Silver Donald Cameron
On an impossibly warm and clear October day, the trek in to the secret beach is almost as enchanting as the beach itself.
We parked the truck and struck off across an eroding drumlin headland covered in brown grasses, yellow vines and lavender-coloured asters. Beyond the drumlin was a bit of wetland, draining through an abandoned concrete sluice-gate covered with orange lichens, where tall bulrushes had already exploded into seedy fluff. Seaward of the marsh was a short, gleaming sandy beach, with a ridge of round cobbles acting as a dune line.
I looked carefully at the marsh. I have seen fat muskrat in such mini-marshes before – once, memorably, swimming under a thin pane of clear ice, like a muskrat under glass – but there were no muskrats today.
We walked carefully across the round, rolling cobbles and up into the dark spruce and fir. The track rose through stout, short trees to the crest of a crumbling bluff, providing intermittent glimpses of the glittering sea. In the restful shade of the woods, the little Sheltie trotted busily between tree-trunks, sniffing the rustling copper-needled floor.
In the clearings, the rosebushes stood chest-high, crowned by red bursts of rose-hips. Browning umbrella stalks of angelica reached above the tawny grass, and low reddening leaves of wild strawberry lay hiding on the ground. As the track rose and fell, the footing sometimes became tricky where fierce recent rains had carved deep rocky furrows in the ground.
We picked our way down a last steep defile to find ourselves beside a tiny rivulet chuckling its way from a dark lagoon down through the dunes and out to sea. Behind the lagoon, a shallow valley curled back into the wooded hills. Cormorants perched on rocky outcrops in the water, gulls swooped overhead, and tiny wading birds – plovers or sandpipers, perhaps – ran busily through the swash of the gentle surf.
We forded the streamlet, and the beach lay open in the sunlight before us – a mile of wide sand, wet, taupe-coloured, curving between forest bluff and grassy headland. MacTavish thundered down the beach, his ruff blown backward, his ears flat, his tiny legs drumming out the exact same rhythm as a horse's hooves, tossing his head back and barking for the sheer frantic joy of living.
The sand was spotted with sand dollars, razor clam shells and the cast-off exoskeletons of crabs and lobsters. Just offshore, the dark yellow rockweed swayed with the swells, surging back and forth in the shallows. A small vivid orange-and-black caterpillar was humping its way from stone to stone. A tiny black spider shot across the sand at high speed. A yellow butterfly flirted with the lacy edge of the water.
The sun hung high and hot in the pale blue sky. I was wearing shorts and a golf shirt – in October – and I was still a little too warm.
“Look!” said Marjorie, squinting upwards. “How many?”
I tilted my head. The sky was laced with the contrails of jet airliners, each leaving a fuzzy white brush-stroke across the heavens. Every morning, 100,000 people leave Europe by air. At mid-day they converge on Moncton. We could see 20 jet trails and six actual planes, all at once. But the only other signs of human life were a few tiny houses across the bay, and a few bits of sea-borne detritus, including – this was Cape Breton, after all – a Captain Morgan rum bottle, which we carried out.
Essentially, this is the beach as nature made it, quietly going about its endless ballet of continuity and change. Wild beaches are our heritage as human beings, places where the eternal processes of creation and destruction take place right before our eyes. Human beings need access to such places – places to view with reverence, places where we take away nothing but memories and photographs, and leave nothing but footprints.
A developer would see this beach as a magnificent opportunity for profit, which is why I will not say where it is. The Maritimes have more wild beaches than any other region of North America – but they are only a day's drive from Boston, a four-hour flight from Europe, and in the ten years since I first wrote about their vulnerability, many of them have been snapped up, fenced off, subdivided and sold. If we do nothing, they will all vanish, as they have vanished in the continental US and Europe.
Last month, in this paper, Environment Minister Mark Parent declared that “it’s imperative that we have a well thought-out, proper policy on coastal protection.” He's right – and we have already lost ten years and many miles of shoreline.The sooner the province can implement such a policy, the better for all of our souls – and the better for all our children.
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Silver Donald Cameron's award-winning book The Living Beach is available at www.capebretonbooks.com