Louisbourg or Bust: A Surfer’s Wild Ride Down Nova Scotia’s Drowned Coast by RC Shaw

Surfing fixes everything, I knew that much.

You don’t need to be a surfer or cyclist to read this book, but beware: it might make you want to pull on a wet suit and catch some waves!

I usually enjoy reading about others’ adventures – cycling across the country, hiking a months-long trail, sailing around the world, trekking to the South Pole – so I was eager to read this local story about a three week cycling/surfing trip from Cow Bay, Nova Scotia to the Fortress of Louisbourg.

Louisbourg or Bust is so much fun to read. I don’t know if it’s because, after going on a few family biking trips, I can relate to his hatred for hills. (“I felt like Canada’s angriest man. And I did hate life, at least for the three and a half torturous minutes it took me to make the crest of that godforsaken hill.”) and his regret of overpacking.

I could feel every gram of load behind me as I pushed my rusted pedals. I cursed the hatchet I’d never use, I cursed the fist-sized beach stone I’d kept for good luck, I cursed the can of Hertfordshire corned beef I planned to eat that night, I even cursed the 952-page, three-pound stack of paper I kept zip-locked and lashed behind my dry bag. I swore my way up that mountain of wavy and cracked asphalt, staring down through my handlebars at the double yellow line, imagining it exerted some kind of magnetic pull to the terminus of the cruel and unusual Highway 211.

Or maybe because of the mini-adventures he had along the way; the people he met and places he discovered. Or it could be his great sense of humour and his genuine sense of awe for the landscape and the people of the “drowned coast”.

When RC Shaw sets out on his journey he leaves behind his wife and two young daughters. He also leaves behind his cell phone – so no texts to his wife or Face-timing with the kids. He takes with him “Old Yeller”, his surfboard, his copy of Don Quixote, and a desire to get to know better the “gnarly soul of Nova Scotia’s fogbound, fading coastline”.

Fortress of Louisbourg

What would Don Quixote do? All trip, that legendary knight and loveable madman has been whispering in my ear to “take the harder path” and I’ve followed him faithfully. Followed him on a cumbersome rig  from Cow Bay up the Eastern Shore, lumbering up hills and down gravel roads. Followed him over the Canso Causeway into the Cape Breton wilderness. Followed him all the way to the doorstep of Canada’s pivotal battle ground, ye olde Fortress of Louisbourg.

At times, Shaw wonders what he was thinking when he decided to make this trip (“This was the end of day three and the Fortress of Louisbourg felt like it was actually in France.”), but at other times he feels a deep sense of elation and gratitude during his journey. He meets a host of kind and amazing people along the way (including legendary East Coast surfers “Surfer Joe” and Gerard Taylor), he discovers new beaches to surf (usually completely isolated), he learns what it’s like to feel damp for days on end (“There are few scents as deadly as an improperly rinsed wetsuit.“). He plays “Chase the Ace” in Little Dover and attends the Stan Rogers Folk Festival in Canso. He goes to church one Sunday morning, and gets the congregation to sign his surf board. And just as the end is in sight, he gets himself into a sticky situation.

If I fell in, I would be crunched first by the spikes and left to thrash around in the white-water, reaching for a good handhold before the next wave sloshed in. And who would know I was there? I had no GPS beacon. The Coast Guard had no idea a fool was on the loose, risking his life for a ridiculous quest.

Shaw’s quest is fueled by desire for peace and quiet; fueled by determination to reach his goal; fueled by a longing to be reunited with his family; and, most of all, fueled by countless cans of beans.

Louisbourg or Bust is full of laughs, adventure, and lots of heart.

RC Shaw might not have been born and raised in Nova Scotia like his wife and children, but I can hardly see his face for the blue reflecting off his nose.

These are joyful moments for the Nova Scotia surfer. For any surfer, really. But there’s something Maritime Canadian about jogging across a wet boardwalk over thick seagrass in the fog, nostrils full of brine, a pungent sea funk marinated in mist. There is no horizon. The whole world beyond the sand blends together, whitecaps meld with sky. And this is where the surfer needs to go. Into the abyss.

Lighthouse at Louisbourg, NS

Further Reading: 

Louisbourg or Bust has been shortlisted for the Margaret and John Savage First Book Award – Non-Fiction. 

Ken McGoogan’s blurb is just right: “This crazy and beautiful quest narrative puts Don Quixote on a bicycle and sends him out to face history with a surfboard. Half hilarious dream-adventure, half marathon nightmare, the end result is a madcap love letter to Nova Scotia.”

Review in The Surfer’s Journal: “Shaw’s collective portrait is love letter to classic Canadian folksiness … his affection for the places he sees and the people he meets along the way are endearing and bittersweet, with a short story writer’s light-touch rendering of their Cajun and Nova Scotian accents.”

Want to know about surfing in Nova Scotia?


26 thoughts on “Louisbourg or Bust: A Surfer’s Wild Ride Down Nova Scotia’s Drowned Coast by RC Shaw

    • Naomi says:

      Ha! Your comment made me laugh! I have to admit that I would kind of like to do it. That, of course, doesn’t mean I ever will!
      If only there weren’t mosquitoes… everything else I can handle.

    • Naomi says:

      I knew people surfed, but I didn’t realize it was considered as good as it is. Our waves are more mighty than I thought! Cold, though… very cold.

  1. wadholloway says:

    Does no one feel sorry for his wife and kids? Does she get to write the next book
    (Truckers I have Met, maybe) while he stays home and does housework?

    • Naomi says:

      I felt sorry for his wife – it would drive me crazy not to be able to get in touch! Maybe she could write about how much she worried while he was gone. He *did* call home when he was able to. He spent a few nights as someone’s house guest.
      I bet “Truckers I Have Met” would be a great book!

  2. Laila@BigReadingLife says:

    I would absolutely not let my husband go on this kind of trip without a cell phone! The thought just totally freaks me out. I’m kind of a control freak anyway, though, although I know the idea is mostly an illusion…

    • Naomi says:

      I know! It makes me wonder how I’d feel about it if there were still no cell phones. Have I just gotten so used to always being in touch, or would it still scare me and I’d just have to put up with it?

  3. A.M.B. says:

    Great review! This sounds like a really interesting book, but I find myself focusing on his family and thinking about how I’d feel if my husband left me and our kids for a trip without his cell phone.

    • Naomi says:

      I did, too! He does mention his family several times – enough to remind you that he has a “real” life that he needs to get back to! 🙂

  4. carin says:

    Oh my god I love this already! Even the bit about overpacking… I could talk all day about packing. And yes to vicarious travel… especially of the arduous kind. Putting this on my list. Thanks!

  5. buriedinprint says:

    I can see where this might have you wanting to pull on a wet suit. I’ve always loved playing in the waves when it gets stormy on the lake and clever people are snuggled up at home (that’s another activity I enjoy, however) so maybe I was a surfer in another incarnation. Or maybe I should just read about it instead.

    • Naomi says:

      We loved it when the lifeguards in PEI would put the “danger” signs up when the ocean was really rough. That was the best time to go swimming! We would stay in until we were shivering prunes.

      • buriedinprint says:

        Yaaaaas! That’s it exactly. My favourite! (I only ever did that when my lifeguard girlfriend was with me though – I’m not a super strong swimmer. She learned to swim in NFL so she was awesome.)

  6. DoingDewey says:

    I’ve always expected that travel/adventure books would make me too jealous to enjoy, but I’ve taken a few changes on that sort of book and found that I really enjoy them too. I definitely want to pick up more and this sounds like a good one. The author does seem really relatable!

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