Surfing

Even after living here for more than twenty years I’m not one hundred per cent sure that Nova Scotia truly exists. It looms large in my imagination and it may be more myth than fact. Or if it does really exit, it’s possible that I dreamed it into existence.
This ragged, rocky, foggy, cold, dangerous and overly-moody ghost of a coastline that I call home is, alas, a temporary place. I live on what the geologists call a “drowned coast.” It’s literally drowning. The sea is rising up and taking it away, inch by inch. The time frame is amazingly short. Whole headlands have been and gone in single generations. During my twenty year tenure here, I’ve walked hills that have slipped into the sea and driven rocky roads to fishing villages that are now swallowed by salt water. It’s this tenuous place that I call home.
Sometimes in winter, when the great North Atlantic pulses with a dangerous temper that rages against these shores, I drive by the seawall at the nearby beach on the main road to Halifax. Megaton waves slam up against the big rocks and spew foam and stones down onto the roof of your car. It’s a great surprise on a dark night to be driving a familiar stretch of asphalt and suddenly hear a shuddering explosion just past the driver’s side of the car, then see rocks the size of sea gull eggs pelting down on the hood of your Honda. More exciting yet are reports from one fellow surfer who claims to have been driving his old Chevette along the sea wall on a pale, broody winter’s night when the cold, stormy sea conspired to throw a giant wave right over the entire road so that for a brief second his headlights reported back that he was driving inside the tube.
True or not: such is the stuff of legends in this mythical place.
More unlikely than the driveable wave, perhaps, is the undeniable fact that Nova Scotia was once part of Africa. The rock in my backyard comes from the Sahara Shield. To be more precise, what is now Nova Scotia was once part of a monster continent that had crashed into North America, then pulled away and drifted south to become Africa, leaving behind a big chunk of rock that is now the province of my dreams. The upright slate in my backyard is the exact stuff you’d find if you flew to Morocco and got down on your hands and knees to dig through the sand until you hit something hard.
The connection to Africa is not only geological. The origin of some of our best waves are African. Storms spawned off of Africa’s west coast trek across the Atlantic to wreak havoc as hurricanes in the Caribbean only to veer north with the Gulf Stream to visit ancestral African Nova Scotia. Our protective cold waters begin to destroy such tropical storms even as they pay homage to these shores, but not before Nova Scotian surfers find solace and ecstasy in surfing rare warm water point break waves in front of remote headlands with cows grazing above them on the hillside.
The hillsides, themselves, were gifts delivered by ice. The glaciers once plowed this province under and then retreated, leaving these silt and stone drumlins, the rounded headlands that immediately began to erode. This is a land sculpted by ice and by sea and those of us living on this continental edge know our property deeds are nothing short of insignificant writs of permission to inhabit this fabled land for a few short generations until the seas rise and make all the old maps obsolete.

I took my first step onto a Nova Scotian beach in the summer of 1970 when Jack Parry and I drove up from New Jersey to escape — well, to escape New Jersey. We surfed our brains out — all the wrong places as it turned out. We camped along the empty shores, time-tripping into the past. And then we returned to modern America to fall back into the usual frenetic addictions of modern American lives.
I ended up teaching university in New York City and stopped believing that places like Nova Scotia could still exist. I learned to live dull and ordinary and urban and, just before settling into something practical and permanent and predictable, I escaped again. For good. I convinced my wife that a different life was possible. We spent two summers conjuring Nova Scotia back into existence and discovered cold, clean water along with friendly, guileless surfers who became like family. Just about the time that Ronald Reagan was ascending to power, we knew it was time to flee career and money and what looked like a very unhappy decade ahead. After being turned down repeatedly by Canada Immigration, we pleaded something short of insanity to a suited man at the Canadian Consulate in a glass Manhattan tower – the Exxon Building — and he let us in. We never fully understood why.
In an old brown Ford Econoline van, we clambered up the north east coast and across the St. Croix River at Calais, Maine into Canada. We had brought everything we could muster: rototiller and ancient refrigerator in the back, Chuck Dent 7’6″ surfboard on the roof. My motto was this: go where the money isn’t.
And that was Nova Scotia.

