Canso Canal and the Strait of Canso

Canso Causeway Bridge
[#1] Photo 1 of 132: Canso Causeway Bridge
Taken 2011 March 6 in Port Hastings from just southwest of the Canso Causeway bridge
GPS 45°38.876'N 61°24.731'W

“Welcome to Cape Breton” indeed! Unless you are based in Newfoundland, if you drive to Cape Breton, your time in Cape Breton necessarily begins at the bridge over the Canso Canal at the eastern end of the Canso Causeway, seen in photo #1, where many tears of joy have been shed on arriving and even more of grief have been shed on leaving. Just ask any Caper who has had to leave the island for economic reasons how much crossing this bridge in either direction tugs at the heart, emotions that more than one song has captured. Even a visitor like myself is not immune from such reäctions: while one can see Cape Breton Island a goodly distance before reaching the Causeway, crossing this bridge onto the island is always cause for celebration as it marks the end of a long journey and the start of an always incredible time. For the greeting emblazoned on its western arch is far more than a simple formality: it bears tribute to the great hospitality of Cape Bretoners throughout the island, always welcoming (the first words I heard when I arrived in Mabou was “Welcome home!”) and ever happy to share their home’s natural beauty and rich cultures with strangers and with each other. There is truly no other place in the world like Cape Breton!

So, it is entirely fitting that this essay documenting my first trip there in the winter include a photo of this bridge. The day I was here was not the best of days for photography, but it was warmer than it had been, as one can see by the melted snow at the side of the roadway by the bridge.

The area at the eastern end of the Canso Causeway on both sides of the bridge is under the administration of the Canadian Coast Guard, part of the federal ministry known as Fisheries and Oceans Canada. On the eastern end of the bridge on the north side of the roadway, you will find a gazebo with some very interesting interpretive panels discussing the history, construction, and operation of the Canso Canal and a public parking area; this is a fine place to leave your car and to continue afoot, as I did this day.

The southern terminus of the Railway Trail, now officially incorporated into the Trans-Canada Trail, is in this parking area, marked by a kiosk with a bright red roof. You may follow the trail north along the eastern side of the island past the canal operations area, but do not enter the fenced-in area itself, as the rest of the area north of the parking lot is closed to the public. If you walk along the trail several minutes to the north, you will cross a bridge and find yourself on a long and narrow peninsula hosting Ghost Beach, from which you will be rewarded with expansive views of the Strait of Canso and of the Canso Causeway, such as this one showing Cape Porcupine rising above the Causeway.

This, however, being winter, the trail was snow-covered and uninviting, so I instead walked to the bridge seen here and crossed over it—a sidewalk accommodates pedestrians; photo #2 was taken from the middle of the bridge looking directly up the canal. The bright red paint¹ adds a welcome touch of colour to the otherwise fairly subdued scene, so different from its sparkling summer appearance. The ice in the canal and the great expanse of sea ice in the Strait beyond attest to the lack of any recent activity in the canal; this is no surprise, as the Canso Canal operates from 14 April to 23 December (see the Canso Canal web page for other historical and operational information; the Wikipedia article on the Canso Causeway is also well worth reading).

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¹ Mike Little informs me that winter repairs were underway when this photo was taken and that “the red steel is a temporary coffer dam, to hold back the water while they replaced the steel railway track the gates actually ride on. You can see the steel 8 inch discharge pipes from the sump pumps sticking up”—“they have a 90 degree bend to discharge the water over the closed gates.” I had misread the red steel as the southern lock gates which, of course, are clearly visible behind the coffer dam in their usual cement grey colour.

Canso Canal and the Strait of Canso to the North
[#2] Photo 2 of 132: Canso Canal and the Strait of Canso to the North
Taken 2011 March 6 in Port Hastings from the Canso Causeway Bridge
GPS 45°38.876'N 61°24.731'W
Strait of Canso to the north
[#3] Photo 3 of 132: Strait of Canso to the north
Taken 2011 March 6 in Port Hastings from the north side of the Canso Causeway
GPS 45°38.876'N 61°24.731'W

Just across the bridge, on the western side of the canal to the north of the roadway, there is a grassy public area where one can freely wander; a small lighthouse (not open) is found there and there is usually a cool breeze off the Strait, making it a pleasant place in which to pass some time on a warm summer day. In March, however, the area was snow-covered and icy, so I walked out along the Causeway at the edge of the road, from which I took photo #3 looking to the north along the Cape Breton shore: it shows the north entrance to the canal and the southern end of the aforementioned peninsula. The huge rocks seen in this photo likely came from Cape Porcupine across the Strait and are needed to protect the area from the horrendous winds and wind-blown waves that periodic severe storms inflict on the Causeway.

After crossing the roadway to the south side of the Causeway, I was considerably surprised, as it was Sunday, to notice a train approaching in the distance, seen in photo #4 after it had gotten much closer. Prior to the construction of the causeway, trains, like cars, people, and livestock, had to cross the Strait on ferries, photos of which (and much else related to the Causeway) can be seen in this very interesting Virtual Museum of Canada exhibit (be sure to click on the text attachments to learn more about the photos you are viewing). Note again in this photo the huge boulders lining the shores of the Causeway; considerable repair work was done here recently, both above and below the water line, to counteract the damage caused by previous storms.

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Train crossing the Canso Causeway
[#4] Photo 4 of 132: Train crossing the Canso Causeway
Taken 2011 March 6 in Port Hastings from just southwest of the Canso Causeway bridge
GPS 45°38.876'N 61°24.731'W
Strait of Canso to the south
[#5] Photo 5 of 132: Strait of Canso to the south
Taken 2011 March 6 in Port Hastings from along the south side of the Canso Causeway
GPS 45°38.876'N 61°24.731'W

Photo #5 shows the view from the Causeway to the south, where the industrial park at Port Tupper (south of Port Hawkesbury) stands against the grey skies. Unlike the waters to the north of the Causeway, the waters on the south side are normally ice free, though I have been told that, given a long enough stretch of extremely cold weather, ice may form adjacent to the Causeway there too, but it is usually short-lived at best and does not extend far enough south of the Causeway to interfere with shipping. At the far right of the photo is the tip of Cape Porcupine. The ships at the right of the photo beyond Cape Porcupine are anchored in the Strait off Point Tupper and visit there year round as both the Strait and Chedabucto Bay beyond remain ice-free in the winter. The wind farm spanning the left side of the photo testifies to the frequency and reliability of the winds in the Strait: ’tis indeed an ill wind that blows no good!