While Reading Week is meant as a chance for students to be able to focus on school work, nobody really does this and many use it as an opportunity to travel to exotic locations. Having always either stayed in Peterborough or gone home to Toronto for the time off, I decided to fly away and visit my grandparents this February. My destination: Bear River, Nova Scotia.
Its name is a corruption of the French “Imbert” (a commander of one of Samuel de Champlain’s ships) and known regionally as “The Tidal Village,” Bear River is situated on a river of the same name. Linked to the Bay of Fundy, the water’s elevation changes by seven metres a day, and a few buildings sit atop stilts to compensate.
With an approximate population of 800, the place is a big-time small town. In the downtown you can find one of each of the following: a post office, a gas station, a convenience store, a fire hall, a book shop, a café, and a restaurant (which are only open in the summertime).
This wasn’t always such a sleepy hamlet, however. The settlement began to grow in the 19th century due to the profitability of the local lumber and shipbuilding industries, boasting six facilities for each trade near the end of the century.
A number of service centres, supply stores, and shoppes were able to open and serve the townspeople in those days, very few of which still exist (in some cases physically, due to relatively recent fires). Grand, opulent houses were also constructed in some parts of the town, many of which have survived to today and stand as a testament to the town’s wealth of yesteryear.
Along with the 20th century came the advent of steam power and steel ships, severely damaging the town’s economic sector.
As Stephen Hornsby writes in Time and Tide, “[w]eak resource bases, excessive distance from markets, and predatory external capital all hindered development.” He also cites free trade with the United States as being a factor in the decline, as it replaced the older, national trading framework of east to west.
Despite all of that, Bear River has survived into the 21st century. Besides farming, a prominent industry today is the arts. One of the downtown buildings on stilts is home to the Flight of Fancy, a shop featuring works by a variety of local artists. Everything from sculptures to ceramics, fine woodwork to bird profiles painstakingly detailed on smooth stones can be found here.
Down the street, the community space known as The Rebekah is featuring its current exhibit called “Love and Monsters,” the latest in a series of art gallery-type expositions. It also hosts local and regional musical acts and is the base of operations for Sissiboo Coffee Roaster, an organic and fair trade coffee supplier.
Surprisingly (or not), some notable Canadians have chosen to make this sleepy little village their home. One such person is the Juno-nominated musician Bob Snider, who’s been called a folk hero and a national treasure.
He was profiled by award-winning documentarian Tim Wilson, another local resident who has written, produced, and directed a combination of radio, television, and film work. In his days with CBC, he interviewed the likes of John Lennon and Albert Speer.
He has a project in the works involving scientist Clarke Fraser, the man behind the nation’s first medical genetics clinic, an Officer of the Order of Canada, and yet another local.
As you may have guessed, this is a fairly tightly knit borough. Fund raisers for the few communal facilities are fairly frequent, and many townspeople regularly come out to support the causes.
Bear River is actually run by a group of volunteers; without a mayor or formal government, the Board of Trade was established to handle a variety of political responsibilities.
The river which divides the town physically also divides it administratively. On one side is Digby County, and on the other Annapolis. The geography of the two forms the Annapolis Basin, a 24-kilometre-long sub basin of the Fundy into which the Bear River flows.
My trip included visits to the seats of both counties. Partially situated on a hill the steepness of which rivals those in Peterborough, the town of Digby is a picturesque Maritime settlement which offers a magnificent view of the water, especially from the much-used wharf. Any scallop fans ought to make a pilgrimage here, as theirs are often referred to as “World Famous.”
Almost at the basin’s opposite end sits Annapolis Royal, formerly known as Port Royal and the 5th oldest European settlement in Canada. Less of an eastern Canada postcard kind of town, the place shows its roots in the architecture and city planning. Also relatively quiet in the winter months, summertime brings a lively weekly farmers’ market complete with crafts and music.
Leaving meant and end to eating such delicacies as French toast with every ingredient coming from my grandparents’ land, but with Peterborough having its fair share of local (or at least regional) food options, I could do worse. There’s also a much stronger sense of community here than lots of other places, namely my homeland of Toronto, which once you’ve felt is hard to go without.
With an aging population and most young people leaving for good once they come of age, there’s a chance that, before too long, Bear River will fade into the pages of history. If you suffer from the big-town blues, it might be worth your while to take some time and visit this little slice of paradise while you still can.