Coastal Nova Scotia - a wide angle view

All photographers will know that one of the very first decisions made when composing a shot is to decide whether to use a “normal” lens, (around 50mm, which approximates what the human eye sees), a long lens (a telephoto, around 85mm and up) or a wide angle lens (from around 17mm to 25mm or thereabouts). It is by these choices that the photographer is able to give us more than just what we would see if we were there ourselves. The telephoto will zoom in to a small discrete area, isolating a particular subject within a larger landscape. The wide angle lens provides a sweeping vista, with the context of the entire landscape available to the viewer. In this post I will depart from the zoomed-in narratives adopted in prior posts on my trip into northeastern Canada. These treated specific regions somewhat in isolation. Instead, I will try and give a larger view of the whole of those parts of coastal Nova Scotia not already highlighted in an earlier dispatch.

I do this mainly because until I actually went there, Nova Scotia had been something of a puzzle to me. I had no real grasp of it’s overall geography. I figured it was going to be somewhat familiar in comparison to Maine, which I know pretty well, but there was a lot of shoreline here and I had no actual idea what it was like, where it varied and how.

I assume some readers may need these blanks filled in as well, so to that end I dedicate this dispatch. 

I have begun to enable Lightbox on my photos. This allows the reader to click on a picture in the blog and it will open on your device in a new window. This should make viewing easier and more complete whether viewing on a mobile device or on a computer.

By necessity, my observations and photos weren’t all gained on fair weather days. But that reflects the reality of Nova Scotia’s weather. Though sometimes stunningly clear, it can also be harsh, wet and close. Any true wide angle view of coastal Nova Scotia will have to capture and deal with both sets of conditions.

 My travels there permitted this sort of overall examination. Essentially, over about a week I performed a land-based circumnavigation of most of the Province, omitting for the most part the larger towns and cities, those were not what this whole trip had been about. I also barely touched the isthmus connecting Nova Scotia to New Brunswick.

As I have written before, I began in Cape Breton, the large island to the northeast of mainland Nova Scotia. It is an area dominated by grand views, seeing the coastline far into the distance. But it has its more intimate sights as well.

However, I want to pass right by Cape Breton here, largely because it tends to get all the attention from US based travelers and I wanted to see what else Nova Scotia offered.

So this dispatch will focus on the mainland and my roundabout there. A circumnavigation here is a big project because Nova Scotia has a long coastline. Not only is the coast long, but I believe that there is no spot in Nova Scotia where some coastal view is more than an hour away by car. Therefore, my Nova Scotia trip was mainly filled with coastal vistas. 

A quick look at a map and a little knowledge of the region would tell you that those coasts represent a lot of different types of seashores. If you squint enough, the insect profile-like shape of the Province resolves into a long, thin but rough rectangle oriented along a northeast/southwest axis, but really more east and west. Indeed, we tend to force an orientation on the Eastern shores of the North American continent such that further up the coast is generally considered north. But in Nova Scotia, as with Down East Maine, up the coast really is mostly east. And the interior, away from the Atlantic, is generally north.

I began where a prior post left off, on a beach at the southeastern extremity of mainland Nova Scotia, waking up to fog and drizzle in back of my Jeep after a night of storms. From here I drove west, hugging the shore mainly. I zig zagged and avoided potholes on less than perfectly maintained roads. Eventually I skipped over Halifax by bailing on the coast and rejoining the highway. But after Halifax I dropped down to the coast again. Overall, my drive on the southern coast along the Atlantic took me a few days. 


The southern coast of Nova Scotia as seen from space would appear as largely a straight line, marking a reasonably well defined long edge of that long rectangle’s bottom. But down on the ground and at sea level, the coast is all wrinkled up, making this actual coastline many magnitudes in length longer and considerably more complex than the simple line as seen from space, or from way offshore. It is anything but straight. 

Light at Cape Sable, southwestern point of Nova Scotia.

Here one finds a stunning collection of small inlets, coves, peninsulas, and a great many lighthouses. To the east the area is mostly comprised of working harbors. Somewhat improbably, as you go further west there are a multitude of pristine white sandy beaches fronted by emerald blue waters that would make any Caribbean seascape proud. This was an area frequented to a greater degree by summer folk, tourists and presumably people like me from the US.

