THE ABILITY TO EXPLORE NEW WATERS AND TO MAKE NEW FRIENDS SIMPLY CAN’T BE MATCHED.
By Mike Gridley
One of the great joys of being part of the team at Lifestyle Integrated, whether it’s working on an article for this magazine or a feature for PowerBoat Television, is that I am given the opportunity to spread my boating wings. The ability to explore new waters and to make new friends simply can’t be matched. This past summer was no exception, as we were invited back to Nova Scotia, this time to cruise on Cape Breton’s Bras d’Or Lake.
In 2013 Patricia Nelder, Executive Director of the Atlantic Marine Trades Association had hosted us on Nova Scotia’s South Shore. When Pat and Monica Matheson, Marketing Manager for Boating Cape Breton extended the invitation to head east once again, the decision to go was instantaneous. The only difference with this trip was that I was not getting out of Ontario without including my wife Lisa on this assignment.
In early August we arrived at the Lennox Passage Yacht Club in D’Escousse, on Isle Madame ready to experience this stunning lake in the heart of Cape Breton. Waiting for us were several old friends and some new ones, who had once again volunteered to host our crew. Robbie Craig had trailered a new Monterey from Quartermaster Marine in Prince Edward Island and Terry Conrad, his wife Wendy Levy and Brad Fleet had trailered in Terry’s Boston Whaler from Mahone Bay. New to the flotilla were Patrick Villeneuve of Mermaid Marine and his partner Josée Alain who had cruised over from Charlottetown on his classic Bertram 38.
While the weather was not promising, gray and overcast was the order of the day, quite a number of yacht club members had arrived to meet our crew and extend us some Nova Scotia hospitality. As well, they readied several of the members’ boats to provide us with a send off and an escort to St. Peter’s.
The run across Lennox Passage to St. Peter’s is only five nautical miles and at the head of St. Peters Bay under darkening skies we reached the entrance to St. Peters Canal, and idled in the canal waiting to be locked through.
St. Peter’s was the site of Fort Saint-Pierre, a 17th century fort and trading post. Prior to European settlement, the route was used as a portage for the Mi’kmaq First Nation to get from the Atlantic Ocean to Bras d’Or Lake. Later, small sailing ships travelled over the same route as a short cut between the two bodies of water.
Construction of the 800-metre canal connecting the Atlantic with Bras d’Or Lake commenced in 1854 and it was completed in 1869. When you see the granite that this 30-metre wide canal is carved through you’ll understand why the project took 15 years to construct.
St. Peters Canal is a National Historic Site and like the other Historic Canals it is maintained and operated by Parks Canada. The locks here are rather unique, with each end of the lock having two sets of doors because tides affect both the lake and the ocean, but at different times and varying heights.
Due to the light rain we were grateful that passage through the lock and under the swing bridge did not take long. Once clear of the canal we turned to port into the St. Peter’s Marina, our stop for the night. Gerry Gibson, the manager for the Lions Club-owned marina welcomed us and helped with refuelling and getting the boats secured in their slips for the night. Due to the marina’s location, it is a popular spot for cruisers entering and leaving the lake. On any given day you may find an ocean-crossing expedition trawler or an express cruiser from New Brunswick, and all types and sizes of craft in between tied up or moored off the marina.
Early the next morning I huddled with Pat Nelder and Patrick pouring over the charts to work out our plans and routing for the next few days. Tough decisions were made since our time to explore Bras d’Or lake was limited.
Bras d’Or Lake is a vast inland sea covering 1,100 square kilometers. The lake extends almost 100 kilometers and is approximately 50 kilometers wide. Looking at the charts the lake appears to be several lakes but it is indeed one. Scenic hills surround the lake and numerous bays and inlets provide a lifetime of anchorages to find. In various areas on the lake groupings of islands provide shelter, more great anchorages and beaches. Being a unique and special place it was declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCOE to recognize its distinct eco system.
Departing St. Peter’s on our second day in Cape Breton the weather was not what we had hoped for. Not discouraged, we headed out to weave our way through the mist-shrouded islands and bays of St. Peter’s Inlet heading to the more open waters of the main lake.
At the entrance of the inlet, Pat navigated us into a popular anchorage at Cape George, Cape George Harbour. This anchorage is extremely well protected and is noted for its birds. While we drifted through we easily spotted several Herons.
Departing that perfect anchorage the weather began to improve as we circled West Bay, taking in the scenery and cottages on the shores. Finally the true meaning of Bras d’Or, “Arms of Gold” was shining through. With the sun shining, it was time for a break and Pat had brought us to the perfect location, the Crammond Islands. A passage runs between the islands and as we cleared a sandy peninsula we were able to turn inside and beach the bows of our three boats with the sterns in 30 feet of water.
