Nova Scotia is a hard place with soft edges – if you count the texture of drifting fog or tumbling snowflakes as soft. The winter temperature here on the eastern seaboard of Canada can drop so low that the sea steams like a hot spring. Those are the days when the rounded boulders are glazed with a vicious frosting of frozen seawater, making the shoreline a treacherous place to tread. The region’s low profile is swathed in forest, and during the harsh winters the jagged coastline is refrigerated by the Labrador Current, which originates high in the Arctic Circle. It is a place where Scots and Vikings and Bretons washed ashore and in this Celtic landscape they felt at home. The many points and reefs that litter this coastline are indiscriminate in the ships they claim, sending cartwheel-like waves spinning into the bays. It is here that one of the planet’s hardiest surf tribes watches and waits.
We climb the ladder into a large fourth-storey attic space. It’s one of those rooms loosely scattered with assorted bags, boxes and accumulated ‘stuff’. Jim swings open a giant hinged window in the roof apex and there, before us, the mist-fringed Atlantic is revealed, greying in the retreating afternoon light. The air outside is laden with moisture, and as it drifts into the room, fine droplets condense on my face. “There’s The Right over there,” says Jim, sweeping his arm towards the tree-covered headland to our south. “Probably one of the best waves around here,” he says lowering his voice in an almost conspiratorial way – even though there’s no one else to hear. “And that point to the north we called The Left, and in the middle of the bay sits The Cove. We weren’t very original when we named these spots,” he smiles, admiring the view.
Jim Leadbetter’s house sits back from the road, tucked in behind a screen of wind-weathered pine. Jim wasn’t the first surfer in Nova Scotia, but he’s certainly first-generation. He caught the bug in the mid-sixties, when surfing here was just two years old. “We never thought we were doing anything that ‘out there’. It was just fun,” explains Jim. “There’s times when you’re out in the middle of February and it’s minus-thirty-two windchill. Sometimes we get full-on ice flows. Not icebergs as such, but chunks of ice as big as this room. Then we get the slush ice, a whole field of slush – to watch a wave move through that is incredible. We used to get up on the ice pans and when a wave came you could run and dive in and catch the wave off it. Kind of like a little island out in the middle of the surf break. Back then a lot of us had long hair, and often we went in without hoods – you’d have chunks of ice frozen to your hair, like dreadlocks.” In the days before the Psycho2 or the H-Bomb, a second-hand, beavertail dive suit was the best a surfer could hope for. “I used to have to sit in the tub for an hour to warm up afterwards – I was borderline hypothermic. I wasn’t alone – everyone would. You’d get the woodstove cranked up so you knew you’d be nice and warm when you got out.”
Fifteen minutes south of Jim’s place lies the sandy arc of Lawrencetown Beach, hemmed in by two boulder-fringed points. The northern side is dense with pine and home to sheltered lefts, while on the southern edge a grass-carpeted bluff reveals winding right-hand walls. During the summer the shore front lake draws in the ‘June Gloom’. It can be thirty-five degrees in Halifax, while Lawrencetown is bathed in the miasma of a clawing fogbank. This is the heartland of Nova Scotia surfing. They are a relatively small crew who migrated out to the communities away from the crowds and the bustle, close to the beaches and the points. Guys like John Brennan, Paul Camillari, Jim Leadbetter and Surfer Joe. “Most of the surfers at that time had moved here to Lawrencetown or Seaforth or Chezzetcook,” says Lesley Choyce, a New Jersey-born surfer who transplanted into the embryonic community over thirty years ago. “The priority was, ‘Let’s get situated by the waves first and we’ll figure out the rest later.’”
Faded photos tell stories of wood-clad houses, flared trousers and BBQ’s on lawns strewn with candy-coloured single-fins – scenes that could have easily been played out on a lazy afternoon on the Gold Coast or any NorCal autumn Sunday. “People would come here and they would say it was like California in the 1950s,” says Lesley. “It had that feel to it, which it really held onto for quite a long while. I loved it. We were into the eighties and nineties and it was still like the fifties and sixties of surfing. People who travelled here, especially from California and other places, would fall in love with the fact that it felt like surfing before surfing became commercialised.”
The sea here was the domain of the local fishermen, tough men who made a living in tough conditions. They didn’t take kindly to the ‘hippies’ who were suddenly in their midst, parking in their spaces, weaving along the glassy breakers near their lobster pots. “Their job was cold and rough and dangerous and the sea was not a place where you played – the sea was a place where you earned your living at a great cost,” explains Lesley. “I think they were wondering, ‘What the hell?’ They had a hard time figuring out what the hell we were doing.” These weren’t the kind of guys you’d want to get on the wrong side of. Long-haired youths suddenly arriving by the Kombi load seemed like an intrusion to these quiet communities, and the fishermen responded with their own brand of localism. There were disagreements, fights. A temperamental van left at the beach overnight was found filled with boulders. “We were from the outside and I can’t say that we were immediately accepted,” says Jim. “There was a view from a lot of the local people that maybe most of the guys were into drugs and that sort of stuff.” Luckily, once the surfers had moved into the coastal communities, it didn’t take long for them to integrate. “The reality now is that a very large percentage of the population here are surfers,” says Jim. “We used to be a few, now we’re probably the biggest group of folks here.”
