In The Tent Dwellers, Albert Bigelow Paine wrote of the Nova Scotia woods and the "fierce, wild fascination in it that amounts...to beauty". Although it may not be as wild as it was in 1908, when Paine published his book, the Maritime province--and, in particular, Kejimkujik National Park--still offers some wild solace to visitors. In some instances, if you are lucky, you may find some unexpected solitude within its boundaries.
I should clarify that further: solitude from people--for you are never really alone in the park, with all the birds and animals that live there.
"Keji" is the only completely land-bound Maritime national park, although it includes a seaside adjunct apart from the main body. This 40,000-hectare island of wilderness is home to more than 100 bird species, mammals like deer, porcupine, moose, and bear, and a variety of tree species, including oak, maple, hemlock, spruce, and pine.
Paddling offers the best way to experience the park's solitude, on routes north or south of Kejimkujik Lake, the large body of water after which the park is named. Kejimkujik is a Micmac word that translates as either "sore parts" or "attempting to escape", depending on who you talk with.
We were attempting an escape of sorts: a five-day getaway into nature that involved paddling north of Kejimkujik Lake, through Big Dam, Frozen Ocean, and Channel lakes, and the streams that join them, then back onto the main lake.
Part of our route took us along the same waterways paddled by Paine, his friend Eddie, and their guides in 1908. Paine, Mark Twain's biographer, described their entire fishing and canoeing expedition in The Tent Dwellers.
We started and finished in the same place: Jake's Landing, at one of two spots where the Mersey River connects with Kejimkujik Lake (or "Kedgeemakoogee", as Paine spelled it). However, although our journey took us north, Paine headed south, down to the Shelburne River, just outside the park's southwest boundary. Our routes overlapped in places, Paine's group travelling clockwise, our canoe counterclockwise, through Frozen Ocean Lake, Little River, and Channel Lake.
An easy two-hour paddle from the put-in on Big Dam Lake brought us to our first campsite, at the head of a portage to Still Brook. Halfway through the initial day's paddle, we saw our first loon, a sort of feathered welcoming committee.
One group of canoeists portaged past our campsite late that afternoon. They were the last people we would see for three days.
That afternoon at the brook, a porcupine crashed through the bushes, stopped for a drink, and almost stumbled right into us before realizing we were there. It then clambered quickly up a tree, stopping long enough to peer out from behind the trunk before continuing to climb.
More wildlife, particularly waterfowl, highlighted our next day's paddle. Once into Still Brook's main channel, we spied a painted turtle sitting on a log--not an unusual sight, as Keji is one of Atlantic Canada's richest turtle areas.
Farther on, we paddled within 50 metres of a great blue heron before it flew away. Then a blue-winged teal landed right behind our canoe, and another heron flew past, circled around, and landed behind us. As we approached the takeout for the portage from Still Brook to Frozen Ocean Lake, a pair of kingfishers raised a ruckus at our approach.
The short portage brought us onto the second lake of our journey, Frozen Ocean Lake. Light rain and strong winds lent evidence to the lake's name. In The Tent Dwellers, Paine described it thus: "across Frozen Ocean--a place which justified its name, for it was bitterly cold there and we did nothing but keep the fire going".
It was not that bad during our trip, although there was a stiff wind. While crossing the lake we saw another loon, bobbing past our canoe about 20 metres away.
Another short portage from the lake's southeast corner brought us to Little River, a deeper, wider waterway than Still Brook. Here we saw our final loon of the day: a mother with her chick. We did our best to paddle as far away from them as possible so as not to create any undue stress.
Loons are under tremendous pressure in Keji, as elsewhere. In his book Phantom Parks, Victoria author Rick Searle writes about the plight they face from well-meaning but ignorant paddlers who get too close, plus the more serious threats of acid rain, mercury-contaminated fish, and disappearing habitat.
We also spotted a beaver just before entering Channel Lake.
