The Cheticamp River originates on the northern plateau of Cape Breton and flows some 25 kilometres westward to the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Beginning in peat bogs and barrens and small lakes on top of the plateau, it starts off a short lazy journey but soon drops down into one of the most picturesque gorges found anywhere in Cape Breton. Everlasting Barren, Bakeapple Barren, Cranberry Barren, and Rocky Barren are some of the large tracts of wet boggy peat lands that are the source area for many of its small tributaries.
On the high plateau much of the area is devoid of trees. Thickets of bushy, deformed conifers alternate with peat bogs. This part of Cape Breton is seldom seen by park visitors or any of the people of our island. At one time the 7-8 square kilometre Cheticamp Lake was part of the headwaters of the Cheticamp River.
Located on the flats of the northern plateau, it was relatively easy to build some dams and small canals and change the direction of flow so that its run-off would be a steady flow of water through Wreck Cove River and the power station. Indeed some 30 square kilometres of land (including Cheticamp Lake) on the plateau were removed from the boundaries of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park to re-orient the drainage pattern of the Wreck Cove project. These portions of the park were withdrawn in 1956 and 1958 to allow for mineral production and hydroelectric development.
On one flight over the headwaters of the Northeast Margaree River, we noticed that we weren’t very far from the deep gorge of the Cheticamp River and decided to follow it to the coast. We almost dropped down within the confines of its steep valley walls. Looking out either side of the aircraft we were looking at the steep flanks that make up its sharply V-shaped profile. At the bottom of the V below us was the trace of white fast flowing water, lots of rapids, and the occasional waterfall.
At still over 1,000 feet above the river bed, it was hard to estimate the size of those cascades. In most places along the rim of the valley the elevation is at least 1,500 feet. Many small streams erode deep short valleys as they tumble over the edges to join the main stream below. Robert Brook, Artemise Brook, LeBlanc Brook, Daphne Brook, and Faribault Brook (named after the geologist who did a lot of geology work in the area) are just a few.
On hiking trips up the Cheticamp River, one can’t help noticing the size of the boulders that make up the bed of the stream; literally some as big as small houses. This is a good indication that the river is sometimes a raging torrent and is able to move these monsters along and slowly grind them down to a more manageable size.
Downstream, the river abruptly emerges from the highlands onto the Cheticamp Lowland at Petit Etang. It crosses under the Cabot Trail Bridge at the entrance to the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. What a dramatic entrance for the park; the abrupt gorge-like walls of the river a short distance upstream from the bridge.
It is also at this point that the park has located its information and interpretative centre. The flow of the river becomes slow and enters a tidal estuary at its mouth. A baymouth bar almost closes it off from entering the sea. A constant battle probably rages between the river and the sea, building and tearing away at the beach bar that separates the tidal mouth from the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
The Cheticamp River is one of those rivers of Cape Breton that builds a small delta inside its tidal mouth. In the lower course of its valley, the National Park has developed one of its best campsite areas that has access to the river, the sea and the mountainous terrain of the park.
The Cheticamp River is one of the great wilderness river valleys of Cape Breton. As it is in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, it is a protected area. Nature and natural processes are allowed to take their natural course. Man has not been allowed to intervene. Quality wilderness areas are roadless and undeveloped, just waiting for the few of us who can hike, snowmobile, or access these untouched special places in some way or another by leaving not even a footprint of our presence.
Wilderness is becoming such a rare commodity in this 21st century that we are almost willing to guard it jealously.