Treasure Island:

A McNabs Island Adventure

5 -7 hrs 5-6 km Moderate

Trail Info:

This is a magnificent wild island in the middle of Halifax Harbour. Its shorelines, estuaries, historic forts, ruins – and their stories – make for an incredible journey through history. The trail follows relatively smooth cart tracks and woodland trails. This is among the longest earth adventures and is best planned as a day trip. Make sure you have plenty of clothes for changeable seaside weather conditions, water and food.

Ticks are common on the island, including those that can carry Lyme disease. Please take precautions and learn about Lyme Disease and what you can do about it here.

Directions:

McNabs Island Trailhead
View in Google Maps

You must take a boat to McNabs Island, either departing from Halifax locales and landing at Garrison Pier on the harbourside of the Island or leaving from Eastern Passage and landing in Back (or Wreck) Cove on the Dartmouth side of the Island. There are multiple options and availability can change by season. Prices vary and typically range from $20-$25 per person round trip. For current options, visit the Friends of McNabs Island website.

The trail directions start at Garrison Pier. If you arrive at Back Cove, you have about a 2 km walk along the Garrison Road to the start on the beach near the Pier. It can be helpful to download and print the island map before you go.

Trail Tools

  • Binoculars
  • Paper & scissors
  • Picnic lunch or snack (lots of food for a long trail)
  • Coloured pencils
  • Treasure Bottle (small, clear & plastic)
  • Time travel mask (bandana/cloth used as a blindfold)
  • Adventure Journal

You Are Invited

Hi Everyone,

My name is J.T. and I’m 11 years old. Gather round for a story you’ll want to hear. The other day my Dad brought home a book he found in an old house he was fixing up. It had an old brown cover and was called The McNabs Island Treasure. The only picture in the book showed a beautiful garden next to an old stone house. Then it was like a strange voice said to me, “Put your hand on the flowers.” When I did, things started to spin and I was transported back to a graveyard on McNabs Island.

I spent the day travelling from one time period to another on the island. There were many challenges but in the end, I found the most magnificent treasure. Come to the island and follow these written instructions, I’ll help you time travel and find the treasure.

~ JT

1. On the Boat

On the boat trip, ask the captain or your fellow travellers what they know about Peter McNab and his family. They were among the first folks from away to discover the treasure. See if you can figure out why they came here and how they lived. This will help you discover the treasure.

As you approach McNabs Island, look for a large bird of prey circling above you. It could be an osprey.

Do you Know – Osprey

The osprey is Nova Scotia’s provincial bird and a common site at McNabs Island. They feed on fish and hunt by hovering like helicopters in the air. They swoop down from behind and grab the fish with their strong talons. After eating, they wash the fish slime from their feet by flying low over the water and dragging them along the surface.

2. Make Stew

From Garrison Pier (Halifax arrival pier), turn right on the Garrison (old carriage) road and go 220 m until you can get down on the start of the sand beach to your right. Continue on the beach until you are ready to time travel. Be aware that there is poison ivy along the sides of the road in here. [If you arrived at Back Cove, walk about two km on the Garrison Road to the sand beach.]

I have taken the time-travelling tips from the old book. If you follow these directions carefully and use your imagination, it can work! Our first trip is the longest. You will need to add a tiny piece of seaweed to your Treasure Bottle to help you travel way back to be with a Mi’kmaw family. This is before any Europeans ever came here. Mi’kma’ki, the unceded land of the Mi’kmaq, includes all of Nova Scotia.

  1. Find a small piece of seaweed on the beach and drop it in your Treasure Bottle.
  2. Sit on the beach and put on your travel mask.
  3. Repeat:

Mi’kma’ki, Mi’kma’ki, Mi’kma’ki, I am sitting here by the edge of the sea.

  1. Shake the bottle and chant “thirteen twenty-two” five times.
  2. Read: “Listen carefully…

…It is the year 1322. Your family comes to this shore each summer to hunt and fish. You are tired of watching over the fish drying on the rack of sticks on the rocks. So what if the birds eat them or the flies land on them? It would be a lot more fun to take the birch bark canoe out for a short paddle in this beautiful cove. It’s not fair. Your little brother gets to play up by the wigwam all the time. Your mother just left the fire and the stew she is cooking. She must have gone off to get more wood or more dried grass for the basket she is weaving. Let’s have some fun. Let’s make some smelly stew for your little brother in the rocks here. We’ll bring him down here for a yucky whiff!” Take off your travel mask and make a stew:

  1. Explore along the water for smelly stuff.
  2. Put it in a little pool of water in the rock. This is your stew pot.
  3. If all the pools are dried up, fill one up with water.
  4. Look for creatures under the rocks and seaweed, but don’t add live ones to your stew.

