There were gruelling hours, there were idyllic hours. In the end it was a trip that will be remembered for years to come.
Five canoes paddled by 10 women left the shores of Birchdale, formerly the Nova Nada monastery by First Carrying Lake in North Kemptville, at 8:30 a.m. on May 18. They were off on a four-day, 72-kilometre canoe trip to the sea.
Organizer Sandra Phinney, 73, has been paddling since she was six years old. For the past 10 years she’s organized a women's wilderness paddling experience that spans three nights and four days.
Last year, the group went to the 100 Wild Islands in Tangiers. In 2016 they did a canoe trip into the Tobeatic wilderness area.
The paddlers on this year’s trip were from the Annapolis-Valley, Lunenburg, Barrington and Yarmouth town and county. All paddlers were experienced either in kayaks or canoes, but not all were white-water paddlers, a factor that was a big challenge.
There was lots of preparation for the route.
Phinney says one of the paddlers, Anna Mallin, made plasticized copies of the route from topographical maps to attach to canoes.
“I had paddled most of the route at different times over the years, so I was familiar with about 80 per cent of the journey,” she said. The only section new to Phinney was from Pearl Lake in Kemptville down to Third Lake in Quinan. “Fortunately, our youngest paddler, Nicola Roberts-Fenton, was familiar with that section,” she said.
Phinney also made copies of appropriate sections from Andy Smith's book, Paddling the Tobeatic: Canoe Routes of Southwestern Nova Scotia, for everyone.
From personal experience, maps, and Smith's book, the paddlers had a good idea of where rapids and portages were.
Phinney also had the loan of a Spot tracking device from Will Poole/Southwest Paddlers Association. The device was programmed to call in a helicopter in case of an extreme emergency in remote areas where access would have been impossible for an ambulance.
Anna Mallin also had a DeLorme In-Reach Explorer Garmin device, which plotted their location online every 10 minutes.
“The only problem is that Anna needed to bow out the morning of Day 2 because an old shoulder injury was acting up and we were no longer tracked. This created some confusion for those who were tracking us,” said Phinney.
On Day 1, what normally would be a seven-to-eight-hour day turned out to be a gruelling 12 hours. Water levels had dropped significantly and the long stretch of rapids from the Barrio, where the Tusket River starts, were “boney.”
“As well, we had left a lot of our gear (including tents) at a predetermined campsite close to the bridge at Zach's Falls, not realizing how long it would take to get there,” said Phinney.
The women had no choice but to forge on. They also had one badly damaged canoe to deal with for the entire stretch.
They arrived at the campsite cold, wet and tired. “Most of us were in our 60s and 70s, but we didn't factor that in; we should have taken an extra two days for this trip,” said Phinney.
Four canoes and eight paddlers continued to the end of Day 3.
The temperatures were so cold in the mornings/evenings that blackflies were not an issue at those times. During the day, the paddlers had enough breeze (or wind) that it kept them at bay. It also rained hard one day, although flies may have been more welcome than the wind and rain. The few times when black flies were an issue were taken care of with bug jackets and liberal amounts of fly dope.
The toughest portage was along Upper Long Falls and Bad Pitch, mainly because there were so many trees that had fallen over, blocking the narrow, hilly, rocky trail.
“It was brutal,” said Phinney.
“Mercifully two paddlers ran boats down to the Pitch so the actual canoe carries would be diminished as it was hard enough just walking the trail with gear let alone with bulky boats over our heads.”
Three canoes and six women made it to the sea on Day 4, arriving at Crosby's Landing, behind Carl's Store in Tusket, around 4 p.m. on May 21.
Phinney says the reasons for those who did not complete the trip varied from having old injuries or health conditions flare up to simply needing a timeout from the demands of the trip.
She adds that every single person completed both the external and internal journey in their own way, whether they made it to the sea or not.
Rewards from the trip included forging new friendships, learning from each other, and enjoying the privilege of being able to experience nature and "the wild" in ways that some people can only read about, says Phinney.
“We had lots of ground support during this trip and are especially grateful for Sue Hutchins, Barrie MacGregor and John Fenton, who went beyond the call of duty,” she said.
More about paddling in Southwest Nova Scotia
The Southwest Paddlers Association was organized to provide information about paddling in southwest Nova Scotia and to help paddlers find one another for shared enjoyment of their sport.
Members are frequently in contact by phone, e-mail, monthly supper gatherings at local restaurants, and on their interactive website.