Isle Haute, Bay of Fundy – Long awaited island exploration

Isle Haute was within reach and we were making great time considering we had to navigate through intense fog and keeping in mind the ever changing tides and whirlpools that are present this far out into the bay. The captain kept a close eye on the GPS as we were nearing our destination. Through the back-lit fog suddenly appeared a massive shadow.

“Slow it down” yelled Else Marie to the captain.

Suddenly penetrating through the dense fog like a giant castle, 300ft grayish/brown volcanic cliffs now loomed over our heads appearing almost impenetrable. How were we possibly going to land a boat on this island? This island I speak of is no ordinary island of course, but rather Isle Haute which sits dead smack in the middle of the world’s highest tides in the Bay of Fundy. To make a trip like this even more of a challenge the island sits some 19.5km from the mainland and can only be accessed by boat at low tide when the waters recede and a long extending cobblestone spit is revealed.

Rising from the ocean like a grand Cathedral – Isle Haute.

We had been planning this expedition for months and for many in the group this undertaking had taken 30+ years to finally come into light. For myself it was nearly 10 years ago that I first set eyes on the island of Isle Haute, which was named by Samuel de Champlain during his expedition of 1604. Sailing past the island he described it’s towering dark cliffs, topped by a mixed forest and fresh springs. He accurately named it Isle Haute – meaning “High Island”.

The memory of sitting on a piece of weathered driftwood with my brother at Seal Cove in Cape Chignecto Provincial Park eating hot ravioli fresh off the camping stove was as clear as it were just yesterday. We sat there for what seemed like hours, staring out into the Bay of Fundy and wondering what this mystical island was as fog rolled down the middle of island, resembling a giant waterfall. The next time I remember seeing the island was by air from the cockpit of a 3 passenger Cesna and many more times after that from the edge of Cape Split and the North Mountain range of the Annapolis Valley.

We all had our reasons to be there. For many of us it was the mystery of buried treasure left behind from the notorious Pirate Edward “Ned” Low, who was reputed to have befriended local sailors, only to behead them and rob them of their riches. In the 1950′s a American treasure hunter and writer by the name of Edward Snow arrived on the island with a map which he believed was hand drawn by “Ned” himself. Before leaving Canada Snow was stopped by Canadian Customs Officers and $1100 worth of Gold coins were found in his presence which he claims to have unearthed on Isle Haute which were with the skeletal remains of a human. He was briefly held by officials and then free to go with his findings. There has never been documented evidence to show if Edward Snow had actually found the treasure or simply brought the coins to help boost his travel writing career which after this ordeal achieved incredible publicity and overnight fame.

We began unloading the Zodiac which was captained by Werner & Else Marie who operate Advocate Boat Tours out of Advocate Harbour, Nova Scotia. Once on dry land, if you could call it that, we quickly got to work with setting up camp and making preparations for our day exploring this isolated island. Our team of adventurers consisted of 8 group members, including author and regional chairman of the Explorers ClubDale Dunlop and George Burden, a travel writer and freelance journalist who has traveled to far away places like the Galapagos and the Antarctic.

Armed with a metal detector and the map that Edward “Ned” Low was supposed to have drawn to the treasure we set out to the far end of the lagoon. It was quite evident that many before us came to Isle Haute with hopes to strike it rich. At least a dozen holes of various sizes scarred the land where treasure seekers had obviously been. Within minutes the metal detector signaled but what we found was not gold but rather rusty nails and an old ring from a wooden barrel.

Could pirates have had a rum running operation here? It’s hard to say but this definitely sparked our interest in this section of the island which was reputed to have been “The Place”.

We stumbled upon many rock structures that resembled tombs on the banks of the lagoon. The Mi’kmaq people once used the island as a resting stop while traveling along the Bay of Fundy and tools have been found on the island that they once used for skinning seals for food and survival. The island of Isle Haute is also said to be a sacred place for them and it’s because of this we thought these structures might have been a burial site.

Setting out along the beach our sights were set on climbing up the steep overgrown trail to the top of the island where a metal beacon tower now stands and was once the site of a manned lighthouse. It’s hard to believe that this eerie and isolated island was once home for a lighthouse keeper and his family. In fact 5 lighthouse keepers over the years until 1956 when a fire destroyed the wooden structure. Since then the island has been uninhabited for the exception of small rodents, birds, a few amphibians and large grey seals lining the rocky shoreline. Our mostly forested hike came to an end when we reached the open field, overgrown with tall grass and colorful meadow-sweet, golden rod and tall stem aster flowers.

