A funny thing happened on the way to our campground. The exit we took off the Trans-Canada Highway to get to the site showed one way for Ohio and the other for Shelburne. We thought it was only fitting that our last destination in Canada would show the options we faced just a few months ago for our lives: Stay in Ohio, or move to Shelburne, MA. Life is just weird like that, I guess.
The campground at the provincial park in Shelburne is a former granite quarry that sits right on the ocean, in a protected cove, like much of the southern Nova Scotian coastline, which is jagged and filled with inlets, rivers, and lighthouses. The lichen-speckled boulder that sat the entrance to our campsite looked like a guard animal to me. I wasn’t sure what kind of animal it resembled, but I loved the vibe of it.
Our campsite's granite protector
In the morning, we went west to see the Black Loyalist Heritage Centre in Birchtown. The Black Loyalists were slaves who were enticed to fight for the British in the Revolutionary War with promises of freedom and land. I had never learned this in my American History classes. I certainly was never tested on it, if I was.
Black Loyalists Heritage Centre
I also learned, although I was not surprised, that at the war’s end, some of the former slaves were actually returned to their former owners, despite the promises made to them upon enlistment. Those who were able to escape to Nova Scotia and were given land, received the scraps that were left over after the good land was given to non-former slave Loyalists. The land in Birchtown is rocky and the soil is poor for agriculture. Many people resorted to living in Pit Houses, which are small A-framed rooftops placed over holes dug into the ground. Remarkably, and with the help of the Mi'kmaq who are native to the area, several hundred Black Loyalists made a life there, while many others, faced with poverty and discrimination, eventually left to form a free town in Sierra Leone.
Viewing a replica of a pit house
The Heritage Centre’s exhibits were presented via state-of-the-art interactive video screens and included artifacts that were unearthed during several archeological digs in the area. One of the most compelling (and for me heart wrenching) activities at the Centre was to follow the life of the person whose name was shown on our admission tickets. I discovered that my person was a six-year-old girl, described as a “fine child” in the first document I had to find which was a property listing, similar to a ship’s manifest. I noticed many other children’s names on the list, many of whom were younger than Miss Herbert, who was on my ticket. I could look no further, as this made me sick to my stomach. My disturbance was exacerbated by the current socio-political environment in the US, where we are witnessing a resurgence in neo-Nazism, racism and neo-fascist tendencies.
In this same exhibit that displayed the horrific conditions and treatment of the slaves, Bruce and I noticed slave owners identified as Quakers and doctors, amongst other professions. We were struck, once again, by the knowledge that “respectable” people can be an integral part of a destructive and dehumanizing system.
Bruce traced the history for this man, whose name appears on Bruce's admissions stub.
The Centre and other museums and exhibits like it, play an important role in educating people about all of history. An important part of learning history fully is to make us aware of the horrors humans have committed against each other over time in order to prevent us from repeating those same horrors again. In fact, this museum has a section that discusses human slavery that exists in contemporary times, and challenges visitors to do something about it. Bruce and I both found the Centre to be humbling and moving.
Needing something a little more lighthearted after the Heritage Centre, we continued down the coast to the southernmost point of Nova Scotia on Cape Sable Island to see the province’s tallest lighthouse. To do that, we had to get to Hawk Beach, which also has a section called the Drowned Forest. At low tide, the stumps of trees estimated to have been rooted in that location for 1500 years are exposed to the air. Luck again was on our side, as we got there while the tide was still out, so we had an excellent view of this strange phenomenon.
The Hawk, Cape Sable Island Lighthouse, Drowned Forest
Upon closer examination, we noticed an eerie mist that we couldn’t explain, rolling over the tops of the stumps from the sea toward land. As we were contemplating that occurrence, I heard a growling sound coming from the water. Neither of us could identify what it was, so I’m calling it Nessie’s Canadian cousin, even though (a) we were not on a lake, and (b) the Loch Ness Monster is a freshwater creature, albeit a mythical one. (I’m telling you it was like a monster’s growl.) We left Cape Sable as the tide started to roll in, and headed back to Shelburne to see its historic district. We found it only fitting to spend our last night in Canada in the town with the same name as our new hometown in the US.
Shelburne’s claim to fame is derived from its shipbuilding prowess. In fact, a significant amount of the ships that sailed the East Coast in the 18th century were constructed by the highly skilled shipbuilders from Shelburne. Still standing at the historic harbor are several original structures where wood was shaped, molded and eventually framed and finished into beautiful boats used for fishing and other commercial activities.
Checking out one of the interpretive signs in Shelbune,Nova Scotia
Unfortunately, Shelburne’s good fortune was short-lived. After only a few decades, the community that had been able to support three different newspapers and had a vibrant economy, began to lose its standing in the industry, and the population moved elsewhere. It is possible to visit all of the historic buildings as part of a museum tour, but we got there late in the afternoon when things were about to close, so we opted out of doing that. We wandered around the harbor area, reading most of the interpretive signs that were scattered about, and visiting the Fisherman’s Memorial.
Shelburne Fishing Memorial
We’ve seen these memorials in many of the towns in the Maritime provinces. These monuments are solemn reminders of how dangerous the fishing profession really is, and it is sobering to see the names of vessels and people who were lost at sea on the same day.
We headed down to the a pub near the Shelburne Yacht Club’s marina so we could eat while watching the boats entering and leaving the wharf. After dinner, we returned to our campsite to get ready for the journey home. We’ve had an incredible time here in Canada, and hope to return again to see more of the Maritimes!