Shunpiking… The Cottage Country Trail

By TONY SEED and TAMMY MCDOW*

There is a place …

Hidden between Highways 101 and 103 lies a majestic piece of Nova Scotia; peaceful freshwater lakes, rolling, clean countryside, relatively untouched wilderness and some very special people. It is a place of peace and tranquillity, of community, and of renewal. It is a place of pride in one’s roots. And it is easily accessible from all local tourist roots in Nova Scotia.

THE ENDURING SETTLEMENTS and landscapes of inland Nova Scotia have welcomed the gentle rays of day for almost 400 years. Through these many years, long time inhabitants of this beautifully hardscrabble region have struggled to maintain their traditional links to the lands, lakes and woods in an ever-changing environment.

For as long as these links have been maintained, so has the hand of welcome been extended. This has never been more true than today, as the residents of inland Nova Scotia greet both a new wave of immigration and a new wave of tourism.

Just as all Nova Scotia’s exceptional beauty and infinite variety invite you to visit again and again, so will the Cottage Country Trail invite you, again and again. Visit its magnificent forests and shallow rocky lakes, its salmon- and trout-fishing streams and waterways, its uncluttered countryside, and camping sites sprinkled between interesting towns and villages. You may end up yearning for a home away from home. You may even establish your own nest here from which you can enjoy endless “mini vacations”: explore the meandering of the Gold, LaHave, Medway, Avon and Annapolis rivers; roam the meadows of Ross Farm; camp and canoe alongside the wildlife and view the natural beauty so accessible in the National Park at Kejimkujik.

While you may have a longing to see the Highlands or Peggy’s Cove, take the time to let us show you around and you too may develop a love affair with this region some now call Cottage country.

 * * *

Since the 1600s this historic region, crisscrossed by a myriad of lakes and rivers, has been one of the province’s forgotten backwaters, a trail between the fertile Annapolis Valley, where Canada’s colonial settlements first took root, and the South Shore, with its rugged coastlines.

Workers hauled apple barrels to the Valley in 3-4 day trips or hauled lumber and firewood out of the area, then they left to go home. But few settled. Relatively isolated, communities here had to be self-sufficient. Says author/photographer Peter Barss of West Dublin, “Their values, like their crafts, grew out of a spirit of community.”

Local “roots” are deep and varied. Most inhabitants trace their ancestry to immigrants from New England. Centuries later, traces of this migration are still reflected in the soft Cape Cod accent and the local architecture. French names recall the French colonial period and those of Acadie who escaped shameful deportation by British colonialism. Descendants of Black Loyalists live throughout the area. On the region’s outskirts lies two small Mi’kmaq Indian reserves, near Horton and Cambridge in the Valley, and the Acadia Band has five small reserves throughout the Cottage Country region near the Atlantic coast. Travelling throughout the five counties, the changes are hardly discernible, with the exception of the German flavour of the Lunenburg county region, a legacy from the Foreign Protestants who emigrated from Germany, France and Switzerland and, with their distinctive accent and customs, were its original settlers. Pride of origin is a trait, and the accomplishments of the peoples are commemorated in local museums, with local arts and crafts coveted by cosmopolitan New York.

The four seasons provide a revolving showcase for the spectacular scenery of inland Nova Scotia. The incredible splendour – transcending the skein of words, the reflective imagery of photography – can be enjoyed by bike or by foot, by ski or by snowmobile, by canoe or by … car.

Like weather, the seasons won’t wait. They change too, day by day, minute by minute. The green roof of summer changes overnight to autumn’s canopy of crimson and gold, or the kick-crackle floor of ankle-deep leaves.

Like weather, the seasons won’t wait. They change too, day by day, minute by minute. The green roof of summer changes overnight to autumn’s canopy of crimson and gold, or the kick-crackle floor of ankle-deep leaves. Harvest time in October offers exceptional touring: leaves, the odd wagon filled with pumpkins, and fall festivals a-plenty. Paddle through sunrise and the mists of early morning, return through sunset on the water. Winter is exquisite: it blankets the region in a shimmering white coat, allowing one the innocent, snow-covered view of undulating hills, valleys, fields and forests. Time appears to almost stand still as the frosty winter air surrounds the region and captures the sleeping forests, with their coniferous pine and spruce in a state of seasonal rest. In the Spring, the forests and fields come alive with the joy of new growth. Wildlife, shrubs and flowers are once again reborn, new leaves come out all feathery, and the blossoms of the apple tree add to their own rich scent and pale colour. The songs of the birds, the soft breeze gently blowing through the trees, the laughter of the children out to play – all bring to Cottage Country the grace of a new day. In the Summer, the cottagers and tourists alike flock to the region like the returning geese. This is one of the warmest parts of Nova Scotia, with ridges to the west and east containing the warm air, yet the cool ocean breezes and rocky coastlines are but a few short kilometres away. Its beauty is like a miniature portrait in contrast to the vast canvas of our Cape Breton Highlands, but no less seductive. Like love itself, the Trail is meant to be savoured in all its sensuous intimacy and alluring wonder.

