Glooscap Trail : Anchored by Minas Basin (Nova Scotia)

Nuzzled against the Bay of Fundy is one of Nova Scotia’s lesser-known treasures, the Glooscap Trail. Dotted with quaint villages, the slow-moving Glooscap is an invitation to experience a rural-by-the-sea lifestyle.

Anchored by the Minas Basin
Story and photos by Larry Simpson

I moved to Nova Scotia five years ago to retire after too many years working in the stark but road-less beauty of Nunavut. I was drawn to the moderate climate, wooded countryside, Atlantic seascapes, and “rural-by-the-sea” lifestyle of a tiny community on Minas Basin called Lower Economy. Perched on Highway Two, Lower Economy rests smack dab on the backbone of the Glooscap Trail. While the Glooscap may not be a household name elsewhere, it offers one of the best riding areas of Atlantic Canada. Saddle up and I’ll take you for a ride.

TO THE SOUTH OF MY HOME IN Lower Economy is the awesome Bay of Fundy. To the north are the rugged Cobequid highlands. Above me, there’s usually a bowl of blue sky, while below is a deep well with good water. The thing about Nova Scotia is you are never more than 150 kilometres or so from the ocean, and nearly all the province’s coastal roads are allocated to “Trails” falling within seven unique tourism zones. The Cabot Trail around Cape Breton is arguably the best known while the Evangeline Trail evokes the Acadian experience. The Glooscap Trail has history as well with aboriginals and Acadians in its roots, but it is the Minas Basin of the mighty Bay of Fundy and its meandering shoreline that most defines the Glooscap. Some 14 billion tonnes of water flush daily through the Minas Basin, heart of the world’s highest tides. The extreme tides shape the rugged coast into a splendour in flux, and the constant erosion makes this a good place for fossil hunting and rock-hounding. Time was, this was dinosaur country—and, oddly, Fundy and Morocco were once neighbours until the big Continental Drift.
Frommer’s Travel Guides called it one of the top 10 destinations in 2012, and Fundy was one of the 28 world finalists and the sole Canadian finalist in the global campaign to nominate the New7WondersofNature.

The Glooscap will deliver you to the Bay of Fundy, with maximum ride opportunities. Get on Highway Two at Amherst heading south or at Truro heading north. Or if you are riding from Halifax or better yet coming off the Digby ferry from St. John, New Brunswick you can ride the Evangeline Trail to a point near Windsor, Nova Scotia where it seamlessly hands over to the Glooscap. Backwoods highways 215 and 236 carry the Glooscap badge, and these scenic routes follow the southern shore of Minas Basin though a string of relaxed communities including Walton, Noel, and Maitland where fine tidal bore whitewater rafting awaits the adventurous as the incoming Fundy tide shoots up the Shubenacadie River.

Truro is called the Hub of Nova Scotia, and riders coming here often coincide their trip with the Dutch Mason Blues (and Bikes) Festival in August. Visit the Glooscap Heritage Centre on Hwy. 102 located behind the torch-bearing 40-ft. foot statue of the aboriginal Glooscap, who is a central figure in the Abenaki people’s creation myth.

West of Truro is the award-winning Masstown Market, heralded by the prominent new lighthouse on-site. I usually just get a specialty ice cream cone here but today I go for a bowl of seafood chowder, coffee and cinnamon bun. It is a Sunday morning and I ponder how busy this rural but gutsy enterprise has become with passing motorists including bikers.

Just down the road a few klicks from Masstown I find Glenholme where the road turns in to hug the coast again. We are entering serious commercial strawberry country now, and I get a kick out of encountering groups of Jamaican women, migrant farm workers, strolling along enjoying their day off. These labourers, along with a smaller number of Mexican males, over 200 in all, add a lot of local colour and diversity to the area for about six months each year. They are friendly and quick to return a wave as I toot my horn in greeting. When I ask if I can take their picture they unabashedly spring into pose position.

Antique shops (of Canadian Pickers renown) are well represented in Great Village, clustered across from the last gas “for 63 km.” Yard sales are de rigeur in these parts. In fact if you hit the right day in summer you will see a coordinated string of yard sales all the way from Onslow to Parrsboro and beyond. I like to check out the odd yard sale and often just slow into second gear to scrutinize the wares as I pass. Though not much yard sale bounty can be carried on a bike, I have occasionally transported surprising hauls, having been inspired by bike transporting feats witnessed in Asia and Africa. I even hauled a wife and young son back to Lower Economy from one road trip in Kenya, though that story goes somewhat beyond yard sales and payload.

