Nova Scotia: Fishing and Campfires
A Roadtrip Through Nova Scotia and Eastern Canada
By Andy Christian Castillo & Brianna June Lertora
Andy: I always write on ferries. Maybe its the soothing rumble of the engine purring beneath me; perhaps its the rise and fall of the waves and the sea sliding by outside the fogged window; or it might be because ferry rides signal the end of a journey: the voyage back to real life.
When I was crossing the English Channel from Calais, France, I wrote about the white cliffs of Dover that emerged out of the fog. On my way to Ireland, I was inspired by the drunk Irishmen sprawled around the cabin.
Today, I am making my way home to Massachusetts, across the Bay of Fundy from Nova Scotia to New Brunswick, Canada.
It’s Saturday, and I’m sitting next to my girlfriend and future wife, Brianna, listening to a Canadian newscaster and the quiet murmur of French conversation.
Everything is perfect.
12 a.m. On a Tuesday Night
We weren’t expecting much when we pulled into Murphy’s Camping on the Ocean on Tuesday night, after traveling all the way up from Maine. The campground was pitch black and shut up; there weren’t many signs of life.
The last hour of the eight hour drive had been through back-woods country and forgotten fishing villages. We were hungry, tired, and ready for sleep.
After crawling through the campground with our lights off, we decided to find a place to park and bed down in the car for the night. It wasn’t exactly the romantic Nova Scotia from the tourism fliers.
Our Trip Into Canada
Bri: For me, adventure is about exploring foreign places, as much as it is about exploring the far corners of my soul.
The two go hand in hand: both are new and full of questions waiting to be answered; at the same time, they’re beautiful and inspire awe and a lust for more discovery.
Other times, exploration is dark, difficult to grasp, and leads to further bewilderment.
But, I am always grateful for the unearthing of the path ahead- striving ceaselessly to know truth, discovered slowly by wading through the fog – literally.
We drove through quiet, lonely fog from New Brunswick into Nova Scotia, the road eerily empty. It brought on a sort of melancholic peacefulness. Just Andy, myself, and the vast greenery that surrounded us.
Andy: While the first leg of the trip had been nothing short of incredible, when we hit Canada, it seemed like the wagon rumbled off the dusty trail into a ditch.
We took the scenic route down the Fundy Coast and snuck in after-hours to see the Hopewell Rocks; then the temperature dropped and it started to rain.
We crossed the border from Calais into New Brunswick with high spirits and anticipation, got lost along the way, ate mac & cheese cooked in a microwave at a gas station, and pulled into Murphy’s Camping on the Ocean at 12 a.m.
A View of the Nova Scotia Ocean
Bri: We hadn’t planned much of this leg of the trip and arrived at the campground at midnight, in the middle of nowhere and in complete darkness.
The office was closed, and the campground asleep. After some debate we decided to sleep in the car overnight and sort it out in the morning. Eight hours later we woke up to the sight of sun and water and met the Murphy’s, owners of the campground.
They were a lovely couple who welcomed us right away, and invited us to the community campfire and mussel boil that night. I’d never been to a campground that offers complementary mussels, and the thought of it livened us both up.
After a much-needed shower we set up the tent, explored the ocean-side property, and fell asleep for an early afternoon nap.
The rest of our day was spent exploring the seacoast and Martinique Beach; we watched the waves crash against the rocks as the wind tangled our hair and the sand warmed our feet.
Though the water was a bit too icy for swimming, one perk of traveling off season was the beach all to ourselves – and witnessing the quiet hum of local life sans tourists.
Murphy’s Camping on the Ocean
Andy: Afterward, we returned to the campsite. The place is a hidden gem. It’s out-of-the-way but absolutely perfect. The owners, Brian and Marilyn Murphy, are the sweetest couple you’ve ever met. The land has been in the Murphy family since 1765, and the town (Murphy’s Cove) is named after them; needless to say, it’s a family affair.
