CAPE CHIGNECTO
CLIFFS, CURRENTS AND THE HIGHEST TIDES ON EARTH
by Scott Cunningham

The year was l756. The small group of Acadians dragged birch bark canoes over the slippery expanse of cobblestone as the rising tide followed. On the crest of the barrier beach they rested, contemplating the sight in silence. There was no sign of human habitation. The deeply incised valley sliced into the sheer escarpment, opening up slopes of dense coastal forest that crawled up onto the fog enshrouded plateau. They had travelled a long way, and they were despondent. The refugees knew that they would never see their homes again.

Two centuries ago Refugee Cove was a desolated sanctuary for the fleeing Acadians only a short while. They had to move on, pursued by hunger and the British. Later on, in the l800’s, there was a flurry of lumbering activity but by the early part of this century the coastline of Cape Chignecto had again settled into obscurity and, until recently, it has remained forgotten and ignored.

“Cape Chignecto is truly a spectacular place.” Howard Donohoe should know. As a geologist with Nova Scotia’s Dept. of Natural Resources, he has probably explored the cracks and crevices of this shore more than anyone else. His geological map of the Cobequid Highlands, a patchwork of colours and symbols, tells a complex tale of transformation.

According to Howard, “the 30 kilometres from West Advocate to Apple River has a geological diversity unmatched anywhere else in the province. It is perhaps the best place to interpret Nova Scotia’s earth history.

To understand and appreciate the importance of this Cape we must go back over 400 million years, to a pivotal period in the development of the earth. During the middle of the Paleozoic era the continents, constantly migrating on crystal plates, had fused into a single land mass. The collision was cataclysmic. The crust was compressed and folded into mountain chains thousands of feet high (the Appalachians date from this period).

It fractured and faulted, and molten magma intruded into the fissures and out over the surface. During the millions of years that followed, shifting of the crystal plates caused readjustments within the gigantic supercontinent and the various structures that were to form our province moved into place. The climate was hot and desert-like and the world belonged to the dinosaurs.

Eventually, conditions within the earth’s core changed and the supercontinent began to break apart. At the collision boundary, faults opened, huge sections dropped and were filled with sediment, and lava again spewed forth. Both sides of the Cape area are remnants of this tortured period.

However, the final split occurred much farther to the east, at the edge of the continental shelf, and a huge chunk of ancient Africa was left attached to North America. Erosion has since worn down the mountains and exposed the underlying bedrock. Huge river formed channels leading to the sea which the glacier enlarged to form a bay with the highest tides on earth.

THE SOUTHERN SHORE

The majesty of Cape Chignecto is the shoreline. The southern coast parallels the Cobequid fault, extending across the province and out under the Atlantic. This is the ancient collision boundary. More than a dozen rock types form the side of the raised plateau beginning with the relaltively young red Triassic sandstone of West Advocate. Ancient grey slate and siltstone follow, melting into bright reddish-tan granite, infused with undulating ribbons of black diabase. The evolution of these features is complex but, even without understanding their origins, the contrasting colours, textures and forms are striking. Sea caves, shoals and beaches come and go with the tides under the intimidating shadows of sheer cliffs, up to 700 feet, the highest on mainland Nova Scotia. Dark-green wrecked dangles overhead, under scraggy trees which cling precariously to the cliffs.

Refugee Cove is the only significant break in the southern escarpment. The high cobblestone beach is littered with errant logs and bleached trees, evidence of the severity of the winter storms that lash these shores. Behind this barrier, at the far edge of the sheltered flood plain, the remains of a brick oven suggest a sawmill, but little else describes the past and nothing at all form the time of the Acadians. As recently as the l930’s, logs and lumber produced here were towed on scows of rafts to markets far away.

In the distance to the west, Isle Haute emerges as an impenetrable fortress, its sheer basalt walls vestiges of ancient basalt lava flows, that now line the bottom of the Bay. It is best viewed from French Lookout, a grassy promontory at the edge of the sharp from where those early refugees scanned the waters for any sign of the British.

To the east, the golden cliffs of Cape door glisten in a late afternoon sun, no different from the days when Champlain visited them in search of copper while en route to found the first European settlement in Canada. At the very tip of the Cape, the igneous rock of the Cobequid Mountains gradually slides under the waters of the Bay.

THE WESTERN SHORE

The western shoreline is also a legacy of continental rifting, a breaking apart that didn't quite succeed. The cliffs are largely unassailable although lower than on the south shore and with numerous pocket coves that provide passage to a gently sloping plateau. Streams often arrive at the beach in a waterfall, a tempting cool shower during hot summer days.

Shoals and spires hug the coast and lead the adventurous through a tricky maze of winding channels where harbour seals share the ledges with olive-green seaweed. Exposed reefs, the colour of limestone, are actually blankets of barnacles waiting out another tidal cycle. High overhead, bald eagles play in the updrafts and at Green Point, a large Herring Gull colony guards the approaches to Eatonville, another deserted harbour.

EATONVILLE

When the Europeans arrived in the Bay of Fundy, settlement spread rapidly and, by the end of the last century, every cove, inlet and river mouth that could be adapted for anchorage became the site of a mill or a shipyard. Eatonville was one such place. Here in an obscure river valley between the Cape and Apple River, the Eaton brothers established a thriving lumbering and shipbuilding operation in the 1870’s.

This was Nova Scotia’s golden age when our sailing ships could be found throughout the globe. But by the turn of this century, with iron and steam replacing wood and wind, the decline had begun and by 1920 there was little left. Another bustling Maritime community had been abandoned.

