation with the great aunt is flawless even as his entire being is focused on how to escape her presence and go climb the nearby apple tree.
I made a half-hearted effort to prepare for departure today, but it just never seemed to happen. Conscious reason didn't stand a chance against unconscious urges. My arms and legs were not responsive to thoughts that lacked a will. I spent the day in bed, so to speak, exercising nothing really except the little gray cells. I read a lot, did some writing, and attended to my school work. The few times I did move around it was only at a leisurely pace on Bike Friday and only for need rather than pleasure. I even napped literally as well as figuratively.
I did happen to talk with Jonathan, the young man who works as crew on Amoeba. We got around to the topic of wildlife and when I related to him the odd experience I had had with the eagle that was crossing the Pictou entrance channel by using his wings as sculls, Jonathan doubted that the bird was injured. Eagles sometimes do that sort of thing, he claimed, when they get their claws into a fish too heavy for them to fly. The prevailing view is that once an eagle has hold of prey it will not let go no matter what. Jonathan has read that sometimes eagles will drown trying to get to shore rather than let go. This of course puts a rather different light on the behavior of that eagle I saw. Maybe it was more possessed by possessiveness than committed to courage. Perhaps I should begin to think of eagles as grasping materialists and abandon my perception of them as courageous and stoic warriors. I won't speculate on what this means for the United States.
Really, the odds are high that neither interpretation sheds any light on why eagles do what they do. I should imagine that within the eagle community the controversy rages as to whether one of their members who releases prey is the unfortunate victim of bad genes or the lamentable result of a bad upbringing. In any event, I feel sure that the eagle society views its naturally tenacious behavior as right and proper. To act in any other way would surely be a sign of degradation and corruption. Then again, maybe eagles don't have the same degree of social guidance as humans do. Maybe approval and approbation are not part of their vocabulary. Maybe they fly unconstrained by social convention and just do whatever they want. Maybe their definition of freedom is a little less political than ours.
Tuesday, July 3, 2007
Baddeck Bay spreads like a sheet of beaten blue metal stretching to the green hills yonder and the little town lies as motionless as a postcard under a cloudless sky. Pedestrians seem to be on holiday and the main street of town sits silent and empty for minutes at a time before the occasional vehicle passes by, hesitant and isolated. Such eerie inactivity on a warm, sunny, July day in a tourist town! How can it be? Down in the harbor, Kobuk is the only visiting boat tied off and during the languid morning hours neither yachts from distant locales nor runabouts from the nearby coastal retreats come up to the dock.
How is it possible that a place of such natural splendor should be so utterly bereft of nature seekers. Throughout the United States, and in much of Canada as well, places like this--places where clean water and undefiled land lie together under a pure sky--are being sought out by those with money. There is a growing sense that such places are very much the exception and no longer the norm. Nature in a healthy state is itself an endangered thing and most anybody who can afford to contemplate the growing crisis is looking for a private retreat as a hedge against the uncertain future. Indeed, the trend is not exclusively American or Canadian. It is now international: the well-to-do from all over the world are engaged in a global land hunt that threatens to surpass in intensity even the global corporate hunt for hydrocarbons. These days, no place is secure, no matter how isolated. If it is clean and natural and has a modicum of aesthetic appeal it is being courted by outside money. Rural areas that even a decade ago were hardscrabble backwaters have suddenly become desirable. In the past, the great appeal of cheap rural land was always more than offset by its inability to ever appreciate. Young daydreamers would have found themselves bewitched by its romantic possibilities, but the hard-headed guardian of even modest wealth would avoid such places no less assiduously than a vampire avoids garlic. But now there is a different appraisal by those with money. There is a nagging anxiety that undefiled nature is about to disappear and everywhere you turn the there is a serious effort to "take a position" before the final denoument.
To some degree, those areas beyond the reach of convenient air travel are still being spared this global land rush, but the Bras d'Or Lakes are not so remote. The Stansfield Airport in Halifax is only a couple hours drive away and this vast complex of elongated lakes is totally encircled by paved highways that afford frequent vistas over it. Not only that, the lakes are beautiful. They are hemmed in by richly forested hill country that drops aggressively to the water and in many areas the coastline stumbles and staggers around capes and into bays with clusters of islands offshore. This is not the norm, but the territorial extent of the lakes is so great that such zones of inherent appeal are really quite abundant. Besides, even the long stretches of straight running coastlines are almost always backed by convexly sloping hills that drop swiftly down to water level. Vista overlooks are not hotspots in a complex land; they are what you get most everywhere if you cut down a few trees. With these sorts of attributes, it is incomprehensible that real estate development here has yet to develop any momentum.
