A group of conservationists wants you to know there’s a back country canoeing and camping experience just minutes from downtown Halifax — and it could soon be a national park.
The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) Nova Scotia Chapter spent the week camping in the Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes Wilderness Area, paddling canoes, sleeping under a full moon, and gathering and tweeting photos and video to raise awareness of the potential for a national park in the area.
“It’s only five kilometres from downtown Halifax, yet you can have a genuine wilderness experience here, something that you could experience in a national park,” Chris Miller, CPAWS Nova Scotia’s executive director, said in an interview at the campsite.
“It’s like our own Kejimkujik National Park, right inside the city boundaries.”
Joining Miller on the trip were his wife, two CPAWS conservation coordinators, and a revolving cast of characters including Miller’s father, former CPAWS employees and volunteers, a landscape photographer, and for a few hours on Thursday, the Halifax Examiner.
Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes lies between the Bayers Lake Business Park and Hammonds Plains.
It’s a picturesque area, especially in the fall, with clean lakes acting as mirrors for the fall colours along the shorelines — the yellow of white birch trees, the red of huckleberry bushes, and the green of spruce trees.
After spending his childhood paddling, skating, and hiking through the wilderness, Miller has worked for decades to protect the area from encroaching development, with much success.
The provincial government agreed to protect the wilderness area, starting in 2009 with 1,300 hectares and expanding the wilderness to 1,700 hectares, or about 4,200 acres, in 2015. It’s now considering protecting another 15 hectares — with a decision due any time now.
The municipality has promised to create a park in the area since 2006. There have been disputes around the final boundary of the park and there’s an ongoing legal battle with one land owner, but in 2017 Halifax started buying some land to ensure public access to the wilderness, with some federal government assistance. It’s purchased three parcels totalling about 130 hectares since then, and it’s pledged $750,000 to help the Nova Scotia Nature Trust secure an additional 232 hectares.
And in August, the federal government expressed interest in creating an urban national park in Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes. As the Examiner reported, Parks Canada and Halifax Regional Municipality signed a “statement of collaboration:”
The statement, a copy of which the municipality provided to the Halifax Examiner upon request, “indicates the intent to conduct a dialogue around the feasibility of the potential designation of a national urban park at Blue Mountain Birch Cove Lakes.”
The province of Nova Scotia has designated lands as protected Wilderness Areas and the municipality has identified the regional park as a priority in its Regional Plan. This Statement of Collaboration also includes the hope of working in partnership with Mi’kmaq organizations and significant regional land holders such as Nova Scotia Nature Trust.
The statement, signed July 23 by municipal chief administrative officer Jacques Dubé and later by Ron Hallman, president and CEO of Parks Canada, commits both HRM and Parks Canada to appoint a staffer to oversee the potential park, “co-lead a series of discussions to explore mutual alignment on park objectives,” and “determine the possible scope and features of the potential national urban park, including natural and cultural elements,” among other actions.
It was exciting news for Miller and the team at CPAWS, so they wanted to show people what’s possible in the area.
They’ve set up camp along Bear Den Lake, which is no longer listed on maps, but lies between Susies and Quarry lakes. On Wednesday, the crew set out to paddle (and portage) a loop of nine lakes.
— CPAWS Nova Scotia (@CPAWSnovascotia) October 20, 2021
On Thursday, the Examiner got a sample of that loop, paddling with Miller through Susies Lake into Quarry Lake, and through stillwaters from Susies to Big Cranberry Lake.
“What we’re trying to showcase is that this really beautiful natural space can be used for lots of different purposes,” Miller said.
“The front country area, the places that most people visit, is really good for dog walking, maybe a short trip into the lake to go for a swim in the summertime. The back country is a little harder to get to. It requires either canoeing into some of the back country lakes or going on a longer hike to get into some of the more remote parts of the wilderness. Where we’re camping is on one of the more remote parts of the back country. And we’re using this as a base camp to go to even more remote places within this national urban park area.”
Even though the campsite is certainly in the back country, it’s just five kilometres as the crow flies from peninsular Halifax.
The way into Susies Lake on foot is just behind the Kent in Bayers Lake. With forklifts whizzing by through a lumberyard, it’s an imperfect entry into the wilderness, showcasing a need for the kind of official trailheads a national park designation would offer.
Miller wrote about the possibilities of a national park in a Morning File soon after the announcement:
Parks Canada needs to be directly involved with land purchases, to ensure that all of Blue Mountain–Birch Cove Lakes is brought into public ownership and protected. This is particularly important on the city-side of the wilderness area, where most people will be accessing this future national park.
At the moment, Blue Mountain–Birch Cove Lakes lacks a primary access point for the public. Instead, if someone wants to go hiking there, or portage a canoe into one of the lakes, you must park at the end of a cul-de-sac, or along a busy Highway, or at a parking lot by the lumber yard in the Bayers Lake Industrial Park. It’s — how do I say it — less than ideal. And getting there by public transit is even more challenging. A national urban park designation could help, if key properties are acquired. That needs to be a priority.
The national park also creates a moment to reset the core discussion about these lands. This place needs to be inclusive. Every resident of this city needs to feel welcome there. It cannot become merely a retreat for one demographic or another. We must ensure that it is a place that is as diverse as the city itself and can provide access to nature for everyone. Parks Canada needs to embed these principles within every step of the planning process.
The park must be done to the highest possible standard, so that it is a place where nature is protected, and there is clean air and water, but also a place for people to go for their health and wellbeing, to spend time with their families and friends, to go exploring and to have fun. Blue Mountain–Birch Cove Lakes is only going to become more important for the city with time. And, I’m excited about what the future holds.
This week’s trip into the wilderness is just a preview of that future, when more people can get to see what Miller sees.
“I love this place,” Miller said. “I want to see it protected. I’ve devoted a lot of my life to making sure that this place is looked after and that people understand the importance, so it’s really great to be able to showcase it, to bring people here, and to let them experience the wonder of this magnificent place.”