Cape Mabou

[Original] Introduction

Bounded on the east by the Cèilidh Trail (Highway 19), on the south by the Mabou River, and on the west and north by the Gulf of St Lawrence, Cape Mabou is among Cape Breton Island’s most beautiful places, a wild highlands plateau whose eroded terrain is crossed by numerous brooks flowing through picturesque gorges. Surrounded on three sides by water, the plateau’s periphery is generally narrow and, on the west, non-existent in places where the plateau’s slopes fall precipitously into the Gulf of St Lawrence, creating stunning views and vistas.

The name Mabou comes from “an obscure Mi’kmaq word Malabo or Malabokak”, according to page 354 of William B. Hamilton’s Place Names of Atlantic Canada. The Wikipedia article on Mabou says that Malabo is a shortened form of Malabokek, meaning a place where two rivers meet, in this instance the rivers now known as the Mull/Mabou River (less often called the Southeast Mabou River) and the Southwest Mabou River, which meet west of Mabou village (this article also observes that some translate the place name as “Shining Waters” or “Sparkling Waters”). According to Donald Cosman’s article on Mabou (no longer available at the site where I saw it, but still viewable in the Wayback Machine’s archives here), the “name was used in the 1700’s. The location was known prior to the settlement by Europeans for the deposit of coal, for the headland which is today called ‘Cape Mabou’ and for the sheltered inlet called ‘Mabou Harbour’.”

The Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History describes Cape Mabou as an outlier of the Avalon Terrane (the surrounding area all belongs to the Aspy Terrane) forming “a rounded knoll 15 km [9.3 mi] by 8 km [5 mi] which reaches an elevation of 335 m [1,100 ft] at the north end and 320 m [1,050 ft] at the south end”. For further information on the geology of this area, consult the museum’s web site and the pages and the PDF files which are linked from it, which I found to be very clearly explained and most interesting reading. I have drawn upon this presentation at various points in this essay.

The mineral resources of Cape Mabou were exploited for much of the 19th century and into the 20th. The coal mines for which the community of Mabou Mines (also known as Mabou Coal Mines) is named are described thus on page 63 of J. L. MacDougall’s History of Inverness County Nova Scotia:

The Mabou coal area is a small field, much faulted, where several seams of good thickness outcrop on Coal Mine and Finlay Points. There are seams 7 feet, 8 feet, 15 feet and 5 feet. The coal is submarine, dipping at a somewhat steep angle seaward, but changing to a much easier one a few hundred feet down the slope and probably flattening out at a small depth. Coal was produced from this area for some years and taken over a railway about six miles long to a shipping pier at Mabou Harbor. In 1903, the production was 6,859 tons. The mine was flooded by the sea in 1909. Dowling states that the "actual reserve" here is 12,000,000 metric tons; the "probable reserve" 36,000,000; and he considers the latter a moderate estimate.

While coal deposits are also found at Port Ban, north of Sight Point, so far as I am able to determine, they were never commercially exploited. In addition to coal, Cape Mabou has considerable deposits of gypsum, still visible today as one drives Mabou Harbour Road towards Green Point, at the shore in Mabou Harbour, along the coast at Coal Mine Point and Finlay Point, and at MacDonalds Glen. The fourth edition of Sir J. William Dawson’s The Geology of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island or Acadian Geology, published in 1891, which I found on-line at this web site, states on page 292 that:

Near the mouth of Mabou River there is an enormous bed of gypsum, which was being quarried when I last visited it for the purpose of making road-embankments, this rock being the only available material at hand. Enormous plaster-pits have been excavated in the outcrop of this great gypseous mass. One of them forms a circular grassy amphitheatre, capable of containing hundreds of persons, and I was informed that there is a spring of water in its centre.

While the gypsum can still be seen today, neither of these mineral resources is any longer being commercially exploited in Cape Mabou. Gravel, on the other hand, is still being taken from a couple of pits at the edges of Cape Mabou.

