The SOUTH SHORE of NOVA SCOTIA

Introduction


The sheltered cove seemed strangely quiet as we tethered our canoe to the wharf. The thick fog, so typical of this ragged coastline, blanketed the islands and obscured the mainland in the distance. The calm water was disturbed only by the gentle rocking of our craft. High above our heads, lobster traps were stacked in neat piles on the weather-beaten planks, awaiting another season, while the solitary light at the end of the wharf struggled to penetrate the mist. We had passed through Yarmouth Harbour shortly before leaving behind the tides and currents of the Bay of Fundy, and once again entering the island domain of the Atlantic. We had reached the South Shore.
In need of fresh water—always a scarce commodity on the rocky outposts—we docked at this small fishing community to fill up our jugs. Perhaps hospitality that had greeted us around the coast would here, too, result in a coffee and a piece of pie (if not a full course meal and a hot bath). Any supplement to our dwindling rations would be welcome.
As we made our way towards the nearest house, several startled sheep scattered over the rock strewn hillside and disappeared over the ridge. We knocked several times at the porch door, but there was no answer. “Anyone home?” Not a sound. We cautiously peered inside and called again. Still no response. The musty air in the well-provisioned kitchen suggested that it hadn’t been used for some time. We proceeded to check the other houses and shanties of this “village” and found them also either empty or bolted shut. The inhabitants had disappeared, and except for a few scrawny cats and the untended sheep, the place was deserted. The Tusket Islands were an enigma.
The South Shore of Nova Scotia extends southwest from Halifax around to Yarmouth, where it gradually blends into the Bay of Fundy. From headland to headland it stretches a distance of about 325 km (202 mi.) but, as with the Eastern Shore, inclusion of all the harbours and inlets would inflate this figure considerably. This is a young, submerged coastline, highly irregular, with drowned estuaries and headlands, producing a largely indented coast fringed with islands. These features coupled with localized sediments (from offshore deposits, drumlins, and local subaerial erosion) have contributed to a large number of habitats: sand and cobble beaches, mud flats, and salt marshes. The predominant feature, however, is the rocky shore.
The South Shore forms part of the province’s southern upland. The quartzite and slate bedrock traces its origin to deep-water deposits off the continental shelf of an ancient Africa. Continental drifting shoved this material against North America, where some of it remained after this huge land mass split later on. The granites were formed during this turbulent period as molten magna flooded the cracks, and fissures opened by crustal movement. There is much more slate and granite here than on the Eastern Shore, resulting in somewhat more diverse topography. Extensive bogs, salt marshes, and tidal streams of the Tusket region at the western end contrast with enormous, barren granite slabs at Peggy’s Cove, near Halifax.
In between we find the largest bays, the longest sand beaches, and the highest sand dunes along the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia. Vast areas of the soft slate have been scoured by the glaciers and eroded by the streams to produce more productive soil than on the Eastern Shore, so farming, while still not the major activity, isn’t as rare as it is further east. Drumlins are locally abundant and a picturesque rolling landscape decorates much of Lunenburg and Queens Counties.
Several good canoeing rivers (e.g., La Have, Mersey, Medway) enter the Atlantic, here but their volume is derived from a watershed only marginally larger than that of the Eastern Shore and by early summer they resemble little more than rock gardens. Their influence on the coastal paddler is insignificant.
The offshore islands are, in general, larger and further spaced than those on the Eastern Shore. Major exceptions are Mahone Bay and Lobster Bay, each with over 350 islands. Bring your own drinking water. The small ponds are usually coloured a deep brown, due to high concentrations of organic and inorganic material.
The vegetative cover is determined by the cool, moist, and acidic soil conditions which favour conifers, especially white spruce which has a high salt tolerance. On headlands and exposed ridges, any trees are severely stunted and distorted; the zone is called “krummholz.” Barrens with low heath vegetation are common, and sphagnum bogs frequently fill the depressions. The hardwoods are restricted to higher, better-drained soils, protected from the salt-laden winds, hence, there are few on the islands. The inland forest is noticeably more “lush” than along the Eastern Shore.
Diverse feeding and breeding habitat exists for native and migratory birds. In addition to the sea birds found on the Eastern Shore, there are small populations of Atlantic Puffins and Razorbills. Grey and Harbour Seals are frequently seen but porpoises and whales are not. The latter are usually on their way to feeding grounds at the entrance to the Bay of Fundy. Deer live on the larger islands, and sheep are still pastured, a practice that was abandoned long ago on the Eastern Shore. The plague of coyotes on the mainland now makes these island pastures even more appealing. The name “Ram Island,” of which there are many, originated from the practice of placing ewes and rams on separate islands until the appropriate mating time to ensure that the lambs were born in the spring.
The climate of the South Shore features moderate daily and seasonal temperatures, high precipitation and humidity, strong winds, and salt spray. Conditions are marginally less harsh than along the Eastern Shore. In winter few of the harbours freeze, and spring arrives sooner, but fog is common early in the season (less so in Mahone Bay). The Tusket area is particularly “blessed” in that respect, with an average of l20 fog days a year. Summer water temperatures vary from l3°C to l8°C (58°F to 65°F), higher in sheltered inlets and lower in the extreme southwest (Tusket), where the influence of the cool Fundy water is still considerable.
