I’ve endured campsites that cleanse themselves of any and all wilderness, leaving visitors robbed of the connections they came to forge. Others have embraced their social utility with zeal, making each site feel 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.
But a hike to Pollett’s Cove completely upended my camping expectations.
The cove is on the northwest coast of Cape Breton. From any of its surrounding vistas, what struck me first were the natural meadows: rolling and charming, either home to a subtle explosion of wildflowers or else grazed 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 that carves an estuary of stone through the Cove’s interior. You can pitch your tent wherever you please.
This is not an average campground. There is no access highway, 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 just north of Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
To reach the private and ungoverned campground, you must first hike the coastal hills and masses of tangled growth and fallen trees in 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 Buddhist monastery. You have to pack all your necessities in and out. The round-trip distance varies depending on who you ask; I put it at about 13km.
You probably 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 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 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, unreservedly curious. From there, they took to the riverbank, craving both attention and space. I counted eight of the kind beasts, but there are more somewhere in this slice of wilderness.
The estuary of smooth stones that the aforementioned river formed deserves special note for the arrangement of its driftwood: seating for campfires like the stands of an amphitheatre, fast shelters against the wind or rain, ambiguous shapes with no clear purpose or history. And handy firewood.
The site has a spontaneous social contract. The owners keep it free for anyone to visit and the campers 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.
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 truly apart from the comforting assumptions of civilization.
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 to the backcountry.
Editor’s Note: Tourism Nova Scotia financially supported the writing of this article; it did not select the topic or approve the article’s content.