Gaelic-speaking Scots from the Scottish Highlands settled this region in the early part of the 19th century, clearing homesteads whose overgrown remains can still be seen on the plateau. Unlike the lower lying lands around the periphery of Cape Mabou, whose farms continue to this day, the Cape Mabou Highlands proved to contain mostly marginal farmland more suitable to sheep and cattle than to crops and, by the early 20th century, had been largely abandoned. Except for a large community pasture, where the cattle trucked in to summer there each year have kept the forest at bay, and except for a couple of fields on the north end of the plateau still being used, an area logged some years ago at the south end of the plateau, and some pasture lands above Finlay Point, the Cape Mabou Highlands are today covered with trees: hardwoods (sugar maples, yellow birch, and American beech) in the upper elevations; white spruce and balsam fir near the coasts; and mixed stands along the inland slopes. It is these latter stands which give the slopes on the eastern and southern sides of Cape Mabou their justly renowned gorgeous fall colours.

If the homesteads of the Cape Mabou Highlands have long since disappeared, the rich musical culture that the Scots brought with them has not. Scott Macmillan’s MacKinnon’s Brook Suite is a modern symphonic composition which incorporates elements of traditional Gaelic songs and pipe and fiddle tunes: it celebrates the settlement, now long abandoned, at MacKinnons Brook in the heart of the Cape Mabou Highlands and the courage, perseverance, and grit of those who settled there “beyond the mountain”—it is tribute indeed to the living, thriving musical culture that is embodied in the area’s world-renowned Beaton and Rankin families, as well as in a host of other fine local musicians steeped in what is now known as the Mabou Coal Mines style of music, very close still to what the Scottish settlers brought with them two hundred years ago, though greatly enriched by thousands of fiddle tunes in the same style written by their descendents.

Farming and fishing remain the major economic bases of the local economy today, augmented by tourism. Except at Broad Cove Banks and Foot Cape, along the Cèilidh Trail, along Mabou Harbour Road, in Northeast Mabou, and along the Mabou Mines Road, the Cape Mabou area is all but unpopulated and has reverted to wilderness. The Cape Mabou Trail Club has built the finest trail system anywhere on Cape Breton Island in the heart of this Cape Mabou wilderness; its eighteen trails in superb condition offer a non-pareil hiking experience, leading to gorgeous views of this beautiful area. My second photo essay was entirely devoted to this exceptional trail system, on which I spend a lot of time each year; while this essay does include some additional views from these trails, it concentrates on other views of the Cape Mabou area, many of them from the waters off Cape Mabou, thanks to the boat rides that are part of the annual Cèilidh on the Wharf at Finlay Point Harbour, a celebration of the area’s Scottish musical heritage that takes place the second Sunday of August. The 2007 event occurred on a perfect, hazeless day and the boat I was on ventured further down the coast towards Sight Point than I had ever been before. I am delighted to be able to share the photos I took that day, along with others taken at other places and times, that should give some small impression of the great beauty to be found at Cape Mabou.

Victor Maurice Faubert
2008 April 9

Revision of 2012

The Cape Mabou Trail Club (CMTC) system has been through very hard times in the past few years. The spruce bark beetle has killed off most of the mature white spruce trees that covered many parts of the Cape Mabou Highlands (a scourge not restricted to this one area, but seen all over Cape Breton Island) and signs of which had already made their appearance in some of the photos in this essay. Fortunately, the forest in most places had an admixture of other evergreen trees and, especially inland, deciduous trees, so the forest is by no means gone, but the terrain nevertheless looks very different in 2012 than it did in 2008 because of the wide swaths of forest devastated, some of which have recently been cleared and returned to fields. See the 2009 and 2011 “News and Discoveries” pages in the Hiking Information section of my web site for the details, which involved closing the entire trail system in 2009 and 2010. A small, but heavily hiked, portion of the system was reöpened in 2011 and it is hoped that more of it will be reöpened in 2012. The amazing engineering work of Ian Sherman (who retired from his leadership position in the CMTC in 2011) and his volunteers over many years, has resulted in those parts of the trail system not affected by the spruce kill-off remaining in very good shape, but the pristine condition of the halcyon years is not yet seen on the closed trails and some are likely still completely impassable because of impenetrable blow-down. Volunteers have done yeoman work in getting the newly reöpened trails back in shape and deserve our support; your assistance to the CMTC is even more important than ever to get the currently closed trails cleared, restored, and reöpened.

You may also be interested in the descriptions of my MacDonalds Glen Road and North Highlands Road hikes, which include a number of additional photos, in parts of Cape Mabou outside the Cape Mabou Trail Club system.

Victor Maurice Faubert
2012 March 22

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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.

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