Cape Bre­ton’s Bras d’Or Lake is a sailor’s dream

On Bras d’Or Lake the great­est chal­lenge is de­cid­ing where to go next


Iknow I’m sup­posed to be sit­ting straight-backed on the hard pew, eyes front, fo­cused on the plain white walls and the un­adorned pul­pit, con­tem­plat­ing my sins as Gaelic psalm singing plays softly in the back­ground. But my gaze keeps drift­ing out the win­dow to the wild­flow­ers blow­ing in the wind on the top of the hill.

I get up and walk to the other side of the empty church, lean­ing against the glass so I can see the Bras d’Or Lake far be­low me, stretch­ing into the dis­tance. A tiny sail­boat tacks towards the Barra Strait Bridge. “Care­ful of the cur­rent,” I want to say. The wind is against the tide in the nar­rows.

We’ve come to know this lake pretty well, sail­ing from place to place in our 43-foot steel sail­boat. It’s a sturdy craft made for the ocean, which is where we’re headed, even-

tu­ally. But first we’re spend­ing the sum­mer ex­plor­ing these beau­ti­ful in­land wa­ters.

Tech­ni­cally, the Bras d’Or Lake is not a lake at all, but a vast, in­tri­cate in­let off the At­lantic Ocean; that may be why sailors and even tourism sources call it Bras d’Or Lakes. What­ever you call them, these wa­ters are a sailor’s dream. Sur­rounded by the rolling high­lands of Cape Bre­ton, the winds are gen­tle, for the most part, the wa­ters calm, and there are end­less coves and tiny is­lands to ex­plore. The great­est chal­lenge is de­cid­ing where to go next.

We had a taste of what these wa­ters would be like as we en­tered the Len­nox Pas­sage, just off the Strait of Canso, which sep­a­rates Cape Bre­ton from the main­land of Nova Sco­tia. We an­chored for a night, then another night, then another in a com­pletely se­cure, com­pletely de­serted an­chor­age. I think we could hap­pily have spent the sum­mer there. Re­luc­tantly, we moved on.

We en­ter the Bras d’Or Lake through St. Peters Canal at the south­ern­most end of the largest body of wa­ter. Prior to the open­ing of the canal in the late 1800s, small ves­sels were pulled on skids over this nar­row strip of land by ox team, fol­low­ing a well-worn portage path. The canal, with its sin­gle lock that raises or low­ers you de­pend­ing on the tide, is much more con­ve­nient.

On the other side of the canal, we wind our way through a long in­let be­fore we reach the lake. As we leave the in­let, we no­tice an is­land in the dis­tance with a lit­tle set­tle­ment on it. Chapel Is­land, the guide book says, a tra­di­tional gath­er­ing place of great spir­i­tual sig­nif­i­cance for the Mi’kmaq peo­ple. You can see a white church spire from a dis­tance, but you can’t see the church it­self for the jumble of cab­ins lin­ing the shore. Looks in­ter­est­ing. But it’s a sunny day and the wind is fair, so we raise sail and prom­ise our­selves we’ll come back later to ex­plore.

Our first an­chor­age, Cape Ge­orge Har­bour, is the pret­ti­est an­chor­age in Bras d’Or Lake, we’ve heard. To our sur­prise, it is al­most de­serted. There is a sail­boat on a moor­ing ball at the head of the bay and a cou­ple of mo­tor boats beached on the sand bar for the night, but other than that, we have the an­chor­age to our­selves. As dusk falls, we sit in the cock­pit, sur­rounded by the song of wood thrush in the deep for­est that sur­rounds the bay. A heron lands on the shore be­side us. A king­fisher flashes blue then gone, its in­dig­nant call shat­ter­ing the peace.

“Why are there no mos­qui­toes?” I whis­per to Chris.

“Shhh!” he says. “Don’t men­tion it! I don’t

think they breed on salt wa­ter.”