We stayed on a site that overlooked the ocean. Surrounding the site, was an array of islands.
“Ryan (his son) and I are guardians of an island,” commented Brian Murphy, who said that an increase in salmon farming around the islands has prompted the Canadian Nature Trust to save them; “At this point, they probably have about 80% saved.”
The campsite owns a boat, and offers scenic tours of the surrounding bay and the islands. “We always have fishing on the boats; we drop lines and the kids drive the boat.
We also have crab trapping on the docks – Crabs are running around and the women are Brian Murphy, owner of Murphy’s Camping on the Ocean, screaming, it’s a hoot!”
Or, guests can also pitch a tent on an island for a more adventurous experience: “You can just land on an island and camp,” Brian said, “You might see fisherman hauling traps, or kayakers passing by, but that’s it.”
That night, we had a community fire on the water. Brian served fresh-steamed, complimentary mussels; I’d never had them, so I have nothing to compare them to; but they were absolutely incredible.
We met a German couple and talked about travel. You meet the most interesting people, while you’re passing through.
Bri: Life seemed so tranquil in those quiet fishing towns, where the community lived in harmony with each other and with their environment.
Surrounded by that kind of peace, it’s easy to forget your worries and slip into a simpler rhythm.
Andy: The next day, we set a course across Nova Scotia on 101, and stopped at Halifax on the way by. Halifax is a bustling seaport set on a hill.
The Citadel National Historic Site, an old military fort converted into a museum, overlooks the bay. In the distance a lighthouse sits on an island next to another fort.
Inside the courtyard new recruits train in military tactics; soldiers reenact firing a cannon; guards in crimson uniforms change at the entrance with a flourish of boots and bayonets. Another soldier demonstrated how to fire a rifle.
Upstairs in the barracks a museum takes visitors through history from WWI to present day.
We left a little after 2 p.m.; after driving for about an hour, we stumbled onto the cutest little town I’d ever seen.
Annapolis Royal & Digby Backpackers Inn
Fog rolled down like a curtain; across the bay a white steeple protrude above quant houses. The ship Ryan Royale sat half-painted in a yard surrounded by buckets and ladders. Signs and flags swung in the breeze; seagulls soared on air currants.
Along historic St. George Street, cozy shops like The Chocolate Shop & Cafe and The Bailey House Bed & Breakfast, permeate a warm invitational atmosphere.
Just down the road is Fort Anne and Annapolis Royal Historic Gardens. Both were closed when we visited. If we had more time, I would have liked to explore a bit more. We left before dark.
Digby Backpackers Inn
We stayed in Digby Backpackers Inn for $30 each: it’s probably the cleanest hostel I’ve ever stayed at. And a perfect location; only ten minutes from the ferry to St. John, two minutes from the best restaurants, (Digby is the world capitol of scallops!) with a harbor view.
That night, we walked out onto the wharves. Two raccoons ran across the parking lot and disappeared into a dumpster. Even at 10 p.m., a few fisherman still unloaded their boats, and restaurant workers resupplied their storehouses.
The attendant at the corner store asked if we were on our honeymoon because we looked so happy.
Brier Island Whale Watch
Bri: We’re on our way to Brier Island for a whale watch. We’ve driven past gently rolling hills of deep green, accented by white, purple, and yellow – a blossoming spring painted onto the countryside, waiting to be discovered by the patient and curious traveler who is willing to drive far enough down the sleepy two-lane road.
We took a ferry across the channel, and we’ll take one more at the end of Digby Neck.
On the drive over to Digby from Halifax Andy said we were “like a tornado coming through a quiet town.” There’s a lonely expansiveness of land here in Canada. We drove for hours through vast, undeveloped land. I felt a sweet ache, a nostalgic melancholy I’ve only encountered while traveling.
Small town after small town, appeared as if they had just been abandoned – the lingering remnants of activity still present, but no one to be seen. There were toys littered across the lawns and cars parked in driveways, but no one on the road.
