I have a memory of an overnight camping trip my family took to a nature park/campground, called The Ovens, when I was between the ages of three and six. I remember two events: my mother’s voice warning me to be careful while I followed my sister out on a rocky beach to pick up driftwood, and the air mattress we were sleeping on going flat and none of us wanting to move. We were all shivering together on the cold ground. My father was the first to break the huddle, cursing as he went to the car to start it and blast the heater. We soon all joined him in the car. Anyway turns out that was the last family camping trip we ever did.
The Ovens park is on Nova Scotia’s south shore, about 90 minutes from Halifax. I am driving slowly down the gravel road towards the nature park, listening to the bird calls, and and scanning the trees for something that will awaken a memory. I stop at a sign boasting it is Nova Scotia’s oldest campground, then pass more trees until you spill out into a dusty open field at the entrance.
The gate is closed but a young lady is there to greet me. I scramble to put my mask on and ask her “Are you open for overnight camping?” She tilts her head and wrinkles her forehead up in a regretful sort of face says “Yes, but you have to have a pre-booked reservation.”
“Are you fully booked for tonight?” She shakes her head no. “OK, well what if I park in the lot and call the office and make a reservation for tonight, would that work?”
Her eyes widen like she has just had an aha moment and she says, “Yeah sure that will work.”
The campground, usually bustling with families this time of year, is sparsely occupied. When I ask “Are there any spots open down near Cunard Beach?” I get a “yes” reply and she circles my site on a map. “I’ll take it,” I say and fill out the registration form, pay and head down the narrow dirt path to the far end of the park acreage. Backing my truck into a narrow sleeve of land, it takes several tries of forward and backward maneuvers to bring it to level footing among the tree roots.
Next I set out my camp chair, lay the rug down then set up my kitchen on the picnic table. The combination of the recent heat wave and no rain has led to a fire ban and the pool is closed to comply with the pandemic restriction but COVID-19 can’t take away the joy of finally getting to re-make a less than perfect childhood memory.
My first outing is a walk down to the beach and I wade out to my knees. The water is cold and a strong current here prevents me from taking a dip. It is not really a beach, more like an accessible rocky shoreline they can call a beach to satisfy their clientele. I walk among the pools exposed by the low tide, seaweeds and rock encrusted with barnacles are everywhere but I find rocks worth picking up and examining. Mostly slate but some quartz and conglomerate. Nothing here triggers any wonderful memories and my stomach starts telling me I need food so it’s back to my site to start supper.
Once I have eaten I go in search of a shower. It takes me several passes to identify the unmarked wooden closet as what I was looking for. I hang my towel on the hook, then strip my clothes off. I stick an arm into the shower to turn the tap towards the red line, when the temperature is perfect, I step under the spray to wash my face and still keep an eye on a Daddy Long-Legs bouncing along the enclosure looking for an exit and the another spider hanging from his web above my head. A semi-outdoor bathing experience for sure but it does the job.
Just after sunset I crawl into my bed and read by headlamp till my eyes get heavy and I sleep. I am awakened several times by the tinkling of rain on the roof of the truck cap, much needed moisture for the forests. I sleep again until my bladder demands I get up. I reluctantly throw off my warm sleeping bag, and crawl off the mattress – which is still lofty and comfy.
The notorious Atlantic fog has rolled in overnight and will delay my planned early hike to the sea caves. Instead I make a camp-style breakfast of melon, oatmeal and coffee then organize my camping equipment and luggage.
The trailhead of the caves are located at the entrance.
top : trail directions, Middle cliffside trail, Bottom reef look off
The fog doesn’t recede fast enough for me and visibility is low, not quite the pictures I had hoped to share. The area of the Ovens was a Mi’Kmaq territory, that King George granted to Casper Meisner as part of the 1754 treaty.
Metamorphic slate containing seams of gold ignited a mini-gold rush in 1861. A town sprung up to service the needs of those that came to follow their dream of striking it rich. 100 claims were registered along this stretch of coast. The actual amount of gold found was disappointing and most claims were abandoned. The current nature park is owned by Oscar Young who purchased it from the Meissners in 1935. Other adjacent parcels of land were acquired throughout the years, stretching the park boundaries to 180 acres.
I don’t expect to find any gold on my hike along the cliff edge. I am pulled towards the stairway that winds downward then turns and empties into a narrow passageway. For a moment as I make the turn I am plunged into darkness until my eyes adjust.
but I keep moving forward towards the sloshing of the current echoing in a chamber, that is soon lit from the cave opening. I have come just meters under ground to this tunnel and it is well worth it, the water is so clear I can see to the bottom. I had read that miner John Tucker followed a vein of gold through the slate rock to this cave.
Finished here, I carry on to the next one called the blow hole, known for being a great place to take photos when the wind and tide are right, as water is thrust upward through a hole creating a fantastic force of water against rocks. Such conditions are absent today so I move on to the next feature called Indian cave look off. This the home of Nova Scotia’s oldest legend, of a Mi’kmaq brave that paddled through the cave and emerged in the Annapolis Valley. More likely a tall tale but I wasn’t there, so who am I to dispute it?
The trail follows the cliff to several more caves named Cannon Cave, Thunder Cave, and Young’s Cave.
I end up at a bluff called top of the Rock Look Off. A grand view of splintered coast and a clear day view to the community Blue Rocks, invisible today in the fog.
Covid-19 physical distancing measure, have it as a loop trail returning through the campground on an old logging road. The exact distance of the trail was not given in measurement but It was not more than 2k in its entirety. Definitely glad I revisited this place. I have come away with a happier take on The Ovens.
THE OVENS NATURAL PARK
326 Ovens Road
PO Box 38
Riverport, Nova Scotia Canada
Open Daily from 8:30 am to 9:00 pm
“Happy travels from Maritimemac.
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