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Into the wild Blue Mountain 

Just 10 kilometres from downtown sits a wilderness area that any other city would die for. But will Halifax rise to the challenge of protecting Blue Mountain—Birch Cove Lakes? By Tim Bousquet. photos Aaron Mckenzie Fraser

It’s hard to believe this place exists at all, really.

But sure enough, I can locate it on a topographic map nailed to my office wall: a chunk of land about the size of the Halifax peninsula, which is on the same map. In this area, however, the topo map shows no roads, no black squares designating houses or buildings, no deep pink colour designating “city.” Instead, the map shows lots and lots of blue lakes interspersed with little wavy grass symbols representing bogs and small white outcroppings of highland---an honest-to-god wilderness area. I count nine lakes that are close enough to each other to form a canoe loop of maybe six hours’ paddling time.

On the map, I trace my finger along a handful of small streams that originate from the lakes. A few in the southern portion come together as Nine Mile River, which flows into the ocean somewhere near Peggys Cove, just beyond the edge of the map. Other streams flow north, forming Kearney Run; my finger follows that stream as it widens into Kearney Lake, then Mill Pond, then as it dumps into the Bedford Basin.

And here’s the thing: The nearest portion is just 10 kilometres from downtown Halifax---so close I could take a bus, so close I could walk there in a couple of hours.

Saturday, however, I drive. I leave my house in Dartmouth at 11:40am, cross the Macdonald Bridge, out North Street to the rotary, up St. Margarets Bay Road to the Bayers Lake entrance. This was a mistake: The Christmas shoppers have amassed themselves into a traffic jam, so I’m five minutes late for my noon appointment in the Kent building supply store parking lot.

Waiting for me are Chris Miller and Dusan Soudek. I change into my rubber boots, pull on an extra sweater----Friday’s torrential rainstorm had left the ground a muddy mess, and today the temperature is heading south of freezing---and together we walk behind the store. We find a trailhead by following the peaked roof of the Kent lumber shed backwards, and soon lose the noise and commotion of the city. Ten minutes later we’re standing on a granite boulder overlooking Susies Lake, the leading edge of what will soon be the Blue Mountain---Birch Cove Lakes Wilderness Area.

click to enlarge Bousquet's route starts at the BLIP and leads through five lakes.
  • Bousquet's route starts at the BLIP and leads through five lakes.

Miller and Soudek had earlier brought canoes down the path. We step in and paddle off into the wild. (Click here for a detailed map of Tim's route.)Miller grew up in Rockingham, just a stone’s throw from the wilderness.

“In the wintertime,” he explains, “when I was in high school, every now and then my father would show up at the high school with two pairs of skates. He’d pull me out of class; we’d spend all day out here, whipping up and down the lake. I tell you, I learned more from that than I would have in class. My parents taught me to appreciate this at a very young age.”

As a teenager, Miller and his friends would camp out for weekends on one of hundreds of islands in the wild lands behind their neighbourhood, or he’d spend an afternoon paddling around the lakes alone. The experience imprinted---Miller received an undergraduate degree from Dalhousie in biology, then went on to earn a PhD in ecology from the University of Waterloo.

“This is why I came back to Halifax,” he says, from some highland above Fox Lake, gesturing over the thousands of acres before us.

Soudek, now a family physician in Dartmouth, also spent his younger years canoeing the wilderness. “I went off to college, and came back, started canoeing out here again,” he says. “I canoed all around with my family, through this lake, that lake, I never had a map. And one day, I was back where I started---I found the canoe loop!”

While they had both been trekking through the wilderness for decades, Miller and Soudek didn’t cross paths until Miller, who was recently hired as national director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, began arguing publicly for government protection of the area.

Miller delivers something of a stump speech to underscore the value of the property: It provides habitat for bear, endangered mainland moose and 150 bird species. There are old growth forest stands and rare arctic flora. And, of course, outstanding recreational opportunities. “What would they give to have something like this so close to downtown Toronto?”

Yet, there’s a real threat to the wilderness. At one time, all of the land was in provincial hands, but the government traded off chunks of it to development companies in return for other privately held coastal properties. The oceanfront properties were given environmental protection, and now those wilderness lands behind Bayers Lake and Clayton Park are the next logical target for suburban sprawl.

“I took a lot of flack from a few people at the very beginning of the campaign, because this is such a special spot for a lot of people,” says Miller. “And there was a sense of inevitability, that it was going to get developed. And, people that came here, they kind of wanted to keep it a secret. You know: ‘Let’s just enjoy it now before it’s ruined.’ My reaction to that was, well, if you take that attitude, you’re basically ensuring that it will be ruined, and we need to let people know the significance of this place. That’s the only way---

to get people to care about it and understand why it’s important.”

