The Ancient Fossils of Fundy

Bay of Fundy Fossil Hunt

Outpost heads to Nova Scotia's Bay of Fundy, Where the Tides are Highest on the Planet

Story and Photos by Andrea Grant/Outpost Magazine

In Burncoat Head Park in the Bay of Fundy, it’s late afternoon in early June, the tide is out and I’m standing on the burnished beach. More specifically, I’m studying trees. One clings to the thin layer of soil now above it, trunk dangling downward, roots straining, branches so thick with leaves they seem to form a head of hair. The whole tree, I can’t help but think, looks like a child held upside down by a playful parent and can almost hear terrified shrieks of delight. I walk farther down the beach and spot yet more acrobatic trees: one leans over the cliff as if testing the wind, another sticks straight out into the sky like a diving board.
 
I’ve spent the past week on a road trip around the Nova Scotia side of the Bay of Fundy, visiting tiny communities from Parrsboro to Hants County, where I stand now, meeting people living in towns and villages a lot like these trees. Hanging on, surviving, despite a windstorm of change. There’s something inspiring about them, beautiful even, in the same way, perhaps, that the underdog is more compelling than the favourite.
 
Bay of Fundy Trees
 
Acrobatic Fundy Trees 
 
I walk back to the steps that creep up the rocks, ready to return to the road. Miniature rivers and lakes carve hieroglyphics in the sand, patches of bright green seaweed sit baking in the setting sun. On the first step I pause and turn—the trees are still there, unmoved by the wind, clinging.
 
Those winds and the tides have made the Bay of Fundy famous, weathering the attitudes of its people and shaping a land that is so fossil-rich it’s considered palaeontologists’ pay dirt. I’ve come to Cumberland County on a hunt for fossils of its past, both ancient and more recent, all against the backdrop of the world’s highest tides.
 
The figures they churn up are mind-boggling: every day, roughly 100 billion tonnes of seawater course in and out of the bay, more than the flow of all the world’s freshwater rivers combined. They can reach up to 16 metres, meaning landscapes change drastically between high and low tides, the time period between them around six hours and 13 minutes. (Later, I discover that Burncoat Head lays claim to one of the highest tide levels in the world—an average of 14.3 metres; its highest measured level was 16 metres.) During my overnight stay in Parrsboro, I visit the town wharf at both tide times so I can see the transformation for myself. Fishing boats that bobbed contently at high tide now lie moored in the sand at low tide, reminding me of that riddle about the scuba diver flailing in the forest, all geared up with no ocean in sight. The beached boats paint a similar scene: with the water appearing as a silver bar on the horizon, seemingly immovable like a slab of concrete, there seems no plausible explanation for their presence.
 
Yet, as dramatic as the tides may be, they aren’t the Bay of Fundy’s only selling point. The area’s history runs deep, right down to the minerals, rocks and fossils not only buried beneath my feet, but also displayed in full view in front of me—once I know where and how to look. My first lesson comes at the Fundy Geological Museum where Ken Adams, its soft-spoken director/curator, takes me on a guided tour, stopping at each exhibit to patiently explain the area’s millions of years of history. To see this past in the flesh—er, rock—Ken takes me to Wasson Bluff, a rugged beach nearby that is flanked with imposing cliffs of sandstone and basalt. In 1990, the site was declared a Special Place under Canada’s Special Places Protection Act due to the 1984 discovery of 200-million-year-old reptile fossils. The finding was the largest ever made in North America of vertebrate fossils from the time period, the Triassic-Jurassic boundary, and scholars believe that it provides evidence for a mass extinction at the end of the Triassic age. In particular, Wasson Bluff is home to some of the oldest dinosaur bones in Canada, the plant-eating and small-statured prosauropod who survived the mass extinction, though not necessarily intact. Ken likens the bits and pieces of dinosaur bones found in the Bay of Fundy—a pelvic bone here, a jaw bone there—to “Kentucky Fried Chicken remnants,” their fragmentary state a testament to the dramatic and violent shiftings of the land over eons.

Wasson Bluff Fossil Hunting

Hunting for Fossils at Wasson Bluff

As we walk the beach, Ken points out different rock formations and patiently explains how the real story of the Bay of Fundy is written here, in its geology. About 360 million years ago, the continents collided, creating the super-continent of Pangaea. Fast forward 100 million years, and those fickle continents began to drift apart, creating the Atlantic Ocean and the rift valley that forms the Bay of Fundy. I pick up a rock at my feet. “That’s 200 million years old,” Ken says. A few feet later, Terri McCulloch, manager of Bay of Fundy Tourism who joins our tour, picks up another one: “400 million years old.” He shows us traces of the ancient continental drama still visible on the landscape: those lines etched in the cliffs over there are where Africa kissed North America goodbye and started travelling south, albeit very, very slowly. He bends down to pick up a rock with a white circular shape embedded in it. “This is a coprolite,” he says. When I look puzzled he clarifies—“Fossilized fish poo.”

