GRAND MANAN ISLAND, N.B. - It’s not every day you go sea kayaking in the Bay of Fundy with your bikini top stuffed with toilet paper. And no, it wasn’t to impress the finbacks, humpbacks or minke whales that frolic through the bay, or even Ryan, our buff-looking guide.
When I’d arrived last night on Grand Manan Island, a 90-minute ferry ride off the southern coast of mainland New Brunswick, I’d discovered that one of the foam pads in my bathing suit top was missing. (Why the heck don’t they sew those things in?) And mindful of a steady rain falling as our kayaking group assembled at Seal Cove on the lower east side of the island, I didn’t feel like turning my sea kayaking adventure into a wet T-shirt contest.
Not that it proved to be a problem.
“It can get cold out on the bay,” warned Alison, a fellow kayaker and New Brunswick local, so I added a long-sleeved top, two hooded rain jackets and an extra brimmed rain hat before deeming my sea-kayaking outfit complete.
The bay was a steely green as we paddled past the breakwater, the sky a thick grey. Behind us stood a cluster of 54 wooden buildings built mainly between 1870 and 1930, grey and red herring smokehouses and sheds that resembled — to this prairie girl’s eye — big barns on stilts.
Now a National Historic Site, the smokehouses are a poignant reminder of Grand Manan’s past as the largest supplier of smoked herring in the world.
Left: Kayaking around Grand Manan is one of the best ways to see the New Brunswick island. Right: Grand Manan is and island with a history steeped in fishing.
“It won’t look the same when we come back because of the tides,” Alison said, paddling alongside me and my kayaking partner, Mark, a sporty-looking Montrealer who seemed less than enthusiastic about having a partner.
“I wanted a single kayak,” he told me. “But there weren’t any left.”
It’s the outfit, I thought. I shouldn’t have added the extra hat! But I like to be prepared for the worst kind of weather. Evidently so did the explorer Samuel de Champlain, who sought shelter on tiny White Head Island just off Grand Manan during a storm in 1606.
According to a pamphlet I picked up at my B&B, it was Champlain himself who added the ‘Grand’ to the island’s original name of mananook given by the local Maliseet, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot people.
At 24 kilometres long and 10 kilometres, the island might not appear as ‘grand’ as its name suggests, but it’s the largest of New Brunswick’s Fundy Islands and a popular destination for those who love the outdoors.
With Mark steering from the back, we passed beaches, neat clapboard houses and fences decorated with buoys. The coastline looked tame, but Grand Manan, half volcanic and half sedimentary rock, has two faces. The western side of the island is rugged and wild, with hiking trails winding through thick Acadian Forest and waves crashing against jagged cliffs.
“A good place to crash your kayak,” Alison said.
“Um, we’re not going there, right?” I asked.
“No.” She laughed.
“Good.” I’m all for drama in nature but I prefer to enjoy it from shore – and whether experienced by water or land, there is plenty of nature to enjoy.
Left: So sit back and enjoy the scenery on Grand Manan. Right: The beaches of Grand Manan are truly spectacular.
Laid-back Grand Manan is a destination for beach lovers, birdwatchers, whale watchers and boaters, and for those who prefer B&Bs and cottages to 5-star hotels.
Its get-away-from-it-all feel has attracted a long list of fans over the decades, including author Willa Cather, who summered at Grand Manan’s Whale Cove throughout the 1920s and ‘30s in a cottage that can still be rented today.
I should rent it and write novels, I think, plunging my paddle in water.
Or take up painting and bird watching like the well-known naturalist John James Audubon, who documented the island’s plentiful birdlife in 1833.
As the rain intensifies, I start feeling less like an artiste and more like Champlain scanning the coastline for shelter. I have to admit, however, that under my many layers I’m warm and dry and there is yet a wave (or a whale) to be seen. Relaxing, I settle into the rhythm of paddling, breathing in the fresh salt air and listening to the patter of the rain.
Getting there: Ferries for Grand Manan depart from Blacks Harbour on the mainland. / Where to eat: The Dining Room at the Inn at Whale Cove. Located 1 km up Whistle Road. / Where to sleep: Shorecrest Lodge, 100 Route 776, Grand Manan. / Adventure High offers Sea kayaking tours, 83 Route 776, Grand Manan. / For more info on New Brunswick visit www.tourismnewbrunswick.ca/