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Home of the Privateers – A Nova Scotia Motorcycle Tour

Traveling to the Harley Owners Group Atlantic Regional, Ed and Arlene find light, music and a renewed sense of what it means to be a Buddy while on a Nova Scotia motorcycle tour.

When I was a kid in the 1950s and ‘60s, print, radio and TV media often featured news of coal miners’ strikes and mining disasters in Nova Scotia. The black-and-white images, the poor quality of newsprint photos or perhaps just the bad news, created an image in my mind of a dark and dreary place. During a brief visit to the province in the late ’80s I saw for myself that in truth it is a beautiful, diverse and exciting place. As a result, it still ranks highest on my “Most Pleasant Surprises” list. Before leaving our home in Langley, BC for our Cross Canada Tour of 2008 I warned my wife, Arlene, “We need to be careful we don’t spend the whole summer in Nova Scotia.”

Our trip across the country to that point had been somewhat of a Mystery Tour, but here we actually had a destination with a time stamp on it: the Atlantic Regional HOG Rally. So far, setting up base camps, doing day trips, then moving on had worked well for us. We had about two weeks before the rally so we used that strategy to do some exploring. 

There was no possible way to see the whole province during that time, so we concentrated our travels in two regions rather than trying to see too much. I made that mistake last time.

We made our first campsite in Glenholme, near Truro. It’s a good hub for some interesting rides and it’s close to the famed tidal bore on the Salmon River in Truro. The world’s highest tides are in the Bay of Fundy. Tides as high as 12 metres squeeze into the head of Minas Basin, then ram their way up the Salmon and Schubenacadie Rivers causing a wave, a tidal bore, in the rivers that is astonishing in its height and speed. We were fortunate the day we were on the Salmon since it was a fairly high tide resulting in a wave more than a metre high that steam-rolled its way around the first bend from our vantage point. Within minutes the river had turned back on itself and what had been a quiet mud flat turned into a violent churning mass of red, muddy standing waves. 

From our campsite we made a circle tour west toward Cape Chignecto on the Bay of Fundy, north to Springhill and then home via the main highway. Along the coast we enjoyed sweeping views of the vast tidal zone at low tide—the tide was out and the mud was in. Shortly after, we had to don warmer gear in fog-shrouded Advocate Harbour, picture-perfect in the mist. 

The sun was out again as we passed through Joggins, the site of the Joggins Fossil Cliffs, home to a 300-million-year-old fossilized forest that includes amphibians and reptiles. The site was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site on July 7, 2008.

The same geology that created the fossil cliffs also created the coal seams locally and throughout Nova Scotia. Coal created an industry in the province and, from that, a rich heritage of coal miners’ traditions and lifestyles. With no place in the province more than 70 kilometres from the ocean, there is a maritime influence everywhere. Combine the mining and maritime lifestyle with a strong Scottish heritage and you have the recipe for one of the most unique cultures in Canada. We sensed the flavour more with each person we met and each place we visited.

Nova Scotia motorcycle tour touching rear wheel in the water

WE TOOK A BACKROAD TRIP INTO Halifax where we visited a friend, then did some brief sightseeing in town. Our focus was byways and small places, and eventually we became enough of a fixture around Glenholme that the girls at the local food market scolded us for quitting early that day when we went in for our daily bread.  

Making Base Camp Number Two at Liverpool, about halfway between Halifax and Yarmouth, the scenic small towns, villages, and history of South Shore beckoned us—tiny Peggy’s Cove where we took a moment at the nearby memorial for Swiss Air Flight 111 which crashed off shore in 1998; Mahone Bay and its churches and period boardwalks were a pleasant surprise in spite of the rain; and Lunenburg, home of the famed schooner Bluenose II. 

As the skies cleared we arrived at Hunt’s Point Campsite, hosted by Dave and Vivian. Their camp is a tad rough, but what they lack in facility they more than make up in hospitality and character. 

The natural harbour at Hunt’s Point has protected vessels from the roaring Atlantic since the mid-1700s and today is the home of a small lobster fleet. Not to take anything away from Peggy’s Cove or Lunenburg, but for us this place is far more representative of maritime life in Nova Scotia. We
lingered there almost every day taking photos, walking the beach and talking with fishermen.

A day ride to the extreme southwest took us as far as Yarmouth where we visited the Firefighter’s Museum, then headed back home along the coast on “old” Highway Three. We passed through Argyle, visiting the oldest standing courthouse and jail in Canada, built in 1805. The area is rich in Acadian heritage and is one of the oldest settlements in Canada. A large wind farm at Pubnico has 17 windmills churning in the breeze in orderly rows. Our curiosity would not let us pass up a must-see in Shag Harbour: a small gazebo dedicated to a UFO sighting in 1967. Decent roads, spectacular views and a history lesson made this one of our foremost rides.

Nearby Liverpool was the home port for privateers (crown-sanctioned pirates) during the swashbuckling early 1800s. Edward Teach, the infamous Blackbeard, started his career as a privateer in Liverpool before going out on his own, uh, hook. We spent a day soaking up the atmosphere, learning about  the town’s boom and bust past and generally loafing on the banks of the Mersey River.

A highlight for any seafood fan is a trip to Digby on the Fundy Coast, a straight run on Hwy Eight across the province from our camp. The route took us through several small inland towns, then ended on the shores of the Annapolis Basin. Our trip was not in vain: the largest, most succulent sea scallops I have ever eaten were in season and every restaurant had them by the boatload, ultra fresh. 

On the way back we made a wrong turn (actually, there are no wrong turns) taking us through Bear River, an old stilted village on the tidewater portion of the small river. 

the classic scene of a colourful fishing boat seen on a Nova Scotia motorcycle tour

FROM THE SOUTH SHORE WE LEAP-frogged to Cape Breton Island to attend the rally. Crossing the very narrow, very shallow Straight of Canso on a causeway to Cape Breton, it seemed as though we had crossed an ocean. We were instantly in a land where signs were in both English and Gaelic … or just Gaelic. The Island is home to the only Scotch distillery and Gaelic college outside Scotland. The mountainous countryside reminded early Scots of their native land and I couldn’t argue. It reminded Alexander Graham Bell of his homeland so much that he made his home in Baddeck on the shore of Bras d’Or Lake. When we visited the Alexander Graham Bell Museum, two hours flew by as we followed the accomplishments of an amazing man. One of his many, many feats was to underwrite the first powered flight in Canada and the British Empire launched from the frozen lake in 1909.

When we finally arrived at the event site, we found it had been worth riding across Canada for this rally. The music was an unexpected delight. Nova Scotia is known around the world for music with strong Gaelic and Celtic roots: fiddlers like Natalie MacMaster and Kendra MacGillivray, groups like the Barra MacNeils and soloists/songwriters such as Rita MacNeil and Andrew Doyle. We rocked to five bands in the street one evening, but the top draw in our books was Andrew Doyle. 

There is a style of music I have dubbed “coal miners’ blues.” The lives of a miner and his family are tough and fraught with danger and death. They work hard and look out for one another. We learned that if someone calls you “Buddy,” you can trust your life to them. Doyle’s rock/blues music reflected this lifestyle. 

Another treat and a surprise to everybody at the banquet was an hour of The Men of the Deeps, a choir of ex-miners singing and telling tales of working underground.  We became swept up in the music that reflected the spirit of the place. Hearing and being part of it, we understood far more about what we had seen and the people we met. 

The only problem is, you could spend the whole summer in Nova Scotia if you’re not careful. 

By Ed Pretty Canadian Biker #259

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