It’s been said that wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit. If this is true, perhaps it’s because places in the wilderness provides that other-worldly feeling we sometimes refer to as “heavenly.” I know that word is clichéd, but Birchdale is such a place. And, although I’ve been there many times in the past 70 years, I wanted to go back today for my Birchdale “fix” and to share my bit of heaven.
First, a little background. In 1910, Omar Roberts—a guide and woodsman—cut logs and hauled them with his oxen across the ice on First Carrying Lake, eight miles from the village of Kemptville in Yarmouth County.
A 1915 brochure bragged: “Fires built there light easily, burn well and never smoke.” Another part of the brochure promised “Fresh milk from the Camp cow. Fresh vegetables from the Camp garden. NO MALARIA. NO HAY FEVER.”
Sportsmen could do a round trip from Boston to Yarmouth for $18; guides were $1 a day; food and lodging $1 a day. Trout, moose, woodcock and partridge were plentiful. In spite of the fact that the only way into Birchdale was by horse or ox team, it didn’t take long for it to flourish.
Although it didn’t operate during the war, it reopened in 1945 with Selwyn Ring and his wife Pauline. By this time, there were five log cabins—Hackmatack, Maple, Birch, Spruce and Fir, which Selwyn had helped to build. He added washrooms using a gravity feed water system and invented gadgets with coils in them to heat water in the cabins. Pauline’s cooking was legendary and carloads journeyed two hours on dirt roads from Yarmouth for Sunday dinner.
My family drove from Yarmouth to attend many of these Sunday dinners, and we also spent a couple of summers there in the late 40s. This where I discovered that real castles were made of logs and had giant fireplaces that took six armloads of wood to fill. It’s also where I learned to paddle, thanks to one of the guides. I was six and just remember him by his first name: John. He made me a short paddle; I thought I was Hiawatha.
Another attraction was Smokey the deer. She enjoyed being petted and was especially fond of cigarettes, cookies and ginger ale, which she guzzled straight from the bottle. It was also common to find her stretched out in front of the fire in the main lodge. In the fall, the Rings put a bell and red bandanna around Smokey’s neck so she wouldn’t be shot.
In spite of Birchdale’s popularity, the number of avid sportsmen keen to hunt and fish dwindled in the 60s, as did the game. Birchdale was sold to the Spiritual Life Institute in 1972, morphed into a monastery, and was re-named Nova Nada.
In the late 1990’s, J. D Irving Ltd. started 24-hour logging operations in the vicinity and the noise interfered with monastic life. The monks wanted a two-mile buffer zone; the logging company offered one mile. As a resolution could not be reached, the monks left in 1998 and put the property up for sale.
Fast forward to 2002 when Helen Matthews (a retired sociology professor) bought the place with a business partner. They were looking for a seasonal spot where retired women could have separate living quarters yet would have a sense of community. Nova Nada popped into view. Matthews watched a video of the property, but had never been in Nova Scotia. Before closing the deal, she visited the property–arriving in the dead of winter. Helen was totally smitten by the beauty of the forested sanctuary, and the warmth of the people she met in Kemptville.
Although the original idea didn’t pan out and, in spite of some major challenges, Matthews has hung in. She encourages anyone who will appreciate the essence of the place to visit, and to spend time there. She also accepts bookings. Great place for weddings, family reunions and special interest groups.
So visiting Birchdale is the first kind of heaven I mentioned in the headline. The second one was having my bum in a canoe with Sue Hutchins on a sunset paddle around Yarmouth Harbour. Altogether we were two canoes and five kayaks.
At one point some of us ventured into a small channel that was formed by the high tide, and watched 54 geese waddling in the marsh. A bit later, we paddled around “Bird Island” in the middle of the harbour with its resident crew of several hundred cormorants and gulls. Stinky noisy crew at that.
Before I close, just want to mention that for the third time in less than two weeks, I forgot to load a card into my small camera for the harbour paddle. I discovered this within minutes of leaving shore and wanted to jump overboard. Mercifully, Sue had her camera—which uses the same kind of card—and offered to loan it to me.
They say things come in threes. Surely this will not happen again. Surely.
ps: I cheated on the Birchdale photos for this post. I swiped them from previous visits there. The B&W photo of Selwyn and the deer is courtesy of Ken Rodney.