Shelburne River

Location: Liverpool, Nova Scotia
Region: Outside Ontario
Character: Heritage River

Shelburne River
By The Canadian Heritage Rivers System

Wild Headwaters, Quiet Stillwaters, and Ancient Forests

Shallow rocky lakes, rapids, still-water reaches - the Shelburne begins in the Tobeatic Wilderness Area, the largest remaining wilderness in the Maritimes. It flows through many shallow, rocky lakes, tumbles over rapids, and slips quietly through tranquil stillwaters as it traverses boulder-strewn wetlands, eskers and undisturbed forests.

Here are some of the last old-growth stands of white pine, red spruce and hemlock in Nova Scotia. For the paddler, the Shelburne is a wilderness river appearing much as it did when the Mi'Kmaq used it as a travel route centuries ago.

The Shelburne is the most remote wilderness river in Nova Scotia. Along its course, it takes the traveller from wilderness barrens to the edge of civilization. Although Nova Scotia has the longest history of European colonization and continuous settlement in Canada, the low productivity of the barrenlands has prevented development from encroaching significantly on the river. The Shelburne begins in the heart of the western Nova Scotia Granite Barrens and flows through a landscape with only minor rises and depressions. While some parts of the river corridor support stands of large timber, the surrounding barrenlands consist of low heath vegetation, bogs, and patchy forest stands. As the river continues toward Lake Rossignol, forest Sstands are large enough to attract commercial interest. Here you contact roads and simple bridges of the forest industry.

The Shelburne River formed an important part of the spider web of rivers and lakes which allowed the Mi'kmaq Indians to travel freely throughout the region. The canoe has always been, and remains, the most popular and practical method of transportation.

Although the barrenlands are unproductive for vegetation, the conspicuous eskers and intermixed large wetlands combine to create a river of exceptional natural beauty. About 75% of the river's watershed is Provincial Crown Land in a wilderness condition. The major private landowner in the area is the Bowater Mersey Paper Company Limited. The company has undertaken management practices to protect the river corridor where it lies within its holdings.

In recognition of its outstanding natural landscapes and the wilderness recreation it affords, the entire Shelburne River was designated a Canadian Heritage River in 1997.

A tributary of the Mersey River, the Shelburne River flows 53 km through the heart of the western interior of Nova Scotia. From its source at Buckshot Lake, the river flows in an arc north, east, and then south to Lake Rossignol. It has a watershed of 27,739 ha and flows through two distinct geographic regions: across the Granite Barrens from the headwaters to Irving Lake (upper 2/3 of the river), and over the slightly more productive Quartzite Plains from Irving Lake to Lake Rossignol.

In part, the barrens exist because repeated advances of glaciers scraped the rock bare. Much of the area has also been impoverished by repeated fires. These were often set deliberately dozens of kilometres away at the seacoast and allowed to burn inland, uncontrolled, in order to clear land for pioneer pastures.

As a result of erosion-resistant underlying bedrock along its course and low gradients, the river flows only slowly over the surface for much of its length. It first fills a shallow depression to form a lake, then overflows, following a shallow dip in the land's surface to the next depression, and so on. In this low-relief landscape, moving waters comprise slightly less than half the river's length; calmer stillwaters another third. The remainder is occupied by eight shallow, rocky lakes spaced along its course. Where the river cuts across bands of harder rocks, rapids and low waterfalls have been formed.

Natural Heritage
Geology: The dominant landscape features of the Shelburne have resulted from exposed underlying bedrock and glacial action. A large portion of southwestern Nova Scotia is underlain by a mass of granite formed about 400 million years ago by the melting of the surrounding rocks deep below the earth's surface. The molten rock rose to the surface and solidified. As a result of its resistance to erosion, this granite mass still bulges above the surrounding metamorphic rocks, forming the low rise of South Mountain. For the upper two-thirds of its length, the Shelburne flows over this granite, which is covered thinly, if at all, by a layer of loose, stony, granite till. The surface is strewn with boulders and drainage is poor, with peat bogs forming in the shallow depressions.

The lower portion of the river, east of Irving Lake, flows over somewhat more easily eroded rocks including quartzites and slates. These metamorphic rocks were formed about 540 million years ago and are the rocks from which the younger granite was created. Deeper tills create a landscape more dominated by forests as the river approaches Sand Lake. From Sand Lake east to a large stillwater near the river's mouth, the Shelburne flows over still softer slates and siltstones formed about 500 million years ago. Again, tills are slightly more developed here, giving rise to more productive forests. Outstanding examples of undisturbed glacial features are associated with the Shelburne River. Large erratics line the river and lakes from the headwaters to Irving Lake. Outstanding examples of eskers wind from Pine Lake to Sand Beach Lake and outwash plains occur along 2 km of the river between Sand Beach and Beverley lakes.

