My kayaking career began not with a paddle, but with a hike, through the splintering trails and crumbling buildings of the York Redoubt National Historic Site, from whose lookouts I admired the entirety of Halifax Harbour. One visit became many as this was the destination of my daily jog, nurturing, over time, my curiosity of a park visible from its peaks, quietly occupying the waters below – McNabs Island.
I’m now intimately acquainted with the York Redoubt, having explored its every aspect and made it the sight of several memories – watching the Northern Lights from its more accessible rooftops and questing through its abandoned caves knee deep in water – but I couldn’t learn anything about McNabs, not from a distance. I couldn’t see the forts which I knew endured there, or derive any details from the lighthouse it presented me. So whenever I left the York Redoubt I carried with me a festering fascination for this distant island. I wanted to see it up close, to know it intimately, but taking a ferry didn’t feel fair. I wanted to earn my introduction to this rocky haven, and so, I turned to kayaking.
At that time I’d never handled a kayak before, naively assuming it was no different from the canoes of my youth. When finally I asked someone who knew better, they said the following:
“The difference between a canoe and a kayak is the difference between sitting on the water and in it. A canoe sits on the water and is subject to the ocean’s full abuse, but a kayak sits inside the water, and is protected by it…held in place. You’ll never get a canoe to McNabs.”
Any reasonable person might have given up there, but my compulsion to reach this tantalizing isle was such than I developed an entirely new skillset, soliciting pointers on the absolute basics of kayaking. The expertise of staff at Atmosphere and the Mountain Equipment Co-op, both in Halifax, was very helpful, explaining the endless variety of kayaks and their corresponding strengths.
Long kayaks are not very maneuverable, they said, but can sail straight in spite of tumultuous waters, slicing through ocean waves and keeping you on course with relative ease. Short kayaks can maneuver no problem, but are best for rivers or lakes where waves aren’t a factor. While the knowledge of these professionals was welcome, their prices weren’t, sending me instead to the wilds of Kijiji in search of my own personal Bluenose, lightly used.
Within two weeks I found her, a 13 foot Riot purchased from a fellow in Dartmouth for $725. It was just long enough to handle the coast, but still short enough to navigate a river. Also in Dartmouth I tracked down a beautiful wooden paddle which has been the envy of everyone who’s seen it. Finally, I acquired the life jacket, whistle, rescue rope, water pump and spare paddle required by the Canadian Coast Guard to enjoy our coastal waters. McNabs suddenly felt a whole lot closer.
Sharing this journey was old friend Alex Ripley, his preference for renting a kayak rather than buying one necessitating our departure from the Halifax Waterfront, within walking distance of the Mountain Equipment Co-op and their extremely reasonable rental rates.
I slipped into my kayak for the first time on a late July morning, 2017, relieved by its comfort and reliability, and convinced we’d been made for each other. I christened her Sequoia, and wove her through the ships at dock.
The sailboats and yachts of Halifax Harbour have right-of-way over us humble paddlers, for the simple reason that it’s difficult for them to change course. From spyglass distance we planned to avoid each other, occasionally passing nearby and shouting warm greetings in the ample sunlight. Most of them wore white and lounged atop their fibreglass castles, raising their hats or drinks to us adventurers below. I got in the habit of saluting their captains, a gesture they returned without fail.
The tide was on its way out and we rode the current seaward, passing easily by George’s Island between Halifax and Dartmouth, scores of uniformed men marching across it. Then we were in the open, paddling energetically as we feared nearby cargo ships. They rose like Goliaths over our puny Davids, Alex and I predicting their courses like some predict scripture. We needn’t have worried.
McNabs was growing wider in front of us, presenting a rocky shore and thick woods. With the benefit of maps I’d chosen its lighthouse as our approximately destination, and the accompanying Maugers Beach it offered all pioneers. It was then, maybe half way to our destination, that a particularly tall wave caught my eye. Through my sunglasses, caked with dried salt, all water appeared as a grey, black turmoil but in that moment something was amiss. I asked Alex if he’d noticed anything strange but it turned out his generous application of sunscreen had reached his eyes. The man was all but blind.
A couple minutes later it happened again, a shot of adrenaline as my subconscious spotted something I’d missed. Another wave was at the centre of this mystery. When it happened a third time I saw what was strange, the detail tripping my primal alarms – this wave, consistently taller than the rest and moving regularly from left to right, had a dorsal fin.
I called out to Alex again, still unsure if I’d truly seen it, but no confirmation was coming from my sightless companion, fortunate just to be sailing straight. We turned starboard, parallel with the shore, and followed it on, admiring the forests of seaweed dancing beneath and flotillas of seabirds swimming to avoid us.