It’s time to return to the present, here’s how:

  1. Form a circle, close your eyes and repeat the return rhyme:

“Mi’kma’ki, Mi’kma’ki, take me from here, return me to the present year.”

  1. Spin around three times slowly while chanting the present year.

You now realize that the first peoples on this island were:

Mi’kmaw kids loved to skip rocks on the water. See how well you can do on the way down the beach to the next stop.

Netukulimk

Evidence of the Mi’kmaq living nearby dates back 10,000 years and piles of shell refuse found on McNabs Island are 1600 years old. The Mi’kmaq called the harbour “Che-book-took” (“at the biggest harbour”), which the Europeans turned into “Chebucto”. This was an excellent spot for drying fish brought ashore in this excellent harbour. Europeans built huts here in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and the French established a fishing station in the late 1600s for a short time, where they traded with the Mi’kmaq. The British established Halifax in 1749 and about 1760 the British Colonial Government forcibly relocated Mi’kmaq who had been living around Dartmouth to ‘Indian Point’ on the northeast of the Island. Here they could be more closely ‘observed’ as hostilities between the Mi’kmaq and the settlers increased as the settlers were expanding their settlements in Dartmouth and taking land from the Mi’kmaq. Peter McNab, a prosperous merchant, bought the island in 1782 from the family of Governor Cornwallis at an exorbitant price. He built his stone house and the island soon came to be known as McNabs. He passed it on to his son Peter, who was a notable Nova Scotian merchant and politician. Additional settlers came to the Island through the years. As time passed, hostilities diminished and the Mi’kmaq eventually moved off the island in the mid-1800s, leaving the settlers as the only inhabitants.

Learn about Netukulimk

3. Build a Ship

Continue to the end of the beach and turn left on the Maughers Beach Lighthouse Trail just before you run into the stream entering the pond. Head inland about 300 m, stopping just before you hit the main road, where you can access the water on your right.

Ok, are you ready to go back in time to discover who was using this lagoon in 1803? Find a tiny piece of wood that fits in your bottle that might have come from an old boat. It will help you time travel.

  1. Sit on the beach stones facing the pond. Put on your travel mask.
  2. Repeat:

“McNabs, McNabs, what might there be, here on the water in 1803?”

  1. Shake the bottle and chant “eighteen-o-three” five times.
  2. Read: “Listen carefully…

…It is the year 1803. The water before you is an open cove of the harbour and you feel the breeze as small waves are lapping on the shore by your feet. Here comes the McNab’s small boat heading toward their wharf on the far side of the cove. Peter McNab the Second must be returning home from work in his Halifax trading business. His sons Jamie and Peter are with him. Before coming into the cove they had passed a huge British warship with its enormous white sails billowing in the wind on the harbour. The sailors were on deck looking at a dead man hanging on a post at the end of the rocky point. He was hanged for trying to escape from the navy. The sailing ship sure is impressive. Jamie and Peter are hoping to sail on a big ship to England where they will go to school in a couple of years.”

Take off your travel mask and use wood and other natural materials to build a model of the ship you would like to sail on to England.

Once the ship is built, you realize the second clue. The commanding officer of the ship is called the:

Return to the present:

  1. Form a circle, close your eyes and repeat the return rhyme:

“McNabs, McNabs, take me from here, return me to the present year.”

  1. Spin around three times slowly while chanting the present year.

Before you leave this spot, put some water in your treasure bottle from the pond. You will need it for your next time travel.

4. Meet the McNabs

Continue to the main carriage road and turn right and walk about 420 m with the pond on your right. Just before the pond ends turn right on the Colin Stewart Trail. Go 175 m and turn down to your right into the bush to search for the home site (the McNabs Island Map has the homesite marked on it). It is about 50 m down off the trail at the point where the land juts into the pond. The homesite is a hole near a short dead tree with a huge set of knobs on the lower trunk. You may spot an old apple tree nearby whose ancestor was likely planted by the McNabs.

Do your best to find the homesite, and if you can’t, know it is right nearby. Now find a small open and comfortable spot in the bush.

