Two days and two nights of steady heavy rains gave me some ideas for this article.
On my way for my morning coffee, I noticed the meadows near Cleveland seemed to be flooded more than ever, with little or no clearance under the bridge. The rising waters of River Inhabitants were closer to the road than ever. The combination of warm rain and melting snows in the surrounding hills fed excessive run-off into the small streams and eventually the main river.
Many of the small tributaries of the main river come from the surrounding Creignish Hills. The freshet was on. River Inhabitants was in its flood stage. The main valley is flat and the river meanders back and forth across its adjacent meadows. To compound the problem, River Inhabitants has a tidal mouth that reaches six or seven miles inland. It is even more difficult to get rid of the floodwaters when the tide is high. In 1842 a fairly new bridge at Cleveland (John MacLeod’s Bridge) was completely washed out by a freshet.
The South West and North East Margaree Rivers are something to see in their freshets. From Margaree Forks to Margaree Harbour, the lazy winding river becomes a sea of reddish brown, muddy water up to 20 times its normal width. The main channel of the river can be recognized by swifter flow near the centre.
In December, 1906, six days and nights of heavy rain produced one of the largest freshets the Margaree River had ever seen. Bridges and roads were washed out. This story could be told many times throughout the Margarees.
Many Invernessers remember the freshets that took place on the Big River just outside of Inverness. Route 19 came down the hill by the number 5 coal mine and made its way across a flat intervale that was only a few feet above the level of the river. Many a car or truck made the hazardous passage through two to three of floodwaters when the river was in freshet.
Early pioneers who settled the fertile valleys of Cape Breton’s rivers didn’t make the mistake of settling on the floodplains. We sometimes question the wisdom of neighbours throughout Atlantic Canada who settle and build on the floodplains of rivers that flood many times during the rainy seasons.
I used to think that freshets occurred only once in the fall and spring. But the unpredictability of Cape Breton’s weather suggests that they can occur more often. As we harvest more and more of our forests in the drainage basin of a river, freshets are more likely to occur.
For all its destructive behaviour, the freshets are a natural way of bringing down new soil and nutrients. Pioneer farmers who lived along these flooding rivers never ploughed their meadows adjacent to a flooding river.
Even though our rivers are small by standards of other rivers across Canada we still have to marvel at the violent power of the river when it is its flood stage.