The small cluster of houses that make up Portapique do not require much deceleration, but careful with that sharp left turn after the bridge in Bass River. Here, bass fishermen line the shore in their portable chairs, snuggled up close to their coolers. Up the road I ponder that the Upper in Upper Economy derives from being closer to Halifax than say Lower Economy, and the name Economy itself is reportedly derived from the Micmac “Kenomee.” Reminds me that Chicken, Alaska got its name due to a local difference of opinion as to how to spell ptarmigan.
Central Economy hosts a neat WWII observation tower-slash-Cobequid Interpretive Centre (complete with travel information and public-access computer), which facilitated the view of trainee bomber crews blasting the hell out of the little islands just offshore. There are B&Bs and cottages to rent in Economy, and if you are lucky you can accompany local fishermen heading out to check their weir at low tide. Sadly, a great white shark was part of the catch a couple years ago when it pursued some seals close to shore and was subsequently confused by the trap leader in a quickly receding tide.

I AM FOLLOWING A SCHOOL BUS BUT the stops to discharge children are few and far between—largely older people live along the highway these days. This area was once a lot busier and more populated with people working in fishing, ship building, logging and farming industries. With decline in these sectors, young people are moving to where the jobs and amenities are, as young people do everywhere else in rural Canada.

Picturesque Five Islands (pop. 500) got its name from an aboriginal legend in which Glooscap threw five big rocks at his enemy Beaver to create the islands. The local eatery “Mo’s” is a good place to get off the bike for a stretch, a cup of coffee, a bowl of soup or maybe some wood-fired pizza. Internet access is available here as well as hostel accommodation for those interested in an over night stay.
Or you can pitch a tent at beautiful Five Islands Provincial Park, which has become known for the “Not Since Moses” run held in August of each year, last year attracting some 1,200 runners from throughout Nova Scotia and beyond. What distinguishes this run from others is that competitors young and old, and with varying degrees of seriousness, head out onto the mud flats at low tide and get back ahead of the returning tide, covering bottom just vacated by flounders.

Continuing my ride on the Glooscap Trail, it’s obvious I have now passed out of strawberry into blueberry country. There’s plenty of evidence of this, though no Jamaicans in sight because blueberry harvesting is a more mechanized industry than picking strawberries. Parrsboro has a Tim Hortons and bikers being bikers a lot of them stop here for a coffee and donut recharge. Parrsboro was named by one magazine the best-kept secret of Nova Scotia a few years back. There was once a train station here too, in busier times a generation or two ago, and also a ferry to Cape Blomingdon on the other side of the Basin. Now it’s just a pretty little coastal town with big stately white houses, a Co-op grocery store, gas station, restaurants, live theatre at the Ships Theatre, accommodations, and a liquor store. Also worth a look around is the Fundy Geological Museum. In future the town could see big developments in tidal power generation in Minas Basin, once the kinks are ironed out of the pilot projects currently underway.

Heading out of Parrsboro on Highway Two north I soon come to a fork in the road where one can turn west along the coast to Port Greville, Advocate, and on to Joggins before doing the last leg to Amherst. This enchanting route is, officially speaking, not part of the Glooscap Trail.
I turn left on Highway 209 with the plan of returning from Amherst to Parrsboro through Springhill. The best of both worlds is when you can do a loop like this. Highway 209 is a joy for bikers: twisty, but with good surface, incredible scenery along the way, and passing through nice little towns that each has its own story.

At Diligent River you can take a tandem ride on a paraglider with a company called Pegasus if that’s your thing. Visit the Age of Sail museum in Port Greville (three-mast schooners were once built here to work the Caribbean trade), hang out on the quiet beach by the lighthouse at Spencer’s Island or even spend the night there in a rental cabin or your own tent. Visit spectacular Cape Chignecto Provincial Park near Advocated for some top-notch sea kayaking, hiking, or just scenic camping. You will see dykes along this stretch where the Acadians held back volatile Fundy waters from plundering their agricultural endeavours. Apple River has gas if that is an issue by now. Joggins is a World Natural Heritage Site with an interesting interpretive centre focusing on the fossil bounty of coastal cliffs exposed by the extreme Fundy tides.
Back on the road heading east there is a cozy little restaurant in River Hebert where can sit you down for a spell. On the home stretch now, you will know you are nearing Amherst when you are coming down a long descent with a panoramic view including that of 15 huge wind turbines. There you can get back on to Highway 104 to head west to Moncton or east to Truro or on up to Cape Breton to do the Cabot Trail. Or, like me, you can turn around and head back onto Highway Two to Springhill where I spot a couple long-distance bikers hovering over their resting BMWs and stop to chat.

Though I don’t have time on this particular ride to visit the Ann Murray Centre or the Miners Museum (evocative of the famous Springhill Mine Disaster), but I was here a few weeks ago for the Old Tyme Saturday night fling. It was a hoot with 1960s music, street vendors selling food, and antique cars and bikes on the closed-off main street.
The Glooscap Trail is a gem that pulls and pushes you through the rugged beauty of the coastal scenery shaped and pounded by Fundy tides. The history and geography of this region are never far away, and the Glooscap is one of those rare compromises of journey and destination.
You can do the Glooscap Trail in one day if you do not have time to explore, but this really is a nice route to just slow down and enjoy the pace.
(Canadian Biker, May 2013)

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