After eighteen days in a canoe on the Atlantic, over half way through a circumnavigation of Cape Breton Island, we often find ourselves saying, "This doesn't make sense anymore." I'm dehydrated and, sun-stoned, I write, "We're navigating between shoals in heavy winds on the backs of nine foot swells along an uncompromising coast. We're navigating our limited, and my sense of surprise is slowly fading."
But still Zac Crouse startles me that evening when he stands in front of the tent. His light hazel green eyes have paled since I last saw him. He looks drained. He reminds me of a frog I once removed from the jaws of a water snake when I was a kid.
"Are you all right?" I say.
"I climbed too far. I think I'm still in shock," he says
While I was writing in the tent Zac free climbed a waterfall. He had thought it was an escarpment with a gentle slope at the top. It was not. Suddenly he realized how high he had climbed and that the rock was rotten. His exhausted calves shook fearfully. Below him water fell fifty feet onto slick slab rock. "I'm never scared." He later told me.
So down he climbed the rotten rock distributing his weight evenly against each worthless hold. On the way he repeated this mantra: I will not die, I will not die, I will not die.
Our circumnavigation began eighteen days before this. We were in Zac's backyard. The gear looked neat and tidy packed in the canoe. The dry bags were solid colors: red, blue, yellow and green. Of the three plastic feed barrels two were brown and one was yellow, and they reeked of soap and olives. An extra paddle was strapped under the thwart. A pump was secured in the stern, as was the first aid kit. There were two long cylinders filled with maps, one with 1:50,000 topos, the other with 1:75,000 nautical charts, and both puzzled together complete pictures of Cape Breton Island's coast. This was our pre-pack and I was surrounded by a sea of grass with a can of Old Milwaukee sitting lazily in the canoe with a fat smile on my face.
That night lying in a sleeping bag on Zac's couch the usually familiar and forgotten bell tone of a foghorn reminded me of where we were going the next day. Zac and I had set aside forty days to circumnavigate Cape Breton Island by canoe. For the trip's duration my left shoulder would face land, my right shoulder the open Atlantic. And my sore knees the deep blue sea.
Our 600 km. Route would begin on the Straight of Canso at the causeway linking mainland Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island. From there we would head southeast through a day of protected passages and would soon bear east into the dawning sun. Then heading north we expected to be in the middle of industrial Cape Breton by day 15. After re-supplying in Glace Bay we would head east again beneath the famous bulk of the Cape Breton Highlands where we hoped there would be some beaches to camp on. Once we won Cape North, and the islands most northern point Cape St. Lawrence, we would begin the long journey south back to the Straight of Canso.
The first day was an easy paddle within the protected Lennox Passage. The second day we emerged from that and I wrote "finally open Atlantic - now I have my ocean lullaby" before falling asleep. But it was the third morning when we got a taste of what was to come.
The stove broke. We felt defeated and ate a cold breakfast. It was foggy and spitting rain. Through there was less wind than the day before, lumbering swells remained. When we took to the water around 6:30 I had a sinking feeling.
All day I navigated by watching lines of shoals combusting in the fog. They were the most visible feature to go by. When I saw one ahead I shouted, "What do you think? Go around? Or Go inside?"
At one point I saw a lone camper van on top of a sand dune. Beside it, what at first appeared to be gravestones, turned out to be tree stumps. However the image stuck and reminded me of a frightened deer we had watched that morning bounding across dunes of razor grass.
Out on the ocean I felt like that deer because in a canoe among swells, shoals, and fog this point is apparent: we are running for our lives.
Near Forchu, a desolate fishing community is the wreck of Iceland II. It crashed at the harbor's head on the reefs that lay waste to it and the lives of ten crewmembers and forever rusts up on shore, flaking away slowly. We camped in sight of it the next day and sunlight shined through the corroded hull patterned as if an iron doily.
At least we had fixed the stove with spare parts. In the tent, our stomachs were bloated after a massive meal of spaghetti and cheese product sauce. We had the maps laid out and had done some kilometer counting and say dividing. Now we doubted our chances of completing the circumnavigation. Our progress was too slow, impeded by exhaustion, wind, and overexposure to sun.
Zac turned his head to me. "I think I'll go until I'm done," he said.
"Whaddaya mean?" I replied.
"Oh. I don't quite understand."
I don't know, just until I'm done."
I listened to my noisy nose breaths and though: Did it matter it we made it to the end? Weren't we just out here to canoe? How disappointed was Zac? Was I disappointed?
That night we at least agreed to make it to Cheticamp, a French community a few days south of the Cape St. Lawrence, the northernmost tip of Cape Breton.
