8 August 2016
Nestled in the blue waters of the Halifax Harbour is a historical gem that is rather hard to get to: George’s Island. The island is easy to see from the city of Halifax, but is off limits to most Haligonians and tourists. With the island dominating the landscape of the harbour, it is hard to ignore the few structures that still stand, including the lighthouse, making onlookers question what the island was used for and why most are denied access to set foot on it.
Starting in the 18th century George’s Island was used as a defense military site for ships coming into the harbour. Fort Charlotte sits on the side of the island that faces the way to the Atlantic Ocean, although the fort and island have not been used as military protection since World War II.
As of right now the island is not open to the public, although certain groups have been granted access by the Canadian government to use the island as a resting point for kayaking trips. My mom and I were lucky enough to stumble upon a kayaking group called “Kayak Halifax” that is situated right along the Halifax Harbour-front walk. We were told that our tour would start on the harbour-front, kayak past Pier 21, and then stop on George’s Island for a break. My initial thought was that we would be breaking the Canadian governments strict laws of no visitors to the island if we went with this kayaking tour. The guides assured us though that they had been given exclusive permission to visit the island, as long as we stayed on the beach and did not venture into the fort and buildings on the island. I don’t see why anyone would want to venture farther onto the island than the beach as of right now, because black garter snakes have taken up the island as their home.
Before we started out on our kayak trip, I was a little nervous because I had never kayaked in the ocean before. I wasn’t sure if my experience kayaking in a 10f ft. deep river qualified me for this excursion on a 60 ft. harbour with small ocean-like waves.
Getting to the island isn’t hard. The water was calm enough that we could paddle and steer with ease. Fun fact: the Halifax Harbour remains ice free in all seasons since it leads to the ocean and is, therefore, salt water. I can’t imagine you would want to take a dip in the harbour in the dead of winter though because even on a bright and sunny day the water was colder than we expected. The water was also more clear than we thought it would be. This was easy to see as we got closer to the island and could look at the shells and sea glass from our kayaks.
As we paddled closer to the island the waves became more rough. The lighthouse on the island made for some great photos opps as did our colorful kayaks in the blue waters. The “lighthouse” on the island isn’t really a lighthouse at all. It’s just a light station. The original lighthouse burnt down in 1916 and the current structure was built a year later, a few hundred feet away from the house to avoid future fire hazards.
Once we paddled around the front end of the island and towards the beach, the colors of the sand and shells was hard to look away from. As a fellow Pittsburgher, (is that what we call ourselves?) I am used to the waters of the closest Atlantic coast beaches such as Ocean City and The Outer Banks. There the water is rarely ever clear and the sand is more rocky than anything. The shells are fragments of once whole pieces and everywhere is much too crowded and touristy for me. Here though the water was perfectly clear and I was amazed to get my first glimpse of Nova Scotian sea glass, something that just doesn’t exist at any beach I’ve been to before.
When my mom tells everyone about our experience kayaking to the island, she will always mention how giddy and excited I was hunting for sea glass for the few minutes we had. For the record there was another girl in our group that was my age that enjoyed the experience just as much. Green, blue, brown, orange, red; Every color of sea glass was there and no one had enough pockets to take all the colors present. I wish we could have stayed on the island longer, but per Canadian government laws, our time was up. We packed up our treasures and hopped back into our kayaks; our eyes a little wider than they were when we first started on our kayaking journey, and headed back to the Halifax Harbour-front.
Paddling back was significantly harder than it was getting to the island. The waves were working against us now and the wind had picked up. Luckily our kayaks had rudders that helped us turn left and right with the press of a pedal; something I had never had the luxury of using before. Looking down at my arms you would have thought that I was covered in white paint, but that was only the salt from the water that had dried on my skin. To distract us from the tough paddle back we shared stories with our fellow kayakers in the group. The other mother-daughter duo with us were from Ontario and, like my family, they travel far and wide to go to hockey games. Boston, New York, and Pittsburgh were just a few of the cities they had ventured to for some NHL hockey. “Nobody likes to travel within their own country, eh?” Our guide pointed out. The Canadians in our group frequently traveled to the states and the Americans would rather spend their vacation days in the true north it seemed. When we mentioned our travels to the Canadian Pacific Northwest it was clear that we had seen more of their home country than they had.
When we arrived back at our starting point I took my time pulling up to the dock, trying to hold onto the best kayaking experience I had ever had. Forget kayaking in the Youghiogheny River back home! This was how kayaks were meant to be used. Before this trip I had never really enjoyed kayaking. To me the point of kayaking had always been to get somewhere and to use upper body strength paddling to get where you wanted to go. Back home though kayaking is more of a “lay in your kayak and let the river do all the work for you” kind of sport. I know I could never go back to that after having to work against an ocean current and trying my hardest to paddle myself onto an island’s beach.
It was after this kayaking trip that my mom started to say things like “When we come back to Halifax-” and “The next time we’re here-“. That was fine by me! I’m ok with a “next time” as long as I still get those “first time” experiences in newly discovered provinces as well. Going back to “next time” though, we know that we have to sign up for another kayaking trip, maybe a longer one to McNabs Island which is farther out in the Halifax Harbour than George’s Island. A day trip to Peggy’s Cove also makes the “next time” list, but we plan to also drive down to Lunenburg and Mahone Bay.
So until our return trip to Nova Scotia I have plenty of pictures, memories, and sea glass to keep me content. Kayaking was just one of the many great things that we did in our short time in Halifax, but I think it was the tipping point for my mom where she realized that Canada has something for everyone- it just takes finding your right place in Canada for you to realize that.