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 wateralways a scarce commodity on the rocky outpostswe
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 hadnt 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 provinces 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 Peggys
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,
isnt 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 Mikmaq spent their summer months along the coast (including the
offshore islands) next to a bountiful sea, an unencumbered highway for their birch
bark canoeskayaks 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,
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 areas 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 cant completely supplant the fishery.
The large offshore islands were all inhabited at one time, but as elsewhere along
Nova Scotias 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 provinces South Shore is unspoilt, easily accessible, and you can put
in almost anywhere. Camping on the islands isnt a problem. Servicesgas
stations, grocery stores, and accommodationare 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.