On day nine we made for Mira Bay. A mass of clouds shaped like an angel floating in the sky followed our minuscule progress below. Behind it the sun rose such that all morning was a pink sunrise.
We had risen at five to beat the wind. But we hadn't beaten the 'slog.' Slog was our name for the following: two-meter swells lumber from the ocean and fracture on the rocky coast. The swells refract and create erratic, violent, ocean. These are no longer waves. They have no regularity, no swelling, no heaving. We had been slogging through this punch for much of the past five days.
Our bow bounced left and right, smacking against the water. Zac was in the stern, and breaking an hour of silence, suddenly asked if I have ever used a panorama camera.
"Well, you know the way you can take a bunch of pictures standing in one spot and put together a 360 degree photo?" he said.
"Well, we should do that now. Then glue these pictures to the inside of a box or a helmet, and get our friends to put their heads into that. They'll think how nice. Look at the ocean. Look at the shore. How beautiful," he said sarcastically. "But then we'll tie them to a chair, throw water at them, and beat them. They they'll understand slog."
Out in Sydney Harbour seals were roaring. It was late. I was in my sleeping bag with a shirt over my eyes. We had resupplied in Glace Bay, the crux of industrial Cape Breton, and were almost around the southern belly of the Island.
Tomorrow we had a vision of making it to Point Aconi, the launching pad to the Highlands. I wrote, "This was the only time I understood what a sea mammal's mewing meant." Around us foghorns moaned, buoys clanged, cars raced, traffic blew ships thundered, dogs yapped, and through the entire duration of night a lighthouse strobed 360 degrees illuminating land and ocean. Until five in the morning. Lesson learned: do not pitch a tent near a lighthouse.
That night we slept little and booted it early the next day.
As we came around Point Aconi, a breeze from the southeast nudged us forward and at first I mistook a bluish horizon for another layer of clouds.
But Zac said, "Oh."
That blue horizon wasn't cloud. It was the Cape Breton Highlands. They were a giant blue wall that met the sea. And suddenly the trips' demeanor transformed: my brain lightened, the land rose, the air sweetened and I felt right again.
Later that day we met the wind and exhausted ourselves paddling five kilometers against 20 knots. We felt different. We felt strong. And that night we were talking about completing the circumnavigation again for the first time since that afternoon in Zac's backyard, I with a fat smile on my face.
So here we are after eighteen days navigating our limits. We're close to the northern tip of Cape Breton. A pilot whale greeted us, and a half-dozen bald eagles, each alone on a tower of rock, observed our passage silently.
This daily routine has emerged: We get up around five. One of us crams the tent into its stuff sack while the other prepared breakfast, cold oatmeal, powdered milk, an apple, honey and water. After eating we lug our gear to the ocean's edge. We load the canoe and secure the gear to ropes bowlined to the thwart. Then its time to go.
We wait for a lull in the surf. We spring. We hop into the spray skirt. One of us braces, the other readies himself. Often it's before six. We wake up after kilometer four, and canoe until either we're exhausted or the wind picks up. We nap through the wind and waves. We lunch on cheese and sardines. We paddle again, eat rice or pasta, watch the sunset, and then sleep.
According to this pattern we find ourselves at the extent of the highlands on Cape North tucked away from a howling wind in a hidden inlet. Marble cliffs tower over one end of the beach, marble spires guard the cove, and the marble ocean floor is turquoise.
We have bouldered, climbed, scrambled, cliff jumped, pitched the tent, and Zac has climbed too far. He said, "I think I'm still in shock," standing in front of me lying in the tent. I'm relieved that an hour or two from now I won't have to shine a flashlight on his lifeless body. Instead his nerves are calm and in his sleeping bag right next to me he reads Catch 22.
However, calm moments never last long. They are just that - moments. Rumbling interrupts this one. At first we think it's swells colliding into overhangs and small sea caves. Then it seems to be rocks falling and we peer cautiously at the cliff base. But the third time the cause is clear. Thunderheads are moving in.
Zac cranes his neck out the tent vestibule. "How's the sky?" I ask.
"The wind has died down," he says. "It has that crazy I could do anything look."
The lightning storm hits a half hour later. The forest cracks directly above us. The mountain shakes at its core. A rock bounces off the fly. Sac and I look at each other nervously and laugh maniacally. It's dark, the water is rising mere feet away, it's raining rocks, wind is pummeling the fly, and lightning illuminates the tent's interior in bursts so bright that I think I can see with my eyes shut.
