Paddling through Fundy’s foggy veil

By Greg Mercer

It was our second day at sea, and we were still paddling blind, following the moan of a fog horn somewhere to our left.

If there was land out there, it wasn’t showing itself. The compass said we were headed southeast, toward Nova Scotia, although we didn’t dare make that trip across the open mouth of the Bay of Fundy.

Then, the fog that had surrounded my father and I since we set in that morning at a rocky beach suddenly lifted. For a moment. We saw towering, windswept cliffs that dropped sharply onto a pebbled shorelines. We glimpsed the wooden, sun-bleached homes of tiny fishing villages that had clung to the shoreline for eons.

Our cheers were soon snuffed out. The veil was returned, as quickly as it left, and once again we could only see each other, and the misty wall that seemed to reach the tips of our battered sea kayaks.

So it goes on Canada’s most hidden coastline, the southern Bay of Fundy, where the tide rumbles like Niagara Falls and walls of fog as thick as oatmeal shrouds paddlers in a disorientating curtain.

This stretch of rocky, undeveloped coastline, with its isolated harbours, abundant marine life and industrial clusters of salmon farms offers challenges and rewards unlike any other body of water in North America.

And oh yes, there’s the fog. Caused by the influx of cold water from the deep Atlantic and warm air off the New Brunswick interior, the fog is as much a part of summer here as sun is in the Arizona desert. Fishing villages along this southern coast of New Brunswick get an average of 12 full days of fog in July, according to Environment Canada, although the locals will say it’s much more than that. In the summer, you cannot challenge the Bay of Fundy without respecting this phenomenon.

When the fog is in full force, the Bay of Fundy can be quite possibly the loneliest place on earth. Seeing at times only metres in front of you, there is nothing to push away the feeling you will be on this watery treadmill, paddling into the abyss, for the rest of your life.

On a recent July weekend, the plan for my father and I was to finish a trip that had been cut short by an Atlantic storm a year earlier. We had hoped to paddle the 100 kilometres or so from St. Andrews, a seaside village that once was a summer playground for the rich, to Saint John, the industrial heart of New Brunswick that sits at the mouth of the mighty St. John River.
Working with the bay’s powerful tides, we had expected the trip to take three days. The bay had other ideas.

The previous summer, we had set out across Passamaquoddy Bay, an inlet of the Bay of Fundy bordered by the Maine coastline and New Brunswick’s Deer and Campobello islands, and a favoured smuggling route during the 19th century.

When the Bay of Fundy, whose tides drain of 115 billion tonnes of water twice a day, and this inlet collide over underwater cliffs, it creates stunning displays of the ocean’s power.

One of the best examples of this violent collision is the Old Sough, on the Maine-New Brunswick border near Deer Island. Thought to be the largest whirlpool in the western hemisphere, it measures at peak 75 metres across and is best avoided by small crafts. At least 10 lives have been recorded lost to her powerful drain since 1817.

It is wise for kayakers to stay well north-east of the Sough, as we did. But we did paddle through another challenging narrow passage that leaves your shoulders feeling like they’ve been pulling against a tugboat. At high tide, the standing waves in Letete Passage, which connects Passamaquoddy Bay into the larger Bay of Fundy, can rise taller a man. A wrong turn here can grab your kayak and spit it back into the channel.

It’s a bit like white water rafting on the ocean. Although your shoulders and back will ache, resting is not an option. It’s best to wait for slack tide, the hour or so period that occurs just as high and low tide ends. While you wait, you can watch the Deer Island ferry fight a losing battle as it throttles its way through the passage.

When New Brunswick tourism brochures boast “the warmest waters north of Virginia,” they’re talking about the beaches along the Northumberland Straight, not the Bay of Fundy.

In mid-summer, the waters here – rarely exceeding 7 C – are cold enough to kill quickly through hypothermia. In June 2002, a healthy, athletic 22-year-old man succumbed to the cold after falling out his kayak during a 10-km race on the bay.

Our first attempt to paddle to Saint John ended a day and a half after it began, in a little hamlet called Beaver Harbour, about 30 kilometres east of St. Andrews by sea. We had spent the night on the beach of an uninhabited island, and had woken up to the sounds of a fisherman’s outboard motor, collecting seaweed offshore.

The day before had been glorious – bright, sunny, and warm. Leaving with the tide that morning, we covered good distance and made our camp on the island by early evening. We picked a sheltered corner of the beach, and sat watching the mainland a few kilometers away. When our big fire of bleached driftwood burnt itself out, we found millions of tiny shrimp-like insects in the sand that had turned bright orange when cooked by the heat.

