Spring cleaning : preparing for warmer weather on McNabs Island

McNabs Island will see its annual clean-up this June by Friends of McNabs Island.

Most Haligonians would agree that the city has suffered a harsher winter than usual. But Cathy McCarthy is thinking about the needs of another population.

“It would be really hard on all the deer on McNabs,” says McCarthy. “I expect they’ve had a bit of a harder time than usual with all the snow.”

McCarthy is the president of the Friends of McNabs Island Society and has been with them since their first meeting in March 1990. In addition to fundraising to provide amenities like park benches and a composting toilet for the island, the society organizes annual beach clean-ups.

McCarthy says that the island’s location at the mouth of the harbour means that it’s “like a sieve” for garbage and debris from both sides.

“Unfortunately, we’ve collected over 11,000 bags of garbage since we started doing this in 1991. There may be a few people that leave garbage if they go over for a visit to the island, but most of the garbage is washed up on the beaches.”

The clean-ups, or “sweeps”, are intended to not only clear the beaches of debris, but identify the sources of the contaminants. Organizations such as Clean Nova Scotia as well as individual volunteers also participate in the sweeps. This year’s sweep is set for June 1.

Art of the island

Rochelle Owen is the director of the Office of Sustainability at Dalhousie University and has been doing photography for the society on a volunteer basis for around 20 years. She is all too familiar with the pollution on the beaches of McNabs.

“The different shorelines represent different parts of our ocean community. Closer to the Eastern Passage, the debris is reflective of the industry and the inner harbor,” says Owen, “and on the other ocean-facing side of the island it’s a big ocean breeze, much bigger swells of water, a cleaner environment, but there’s debris of a different nature. You can see a little bit more fishing debris, and wood and flotsam and jetsam.”

McNab's enthusiast and photographer Rochelle Owen. (Sophie Allen-Barron/Peninsula News)
McNab’s enthusiast and photographer Rochelle Owen. (Sophie Allen-Barron/Peninsula News)

This was the first year Owen visited McNabs in the winter. She’s working on an exhibition of her photos of the island, set to go up in October 2014.

“The title of the exhibit is ‘Nature’s Reconstruction’, and when I was out there I started to investigate the theme. I noticed that the power of nature to transform the human habitation of the island, for 300 years – or way longer than that with the Mi’kmaq people there, but you can see bits of their history still there.”

In its heyday as a recreational and residential area, McNabs was home to a soda factory. Evidence of this past is still visible on the island.

“There are still old bottles, so you can see how nature is transforming those pieces, that’s the focus of it,” says Owen.

While Fort McNab is a national historic site, and the rest of the island a provincial park, it often does not get the funds McCarthy feels it deserves. Instead, the society fundraises to keep the island accessible and beautiful.

“Over the past five years Friends of McNabs have been fundraising, we’ve applied to various grants, and we’ve been able to raise 500 000 dollars for the trails and to try to improve the infrastructure on McNabs,” says McCarthy.

“We’ve been able to get some arborists to come over and clean out the windfalls, the dead trees and dead wood that was in the Victorian gardens, so there’s well over 100 different species of trees and plants in there and people are able to walk around and see the gardens.”

A youth group congregates in the Victorian gardens on McNab's. (c/o Cathy McCarthy)
A youth group congregates in the Victorian gardens on McNab’s. (c/o Cathy McCarthy)

For all the beauty that drew McCarthy to the island after visiting it with her children over 20 years ago, she recognises that there are serious issues that need to be addressed – specifically, erosion.

“The breakwater just beyond the lighthouse, on the Hangman’s beach side, has been eroded and damaged so much over the years with the winter storms and has not been repaired. That breakwater, if it does give way completely, will change the shoreline of McNab’s completely,” says McCarthy, adding that “there hasn’t been any indication from any level of government that they’re going to fix it.”

McNab’s island is currently accessible through several ferry services out of Eastern Passage, or through Murphy’s for larger groups.