Most people will agree there are few better places to swim in Nova Scotia than Antigonish County. I know firsthand, having swum in the streams, lakes and ocean there for the last three decades.
Inland, there are watery spots you might not expect worth a dip. Down Addington Forks Road, past the big sloping field on the left where sheep graze, the road to St. Joseph’s turns to gravel and crosses an iron bridge spanning the West River. Here, after arriving by bike, I’ve rested and watched anglers cast their lines into slow-moving pools close to the banks.
In the high summer my son and I cooled off in the crisp water here and in a creek down Mill Road which twists and gurgles beside a farm.
For a serious swim before the ocean warms up, I’ve gone to Cameron Lake near Keppoch Mountain. A drive down a dirt road through deep woods trails a thick dust plume that coats the leaves beside the road. A trail under massive pine trees leads to a glade where a cottage once stood, its stone fireplace still visible. Before they donated it to the Keppoch Mountain Association, some locals bought this land years ago and posted signs warning against trespassing. I shrugged off my feelings of guilt and went to the dock regardless and enjoyed every one of those swims! Often I drove to the other side of the lake which no one owned and where there was a grassy space by the edge of the water and I could hear frogs croaking or a beaver slapping the water and maybe see a brown head coming over, checking me out.
I have been to the lake in every season and in every condition. On sunny days when I did the front crawl, the water underneath shone with the sun’s rays, and when it was overcast, the bubbles caused by my strokes rolled past my face like globes of mercury against a black background. I’ve lain on the dock in a pelting summer rain when lightning tore up the blue-black sky. Once, after my sister told me there were two snapping turtles on a log 50 metres from the dock, I swam out, half blind without my glasses, and stroked one of the big turtles on its rough head. So, I was a fool a few times over coming to Cameron Lake, but lucky.
To me, though, swimming in the ocean around Antigonish County is the best. Each time I arrive and see that big body of water and smell the sea air and feel the drop in temperature, I leave the mainland world behind (“that was the river, this is the sea!”). Each time I measure the swim I am going to have, what the conditions are, how low or high the tide is, and the wind and the temperature of the water. June is generally too cold to swim unless you wear a wet suit; July is doable if the jelly fish don’t ruin it, and August is the best if the air temperature stays up.
There are beaches at Bayfield and Pomquet, the latter a protected area for the piping plover, but I have stuck mostly to Cape George. Mahoney’s Beach lies 11 kilometres north of Antigonish on Route 337. From the highway as you approach, you can see the inlet below and the beach and long breakers rolling to shore. Probably the most popular beach in Antigonish County because of its proximity to town, it is increasingly rocky these days, which makes getting into the water hard unless the tide is out and the sand bank appears. Beyond this necklace of stones, though, there is sand, and as you swim you can see crabs scurrying off or hunkering down with their claws up. Further on is the opening for the inlet, which appeared a few years ago. When I came with my family from Alberta back in the early 1980s the inlet was closed off and the beach went on and on. We used to drive our car 500 metres along a trail through the dunes and lie there on cool windy days to stay warm.
After Mahoney’s comes Jim Town, a small sandy beach, and then St.F.X.’s Crystal Cliffs. The caretaker of the property used to live with his family in the house by the road, and would build a teepee every summer out of driftwood. It cast shade for the hottest days and had a swing. All was fine for many years, and the teepee became part of the atmosphere and tradition of the season, that is until a newbie bureaucrat at the university deemed the structure a hazard and ordered it removed, which the caretaker refused, and was then fired.
At Crystal Cliffs I used to swim to the left around a rocky point to another beach, a 100 metre-long arc of sand, and to the chalky white cliffs and stones underwater which give you the feeling, especially in the morning when the sun hasn’t peaked yet and radiates on the stones at the right angle, of the white coral sand and turquoise sea of the Caribbean.
CRIBBONS ROCK BEACH
Cribbons Rock Beach is next. Around 17 kilometres from Antigonish, the beach can be found off the main road, after the little sign for MacDonald beach, a long sandy stretch perfect for young children, by turning onto the gravel road by the Boyd family memorial. Wild pink roses and bay leaf and tall grass grow beside the trail to the beach, then the beach opens up in front of you. It is wide and long, stretching a kilometre to the left and a few hundred metres right where an outcropping of brown rocks sticks out (a popular party and jumping off spot).
When you swim here you see mainly sand but also, to the right, wide slabs of stone, schools of speckled sea bass and, further out, on the sandy bottom, a solitary lobster heading somewhere, and then, a bizarre surprise, a golf ball that was shot into the ocean from the clifftop by the house owner, and owner of Piper’s Pub. When it is sunny in shallow calm water the sunlight reflecting on the ripples causes light reflections on the sandy floor like waves from a Tesla coil.
Continue around the Cape and finally you come to the beach at Malignant Cove. Whenever I step out of the car, my sensations are always the same: I smell wild roses mixed with bay leaf and pine scrub and sea air, and sometimes the inlet when it has drained with the tide going out.
I’ve swum here in glass-smooth water when the morning sun lights the tinkling bright pebbles near shore, or in the evening when the sun is low and the sea darkening. I’ve swum in rough seas on hot afternoons when the waves slammed on the shore, and I’ve ridden the waves and sandpapered my belly raw from the sand and stones. And on super calm, storm-approaching afternoons, the sky on the horizon dark dark blue, charged with electricity, I have seen the individual hairs of my wife and daughter stand straight up in the crackling electric air.