Place that swells

Out there, somewhere, a loon’s call echoes across the darkening swells of Frozen Ocean Lake. Or, I should say blackening swells, as the lake is dark as a cup of high-test tea even in broad daylight. Under our floorless Megamid kitchen shelter, my husband and I sit – frozen-ocean-like – and we listen.  “Harlooloo loo loo loo,” the invisible bird calls out to family, to friends, to fellow loons. “I’m here. I’m here. Are you? Are you?”

As the bird’s transcendental yodel fades into the dusk, Marc and I resume heating lake water over a camp stove. Tonight’s entree: Bog Water Pasta with Thai-Spiced Chicken-of-the-Sea. The smells of tuna and noodles momentarily overtake the Christmas tree scent of the old-growth hemlock forest surrounding the Megamid. We’re hungry after paddling a third of the way through a three-day, 16-mile canoe trip in Nova Scotia.  

Canoe on Kejimkujik Lake

“I’m here. I’m here. Are you? Are you?” Here, to be specific, is Kejimkujik National Park and National Historic Site, a place famous for its excellent wilderness canoe routes.

For thousands of years, the Mi’kmaw people have canoed along the same connected waterways we’ve been paddling. They would spend their summers on the coast and the rest of the year inland, pursuing furs and game. 

Marc and I are here, pursuing our own furs and game, but we only want to see, hear, and sense their furred and feathered wildness. We don’t need to eat or wear them. We’ve stocked our own tuna, noodles, and trail mix. We’ve packed our own quick-dry, rip-stop, polypro, and fleece.

In addition, “I’m here, I’m here” in Kejimkujik to pursue the power of the thumb.

“You couldn’t possibly do a J stroke without a thumb,” Marc had observed from behind me in the canoe, first on Big Dam Lake, then on Frozen Ocean. Because when the hand is on the T grip, he explained, the thumb is out on the end of the T and you use that position to generate leverage to rotate the blade while you pull it through the water. “All day I spent sitting behind you, I used my thumb with almost every stroke, and I couldn’t have done it without my thumb.”

Keji, as the locals call it, rolls across 147 square miles of the Nova Scotia peninsula, in Canada’s second-smallest province, an Atlantic maritime province of which no part is more than 50 miles from the sea.  Keji resembles a giant thumbprint in that it isn’t so much flat as it is lumpy and furrowed, a plain undulating with surface features of the last glacial stage: boulders, boulder fields, long, winding ridges of glacial sediment, and drumlins, the smooth, oval hills which have a steeper, blunt end facing the oncoming glacier, and a gentle slope nodding in the direction of glacial retreat.  After the last glaciation, which began 100,000 to 80,000 years ago, and after glacial retreat, shallow lakes formed. These shallow lakes, connected by slow, meandering rivers, have made Keji the best canoe country in a wet and water-bound province.

One theory says that Kejimkujik means “place that swells,” a possible reference to the varying water levels on Kejimkujik Lake at different times a year, or to the lake’s tendency to become choppy and rough in even moderate winds. A variation on this theory states that the “swelling” refers to what happens to paddlers after busting guts to paddle against Keji’s fierce winds.  Another theory posits that “the word means Lake of the Good Spirits, possibly explaining why it once was known as Fairy Lake. The Mi’kmaw word for fairy is Cegemecaga, from which Kejimkujik (from a variety of previous spellings) was possibly derived.” 

I was initially drawn to the interconnected lakes, slow-moving rivers, and inland forests of southwestern Nova Scotia because I had read about hand- and finger- and thumbprint petroglyphs, the oldest of which were believed to have been carved by fairies, People of the Stone …


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