To that end, Miller joined with other organizations to put on a series of public hikes. They invited school groups, civic groups, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, anyone who was interested. A hike up Blue Mountain drew over 100 people.

“That’s when we knew we were on to something. We actually had to start toning back our advertising for our hikes because so many people were showing up.”

Each of the three Halifax councillors whose districts abut the area---Debbie Hum, Mary Wile and Russell Walker---were also supportive. And in 2006 council adopted its Regional Plan, a planning document that broadly defines how and where the city will grow over the next 25 years; the very last page of that document is a map labelled “Blue Mountain---

Then, in March of 2007, the coldest day of the winter---“27 below and 50 kilometre-an-hour winds”---Miller brought Bill Leahy, then the deputy minister of the environment, on a hike on the frozen lakes. “We hiked Susies Lake, Bear Den Lake and Quarry Lake,” says Miller. “We started off talking about if we could get this protected, and by the end of the day we were talking about how we could get it protected.”

Five months later, in October of 2007, the provincial government announced that all 4,300 acres of crown land in the city’s proposed park would be given “wilderness” status as the Blue Mountain---Birch Cove Lake Wilderness. “That’s pretty quick in government terms,” says Miller.

Between the city’s park designation and the province’s wilderness designation, Miller has nearly---but not quite---achieved his goal of forever protecting his boyhood stomping grounds. There’s still the 1,000 acres or so of private land in the area, which is now owned by some of the largest development companies in Nova Scotia.

click to enlarge 16.30_f1_ChrisMiller_CPWS_environmental2.jpg

Today isn’t my first trip into the wilderness.

A couple of years ago Miller and I drove through the winding streets of the Kingswood subdivision, parked on a dead end street and hiked an hour or so through a red spruce forest and up Blue Mountain, the highest point on the Chebucto peninsula. At 500 feet, “mountain” is something of a misnomer, but the summit provides a spectacular view: I could see the harbour bridges and McNabs Island to the east, the line of hills along the Bay of Fundy to the north, and the ocean off Tantallon to the west.

I’ve also made a few solo excursions in, following old trails or simply whacking my way through the brush up from Timberlea and from the backside of Kearney Lake. But I’ve never before been into the heart of the wilderness, onto the lakes.

I had no idea what I was missing.

We start on Susies Lake, which stretches about two kilometres to the west and is about a half-kilometre wide. Along the shore are granite cliffs punctuated by forested coves. The coves stretch back enticingly, and it’s easy to see how one could spend a lifetime exploring them. “I never get tired of it,” says Miller. “You still see new things, every time you come.”

About halfway down the lake, we turn north. “This is Bear Den Lake,” explains Miller. “We sort of rediscovered it. It used to be a separate lake, but the water level has risen, and so it became part of Susies Lake. We found ‘Bear Den Lake’ on an old map, so we’re calling it that.”

Bear Den is shorter than Susies, but we’re paddling directly into the wind. It doesn’t take long to lose the December chill.

Soudek points us to a rock ledge along the western shore, and we beach the canoes. “This is a nice camping spot,” he says. “I’ve brought my kids here.” I imagine a night under the stars, surrounded on three sides by water, a fire going. Elderberries grow along one edge of the rock.

We paddle the rest of the length of Bear Den, to a ridiculously easy portage, taking maybe a minute to transverse. We’re on Quarry Lake, and Miller and Soudek are full of stories. I’m not sure if I believe them, but as they tell it, there’s a “Hermit of Susies Lake” living in the wilderness. Soudek says he met the hermit last year, and the hermit claimed to have been camping out for a year or so, through the winter, writing a book. He walks into Bayers Lake every so often for supplies, then back to the woods. “I guess we’ll know more when the book comes out,” says Soudek.

Soudek also claims he drinks directly from the lake. Miller is skeptical, but I’m of two minds on the matter. We’re at the top of the watershed, so no contaminated water is flowing in from the suburbs, and obviously no cattle are grazing hereabouts---the lake water just might be safe to drink. Still, I notice that Soudek brought a water bottle with him.

There’s another portage at the northern end of Quarry, parallel to a small stream that runs over a series of short rapids. Three minutes lugging the canoes, then we’re into a channel winding through a reed-filled fen, which in turn widens, just a bit, into boulder-strewn Fox Lake. There’s a different feel to this lake than the previous three, and as we’re paddling the length of Fox I try to find the words to describe it. “Subtle,” I decide, and realize that contemplating the differences in landscape brings a sort of psychic break from all the bullshit back in the city.

