The Margaree is Cape Breton’s largest watershed, flowing from the Highlands to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This cold, clear river is home to Atlantic salmon, gaspereau and sea trout. Its shores and steep glacial valleys are home to rare birds and mammals, including bald eagles, osprey, and the Gaspé shrew.
Plant life within the watershed is diverse and unique compared to the rest of Nova Scotia. Stands of maple-elm forest remain here, along with an alkaline bog and old growth forests that shelter several rare plants. Much of the land within the watershed is privately owned.
The complex and spectacular geology of Cape Breton is visible along this river system, with Karst sinkholes that are remnants of the supercontinent Pangaea, faults that provide evidence of the continental collisions that formed the Appalachian mountain chain, and v- and u-shaped valleys, moraines and braided channels that showcase the effects of glaciation.
Though not nominated for its cultural values, the charm of rural Cape Breton and its rich history are captured in the Margaree. To the Mi’kmaq, “Weekuch” was both a source of food and a trade route. Later, Scottish, Irish, and English immigrants came to Cape Breton and the Margaree River in the late 18th century, replacing the Acadian and French settlers who had been displaced in the battle for ownership of Atlantic Canada’s riches. Today, the descendants of these people continue the traditional occupations of fishing, logging and farming.
One of the many opportunities to experience the people and culture of Cape Breton, is attending the Celtic Colours International Festival. The festival takes place all-over the island for nine days in October with the back-drop of the changing colours of the autumn leaves. The festival is one of Canada’s premier festivals, where local artists share the stage with some of the world’s biggest names in Celtic music.
From June to October, fly fishers flock to the Margaree in hopes of landing the large adult salmon for which the river is famous. Because most of the land is privately owned, it’s important to inquire locally regarding fishing pools, customs and courtesy. Several hiking trails allow visitors to experience the river valley from the safety of the shore.
Both the Northeast and Southwest Margaree are navigable by canoe for intermediate and advanced paddlers looking for challenging rapids and chutes. Below the confluence, paddlers are advised to be aware of tides and wind. Lake Ainslie is suitable for novice to intermediate paddlers.
The Summer months bring warmer weather and new opportunities to celebrate the river. The Northwest section of the river meanders through an estuary on its way to the harbor. These calm waters provide ample opportunity for visitors the opportunity to experience serenity on the river, through available activities, such as a paddle boarding in the harbour or floating down the meandering river in an inflatable tube.
The river’s name originated with the 18th-century French settlers who called the river the St. Marguerite.
The watershed is managed by the Margaree-Lake Ainslie Canadian Heritage River Society, in cooperation with Nova Scotia’s Department of Environment.
The outstanding natural and recreational values of the 120 km-long Margaree-Lake Ainslie system led to its designation in 1998. The designation includes the Northeast Margaree, Lake Ainslie, the Southwest Margaree and the combined river through to its tidal estuary into the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
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The Canadian Heritage River plaques offer a brief glimpse into why a river has been designated to the System. They are often located nearby one of its historically significant locations, and highlight some of the most important natural, cultural and recreational values of the river.
Margaree River Plaque Text
The Margaree-Lake Ainslie River System - The Margaree-Lake Ainslie River System, the largest on Cape Breton Island, includes the Margaree River, the Northeast and Southwest Margaree Rivers, and Lake Ainslie. From its origins in the Cape Breton Highlands, it rushes through steep river gorges and meanders by farmlands and villages on its route to the sea. Renowned for its scenery, its Atlantic salmon and trout angling heritage and traditional gaspereau fishery, designation as a Canadian Heritage River is testimony to the significance of the Margaree-Lake Ainslie System as a national treasure and to the stewardship of the people of the Margaree.