The Bras d’Or Lakes

[Original] Introduction

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.

Revision of 2012

Since this essay was written I have become aware of another etymology for the name Bras d’Or. Quoting Place Names of Atlantic Canada:

Writing in 1829, the Nova Scotian historian and author Thomas Chandler Haliburton pointed to a connection between this name and Bras d’Or Lake in Cape Breton. The Lazaro Luis map of 1563, which reflected the voyages of João Alvares Fagundes in the 1520s, ‘applied the name La Terra doo Laurador to Cape Breton Island and mainland Nova Scotia. The name reappeared in 1672 in the form Lac de Labrador, given to the great salt water lake of Cape Breton … which survives as the present Bras d’Or Lake.’ Earlier, Nicolas Denys used the same name when describing the neighbourhood of his fort at St Peter’s, on Cape Breton Island. ‘That which is called Labrador is a stretch of the sea, cutting in half the island of Cape Breton, with the exception of eight hundred paces or thereabouts of land which remain between the Fort of Saint Pierre and the extremity of the Sea of Labrador.’ As is often the case in Atlantic Canadian nomenclature, the appearance this far to the south of the name Labrador may, in all probability, be credited to mapping errors. Happily, the name resulted in the euphonious place name Bras d’Or Lake. [pp. 6-7; footnote numbers in the original omitted]

While the explanation given in the original introduction above is correct as regards French, it now appears that the origin is not French, but rather the word Labrador, derived from the Portuguese llavrador, meaning land owner, misapplied to the Bras d’Or Lakes system through an old mapping error!

At the time I put this essay together, my collection of Cape Breton photos was much smaller and many of what I had were digitized versions of photos shot on film; as I look through them now, they seem of rather poor quality overall, but they were the best of what I had to work with. The somewhat larger versions in this revision are no clearer than the smaller ones, but I have managed to brighten them up somewhat (and straighten some that were atilt), so they look better overall, but still leave much to be desired. Six years later, my photo library now has photos of all of the locations for which I was missing them when this essay was written and more of the locations seen here; some of these later photos have appeared in subsequent essays, but it is certainly past time to revisit this beautiful area of Cape Breton in a new photo essay with higher quality photos.

Victor Maurice Faubert
2012 January 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; when no coördinate is given, I have been unable to reconstruct where I was exactly when the photo was taken.

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.


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