ST. LAWRENCE

CANADA’S CRUIS­ING PLAY­GROUND

Cruising World - - Front Page - STORY AND PHO­TOS BY TOM ZY­DLER

three days in the fall of 1834, dense fog made it im­pos­si­ble to shoot the sun at mid­day. The nav­i­ga­tor of the ship Mar­garet, bound for Canada from Europe, de­duced by dead reck­on­ing that they’d passed Cape Race on New­found­land. Three hun­dred ner­vous im­mi­grants from Ire­land were surely ready to put the in­fa­mous Cabot Strait be­hind them. Run­ning fast be­fore a strong south­east­erly, Mar­garet was clos­ing fast on the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

And then: dis­as­ter. Just a day later, Mar­garet slammed into the cliffs of St. Paul Is­land, 14 miles north of Cape North on Cape Bre­ton Is­land. Mirac­u­lously, all of the pas­sen­gers and crew made it ashore alive. The four ves­sels that wrecked on St. Paul a year later weren’t as lucky. Not a sin­gle per­son sur­vived.

John Cabot gave St. Paul its name in 1497; the first Euro­peans set­tled on nearby Cape Bre­ton a cou­ple of cen­turies later. By 1837, due to the in­creas­ing num­ber of ship­wrecks, light­houses were erected on each end of St. Paul and a life­sav­ing sta­tion was es­tab­lished. On foggy days, the light­house keep­ers fired can­nons to ward off ap­proach­ing ships. Even so, hun­dreds of ves­sels piled into St. Paul. To­day, scuba divers have col­lected cen­turies’ worth of wreck­age.

On our an­nual trips north­ward to Labrador and Green­land, when run­ning fast be­fore a sum­mer south­west­erly on our Ma­son 44, Frances B, St. Paul slipped by as a ghostly shadow. Later, head­ing south with an au­tumn norther, it rimmed the hori­zon as a clear-cut blue shadow. Al­ways, rough con­di­tions ruled out any close in­spec­tion.

Fi­nally, in 2017, the weather slum­bered, the ocean flat­tened in a rare spell of calm and the chance to visit this elu­sive is­land pre­sented it­self. Densely forested hills, al­most 500 feet high, with trees that were bat­tered by win­ter storms into twisted copses of an­cient gnomes, dropped down to a shore of steep cliffs. Pass­ing head­land af­ter head­land, each named af­ter a wrecked ship, Frances B slipped into At­lantic Cove. A hulk of a house among trees on a gen­tle slope sagged to­ward earth, its bro­ken win­dows look­ing like a skull’s hol­low sock­ets. An­other fallen heap of planks teetered on the edge of a cliff. This bay on the east shore, pro­tected from the west­erly swells, was in the 19th and early 20th cen­tury the main hub of ac­tiv­ity, with an ad­min­is­tra­tion cen­ter hous­ing life­sav­ing equip­ment and a Mar­coni tele­graph sta­tion. A stretch of sharp, ver­tig­i­nous cliffs must have pre­sented as much a chal­lenge to vis­i­tors then as they do now.

About a mile north, in Martin Pow­ers Cove, Nancy cir­cled the boat be­tween rocky walls as I took the dinghy in to ex­am­ine the shore­line. As I stepped ashore onto a blan­ket-size piece of sand, I re­al­ized I was prob­a­bly tres­pass­ing; land­ing on the is­land re­quires an of­fi­cial per­mit from the Cana­dian coast guard. Wild, mul­ti­col­ored rock stacks stood sentinel around me. We couldn’t legally an­chor here ei­ther. Any­how, it was risky busi­ness, too close to the rocks, and who knew what wreck­age was wait­ing to swal­low our an­chor.

Back on board, at the back of the cove we saw a sad­dle of low­land, an isth­mus of sorts, to the west shore. We con­tin­ued on, and it didn’t take us long to cir­cum­nav­i­gate this 3-mile-long is­land. A light­house

stood on its north­ern tip, ac­tu­ally a rocky islet sep­a­rated from the main is­land by a nar­row cut, called Tickle on the charts but “Tit­tle” by Cape Bre­to­ni­ans. On the western shore, not far from the end of St. Paul, we came to Trin­ity Cove, where a red­dish-sand beach might serve to land a dinghy if not for the pro­nounced swell.