The next day we hike out to the light­house at the end of the cape, along a peb­ble beach, then fol­low the trail into the woods. Again, no mos­qui­toes, though there are deer flies aplenty. The mo­tor boats have left by the time we get back to the boat, so we cool off with a swim off the sand spit. “Let’s just stay here,” I say. But af­ter a cou­ple of nights, we move on, choos­ing our next an­chor­age based on which way the wind is blow­ing. This is how we will spend the rest of the sum­mer.

One day the wind is so light we put up our spin­naker. The huge, light fore­sail — more of a bal­loon than a sail, re­ally—fills with air and we ghost hap­pily along the sparkling wa­ters. The wind is from the south, and we seem to be head­ing for the Barra Strait. We de­cide it’s time to pass through the nar­rows and ex­plore the north­ern part of the lake.

As we approach the swing bridge that will let us pass through the strait, we spot another white church spire high on the top of a hill. This must be the high­land vil­lage we’ve read about. But there’s no time to ad­mire the view. Sud­denly we’re in very con­fused wa­ters, and the cur­rent is pulling us to­ward the bridge. We snuff the spin­naker and mo­tor through the nar­row open­ing, heav­ing a sigh of re­lief when we get to the other side and are in calm wa­ters again.

We de­cide to tie up at the pub­lic wharf in Iona, on the other side of the strait, and walk up to the high­land vil­lage. It’s a bit of a hike—about 2½ kilo­me­tres in the hot sun—but well worth the trek.

Once we en­ter the his­toric vil­lage, a pleas­ant walk through pine woods brings us to a round stone house with a thatch roof, a black house, it’s called. We’ve trav­elled back in time to Scot­land in the late 1700s. There is a sort of sleep­ing closet along one of the walls. Re­ally, it’s like an ar­moire you sleep in, two com­part­ments each about the size of a sin­gle bed with double doors on them. They look quite cosy — a great im­prove­ment over sleep­ing on the floor around the fire in the cen­tre of the room. The walls in­side are black with soot. There is no fire­place, no chim­ney — the fire is made in the cen­tre of the room and the hope is that the smoke will some­how find its way out through the peat roof.

As you walk through the vil­lage, you travel for­ward in time. The Scot­tish peo­ple em­i­grate to Cape Bre­ton, build log cab­ins, then more and more re­fined houses. We come to a fine farm­house with a pump in the yard and a cast iron cook­stove from Lunen­burg in the kitchen. The woman of the house has been mak­ing pies, us­ing ap­ples she has stored in her base­ment — by July she is al­most out — and straw­ber­ries and rhubarb. She gives us a small slice of each.

We climb back up to the church for one last view of the lake be­fore we leave the vil­lage. It’s late af­ter­noon by the time we reach the pub­lic dock, where we find a group of na­tive chil­dren div­ing into the deep wa­ter be­hind our boat. The High­landers weren’t the first to come here, I re­mind my­self as we mo­tor away.

No visit to Cape Bre­ton, by land or by sea, is com­plete with­out a stop at the town of Bad­deck, the sum­mer home of the is­land’s most fa­mous res­i­dent, Alexan­der Gra­ham Bell. It’s also the sail­ing cap­i­tal of the lake.

We ar­rive dur­ing re­gatta week in early Au­gust and have to pick our way care­fully through the outer bay where a se­ri­ous race is un­der­way. We watch the two lead boats slice around a marker then break out their spin­nakers for the down­wind leg. They bowl along, just yards apart from each other, first one boat pulling slightly ahead, then the other. We give them a wide berth.

As we drop an­chor off the town, a fleet of tiny sail­ing dinghies wob­bles away from the yacht club — it’s the chil­dren’s turn to race. They set off into the big bay, sev­eral

mo­tor launches fol­low­ing be­hind them, just in case.

Bad­deck is a lovely town. We stroll up and down the main street, treat our­selves to ice-cream cones. I buy a pair of glass ear­rings and a pot­tery bowl in a lit­tle art gallery. We du­ti­fully visit the Alexan­der Gra­ham Bell mu­seum, a Na­tional His­toric Site, but we find our­selves gaz­ing out the win­dows over­look­ing the lake. All we want is to get back on the wa­ter. So we do.