The tidal variation ranges from 1 m (4 ft.) in Halifax Harbour to over 4 m (l2 ft.) among the Tusket Islands (again due to the influence of the Bay of Fundy). The currents are particularly significant only in the western region, where considerable caution must be exercised (refer to the Tusket Islands Route 9). Prevailing winds in the summer are from the southwest and should be considered when planning your trip. Count on a fresh sea breeze (20 knots or more) on a sunny day. The stable weather patterns in the summer mean few storms, and those that do occur usually pass through quickly. Electrical storms are even more rare. However, under unsettled conditions, keep an eye out for squalls. The weather report may indicate sunny and warm in Halifax, while a local blow might be hiding around the next headland.
The history of this shore predates the arrival of the Europeans by over two thousand years. The Mi’kmaq spent their summer months along the coast (including the offshore islands) next to a bountiful sea, an unencumbered highway for their birch bark canoes—kayaks were unknown at this latitude. In the winter they moved inland to the shelter of the forests.
When the early European fishermen discovered these rich waters, they sought out many of these sheltered coves and harbours to salt and dry their catch. Samuel de Champlain made his landfall here in l604 (Cape La Have), en route to found the first permanent European settlement in Canada at Port Royal. His detailed maps carry place names that remain with us to this day (e.g., La Have, Port Mouton, Rossignol).
The French subsequently settled along several areas of the South Shore, fighting among themselves and with the English until the mid l700s. During the infamous Expulsion, they were evicted along with most of the Acadians in the region. The British government brought over settlers in l783 (mainly German farmers) to fill the resulting void, and they founded the town of Lunenburg. Following the War of Independence, an influx of “Loyalists” arrived, escaping from the newly created United States. They temporarily made Shelburne the largest community in British North America. For a short period, the new town vied with Halifax for dominance in the region. The fortunes of the South Shore have historically paralleled the highs and lows of the fishing industry. It has always been the major source of employment, and when fish were plentiful and the prices high, the population prospered. But when either fell, so did the area’s fortunes. Georges Bank, one of the most prolific fishing areas in the world, is close by, and Lunenburg is home of the largest fish processing plant in the country. Recently, the region has fallen on hard times and the decline in catches has forced closure of the processing plants in Lockeport and Port Mouton. Economic diversification in the forestry, manufacturing, and tourism industries has mitigated the problems to some degree, but they can’t completely supplant the fishery.
The large offshore islands were all inhabited at one time, but as elsewhere along Nova Scotia’s coastline, this is seldom the case these days. Isolated coves and sand beaches may seem romantic to those of us who spend most of our lives in a bustling city, but the early settlers often saw it differently. Cold, foggy, salt-laden air and long, dreary winters gradually pushed them into the comfortable mainland communities, their decision aided by the borderline economics of island life.
One notable exception is Big Tancook Island. This prosperous fishing village has resisted the trend and still has its own general store, elementary school, church, and (until recently) unregulated roads. A regular passenger ferry service links it with the mainland. Many of the other islands continue to be used seasonally, mainly by the lobster fishermen, and the Tusket group is particularly busy over the winter and into late spring. But by August, when I arrived while on my canoe voyage around the province, only the sheep, cats, and empty houses were there to greet me. Elsewhere, locals and tourists maintain a scattering of cottages, especially in Mahone Bay and on the La Have Islands. The inshore boat traffic, although more apparent than on the Eastern Shore, is significant only in Mahone Bay and near the harbours of the larger fishing communities. Otherwise wilderness prevails. Even the lighthouses have been abandoned and boarded up, the keepers replaced by automation.
The South Shore has its share of tales and mysteries. Perhaps the most famous is the fabled money pit on Oak Island, in Mahone Bay. For almost two centuries, treasure hunters have sought what many believe to be pirate booty or others believe to be the plunder of the Spanish fleet. Some even think the tunnels are the work of pre-Columbian visitors. Millions of dollars have been spent and several lives lost, but to date no money has been recovered, except by authors who have taken advantage of all the hype. Others, myself included, suggest that the whole thing is nonsense, and the tunnels are only the result of natural erosion in the limestone. McNutts Island holds another mystery in the unusual inscriptions carved into the bedrock on its southern tip. There is some evidence to suggest that they originated with Phoenician traders, who visited North America centuries before Columbus.
Many a ship has foundered along this coast. The largest marine disaster on the North Atlantic seaboard occurred when the Atlantic went down off Prospect, near Halifax. (The Titanic, although associated with greater loss of life, sank offshore.) These days, drug smugglers take advantage of the sparsely populated coast to bring their product into North America. The largest drug bust ever in Canada took place recently, near Liverpool.
The province’s South Shore is unspoilt, easily accessible, and you can put in almost anywhere. Camping on the islands isn’t a problem. Services—gas stations, grocery stores, and accommodation—are available in the numerous towns and villages, and tourists are welcome. If the weather is poor, you can find sheltered groups of islands for your trip or head inland to Kejimkujik National Park. If the weather is good, your options along the coast are limitless. There is currently a project underway to develop a coastal water trail from Lunenburg to Halifax which may, eventually, encompass the entire coastline.