You can’t get any closer to the water than this
Pristine isn’t the word that comes to mind to most Haligonians when describing Halifax Harbour. Though recent cleanup efforts have greatly improved water quality, it might be surprising that kayaking tours from the downtown waterfront with Kayak Halifax (kayakhalifax.com) bring visitors into an immersive natural journey.
“You can’t get any closer to the water, and you can’t get any closer to the shorebirds,” says owner and guide Ed Dowell, who asks that guests come equipped with a sense of humour and adventure alongside their hat, sunscreen and bottle of water. “To have it right in our backyard is fantastic – we have two islands, a beautiful park, and three very different experiences.”
Kayak Halifax’s tours are accessible for just about anyone, whether you’re a paddling newbie or experienced on the water. They’re also easy to get to – home base for tours is right at the central waterfront – so you can walk there after breakfast at your downtown hotel or after a day of meetings at the local office.
To get your feet wet (metaphorically only – you’re unlikely to get your actual feet wet), sign up for the Discover Sea Kayaking experience, which consists of 30 to 60 minutes on the water. You get to know how a kayak works, and the lesson goes down with an optional seafood chowder at a local restaurant.
Two-hour tours of the downtown waterfront take place both during the day and at sunset, and might include some land time to explore Fort Charlotte on tiny Georges Island, a National Historic Site that served as a prison for 2,000 French soldiers during the Seven Years’ War in the mid-18th century. Another option is to head to the larger McNabs Island (http://www.novascotiaparks.ca/parks/mcnabs.asp), a provincial park, either on a four-hour morning tour or an overnight glamping experience that includes a hike to the historic forts.
“What we try to do is weave interesting stories, not just share facts and dates,” says Dowell, who has a personal connection to some of the city’s key historical events: His great-grandfather was on the docks and died during the 1917 Halifax Explosion that killed some 2,000 people, and his family owned land and wintered more than once on McNabs. Trips are customized to match participants’ interests, whether that’s geology, history or nature, or a combination of all three.
And there’s always the potential for surprises. Beluga whale and seals often swim nearby, and sometimes the iconic Bluenose II can be seen at anchor in the harbour. One day recently, Dowell says, “three guys were playing fiddle, a bass drum and a guitar on the waterfront and they came over and serenaded us.”
The beauty of kayaking tours in the city is the accessibility of these natural spaces, just steps – or paddle strokes – from Atlantic Canada’s major urban centre. Dowell says many guests are reluctant to leave the water at the end of their tours. “It’s surreal coming back after going to the islands.”
“I had one group from New York on a three-day trip and they did not stop talking,” Dowell says. “We went out for the final sunset and I said, we’re not going to say a word from the moment our paddles touch the water. It was a perfect night, lit up with colour, and you could tell they wanted to say something. Finally we got back to the dock, and one woman said, ‘For the first time in my life, I didn’t know where I ended and nature began.’ That’s why I love what I do.”