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Margaree-Lake Ainslie River System

Margaree-Lake Ainslie River System - Photo

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The Margaree River traces the contours of Cape Breton as it journeys from wilderness waterfalls, deep salmon pools and peaceful lake marshes to the sea. The Northeast Margaree’s wild upper reaches with their clear, cold gravel bars are a sanctuary for spawning Atlantic salmon and trout. Downstream, residents still stretch traditional weirs to catch gaspereau on the Southwest Margaree and farm the fertile bottomlands. Sightseers along Cape Breton’s famous Cabot Trail can visit tidy Scottish Highland and Acadian villages and marvel at the Margaree’s classic U-shaped glacial valleys, flaming stands of autumn sugar maples, and tidal vistas of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Canoeists may choose a challenging paddle to the sea or a leisurely day trip on Lake Ainslie.


In 1991, with the active support of the Margaree River Advisory Committee, the Margaree-Lake Ainslie System became the first river in Nova Scotia to be nominated to the Canadian Heritage Rivers System.


The Margaree-Lake Ainslie system is the largest river system in Cape Breton and one of the largest in Nova Scotia, with a total length of 120 km and a watershed of 116,537.5 ha. The swift Northeast Margaree rises in the Cape Breton Highlands, flows along the Aspy Fault through a steep-sided valley complex, and broadens as a mature stream to Margaree Forks. The Southwest Margaree originates at Lake Ainslie, the largest natural freshwater lake in Nova Scotia, and meanders northerly to join the Northeast Margaree at Margaree Forks. The combined Margaree then flows northerly through a wide tidal estuary to the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

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Natural Heritage

Wildlife: The Margaree is renowned for its native stock of large adult salmon, which spend two winters at sea before returning in the fall to spawn in the cold, clear upper reaches of the Northeast Margaree. Younger salmon, called grilse, run heavy in the spring, as do gaspereau and sea (speckled) trout. Over fifty bald eagles nest around Lake Ainslie in the summer, while osprey and ringnecked ducks nest in the wetlands of Loch Ban. The rare Gaspé shrew and the rock vole burrow in talus slopes of the steep-sided valleys of the Northeast Margaree, which is also home to pine marten, lynx, and moose.


Geology: Cape Breton is world-renowned for its complex and spectacular geology, which is well displayed in the Margaree-Lake Ainslie system. Ancient crystalline and metamorphic rocks are dissected by the Northeast Margaree as it flows along the Aspy Fault, while the gentler Southwest Margaree cuts through softer Carboniferous rock and glacial outwash soils from the Wisconsin glaciation, which formed Lake Ainslie. These important events in earth history are recorded along the river corridor:


Precambrian (900 million years ago), Cambrian, Ordovician, and Silurian (400 million years ago) metamorphism of sedimentary rocks, visible as rhyolites and crystalline branded schists and gneisses in the upper reaches of the Northeast Margaree.
Remnants of the supercontinent Pangaea (220-400 my bp) in downfaulted blocks of Horton Group limestone and gypsum, including karst sinkholes from shallow Carboniferous-era seas where streams disappear into underground channels.
Faulting from the continental collisions that formed the Appalachian chain, most evident in straight-line fault scarps of 15 km in length along the west bank of the Northeast Margaree. Sugarloaf Mountain in the upper Northeast Margaree valley is a small crystalline section of the famous Cape Breton Highlands, faulted off from the main plateau block.
Textbook examples of both river and ice erosion and deposition from the Wisconsin glaciation (10,000 my bp), including V-shaped (upper) and U-shaped (lower) valleys of the Northeast Margaree; river terraces, point bars, cut banks, meanders, pools and riffles, and natural levees; highly scenic braided channels of coarse sands and gravels; glacial moraines which dammed meltwaters to form Lake Ainslie; and river deltas in the broad tidal estuary where the Margaree enters the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Vegetation: The wooded hillsides of Cape Breton are thick with spruce-fir forests and stands of mixed hardwoods which turn brilliant with color in the fall. The Margaree-Lake Ainslie valleys have the greatest proportion of forested floodplain of any river in Nova Scotia, including some remnant stands of maple-elm climax forest, uncommon elsewhere in the province, and five provincially rare plants. A unique alkaline bog at Black River, adjacent to Loch Ban, is a rarity in the higly acidic groundwater of Nova Scotia and contains a number of uncommon plant associations and at least five more provincially rare plants (see Additional Reading). The Second Fork Brook stand of old growth sugar maple is a beautiful remnant of a once-common Nova Scotia forest type.

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Human Heritage

While the Margaree was not nominated for its human heritage values, the rich cultural landscape of the Margaree valley captures the charm of rural Cape Breton. The river was used prehistorically for fishing, hunting and trade by Micmac peoples who left few visible artifacts. There is a small display of native arts at the Museum of Cape Breton Heritage in Northeast Margaree.


The Micmac called the river “Weekuch,” and knew the Margaree’s mouth as “Oochaadooch,” or “where they get the red ochre.” The early French name of Margaree Harbour was Havre de Madre or Magre, and l8th-century maps referred to the river as St. Marguerite.


The French and English disputed the rich fishing grounds of the Gulf of St. Lawrence for centuries, and place names along the Margaree coast still recall the boundary of the old French Shore that divided the Scottish villages to the south from the territory settled by the French Acadians. The Scots Highlanders who arrived in the Margaree valley in 1799 were followed by Irish and English immigrants whose descendants still farm, fish and log in the Cape Breton tradition today. Seventy percent of the river valley remains in private ownership of a scenic landscape of fields, farms and woodlands.