* * *

The Cottage Country Trail – the tourism route that some entrepreneurial inhabitants, with their characteristic audacity, want officially designated by the province – runs through the central southern half of the province, through the five counties of Hants, Lunenburg, Kings, Queens and Annapolis. You may enter from the Evangeline Trail or the Lighthouse Route with numerous access points along Highway’s 101 and 103. Today, it offers you a most carefree and easy touring route.

One of the many convenient accesses to the Cottage Country Trail is at the junction of Highway 101 and Highway 14, where the Glooscap Trail meets the Evangeline Trail. The Cottage Country Trail continues along Route 14 towards Vaughn, the road winding through rolling countryside and secluded lakes, a lifeline for one tiny village after another.

These small communities offer another comfort not found often anymore; a friendly attitude. As blacksmith Archie Knight tells it, “Somethin’ I often think about … the people today, they don’t have time to stop an’ talk to you. Now in them days, you had a horse an’ wagon. An’ when you drove by, why if you was anywheres near a feller, you’d stop an’ talk to him. The people aren’t as happy an’ contented today … always lookin’ for somethin’ they can’t get, it seems to me.” Local inhabitants may have left behind their horses and wagons, but they don’t seem to have forgotten the importance of stopping “to talk to a feller.”

Somethin’ I often think about … the people today, they don’t have time to stop an’ talk to you. Now in them days, you had a horse an’ wagon. An’ when you drove by, why if you was anywheres near a feller, you’d stop an’ talk to him

Sights and sounds along the Trail

In your first 10km, you pass through some of the established diversified farmlands, then on to the undulating slopes of Martock. Reaching the South Mountain, you stumble into the contrast between the Appalachian Mountains which this is an extension of and the flat valley landscape. As Route 12 rises towards its peak, you can savour a snapshot of the valley stretching out below. The view from the waterfront at the head of the dam of the West Hants Power generating station is an attraction of interest. A gas stop and refreshments are provided in Vaughn, where there’s a provincial park.

From Route 14, you head for New Ross along what inhabitants delightfully call The Windsor Highway. For 15 minutes you pass through largely untouched wooded wilderness dotted by cottages and inland farms.

The entrance to New Ross encircles Lake Lawson, along the Old Chester Highway. To the east and over the Rosebank Bridge is the Ross Farm, Nova Scotia’s Agricultural Heritage Museum. Delight with your children at this “living history” museum, originally carved out of Lunenburg County’s deep forests in the early nineteenth century by New Ross founder Captain William Ross of the Nova Scotia Fencibles, who came from County Cork, Ireland. Here one finds the region’s first cottage, Rosebank, built from rough-hewn timbers and boars sawed by hand from a whipsaw in 1817. The cottages, outbuildings and surrounding farm of 23 hectares have been carefully restored. A visit here will transit you “backward in time” to see how people lived on a Nova Scotian farm of a century ago.

On a regular basis, local craftspeople take their turns working the farm, cooking and baking, sawing lumber, and practicing almost forgotten arts such as making butter churns, coopering or barrel-making.

But, as in other Canadian agricultural areas, many marginal farms, the small mixed farms that sustained families for generations, have been abandoned in the past generation, no longer economical in the face of agribusiness and consolidation.

Farm fields throughout the region may be tidily fenced, but these days they are as likely to be growing up in alders as in crops. There are still scattered farms, with beef and dairy herds. But, as in other Canadian agricultural areas, many marginal farms, the small mixed farms that sustained families for generations, have been abandoned in the past generation, no longer economical in the face of agribusiness and consolidation.

In New Ross you find convenient cottage industry shopping, artifacts from area artisans and two sandy beaches.

West on The Forties Road from Highway 12 is the large recreation centre, erected by the community. Appropriately known as The Forties Settlement, this community is built on land from the forty lots given to the original settlers, decommissioned soldiers who claimed, worked and built it in 1816.

The area beyond is so untouched that not so long ago this section of the Trail was a one-lane gravel road. Today a paved highway has opened up the area to another migration, summertime cottagers who dapple the full nine miles of Sherbrooke Lake.

This is rugged country, evocatively reflected in such place names as The Barrens, Four Mile Woods and No Man’s Land.

This is rugged country, evocatively reflected in such place names as The Barrens, Four Mile Woods and No Man’s Land. One can be fooled by the bleak names, which originate from the 1800s when a massive fire scorched this earth. Today it is regrown into a beautiful natural habitat with pines, intertwining rivers, stillwaters, ponds and lakes. Plant life and wild life abound; those of us both still and lucky enough will delight in the white-tailed deer, lynx, black bear, red (occasionally, silver) fox, otter, beaver, rabbits, pheasants, ruffed grouse, falcons, eagles, and the whimpering loon, all of whom make their homes in this unclaimed wilderness.