Out away from shore, the sheen of unruffled water stretches across broad expanses toward the distant hills. The little Yamaha pushes us down the lake towards the Barra Strait where the little town of Iona ornaments a hillside. We pass under the highway bridge and by the railroad swing bridge to enter the largest expanse of open water in the Bras d'Or Lakes system. It stretches out before us unrippled and unstippled. We motor across a pool of mercury. Overhead, the sky has a breathless clarity to it, an ozone tinted expansiveness that is rarely to be seen outside Arctic areas. For six hours, Kobuk drones on in solitude. During that time only two other boats come into view, but both so far away as to be nothing more than dark specks in the distance. Kobuk has brought me to a world class tourist destination and there is nobody here.
The St. Peters Lions Marina has a spacious social hall with kitchen facilities in one corner, couches and satellite TV in another, and large casement windows overlooking the bay. It is, in short, an inviting place that draws in boaters from the docks and mixes them. When I arrive, I am made welcome by Gerry, the manager of the marina who has everyone dispensing with the free beer in the refrigerator. A man and his wife are here, up from New York state to set out with their sailboat for Laborador. The man is named Douglas and when he learns about my plans to pilot down the Scotian shore he goes down to his boat to retrieve for me a cruising guide to the Scotian shore. I thank him for the loan of it and spend until well after midnight reading it. In the early morning when I try to return it to him at the gas dock where he is filling his boat before their departure he won't take it back. He gives it to me and waves good bye.
St. Peters Lions Marina: 45* 39.669' N / 60* 52.472' W
Distance: 36 miles
Total Distance: 5,228 miles
Wednesday, July 4, 2007
The Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia is a chaotic puzzle of capes and bays, islets and rocks. Few are the villages along its eastern end. There will be virtually no boats to call for help on the VHF radio and my cell phone will be out of range of a tower almost all the time. Fog comes and goes in unpredictable ways and of course the winds can always curl around to bring up combers from the south. It is a wild and lovely place, but a dangerous place as well, and I dare not go there without adequate charts.
Nautical charts can quickly become a prodigious cruising expense. In Canada, for example a single chart covering 30-40 miles of coastline costs $20. From here to Florida is over 2,000 miles, for example, so at that rate thorough chart coverage could easily cost $1,000. I have electronic charts of the American coastline, but nowhere have I found proper coverage of the complicated Scotian shore. I dare not move without it.
Charlottetown and Baddeck both have outlets for Canadian hydrographic charts, but neither carries the charts for this region. Here in St. Peters, MacDonnell's Pharmacy also sells charts but when I go there in the morning I find that they only have coverage for Cape Breton Island and nothing for the upcoming coast. Charts could be ordered in for me and they might arrive in a couple days, but there is no assurance of that. I decide that the best thing to do is hitchhike to Sydney, about fifty miles north of here, and pick them up at the government office. This is where the folks at MacDonnell's say their orders come from.
On a sun drenched day, the warmest of the season, I stand by the side of the road on the edge of town and in only a few minutes I am given a ride a few miles up the road. As soon as I am left off, a youth named Joel picks me up and takes me all the way to Sydney. Between the hitchhiking decision and the streets of Sydney, no more than ninety minutes have passed, and so I begin to think that I might be back on Kobuk before the sun is getting low in the sky.
I quickly find the government office that sells the charts but when I ask for the ones covering the Scotian shore the woman working there regretfully informs me that they do not have them. They only carry coverage of Cape Breton Island, she says, and I am left speechless. She calls around for me, however, and locates a fishing supply store that has the charts I need and will hold them. The only trouble is that the store is on the north side of Sydney, about four miles away. There is nothing for it but to walk up there and back. The store lies in a part of the city that is run-down and depressed, with boarded store fronts, and the grim houses are pale for lack of paint. On the way back I stop at a small eatery called The Ethnic Deli, and the Ukranian woman who runs it tells me that this region is where all the immigrants settled who came to Sidney to work in the coal mines (which now are closed). She claims that this neighborhood was one of the most diverse in the country and that it was responsible for making little Sydney the most ethnically diverse city in the Maritimes.