My head is swimming in dates and enough scientific names to fill a textbook. I hit the road again looking for more illuminating traces of the past—the historic lighthouse at Cape d’Or. Since 1875, there’s been a fog whistle on the site to alert seafarers to the Cape’s nasty tidal rips. Located six kilometres outside Advocate Harbour, the point divides the Bay of Fundy into Chignecto Bay and the Minas Basin. A lighthouse has stood guard since 1922, though its current incarnation was built in 1965 and finally automated in 1989. It’s the only lighthouse facility in the province that offers overnight accommodation, with guests sleeping and dining on locally caught seafood in former lightkeepers’ cottages.

When I finally make it to Cape d’Or—the 20-minute turn-off from the highway twists and climbs through dense forest and I’m almost convinced I’ve taken the wrong route—the panoramic view hits me as suddenly as the biting wind. The white and red lighthouse seems toy-like, two narrow boxes stacked on top of each other, standing in solid, calm relief to the turmoil of the waves below. Whipped into a frenzy, they toss up white spray, like rabid dogs foaming at the mouth, racing again and again toward the dark volcanic cliffs that loom in front of me.

Fundy Lighthouse

Top Notch View 

I’m blown away not only by the vista, but also very nearly by the wind. I drop to the ground to take photos, bracing my arms so my camera doesn’t shake, snapping madly to capture the perfect angle.

It’s at this moment, when I’m in midroll, that Darcy Snell, owner of Cape d’Or, comes out to greet me. “Um, hi,” he grins. “Like the view?”

I blush and he goes in to wait at reception while I finish up. Darcy, who hails from Lumsden, Saskatchewan, opened Cape d’Or in 2000 with his wife Jenna Boon, director of the Joggins Fossil Cliffs, a site I would visit a few days later.

Not only a spot of arresting geological scenery, Cape d’Or also boasts fantastic food, if only Darcy would let me enjoy it. Halfway through my excellent meal of freshly caught halibut, he interrupts me. “I’m kicking you out,” he says. “To see the sunset.” Throwing on my jacket, we head outdoors just as the sun starts to slink down past the lone finger of cloud, pink radiating outward like a halo. “It’s the only place I’ve found where you get sunrise and sunset over the ocean,” Darcy says. Later, he tells me about a recent article written about him and Cape d’Or entitled, much to his amusement, “Prairie Boy Sees the Light.” Although he gripes about how much ribbing he’s had to endure from friends and family members, I can’t help but think it’s fitting.

The next day breaks clear, if windy, and before setting off for a day of paddling, I drop by the kitchen for a takeaway breakfast prepared by Andrew Aitken, Cape d’Or’s affable Australian chef.

Tucked inside the brown bag, decorated with a smiley face drawn in black marker, is an egg sandwich, a homemade strawberry muffin and an orange cut into sections “like my mom used to do,” Andrew explains with a grin.

I meet my guide Werner Ostermann, owner of NovaShores Adventures, in Advocate Harbour before heading to the water, kayak strapped to the roof of the truck. After priming me with the paddling basics, we set off, Werner and I sharing a double. Although we’d originally planned to see the area’s mythical Three Sisters rock, three pillars rising out of Eatonville Harbour that are the subject of seemingly never-ending local legends, strong winds force us to change our plans. Volatile weather conditions are expected here, and we’re actually lucky to have launched at all. Else Marie, Werner’s Danish wife who also helps run NovaShores, tells me later that they had to turn away a visiting scientist six times last summer because the winds were just too dangerous to test.

Although the wind is a challenge, we, well, Werner, navigates us through the narrow archway of Horseshoe Cove. (At low tide, I come back to walk under it, the rocks slippery with algae, dripping with long, beaded strands of seaweed.) Then we hug the shoreline, darting in and out of sea stacks that rise out of the water like church spires, joined occasionally by fighting ducks, black guillemot and loons. On land there’s no sign of human life anywhere, just craggy, hulking pillars of rock, their faces pockmarked, weathered, wrinkled. I can’t help but wonder how many fossils they contain, and how long it will take before erosion caused by the tides’ ceaseless cycles reveals them.

Kayaking Fundy

Navigating Horseshoe Cove

I tell Werner about my upcoming hike in Cape Chignecto Provincial Park, and he practically grimaces. “You know,” he tells me as we pull up on the rocky shore of the beach to stop for lunch, “the trail is quite strenuous. People have had to be helicoptered out.” It isn’t the first time I hear this. Just about everyone I mention the hike to responds with a horror story of a hiker being carried out on a stretcher, broken bones protruding from their bodies. Although I appreciate everyone’s concern, I also feel slightly, well, slighted. Do I really seem so incompetent that I can’t manage a one-day, 12-kilometre hike on my own?