After a relaxing lunch in the sun, we headed northeast past MacRae’s, Calf and Rock Islands, enroute to Clarke Cove and Marble Mountain. While crossing to Marble Mountain one can look out across the main lake and down the East Arm. From here you begin to appreciate Bras d’Or’s vast size. Many people refer to the lake as an inland sea, and it really is, with about sixty to seventy percent of the salinity of the ocean. Surrounded by the rolling hills, forests and farms of Cape Breton this is a must do for any serious boater.
Boaters are drawn here for the white sand and gravel beach below the lakeside cliffs.
Marble Mountain is easily spotted well off of the lake’s southwest shore, since the old marble and limestone quarries stand out clearly, high above the village. Boaters are drawn here for the white sand and gravel beach below the lakeside cliffs. The colouring of the sand and gravel gives the water a tropical green appearance in certain light conditions. Cruisers are able to tie up at the old commercial wharf, that along with the beach area, is maintained by the Marble Mountain Wharf Preservation Society.
From Marble Mountain, our flotilla cruised inside Cameron Island and around George Island into Little Harbour. On the chartplotter and on approach it looks insignificant, but past the entrance the harbour opens up, providing room for cruising sailboats and some of the luxury yachts that arrive on the lake from Europe, the US and Caribbean.
With the sun high in the sky it was time to make the twenty-five nautical mile run to Ben Eoin while the conditions were ideal. Our course took us across the open lake and down East Arm. As the arm narrowed, the view to either side made the day. Mile after mile, low mountains, rolling hills and dense forest lined the shores with stone cliffs and gravel beaches at the water’s edge. Every once in a while a clearing for a home or cottage would appear.
Ben Eoin Yacht Club and Marina is a relatively new facility with a well-protected basin, excellent docks, helpful staff and a great clubhouse. The crew, happy that the weather had held, spent some time relaxing on the docks, exploring the marina and enjoying the view out across East Arm.
Our hosts had organized a BBQ for our crew and members, so while they were busy at the grill, Brad Fleet showed me how to prepare fresh Nova Scotia snow crab. It’s really quite simple. Grasp one set of the crab’s legs and the body and simply twist and separate the legs from the body. Toss the legs into a large pot of boiling water and after it comes to a boil again cook for twelve minutes and enjoy. And enjoy the evening we did.
Whether looking forward to a day on the water or gearing up for a day of filming (we were gearing up for both), nothing is more frustrating that inclement weather. Day three dawned cloudy and damp with rain forecast to arrive by mid morning. With a schedule to keep we headed back out East Arm for a final day on Bras d’Or Lake.
Halfway back up East Arm are the Indian Islands, another area of sheltered waters and protected bays. The lands are part of the Eskasoni Mi’kmaq First Nation. As we passed through the islands, you could see the traditional wigwams that are part of the Eskasoni Cultural Journey Program. So if you elect to anchor in Eskasoni Harbour you can take advantage of the history and cultural programs offered by the Eskasoni First Nation. Past the island and into Crane Cove, the waterfront of Eskasoni is dominated by Crane Cove Sea Foods, so sailors and cruisers anchor out across the bay in a sheltered cove.
Shortly after clearing the Indian Islands the rain came. After scrambling with canvas we kept a staid plane for the fourteen nautical mile run around the headland and into Grand Narrows. Meanwhile Aaron Wasylyk, PowerBoat Television’s persistent cameraman, struggled to capture running shots and images in between session of lens drying. Just before the bridges we were more than happy to pull into the old Barra Straight Marina, tie up and head across the road for coffee.
Warmer, and now drier, we passed by the old swing bridge and under the highway bridge connecting the Village of Grand Narrows with Iona into the part of the lake known as Great Bras d’Or.
Just four nautical miles from the narrows is Maskells Harbour, a wonderful anchorage tucked in behind the Gillis Point lighthouse that guards the point, but is no longer operating. The point and a sandbar opposite protect this anchorage from surge off the lake. It’s isolated and a great spot for watching wildlife. During our brief stop we were able to film a Bald Eagle perched atop a dead pine. The unspoiled beauty and close proximity to Barra Strait and Baddeck make it one of the most popular anchorages on the lake.
Our route from Maskells took us out and around McKay Point, past Spectacle Island covered in cormorants, around Bone Island and along the main marked channel for ocean-going ships. Our destination was the Washabuck River. The entrance to the river is past Murphy’s Point and buoys mark the entrance. They say that this is the best hurricane hole you’ll find from Newfoundland to the Caribbean. After cruising up this narrow channel past the various coves and inlets that you can anchor in it is easy to buy into that statement. What a great spot to anchor in while exploring and fishing by dinghy.