Vegetation: The Shelburne River corridor presents a fascinating contrast in vegetation. Not only does it contain some of the most barren land in the region, but it also supports some of its most significant old forest stands. On the Granite Barrens, only the shallow valleys of the river and its tributaries support a "linear forest" of red maple, some ash and wire birch. Heath plants and patches of low scrubby forest form the dominant vegetation of the gentle rises of the surrounding barrenlands. Pure stands of large, old white pine occur in the area surrounding Pine Lake, sporadically along the river to Granite Lake, and again south and west of Irving Lake. These are remnants of the great pine forests which were harvested to feed the shipbuilding and lumber industries of the province in the 1800's. A number of high quality, old-growth hemlock stands with trees over a metre in diameter border the river east of Irving Lake. One stand between Sand Lake and Lake Rossignol contains trees up to 125 cm (50 in) in diamter, and has been identified as the "Shelburne River" IBP (International Biological Program) site.

Wildlife: The large area of semi-barren wetlands and pine forests associated with the Shelburne River, west of Irving Lake, is important wildlife habitat. The area supports a large black bear population and the largest moose population on mainland Nova Scotia. As part of a larger wilderness area, the Shelburne River provides high quality wildlife habitat and refuge for species which prefer large remote areas. Many birds which visit or breed in Nova Scotia require the mixture of interior unfragmented habitats that this wild area provides. As well, the many wetland types provide considerable habitat for nesting ducks, and populations of beaver, otter and muskrat.

Human Heritage
It is likely that the first human inhabitants arrived in this area shortly after the last glaciers retreated. Stone artifacts found along the Shelburne - arrowheads, knives, scrapers - may be more than 5000 years old. Mi'kmaq Indians were travelling the river by canoe when the first contacts were made with Europeans 400 years ago. Until the present century, they used the Shelburne for fishing and as a key transportation route linking the interior to the coast by the Sissiboo, Tusket, Roseway and Mersey river systems. According to legend, Jim Charles, a local Mi'kmaq guide, travelled the Shelburne to visit a secret gold mine beyond its headwaters, and, after killing a man in a dispute, hid for more than a year in a shallow cave under a rock near Sand Beach Lake.

The European settlers who colonized the coastal regions of the province followed the Mi'kmaq canoe routes along the rivers to hunt, fish, trap and explore. As the inland areas of the province became sparsely settled in the 1800s, the canoe became an important vehicle for woods travel, and continued so for recreational purposes. Beginning in the 19th century, loggers followed the rivers upstream, cutting along their banks and "driving" the logs downstream to the mills. Both large logs and four foot lengths of pulpwood were driven on the Shelburne River, and, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, temporary dams were built on some of the lakes to "save" water for driving in the spring.

Although the Mi'kmaq travelled less as the province became colonized by Europeans, many Mi'kmaq, as well as local settlers from the nearby communities, relied on guiding fishermen, hunters, and sightseers through the area to supplement their incomes until after World War II. Canoeing the Shelburne as part of a loop trip, which included waterways that are now part of Kejimkujik National Park, was first popularized in the 1908 book, The Tent Dwellers, by Albert Bigelow Paine. In this humourous account, Paine describes a month long fishing trip with a fellow sport and two Mi'Kmaq guides. Canoeists still come to the area to travel this route.

The Mersey Paper Company (later Bowater Mersey) purchased large blocks of land along the Shelburne River and began cutting in the area in 1928. Approximately one-third of the land adjoining the river is now owned by Bowater Mersey.

In 1968, the Government of Canada established Kejimkujik National Park adjacent to the Shelburne River, with 5% of the river's watershed lying within the park.

Wilderness Canoeing, Sightseeing, and Nature Appreciation: The whole of the river corridor provides outstanding wilderness canoeing opportunities. The upper region from the headwaters to Irving Lake provides a superb wilderness landscape with no settlements. A few forest roads, bridges, forestry operations, and company or government owned cabins on the lower section are rare intrusions on the otherwise undisturbed riverbank. Despite the low relief associated with the river, the undisturbed barrens, bogs and forests along the Shelburne create dramatic, wild landscapes. The eskers between Pine Lake and Sand Beach Lake provide scenic viewpoints with panoramas of the surrounding forest and barrens. White water canoeing (when the river is high), quiet paddling on long still waters, and lake hopping are all possible on different stretches of the river. From the height of land on which the Shelburne rises, rivers flow to the nearby surrounding ocean like the spokes of a wheel radiating from a hub. For extended trips, canoeists can connect with four other rivers from the Shelburne: the Tusket, Sissiboo, Roseway and the upper Mersey.

It is possible to canoe on the Shelburne from ice-out (usually late April) until freeze-up (November) but it is mostly fed, like many other streams in the region, by run-off. This leads to a large drop in water levels of over 50 cm during July and August, requiring excessive portaging. Commonly, flows do not increase significantly until mid-October and after this time there is a good chance of better water levels for canoeing after a heavy rain. The high wind exposure on the larger lakes caused by the elevated, relatively flat terrain, can challenge experienced canoeists, as can the white water stretches. Intermediate white water skills are recommended and competence in wilderness travel.

