Circumnavigating Nova Scotia: Blackfish Paddles to support Expedition SUP Mi’kmaw’ki

‘Why the extreme? Why push the boundaries and limits?’ are the questions that keep recurring when it comes to large-scale stand-up paddleboarding endeavours. With Blackfish Paddles supporting ambitious and record-breaking SUP expeditions (The Great British Paddle 2020, Nymboida SUP descent and The Long Paddle 2021, to name just few), we have a unique opportunity to discover the drive and motivations behind some of the toughest SUP attempts.

“Intuition is a powerful thing. So if you constantly feel drawn to something, maybe there’s more to it than just a silly dream,” says Mariele Guerrero, the SUP athlete, activist and adventurer behind Expedition SUP Mi’kmaw’ki, a 2000km SUP (stand-up paddleboard) journey that aims to circumnavigate the entire coastline of Nova Scotia over a period of approximately two months, from June 2021 – August 2021.

TotalSUP caught up with Mariele amidst the preparations for this remarkable expedition to chat about Nova Scotia, conservation and what motivates her to push the boundaries and limits.

Hi Mariele! Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I was raised on the South Shore of Nova Scotia. Long ago my ancestors were some of the first settlers to establish a home on the LaHave Islands, a beautiful archipelago off the coast of SouthWest Nova Scotia. Now a self-proclaimed “certified professional dirtbag”, I see no distinction between work and play and make a life of travel and outdoor adventure while mostly living nomadically in the back of my van. I love both alpine and coastal environments, and throughout all my travels and adventures I’m constantly seeking to enrich my connection to places, people, and cultures.

You transitioned from a sea kayak to a stand-up paddleboard. Could you tell us more about that transition?

When I first began coastal touring it was by sea kayak. I was attracted to its potential as a vessel for self-propelled exploration and as a means of connection to the coastal environment but I never loved the motions of kayaking or the feeling of spending a long day sitting in a kayak.

I discovered stand-up paddleboarding while working as a sea kayak guide and shopkeeper for a local outfitter, Cape LaHave Adventures. They had a fleet of SUPs so I sat in a few sup courses and would often take one out for a sunset paddle after a day of work. Right away I started dreaming of touring; exploring coastlines, discovering new-to-me places, and experiencing environments, people, and cultures all from the deck of a stand-up paddleboard. Since then, I continued to focus on developing sup touring skills and I can count the number of times I’ve sea kayaked on one hand.

There’s something really magical about the perspective of a SUP that I can’t entirely describe in words. I love the fully-embodied motion of each stroke, it keeps me more present, aware and engaged in my environment more than any other means of travel I’ve experienced.

Expedition SUP Mi’kmaw’ki – What’s your motivation and drive behind this extreme expedition?

That’s a big question. I think my motivations for embarking on this expedition are deeply personal and hard to fully articulate in language, but I’ll give it a try.

My motivation to explore is rooted in a desire to make authentic connections to place and experience things from a different perspective. Wilderness spaces have so many stories to tell and so much wisdom to share when you make yourself vulnerable to them. Even spending a week in the backcountry greatly deepens my understanding of a place, its culture, the way I interact with it and how I could do better. When it’s over I’m always left wanting more.

Since I first began exploring the wilderness, whether that was by foot, ski, kayak, or SUP I’ve always dreamed of large-scale, long-term expeditions. I’d come back from 1-2 weeks in the backcountry, and while my partners were relieved to be home I was wishing I could turn around and do it all over again. I believe that if you are a dreamer, you have the imaginative capacity to come up with “crazy” ideas and the privilege to make them happen, it is your responsibility to live out these dreams. Intuition is a powerful thing. So if you constantly feel drawn to something, maybe there’s more to it than just a silly dream.

What are the biggest challenges of this expedition? The Bay of Fundy for example is known for the largest tidal range in the world

The biggest foreseen paddling challenges are the Bay of Fundy and Cape Breton, but of course I anticipate unforeseen challenges along the way as well.

The Bay of Fundy has a tidal range of 16m. In the narrow bay this creates strong currents, tidal rapids and really challenging paddling conditions at times. It’s an intimidating section of the route, but the good news is that tides are predictable, so as long as I plan my days around the tides and keep a close eye on how the weather will interact with the current, it is manageable. This could make for early mornings, late nights and a very deranged sleep cycle, but that’s part of the challenge and the fun.

Cape Breton is a wild and beautiful place. It is known to be exposed, with unpredictable and wild weather systems coming in from the North Atlantic to the east, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the west. The coast is dominated by dramatic, steep cliffs and landing spots are few and far between. While this is one of the most intimidating parts of the journey, it’s also where I’m most excited to paddle. Cape Breton has a special magic about it that’s hard to understand until you experience it.

Otherwise, I think the physical demands of the expedition are probably the biggest challenge: things like self-care, learning how to manage my body, prevent injuries and stay mentally sane.