Nico Monos stands dwarfed by the huge wooden skeleton of a house, its frame shrouded in a clear polythene coat. The harsh bass of hammers and rasping staccato of saws reverberate around the structure. “Built with surfer labour,” he says proudly. “There’s no way I could afford to build here if it weren’t for my friends all pitching in. Carpenters, plumbers, electricians – it’s a real community.” Nico is the modern face of Nova Scotian surfing: Quiksilver-sponsored, making pages in the surf magazines, building his own house overlooking the beach. He has the squat solid build of a pro surfer and an easy, confident smile. Like most locals here, he wasn’t introduced to waveriding at a young age. “Fifteen. Pretty late. Even right now there are only a handful, literally five surfers, under the age of twenty. It’s cold and it’s miserable, and you have to be that much more driven to want to surf.”
Nico is well-travelled, but come autumn, there’s nowhere else he’d rather be than the points at Lawrencetown. Having seen the crowds of Southern California, he knows just how good they have it here, but also how a boom in popularity can impact on local breaks. “There was a lot of discussion about that. For instance, I show up in magazines here and there and is that leading to our line-ups getting more crowded? And I bet you some people would say definitely yes, it’s because more pictures are getting published of the place. But then you look at how many visiting surfers came here this year. Not many. I think it’s probably the influx of people from the city discovering surfing. The surf world’s getting exposure as a whole and putting surfing in people’s minds, that’s driving the Halifax area’s population of 350,000 out to the beach.”
Just as this region managed to hang onto that quiet, laid-back feel longer than most, so the growing pains are coming later too. “It’s a really friendly place here, and Canadian people are really friendly in general,” says Nico, “but there has been some stuff that has gone on with people going to spots where some people think they shouldn’t go.” For most, modern-day localism probably means getting vibed, dropped in on or taking some verbal. In Nova Scotia, at the breaks where localism exists, it’s old-school. Like the weather, it can be frigid. “Tyres get slashed, windows smashed, vehicles getting torched, and violence and fights and things like that.” I point out that it’s a bit ironic that the first surfers who came out here suffered similar intimidation. Nico just nods. “I guess so, yeah. It has kind of faded off in some spots, but there are some that are still really protected. The utmost is done to make them remain that way. In the same way respect hasn’t been passed down or etiquette hasn’t been passed down, sometimes the spots you shouldn’t go to hasn’t been passed down.”
I sit in the line-up and take a moment to reflect, snug in a head-to-toe skin of 6mil neoprene. Lesley Choyce paddles past me in a drysuit. “I always felt that there was something different about waves when you’re surfing in the middle of the winter,” says Lesley. “When the water’s that cold it’s more dense, so there’s something different about the waves you ride. When you get these ice crystals in the wave, and it’s a sunny day and you’re looking through a wave, you’re seeing all this crystal and ice actually in the wave – it’s spectacular.”
Walking through a dark workshop area we emerge into a warehouse where huge wooden poles hang suspended from the ceiling. They levitate four feet off the ground, illuminated by a ring of arc lights aimed into the central space. A matt black, 1948 Jeep lurks in the shadows away from this cocoon of light. Centre stage, Dorian Steele shouts a hello, continuing the long sweeping brush strokes as he lays the final coat of varnish on the masts of his Essex Fishing Smack, a 29-footer that used to ply its trade on the Thames estuary – another Anglo-Canadian transplant. “Sorry, can’t stop once I’ve started,” he explains.
We’ve moved south from Halifax, out into the green, along the jagged coastline and away from the numbers. Here, the line-up is whoever comes with you in the pick-up. Dorian has an uncanny look of Keanu Reeves, and the lighting gives this scene a distinctly filmic quality, but the unscripted conversation is all about the hidden points and reefs of this skeleton coast. “There are some excellent points around here, yet there’s only a small crew. Sometimes Nico and the boys will come down, but mostly there’s just a handful of us.” I ask him about accessing the breaks, especially in the winter. “Did you see the U-Haul trailer outside? That’s The Shack. Inside it’s got seats and a heater. We can tow it with us down to whichever spot we’re surfing. When it’s minus-twenty you can come out and get changed in the warmth, then maybe go back in if it’s good. When it’s thick with snow we can plough our way in… literally, with a snowplough on the 4×4, towing the trailer.” I ask if they’ve experienced a growth in surfing recently. “Not really,” he shakes his head, as if the possibility of crowds seems just too remote to contemplate. “But then there are other breaks. Breaks we’ve been using a boat to get to. But that’s another story.”
Fighting through the damp grass, I finally emerge onto a narrow track. It’s barely a track, more like a centre parting in the foliage. I can see a clearing ahead, beyond it the sea and beyond that the horizon. I tramp out onto the top of a red cliff at the very end of the point and peel back my hood. The coastline is a layered zig-zag of colours that stretches to the far north and south, each headland lighter and less defined in the drizzle, as they fade away into the distance. There are peeling points, swell lines are rising and pitching. A reef leaves a telltale triangular fingerprint of white-water. Below a wave is rolling through, and I notice a scramble path down the cliff to the small pebble beach. I reach into my pocket for my camera and find only the residual warmth left behind by my hand. I smile. Sometimes it’s best to let such panoramas go unrecorded. I turn to make the trek back to the hire car. It’s a big, ugly Chevy with out-of-state plates. I hope it’s still in one piece.