Adventure on Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy
Walking along the dry bed of the Shubenacadie River, it is hard to believe that in a few short minutes billions of tons of water will be rushing up the channel like a roller coaster of waves. My husband Dave and I are on a road trip through Nova Scotia. Most people we meet ask if we drove all the way from Ontario when they see us with a car, but flying into Halifax and renting a car is the best way to make the most of our time in the province.
As we wind our way around the entire coast we witness the landscape change before our eyes. The immense sea cliffs of the Cabot Trail make way for the pine forests of the south shore. We bask in the sun on sandy beaches and explore the maritime history of the Lighthouse Route taking us through historic towns and fishing villages. This leg of the drive in our rental car has brought us to the Bay of Fundy, home to the world’s largest tides. Each day 100 billion tons of water churn up from the bottom of the bay twice daily, reaching a span of 16 metres (52 feet).
Thousands of people flock to the shores of Nova Scotia each year to witness the rise and fall of the tides but very few dare to venture on to the Bay of Fundy at high tide. When the water recedes from the coast is exposes sea cliffs and the ocean floor for miles on end. As the tides rise, they can come in with a vengeance covering sea stacks and islands like they were never there. The power of the ocean is in full force on the Bay of Fundy with tides spanning up to 15 metres (55 feet).
Most people start their Bay of Fundy adventure driving from Halifax to Burntcoat Head Park, where you can walk on the ocean floor during low tide. Visitors are free to explore the sea bed anytime three hours before or three hours after low tide. This is an excellent introduction to the Bay of Fundy, getting a first-hand look at just how extreme the tides are. The tides have an average span of 10 - 15 metres (35 - 55 feet); when the water recedes and disappears, it exposes islands, sea caves and other oft-unseen formations of the deep. The water is sucked out to sea up to 5km (3 miles), allowing visitors to walk for miles exploring the ocean floor. It’s impossible to fathom how much water moves here until you see it for yourself.
Like others, we started our Bay of Fundy adventure at Burntcoat Head Park but wanted a bit more adventure on our trip. My husband Dave and I love to be in the thick of the action so while watching the tides is impressive, being right in the midst of them is far more fun. So we booked two more experiences to take on the world’s highest tides, beginning with Tidal Bore Rafting.
Tidal bore rafting is a thrill of a lifetime, allowing visitors to ride a set of rushing rapids as the high tides squeeze into the Shubenacadie River, reversing the flow of the river. This unique Canadian adventure takes us upriver in tiny rubber rafts known as zodiacs piloted by experienced guides who make it their mission to get you as drenched as possible.
To most, sitting inside a small inflatable raft is the last place they’d want to be when facing a wall of water. But the flexible hull makes for the perfect vessel to ride the waves and get up close and personal with the Bay of Fundy.
Decked out in water shoes, raincoats and waders, we follow our guide, Chelsea, to the red zodiacs neatly lined along the riverbank. It is just 15 minutes to high tide and it’s hard to believe that soon the calm and shallow waters will be a chaotic rush of what looks like chocolate milk swirling around in the spin cycle of a washing machine.
Chelsea takes us to a sand dune in the middle of the river. As we step out of the boat, the water is already starting to flow above our shoes. Chelsea calls us back and we barely have a chance to hop in the boat before the water sweeps us away. We are tossed and turned bouncing over waves. As we slam into each set of rapids, we get wetter and wetter. We scream with laughter and delight as we hold on for dear life. Unlike whitewater rafting, tidal bore rafting’s rapids are caused by sandbars, not rocks. So if you do happen to fall in, it is completely safe as there are no obstacles to get stuck on.
Instead, we all stay safe and sound inside the raft and hit one rapid after another, making our way upriver as the tide continues to rise. It is an hour and a half of pure fun followed by a relaxing scenic drive along the river. The red clay cliffs are covered with green pine trees and the air is still as we float with the rushing water. We spot bald eagles resting on their perch in search of prey as the sun begins to set. The tide is now completely in and the water splashes against the muddy banks.
