The Shelburne River valley is a product of the natural processes of the earth. Repeatedly scraped bare by glaciers and burned by fire, the underlying granite of the area is exposed, leaving little soil but many boulders, erratics and eskers. The bogs, barrens, and wetlands of this slow-moving waterway are a result of this underlying geology and natural history.
The watershed is home to some of Nova Scotia’s most barren areas as well as to some of its only remaining old growth pine and hemlock forests. The Shelburne River International Biological Program site was established between Sand Lake and Lake Rossignol in such a stand of old growth eastern hemlock, where trees reach 125 cm in diameter.
The Shelburne is Nova Scotia’s most remote watershed. Its barrenness contributed to its protection since a lack of productive soil, thick barrens and wetlands deterred both settlement and development. As a result, the area provides an excellent habitat for moose, bear, and birds, particularly for species that require large, remote, undisturbed areas to thrive. However, there are many species of both plants and animals that are considered endangered in the area such as: Blanding’s Turtle, Mainland Moose, Pine Marten, and Vole Ears Lichen.
Humans arrived in the Shelburne region on the heels of the retreating glaciers, leaving evidence of 5,000 year-old stone artifacts. The Mi’kmaq First Nations travelled throughout the region via canoe, using the Shelburne as a key transportation link inland, and as a source of food. When the Europeans arrived, they followed these same routes inland to explore, hunt, fish and trap. Throughout its human history, the Shelburne has been accessed by canoe, still the most practical and popular way to travel this heritage river.
The Shelburne was also a log driving river in the 19th century. Logs harvested from upstream sources were driven downstream to sawmills, and temporary dams were constructed at points along the stream to store water for the drive.
There are also many folktales about people who were frequent travelers on the Shelburne River. The most popular being the story of Jim Charles, a Mi’kmaq man who claimed to have found gold in the heart of the Tobeatic Wilderness surrounding the river. Jim’s story has lived on to present day, and there is even a massive piece of granite stone named after him; “Jim Charles Rock”.
In 2015, Nova Scotia Department of Environment partnered with Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute to restore the well-known historic Cofan Cabin. The Cofan Cabin sits near Sand Beach Lake on the Shelburne River system along with many other Cabins that served as outposts for wardens of the Tobeatic Game Sanctuary between the 1930’s and 1960’s. In 2018 most of these cabins are dilapidated beyond repair or swallowed by the wilderness. However, they still represent the long history and culture of the people who relied on this river in more recent times.
Canoes remain the best way to experience the Shelburne and its extended network of rivers and lakes. Paddling is best when water levels are higher, as the waters are fed by run off. Although the water is warmer in July and August, paddlers are often faced with longer portages. The entire region is remote and while much of the paddling is on slow-moving water, intermediate paddling skills and experience in remote wilderness travel are essential.
From the Shelburne, paddlers can access the Tusket, Sissiboo, Roseway and upper Mersey Rivers, as well as a series of lakes leading into Kejimkujik National Park. The “Tent Dwellers” loop trip, popularized by the 1908 book by Albert Bigelow Paine, is still a favourite five-day route. Most canoe routes, portage routes and campsites can be found online on various websites and on the “Into the Tobeatic” map available from the Nova Scotia Department of Environment.
Who Manages the River?
The Shelburne is managed by the Nova Scotia’s Department of Environment and local river stewardship groups.
Canoeing the Shelburne as part of a loop trip was first popularised in the 1908 book, “The Tent Dwellers”, by Albert Bigelow Paine. In this humorous account, Paine describes a month-long fishing trip with a fishing companion and two Mi’kmaq guides. Since then, many other books have been published about the Shelburne River and the surrounding Tobeatic Wilderness Area including “Into the deep unknown”, by Mike Parker and “Paddling the Tobeatic”, by Andrew L. Smith.