Experiencing the largest tidal range in the world is reason enough for any sea kayaker to want to attend ‘Fundy’. And running the tidal bore on the Shubenacadie River or playing on one of a multitude of tide races that scour the south-eastern shore of Nova Scotia is just about as much fun as you can possibly have in a sea kayak. But the real reason to attend the Bay of Fundy Sea Kayak Symposium is because of the quality of the people – the locals, the participants and the coaches who all seem grateful to be sharing this very special place.
The fact is, Argyle and the Arcadian Shores of Nova Scotia are not easy to get to. No-one goes there on a whim – the nearest international airport is Halifax, a three-hour drive away, and the ferry ride to Yarmouth from Portland, Maine takes around six and a half hours. A cynic might think that is why the locals are so welcoming, but hospitality is second nature to the residents of the Maritime Provinces of Eastern Canada and the journey to ‘Fundy’ is so worth it for that reason alone.
I was fortunate enough to have been invited to teach a pre-symposium program – two days of teaching/guiding on the Shubenacadie River, followed by two days on the races off Brier Island. The ‘Shubie’ as it is affectionately known is, as far as I know, a unique phenomenon in that it’s not the front few waves of the tidal bore that provide the entertainment. Rather it’s the rapids that form once the bore has passed and the incoming flood tide powers upriver like a raging torrent. Every change in the bathymetry of the river bed produces tide races, over-falls, whirlpools and eddies comparable with a large volume class three whitewater river. Except the water is not white. It is chocolate brown and unlike a whitewater river where the features remain constant, assuming the river level remains unchanged, the rapids on the Shubie are fleeting; there one minute, gone the next. The challenge is to catch the ‘set’ as they grow to produce often substantial, glassy waves at the top of each feature. After a few minutes of the best surf rides imaginable in a sea kayak, it is time to move on upriver with the incoming tide keeping pace with the sets.
There are many factors that influence the way that the Shubie behaves on each flood. The height of the tide (tidal exchange), wind direction and strength, air pressure, and freshwater run-off all play their part, and the equation is so complex that even the local boaters can be challenged to hit all the best spots at the right time. My co-instructor was Nova Scotian native Daniel Archibald and he did a fantastic job putting us on the best features at the right time. Our students were all very capable paddlers and we didn’t have a single capsize during our two days on the Shubie. My job was made even easier by their great attitude – their willingness to receive feedback and their desire to get on the best waves. The second day saw a tidal range of 47 feet and we nailed the run, surfing some features even Daniel had not ridden before.
The journey to Brier Island involved a ‘leisurely’ drive down the Bay of Fundy shoreline and two short ferry crossings. The remoteness of Brier Island at the south-western tip of Nova Scotia was brought home by the lack of cell phone coverage. But we were extremely comfortable in the Bay of Fundy Guesthouse which quickly became sea kayak central with Kokatat dry suits hung everywhere.
Our ultimate destination was a tide race that forms between the southern-most tip of Brier Island and the chain of reefs terminating at Gull Rock. Tropical Storm (formerly Hurricane) Jose was still churning off the east coast of the United States and we were expecting challenging conditions. Luckily the wind was light – just 10-15 knots from the northeast, but the southerly (perpendicular) 5- 7 foot swell at 15 second periods was rolling right through the reefs, churning up the race into a chaotic mess.
We launched and approached from the east (upstream side), but turned back once we could see the size of the waves exploding on the partially submerged rocks on either side and in the middle of the race! A tricky landing, short portage over seaweed covered boulders and an equally challenging launch saw us on the west (downstream) side of the race. From this side, we could sit in the eddy and admire the large swells rolling through the race, while we assess the risk presented by the swells that had been refracted by Gull Rock and were behaving like a zipper, slicing through the race from both sides producing exploding clapotis right where we had hoped to surf.
As we sat there surveying the scene and assessing the hazards, we identified an eddy in the middle of the race that presented an appropriate challenge for the group, and in pairs we ferry glided across the churning race and probed in and out of the eddy. There were the occasional waves that were headed more or less in the right direction that we could jump on and get a brief but exhilarating ride, but for the most part it was challenging enough just to hold position. Of course one of us had to push our luck a little too far and got spanked by the ocean to teach us a lesson. But Daniel was perfectly situated to execute a lightning quick assisted rescue and the two of them barely lost any ground before making it back to the safety of the eddy.
