Canoe tour of Kejimkujik National Park, Nova Scotia

Stuart Forster takes a canoe tour of Kejimkujik National Park in Nova Scotia, Canada.

Disclosure: Stuart Forster, the author of this post, travelled to Nova Scotia as a guest of Tourism Nova Scotia and retained full editorial control of this post. Tourism Nova Scotia did not review or approve this article.

“Mommy, why is that man not paddling?” asks a curly-haired girl while pointing towards me. She stares up at her mother, clearly perplexed and perturbed. It’s a fair question. Even I thought I’d have a paddle in my hand while exploring the waterways of Canada’s Kejimkujik National Park.

She stares angrily as we glide by. Though just five or six, she’s clearly disapproving of the situation. I’m the passenger of a canoe that’s being navigated by two women.

Instead of paddling, I’m sitting with a couple of cameras in my lap. Hopefully, I’ll have opportunities to photograph some of the many petroglyphs and birds within this national park in Nova Scotia. Cody, our guide, who’s in another boat, suggested the arrangement over at the floating pontoon at Jakes Landing where we lowered ourselves into the canoes.

Boarding canoes by Jakes Landing.
Boarding canoes by Jakes Landing.

Kejimkujik National Park

Nova Scotians know this place simply as Keji. The national park is split between the inland area we’re currently exploring and a smaller coastal region. The 500 or so petroglyphs — symbols carved into the rock — are the reason why Kejimkujik is also designated a National Historic Site. Several of the petroglyphs date from approximately 4,000 years ago. Yet there are suspicions that the region has been inhabited for as much as 10,000 years.

Like open spaces? You can't say there's not mushroom in Kejimkujik National Park.
Like open space? You can’t say there’s not mushroom in Kejimkujik National Park.

This inland section of the national park is dotted with 46 lakes. As many as 30 streams flow through the region’s dense woodland. The mightiest of the waterways is the Mersey River, whose churning, dark water is nicknamed ‘Mersey tea’. Riverside trails run alongside the Mersey’s bank. Dense foliage means that fungi thrive in the dark, moist conditions of the forest floor and on fallen trees.

Rapids in the Mersey River,as it runs through Kejimkujik National Park.
Rapids in the Mersey River, as it runs through Kejimkujik National Park.

First Nations heritage in Nova Scotia

Over centuries the Mi’kmaw people, one of Canada’s First Nations, have navigated routes in the region. The Mi’kmaw would paddle along waterways and then disembark their birch bark canoes to carry them on portages of up to two kilometres at a time. Cody explains that Todd Labrador, a Mi’kmaw craftsman, operates workshops in which he demonstrates how to strip bark from birch trees and make traditional canoes. Interpretative tours also provide insights into other aspects of Mi’kmaw heritage, including the medicinal use of plants.

An erratic, dumped at the end of the last ice age visible from a waterway in Kejimkujik National Park
An erratic, dumped at the end of the last ice age visible from a waterway in Kejimkujik National Park

Some of the petroglyphs convey information relating to ancient portage routes. Others depict what the Mi’kmaw wore and how they hunted. The arrival of Europeans, in ships, is also recorded. The archaeological site is one of the largest of its kind in North America. Interpretive tours of the petroglyphs operate daily throughout the summer (the size of groups is limited to 20 participants, so it’s worth reserving a place by calling +1 902-682-2772).

A birch bark tipi in Keji and seating round a fire pit.
A birch bark tipi in Keji and seating round a fire pit.

A canoe tour in Keji

We glide along. The gentle sound of the ash and cherrywood paddles rhythmically entering the water and then dripping as they are withdrawn does not disturb the twittering of birdsong. Water makes a curious glooping sound as it swirls in a vortex after the paddle has been withdrawn.

In the distance, a belted kingfisher dives from an overhanging branch into the water and then appears with a finger-sized silver fish in its beak.

A belted kingfisher perched in a tree.
A belted kingfisher perched in a tree.

The sight prompts Cody to chat about the fish species of the region, then explain that Keji has the largest concentration of reptiles and amphibians in Nova Scotia, including the rare ribbonsnake. “The park’s biodiversity is extreme,” he comments. We paddle over towards what appears to be a pile of stacked branches — a beaver dam. Porcupines and squirrels also inhabit the area.

On the water during a canoe tour of Keji.
On the water during a canoe tour of Keji.