Like­wise, the high shore looked man­age­able to reach a small plateau, empty of any traces of a once busy lob­ster can­nery. A small stream trick­led down to the beach, ob­vi­ously from one of the lakes midis­land (their wa­ters, ac­cord­ing to re­ports, de­void of fish). No mam­mals oc­cur here ei­ther. We ex­pected to see many birds, but there were none ex­cept for one bald ea­gle and a few her­ring gulls — it’s no won­der that many ship­wrecked sur­vivors starved to death be­fore any­one from the main­land could reach them across the rough open sea or, in cold months, through the bro­ken, jum­bled ice.

Our next visit was the Mag­dalen Is­lands, or rather, les Îles de la Madeleine (af­ter all, this is Que­bec). Be­fore the days of radar, they must have made an even more for­mi­da­ble bar­rier in the Gulf of St. Lawrence than they do now. The group stretches right across the gulf west­ward for some 30 nau­ti­cal miles — and more if you count the north­ern rocky out­liers, Île Brion and Rochers aux Oiseaux, or le Corps Mort (!) off the south­west end. The en­tire skinny ar­chi­pel­ago is shaped like a gi­gan­tic boomerang sand­bar of red sand­stone, and for cen­turies has been a trap to any ves­sel some­what off course. Tim­ber from wrecks sur­vives in some of the old­est houses, and in at least one church. The dune-shaped heights on the main is­lands sur­round ex­tremely shal­low la­goons that are fa­vorites with wind­surfers skit­ter­ing in high winds over tiny wave­lets, some with wa­ter only inches deep. The la­goons also sup­port mus­sel aqua­cul­ture.

Deep wa­ter near Île d’en­trée, off the group’s south­ern end, al­lowed close in­spec­tion of the cliffy shore that has eroded into bridges, arches and but­tresses. Ero­sion has also silted a small man­made har­bor that was off lim­its to

Frances B’s 7-foot draft. The north­ern shore, ex­posed to win­ter storms, rose in ra­zor-sharp ridges and cathe­dral peaks. The swelling mounds of green midis­land hills have great trails, and we waved to hik­ers high above.

Ashore in Cap-aux-meules, at a restau­rant called les Pas Per­dus, we went through a bucket of mus­sels, steamed straight from the sea, the best of any we tried in the Cana­dian Mar­itimes. The Cap-aux-meules har­bor, with its high break­wa­ters, re­ceives all the fer­ries and other ship­ping into the is­lands. The ad­ja­cent ma­rina was chock-full of boats — a ma­jor change from a pre­vi­ous, mem­o­rable visit. Back in 2001, on 9/11, I was in­ter­view­ing Camil, the owner and man­ager of the boat­builder En­treprises Leo Leblanc & Fils, for a mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle, when his sis­ter Suzanne burst in with the shat­ter­ing news of the twin tow­ers.

We thought the sand­stone of the Mag­dalens quite red, but on our land­fall off the East Point of Prince Ed­ward Is­land, the low sun­rise painted the cliffs al­most pur­ple. It took only a short sail to reach the port of Souris, which was hum­ming with ac­tiv­ity, with large fer­ries com­ing and go­ing next to a ma­rina filled with sail­boats. In 1997, an 8-mile-long bridge was built that crossed the Northum­ber­land Strait from New Brunswick and launched Prince Ed­ward Is­land, pre­vi­ously known for lob­sters and the best po­ta­toes, into the main­stream of sum­mer tourism. On the east coast, once-re­mote in­lets such as Mon­tague River now house busy mari­nas, but for­tu­nately, Ge­orge­town, at the river’s en­trance, re­tains the charms of a small town with long mar­itime tra­di­tions. On the more pop­u­lated south coast, Char­lot­te­town, the cap­i­tal of this in­su­lar prov­ince, was thick with sum­mer vis­i­tors lay­ing siege to the de­light­ful restau­rants in Vic­to­ria Row. Off the wa­ter­front in Hills­bor­ough Bay, an af­ter­noon yacht race was in full swing.