Once we had exhausted the play and learning options we retired to the ‘flat’ water of a bay called Big Pond. The long period swell was producing some towering waves on the far side of the bay that were being held up by the light offshore wind. We couldn’t resist the temptation to attempt to ride some of these graceful giants that were breaking over a shoal and dissipating into deep water. By carefully spacing ourselves and considering the consequences of what we were getting into, we managed to get some thrilling rides (not always intended and not always facing forwards) and despite a couple of wet exits we returned to our cars unscathed.
It had been almost dark and quite foggy when we launched. Now the sky was blue and visibility much improved, revealing the full drama of the swell pounding the reef. Locals were coming down the trail to witness the spectacle. Large swell like this is unusual on the east coast and we were mindful that our enjoyment was at the expense of those much less fortunate than ourselves whose lives have been disrupted or destroyed by this series of hurricanes.
The wind started to pick up in the afternoon and the race we tried to play on between Brier Island and Peter’s Island never really formed as expected. Up to 35 knots blowing offshore was forecasted for the following day so a return to Gull Rock was out of the question. Instead we returned to the mainland and drove down to the Argyle River to a constriction produced by remains of an old road bridge. All that remained of the bridge were three bridge supports that formed an ideal teaching location with four fast jets of current on the ebb and a small surf wave. It allowed all the students to dial in their technique and we challenged ourselves with reverse ferry’s, attainments and relay races.
The Bay of Fundy Sea Kayak Symposium began with a ‘Coaches Development Day’ led by two of the U.K.’s leading sea kayak coaches, Sid Sinfield and Gordon Brown. They helped us delve into the coaching process, using yet another tidal feature called ‘The Sluice’. I am certain that all who participated would agree it was an extremely useful day as we ‘geeked-out’ on technique, experimented with methods of observation and analysis, gave each other feedback and discussed the pros and cons of different modes of practice. It set us all up nicely for the three-day symposium and certainly inspired me to continue to strive to be a more effective educator.
The three days of the symposium were blessed with fabulous weather. Even the coastal fog just added to the challenge of leading students along unfamiliar coastlines. Fog combined with lessening current and almost no wind meant that finding conditions challenging enough for the more advanced students was tough and necessitated a structured and imaginative approach to my “Boat Control in Conditions” class.
Two half-day sessions of “Forward Stroke” on perfectly flat water allowed us to discover some new concepts, work on drills and provide individual video feedback.
The last day I was fortunate enough to be allocated a “Building Skills” class which basically gave us carte-blanche to go explore the southernmost tip of Nova Scotia; Cape Sable Island.
Lingering long period swell, shifting coastal fog and the ever present tidal movement provided all manner of learning opportunities, including navigation and group management in limited visibility, running a pour-over, tricky landings through surf and negotiating tidal streams. Having lunch at the tallest lighthouse in Nova Scotia at the southern tip of Cape Sable Island was among many highlights of my trip.
Throughout my stay I was continually impressed with the generosity, graciousness and professionalism of the Team Core instructors, the enthusiasm and skill levels of the participants and the stunning beauty and many fun challenges offered by the Arcadian Shores of Nova Scotia.
The event’s Executive Director, Christopher Lockyer of Committed to the Core, and his team should be congratulated for putting on another remarkable and tremendously successful event. Christopher and his team are justifiably proud of their playground and their Maritime Heritage. Even if you can’t make it to the Bay of Fundy Sea Kayak Symposium in 2019, you should put the Bay of Fundy and the Nova Scotia coastline on your paddling bucket list. Christopher and his team will not only show you a good time, they will take you to the best spots, places you are unlikely to find on your own, and will give you some of the most professional coaching available anywhere.
Oh, and did I mention how delicious the lobster was? For sure, I’ll be back.
Thanks as always to Kokatat for both supporting the event and for keeping me dry, comfortable and safe with the best paddling gear available.