The Mabou River

[Original] Introduction

The Mull River, celebrated in Jimmy Rankin’s memorable The Mull River Shuffle, which appeared on the Rankin Family’s CD North Country, has its source in the Glencoe area. Rills and brooks from Dunakin and Upper Glencoe, before reaching Glencoe Mills, join to form the Mull River, the stream which flows beneath the bridge below the Glencoe Mills Parish Hall, world-renowned for its square dances and traditional Scottish music. While it is hard to be precise because of the twisty nature of the river, which flows first generally northwest and then a bit east of north, roughly 20 km (12.4 mi) beyond Glencoe Mills, Sheas Brook enters the Mull River in the ravine south of Highway 252 roughly 2 km (1.25 mi) to the west of Brook Village. Near this point,¹ according to the sixth edition of The Nova Scotia Atlas, which agrees with the larger scale paper topographical map I have, the river changes its name to the Mabou River; from there, it runs roughly 4.5 km (2.8 mi) northwesterly towards Glendyer Station, whereupon it turns west and, though with an occasional twist, thereafter maintains its generally westerly direction, passes through Mabou Village, and, soon afterwards, swelled by the Southwest Mabou River and the Northeast Mabou River, continues majestically onwards until it empties into the Gulf of St Lawrence some 10 km (6.2 mi) from Glendyer Station.

The river is navigable by craft the size of lobster boats from the Gulf to Mabou Village, where a small wharf is located near the Cèilidh Trail (Highway 19) bridge over the Mabou River. Upriver of the bridge, I have seen only canoes and kayaks: I suspect it would be pretty rough going even for a small motorboat, though apparently the river in days gone by was used for transporting cargo as far as Glendyer Station.

The area teems with wild-life. I have seen a buck with a marvellous head of antlers on the banks of the Mabou River near Glendyer Station and many deer tracks in the sand along the Railway Trail. Eagles abound in this area (this essay includes pictures of three of them at various points along the Mabou’s course). Waterfowl of all varieties, including herons and cormorants, are in the waters and occasionally in the air above. Birds of many varieties fill the air with their songs and scolds and the occasional startled grouse surprises one as it darts across a trail. Fish can be seen in the shallow portions of the river and I have encountered frogs and the occasional garter snake along the Railway Trail in the marshy areas.

Although the Mabou is not a very long river—only 15 km (9 mi) in round figures—it is a stunningly gorgeous and impressive one with ever-changing scenery: it certainly packs an incredible amount and variety of beauty in its short course. Moreover, it is a very accessible river, with walking access along a good part of its length. The Railway Trail runs from Glendyer Station to Mabou Village all along its southern bank and Highway 252 runs along a goodly portion of its northern bank before climbing up to the Cèilidh Trail. Mabou Harbour Road offers several fine views of the river from its northern side between Mabou Village and the Gulf. The high-up views from Mountain Road near Mabou Harbour Mouth and the water-level views from the lighthouse in Mabou Harbour Mouth are equally beautiful, though quite different in character; the Green Point Road (the gravel continuation of Mabou Harbour Road) also has marvellous views. On the south side of the river, West Mabou Road offers a spectacular view at its junction with the Cèilidh Trail and occasional good views at various points in West Mabou, though at some distance from the river. Hunters Road in West Mabou offers stunning views of the whole area, including both the Mabou River and the mouths of the Southwest Mabou River and the Northeast Mabou River. The pioneer cemetery, accessible from the West Mabou Road, sits in a beautiful site on a cliff above the river that has excellent views and a stairway to the shore. There is a gorgeous walking trail along the Mabou River in the West Mabou Beach Provincial Park and the Colindale Road beyond the park offers ne plus ultra views of the river’s mouth and the Gulf shore to Mabou Coal Mines.

In this essay, I begin beyond its mouth in the Gulf and ascend the river to the most distant spot on it for which I have photos, Murrays Bridge over the river that connects Hillsborough² to the Rankinville and Mull River Roads. I have taken so many pictures in this splendid area that it was even harder than usual to distill them down to these twenty-five; I have not even begun to scratch the surface. This area is one of the several glorious places on incredibly lovely Cape Breton Island that constantly calls me to return again and again—I simply cannot get enough of its serene beauty. I hope these photos will encourage you to explore the Mabou River area if you do not already know of it or to return to bask in its enchantments if you do.

Victor Maurice Faubert
2007 May 13

¹ In his weekly column in the Oran of 2003 October 8, Dr. James St Clair, whose knowledge of Cape Breton is both comprehensive and deep, says, in speaking of the river flowing under the steel bridge on the Railway Trail at Glendyer Station, that ”[t]he river is the Mull River, but generally called the Southeast Mabou River from this point to the sea”. I do not know whether Dr. St Clair was referring to past historical or current local usage, but, I have never heard any part of the river below that bridge referred to locally as the Southeast Mabou River, only as the Mabou River. The Nova Scotia Atlas and the 1997 edition of the Lake Ainslie quadrangle (11 K/3) topographical map both clearly mark the river above Murrays Bridge as the Mabou River and only use the name Mull River for the river above its junction with Sheas Brook; however, interestingly enough, the name Mabou River appears nowhere along its course in the newer Toporama online maps, while the name Mull River appears there only above the point where the Miramichi Brook enters the river. Local usage seems split on the question of where the boundary between the Mabou and Mull Rivers is, with some agreeing with Dr. St Clair on the Glendyer Station bridge and others saying Murrays Bridge. The name of the Mull River Road which follows this part of the river along its southern and western sides would seem to argue for that portion of the river above Murrays Bridge being the Mull River. In this essay, I have taken Murrays Bridge as the point at which the name change occurs.

² Both The Nova Scotia Atlas and the topographical maps spell this place name as Hillsboro, which is occasionally seen in the area, but Hillsborough seems to be the strong local preference and is the spelling I have therefore used here.

Revision of 2012

As I worked on revising this essay and bringing it up to 2012, I was struck by the especially stunning photos it presents! This is no reflection on my photographic skills, but instead stems from a combination of luck (the marvellous weather of the years in which the photos in this essay were taken contributed greatly to their allure) and the incredible intrinsic beauty of the Mabou River and its surroundings. Alas, in more recent years, the weather has been rather less prodigal in offering up the blue-sky, bright-sun days seen in these photos. Although some things have changed since this essay was written, the gorgeous scenery provided by the Mabou River, the Cape Mabou Highlands, and the hills and ridges to the east and south has not. May it ever remain so!

Victor Maurice Faubert
2012 February 20

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Note 1: If you are unfamiliar with the place names mentioned in this essay, a list of map resources is given here. Of these, the best computer-readable map of Cape Breton Island that I currently know about is the Cape Breton Travel Map, produced by Destination Cape Breton and, thanks to their express written permission, available as a PDF file here; I strongly urge you to download it. This map scales nicely, allowing you to zoom in on an area of interest, has a very helpful place name index, and provides a level of detail, both of back roads and streams, that is quite good.

Note 2: See the description here for the notation I use for GPS (Global Positioning System) coördinates. I did not have a GPS device when I took the photos in this essay; the coördinates found here are those written down on later trips or computed from Google Maps; when no coördinate is given, I have been unable to reconstruct where I was exactly when the photo was taken.

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