Paine spotted his first beaver dam along one of the small tributaries of Little River. He wrote at length about how in the early days of the 20th century, the beaver was disappearing in Nova Scotia, being trapped out of existence. As he finished off in the book's 28th chapter, "Long ago he taught men how to build their houses and dams, and to save up food and water for a dry time. Even if we no longer need him, he deserves our protection and our tender regard."
As we drew closer to our Channel Lake campsite, the sun crept out from behind the clouds and nature finally seemed ready to treat us to a sunset.
The sun's disappearance signalled the beginning of a nocturnal concert. A chorus of bullfrogs performed the overture; a pair of loons joined in; then, at midnight, a pair of barred owls serenaded us from the surrounding woods.
The next day, we followed the instructions of Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass: "I loaf, and invite my soul." We napped, read, explored the woods, and swam in the lake--nothing that could be considered strenuous.
The next morning we actually met some humans for the first time since that first day: a pair of rangers making their rounds.
A leisurely portage took us back to the Little River. We'd started our trip paddling northwest, but now we were headed southeast, back toward Kejimkujik Lake and a campsite on Moose Island.
Landing there, the presence of powerboats on the big lake reminded us that we were returning to civilization. After setting up camp, we paddled over to West River, about a four-hour round trip. Again, a journey up a quiet stream rewarded us with sightings of several waterfowl, mainly mergansers and mallards.
Back on Moose Island, we enjoyed a campsite to ourselves for the fourth night in a row, although we had seen more people that one day than we had the previous four days.
The next day, we backtracked toward the mouth of the Little River to portage across Indian Point to Jeremy Bay.
The five miles we paddled along the north shore of Jeremy Bay proved to be the toughest of the entire trip, giving us reason to think perhaps "sore parts" was a more appropriate meaning for Kejimkujik than "attempting to escape". A strong wind blew in our faces or against the side of our canoe all the way, pushing us back or against the shore constantly.
Our experience was nothing like that of Paine's, who painted a very fond picture of Jeremy Bay: "Perhaps the brightest spot of that sad period when we were making ready to leave the woods, with all their comfort, their peace and their religion, and go back to the harrying haunts of men, to mingle with the fever and fret of daily strife, is the memory of the trip to Jeremy's [sic] Bay....it is...within an hour's paddle of Jim Charles's [sic] point, and it is that hour and the return that sticks with me now."
Although our two-hour paddle to Jake's Landing certainly sticks with us, it is not the image of Keji I remember.
My mind holds the image of wilderness without crowds. Even though we paddled at the height of the summer, during the first week of August, we saw very few people. I did not exactly expect traffic jams at the portages, but the scarcity of human contact surprised me, pleasantly so.
That unexpected solitude provided a true gift--a real escape. On our last night, a final, lone loon swam past our island campsite, wailing its trademark cry, as if to say "Farewell" from the wilderness. Or to quote Paine one more time:
"Then breathe a sigh and a long good-by/To the wilderness, to-day,/For back again to the trails of men/Follows the waterway.
ACCESS: Kejimkujik is accessible off Route 8, the Kejimkujik Drive, by travelling about 160 kilometres from Halifax via Highway 103, 190 kilometres from Yarmouth via Highway 101, or 90 kilometres from Digby via Highway 101.
The Seaside Adjunct is accessible from Highway 103, about 100 kilometres south of the inland portion of the park and 25 kilometres southwest of Liverpool.
To learn more about the park, visit parkscanada.pch.gc.ca/pn-np/ns/kejimkujik/index_e.asp; phone (902) 682-2772; fax (902) 682-3367.
You can rent canoes, paddles, and life jackets at Jake's Landing, (902) 682-5253.
Another good site to check out is West Nova Eco Site, collections.ic.gc .ca/western/canoe.html.
To help loon conservation, go to www.bsc-eoc.org/cllsmain.html.
Some useful books include Canoe Routes of Nova Scotia, by C. Dill, Explore Canada by Marion Harrison and Peter Thompson, The Tent Dwellers by Albert Bigelow Paine (available through the Canadian Recreational Canoeing Association, www.crca.ca/), and Phantom Parks by Rick Searle.