The air warmed up and the clammy fogs of the North At­lantic dis­ap­peared as Frances B headed north through Northum­ber­land Strait to­ward Île Bon­aven­ture. A nearby rocky heap, about a mile across and 250 feet high — hard to land on and even harder to scale — sounds like an odd cruis­ing des­ti­na­tion, but seabirds love it. Slowly, the is­land gained mass in the pur­ple dawn light, and large birds lev­i­tated silently around us like ghosts — gan­nets look­ing for shoals of fish to feed their young. The sun ap­peared slowly, and the birds di­ve­bombed, pierc­ing the sea, af­ter prey. At first, the pre­cip­i­tous shores looked cov­ered with patches of snow — but closer in, we re­al­ized we were look­ing at row upon row of kit­ti­wakes set­tled on guano-pasted rock ledges. A flat slope well above was over­run by mobs of gan­nets, be­tween 60,000 and 70,000 of them. To re­ally ex­pe­ri­ence the busy scene, we opted for a ride in a tourist boat from the main­land, about a mile away.

It’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to de­scribe the vast num­ber of seabirds on Bon­aven­ture Is­land with­out see­ing them for your­self. There, be­tween 60,000 and 70,000 gan­nets gather each sea­son to mate and raise their chicks (above). Col­or­ful boat sheds line the wharves in the shel­tered cove of the Prince Ed­ward Is­land town of Rus­tico (op­po­site, top). Steep head­lands of red sand­stone face the sea at Cap du Sud in the al­lur­ing Mag­dalen Is­lands (op­po­site, bot­tom).

Wher­ever you roam, you needn’t travel far to find scenes of in­cred­i­ble nat­u­ral beauty in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. For ex­am­ple, take the miles of sandy beaches and dunes at the Prince Ed­ward Is­land Na­tional Park (above). Or the en­chanted wa­ters of Big Har­bour in the Great Bras d’or Chan­nel, where Frances B en­joyed a per­fect an­chor­age (op­po­site).

Calm weather was wel­come be­cause the an­chor­age off the vil­lage of Percé is quite open to any winds from south to north­east. The clear wa­ter re­vealed boul­ders dot­ted among the bot­tom seaweed, cer­tainly call­ing for a trip­ping line on the an­chor. At the bird refuge, we leaned on a rail­ing an arm’s length from the im­mac­u­lately white, el­e­gant gan­nets, their faces and bril­liant eyes pure art nou­veau. We watched birds groom­ing each other af­fec­tion­ately, now and then stretch­ing sky­ward as if be­seech­ing the gods for healthy off­spring. The pairs took turns shad­ing their chicks, awk­ward with over­size feet and beaks, shed­ding fluff and snooz­ing be­tween bouts of feed­ing. In a few months, th­ese babes, af­ter sur­viv­ing their first take­offs from the cliffs, would show up in our home wa­ters in Ge­or­gia. The deaf­en­ing din of thou­sands of birds call­ing and the pow­er­ful smell fi­nally forced us into re­treat. Back on the main­land, from the trail up Mont Ste. Anne, we looked on the cliff-lined shores and scal­loped beaches as peo­ple the size of ants hopped on the rocky low-tide cause­way to­ward Percé Rock, with its sig­na­ture arch. In 2003, this rock ap­peared on the cover of Cruis­ing World, with our pre­vi­ous boat sail­ing to­ward it.

Canso Strait, at the east­ern tip of Nova Sco­tia, sep­a­rates Cape Bre­ton Is­land from the main­land. In 1955, the con­struc­tion of a cause­way with a lock tamed the fierce cur­rents in the nar­rows of that pas­sage. Work­ing the fluky off­shore west­er­lies, Frances B made a smooth pas­sage south to the Canso Lock. A day later, we eas­ily ne­go­ti­ated St. Peters Lock, the gate to the heart of Cape Bre­ton Is­land: Bras d’or Lake, an in­ner sea with fab­u­lous sum­mer cruis­ing.