Before I get back to the downtown, a scruffy, balding man comes out of a nearby building and strikes up a conversation about the weather. As I walk along the sidewalk he heads towards a nearby vehicle that has a small white light on top of it. Only then do I recognize it as a taxi, and before you can say St. Peters I have an arrangement with him to deliver me to the southern outskirts of the Sidney where hitching will be more feasible. After filling me in on the heinous way in which his East Asian girlfriend treated him before leaving with the kayak, he leaves me off in a good location on the south side of town, By this time the rush hour traffic has begun to build and I find myself planted on the side of the road with a steady stream of traffic feverishly passing. Eventually I do get one short ride with an evangelist who would like me to attend a revival, but he has others sinners to save and leaves me off only a few miles farther on. After another long wait a young man who works in Halifax takes me most of the way to St. Peters before leaving me off at the entrance to the gravel road leading in to his girlfriend's house.
Every few minutes a car will pass as the sun beats down, but nobody is inclined to stop. Over an hour goes by and for lack of anything else to do I walk another few miles. Finally, shortly after seven in the evening, I find myself at a bend in the road where the breadth of the shoulder encourages me to put down my backpack and rest for a while.
Before leaving St. Peters, Gerry had told me that if I have trouble making the trip I should call him because by late in the day he would have his car back and would be able to run up to Sydney to get me. Now that the day is running down and the black flies have come out to inspect my hide, I finally cave and give him a call. I explain my location--about ten miles from town--and he says he will be there in just a few minutes. As I wait for him on the side of the road showing no clear signs of being a hitchhiker, two cars stop to offer me a ride. This shows the inadvisability of giving up too soon.
Thursday, July 5, 2007
By the time I got back to the yacht harbor last night I was a wreck. My feet were sore, my legs ached, and dehydration had set in. I quickly guzzled down at least a litre of juice and went to bed. The walking that I had done, though not inconsiderable, hardly seemed sufficient to cause such an advanced case of exhaustion, but I suppose the combination of advancing years and so little walking in the past couple weeks was enough to hobble me. Come to think of it, I rarely walk much when travelling on Kobuk. The time at sea is spent sitting or maybe standing, but the boat is too small to do any walking. Then when I get to port at the end of each day I rely almost totally on Bike Friday. Perhaps this deadly combination has deconditioned me. The other possibility, of course, is age--but I won't go there.
The morning dawns bright and sunny but my recovery from the previous day is not complete and I feel no urgency about getting up and getting going. The next leg of the voyage is a short run of about twenty five miles due south to the little town of Canso. To get there we will pass through the St. Peters Canal and motor across Chedabucto Bay. The wind is down in the morning and the skies are clear, but the hint of a breeze is sweeping up from the southwest and the marine forecast anticipates strong wind and rain before the day is done. I am quite sure that Kobuk and I could make the passage before the onset of foul weather, but there seems no point in tempting fate. I take three ibuprofin and adjust to the idea of a day of leisure. The day does indeed stay calm and clear until early evening and I soak in the summer air as if I were an invalid in a rocking chair with a plaid shawl over the legs. It would have been ideal weather for making the crossing to Canso, but it makes no sense to regret the decision to stay. In spite of the missed opportunity, it was the right choice.
Friday, July 6, 2007
The bad weather did eventually arrive and it obliged me to get up in the middle of the night to resecure Kobuk's lines. They did not work loose, but even so the wind was flapping us around so much that spring lines became necessary. All night long it rained and blew, but I was as cozy as a little boy waiting out a storm in a tree house. When morning came the only thing that changed was that you could see the weather and not just hear it and feel it. I spent the day burrowed into one of the deep couches in the marina clubhouse. Outside, the rain slanted down through the gray light and the bay of St. Peters was obscured by the intensity of it all.
There was a bad accident near here today. Only a few miles from St. Peters a pickup truck ran off the road--most likely hydroplaning on a sheet of rainwater--and into a slough. When it happened, there was another vehicle passing that just happened to be a tow truck. The driver of the tow truck backed down to the slough and dragged the pickup out of the water. A nearby resident showed up and the two men broke the front window of the pickup to rescue one of the two daughters. She came away from the accident uninjured. Her sister perished on the spot and her father died on the way to the hospital. There is no accounting for the twists and turns of life.
That Kobuk and I have stalled here in St. Peters is not so surprising. Ever since leaving Charlottetown there has been lots of unsettled weather, but this is the first time it has actually kept us portside. Tomorrow, though, should bring light winds and a break in the rain. If so, then Kobuk and I will leave--as long as the fog is not too bad.