Beaching the canoes again, we push our way through a thicket and climb a hill. Soudek points at a windmill on the horizon, by the town of Prospect, 20 kilometres away, and Miller names the seven or eight lakes he can distinguish. “We need areas like this so people can have opportunities for active recreation,” says Soudek, the physician, as we catch our breath from the climb. “There’s an easier way down, back there,” he says, nodding vaguely behind us. “But let’s go this way,” he adds, thrashing back through the brush, and soon we’re back in the canoes.

click to enlarge 16.30.CANOEING.jpg

We pass an abandoned beaver lodge on the way to another portage. But the day’s getting on and we don’t have time to paddle into the far western section of the wilderness---Horseshoe Lake, Crane Lake and Three Finger Lake will have to wait for another day. Instead, we hike the kilometre or so west to Ash Lake. The trail is evidently shared; there’s fur on some of the rocks, and I notice a lot of coyote scat, much of it embedded with teeth and bone from (presumably) a smaller creature.

A stretch of fallen trees, Hurricane Juan damage, then we’re on the shore of Ash Lake. “I’d guess only about a dozen people come here every year,” says Miller.

As sketched out in the Regional Plan, the city’s proposed park protects the wilderness---the boundaries of the park stretch past each of the lakes, and to the ridgetops on each side, meaning there won’t be condos looming over the park or antifreeze and lawn chemicals leaching into the watershed.

Problem is, inside the city’s proposed park boundary there are about 1,000 acres of privately held land, in bits and pieces, some of it pretty far into the wilderness---for instance, one patch is on the west side of Quarry Lake. And while the wilderness designation for provincially owned land is welcome, it means that nearby private land becomes more valuable.

Think about it: Suddenly the developers have not just lakefront property, but lakefront property that’s surrounded by a provincial wilderness area. The potential million-dollar home just became a potential $3 million-dollar home.

“Once you introduce private access to those lakes, you have no control over the water quality of the still water that you’re trying to protect,” agrees Peter Bigelow, the city staffer overseeing the park’s creation.

If we get suburban homes on the lakes, we’ll get motor boats and jet skis on the water, oils and fertilizers in the water and ATVs through the woods. In short, the wilderness will be destroyed.

Bigelow understands the threat, and his view for the park is dead-on. He sees the city building a small parking lot off Lacewood Drive---park users will take the Bayers Lake exit off the BiHi but instead of turning left towards Costco and Kent, they’ll turn right in to a parking lot for the park. The city will erect a few trailhead signs around the perimeter of the park, and possibly make maps available. The park will be a true wilderness experience for Haligonians and visitors alike to enjoy, a unique urban jewel. The city’s job is to protect it, but otherwise leave it alone.

Still, Bigelow’s in the unenviable role of buying out the private developers with limited public resources. The developers, for their part, have formed a lobbying corporation called Birchdale Projects to present a unified front through negotiations with the city. “The developers want to understand what their rights are and what they would and would not be able to do with the land before they go much further,” explains Bigelow. Birchdale representatives did not return a phone call for comment.

It doesn’t help that two years ago Halifax council pulled the rug out from under an important financing mechanism for parks.

The park acquisition fee is a charge levied on new subdivisions, with the proceeds going to buy parkland; council reduced that charge from 10 to five percent for small property owners. The change was meant to protect families subdividing old homesteads for the next generation---but critics complain that it was applied far too broadly, and now is applied to any small parcel, whether it’s being subdivided for family or as a strictly commercial venture. In any event, the reduction cuts about a half million dollars annually from what had been the anticipated parkland acquisition budget.

City planners, meanwhile, are conducting a “servicing capacity study,” which will determine the cost of extending city services---sewer and water lines, primarily---to the Birchdale lands. That study, which will be submitted to council this winter, will in large part determine the potential value of the private land---if the developers face a high price to get services to the land, the value goes down; conversely, if it doesn’t cost much to service the area, the property becomes very valuable, and therefore it’d cost the city much more to buy out the developers.

“The developers want to explore how much of that land is developable,” says Bigelow. “I don’t know how this is all going to suss out. We’re always going to be working for protection of the lakes, but I don’t know what the end result is going to be.”

We hike back to Fox Lake, get back in the canoes and retrace our path down to Quarry Lake.

There’s an alternate route between some islands to Susies Lake, our starting point, and with the wind behind us, we make good time.

“I really hope the city steps up to the plate on this one,” says Miller, who worries that the city will not aggressively pursue purchase of the private properties. “You can picture this with canoes and kids swimming and lots of people enjoying the wilderness, nature still in the city. Or you can picture this more as sprawling suburbia coming right down to the lakes. Those decisions are happening right now, even though the threats are still a few years off.

“People have to know about this, and they have to let the city know how important it is.”

There’s an easier climb up from the lake than the way we came in, but it’s still a workout getting the canoes back to the Kent parking lot.

I change back into my street shoes, say my goodbyes. I catch one last glimpse of the sun setting beyond the trees, get in the car and drive back into the shoppers’ traffic jam.

Tim Bousquet is news editor at The Coast.

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