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- Difficulty: Moderate-Difficult.
- Facilities: Some adjacent private campgrounds.
- Signage: Minimal, at East & Main Branches.
- Features: 3 converging branches; Main (14km), West (36km), and East (17km). Live water level reporting to help plan your trip.
- Biodiversity: Atlantic Salmon | Wood Turtle | Bald Eagle | More…
- Tags: #Backcountry, #Bird-Watching, #Bridge, #Fishing, #Nature-Reserve, #Old-Growth, #Paddling, #River.
St. Mary’s River
The longest river in Nova Scotia, the St. Mary’s River is best known for being one of the main habitats for the province’s iconic, but endangered Atlantic Salmon population. The remote wilderness is a haven to many different species of wildlife and is a big part of what makes this river so special. Experiencing true wilderness, far from human developments is a rarity in the modern world, and the St. Mary’s River delivers it in spades.
You know it’s a remote area when the Google Maps satellite details are sketchy and blurry. The irony is that you can clearly see the satellites themselves amongst the astounding kaleidoscope of stars visible on clear nights. The starry vastness of the night sky, the likes of which most people have never seen, is one of the most memorable parts of this trip. (Google’s “Sky Map” app is one of my favourite activities for such nights).
You have 3 main paddling routes to choose from. The Main, West and East branches all diverge on a central point in Glenelg, making it fairly easy to plan trips of various lengths. As a general rule of thumb, I assume that I will paddle a fully loaded canoe around 5km/h and use that to plan trip time. Of course, river and weather conditions play a huge part in that calculation so I would use it as a ballpark estimate.
When I did this trip, my crew tackled the West branch. We used 2 cars, parking one at Sutherland’s Bridge (pulled onto the narrow shoulder of the road) and one at the Waternish Bridge entry point (plenty of space on the shoulder). One important aspect to remember when coordinating such a trip is that cell phone service is unreliable-to non-existent throughout much of this area. Phoning your crew during the many km’s of rough backroads often isn’t possible, so have plans fully in place beforehand.
A Paddling Adventure
We paddled the West Branch in late May and the water levels were extremely low (this was likely just a bad couple of days because I checked the water levels again days later and it had risen substantially). This section of the river seems to get deeper the farther you go, and is most shallow in the first segment or two. When water levels are at 2 feet or below, you will be dragging your canoe for large stretches, so it’s very important to factor that in.
The padding can be challenging in spots. You’re likely to encounter various combinations of slow shallows, fast-moving narrows (where you can end up on a backward ride with fingers crossed), and Titanic iceberg-like rocks which are never good to meet at top speed. The exhausting challenge we faced was mainly the extended periods of canoe dragging due to the low water levels in the first segment of the West branch. There were some technically challenging spots, but never anything approaching difficult rapids.
As far as campsites on the West Branch there are no official sites, but we had heard of a couple of unofficial sites (marked on my map) that we unintentionally paddled right by. My advice would be to not pass up a spot that looks like an ideal campsite and plan on not being able to harvest much firewood on-site (nor are you allowed to cut anything down). There are private campgrounds along the East/Main branches (marked on my map).
Since I haven’t paddled the Main or East branch yet, I’ll refer those sections to the extremely informative website created by the St. Mary’s River Association which is a wealth of information. I used their info to plan my trip.
Protection & Conservation
I highly recommend supporting the great work the St. Mary’s River Association is doing. The Nova Scotia Nature Trust is also doing important work at protecting significant portions of the river. Recent developments have put the river in the crosshairs of dirty industry as a huge open-pit gold mine has been proposed nearby. If allowed to happen, it will pose significant threats to the entire ecosystem, as well as bringing an industrial footprint that will not square with the untouched beauty of the area. They have put together a fantastic online visual showcase of the river’s cultural & natural significance here.
A newly announced whale sanctuary in nearby Port Hilford will further make the area an ecotourism destination that is increasingly at odds with the province’s old, toxic industries. Stay apprised with the St. Mary’s River Association, Nature Trust, Ecology Action Centre, and other organizations who are working to oppose this threat, and voice your concerns to elected representatives.
When planning any trip on this river, remember that you are in a remote area so you should be properly prepared with the right gear. Weather and river conditions can change very rapidly so it’s never safe to make assumptions. I recommend using a dedicated GPS device, (preferably a satellite communicator) a substantial first aid kit, and a compass. Plan for worst-case scenarios and not being able to use your cell phone at all for communication.