So near, yet so far

Photo: Jamie Morrison

Psst. Have you heard the one about the invisible park?
It goes like this: There’s a 400-hectare park about 20 minutes from downtown, with a sandy beach, a secret Victorian garden, 18 kilometres of coastal and wooded trails, a handful of historic houses, two abandoned military forts (including a National Historic Site), and a story for just about every chapter of Nova Scotian history.
The punchline: Nobody goes there.
OK, almost nobody.  Brian Kinsman, senior park planner with the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources (DNR), guesses there are about 6,000 to 10,000 visits to McNab’s every year. By way of contrast, Vancouver’s Stanley Park, roughly the same size, sees eight million visits annually. Point Pleasant Park is 1/5 the size of McNab’s, and at last count 10 years ago, saw about 1.2 million visits a year.

Photo: Jamie Morrison

Photo: Jamie Morrison

McNab’s is a non-operational provincial park, meaning that while it is protected under our Parks Act, the park is neither promoted nor serviced by the province. “The DNR has almost passively managed [McNab’s],” says Gordon Stevens, the mind behind the Twitter account @kipperbushfx, which has been floating the idea of a new Halifax-McNab’s water connection since early spring.
Stevens thinks the best way to get McNab’s on DNR’s operational list is to reestablish transportation to the island, much like there was back in its recreational heyday.
It was pretty easy to get to McNab’s Island in say, 1873, when Haligonians owned rowboats, not cars, and when the Halifax Steamboat Company ran a ferry to the island three times a week, along with other harbour destinations. In the summer of that year, Woolnaugh’s Pleasure Grounds hosted a party on McNab’s in honour of Governor General Lord Dufferin, which drew 4,500 partygoers to the island in one day, almost as many as now make it over in a year.
From the mid 1800s to the early 1900s, McNab’s was our party island, a major Sunday destination. You could walk or swim the beach, play a game of quoits (think horseshoes with rings), ride the steam carousel at Findley’s Picnic Grounds, and perhaps get a bottle of Pure McNab’s soft (or not-so-soft) drinks.
Today, getting to McNab’s takes planning. You can catch a boat for about $20 per person round-trip from Eastern Passage, booked in advance. From Halifax, you can hire boats for larger groups or large sums of money. (UPDATE: In the summer, Murphy’s on the Water offers weekend boat service to McNab’s Island, leaving at 10 a.m. and returning at 2 p.m. To arrange a free guided tour, email And so the park remains ever so slightly out of reach for most people.
If McNab’s hasn’t completely slipped off our collective radar, it’s thanks to the efforts of the Friends of McNab’s Society. They’ve picked up 11,000 bags of garbage on the island’s shoreline since 1991. They’ve also raised $500,000 towards trail improvements, a visitor’s kiosk still in the making, and a composting toilet to help take the pressure off the over-worked privies.
The provincial government’s efforts lag in comparison. A comprehensive 2005 park plan sits on the shelves at DNR, un-resourced. And at this year’s Friends annual general meeting, DNR introduced a new trail plan for the island. Again, with no funding attached.
Cathy McCarthy is the longstanding president of the Friends. She goes silent for a moment when I ask about the under-resourced planning strategy for the island. “I’m not going to say anything,” says McCarthy. “I can’t, really. I try to be very positive about my outlook towards McNab’s and its future.”
On the one hand, McCarthy thinks McNab’s doesn’t need much to be a great park. A few more composting toilets, access to potable water, and a small visitor’s centre would be nice. On the other hand, she knows the potential is there for so much more. “There’s an immense amount of outdoor education opportunities on McNab’s,” says McCarthy, who’d like to see one or more of the historic houses on the island transformed into an outdoor recreation centre, where adults, school kids, and university students from HRM could visit, stay and learn.
It’s not hard to see the educational potential of the island. Aside from the natural values, the cultural heritage of McNab’s is a microcosm of the wider Nova Scotian experience.
Mi’kmaq tribes used the island as hunting and fishing grounds for thousands of years. The French and then the British used is as a fishing base, later settling. It’s home to military fortifications dating back to 1762, and played roles in both World Wars.
The island also helps recall the more grizzly aspects of our history. In 1760, Crown officials forcibly relocated a group of local Mi’kmaq people to what is now called Indian Point. And according to CBC history columnist Dianne Marshall, powerful Halifax merchant Joshua Mauger kept people he would later sell as slaves in a shed on a McNab’s beach.
The island’s most recent cultural claim to fame is as the birthplace of the Bill Lynch Shows. In 1920 a young Bill Lynch purchased the steam-powered carousel from Findley’s Picnic Grounds, and went on to build a carnival empire. This combination of cultural and natural values so close to an urban centre is “almost unique in Nova Scotia,” says Brian Kinsman.
“It’s almost tragic that we’ve got these wonderful places embedded in a city, and they’re so under-utilized by people,” says Bill Freedman, one of a small group of Dalhousie biology professors who floated the idea of an outdoor nature school at McNab’s about 15 years ago.
Back then, the historic houses could’ve been converted with much less money than today. In 2000, the province turned off the heat, and without alternative ventilation in place, mould set in. Now the houses are closed to visitors.
At the Friends’ annual meeting in April, Kinsmen announced DNR would be doing some much-needed maintenance on the houses. “That means they’re willing to invest a bit to maintain a totally inadequate status quo,” says Freedman. “What you want to do is move forward.  And that’s not moving forward.”
Freedman thinks it will take a champion outside the bureaucracy, someone with political or financial sway, to realize the potential on McNab’s. Meanwhile, Gordon Stevens is working on getting more people to the island. “If a transportation link is established, if the visitorship goes up dramatically, then there’ll be more pressure on the province to be more active.” says Stevens.
Cathy McCarthy points to Boston harbour as an ideal example of what could be. “They use their harbour for ferry transportation much more than we do in Halifax,” says McCarthy. “They have ferries going all over the place from one end to the other, as commuter ferries and also for recreation.”
However, despite a number of studies looking at high speed ferries into the Bedford Basin, Metro Transit has no solid plans to expand on harbour transit. Spokesperson Janet Bryson says transit to McNab’s is “more of an individual business or tourism operation.”
Private or public, Stevens thinks we need regular, affordable transit to McNab’s. “Imagine getting up Saturday morning,” offers Stevens. “You go to the market, get your picnic supplies, walk down the boardwalk, get on a boat, and in 10 minutes you’re at the beach. There is this perceived deficit of nature in our kids’ lives. Less 20-somethings have cars today, so the ability to drive to Lawrencetown or Queensland isn’t there for a lot of young people. It’s time to rethink McNab’s.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said that Governor Edward Cornwallis ordered the removal of Mi’kmaq inhabitants from McNab’s Island in 1760. As a reader has since pointed out, Cornwallis left Halifax in 1752, and almost certainly wasn’t responsible for that order. The story above has been corrected.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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