Over local smoked salmon and Else Marie’s homemade treats, I console myself by wondering if this bluntness bordering on insult is a Bay of Fundy thing. I think back to a conversation I had with Andrew at Cape d’Or the night before. “People here have expressions that back in Australia we’d consider quite rude,” he told me. “They’ll say, ‘That’s some good’ and you think, ‘What, it’s not all good? Which part is good?’ But it actually means really good.” The fact that everyone figures I’ll keel over the moment I hit the trail, I decide, really means they find me a consummate outdoorswoman. Um, right.

Later that evening, however, at Werner’s urging, I find myself knocking on a stranger’s door to ask if he’ll act as my unofficial hiking guide. Luciano Onichino, a.k.a. “Looch,” had helped to lay down the trail when it was constructed in the late 1990s over two years, and Werner assures me he’ll be good company. Although he’s surprised by my unannounced appearance on his doorstep, Looch agrees after a little coaxing. I go to sleep that night at Cape d’Or hoping the next day will be helicopter-free.

It’s drizzling when Looch and I arrive at Cape Chignecto Provincial Park’s visitor information centre in the morning.

Once again, I’m on the hunt for fossils, though not necessarily of the geological variety. I’d heard the park’s famed Refugee Cove offered traces of the Bay of Fundy’s more recent past, and I wanted a glimpse into them. “Fact and fiction become a bit entangled with our Refugee Cove,” a park worker tells me before we set off. According to legend, after the Great Expulsion from 1755 to 1762 when around 10,000 Acadians were forced from their homeland, a group of them landed at Refugee Cove and, faced with a difficult winter, would have perished if it hadn’t been for a group of Mi’kmaqs who rescued them and took them on to New Brunswick. Until the late-18th century, in fact, Cape Chignecto had been the seasonal encampment of the Mi’kmaq, and their folklore provides a twin narrative to explain the region’s geology.

Looch and I take advantage of a brief intermission in the drizzle—and the friendly park warden’s tales—and hit the path. Refugee Cove is one of the first sites on the challenging Cape Chignecto Coastal Trail, a three- to four-day circuit that is the longest continuous hiking route in the province, traversing 200-metre hills that are the highest in mainland Nova Scotia. Ten minutes in, we reach Red Rocks, the first point on our map, so named because of the rare sandstone formation—apparently there are only three other examples of it in the world—plopped on the shore, its stark colour almost an eyesore amid the grey. The formation looks like an alien life form, a blob of rock—at once fully solid and yet somehow blubbery, bulging with layers and folds of sedimentation.

As we climb a set of wooden stairs that leads us onto the inland trail, a thick forest of spruce, maple and birch rising around us, Looch tells me his story. City boy from Montreal meets local girl while living in Vancouver, moves here and, 11 years and three kids later, he’s still here. In that time, he’s seen the community of Advocate Harbour undergo dramatic change. “In 1998,” he says as we navigate a slippery root-strewn section of the trail, “it was like stepping into the 1950s—but with economic depression.” Boom cycles fuelled by mining and forestry had ground to a halt when the resources dried up. Yet at the beginning of the millennium, the community began to see tourism as a way forward and, in the past few years, projects to harness tidal and wind energy have replaced more damaging resourcedependent industries. As Looch sees it, the transformation shows no sign of stopping. “Come back in 10 years and it won’t be like this,” he says, speaking not only of the empty forest around us, but also of the town we’ve left behind. “The face of the community will change.” He doesn’t elaborate on whether this is a good thing or a bad thing—maybe because there’s no simple answer.

Exploring Cape Chigrectro

A Potential Fossil Goldmine

When we spot the small grey cabin at Arch Gulch, however, our reaction is less complicated—relief that we’ve come more than halfway to Refugee Cove. Since it’s only four kilometres from Arch Gulch to the cove, we’d decided to use the cabin as a base camp, dropping off our gear en route, then doubling back to spend the night in its cozy shelter. According to the park’s map, this next section of the trail is “very challenging.” As we pick our way along, surrounded by bright green ferns and the straight, strong trunks of spruce trees, it seems unbelievable that we’re heading toward what was once a modestly prospering settlement, a boom period that preceded the one Looch had described to me earlier. Forestry and shipbuilding were the big industries here and, a hundred years ago, more people lived in communities along the Bay of Fundy than do today. In the 1800s, 192 water-powered sawmills operated in Cumberland County alone.

