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Discover the South Shore by canoe

Old fishing shacks lean over the water, their images reflecting on the glassy surface of the narrow gut of water. A small boat is pulled up beside one shack on a slip made of logs. Tied up to the dock in front of the shack is a wooden sailboat. Across the gut, two Cape Island style inshore fishing boats rest easy: the Melissa Dawn and the Troy, surely named for the fishermen’s children. Our canoe slips through this scene and we become part of it.

Exploring the hidden harbours and rocky islands around the large lagoons formed by the LaHave Islands on Nova Scotia’s South Shore is like paddling in a postcard. As my wife and I pause to drift quietly through the gut, I turn to see our friends in their two canoes slip between the fishing shacks on one side and the Cape Islanders on the other. They’re drifting too, one couple with big grins, the other—retirees who recently moved here from Alberta—with looks of awe.

Endless choices

From St. Margarets Bay near Halifax, all the way to the Tusket Islands, 290 kilometres to the southwest near Yarmouth, there are enough prime paddling locations along this coast and on countless lakes and rivers to keep canoeists and kayakers busy for a long time. The South Shore’s coastline is deeply cut with bays, harbours and inlets. It’s strewn with hundreds of islands, creating more protected waters for paddling than almost anywhere else on the East Coast.

One of my favourite locations is the Blue Rocks-Back Harbour route near the UNESCO World Heritage town of Lunenburg. Paddlers can bring their own boat or rent from Pleasant Paddlers near the end of the road in Blue Rocks. On my last trip there, using the dozens of tiny islands as protection from the open sea, we paddled among them to get to Tanners Pass, a narrow channel between Heckman’s Island and the mainland. It’s a two-kilometre, quite-straight run of water, with a good current for drifting between low stone cliffs that hold this beautiful channel as if it was some ancient canal carved by human hands.

Further south, rivers and beaches create estuaries and salt marshes to explore. Thomas Raddall Provincial Park is the perfect launching place to explore the adjacent bay, the intersection of three protected places: the Port Joli Bird Sanctuary, Raddall Park and across the narrow harbour, Kejimkujik National Park Seaside, an adjunct of the main park that lies inland 100 kilometres from the coast. The shallow, relatively quiet waters of the harbour and strips of white sand beach are the feeding grounds for large flocks of geese, plovers and other migrating birds.

Enjoying a picnic after paddling to a pristine site on the LaHave Islands lagoon.

Fall is the best time of year to paddle the inland Kejimkujik Park. The weather is often perfect, summer crowds and biting insects are gone and the hardwoods are beginning to blush with fall colours. Jake’s Landing is the best place to launch, whether bringing your own boat or renting from on-site Keji Outfitters. They rent everything from canoes and paddles to full back country camping kits.

Those who prefer back country paddling can plan a route across the lakes of Keji, some linked by streams, others by wide gravel trails, to remote, well maintained campsites. For those who seek truly rugged adventure, the adjacent Tobeatic Wilderness Preserve, which spans 120,000 hectares across five of Nova Scotia’s southern counties, is the place. The Tobeatic is the largest protected area in the Maritimes. Unlike Keji, there are no campsites waiting with firewood, no maintained portage trails between its 100 lakes. In his book Paddling the Tobeatic, Andrew Smith suggests setting aside eight days for paddling and portaging across difficult country to reach Keji itself. Once there, adventurers are sure to feel the same mix of relief and satisfaction I felt as I pulled my canoe out for the last time.

All-levels festival

The Shelburne Kayak Festival has become the centrepiece of all this paddling activity. Hosted annually in mid-August on the quiet waters beside Shelburne’s historic waterfront, the festival attracts dozens of paddlers, experienced and new to the sport. Last year, 16-year-old Patrick Minehan, a beginner paddler, travelled from northern Nova Scotia to the festival with his cousin visiting from Maine. Patrick says, “The area is beautiful, a good location to learn. Instructors were very friendly and really knew their stuff.” All in all, Minehan says, “It was a great beginner’s experience.”

Paddling to a picnic

On the far side of the LaHave Islands’ lagoon, my friends and I discover high sand dunes across a stretch of marsh. We grab our picnic baskets and follow a rough trail to the back of the dunes. From the top, we see that we’ve stumbled upon a long, lonely stretch of white sand beach and turquoise water before the open Atlantic.

With whoops and yells, we run like children down to the water and splash all the way to the weather-worn rocks at the end of the beach. We spread out our picnic filled with local goodies like LaHave Bakery bread, smoked fish and Nova Scotia’s appellation wine, Tidal Bay. I’ve brought along a big bag of lobster-flavoured chips, made by a small New Brunswick company, Covered Bridge. I joke to our Alberta friends that on the East Coast, lobster in some form is mandatory in any picnic. Lobster… and views to die for, like the one before us.

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