Could you tell us about your commitment to support the Nova Scotia Nature Trust’s Twice-the-Wild campaign?

Expedition SUP Mi’kmaw’ki is dedicated to conservation of the Nova Scotia coastline. Throughout the expedition I will be fundraising for the Nova Scotia Nature Trust. The Nature Trust is a local non-profit that aims to save land, steward land, and support further research and education around environmental concerns in Nova Scotia. Their Twice-the-Wild campaign aims to double the amount of wilderness protected areas maintained by the Nature Trust by the year 2023. The Nova Scotia coastline is a really special place that supports a variety of ecosystems and living communities. At present less than 5% is protected, 85% is privately owned, and due to political economic pressures it’s under significant threat of development.

There’s a serious political unwillingness in this province to prioritize environmental concerns and seek sustainable development initiatives, but instead drain Nova Scotia’s resources to the last drop and allow foreign investors to buy out the coastline and develop previously pristine wilderness spaces into luxurious golf courses, private vacation homes, and fish farms. For years the abundance of this coastline has supported human life, without it the settler colony of Nova Scotia would not exist. When we see this kind of unregulated development, not only does it endanger the health of coastal ecosystems and threaten natural resources communities historically depended on; when we lose access to these spaces we also lose the stories they have to tell, and the coastal cultures that are dependent on them.

I love this place and I’m not quite willing to sit here and see it be developed and destroyed, so I’ll do what I can to help protect it: supporting non-profit conservation campaigns is one way of doing that. I’d also love to see more control over Nova Scotia’s resources be turned back to their rightful guardians, the Mi’kmaq people.

How do you prepare physically and mentally for this experience?

Physically, the best preparation is paddling! I’ve been trying to strike a balance between training hard and burning myself out before the expedition even begins, so I just try to stay generally active and have fun. I don’t think of paddling as “training”, instead I go out on the water with curiosity and excitement and enjoy my local waterways.

 

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I’m lucky to live right on the coastline and have a beautiful archipelago, the LaHave Islands, on my front doorstep, so there’s no shortage of local places to explore. When not on the water, I run, hike, snowboard, ski, do handstands, or whatever I’m feeling that day to keep me moving.

Mental preparation is challenging. I prepare myself mentally by planning, meditating, and journaling. I go over my risk-management plan almost daily. I analyze charts and look over my route plan. I try to visualize different landforms and predict how various conditions will affect the sea state. I play the “what-if” game with myself, and I make sure my systems are dialed. Even then, I’m human and I still doubt myself and get scared sometimes. I try not to swallow that fear, instead I sit with it, I try to understand its roots, and I breathe through it. I’d be more concerned if I wasn’t scared. I also have an incredibly supportive partner who never hesitates to remind me that failure doesn’t exist, just lessons and learning.

Could you tell us about your collaboration with Blackfish Paddles?

The team at Blackfish has been super supportive of this expedition from the beginning. I’m stoked to be working with them and taking them along on my journey!

There’s something really authentic about the way Blackfish does business. From the extremely intricate fine-detail of their paddle designs, to their minimalist zero-plastic packaging, and the honest and genuine communication with their staff, it’s evident that the team at Blackfish cares about what they do and works with integrity at every step of the process.

Paddling with Blackfish paddles has honestly made me a better paddler. The technicality of the design lets me really feel the movement and friction of every stroke. I’ve been able to identify and correct small errors in my paddle technique which has resulted in better technique, and faster, more efficient paddling strokes.

What would you like to achieve through this expedition?

I’d like to enrich my connection to the local land, contribute to coastal conservation efforts, and hopefully inspire and connect with other people along the way. And of course practice safe, happy paddling and refine my SUP touring and expedition skills. I never set out to be the first person to circumnavigate Nova Scotia by SUP, I was just looking for an authentic adventure and it worked out that way.

Why the extreme? Why push the boundaries and limits?

I’ve never thought of what I do as extreme, I just want to make the most of the life I’ve been given and I don’t want my life to be banal and ordinary. Human life is short and moments of joy and beauty within it are fleeting and, in the tension of everyday life, often hard to see. So whatever it is that brings you joy and keeps you seeing the beauty in living is worth chasing and holding on to. Ultimately it’s that thought that motivates me to push the boundaries and limits.

Thank you for your time Mariele and good luck! Paddle safe!

To find out more about Blackfish Paddles and their progressive, refined, handcrafted designs, visit www.blackfishpaddles.com

To find out more about Expedition SUP Mi’kmaw’ki, please visit www.expeditionsupmikmawki.com

About the Author

Anna Nadolna

Anna is the Founder of SUPer Whale, a Cambridge(UK!)-based emerging watersports brand and a stand-up paddleboarding community. She is a certified SUP Flat Water Instructor accredited by International Surfing Association (ISA). Anna is also a digital marketing, storytelling aficionado and a growth hacking enthusiast.

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