This beach was so commonly ordinary for this area along the southwestern coast, I could not even find a name for it. All of the more notable beaches were in Provincial Parks that, unfortunately, we’re still closed for the season.

The northern boundary of the Province is somewhat the opposite. Though erratically shaped in the main, making the analogy of a rectangle a little fanciful here, it is far more of a straight line down at sea level along the Bay of Fundy coast. It is dominated by a mountain ridge, aptly named North Mountain. This ridge runs along the length of that shore, straightening the coast and separating the Bay of Fundy from the interior.  

The waters that bathe these opposite shores have quite different characteristics as well. Most notably, the tides are dramatically at odds. Some tides along the Bay of Fundy, on the northern shore, experience tidal ranges that are the greatest in the world and at a minimum are around 20 feet.

Flat sands and mud reaching out into flat bays at low tides characterize much of this area. However, where the currents roar past, the shores can be abrupt and shear. If it isn’t firmly embedded in rock, it has been washed away from those shores eons ago.

A small beach at low tide inside the Annapolis Basin (here 20 ft tides).

To provide some perspective, other areas, notably those along the Atlantic coast, have far less of a tidal range. For example at Halifax, Nova Scotia’s capital, and sitting smack dab in the middle of the southern coast, the tidal range is around 6 feet. A respectable tide compared to the Earth overall. But nowhere near the record breaking tides only about 50 miles north at Burncoat Head.

There, as I just checked on my tides app for this week, the tidal range is a whopping 42 ft, give or take a few depending on the moon and sun and a lot of other things. That was at a point in the month other than with a New or Full moon. By the end of this week at the New moon when the sun and moon are acting in gravitational concert, another ten feet of tide will be added to that. So let that sink in, within just an hour’s drive maximum high and low tides can be around 40 feet different from one place to the other.

Lets do some calculations. A square foot of seawater weighs about 64 pounds. So let’s consider a one square foot column of seawater 40 feet high, it weighs 2,560 lbs. A square mile 40 ft column weighs in at 71,368,700,000 lbs. or about 36 million tons. That’s about what a moderately sized harbor might contain. The entirety of the Bay of a Fundy moves in and out about 175 billion tons of seawater every tidal period. That is more than the output of every river on Earth. Even the Earth will creak and groan as that shifting weight of water comes and goes every 7 hours or so. That mass exerts a gravitational pull on the surrounding land. At high tide Nova Scotia and New Brunswick actually lean in towards the Bay.

But I thought that the seascapes really created drama when you got close to the boundaries between these two conflicting shores. Out towards the western end of Nova Scotia you start to find both the high tides and moderate tides coming into contact, and so they are at war. Visible currents in the ocean are not normal, but at this boundary edge, when constricted such as in channels between islands, currents of around 8 knots are common and large standing waves in the ocean will develop as that current passes over an uneven bottom. For the canoeists and river kayakers out there, think class III rapids, only this is in the ocean.

These are standing wave in the channels separating Long Island from the Digby Neck on the mainland, and in turn Brier Island from Long Island. The modest Atlantic tides are on one side of this channel and the massive tides found in the Bay of a Fundy are on the other. The waves don’t move, the sea does.

One such place, Brier Island, is two ferry rides out along the very tip of the northern shore, where the ridge line of North Mountain finally succumbs and dips down into the sea. The ferries out and back, when the tide is running, must make their way up and down and across these currents. If the wind is counter, as it was the day I was out there, it’s a wild ride.

Brier Island was the boyhood home of Joshua Slocum, the first man to sail solo around the world. He did it in his 36 foot sailboat back in 1895-97. I figure he must have thought that if he could handle this he could handle anything the sea might throw at him. Which might be right. He did, after all, make it. (Though later lost at sea, which cautions us all not to get cocky.) His book detailing his travels was a great success, being one of the early examples of popular travel writing. I wish I could match his casual aplomb when he described first setting out on his historic trip:

 “I had resolved on a voyage around the world, and as the wind on the morning of April 24, 1895 was fair, at noon I weighed anchor, set sail, and filled away from Boston, where the Spray had been moored snugly all winter.”

I undertake more planning and forethought than that just to take a drive on the Interstate up to New Hampshire.