Tonight I feel clairvoyant, excited, and on the edge. Nor matter where we are, I think, we are running for our lives. It's just more apparent here, beneath the falling sky. A few lines of the poem David by Canadian poet Earle Birney race through my head:
One Sunday on Rampart's Arete a rainsquall caught us
And passed, and we clung by our bluing fingers and
And endless hour in the sun, not daring to move
Till the ice had steam from the slate. And David
How time on a knife-edge can pass with the guess of
Remembered from poets, the naming of strata beside one,
And matching of stories from schooldays
Four days later we're eating fish 'n chips in Cheticamp when Zac finds a news headline in the Halifax Chronicle Herald that says, "Lightning Zaps Dairy Herd: New Brunswick Farmer Ponders Future After Bolt Kills 25 Cows." Cheticamp is where we had thought we might end the trip.
But we have been on the ocean for twenty-one days and there is no talk about stopping. We are canoe maniacs tearing south down the western coast of Cape Breton. Having survived the lightning, the rising tide and rocks falling at Cape North, we made for Cape St. Lawrence, the northernmost tip of Cape Breton. There we canoes among pilot whales and Sac said, "Yar, there goes the Black Fish yar."
Then we charged south, hugging the periphery of commanding cliffs that hunker into fat, bald mountains sharp cut into valleys by quickly running burns - the epitome of the Highlands.
Since arriving at Cheticamp we have dispelled any doubts we had about canoeing on the Atlantic. Each day we look at the sky and ocean, judge the winds and waves, and confront their surprises. We have even swamped three times. One time Zac became pinned underneath the canoe as six-foot breakers battered him into a steep beach. Then another time we misjudged a launch and hit wall after wall of water. Splayed over the bow, Sac hadn't even had time to slip into the spray skirt before breakers bulldozed through us.
Of the trip there is no overarching sentiment. I feel Herculean when we are faced by fierce wind and are pushing for it. Whereas, while we shove off into 20 know winds to gain those extra four kilometers I feel like I am exhaustively racing to the end. And I don't want to be. But then sitting on an immensely wide crescent beach beneath awesomely rising rock I feel like opening my arms to the sun. And there are many of these ethereal moments. It's something about being on the edge of everything" sky, horizon, civilization, wilderness, and danger all found where ocean meets land. Here there is a wonderful mixture of adrenaline, of dark moods, and elation. Finally there is a sad welling in my throat, behind my eyes and beside my ears when I realize it will soon be over.
And suddenly it's the final 900m. There's the Canso Causeway where we started. Goofy smiles stretch our mouths. But these quickly disappear.
Confronting us are the three-meter high closed steel doors of the causeway's lock system. Suddenly we wonder how two guys in a canoe get through these to complete their circumnavigation of Cape Breton Island. We should be a vessel equipped with VHF radio and here's us without one bobbing aimlessly in front of the locked fortress. The alternative would be the trips' only portage across seven meters of pavement.
So while Zac holds the canoe next to a concrete wharf I climb up to find someone who will open the lock. There are No Trespassing warnings and tall wire fences around the lock door authority complex. Ahead of me are vinyl sided buildings but no people. I knock on the control room window, but no one answers.
Next, I approach a mechanics bay a dozen meters away. There, squinting against a bright sun, I see someone sternly awaiting my approach.
"Look," I say. "I'm in a canoe and I need the locks opened so we can complete a circumnavigation of Cape Breton. I know it sounds weird butů"
"Oh sure!" he says laughing, unused to canoeists from the mainland. "Where you from? Up south? Which side you on? Down north?"
"Yep," I say.
"Well let's see then," he says. "I'll just call up." He picks up a phone hanging on the wall right next to him and presses one button. He waits, says hello, then pauses trying to discern who's working the control room today, and bursts into the mouthpiece:
"Yeah bai," I assume Harriet replies.
"I got them guy here who's on a navigation of the island. They're in a bunch of canoes," he says.
"No, just one," I say.
"No, just one," he tells Harriet. "Yeah, open the locks for them would ya' so they can finish the navigation of the island." He hangs up the phone and tells me there's no problem. I thank him, pumping his hand wildly. As I run back excitedly to the canoe, the locks are already grinding open, the beepers beeping, the red lights flashing, and the lock water pouring out. I scamper down the rusting ladder, almost fall in the Straight of Canso, and hop in the bow. Zac cheers.
We paddle through the first set of lock doors. They close behind us and I snap a picture while waiting the perfunctory 15 meters from the second set of doors at a gate, way above our heads.
Finally they rise: the red lights flash again, the lock doors groan open, water rushes against us, and we paddle through. So pumped are we that we zealously fight up a gushing stream of equalizing lock water while the doors are still opening. And then we're back where we started 25 days later.
Now we sit in a pancake house up from the causeway waiting for our drive to the mainland. In front of us is an empty pitcher. A full one is on its way. This dark lounge is both wonderful and foreboding. Its deep synthetic shade is lovely, but already I wonder when next I'll be on the water.