A tidal river, hugging the sculpted walls, leads into the former settlement along a bank of old wharf pilings. Fragmented bricks and rotted beams are strewn above high tide among goose berry bushes. The cribs which carried the wooden tramway up to the plateau still rest on the river bed but there is no sigh of the mill.

In his book, Sails of Fundy, Stanley Spicer lists 21 vessels which were constructed in Eatonville. Although that may not seem like a lot, considering that over 600 (including the famous mystery ship, the Mary Celeste) were launched from the Parrsboro shore alone, what they lacked in numbers they made up for in size. Seven of the largest were built in this cove and the leading one, appropriately christened the D.R. Eaton, weighed over l,550 tons. This was enormous in an era when the world record barely exceeded 2,600 tons. By comparison, Nova Scotia’s current sailing ambassador, the Bluenose II (at 99 tons) would be dwarfed alongside.

Outside the harbour entrance lies a bizarre moonscape of arches, caves, tunnels and sheer pinnacles, fashioned by the constant erosion of the sea, and highlighted by the Three Sisters. At low tide you can explore among these towering spires on foot, but when the water returns there is no escape except by boat.

The geological diversity doesn’t stop with Eatonville and at Squally Point we find the highest raised beach in the province, l00 feet above sea level. This is a legacy from the Ice Age, a result of the land rebounding with the melting of the glaciers faster than the rise in sea level. Further along, in Spicers Cove, younger cliffs of conglomerate crumbling to the touch, litter the shoreline with their resistant constituent stones. There are even small coal seams exposed near the beach. At Apple River the sandstone, a gently sloping shoreline, and the renowned Bay of Fundy mud have returned.

My fascination with Cape Chignecto has brought me back again and again during the past several years, and I sometimes bring along friends who think they have seen the best that the east coast has to offer. While tourists may round the Cabot Trail, sun on P.E.I.’s beaches or marvel at the Hopewell flowerpots, no sighs point the way here - to the most spectacular region of all.

However, that is about to change. Through the tenacious efforts of several individuals and groups, the province has been moved to acquire the Cape. The ultimate goal is to develop it as a wilderness park, protecting a precious natural resource for future generations, while at the same time assisting in the long-term development of an economically disadvantaged area.

THE BAY OF FUNDY TIDES AND CURRENTS

The tides and currents of the Bay of Fundy are legendary and to someone used to the more moderate ebb and flow along other coastlines they are indeed spectacular. In the upper reaches of the Bay the tidal differential can exceed l5 meters (the highest on earth - 12 meters at Cape Chignecto) and when it is out, enormous expanses of mud flats extend kilometres from the shore. In some channels and around headlands currents can reach several knots and during bad weather, especially with an opposing wind, they can be treacherous for small craft. It is this powerful, ceaseless movement that has sculpted caves spires, arches and all manner of monoliths form the resistant rock.

For those of you who feel uncomfortable with coastal paddling in general,the notion of testing these waters may seem foolhardy. This isn’t so. I have travelled these waters in both kayak and canoe, with novices and experts and have yet to encounter a major problem. But like driving, where one would be well advised to stick to the right hand side of the road, there are conditions here which must be understood and accommodated. Be prudent and stay close to shore. Always be wary of headlands and don’t leave in questionable weather. Don’t overestimate your skill level, nor underestimate the rapidity in which conditions can change. Better still, travel with a knowledgeable companion until you become familiar with these unique waters.

Rather than being carried out to sea or sucked under in the mythical whirlpool (one of which I have yet to see) my most common initial problem involved miscalculating the tidal range. More than once I have been obliged to scurry after a piece of equipment floating away towards New England. A more chilling (literally) surprise would be pitching a tent in that flat patch of salt hay at the wrong time of the month!

Although Refugee Cove and Eatonville are the best sites for camping, there are others on the western shore and, in an emergency, you can land at several small beaches. Bring extra rations. This is an open coast and the weather can veer with little warning. If you become stranded the cliffs may prevent an exit over the plateau. Be especially wary during the tide change. The wind may alter direction and if it confronts the flow treacherous standing waves may be the result.. Time your arrival in Apple River to high water or you will have either a long wait or a long drag - over ankle deep mud.

Note that the water temperature in the Bay rarely exceeds 55 Fahrenheit, even in late summer. The tidal mixing brings the cooler bottom water to the surface rendering swimming and snorkeling unattractive and an unexpected spill are from shore dangerous (however, it is usually still warmer in this end of the Bay than I have found in off Castine, Maine). Fog often persists late into the season as warm moisture-laden air from inland condenses over the bay. A hot sunny day in the interior is no indication of what to expect at the Cape, especially early in summer.

IF YOU GO

Cape Chignecto is off the beaten track and to reach it you exit the Transcanada highway when crossing into Nova Scotia at Amherst. A provincial road map will get you there. You can put in at either West Advocate or Apple River depending upon when you wish to cope with those mud flats. Allow three days for the trip. If conditions are good you can complete it quicker but the beauty warrants a logner stay. If you travel through Joggins, on Chignecto Bay, stop for a fossil hunt along the beach. There are plenty to be found and any on the ground are yours. In Parsboro, along the Minas Basin, semi-preciousstones are present in the basalt cliffs. Check in at a local gem shop for directions on how and where.

Scott Cunningham is a biologist and Senior Instructor with the British Canoe Union. He has recently published Sea Kayaking in Nova Scotia.