Ok, are you ready to meet the McNab kids in 1803? This is the family home site.

  1. Sit down facing the pond. Put on your travel mask.
  2. Repeat the travel rhyme:

“McNabs, McNabs near your old foundation, bring us back in time for an exploration.”

  1. Shake the bottle and chant “eighteen-o-three” five times.
  2. Read: Listen carefully…

…It is the year 1803. You are sitting near the house. You can see the McNab kids Jamie and Peter wrestling down the hill on the grass. They are wearing their skirts, which are called kilts. What a beautiful house! Their grandfather, old Peter McNab, built it. It has two floors and is made of stone with a slate roof. It has gorgeous wood panels inside that come from other parts of the world. The gardens on both sides are filled with all sorts of wild flowers in bloom. You can see the sheep grazing in the distant pasture. Jamie and Peter start down the hill to the tiny creek. They want to play their favourite game called quoits, which is like ring toss. But there aren’t any iron rings around, so they use small sticks or spruce cones instead. They invite you to play too!”

Find a small open space nearby for the game.

  1. Put a stick in the ground and clear the debris around it for about half a metre.
  2. Outline the cleared area with a circle of sticks.
  3. Collect some spruce cones and make a start line that is a suitable distance away.
  4. Take turns throwing three sticks or cones each. The closest cone to the standing stick is worth 3 points and you get 2 points for each cone inside the circle.
  5. Play several rounds.

Earthworks

Why did Peter McNab build a house on the hillside above a marshy pond, away from the harbour shore? In fact, in the late 1700s and 1800s, the water beneath the house was a cove of the harbour rather than a pond cut off from it. The land filled in to cut off the pond from the harbour in the 1900s after the rocky point of Hangmans Beach was extended and built up to support the new lighthouse. This is an example of:

Learn about the Earthworks

You now realize the third clue to the McNabs treasure. The old house is made of

Repeat the return rhyme and spin around three times to return to the present.

“McNabs, McNabs, take me from here, return me to the present year.”

Back in the present, take out your journal and draw a picture of the McNab’s house and gardens as you imagine they looked in 1803.

Painting of house by W.W. Lyttleton in the 1860s

On the way to the next stop follow in the footsteps of the McNab kids. They used to wander on the island trails collecting as many neat seeds as they could find. See how many you can find.

5. Visit the Graveyard

Head back up the slope to the trail and turn right. Continue along it until you hit the signpost and turn left on the Brow Hill Trail. Go 380 m and turn right on Fort McNab Road. Walk 50 m along the trail past the Parks Canada sign until you come to a metal fence and a metal post on your right. Turn right here on a little side trail leading to the fenced cemetery just ahead.

Hi, it’s me again, JT. I’m glad you made it here. To time travel to the next spot, you need the name of the family which has the most people buried here. Using your binoculars, look through the fence and see how many names you can read. What is the most common name? Can you find the McNab who was buried here first? He helped me travel through time.

6. Search for Enemy Spies

Return out the side path and turn right at the metal post. The trail winds past a brick building on your right. From here, look ahead to a large concrete wall with six doorways in it. Go to the doorway on the right end next to the steps.

  1. Find a magical small white flake of rock below the wall and drop it in your Treasure Bottle.
  2. Sit with your back against the wall and put on your time travel mask.

“McNabs, McNabs let me spin, back through time to begin.”

  1. Repeat this travel rhyme from the book:
  2. Shake the bottle with your left hand and chant “nineteen fourteen” five times.
  3. Read: Let your mind float back in time as the words from the old book come alive. Listen carefully.

It is the year 1914… You see a soldier coming out of the doorway.

“Hello friends, I am a lookout here at Fort McNab. My job is to make sure enemy ships do not sneak up the harbour and attack Halifax. Canada and Britain are at war with Germany. Lots of soldiers are busy around here. I work long hours, day and night. It is cold and wet here most of the time. I sleep on a hard, wooden bunk in a building behind the fort. The food is lousy and I miss my family, but this is very important work. I frequently practice loading and firing the guns from the fort. Soldiers slept in this room when it was first built but now it holds the generator for the searchlights. It is time for my guard shift. Come along and help me watch for ships.”

Take off your time travel mask. Go up the steps at your side.

At the top, head up the next set of crumbling steps and through to the high point of grass just outside the fortress wall. Take out your binoculars and count the ships you see. Do any of them look like enemy ships? Remember, they could be camouflaged as other types of vessels.

