The Chéticamp River

Introduction

2007 was the year when I really got acquainted with the Chéticamp River. In previous years, my photos were primarily of those parts of the river visible from the Cabot Trail—its mouth from the look-off just north of Le Buttereau and the bridge over the Chéticamp River at the Cape Breton Highlands National Park entrance beyond Petit-Étang. While I had also seen the mouth from the trail named Le Chemin du Buttereau (roughly, Big Hill Road), this year I explored the beach at Petit-Étang walking right up to the mouth and along the adjacent hill. I also hiked for the first time those stunning trails named Les Trous de saumons (The Salmon Pools) and L’Acadien (The Acadian); after these hikes, I kicked myself for having waited so long to try them: although L’Acadien is indeed a stiff climb for me, it is no harder than the Oak Ridge Trail in the Cape Mabou Highlands, which I have often done, and offers spectacular views along its western course, while Les Trous de saumons is a very easy trail of equally great, but very different, beauty. I intend to return to both regularly in the future.

I haven’t found very much information about the Chéticamp River either in the books I have or on the Internet. The topographic map for the area (Chéticamp River (11 K/10)) shows the source of the Chéticamp River to be the Chéticamp Flowage, also sometimes referred to as Chéticamp Lake, which lies across the Inverness County line in the Everlasting Barrens in Victoria County and just outside the Cape Breton Highlands National Park boundaries. It sits at an altitude of approximately 500 m (1640 ft). A dam has been constructed across its western end, the outflow of which is the Chéticamp River. I have been unable to find the river’s length in any source available to me; from the topographic map, I make it to be roughly 40 km (25 mi), but this is surely an underestimate as I did not carefully measure all the meanders.

In his very informative Cape Breton Highlands National Park: A Park Lover’s Guide (ISBN 1-895415-62-4), Clarence Barrett describes the river thusly (p. 73):

The Chéticamp River, like most of the Park’s streams, arises from the bogs, small ponds and lakes on the interior of the [Cape Breton Highlands] plateau. At first it flows in a gentle gradient, as a series of pools and riffles, not much below the elevation of the surrounding terrain. Further along it tumbles down the edges of the plateau in numerous falls and rapids, cascading through wild and beautiful gorges and deep, black pools edged with floating foam, cutting deeper and deeper into its canyon. Along the lower part of the river, the trail goes through mixed forest and beautiful, cathedral-like stands of hardwood. There’s good birding along the way, too; I’ve counted over 25 species in a single walk. Bald eagles cruise the river, as well as great blue herons, belted kingfishers and mergansers looking for fish. I sometimes see rafts of baby mergansers motoring across the water or shooting the riffles like wind-up bathtub toys.

On a web page that no longer appears to be on-line (though it remains in the Wayback Machine’s archive here), the St Georges Bay Ecosystem Project (GBEP): Natural History Research Report, prepared by the Interdisciplinary Studies in Aquatic Resources group at St Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, says in §A.7.5 that the Chéticamp River

originate[s] on the plateaus of the Cape Breton Highlands, draining the Taiga and Highlands habitats. […]

The majority of the watershed [area of this river is] within the boundaries of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Because of this, monitoring and management of the [river] and [its] resources are under park jurisdiction. This includes managing the salmon population in conjunction with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

[…] The watershed of the Cheticamp River extends into the Cape Breton Highlands, covering 2,705 ha [6,684 ac]. Approximately 10 % of the outflow of the Cheticamp Lake […] has been diverted from the Cheticamp River system to the east, for use in the Wreck Cove hydroelectric project. […]

Scott Cunningham has a very interesting description of his off-trail experiences in the Cape Breton Highlands; it can be found in full here. In it, he says of the Chéticamp River

My first hiking foray […] was a rather unconventional attempt to cross the park. The plan was to follow the Cheticamp River gorge (beginning at the park’s interpretive centre), onto the remote central plateau and down into Ingonish. The distance was only 50 km [31 mi] and the topo maps foretold a spectacular journey. Indeed, the deep canyons were flanked by a dense canopy of brilliant autumn colours that led into one of the most remote and pristine sections of the province. However, […] the precipitous walls forced us onto incessant detours through demanding brush and over onerous rock piles. Our progress became bogged down in details. To complicate matters, five days into the trek, a severe leg infection forced a hasty exit and a visit to the hospital.

[…]

Off trail back country camping is not encouraged[…;] a step from most official trails will likely be met with a tangle of [krummholz] or a bottomless bog. A path of sorts does cross the plateau, but it is seldom used and, even then, mainly in winter by park staff on snowmobiles. It is less than ideal hiking territory. And, of course, avoid the upper section of the Cheticamp River gorge, where I spent several [days] learning why this route wasn’t indicated on any hiking map.

In other words, this is very wild and rarely visited backcountry! Fortunately, the Cape Breton Highlands National Park trails are well maintained—indeed, Les Trous de saumons Trail is bikable all the way to the Second Pool, though not beyond. They provide a fine way to see the lower half of this beautiful river as it flows between the narrow walls of the sinuous gorge it has carved and its mouth at the Gulf of St Lawrence. As one gazes from the river bed to the summits the topographical map shows rising more than 460 m (1510 ft) above, one is awestruck with the beauty of the setting.

In addition to its scenery, the Chéticamp River is well-known for its fishing in its lower 20 km (12.4 mi); an impassible waterfall prevents the salmon from reaching the upper half of the river’s course. Fishing the Chéticamp River requires a current National Parks general fishing permit or a National Parks salmon licence and is restricted to the use of tied flies only. While hiking there, I met several enthusiastic anglers, some from as far away as Vermont, who come back each year to test their skill and to enjoy the area’s beauty. Clarence Barrett has an excellent summary of the amazing salmon life cycle on pages 76-79 of his previously cited book, describing their descent from the Chéticamp River to the waters off southwestern Greenland and their return to the river where they were born to propagate the species. For the Chéticamp River is one of the declining number of Cape Breton rivers to which salmon do still return each year. The very interesting Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada research document 2005/022, Stock Status of Altantic Salmon (Salmo salar) in the Cheticamp River, Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Nova Scotia, for 2004, available as a PDF file here, shows that the returning salmon population is very small (estimated at 270 fish in 2004), but still large enough to be a bit more than self-sustaining. Since the river is not stocked, the catch-and-release program, adopted in 1994, is essential to preserving the current fish stocks.

The photos in this essay are presented following the course of the Chéticamp River from its mouth to the end of Les Trous de saumons Trail at the Third Pool. With three exceptions, they were all taken in 2007. I hope you will enjoy the photos I have chosen here and that they will either encourage you to explore this beautiful river if you have not already done so or to return to it if you already have.

Victor Maurice Faubert
2007 December 21

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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; those found here are those written down on later trips or computed from Google Maps.

Feedback on the photos and the accompanying commentary, including corrections, is always welcome; send it to the address in the footer below. All of the essays in this series are archived here.

Photos

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My web site now contains an extended description of Les Trous de saumons Trail in its hiking section, here; another twenty-two photos taken from the trail are available there.