To the west lies Dalhousie, with its campgrounds, farmers’ exhibition ground and annual festival, and Parkdale-Maplewood, with its Community Fair Grounds and its Museum, established in 1953 when 80-year-old Thomas Spidell donated a large collection of implements, tools, domestic utensils, textiles, photos, toys and related items to establish a rural museum. The exhibits are set up in the original museum building and the nearby Maccabee Lodge Hall. Grounds display traditional herbs, flowers and roses. There’s also a farm bed and breakfast on a working blueberry and grape farm. The nearby Newburn Wildlife Park hosts a menagerie of farm animals, as well as spider monkeys and peacocks. Excellent hiking and cross-country skiing trails are located here as well. You can camp, play, shower and fish at the fully-equipped campground run by Warren and Iris Veinotte on the LaHave River – one of the largest and most powerful, yet quietest rivers in Nova Scotia; the Mighty LaHave, once extravagantly billed as the “Rhine of Nova Scotia.”

Patchwork quilts, an excellent example of early recycling, are not only practical but an example of the folk art characteristic of the fundamentals of early life.

Another 10-15 minutes brings you to New Germany, with more facilities, a spectacular lake – and hospitality nurtured by community pride. As the name suggests, the community traces its origin to the Foreign Protestants. Here, quilt making has become a thriving cottage industry. Amazing examples of quilting skill are on display in craft studios throughout Cottage Country. Patchwork quilts, an excellent example of early recycling, are not only practical but an example of the folk art characteristic of the fundamentals of early life. The women who met to sew quilts, hook mats and warp their looms did not think of themselves as artists, despite the intricate patterns, the geometrically-spreading squares and triangles, the vibrant colours and rich textures of their work. They were providing the necessities required by everyday life. They quilted to provide a warm cover. Today, beautifully-woven textiles, hand-crafted glass, pottery, and jewelry can be found throughout the region. Hand made, they are of superior quality an proceed more reasonably than in the wholesale craft zoos of the city.

Although many young people have left the region to find work, those who stayed behind tried to preserve their community-based way of life. It’s here in New Germany that residents came up with their own alternative to the high cost of medical care. Combining their skills, energy and ingenuity, they built their own medical clinic without a cent of government funding. It epitomizes an enduring Rural Dignity: people, despite the rough times, still help each other out.

At New Germany, you then cross one of the few remaining one-lane bridges, over the Upper Branch of the LaHave River.

West along Route 208 is another provincial park and a vista of untouched wilderness. A small picnic park on the bank of Camerons Brook offers a shaded lunch stop under a canopy of pine and hardwood. Across the road is a bay of Ponhook Lake, a favourite location for fishing and canoeing. As you enter South Brookfield, you are faced with the biggest decision of the day: do we go north, towards Annapolis Royal, south toward Liverpool or beyond to the Tobeatic Wilderness Area, the largest remaining wilderness in the Maritimes, with some of the last old-growth stands of white pine, red spruce and hemlock in Nova Scotia? Perhaps the decision will be easier after our next Shunpiking feature, in the next edition of Cottage Country News.

The attractions of the Cottage Country Trail are the time-honoured lures of mountains and lakes and forests, and of a society little changed from yesteryear. The gold mine is green. You don’t have to make a reservation to go hiking: you don’t need a fortune to build your own dream. Think of this as an invitation; explore Cottage Country for yourself and discover the beauty of inland Nova Scotia, of roads less taken. Venture off the province’s superhighways, turn off the beaten trail, and feel the miles and stress slip away. It’s really a state of mind.

*This article was first published in the now-defunct Cottage Country News, New Ross, NS, Volume One, Number One, Autumn, 1994 

Additional reading

Traditional Nova Scotian Crafts, Peter Barss. Toronto, 1980

Paddle Lunenburg-Queens: An Adventure Guide for Canoeists and Kayakers, Sheena Masson  Lunenburg-Queens Recreation Co-ordinators/Directors Association – 151 pages. Cost: $22.00. Softcover ISBN-09683017-0-3

Shelburne River, Nova Scotiam, Wild Headwaters, Quiet Stillwaters, and Ancient Forests. Designated 1997

Shallow rocky lakes, rapids, still-water reaches – the Shelburne begins in the Tobeatic  Wilderness Area, the largest remaining wilderness in the Maritimes. It flows through many shallow, rocky lakes, tumbles over rapids, and slips quietly through tranquil stillwaters as it traverses boulder-strewn wetlands, eskers and undisturbed forests. Here are some of the last old-growth stands of white pine, red spruce and hemlock in Nova Scotia.

For the paddler, the Shelburne is a wilderness river appearing much as it did when the Mi’Kmaq used it as a travel route centuries ago.

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