Now head for the gun emplacement down the hill to your right, the concrete fortification with black railings around its top.

Gun emplacement

To get there, backtrack down the steps and around the building on a small trail to the gun emplacement. Go up the two flights of stairs to the very top to the large semicircle of concrete looking out over the water.

Intelligence reports say that enemy spies are planning to land a small boat beneath the fort and sneak up the slope to spy on the fort. Here is how to practice your spotting skills:

  1. One person, the guard, stands on the concrete slab looking over the hill at the water.
  2. Everyone else is a spy and goes down the slope to hide while the guard counts to 20 with eyes closed. [Watch out for some briar bushes on the slope.]
  3. Staying on the concrete slab, the guard looks for the spies hiding on the slope.
  4. A spy that is spotted sits out until the end of the round.
  5. After two minutes, the guard counts to 20 again and everyone left finds closer hiding spots.
  6. The winner is the spy hidden closest to the guard without being caught.
  7. Take turns being the guard.

Your next clue to discover the McNabs treasure is the name of the tool you need to search for enemy ships. You need:

It’s time to return to the present:

  1. Form a circle, close your eyes and repeat the return rhyme:

“McNabs, McNabs, take me from here, return me to the present year.”

  1. Spin around three times slowly while chanting the present year.

Do You Know – Fort McNab

Fort McNab was built in 1888 to help defend Halifax Harbour and was strengthened before World War I. During the war it was a busy place as all ships had to anchor in front of the fort and check-in before moving on to Halifax. In 1914, the fortification where you searched for spies had guns with a range of over 10 km mounted on it. After the war, there was little activity at the fort again until it became useful to harbour defence during World War II. Fort McNab is part of the Halifax Defence Complex that includes York Reboubt, the Citadel, Prince of Wales Tower and Fort Charlotte on Georges Island. The museum in Citadel Hill in Halifax has more information about this fort and the harbour defence.

From here, you have quite a walk back to the Visitor Information Kiosk near the pier where you originally landed. This is a good time to look out for the large amount of garbage on the beach and shore as you approach Garrison Pier where you started. What do you find? How did it get here? Please lend a hand and pick up at least one piece of litter each on the way.

Garbage on the Shore

As beautiful and fascinating as McNabs Island is, it collects enormous amounts garbage washing up on its shores. In total, volunteers have picked up 13,900 bags of garbage on the Island since 1991! In 2019, 200 volunteers collected 350 bags. “The bulk of the items collected were plastics – plastic sheeting and containers, and pieces of Styrofoam as large as a bed frame. Plastic tampon applicators and cotton swabs from Halifax’s sewage system and Tim Horton’s coffee cups, which have a plastic liner, continue to litter the beaches.”

Ocean plastic pollution is an enormous problem, not only here, but all over Canada and globally. Sea creatures are entrapped by it and ingest it, and die as the result. It collects in mid-ocean in huge gyres or garbage islands. Learn more about the impact on sea creatures and and our coastlines and oceans.

7. Collect Exotic Leaves

Turn down the steps from the gun emplacement and turn right on the straight track which passes a series of fortifications above you on the right. Feel free to explore them. Stay on the track as it bends around to the right and leads you back to the entrance of Fort McNab at the gate. Pass through the gate for 80 m, passing the turn to the Brow Hill Trail. After this junction, turn left at the next junction on the Garrison Road. Walk about 1.5 km on the road to the pier. Just past the pier, turn right at the Visitor Information Kiosk (check it out).

From the kiosk, take the trail up the hill 200 m, staying straight at the signpost. This leads you to the back of the old Teahouse— which has become an Outdoor Education Centre. Head down around to the front of the Teahouse on the lawn.

This next time trip is a fun one. Add a small piece of a leaf to your Treasure Bottle to help you return to the beautiful gardens that were once here.

  1. Sit on the lawn and put on your travel mask.
  2. Repeat:

“McNabs, McNabs, to gardens in the sun, We go back in time for lots of fun.”

  1. Shake the bottle and chant “eighteen eighty-two” five times.
  2. Read: “Listen carefully…

…It is the year 1882. You love coming to McNabs Island on the ferry from Halifax for these weekend outings with your family. Halifax is so busy and smelly downtown where you live in an old house. Look at these gardens. They have beautiful trees and flowers that someone brought over from England. It makes you dream of what it would be like to live in a real English garden. The big house is just up the hill, but you like the lawns and gardens here better. The concert nearby starts in about an hour. Your parents are playing quoits on the lawn. You are going to sneak off and collect some of the special leaves that you can’t find anywhere else in Nova Scotia.”