With the clouds remaining and some distance to go before our lunch stop in Whycocomagh, pronounced “why-COG-a-muh” we rejoined the shipping channel heading for Little Narrows. As you pass through the narrows, keep a watch for the cable ferry. After dodging rain running down Whycocomagh Bay we arrived at the Waterfront Centre, a former Legion, now a marine centre.
Monica of Boating Cape Breton had arranged for some local hospitality and we were treated to the best seafood chowder I’ve ever experienced.
Once again, Monica of Boating Cape Breton had arranged for some local hospitality and we were treated to the best seafood chowder I’ve ever experienced. If you cruise through here, be sure to stop. The source of this delicious mix of lobster, crab, mussels, fish and more is Charlene’s Bayside Restaurant and Café, right across the road from the centre.
seeing the Bras d’Or Lake region is most assuredly best when viewed from a boat.
Our last stretch was the run back up the bay and out again to St. Patricks Bay to our final destination Baddeck. Despite the on and off rain, the landscape of Cape Breton kept us focused on the sights and not overly so on the weather. Cruising along, it is easy to understand why Cape Breton remains one of the top tourism destinations in the country. And seeing the Bras d’Or Lake region is most assuredly best when viewed from a boat.
Our route brought us from the west, inside of Kidston Island. Along the north shore of the lake, the arrival in the Baddeck area is announced by an increasing number of waterfront homes.
Entering Baddeck Harbour the first marina is Cape Breton Boat Yard, a storied facility that had a hand in Alexander Graham Bell’s boating experiments (more on that later). As we cruised through the harbour we were fortunate to have Jocelyn Bethune, a local writer and history buff provide a running narrative.
It was interesting to learn that Baddeck was first settled on Kidston Island in the early 1800s, not on the mainland. Over time the settlement on the mainland called Little Baddeck grew and eventually become Baddeck. As we passed through the harbour the marina, wharfs and moorings were chock-a-block with sailboats and powerboats –a really busy place.
After weaving our way through the harbour and past the Kidston Island light, the explanation for all of the activity came into view. Colourful spinnakers announced that it was Baddeck Race Week, a major event in the sailing world.
While the harbour was hopping, many cruisers prefer to anchor in Baddeck Bay. The bay extends over two miles with several anchorages. The first, known locally as The Harbour, is formed by a long sandbar. If you go a little further northeast, the wreck of Captain Irving Johnstone’s 92-foot schooner “Yankee” can be found in Herring Cove. While we were cruising through, an expedition trawler from Rhode Island was swinging at anchor. Testament to the drawing power of Bras d’Or Lake.
We were lucky that our hosts had booked three slips at Baddeck Marine for us or we wouldn’t have been able to get the gang ashore to explore Baddeck.
Ashore, adjacent to the public wharf, a party was in full swing at the Bras d’Or Yacht Club, both inside and outside in the tents. Anyone care for the local favourite –a Dark and Stormy? While wandering the wharf we were pleasantly surprised to find a sailboat that had made it all the way to Bras d’Or Lake from Parry Sound, Ontario. Personally I can’t get that amount of time off!
The picturesque village of Baddeck is the largest settlement on the Bras d’Or Lakes and is the main boating centre on Cape Breton Island. It has been a tourist centre since the late 1800s. This awareness and the sheer beauty of the area is what attracted Bell and his wife to the area. He built a large home that you can see across the bay. While not a big village, being at the start and end of the Cabot Trail, it has quite a few shops and restaurants to enjoy.
The big attraction for me was a visit to the Dr. Alexander Graham Bell Historic Site. Well-known for inventing the telephone, along with a host of other discoveries in medicine and aviation, it was his marine endeavours that I was interested in. Located on a hill overlooking Baddeck, the museum is operated by Parks Canada and is a bounty of all things Bell.
A newer section is home to a reproduction of his breakthrough aircraft, the Silver Dart, first flown on a frozen Bras d’Or Lake in 1909. Along with Canada’s first flying machine, are the remains of Bell’s fourth hydrofoil the HD-4 and its replica.
With its two, 350-horsepower aircraft engines and the hull clear of the water on its hydroplanes, it reached a top speed of 113 kilometers per hour. It was a boating world record in 1919. Truly amazing! Built to be a submarine chaser, when the First World War ended the project was cancelled and the hydrofoil was stripped and abandoned on a beach in Baddeck Bay.
It’s difficult to sum up in a few words a world-class cruising destination like Bras d’Or Lake. It is probably best captured in a description by Mabel Bell from 1886: “Such magnificent landlocked harbours I never imagined…Every moment something new to please and enchant, to make the mere act of watching as the vessel rounds each curve a delight…this trip was a constant joy for us.”