Surfing, of course, was a big part of the mythology that drew me here. Think cold and clean and surfing with a few good buddies on a frosty morning with grey seal pups slipping up to stare at you in the sunrise. Think pure glassy walls of water, tall as my American refrigerator, lining up on rocky shelves, peeling a perfect right or left into deep green waters. But those are the rare, halcyon days that come after days or weeks of foul weather.
What saves these shores from the deluge of vacationers and swarming surfers and overpopulation and all the things that have ravaged both coasts of our continent is very simple: a cold, cold sea and some extremely bad weather. Or at least what most people think of as bad weather.
My first winter here, a snowstorm entombed my van in my driveway all except for the brown roof. But when the snow crusted up, I put on my heaviest wetsuit and walked across a snow-buried pasture to surf some head-high waves on a blue misty sea with the great spectacular crystal white world before me.
Whole summers have been swallowed by fog along the shore. The I-can’t-see-my-hand-in-front-of-my-face type fog. Inland, the sun may shine but along the shore, the fog rules. Surfing in springtime fog is an instinctual thing. You can’t see the wave coming. You have to feel it. You paddle in faith, tap in, make the drop, turn and tuck and hope for the best. There’s not that much to see. It’s like surfing in a dream. When you get really disoriented and can’t tell which way the shore is, you listen and the sound of sea sucking on stones will guide you in.
Summer is almost always a slow time — fewer storms, fewer waves. Since most inland Nova Scotians visit beaches only in the heart of the summer, they rarely see anyone surfing. Ask your average Bluenoser about surfing here and they will tell you with great confidence that no one surfs in Nova Scotia. Summer, for me, however, is a small beach break jewel. Me and a couple of ducks on an empty beach at sunset. Not much excitement if you’re watching from the beach. But to paraphrase the Yogi, surfing is 99% half mental.
To prove the true rudeness of the North Atlantic, the Labrador Current sneaks down in June or July with water as cold as 48 degrees Fahrenheit. Maybe colder. What seems to be a warm sunny day belies the cold winter freight of the ocean. Overnight the water can drop 20 degrees and just listen to them howl, those Saturday morning surfers, who show up without neoprene boots or gloves.
Cold rules and you learn to love it or you leave. Winter is quintessential Nova Scotian surfing. Canadian surfers may not be the best in the world but we are the coldest. Gear is important. I’m a drysuit man come January when the air temp is below zero Fahrenheit and the water hovers just below freezing. Salt water freezes on the rocks and you have to crawl to the sea. The water is dense and the riding of waves is much different than surfing those light summer waves of other shores.
On a windless sunlit morning in February, with sea wraiths dancing on the skin of the sea, paddling to the point makes me laugh out loud. It’s just so beautiful and so completely surreal. Winter trains caution into you quickly. A mere head dip can give you frozen needles of ice on your eyelashes. A wipeout means an ice cream headache beyond your worst nightmare. You crave at least one companion on a serious winter surf.
Only one surfer has ever died here and it was a late winter nor’easter that deserved to be left alone.
For such a magnificent place, the history of Nova Scotia is full of greed, plunder and horror, a legacy of bad decisions and ill-informed leaders. Despite the beauty, this is place of tragedy as well. Most of my favourite surf breaks are reefs or beaches where ships have foundered and men have drowned. At one nearby break, the remains of an iron ship still stick up out of the water near the line-up and the sad old ship’s boiler is covered with barnacles near the shoreline.

I once surfed waves generated by a horrific North Atlantic storm the evening that it capsized the Ocean Ranger oil rig off Newfoundland killing all aboard. It had been a consummate winter surf session and I thanked the gods all the way driving home, the ice melting and salt water trickling down my face like happy tears … until I heard the news about the Ocean Ranger.
In the late summer of 1998, Swiss Air Flight 111 went down about fifty miles from here in the sea off Peggy’s Cove and I felt that small absurd comfort that it wasn’t me or my family on that plane and it wasn’t in my backyard. Until the wind blew west for several days and I found myself surfing among bits of floating debris that was once the cabin wall of the Swiss Air jet where hundreds died.

Despite the tragedies — and sometimes because of them — I feel connected to this place. Because of the harsh and rugged shore losing its battle with the sea, I feel rooted here. This is not a land of comfort. I did not come here to feel ease and surround myself with the relentless, soothing junk of consumer living. We remain a place apart, thanks to the harshness of climate, the ruthlessness of a sea that is prepared to steal our land and tear us apart at any time.

Some waves are spawned south of Greenland and they arrive on a steely grey morning. I put on my drysuit and wetsuit hood, slide my board into the uninviting grey-brown sea of winter and paddle out to surf. The wind is north -– offshore– and conjures up a squall of pelting ice pellets so that when I take off on my first wave, my face is stung by these small, savage bullets. I shield my eyes so I can make the drop, turn, pull up high onto a wall of dense winter wave. I tuck my head down to avoid the assault and the wave allows me safe passage on a long smooth wall, steep and stiff in the offshore wind. If I’m lucky, I’m not alone. As I kick out I see an old friend of twenty years paddling out towards me, a childlike goofy grin on his face. The sun breaks through the onslaught of cloud and sleet for less than thirty seconds and then it’s gone. It won’t make a showing for three days until the nor’easter has spent itself. I paddle out for another wave. The world has moved on without me, I know, and for the time being I exist safely removed from time and civilization.

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