Kejimkujik National Park wildlife

The region’s bats help keep the insect population down. Cody mentions that mosquitoes tend to flourish in July and August. However, brown bats have been suffering from white-nose syndrome, a fungus that causes itching. The irritation wakes the bats during hibernation, sapping their energy and causing them to die.

Water flowers blooming.
Water flowers blooming.

We’ve already seen a series of turtle nests, protected by wooden frames to help ensure the eggs survive, in the car park upon arrival. Blanding’s turtle is an endangered species. Around 50 pairs of turtles have nests in the national park.

A warning cone by a Blanding's turtle nest in the car park at Keji.
A warning cone by a Blanding’s turtle nest in the car park at Keji.

Bears in the woods?

Somebody asks if we’re likely to spot a bear. Cody explains that bear sightings tend to occur in the autumn, as food becomes scarcer as the year progresses. Though I don’t mention it, I’d love to see and photograph one from the canoe.

We learn that something like 98 per cent of bear attacks on humans are a result of human error. Usually, that involves people approaching the animals in silence or getting between a cub and its mother. Hikers making noise tend to stay safe. I learn that it’s worth carrying a whistle because blowing it is likely to scare off a bear.

Cody explains that he runs three-day back-country canoeing trips that involve two nights of camping. The tours usually mean getting out on the water by mid-morning and then paddling for a couple of hours either side of lunch.

A beaver dam seen from a canoe in Keji.
A beaver dam seen from a canoe in Keji.

The legend of Jim Charles

“It’s amazing what you can learn about yourself on a trip. It’s good for the soul,” says Cody before launching into the tale of Jim Charles, who reputedly found gold in the region in the 1870s and was subsequently murdered.

After that grisly tale, Cody mentions that Kejimkujik falls within Nova Scotia’s only Dark Sky Preserve. Camping in the national park means opportunities to enjoy views of an impressive night sky.

Darkness, though, is a long way off. Besides, this exploring by canoe is proving a lot less physically taxing than I’d anticipated.

Calm water in Keji.
Calm water in Keji.

Travel to Nova Scotia

Direct flights connect London, England, and Halifax, Nova Scotia. Air Canada operates flights between London Heathrow and Halifax Stanfield International Airport. WestJet flies between Gatwick and Halifax.

Hiring a vehicle and driving is the most flexible way of exploring Nova Scotia. Kejimkujik National Park is approximately 270 kilometres southwest of Halifax, the provincial capital.

Fungi on a fallen tree in the national park.
Fungi on a fallen tree in the national park.

Further information

The Kejimkujik National Park and National Historic Site falls under the jurisdiction of Parks Canada. Visitors must have a valid permit to enter.

See the Nova Scotia and Destination Canada websites for ideas about things to do and see in the province.

Cody Whynot is a proprietor of Whynot Adventure, which rents outdoor equipment and organises canoe tours in Kejimkujik National Park.

Stuart Forster, the author of this post, is a BACTA-winning journalist. He was awarded the 2017 British Annual Canada Travel Award for Best Online Content. Stuart is available for freelance commissions about Canada and other destinations. Feel free to make contact via this website or by calling +44 (0) 7947 587136.

Photographs illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography.

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A version of this post was originally posted on Go Eat Do on 23 November 2018.

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  • John Shaw

    January 1, 2019 at 22:27 Reply

    I’m looking forward to a family holiday in Nova Scotia in the summer. This is now on our long list of ‘things to do’!!

    • Stuart Forster

      January 2, 2019 at 10:20 Reply

      Have a wonderful trip.

  • Adam Boland

    June 6, 2019 at 14:02 Reply

    Loving the idea of paddling then spending a night under the stars in a national park!!!

    • Stuart Forster

      June 7, 2019 at 14:22 Reply

      Isn’t it a glorious way of embracing the outdoors in Nova Scotia.

  • Supraja Lakshmi N

    August 3, 2023 at 13:59 Reply

    Kejimkujik National Park looks like a stunning place to visit. You have done a great job of describing your canoe tour and the highlights of this park. I was amazed by the petroglyphs and the stories behind them. I also liked the photos of the scenery and the wildlife. Your post has given me a new perspective on Nova Scotia and its heritage. Thank you for this informative and engaging post.

    • Go Eat Do

      August 5, 2023 at 14:35 Reply

      I hope you get to visit and appreciate the beauty and history of Keji!

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