Rails to Trails: Understanding rural by walking the landscape from Yarmouth to Georgetown
by Bob Maher
In May, a group of us organized a one-day conference at COGS, in Lawrencetown called ‘The Road to Georgetown.’ Our idea was to bring together a group of citizens, mainly from Annapolis County, to tell their stories about living and working in rural Nova Scotia. One of the storytellers was Kevin Goodlad who issued a challenge to ‘Walk the Lobster.’ His title was borrowed from ‘Ride the Lobster,’ a unicycle relay race between Yarmouth and Cape Breton, organized five years ago, by Edward Wedler and friends.
In the spirit of ‘walking the talk,’ we accepted the challenge and decided to walk the existing abandoned rail trails. How would we cover the five hundred kilometers between Yarmouth, NS and Georgetown, P.E.I ? After experimenting with backpacks on the Cape Chignecto coastal trail, Heather (Stewart) and I decided that ‘discretion is the better part of valor’ and there must be a better way than carrying our camping gear across the province. By dividing up the route into manageable chunks (20-30 km) and by having two groups tackle the various legs, we could get the job done in a month, by October 3 — the start of the conference.
What was the purpose?
Our over-riding goal was to traverse the rural landscape of Nova Scotia using abandoned rail lines, trails, and back-roads where necessary. Along the way, we would let the landscape identify stories, which could contribute to our understanding of rural life and hence provide input into ‘Redefining rural,’ which was the conference theme.
What have we learned so far?
In terms of route finding, it seemed reasonable to use the abandoned rail bed as a path to guide us through the province. We were stunned by the variations, which exist along the route. There are significant differences as the abandoned railroad passes through different counties. Between Weymouth and Yarmouth there is the Sentier de Clare (www.trails.gov.ns.ca) where we observed runners and cyclists. From Weymouth to Digby, we encountered cars and trucks driving the rail-bed as well as infrequent ATV traffic. We discovered mink farms, clearcuts, lakes and cottages as well as communities. Between the Bear River – Annapolis Royal to Bridgetown section, we found stretches of trail which were only passable on foot and perhaps mountain bike with frequent returns to the nearby road. Further up the Valley in Kings County, there is a finished trail for ATV, walkers and cyclists.
We also started at the Pictou County end and are working back towards the Valley. From Lyons Brook to Meadowville, we followed the Trans Canada Trail (www.tctrail.ca) and on a rainy Sunday encountered a teenager on his twice-weekly bike ride from River John to New Glasgow.
Lessons for Georgetown
At this preliminary stage, our sense is that the story of rural Nova Scotia resides in the landscape and its diversity (evident even in short distances). To understand that landscape and its history, whether farming, forestry, or service businesses, we must be immersed. To help citizens and visitors value this landscape, we must provide access to the physical landscape as well as information about that landscape (history and current land-use). It is important that there is collaboration in the development and design of trail systems. The same would be true for canoe routes.
‘Rails to Trails’ is a metaphor for the change from one economy (traditional resources) to another (non-traditional). This transition has taken place over the last 40 years. And it is true, throughout Atlantic Canada. The rail-bed we travelled, was closed in most cases in 1990s. Those interested in the evolution of Rail to Trails movement should check (www. greenwaysnovascotia.ca ) for more details.
In our efforts, we have discovered the value of new technologies e.g. Google, GPS, and digital cameras, and yet we also rely on the old paper maps, and trail signage (Clare). The technology allows us to share information, as well as to apply a more networked, collaborative approach to this project. We were able to walk five hundred kilometers, to gain the insight we needed, without any serious health risks.
After the conference, we will put our efforts into supporting a more coordinated approach towards access to the rural landscape. As well we will use the route to guide the collection of other unique stories, which will help redefine rural.
Written by Bob Maher, with Edward Wedler and Heather Stewart. The article was published in the Annapolis County Spectator (NS) Sept. 19.