I’m sucked back into the present when I notice a black spot moving amid the green about 30 feet in front of us. “Looch, a bear!” I blurt out. It perks up its head, pauses for a moment, then scampers off, crashing through the brush. “A cub,” Looch says, and climbs a nearby tree to see if the mother is anywhere in sight. After a few minutes of frantic scanning, he jumps down. “All clear.” We laugh and walk on. Quickly.

Those 200-metre hills have an unexpected bonus—they calm the nerves and, truthfully, aren’t that bad. Our thigh muscles may have been burning by the time we descend into Refugee Cove, but it’s nothing a reasonably fit hiker can’t handle. It’s drizzling again, though the perspective the rocky beach affords us is compensation for our damp feet. The rolling hills of forest we’ve just trekked out of are a mass of variegated green—shocking to think we’d spent the day emerged in such solid colour. It’s low tide, the water just lapping the farthest reaches of the cliffs, their alternating layers of grey and reddish rock pressed together like a terrine. In one formation, there’s a keyhole above us, like an open, gazing eye. Always, there’s this sense of life: the anthropomorphic bodies of rock somehow in motion, living.

A short distance from the beach, we come across a small stone structure. “An old boiler,” Looch explains. Used to burn wood to heat water to make steam to generate enough power to build ships, is the pared-down explanation. We find bricks scattered on the ground that read “L. Craig,” though who or what this is, we don’t know.

All these are layers of the past. The rain starts falling faster so Looch and I begin our ascent back to Arch Gulch and, the moment we shut the cabin door behind us, it starts to pour and doesn’t let up till morning. Later that evening, as I flip through photo albums of the park’s construction and feast on fresh halibut and scallops packed by park staff, I realize that the hike was everything I’d been promised—untouched scenery, remnants of a time now forgotten, good company. Sitting across from Looch in the candlelight, it’s hard to believe that I’d knocked on his door 24 hours before and he’d agreed to lead me on an overnight hike the following day. It’s a testament to the people here, I think, this openness.

All night, the muted blasts of foghorns drift up from the harbour far below and Looch and I fall asleep to this strange and surprisingly melodic lullaby.

Just a day later, I’m standing on the beach of Joggins Fossil Cliffs, being led around by Brian Hebert, its chief interpreter, on my final fossil hunt.

The 15 kilometres of coastline that forms Joggins Fossil Cliffs is a noted paleontological site and locals are hoping its new off-the-grid museum constructed nearby will bring in tourist dollars. When I visit, everyone at Joggins is anxiously awaiting the results of its application to become a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site. (They get it. A month later, I wake up in Toronto to Brian’s voice—he’s being interviewed on CBC radio about the good news.) Home of the fossil trees—in the mid-1880s, tetrapod bones were found inside fossilized trunks—Joggins boasts the world’s most complete fossil record from the Carboniferous period, which occurred around 300 million years ago. The world’s oldest reptiles were unearthed here and Darwin even mentions the site in On The Origin of Species.

Joggins Fossil Cliffs Beach

Joggins Fossil Cliffs Beach 

It’s foggy, lending the beach an air of mystery as Brian and I navigate the slippery shore, rocks of all shapes and sizes clumped in messy, sprawling piles around us. It’s my last chance to strike fossil gold and, to better my chance of success, I’m struck by the desire to trade my hard hat for a deerstalking one although, by all accounts, my role here is Watson to Brian’s Sherlock Holmes. A collector on this stretch of beach since the age of 16, the 29-year-old probably has the largest collection of dendropupa—early land snails—in the world. He’s also published countless academic papers on the cliffs and even has a form of sandstone named after him, the Hebert sandstone, with a panel celebrating this achievement back in themuseum. Every few feet we stop to examine a fossil: the textured black patterns of ancient tree trunks; the brave, thin trackways made by tiny amphibians. They look like lithographs, as if someone has inked their surfaces and I should be collecting impressions by pressing paper to them.

Just as Brian is joking that the whole reptile in a tree concept would make a great animated film, he stops and points to the cliffs ahead of us. “That wasn’t here yesterday,” he says of a collection of rock pieces strewn on the beach and we scramble over, hoping to find something “important.” Brian crouches over a boulder and smoothes its stippled surface with his hand. There are a few different types of calamites—tree fossils—in the rock. A run-of-the-mill find, but still worthy. He removes his backpack to retrieve a brush and begins to clear dirt particles from the fossils’ crevices. “What’s so amazing,” he enthuses between quick, careful brush strokes, “is that when you discover a fossil, no one has seen it before.” He pauses for a moment and looks up at me. “Ever.”

As he continues dusting, I stand up and scan the empty beach around me, the fossilized, half-exposed trees standing sentry from the cliffs, the ocean on the horizon starting its slow creep toward shore once again. And he’s right. That’s exactly how it feels.

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