Bad­deck, a town on the lake’s north­ern sec­tion, has most ev­ery­thing a cruis­ing sailor might need or de­sire. The place, with a back­ground of hills and moun­tains, once charmed Alexan­der Gra­ham Bell enough for him to set­tle there. His ex­per­i­ments with hy­dro­foils must have brought more ex­cite­ment here at the dawn of the 20th cen­tury than one can ever hope to see now. In 1917, he com­mis­sioned a 55-foot yawl for his daugh­ter and her hus­band, Gil­bert Grosvenor, the ed­i­tor of Na­tional

Geo­graphic, a pub­li­ca­tion also in­spired by Bell. On that yawl, Elsie, Bell presided at a meet­ing that led to the found­ing of the in­flu­en­tial Cruis­ing Club of Amer­ica. The in­ven­tor’s spirit lingers in the area. From our an­chor­age be­tween the wharf and Kid­ston Is­land, across the outer wide chan­nel, in a for­est grove high above the sea, looms Beinn Bhreagh, the Bell fam­ily man­sion.

Bras d’or Lake en­joys gen­tle weather with good sum­mer sail­ing breezes. Fog, such a pest off­shore, rarely oc­curs here. A plethora of pro­tected, al­most land­locked an­chor­ages takes the worry of oc­ca­sional trop­i­cal-storm winds off of one’s mind. Lit­tle Har­bour on the Mala­gawatch Penin­sula is a good ex­am­ple. A skinny thread of deep wa­ter led us into a bay bor­dered by forests. A mas­sive log cabin, some­what Alpine in char­ac­ter, over­looked the shore: Cape Bre­ton Smoke­house, a lodge with a pop­u­lar restau­rant. Some years ago, the own­ers sailed into this bay af­ter leav­ing Ger­many for a cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion and fell in love with this land of forests, moun­tains and vil­lages of peo­ple who keep up with their Scotch Celtic roots. In Maskell’s Har­bour, not far from Bad­deck, Frances B shared the an­chor­age with a flock of brown ducks busily nib­bling un­der­wa­ter grasses.

Al­though the tides in this in­ner sea mea­sure in inches, the cur­rents in the nar­row north exit from Bras d’or into Cabot Strait can run fe­ro­ciously ei­ther way. To time our pas­sage just right, we spent the night in Big Har­bour, a tight in­let snaking into the hill­sides. No other boats dis­turbed the pool of deeper wa­ter un­der its bluff of white gyp­sum. Sud­denly, silently, a bald ea­gle plum­meted from above, feet first, and then rose to­ward the tree­tops with a fish in his talons. Minute wave­lets, the only ev­i­dence of the morn­ing drama, spread out and rip­pled the mir­ror of calm wa­ter around the boat.

On the Cape Bre­ton coast fac­ing Cabot Strait, two har­bors pro­vide of­ten wel­come shel­ter. Though quite spa­cious, In­go­nish feels tiny in the shad­ows of the moun­tains around it, which are part of the Cape Bre­ton High­lands. Far­ther north, the work­ing fish­ing har­bor of Dingwall, backed by a tremen­dous dark wall of moun­tains, looks right into the strait. On a stroll in the out­skirts south of the town, we bumped into a small light­house of riv­eted iron pan­els. It once stood on the south tip of St. Paul Is­land, read the plaque. Near it, in the gray shin­gle house of the St. Paul Is­land Mu­seum, we heard from the de­scen­dants of the light­house keep­ers in­ti­mate ac­counts of their lives spent on that lonely out­post. Our cruise of the Gulf of St. Lawrence had be­gun at St. Paul Is­land. This, it seemed, was a fit­ting place to con­clude it.

Tom and Nancy Zy­dler have been fre­quent con­trib­u­tors to Cruis­ing World for over two decades. Last sum­mer, they com­pleted a clock­wise cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion of New­found­land, “chas­ing seabirds” be­fore head­ing south “to our usual haunts in Ge­or­gia.”

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