In this photo essay, we visit the Bras d’Or Lakes, a complex fjordal system of connected bodies of brackish water (i.e., slightly salty—mixing fresh water with sea water) approximately 100 km (60 mi) long and 50 km (30 mi) wide and covering roughly 930 km² (360 mi²)¹. It varies widely in depth from generally shallow in the western part of the lake to 81 m (265 ft) in East Bay to 280 m (918 ft) in St Andrews Channel. Situated in the very heart of Cape Breton Island, shared between all four of Cape Breton’s counties (Victoria, Cape Breton, Richmond, and Inverness), it is surrounded nearly everywhere by mountains, making it a place of stunning natural beauty. As I remarked in the previous essay, Cape Breton is one of the very few places whose inner coasts rival in beauty its outer ones!
The Natural History of Nova Scotia web site provides a good overview for those interested in learning more about this lake system’s fascinating natural history and its flora and fauna—including the fact that it was a fresh water lake from about 9,000 to 4,500 years ago. The Wikipedia article is also worth reading for additional background on the Bras d’Or Lakes system. Those unfamiliar with Cape Breton’s geography can refer to this map. It is important to note on this map that the waters adjacent to Whycocomagh, Wagmatcook, Baddeck, and both sides of Boularderie Island are all part of the Bras d’Or Lakes system even though they are not so labelled on the map.
The Bras d’Or Lake system is divided into two halves joined by the 1 km long (0.6 mi) Barra Strait, which passes between Iona and Grand Narrows. The Nova Scotia Atlas labels the half to the north of Iona as ”Great Bras d’Or” and the half to the south as ”Bras d’Or Lake”, which confusingly is also the name of the entire system! I will therefore use the name Bras d’Or Lakes to refer to the entire system and restrict the name Bras d’Or Lake to the central part of the system’s southern half.
Each of the system’s two halves is further subdivided into smaller named areas, nearly all of them arms off the main body of water formed by the surrounding mountainous terrain. The northern half’s components are the Great Bras d’Or Channel to the west of Boularderie Island, the Little Bras d’Or Channel to the east of Boularderie Island, St Andrews Channel to the southeast of Boularderie Island, Baddeck Bay to the northeast of Baddeck, St Patricks Channel to the southwest of Baddeck, Nyanza Bay adjacent to Wagmatcook, Whycocomagh Bay to the southwest of Little Narrows, and the main body of the northern half, the Great Bras d’Or, which I will rename here as the Great Bras d’Or Lake to avoid confusion with the Great Bras d’Or Channel. The southern half’s components are the River Denys Basin, West Bay, St Peters Inlet, and East Bay, with the main part of the southern half known as the Bras d’Or Lake.
In French, Bras d’Or means ”Arm(s) of Gold” (bras is both singular and plural). This is a very appropriate name for this lake system, which has an abundance of arms, any of which, under a bright sun at the right angle, can reflect the sunlight and so make the waters appear golden.
Until 1869, the lake system was connected to the ocean only in two places, both on the north side of Cape Breton Island: a wider channel on the northwest side of Boularderie Island between Cape Dauphin and Table Head (below the Bird Islands on the referenced map) and a narrow winding one on the southeast side of Boularderie Island between Point Aconi and Alder Point. In that year, an 800 m (2625 ft) canal was opened on the south side of the Island across the isthmus at St Peter’s separating St Peters Inlet, an arm of the Bras d’Or Lake, from St Peters Bay, an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean; see the Parks Canada web site for St Peters Canal for additional information about this canal, which is the only lock system still operating in Nova Scotia.
The province defines a scenic route around the perimeter of the Bras d’Or Lakes known as the ”Bras d’Or Lakes Scenic Drive”; on the referenced map, its route appears in pink and is marked with a trail sign bearing an eagle. The drive is described in the provincial Doers’ and Dreamers’ Guide and is available as a download from this web site. The photos I present in this essay were taken on various occasions when I drove this route. I was a bit appalled to discover that I am lacking photographic coverage of some significant parts of this drive, though I have in fact passed over the entirety of this route at least once each of the past four years (though not necessarily all on the same day—it’s a long drive!). In part, this is because I do not know much of this area anywhere near as well as my usual Cèilidh Trail haunts; in part, it is because several pictures I did take were so poor as to not be worth sharing; in part, it is because I was still using a film camera and was concerned with the costs of developing lots of photos—a concern that has disappeared with the digital camera I now use; and in part, it is because on a couple of those drives I was faced with weather not conducive to photography. So please excuse my lack of coverage of the Little Bras d’Or Channel, St Patricks Channel, Nyanza Bay, St Peters Inlet, East Bay, and St Andrews Channel, all of which are just as pretty as the other areas I have covered; I will attempt to fill these holes in my collection and will certainly revisit the Bras d’Or Lakes when I have better coverage.
As always, there are many other views that are as worthy of inclusion here as those I have chosen and that I have had to omit for lack of space. What is here is simply to whet your appetite for getting out and enjoying the marvellous views that are to be had all along the shores of the Bras d’Or Lakes.
Feedback on the photos and the accompanying commentary, including corrections, is always welcome.
Victor Maurice Faubert
2006 June 14
¹ The referenced Natural History of Nova Scotia web site gives the water area as 260 km² (100 mi²), but this is surely much too small. The Wikipedia article puts it at 1100 km² (425 mi²) while the area given above comes from Webster’s New Geographical Dictionary (ISBN 0-87779-146-5), with which my edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica also agrees.↩