The next morning, the fog was back. Protected from the bay’s wind on the inland side of the island, we set out eagerly, using a compass to guide us. But once we rounded the final rocky point of the island and headed out into open sea, we were met with surging waves.

There were moments of excitement – when a black outcropping of rock comes to life to reveal a twisted knot of startled seals. But the conditions grew progressively worse. By noon, after a few hours of paddling, at times unable to see each other through the fog, we were done in by what the locals call a confused sea. A stiff and growing wind was sending frigid, choppy swells in every direction. Waves crashed over our heads from behind, then the sea collapsed from our left, then our right, as we lost sight of each other in deep valleys of heaving seawater.

Our hands ached from gripping the paddles so tightly, and our stomaches churned as we tried to balance our kayaks in a sea so unpredictable. A sense of adventure gave way to real fear. We were casual, weekend kayakers, and though we had logged considerable hours on the ocean, we admitted we both felt a bit outmatched. We agreed to find cover behind the massive breakwater of Beaver Harbour.

There was no shame in letting the bay win this round, we said.
Dragging our soaked, sore bodies up the long rocky beach of the harbour, we called for our ride and trudged to the village’s only store. Inside the makeshift shed, about as well stocked as stocked Soviet-era grocery outpost, we sipped weak coffee and listened to the hum of the fish plant next door. We would be back, we vowed.

A full year later, we returned to Beaver Harbour. Again, the bay was on full display. The sun beamed down on us as we passed fishing boats and headed out around the harbour’s massive
break-water.

By noon, a thick fog bank rolled back into the massive bay, sweeping over us like a blanket. The shoreline we were following vanished. We had to rely on a compass to keep a northeast track, and had only the bellow of fog horns to tell us if we were near land. But they would often stop without warning, and when they did, we’d hear the drone of fishing boats engines somewhere out in the bay, fading in and out.

More than once, we passed over openings to inlets where the outgoing currents would cause the water beneath us to shake and rumble. With no visible land, there was no way to tell how far out to sea we were being pushed. When we felt surely lost, we’d come upon empty salmon cages and sea sheds, often unmanned and left fallow for the season, like ghost towns floating on the lonely sea.

The fog stayed stuck all day and was still there when we made camp that night on a beach in Maces Bay. In clear weather, you can look across the bay to see the cooling tower of the Point Lepreau Nuclear plant, but not on this day. We sat listening to the tide grind the rocks and breathed in the sea air. When the tide rises, it carries with it a smell from the depths of the Atlantic that is unforgettable – of seaweed, raw salt, and plankton.

The next morning, we set out eagerly, thinking: after a year of waiting, we’re almost there. There was a light mist on the bay that we were confident would burn off. But as the wind picked up as it usually does by mid-afternoon, the fog only seemed to grow thicker. We hugged closely to the wet shoreline, our only guiding line in this blinding sludge. As we paddled around every nook and cranny of rock, we passed what I can only guess was two porpoises fighting, a splashing mess of dorsal fins and eerie screeches.

We paddle on blindly. By late afternoon, the fog suddenly lifted enough to reveal the jagged point of Black Beach that juts out into the sea, signaling the home stretch. As if to say: here you are.

But the mighty Bay of Fundy tides were turning against us, and our blind luck was turning, too. The next harbour along the coast would be Lorneville, a village perhaps only 10 kilometres by sea away from our ultimate destination. But between us and it were another 12 kilometres of raw, exposed shoreline made only of cliffs – with no beaches to rest on, no islands to hide behind and no inlets for protection from the sea.

With this wall of rock to our left, we trudged on against tide pulling us the opposite direction. It was exhausting work, and resting only meant losing ground to the outgoing sea. It felt like a sprint that had turned into a marathon. The stretch took hours and cost the rest of our energy, and enthusiasm.

We could go no further against these tides, we reckoned, and made the hard decision to end our trip inside the safety of the Lorneville harbour. Though Saint John was so close, we were just too tired, too sore, too overwhelmed and feeling more than a little defeated. As we waited for a taxi from the city,

I sat on a giant log that had washed ashore during a recent storm, and thought: The bay beat us again. But we would be back.

About the author: Greg Mercer is a land-locked freelance writer based in Guelph, Ontario. A newspaper reporter, he grew up near the Bay of Fundy.

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