Kejimkujik National Park: The Shelburne is accessible via a series of lakes and portages in the Park. The last lake in the series is Pebbleloggitch Lake, which is linked via Pebbleloggitch Stillwater to the Shelburne River about half way down its length between Granite and Irving Lakes. A loop trip of about five days is possible by following the "Tent Dwellers Route". Beginning at Kejimkujik Lake in the Park, continue through to Pebbleloggitch Lake. Paddle the Shelburne downstream to Lake Rossignol, then up the Mersey River back to Kejimkujik Lake. A complete wilderness trip is available by paddling upstream from Pebbleloggitch Stillwater through a series of lakes to Buckshot Lake, through the barrens. Other access points to the river require challenging portages from the Sissiboo, Tusket, or Roseway systems or a paddle upstream from the mouth of the river at Lake Rossignol. It is estimated that about 150 people canoe portions of the river each year, usually in parties of 2 to 4 people.

Angling: Native trout stocks in the river sometimes provide good sport fishing, but the low overall productivity of the watershed means that populations are limited.

Visitor Information
Access: The Shelburne River is inaccessible by public road. Forest management roads cross the river, but are gated. The most practical access to the Shelburne is via canoe from Kejimkujik National Park or from Lake Rossignol, both of which are about a three-hour drive (160 km) from Halifax via Highway 103 and Route #8 (the Kejimkujik Drive).

Accommodation and Services: No accommodations or services are available along the river, but campgrounds and information services are available at Kejimkujik National Park. General services including simple accommodation and supplies, are found in the nearby communities of Caledonia and Maitland Bridge.

Canoeing is the only practical means of traveling the river. For most of the summer, however, water levels in fast-flowing stretches may be too low for paddling, and some portages are poorly marked and may be difficult to find. Prepared information on canoeing the upper river is sparse. Detailed information on paddling the lower Shelburne and the rest of the Tent Dweller route can be found in Paddle-Lunenburg Queens. This includes large maps, rapids, portages, campsites and trip options such as other take out points on Lake Rossignol.

Maps: National Topographic Series Maps available for the Shelburne River include 1:50,000 series: 21 A/3, 21 A/4, 21 A/5, and 21 A/6. However, the 1:250,000 series map, 21 (Annapolis) is sufficient. Maps are available from the Canada Map Office, 615 Booth Street,Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0E9. Canoeing information on the Shelburne below Sand Lake is available on the Canoe Waterways Map "Lake Rossignol", 1": 1320' from the Nova Scotia Government Bookstore, Box 637, Halifax, Nova Scotia, B3J 2T3. Kejimkujik National Park, Box 236, Maitland Bridge, Nova Scotia publishes a backcountry guide and topographic map with canoeing/hiking information on the canoe routes and trails in the park which provide access to the Shelburne. Maps and a route description for the Lower Shelburne are also provided in Paddle-Lunenburg Queens.

Further Information
Registration for travel in the backcountry of Kejimkujik National Park is required. Information on camping and travel in the National Park is available from the park address given above or at (902) 682-2772 E-mail:

Canoe and Kayak Route Information & Maps : Canoe Nova Scotia, 5516 Spring Garden Road, 4th Floor,Halifax, Nova Scotia, B3J 1G6 Canada Tel: (902) 425-5454. Ext.316, Fax: (902) 425-5606, E-mail: ,

Tourist Information :
Telephone Toll free in North America 1-800-565-0000
Local and outside North America 902-425-5781
TDD service 902-492-4833
Fax 902-424-2668


Ground mail
Nova Scotia Department of Tourism, Culture and Heritage
PO Box 456
Halifax, Nova Scotia
B3J 2R5

Information on canoe rentals, outfitters and guides is available from the Nova Scotia Adventure Tourism Association, Tourism Industry Association of Nova Scotia
NSATA Secretariat, 1099 Marginal Road, Suite 201
Halifax, NS
B3H 4P7
tel (902) 423-4480 or 1-800-948-4267
fax (902) 422-0184

Guides, Outfitters & Lodging : CHECK-IN 1-800-565-0000, NS Tourism, Box 456, Halifax, NS, B3J 2R5;;

Sport fishing regulations : NS Department of Natural Resources, Box 68, Truro, NS, B2N 5B8,;

Lodging, Accommodation and Visitor Services : Nova Scotia Department of Tourism and Culture, Box 456, Halifax, Nova Scotia B3J 2R5. Phone toll free: 1-800-565-0000 (Canada) or l-800-565-6096 (USA);

Canadian Heritage Rivers in Nova Scotia : Protected Areas Division, NS Dept. of Environment and Labour, Nova Scotia Environment and Labour , PO Box 697, 5151 Terminal Road, Halifax, Nova Scotia B3J 2T8; Phone: 902-424-5300, Fax: 902-424-0503

Canadian Heritage Rivers System : National Manager, Canadian Heritage Rivers System, c/o Parks Canada, Ottawa, Canada K1A 0M5. Tel. 819-994-2913, Fax 819-99-0835. E-mail address:

More information on this wilderness gem can be found at