Behind the scenes at Gaff Point, one of Nova Scotia’s most beloved trails
The forecast had predicted rain on the morning that I attended a Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) Conservation Volunteers (CV) event at Gaff Point, Nova Scotia. I was there to help repair part of the trail that had been affected by erosion and, luckily, the weather seemed to be in our favour. The temperature hovered in the low 20s. A light breeze drifted toward us from the ocean waves rolling over the sand of Hirtle’s Beach. Clouds shrouded the sky like a layered blanket, but there wasn’t a drop of rain.
Volunteers began to arrive around 9 a.m. We all crowded in the parking lot while Doug, NCC's Nova Scotia stewardship manager, introduced the NCC staff and volunteers. In the group were two members of the Kingsburg Coastal Conservancy (KCC), the organization that stewards Gaff Point, a member of the St. Margarets Bay Stewardship Association, and seven volunteers from local communities. There were four of us from NCC: Doug, Sam, Andrew and me. As a communications intern for NCC in Atlantic Canada, I don’t often get into the field, so I was glad to join in on this event.
We had to cross Hirtle’s Beach to get to the trail. As we walked past a big earthy cliffside, Wanda, one of the KCC members, pointed out the natural erosion on its side. Long muddy crevasses dug into the cliff from the top to the bottom. The erosion had now taken so much of the cliff that the wooden fence at the top of the hill looked to be teetering on the edge.
At the end of the beach, we put up a new sign to mark the beginning of the trail, then ducked into the cover of the trees as the trail led us into the forest. The sound of the breaking waves was dampened by the branches and leaves all around us. The breeze was replaced by warm, still air, and bird calls sounded from the tops of trees.
Gaff Point trailblazers event (Photo by Andrew Herygers/NCC staff)
Sam took one group to trim foliage and branches away from the trail. The rest of us followed Doug down toward the rock outcrops at the end of the peninsula. The sound of waves returned, this time crashing loudly against the rocky cliffs and echoing like thunder. The path here wandered precariously close to the edge of the cliffs. I am not scared of heights, but in that moment, I remembered the erosion of the cliff by the beach, and I wondered how steady this path truly was. There were signs to warn hikers of the cliff, but we wanted to ensure that the trail was as safe as possible.
Signs to warn hikers of the cliff (Photo by Andrew Herygers/NCC staff)
Our task was to establish a new section of the path that would go through the trees instead of along the edge of the cliff. Mike, from St. Margarets Bay Stewardship Association, had brought a chainsaw. He began cutting away dead trees and branches that crossed into our new path. The rest of us got to work pulling out branches that had been buried under the thick mossy floor.
I found it interesting that much of our work involved making the new path seem more appealing to hikers than the old one. We trimmed the mossy floor with a pair of hedge shears to make it look like it had already been used. We hauled large, spiky branches out of the woods and set up a barricade over the original path. As Mike told us, the goal was to make the barricade look as messy and unattractive as possible so that confused hikers wouldn’t be bothered to simply take it down.
Group of staff and volunteers helping to make Gaff Point trailblazing safe and enjoyable (Photo by Andrew Herygers/NCC staff)
We lunched on sandwiches, and waved to the first hikers using the new path. Around 1:30 p.m., we packed up our tools and walked the rest of the way around the trail. Several muddy areas of the trail had been replaced with large stones and small bridges made from wood planks, evidence of previous CV events.
It began to drizzle as we made our way back down to the start of the trail. The little droplets of rain were welcome on our faces after hours of walking around branches. It was almost like the weather was congratulating us on our work as we crossed Hirtle’s Beach and reconvened in the parking lot for a group photo. Before I knew it, the day was over.
I had been to Gaff Point several times before this event, but never had I considered the work that goes into this 6.6-kilometre-long trail. Hundreds of people are safely able to enjoy Gaff Point year after year, thanks to the hard work of volunteers and KCC’s stewardship.
Next time you visit your favourite trail, remember the love and energy that countless people have poured into it, and I promise that your time there will feel all the more special.