Woolnoughs Pleasure Grounds opened here in 1873. Nothing remains of it.

Take off your travel mask and head up to the left, just into the woods.

  1. Collect as many unusual leaves as you can. Try for fifteen kinds.
  2. Return to the lawn and trade them to get the best possible collection.
  3. Arrange the leaves in an attractive way on the ground.

Repeat the return rhyme and spin around three times to return to the present. You may want to trace and colour your favourite leaf in your Adventure Journal.

You now realize that many of the plants and trees in this garden originally came from:

This is the final clue to the treasure.

Now go back over the clue words you wrote in the book. Find the twelve letters in these clue words that have boxes around them. Cut out twelve small pieces of paper and put a letter on each one. Unscramble the letters and you will discover the treasure.

My Letters:

8. Discover Old Bottles

With your back to the harbour, go to the upper left side of the Tea House and find a trail heading away from the Tea House. Go 100 m to a sign post. Turn right there and go 80 m on the trail until you see two metal posts and a small piece of stonewall with pieces of bottle on it.

Once you have figured out what the treasure is, celebrate! In the early 1900s, this old farm was a bottling plant for a soft drink called “Pure McNab”. There may be some old pieces of bottles around. Check them out but leave them here, otherwise, there won’t be any left for others to discover. Draw a picture of an old bottle in your journal if you want a memory.

9. Protect the Treasure

Return to the Teahouse and find a neat spot to sit along the way.

Find a special seed on the ground and put it in your bottle. Your Treasure Bottle now represents the past and future of McNabs Island:

  • seaweed for the wild creatures and the Mi’kmaq who harvested them
  • fresh water for the McNabs who lived here
  • wood for the many ships that landed here
  • rock flakes for the military who used the island to defend Halifax
  • a leaf for the families and friends who came here for fun
  • a seed for the future and what McNabs Island might be

Share your favourite part of your adventure. Now travel to the future…

  1. Sit in a comfortable spot and put on your travel mask.
  2. Repeat the future travel rhyme:

“McNabs, McNabs, let me see, what the future of this treasure island will be.”

  1. Shake the bottle and chant “twenty-forty” five times.
  2. Listen carefully…

It is the year 2040.

It is up to you as to what you see. Will it be an island of beauty?

Sit very quiet and picture what you want it to be… (Let a minute pass in silence.)

Take off your travel mask and share what you want it to be. What can you do to help the island?

Earth Steps

Despite its natural beauty and historical importance, the island has been threatened with a string of proposed projects over the past several decades, including housing developments, shipyards, amusement parks and sewage treatment plants. Thanks to the work of many committed individuals over the years and the Friends of McNabs Island Society, the province bought the land and established a provincial park here in 2002. Some outdoor and environmental programming is now being offered out of the Tea House by the Friends of McNabs.

There are lots of things you can do to help:

  • Treat the island with respect when you visit and pick up litter that has washed up on the shore. Help out with the yearly island clean up organized by the Friends of McNabs.
  • Join in on outings and activities scheduled through the Friends of McNabs.
  • Join the Friends of McNabs and provide financial support.
  • Support initiatives to reduce oceans plastics pollution and participate in Oceans Week Halifax in June each year.

10. Discover the Mystery Creature

Return to the Volunteer Information Kiosk near Garrison Pier.

Your final challenge is to discover and make a rubbing of the hidden plaque in your Adventure Journal. Check around the interpretive displays in the Volunteer Information Kiosk. The creature depicted on the plaque is one you may have seen flying overhead. Make a rubbing off the plaque in your Adventure Journal with the side of your pencil.

The plaque symbol is:

M

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That’s all for now. I hope you had fun. Maybe I’ll meet you here exploring some day.

JT

There is a lot more to explore along the main road to the north of Garrison Pier, including the historical Davis-Conrad house and Fort Ives. For further reading…

  • There is a lot of historical material about this fascinating island on the Friends of McNabs website, and you can also read their informative book entitled Discover McNabs Island. check out the McNabs Island School Guide.
  • For a historical literary adventure on the island, read Hangman’s Beach, by Thomas Raddall. It’s an exciting story of romance and intrigue set around the island and the harbour in the early 1800s. Raddall is Nova Scotia’s most prominent historian.

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