There were signs of old stone fountains throughout the field hidden underneath the long grass and top soil. This would have been a busy spot when lighthouse keeper Percy Morris raised cattle, pig, sheep, lambs, hens and chickens and grew various produce which we would sell to folks in Advocate Harbour back on the mainland. The only thing busy here on this day were the bees flying from flower to flower fulfilling their role in the pollination process. Although the hike in proved to be difficult as we lost trail on numerous occasions, we were bound and determined to find the correct trail for our hike back to base-camp. Our expedition leader Dale Dunlop led the way and was able to find the trail which proved to be much easier than the bushwhacking episode we experienced the first time around. We were back down at sea level in no time flat.

The time spent high up on the island was long enough that the tides had now shifted and were receding at a rapid rate. What was once covered in water was now basking in the sun which we hadn’t seen since leaving civilization behind. The team hiked the length of the cobblestone spit and looking back towards base-camp the island took on a whole new shape and demeanor.

“WOW, would you look at that!”

You could easily say that the island of Isle Haute has a split personality. Many times throughout our short stay the southern high cliffs were being bombarded by a thick blanket of fog, while the northern side of the island would receive sun at the exact moment. This created an aura that we found irresistible and the island was once again tugging on our adventure strings. We now stood face-to-face with the smoking 300ft cliffs and walking among giant volcanic basalt boulders. The only way to describe this place at that moment would be “Prehistoric”.

As we marveled at the ever changing landscape a couple of curious Grey Seals watched us with great intent, wondering what was so interesting with rocky seaweed covered boulders. I can’t imagine they see to many visitors to the island and therefore were probably entertained by our presence.

All of this exploring was making for many hungry bellies and I was in charge of keeping everyone well fed. With a healthy serving of Spaghetti on the stove we reflected on the day’s events and our impressions of the expedition and Isle Haute in general. Shortly after the sun set and darkness covered the land the rain began and throughout the night the heavens really opened up.

We woke in the morning to a glorious day, but as you can probably already guess that was short lived. To nobody’s delight the fog showed up again and began engulfing our surroundings. It wasn’t long after this that Werner & Else Marie arrived with their Zodiac ready for the journey home. The first group was loaded on board and soon disappeared into the mist. The fog momentarily lifted and with the changing of the tides occurring, a massive whirlpool was starting to form just off shore. When the boat arrived for the remainder of the team the captain had to circle this growing water hazard and pick us up at a safer docking point.

We had to work quickly as the wind was now picking up and the tides were beginning to pull with greater force. Loading onto the boat in waist deep water without shoes on cobblestones was all part of the adventure we signed up for. Before long we were back at Advocate Harbour and saying our goodbyes to many of the expedition members.

During the remainder of the day the fog completely burned off and that night the sunset cast an orange hue on Cape Chignecto and its pink sea cliffs. To our amazement the island of Isle Haute was now completely visible, standing alone like the gate keeper of the Bay of Fundy. It took years of dreaming and many months of planning for this expedition to take shape and it was now over. But like the tides of the Bay of Fundy these adventures will continue to pull me in with a force that I have no control over.

Isle Haute Expedition 2014 – Explorers Club “Eastern Canadian Chapter”

4 Replies to “Isle Haute, Bay of Fundy – Long awaited island exploration”

  1. Ben says:

    Nice one Ryan

    Super jealous you have been tho this place. For me it will remain on the list for a while longer. Took a trip out west but now ready to tackle more Nova Scotia hidden gems



  2. Brian says:

    i am envious. all my life visiting friends and relatives in margrettesville, ns i used to come down to the wharf overlooking the bay of fundy and stare at it for hours. it looked so close i could feel as tho i could actually reach out and touch it. and hoping one day i could explore the island or even live on it. thanks for the pictures, its even more beautiful upclose than i imagined..


  3. Ryan Barry says:

    The island of Isle Haute exceeded my expectations by a long shot. It’s amazing to think of the thousands of people, both locals and visitors to the province who marvel at its appearance from a distance and wonder what lies on this isolated island in the middle of the world’s highest tides. I hope someday your dream comes true to finally set foot on the island and feel the magic that engulfs you with all its natural wonders.

  4. Ralph says:

    I ve been there twice.metal detecting and exploring.