Racing the Ferry
Andy: We raced down the peninsula to catch the ferry in time; they leave on the hour, so if you miss it, you’ll miss the whale watch.
We had left a little later than anticipated from the Backpackers Inn – caught up in great conversation with the owners. But we made it.
On the way to the whale watch, we spotted an abandoned house on the side of the road, and promised to stop on the return trip. Everything was left just as it was years ago. The furniture was knocked about from the wind, but it was otherwise untouched.
Bri: I love anything that gets me close to the ocean. The gently rolling waves, quietly garnering more strength before they crash forcefully onto shore or into a rocky coastline, reminds me of my insignificance in comparison to the power and wisdom of the natural world.
Just before we left, thick, low fog set in – making it impossible to see more than about fifty yards in front of us. We set out anyways, and I was happy to smell the salty, fishy harbor. The best part about it was the boat – we took a little zodiac boat, getting us just about as close to the water as you can get without diving in.
It crossed my mind that a whale could easily flip us, which made me love it that much more. You just don’t get that kind of thrill every day.
Fog So You Could Cut it
Andy: Fog. A wall of white twenty feet around us; hedging us in like prison bars. A peer emerges like a ghost, fishing boats bob at bay; seabirds disappear like ghostly aberrations off into the mist, in a thunder of air and mist; clinging close to the water, their wings skimming the surface, as if on a track.
The Zodiak boat tears ahead like a banshee through the impenetrable defense. On comes the sea; endlessly rolling; forever surging towards the boat.
Bri: Not long after setting out a lobster boat appeared out of the fog, and as the two boat captains bantered back and forth we saw the crew pull up the anchor and one trap after another, sorting through the lobsters with urgency.
They only had two days left of the season; in Canada, the law requires fishermen to stop trapping lobsters for the summer to allow the populations to replenish. It made me glad to see a country that appreciates sustainability and respects the environment.
Andy: Suddenly, a lobster boat appears through the fog; the men on deck are working like a terror, shouting to each other above the clamor. Traps slam against the side of the boat and are pulled up on a winch. The captain tosses us a few lobsters. The German man in front gets his finger caught in the big claw; I don’t envy him.
Bri’s golden hair blows in the breeze. I take off my glasses because of the salty spray. We’re wearing orange jumpsuits and holding tight to the ropes; it feels like we’re flying into oblivion; ocean melts into the sky, there is no distinction.
An hour later and the fog still hasn’t lifted. We stop for a while and listen, but don’t hear anything. Then the fog lifts all at once; one minute it’s there, the next it’s gone.
We turn into the wake of another fishing boat. The man on deck points the other way and screams something about a whale.
“I can smell him,” the captain of the zodiac says. Minke whales in particular have terrible breath. I take a whiff and smell it too. It’s a putrid-sweet stench, that smells like rotten fruit.
A Whale from Out of the Waves
I am the first to spot the whale. He rises like a black island from out of the waves, and is gone as quickly as he came. We follow him for a while before turning back to port.
Bri: Though it was still early in the season for whale watching, we did spot a few Minke whales – one swam right beneath our boat, a gentle giant gliding with ease through the icy water.
We also spotted a pair of puffins, floating happily together through the quiet bay, dipping in every so often to snack on some fish.
It was the highlight of the trip for me. After a few hours on the water, we made our way back to the island, and as the misty wind rushed at us, jumbling my hair, I found myself wishing for just a little while longer out at sea.
Andy: We chased the sun down the coast to Yarmouth for dinner that night, and arrived just in time for the best lobster sandwiches I’d ever had. Afterwards, we drove down Cape Forchu to see the lighthouse. Standing on a cliff, with waves crashing far below and wind off the sea whipping at our clothes & hair, was one of those surreal, unforgettable moments that lingers long after it’s over. I can still taste the salt and feel the warmth of our embrace.
I think I always will.