By Shelley Thomas
Nova Scotia shorelines are a lesson in contradiction. Some are stark and craggy with windswept, witchy-fingered trees. Others are covered in carpets of white sand that wisp to warm turquoise waters. Vast flats of red mud emerge as the Bay of Fundy empties and refills every six hours with the tug of the moon. Ocean caves are revealed as coastal cliffs rise with the slide of the tide, exposing sand dollars and sea glass, tidal pools and starfish. There are boardwalks, dirt paths, trails through salt marshes, blueberry patches, and summertime lupine. There is no shortage of beauty or joy along Nova Scotia’s coastline. Whether you’re into skipping stones or collecting rocks, the province remains a Wunderkammer (cabinet) of rarities and curiosities for all who reside in the beauty of the everyday.
Like most beachcombers, I enjoy the peaceful and meditative calm of a secluded shoreline. A comb offers the thrill of the find and an uncomplicated joy, be it from a frosted nubble of sea glass, a marble, or the rainbow sheen of a spectral seashell. My husband and I moved to Nova Scotia from the San Francisco Bay a year ago. It was the province’s surf scene and promise of new beaches that first beckoned.
Known as “Canada’s Ocean Playground,” Nova Scotia is trimmed with 8,000 miles of coastline and surrounded by four major bodies of water: The Gulf of the Saint Lawrence, the Bay of Fundy, the Northumberland Strait, and the Atlantic Ocean. Nova Scotia is one of Canada’s three Maritime Provinces — the other two being New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. Roughly 360 miles long and, at most, 80 miles wide at any point, no place the province is more than 42 miles from the ocean. Nova Scotia is renowned for its scenic Lighthouse Route, lobster fishing, shipbuilding history, charming seaside towns, Celtic and Gaelic influence, and diverse coastlines rich in both ecology and geology.
Present-day Nova Scotia is the result of the convergence of at least three continents due to tectonic plate movement hundreds of millions of years ago. As a result, the geological history of the province matches that of Africa and Europe. Pockets of discovery can be fickle, just like the swirling Atlantic swells, but they reward a dedicated comber with a remarkable variety of finds that hold fascinating secrets. It’s a place of minerals, gemstones, and fossils, a record of life in abundance hidden in clay, locked in rock, and tumbled in surf.
While many locations are safeguarded, secret coordinates held close to the chest, others are well-known and provincially celebrated. Their splendor is open to the public year-round. Please, take note: sturdy footwear, water, and a keen knowledge of the tides is required for anyone wishing to venture into Maritime wilderness.
Joggins Fossil Cliffs
Joggins Fossil Cliffs run along the Bay of Fundy’s Cumberland Basin. Known as the “Coal Age Galapagos,” this UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to an abundance of fossils from the Carboniferous Period, dating more than 300 million years.
Seasonal storms and the Bay of Fundy’s famous 40-foot tides have exposed a 310-million-year-old fossilized forest, preserved in its environmental context along a ten-mile stretch of coastal cliffs. Over time, the frozen landscapes change to reveal new history, whittled into daylight by wind and water. Far predating the dinosaurs, the first reptiles in Earth’s history left footprints here, and the scope and completeness of the geological context informed the principles and works of giants like Sir Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin. During the time these fossils were formed, the landmass we know as Nova Scotia was covered in tropical rainforest.
Today, tree trunks older than dinosaurs loom overhead as you comb the base of the coastal cliffs. At your feet is a scattering of fossils; segments of trees, bark, and strange flora and fauna litter the beach. With each rise and fall of the Fundy tide, the fossil forest is further exposed, smoothed, and loosened until it eventually separates and tumbles to the rocky shore below. It’s estimated that a new fossil record is revealed every four years. The beach is a time capsule. Only photos and footprints are permitted on this bit of magic in the Bay of Fundy. But what a thrill it is to touch and hold, in your hand, if only for a moment, the grand arc of time.
Below the cliffs of the north coast of Cape Split Provincial Park, a gem-box beach reposes while semiprecious stones wait scattershot on the shore.
Amethyst Cove is a five-mile out-and-back trail over challenging and often unpredictable terrain. It’s an aggressive hike through woodland, field, meadow, deadfall, and blackberry scrub; its steady incline comes to an abrupt halt at the edge of a cliff overlooking the northern coastline of Cape Split. Access to the beach necessitates a 500-foot, rope-assisted descent. A lone bench and a jumble of garden gloves left by previous prospectors mark the entry to the shoot, for anyone willing to risk the climb. Over the years, hikers and rockhounds have affixed ropes to tree trunks and limbs along the majority of the descent, allowing the steadily-eroding cliffside to remain passable. At the base, a rocky beach stretches out in both directions. Amethyst Slide reclines to two miles east. Time the comb incorrectly, and the route disappears with the tide. You may find yourself stranded a mile short of the slide; or worse, stuck on the other side without access to the cliff ascent.
Chunks of amethyst, slabs of calcite, geode globes, and agates litter the beach, exposed and replenished by weather and rockslides. Veins of dogtooth calcite streak cliff segments. If you know where to look, fingers of quartz crystals can be pulled from mud. While larger specimens of amethyst are typically found in the Slide, smaller semi-precious stones and rocks in all colors of the rainbow can be found at your feet along the full stretch of beach.
Blomidon Provincial Park
The cliffs that fringe the Minas Basin in the Annapolis Valley are known to rockhounds. The partially exposed basalt ridge is over 200 million years old and is replete with geological deposits. The tides at Blomidon Beach are some of the highest in the world, measuring at 50 feet. Erosion is constantly at work on the sandstone cliffs, making new discoveries possible with every visit.
Amethyst, red jasper, satin spar, agates, and geodes once locked in sandstone spill out in slides after storms and fleck the red sandy shoreline below like fallen stars. While it is possible to find samplings along the base of the cliffs, larger, more sought-after specimens are found within the cliffs themselves. Even the most experienced of rockhounds will assess rock slides with great caution, and never while on a solo trek. Slides are always unstable and loose rock will plummet hundreds of feet to the beach.
Access to the beach is easy-going. A gentle slope from the parking lot leads to a staircase that delivers you to the ocean floor and 2.5 miles of rocky shoreline at the cliff base. Boulders with veins of blue, gray, and red agate tumble the basalt ruins in large segments. Fist-sized geodes wait for a knowing hand to lift them from slides, crack them open, and reveal their hidden beauty.
The shores of Nova Scotia show us that history is in the present. It’s always changing, never static, expressing itself through the landscape. Time and tide continue to author the story of this province and opportunity awaits the beachcomber unintimidated by a hardscrabble coast. Rockhounds know fossils are the finest storytellers.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine November/December 2021 issue.