Next stop: Maskells Har­bour, the pret­ti­est an­chor­age on the lake, ac­cord­ing to our guide book. We en­ter the har­bour be­hind a point of land with its hand­some light­house and find our­selves in a bay sur­rounded by steep, tree-cov­ered hills. At dusk, one other boat comes in and anchors at the far end of the bay.

We sleep peace­fully, and at dawn I wake and climb above deck to watch the sun rise be­hind the light­house. As the mist burns off the wa­ter around me, my only com­pan­ion is a bald ea­gle nest­ing in the top of a spruce tree right be­side the boat.

It takes a while for us to fi­nally de­cide to visit Chapel Is­land, not because the en­trance to the shel­tered bay be­tween the is­land and the main­land is dif­fi­cult to nav­i­gate — you have to pick your way be­tween shift­ing sand spits and scat­tered rocks — but because the an­chor­age is right off the lit­tle set­tle­ment. We don’t want to in­trude.

But as we mo­tor slowly into the bay, we discover that the is­land is com­pletely de­serted. Not a boat, not a person in sight. It’s a bit eerie.

Though the church looks freshly painted, the steeple seems to lean slightly to one side, and the cab­ins tum­bling down to the shore are in var­i­ous states of re­pair. Many of them are boarded up; some are miss­ing win­dows. A few of the doors hang open, swing­ing in the wind. Some roofs are shin­gled, oth­ers are a patch­work of boards and tarpa­per, or just cov­ered with tarps. An

over­stuffed love seat sits at the wa­ter’s edge. Still, there’s some­thing about this place. Long be­fore Euro­peans sailed into these wa­ters, this is­land was a meet­ing place for the Mi’kmaq peo­ple, a place of great cultural sig­nif­i­cance and a sa­cred site. At the end of win­ter, they would come from all over the At­lantic re­gion to bury their dead on the is­land in un­marked graves.

In the mid-18th cen­tury, the French erected a Catholic church and Chapel Is­land has since been the spir­i­tual cen­tre of the Ro­man Catholic faith for the Mi’kmaq. Each year, there is a pil­grim­age to the is­land to cel­e­brate the Feast of St. Anne in late July. But other than that, the is­land, still ac­ces­si­ble only by boat, is un­in­hab­ited.

We end up stay­ing for sev­eral nights. We never go ashore, even though there is no one here. It just doesn’t feel right. In­stead we spend our days ex­plor­ing the shore­line by dinghy, aware as we en­ter each silent bay of the many ca­noes that have gone be­fore us. There are of­ten deer tracks in the sand along the wa­ter’s edge. In one bay, we find large tracks from some an­i­mal. A big dog? A coy­ote? Maybe a wolf? To our de­light, we find a bed of mus­sels there and feast on the fresh­est mus­sels we’ve ever had.

Our last morn­ing, as the mist is just burn­ing off the wa­ter, a deer steps hes­i­tantly from the woods, takes a long look at the sail­boat an­chored just off­shore. We both sit very still, look­ing back.

She de­cides we aren’t a threat and picks her way through the tall grass that grows in the mid­dle of the sand spit be­side us, brows­ing as she goes. Another deer, smaller, emerges from the woods. I raise my binoc­u­lars — no sign that any crea­ture is stalk­ing the fawn. A flash of white in the trees, an ea­gle, and oh, another one.

I lower my binoc­u­lars and look out over the lake. The wind is com­ing up, turn­ing the sur­face of the wa­ter be­yond the sand spit into a sea of di­a­monds.

Surely this is the pret­ti­est an­chor­age in the Bras d’Or Lake.

A view of the lakes from the top of Salt Moun­tain, in Why­co­co­magh Bay. The hike to the top is just a cou­ple of kilo­me­tres…straight up.

Ex­plor­ing in the dinghy is one of our favourite pas­times.

Chapel Is­land, only ac­ces­si­ble by wa­ter, is a cu­ri­ous place. The chapel it­self is sur­rounded by cab­ins in var­i­ous states of re­pair.

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