I spent a nice afternoon on Brier, driving along its gravel roads to different points and views. Being two ferries out, and somewhat adventurous rides at that, it was quiet here and laid back. And the seafood at the diner was fresh and local. 

But having then reached Brier Island, which is at the northwestern tip of the Province, I now had to turn to the east to continue the circumnavigation.

The tip of Brier Island

After riding both ferries back to the mainland, I followed the road climbing up onto the ridge that eventually becomes North Mountain. This runs along the length of and so forms Digby Neck.

But before it becomes North Mountain the ridge is interrupted abruptly by a gash through which runs the Digby Gut (such a great name I would have used it even had I not seen it). This gash allows the tide churned ocean to spill (6 knot currents when tide is running) into a basin behind the mountain, forming one of the great natural harbors in North America, the Annapolis Basin. This in my opinion rivals San Francisco Bay, New York Harbor and even Potts Harbor in Casco Bay in Maine. (Ok, ok, ok.) 

Just inside the harbor entrance, on the western side, is the small town of Digby where I stopped for a night. I gave myself a break from sleeping in my car and in hostels and booked a room at the very nice Harmony B&B. My harbor view room was exactly the rest I needed, the hosts were very nice and helpful and some very good seafood was a short walk away. Digby is known for its scallops, and they were pretty good. 

Next morning I left to drive around the basin to the northeastern shore where Port Royal is situated. (Eventually this was a detour since I would have to return to Digby to take the ferry out through the Digby Gut and across the Bay of Fundy to St John in New Brunswick.)

I had wanted to visit this place since reading Parkman many years ago concerning the history of the French and British conflicts. Here in 1605 the French established their first settlement and then capital of Acadia. It predated Jamestown and Pophan by two years. They built a strong house and settled in. But this was disputed country and wars with the British were fought over it. Eventually, the British won and the Acadians suffered, being mostly deported eventually. (All of that is a gross simplification of course.)

I wanted to see it for myself to gain some insight as to why this spot was so strategically important. Even though the National Park, in which sits the strong house reconstruction, was still closed for the season, I could walk the grounds. And it did become clear.

First, there is that stupendous natural harbor. And Port Royal is tucked safely under the lee of North Mountain. Secondly, there is what is now called the Annapolis Valley. This is one of the great agricultural regions in Eastern Canada and its western mouth is just upslope from the Annapolis Basin and Port Royal. 

The North Mountain, running parallel to the northern shore, has a twin, South Mountain. This also runs parallel but some miles further south. The Annapolis Valley is in between. North Mountain shelters the valley from the worst that the Canadian north can throw at it in winter. South Mountain performs a similar service, sheltering the valley from the worst that the Atlantic may throw its way. Together they create a climate that is temperate enough to grow things that cannot be found elsewhere this far north.

Taken from the top of North Mountain looking across the valley to South Mountain in the distance

Fruit trees are everywhere. I managed to miss the apple blossom festival by one week. But it was evident that the blossoms were about to pop. After being in winter conditions for the past few weeks, it was nice to start to see green again. 

My destination that day was up this valley to its other end where my new friend from the Bella Desgagnés lives. Janice and I had been the only two native English speakers aboard that ship. See St Lawrence and Côte-Nord. She lives here, near a small village in farm country and had encouraged me to stop by. We could bring each other up to date on the travels we encountered since the ship voyage. And she would gladly show me her corner of the world.

That world was the eastern mouth of the Annapolis Valley which opens onto the very farthest extent of the Bay of Fundy. Also the end of my circumnavigation. Here the tides are at their greatest. We arrived at low tide. Somewhere in the distance there is open water, but is a long ways out. 

These red sandstone sea cliffs fight a losing battle with the tides, giving up land every year. This forms great sea caves and stone arches. But come back in a year and though new ones may have taken shape, the old may be gone.  

As we drove a rain squall sent us in search of dinner, which we found at a casual seafood restaurant on a wharf that seemed to have opened for the season just that day. We sat and enjoyed lobsters with dripping rain pouring in around us through a leaky roof.

Apparently lobsters do not respect international borders. These were as good as any found in Maine. 

Janice’s wood burning stove



©️ 2019 D Abbott