Pleasant Bay, Nova Scotia

Staying in Cheticamp this week. We are as northwest as a person can get on this continent without having to kick caribou and terns out of our path. This may be the friendliest place in the world. I can’t know, not having been to three of the peopled continents, but it’s pretty darned friendly. People at the grocery store talk to you. For a while. Because they want to. Possibly because they’re bored, but still. Really really friendly. And this is in addition to them being a bilingual francophone community, which genuinely shocks me, those of French extraction being generally of a prickly nature in my experience. That was a terrible sentence, please extract its meaning and let its form be lost to the mists of time. Don’t look back. Don’t. I mean it.

We’ve been living in utter sloth for the past two days and I woke up mired in swampy self-reproach for this, so I sprang out of bed and determined that we would go to Pleasant Bay to take a whale watching boat. Gentle bickering, muttering, and dismembering now well established piles of clothing ensued. Everybody achieved their pants with minimal damage and heartache. We strode out into the bright grey morning.

There is a bakery in Cheticamp where you can buy a good cheesy croissant for 1.25. This alone would be reason to move here. But I hear they get -30 in the winters and high winds and my man is more one of those tender blushing orchid type things than a balsam fir. I fear he would not thrive. And I suppose, were I to bring such a sweet flower to a cold and untimely end, I might feel some remorse and confusion about the true value of cheesy croissants. Alas.

So we got bakery, we cackled with thrifty glee, we drove the 30 miles to Pleasant Bay. The land is very very old up here, and there are bays and coves running inland to meet descending pine forest everywhere. It looks piratical. It makes you want to start a completely impractical rum running operation on a protected beach for purely aesthetic reasons.

They’re doing construction on this mountain road, so we were stopped a couple of times by construction guys with those slow/stop signs. The second time we were stopped right beside a Mr. Mackenzie, who had the happiest smile, and not all the teeth he once possessed, and gave us quite specific directions to his house 374 kilometres away simply to fill the conversational space.

We got to the harbour in Pleasant Bay and parked. Tried the first whale shack, whose signs I had seen all over Cape Breton. They were full up and sent us down to the second shack, where a plausible young man with a fat face and that half Irish accent booked us in for the one o’clock. He told us jokes and stories (of a randomness so complete as to inspire admiration rather than dismay) while hisfatherthecaptain drove back to the house to get the gas key to fill ‘er up.

Tony (the captain) got us all situated in our rather stylish life jackets and we shuffled into the zodiac. A zodiac is very small and light, and when it hits a wave it gives you such a thump. Your whole body rattles from ass to crown. You have to sort of ride it like a horse, keep your hips loose, or your will be badly uncomfortable. I started out the boat trip laughing maniacally but soon became mildly seasick. I tried to think about the beauties of nature and gratitude. That made me angry as well as seasick. This went on for a long, long time. It was long subjectively and, I later discovered, probably about two hours human time. We went damn far up the coast, not a whale to be seen. There were only five of us on the zodiac, a couple from Toronto, me and himself, and the captain. I was quietly burping up stomach acid when the captain pulled around, saying we would head back south and maybe see them closer inland. Two minutes later the engine cut out. “Huh,” said the captain. He tinkered. We bobbed. I burped. I concentrated very hard in the vaguest possible way on the cliff face. The mental state required to avoid noticing one’s own motion sickness may be equally subtle to the mental state required to become invisible, or do yogic magic or something. Tony tinkered (heh) for about 8 minutes before he picked up the radio. He called for his son Chris to come rescue us in the other boat. Chris wasn’t there. Someone radioed Clint, who went to look for Chris. All the other boats out on the water chimed in and everybody had a chat. I continued to concentrate vaguely.

Chris was found. Eventually. But not until Marie, John, Winston and Mike had all been involved. Chris and Winston, two more fat ginger sons, came and rescued us in their slightly larger zodiac. I felt much better as soon as we began to move and then it came over the radio that there were pilot whales between us and the harbour. The girl in front of me screeched a little. We stared very hard at the water all around us and in five minutes there were black backs wheeling slowly through the waves on either side of us. They were so beautiful. I cannot describe it. They had long rectangular heads and I could hear them exhaling through the blow holes, a low and heavy huff. It made you want to cry, I tell you, to hear whales breathing so close to you. Maybe twenty of them? Making for shore. There was a little one, curving neatly beside its fellows. My motion sickness was gone and I was jubilant. We made for home, and it began to rain hard but nobody minded. We had seen whales. We had won.

Pleasant Bay, Nova Scotia