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Margaree-Lake Ainslie River System - Photo

Fishing: Non-resident anglers in 1983 rated the Margaree the best salmon river in the province. The spring run of grilse normally enters the river in June and salmon over 63 cm (24.8") must presently be released to help re-establish the run. The large adult salmon, for which the Margaree is famous, run from June through September and into the late fall. Salmon season, for fly fishing only, usually runs June I to October 15, and is best from mid-June to mid-July and September to season’s end. Licences are available locally. The Margaree Salmon Museum in Northeast Margaree offers displays and information on the natural and cultural history of the salmon fishery. Angler courtesy adds to the charm of the Margaree’s 54 named salmon angling pools. Three casts are the custom before rotating one’s place around pools with names like Black Angus, Boarsback, Hatchery, Thornbush and Big McDaniel. Locals appreciate courteous anglers and hikers who ask permission before crossing private land.


Canoeing: The Northeast Margaree is a fast water river with fast turns, deep pools, short rapids (rated intermediate) and many islands. It is canoeable from April to June, October to November, and in summer following a heavy rain. From Portree, it is 18 km (11.2 miles), about three hours, to Margaree Forks and another half day to Margaree Harbour. There is a also access at the fish hatchery, Margaree Valley, Margaree Centre, and Doyle Bridge.


The Southwest Margaree route begins at Scotsville on Lake Ainslie to Margaree Harbour and is a 34 km (21.6 mi) one-day advanced route with fast water, rapids and chutes, canoeable from April to November.


In late May and early June, canoeing the Southeast Margaree is not advisable as gaspereau fishermen set a number of fish traps along the river. There is also access at the village of Southwest Margaree.


At Margaree Forks, the river slows considerably, and wind and tides will influence canoeists’ progress down the estuary from the village of Margaree to the bridge at Margaree Harbour Lake Ainslie is a large lake with almost no protection from the wind, and canoeing is thus rated novice to intermediate depending on weather and wind speed.


Camping And Hiking: The Northeast Margaree currently has two well-known hiking trails. One trail follows an old road from Portree to the Big Intervale Salmon Camp, while the other follows the river from Forest Glen to the waterfalls at Second Fork Brook. There are private campgrounds at Lake Ainslie and a provincial campground at Whycocomagh. From the Margaree, it is an hour’s drive along the Cabot Trail to spectacular Cape Breton Highlands National Park, with outstanding hiking and camping opportunities. Visitors will also appreciate the scenic islands, trails, and campgrounds along the nearby Bras D’Or Lakes.

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Visitor Information

Topographic Maps : 1:250,000 series IIK (Sydney); 1:50,000 series IIK/10 (Chéticamp River); IIK/7 (St. Anne’s Harbour); IIK/6 (Margaree); IIK/3 (Lake Ainslie). Canoeing and hiking maps are also available (see below).


Tourism 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


Salmon licenses : Dept. of Agriculture and Fisheries, Box 2223, Halifax, NS, B3J 3C4, Tel: (902) 424–4560,,;


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


Canoe and Kayak Route Information & Maps : Canoe Nova Scotia, 5516 Spring Garden Road, 4th Floor,Halifax, Nova Scotia, B3J 1G,6 Canada. Tel: (902) 425–5454. Ext.316, Fax: (902) 425–5606, E-mail:, Web Site:


Canadian Recreational Canoe Association (CRCA), Canadian Recreational Canoeing Association P.O. Box 398, 446 Main Street West Merrickville, Ontario K0G 1N0, Tel: (613) 269–2910, E-mail:;


Hiking Trails: Les Amis du Plein Air, Box 472, Chéticamp, NS, BOE IHO (Hiking trails map).


Provincial Parks: Parks & Recreation, NS Dept. of Natural Resources, R.R. 1, Belmont, NS, BOM ICO (902) 662–3030;


National Parks: Parks Canada, Atlantic Region, Historic Properties, Upper Water Street, Halifax, NS, B3J IS9 (902) 426–3436. Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Ingonish Beach, Cape Breton, NS, BOC ILO (902) 285–2270;


Canadian Heritage Rivers System: National Manager, Canadian Heritage Rivers System, c/o Parks Canada, Ottawa, Canada K1A 0M5. Tel. (819) 994-2913, Fax (819) 997-0835. E-mail address:


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


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

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Additional Reading

Canadian Heritage Rivers System, “Nomination Document Margaree-Lake Ainslie River System”, Environment Canada, Ottawa, 1991.


Dill, C., (ed.), 1983, “Canoe Routes of Nova Scotia”, Canoe Nova Scotia and Camping Association of Nova Scotia, Halifax NS.


Haldeman, R.W. 1981. “Margaree Salmon and Sportfishing: General Information”, The Atlantic Salmon Fly Shop, Margaree Forks, NS.


Maher, R.H. et al., 1978, “The Rare Vascular Plants of Nova Scotia”, National Museum of Natural Sciences Syllogeus No. 18, National Museum of Canada, Ottawa.


Maritime Resource Management Service, 1974. “Margaree River, Canoe Waterways of Nova Scotia Map” NS Dept. of Recreation.


“Report of the Margaree River Advisory Committee”, Parks and Recreation Division, NS Dept. of Natural Resources, R.R. #1, Belmont, NS, BOM ICO.


Sabean, B.C., 1985, “Survey of Atlantic Salmon Sport fishing in Nova Scotia 1983”, Nova Scotia Dept. of Lands and Forests, Wildlife Division, Kentville, NS, 23 pp.

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