Chelsea tells us of the history of the area, explaining that it was once a major shipbuilding centre in the 1800s. There is also an observation deck and interpretative centre to watch the reversing river in the community of South Maitland.
At sunset, we make our way back to camp and pick up some fresh seafood for our stay one of River Runner’s cottages. What makes travel through Nova Scotia special is that you can pick up lobster and seafood anywhere at local stands. With warm bread and cheese, we sip Nova Scotia wine and snack as we grill our fillets on the barbecue. Cooking outdoors is a Canadian summer tradition and the cottages come complete with propane barbecues for an authentic experience. But the arrival of nightfall doesn’t mean the end of our Bay of Fundy adventure. We have another bucket list item to tackle bright and early, so we hop in our car the next morning to explore another part of the coast.
The Three Sisters
If there is one image I think of when picturing the Bay of Fundy, it is of kayaks circling flowerpot rocks. Most people know of the Hopewell Rocks in New Brunswick, but Nova Scotia has impressive formations of its own. The Three Sisters are not to be missed.
Driving from Shubenacadie to Advocate Harbour, we set out for a two-night kayaking trip taking us along the coast to Cape Chignecto Provincial Park. Leaving at low tide, we pull our kayaks hundreds of metres out from the beach to launch our boats for an overnight adventure. Paddling along the coast is a unique way to take in the beauty of the bay and the high sea cliffs in complete silence and isolation. It is humbling to paddle on such an expansive body of water. We feel small as the cliffs rise overhead on one side with nothing but a vast ocean on the other. I’m grateful that we are not crossing any bodies of water and are following the coast.
After a few hours of paddling, we come across four giant rock formations known as the Three Sisters. Mi’kmaq legend has it that the powerful god Glooskap turned his three sisters into stone and bade them to remain until his return. They have been standing ever since like towering sentries overlooking the sea. There are four enormous formations of sea stacks, arches and a flowerpot rock. We paddle through sea arches, between the Three Sisters, and explore the coast as the fog rolls in. The weather changes quickly on the Bay of Fundy and we are grateful to be paddling with an experienced guide from Nova Shores.
Surrounded by fog we paddle in silence trying to keep the other kayaks in site. We lose sight of the sea stacks, the shoreline and can only hope we are not going out to open water. The eerie silence reminds our guide of a local legend and he tells us of the story of the ghost ship Mary Celeste, which was built on nearby Spencer’s Island. It set sail from New York for Italy with the captain, his family and crew. A few weeks later it was discovered near the Strait of Gibraltar abandoned but still moving at full sail. Even the dinner was cooked and the table was set. I could almost hear the cries of ghosts through the dense fog.
Thankfully the fog lifts as we approach the camp. We pull our kayaks up, way up on shore in preparation for high tide. Tides can move hundreds of metres on and offshore and we need to make sure our tents and kayaks won’t be swept away. We take a hike along the long beach to explore another formation known as elephant rock named so because of its obvious resemblance an elephant. We walk under the elephant’s trunk that is rough from thousands of years of seawater carving its form. When then explore the inside of nearby sea caves by foot. The water has completely receded and we are free to explore for the next three hours before the tide starts to come back in.
When we leave in the morning at high tide, we paddle through the elephant’s trunk and see no trace of the caves or other rocks we walked on a day earlier. The water is now crashing against the cliffs at full force. As we paddle home, we come across a seal basking in the sun. It seems so content perched on its rock. As we watch each other with careful curiosity, we wonder if it feels the same well-deserved satisfaction that we feel right now on the water. We have both conquered the world’s highest tides and lived to tell the tale.
The walk back to the car is a long one as the tide has already receded when we arrive at our final destination. We have at least a kilometre walk to the road. But it gives us time to reminisce of our time on the bay and appreciate just how powerful and massive the tides of Fundy truly are.
After peeling off our wetsuits and changing into dry clothes, we hop in our car and set off for the next stop eagerly anticipating what great adventures lay ahead.
A road trip through Nova Scotia is one of the greatest drives on earth, and adding a touch of adventure to the itinerary makes it a trip you can boast about for years to come.
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