I’m something of a campsite aficionado, or, if you like, a snob. Upon arrival my judgy eyes scan the facilities, the placement of playgrounds, the space between sites, the design of the cast iron campfire and the proportions of garbage mingling with the grass. Nothing offends me like a coin operated shower, and nothing disappoints me like a tent unshielded from its neighbour by even a couple trees.
I’ve endured campsites which cleanse themselves of any and all wilderness, leaving visitors robbed of the very connections they came to forge. Others have embraced their social utility with zeal, making each site feel as though alone in all the world, lost in a pocket of hardened dirt, surrounded and overlooked by arboreal giants. In some, I’ve been unable to sleep because dozens of children played and squealed long past unenforced quiet hours on jungle gyms only a few angry paces from my pillow. In others, I’ve been unable to sleep because a pack of coyotes howled and yipped just beyond my fabric enclosure, a delightful if unnerving experience.
The wildernesses to which these campsites allow me easy access are invariably more important than the campsites themselves, but it’s fair to say that I’ve developed standards, and that these standards were completely rewritten by my hike to Pollett’s Cove.
From any of its surrounding vistas, what struck me first were this cove’s natural meadows, as rolling and charming as the Scottish links, either host to a subtle explosion of wildflowers or else grazed tame by a herd of free-roaming horses, brought here by their owner in spring and left to their own devices until fall. These meadows end in a range of cliffs, some towering, precarious, overlooking the humourless tumult of the Gulf of St Lawrence, and others short, giving way to a river which carves an estuary of stone through the Cove’s interior. Pitch your tent wherever you please. The only rules and those you bring with you.
This is not your average campground. There is no highway here, no parking lot, no park pass, no reservations. Pollett’s Cove proper is a privately owned gem surrounded on all sides by the Pollett’s Cove-Aspy Fault Wilderness Area, 27,230 hectares of public land against Cape Breton’s west coast, just north of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. In order to reach the private and ungoverned Cove for camping, you must first hike over the coastal mountains and messes of tangled growth and fallen trees of the surrounding wilderness area, a challenging and at times lovely trail maintained by the enthusiasm of visitors. The trailhead awaits at the end of Pleasant Bay/Red River Road, just past the Gampo Abbey Buddhism monastery.
This means your tent, sleeping bag, food, water, clothes and various other perceived necessities must be carried in, and when you’re done, carried back out, a round trip distance which changes depending on who you ask; in excess of 13 kilometres, by my estimation.
Arrive in early July, as I did, and you won’t be the cove’s only visitor. Escape the woods onto the first and loftiest of its meadows and in the distance below, you’ll see a few tents pitched where the elements freely tear over the landscape – the wind and rain falling at a fever pitch to illustrate the exposure and splendour of these bold campsites. Descend into the Cove a ways, however, and you’ll see a different approach – a small village of tents clustered under a lip of land, nestled between the river, the woods and the hills where there is easy shelter, but less privacy. The exchange is yours to make.
And the horses are the ambassadors, grazing at their pleasure and wandering occasionally in the midst of the admiring masses. As I watched from the incredible distances offered by this cove, they meandered from the wildflower meadows to the edge of the tented village, where they sniffed and nibbled the clothes of its occupants in search of apples, and eventually invaded the village outright, being unreservedly curious. From there, they took to the riverbank, craving both attention and space. I counted eight, but there are more somewhere in this slice of wilderness. They are kind beasts.
The estuary of smooth stones formed by the aforementioned river deserves special note for the arrangement of its driftwood, into seating which encircles old campfires like the stands of an amphitheatre, into fast shelters against the wind or rain, or into ambiguous shapes with no clear purpose or history, but with the distinct hand of humanity. Or else, they make handy firewood.
I was inspired by the cove’s spontaneous social contract, between the owner of this property keeping it free for anyone to visit, and the campers who manage their needs and wants while respecting a place bigger than them, physically and metaphorically. I’m certain there are visitors with whom I would strenuously disagree, about the management of the land and the etiquette of sharing wild spaces, but even without the overarching eyes of authority, Pollett’s Cove has remained beautiful after decades of visitation and admiration. The only cost of coming here is some mileage on your legs, some forethought, the willingness to undertake the basics of backcountry camping and the acceptance that you are really and truly apart from the comforting assumptions of civilization.
I have camped concertedly for several years, and the typical checklist upon pitching my tent involves the closeness and cleanliness of washrooms, the congestion of campers, the potability of water and myriad other petty yet practical concerns. For something truly different, however, there is Pollett’s Cove and similar gems, where you exchange order for responsibility, and familiarity for freedom. Whenever I am tempted to camp again, my heart will tug toward the backcountry.
Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes. The writing of this article was supported, in part, by Nova Scotia Tourism.