The waves are smashing against our tiny boat, soaking us with water of questionable cleanliness. McNabs Island appears like a faint glimmer of hope in the distance. Suddenly, a massive cargo ship emerges through the mid-afternoon mist, heading straight toward my friend Walter and I. We paddle desperately against the current, but the ship pulls a quick 180 degree turn, presumably to get away from us as we flail about madly.
Once we pass Georges Island, we finally learn how to use the kayak's rudder. By the time we get to McNabs, we're completely drenched, but eager to explore this 1,000-acre labyrinth of wilderness and rubble.
There are a few things I wish we'd known before charging bullishly to the island. This guide should make your island treks easier than mine.
The island has a post-apocalyptic feel. Clamber atop the crumbling remains of Fort McNab for a great view of the water and some prime sunbathing. Enjoy a picnic amidst muzzle-loading guns on the manicured grass by Fort Ives. Other notable sites include Hugonin Battery, Strawberry Battery, the McNab family graveyard, the boarded-up teahouse, the lighthouse and a rifle range. There are no plaques explaining the significance of each site, so bring a map (the best ones are made by non-profit group Friends of McNabs Island Society, mcnabsisland.ca) or let your imagination run rampant. The Friends of McNabs Island Society lists several hiking trails throughout the island. Most of the island is owned by Parks Canada and open to the public.
• See Ghosts
Many report seeing island spirits, which is unsurprising given McNabs's bloody history. On Hangman's Beach, British naval officers strung the executed corpses of mutineers to scare potential deserters. The island is also the burial place of roughly 200 British cholera victims.
A local woman and lover of McNabs reports seeing a ghost:
"It was a man. He was really short. He was transparent, almost like a hologram. He was bearded and he came into my friend's cabin," she recalls, in a matter-of-fact tone.
There have also been reported sightings of sea serpents and a ghoulish horse and carriage, as well as tales of buried treasure and a lost French gold mine.
Contact the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources (861-2560) weekdays before 4:30pm to reserve a campsite near the old teahouse. There are outhouses near campsites.
• View Wildlife
If ghosts aren't your cup of tea, check out island wildlife. McNabs is a birder's paradise. Experience a cacophony of chirping and screeching over the sounds of boat and helicopter traffic. Expect to see one of the island's many ospreys.
I saw a white-tailed deer on the island. Other animals seen on the island include coyotes, muskrats, red foxes, bats, otters, and mink. Happily, there are no skunks.
The beaches of McNabs are littered with tampon applicators and condoms, thanks to a botched harbour clean-up. We stroll down Mauger's Beach contemplating washed-up oddities, such as a rusted child's bicycle and a tube of insulin. Pleasure boaters dock their rides on Wreck Cove, a secluded inlet surrounded by dense forest.
• Meet IslandersMcNabs attracts a colourful assortment of characters. Artist Tony Publicover says he moved to the island seeking tranquility nearly six years ago, after his childhood woods in Dartmouth were turned into subdivisions.
Anton E. Self, who's constructing a data-hosting facility in one of Nova Scotia's cold war-era military bunkers, pounced on property on McNabs nearly a decade ago.
Self, who enjoys the lack of automobiles and the noise of shipping traffic, says "it's been an amazing love affair ever since."
• By Ferry
Murphy's Waterfront Taxi (Cable Wharf, 420-1015) charges $120 round trip fee to get to and from the island, which is only affordable if you go with a group. The ferry seats up to 12 passengers.
"You could swim there. It's not that far," say staff at Murphy's, when I appear hesitant to pay the round-trip fee. They also suggest hitching a ride from fishermen leaving from Dartmouth.
I don't end up swimming or sea-hitch hiking because I learn that McNabs Island Ferry (Eastern Passage, 1-800-326-4563) takes people to and from the island for $12. The ferry's captain, Mike Tilley (AKA Red Beard), lets children over five aboard for $10. (Children under five ride for free.)
A & M Sea Charters (Eastern Passage, 1-888-858-5545) only takes groups to McNabs, and costs $15 per person for groups of 15. (Tip: Private ferry captains sometimes respond to coercion and sneak you aboard.)
• By Kayak
Rent an ocean kayak at MEC (1550 Granville, 421-2667) and carry it from Granville to the dock at the end of Salter Street. It's cheapest to split the $55 cost of a double. But don't take a page out of my book. Check out Transport Canada's Sea Kayaking Safety guide and learn the basics first.
A map, cell phone, waterproof shoes or plastic bags to wear over your socks (the island has several wet patches), food, tons of water, binoculars and layers.