A baymouth bar nearly closes off the mouth of the Cheticamp River.

The Cheticamp River originates on the northern plateau of Cape Breton and flows some 25 or so kilometres westward to the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Beginning in peat bogs, 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 peatlands that are the source for many of the 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, 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 for a power station.

Indeed some 30 square kilometres of land (including the 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 power project. These portions of the park were withdrawn in 1956 to allow for hydroelectric development.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 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 is white, fast flowing water, lots of rapids, and the occasional waterfall. At over 1,000-feet above the river bed, it was hard to estimate the size of those cascades. In most places, the rim of the valley’s elevation is at least 1,500-feet.

Pictured is the V-shaped valley of the Cheticamp River.

Many small streams erode deep short valleys as they tumble over the edges to join the main river. Robert Brook, Artemise Brook, LeBlanc Brook, and Faribault Brook (named after an early geologist who did a lot of geology work in Cape Breton) are just a few.

On hiking trips up the Cheticamp River, one couldn’t help noticing the size of the boulders that make up the bed of the stream. They are a good indication that the river is sometimes a raging torrent and is able to move these monsters along. Downstream, the river abruptly emerges from the highlands onto the Cheticamp Lowland. Here the Cabot Trail crosses it at the entrance to the National Park.
What a dramatic entrance for the park. The flow of the river slows down and enters a tidal estuary. A baymouth bar almost closes it off from entering the sea. A constant battle rages between the river and the sea, building and tearing away at the beach that separates the tidal mouth from the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Near this entrance to the park is an interpretative centre and campground where campers have 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, or 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.