Perhaps ten minutes before our destination I saw my sea monster for the fourth and final time. I was looking in just the right place as the cresting back of a whale broke the waves, its grey skin and tremendous bulk plainly visible to my tormented eyes, the small dorsal fin stark against a shimmering background. This sighting lasted only a moment, put to rest as this mighty mammal dove beneath the waves, never to resurface within view again. If we’d had more time I might have identified the species, but for now I’ll say only this – it was bigger than a Pilot, but smaller than a Humpback. I shouted triumphantly at the sighting, and Alex cursed to have missed it.
I’ll admit, as we glided purposefully toward Maugers Beach I was engaged in active fantasy, pretending that I was a first-comer to these distant shores, the bow of my kayak and the soles of my shoes being the first this Island had ever know of human beings. In this exercise of imagination I was a frontiersman, making my mark as hadn’t been done in decades. Any minute now, I thought, the water beneath me growing shallower by the second, I would play the part of discoverer.
Before we made landfall, however, a speedboat roared past us, ignoring the abandoned dock nearby and plowing into the beach ahead. From it bounded an overweight man in a sleeveless T-shirt and Hawaiian style swimming trunks, followed closely by an enthusiastic dog who began tearing up the beach. The former shouting and the ladder barking, man and beast began wrestling to the amusement and messiness of both. My fantasy, it goes without saying, was ruined.
Getting over my spectacular disappointment we steered to a different stretch of beach, making landfall and setting our kayaks delicately in the long grass beyond, where they were quite invisible. From there, we hiked.
My first impression of McNabs was of an extremely quite, yet classically Nova Scotian shoreline. The workings of bird and insects could be heard readily on its few trails, and its lake, flooding in or out depending on the tide, was unmolested. The bush was thick and at times betrayed new trails altogether, visibly untrodden in years. It reminded me very much of the York Redoubt, up to and including its old forts.
Fort McNab National Historic Site was the highlight, its concrete and cast iron partially swallowed by the Island in great, green mats of grass and weeds. We pulled open heavy doors to admire old barracks, eased ourselves into lines of unlocked prison cells and probed deep, dark rooms with the light from our phones, finding archaic electrical equipment and rustic boilers long past their primes.
Amateur rock climbers both, we scaled the outsides of these buildings, as high as three stores up, and took in Halifax Harbour from their viewpoints. Also we climbed the cannons, standing the test of time admirably and making for an entertaining perch as we contemplated the meaning of Honi-Soit-Qui-Mal-Y-Pense, immortalized on their tops. I later discovered the translation to be Shame Be To Him Who Thinks Evil Of It, referring apparently to the crest it encircled. To be here among history was a privilege, I thought, earned by a month of coveting kayaks. No one taking the ferry could keep this good, or be this alone.
We might have stayed a while longer and visited Fort Ives on the Island’s far side but the weather turned against us, the wind picking up problematically and the daylight dwindling. We hiked among rocky shores to the lighthouse which had fascinated me all those years, seeing its crumbling exterior and bolt-locked door to my mild satisfaction before returning to the sand and our kayaks, on the far side of a ruined wooden walkway and the washed up remains of an old dock.
It was on the long paddle back to the Halifax Waterfront that I came to appreciate the important difference between kayaks of varying lengths. The current was staunchly opposed to us then, and the waves reached ferocious heights capable of toppling a canoe, egged on by strengthening winds. Our arrowhead crafts could slice through but only if we faced them head on, forcing us onto an indirect route home. While Alex’s 15 footer stayed the course admirably, keeping him just above the chaos, my shorter Sequoia held my feet to the fire. Several waves washed clean over her length and struck me in the face with unforgiving force. It was all I could do to stay in place, let alone advance. I was correcting my course constantly.
Reaching McNabs Island had taken a mere thirty minutes or so, but the return trip lasted in excess of an hour. I paddled myself to exhaustion and then paddled some more, unable to stop lest I lose nautical ground. My situation must have looked desperate because, once I’d passed the worst of it, a sailboat cruised alongside me. Its captain howled over the wind down to my pitiful self.
“Are you alright?”
I answered in the affirmative, convincing neither of us. I learned later that Alex had been asked the same, the pair of us separated my the suddenly sour weather and the differing capabilities of our kayaks.
I reached the Waterfront early that evening, the late sun splashing everything in deep, orange light. First I passed the Halifax Farmer’s Market, a handful of restaurants I’ve never afforded, the odd museum and several parking lots, enjoying the shelter of this concrete jungle. Alex and I joined again, enduring a few anonymous comments from those on the boardwalk and resting, finally, at our home dock.
We were very tired, very wet and very happy, having earned McNabs in the truest sense and surviving without serious embarrassment. We were two novices, lying sprawled on the dock with our lungs working hard and our clothes leaving moist body prints on the tan lumber, but we now knew that no island on the sublime coasts of Nova Scotia were beyond our reach. No stretch of water reasonably temperate would ever be a match for my Sequoia.
Thanks to McNabs.
Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, author, and writer active across the Maritimes. This article was originally published with Your Local Atlantic.