Nature Pirates:

A Northwest Arm Canoe Adventure

2 hr 30 min 4 km return (paddling) Challenging

Trail Info:

This is a beautiful paddle with stops on a sandy beach and a wooded island. Call the Halifax’s St. Mary’s Boat Club for information on canoe rentals at 902-490-4688. Typically they are available on weekends, June – September. It is preferable to go at lower tides, so check tide times. Check the weather for increasing winds beforehand. There is a launch at the very base of Jubilee Road if you have your own boat.


Northwest Arm Canoe Trailhead
View in Google Maps

Going South on Robie Street, take a right onto Jubilee Road. Continue across Oxford Street and turn left onto Fairfield Road, one street before the water. The parking lot is at the end of the street and St. Mary’s Boat Club is to the right and down the hill. Go to the lower level to rent a canoe (June, July and August). There is a launch at the very base of Jubilee Road if you have your own boat. To get to the Boat Club by Halifax Transit bus, input 1641 Fairfield Rd, Halifax, into the route-finder here.

Trail Tools

  • Scope (instructions)
  • Loot bag (plastic grocery bag)
  • Pirate eye patch & bandana (optional)
  • 2 or 4-litre ice cream bucket (bigger is better)
  • Pirate flag (optional) (instructions)
  • Trowel (or spoon or sand shovel, optional)
  • Adventure Journal

Shiver Me Timbers

Read before launching on the dock.

Har, Har! Legends tell of pirates coming to the Northwest Arm to hide their treasures. But these pirates were also hunting for nature’s treasures. The Northwest Arm is full of them. Can you become a nature pirate and find the hidden treasures? Beware, a pirate’s life is full of danger and mystery.

To become a pirate you need pirate gear and a ship. Put on your eye patch and bandana. Mount your pirate flag on your ship (an extra paddle could be the flag pole). Remember to practice pirate boating safety at all times: never stand up in the ship and always wear life jackets.

Let’s hear your best “Har, har, matey!” and we’re off on the high seas!

Do You Know?

The famous pirate Captain Kidd roved the seas from 1650 to 1700. He is thought to have traveled as far north as Halifax. Some think that Captain Kidd hid a great treasure somewhere along Nova Scotia’s coast.

1. Scan the Seas

Cast off and turn right, sailing towards the Rotary.

Use your pirate scope and scan the water for cormorants (see picture). Cormorants are pirates too, as they sometimes steal fish out of fisherman’s nets. The cormorant is your lookout. If you see a cormorant perched on a buoy, it signals that the waters are safe.

Do You Know – Cormorants

Cormorants are found on lakes, rivers and along the coast. They dive into the water to catch fish and small creatures like crayfish. Unlike ducks, they do not have oil glands that waterproof their wings. You may see them perched with their wings spread out to dry in the sun and the wind. During late spring and early summer, there are few here as they are in quieter locales raising young.

Make up your own pirate paddling song as you go.


The traditional Mi’kmaw canoe (‘kwitn’ in Mi’kmaw, sounds like gwee-din) is made out of birch bark (waterproofing), cedar (ribs for frame), beech (crosspieces for frame and paddles), and spruce root (to sew birchbark together). These materials are very light and make the canoe easy to portage. The birch bark is harvested very carefully to avoid damaging the inner bark of the tree so that it is able to protect itself and survive. A sealant is used around the seams where the birchbark is sewn together using spruce root. The sealant is either spruce gum or a mixture of gum, animal fat, and charcoal. The Mi’kmaq were very resourceful… and traditional Mi’kmaw canoes builders are still at work building these remarkable craft today. Check it out here.

Learn about Netukulimk

Look for a key-shape molded in the rock wall in front of a big grey house on the right. It juts out just before Horseshoe Island. Could this be a clue to hidden treasure?

2. Find Loot

Canoe past all the houses on the right. Pull up on the beach in front of Horseshoe Island, a piece of land jutting out into the arm on the right, just past the houses.

If the tide is low, search for buried treasure. Watch closely for little spurts of water shooting out of holes in the sand. Use your hands or your trowel to quickly dig at the spot to find the treasure hidden below. What is it? Take a good look, but be sure to bury it again.

If it is high tide, look for evidence of this creature: white shells on the beach or in the water. This treasure creature is a clam. Also, look for purple and dark blue shells– these are mussels who have washed up on the beach or dropped there by seagulls.

Search for another natural treasure that hops and is hard to catch. Look under the seaweed and debris that has washed up. They look like tiny shrimp and feed on dead animal and plant matter. Many larger creatures depend on them for food. These hoppers dig little holes in the sand. Look for their tiny holes.

What’s out of place in nature on this beach? Marine animals sometimes mistake floating litter as food. They get entangled in it when they try to eat it. Litter makes pirates angry. Scream: “Have no fear, get this land lover litter out of here!”

Take out your loot bag and fill it with litter. Don’t pick up glass or anything sharp; get help from an adult.

Do You Know – Swimming in the Arm

After many years, the Northwest Arm is now approved for swimming at the Dingle Beach. This is because the city sewage, which was going directly into the Arm, is now routed through the Herring Cove sewage treatment plant built as part of the Halifax Harbour Solutions Project. However, conditions can change so check beach information for water quality updates and remember not to put chemicals down the drain. Sewage treatment does not capture everything!

3. Discover Water Treasures

Get back into your ship and sail around Horseshoe Island very close to the rock wall, before crossing directly to Melville Island, where the Armdale Yacht Club is located, and then Deadman’s Island. Do the following activities, searching for the variety of water treasures, as you go.

The water is shallow enough near the Horseshoe Island rock wall to see the bottom. What colours do you see? How many different creatures can you see on the bottom?

From Horseshoe Island, paddle across the Arm to Melville Island, heading straight for the Armdale Yacht Club perched on top of the island. Look for small jellyfish in the water. Use your 2-litre ice cream bucket to catch one to look at it. Be careful as they are delicate. Don’t touch them as some types of jellyfish can sting.

Directly beneath the yacht club, scan for creatures in the water along the rock wall. How many starfish and how many crabs can you find? Be careful paddling in between the boats to get to the rock wall.

Check out the mussels on the posts that hold up the end of the wharves where the boats are anchored.

Do You Know?

In the 1960’s and 1970’s cormorants started to die out because people destroyed their nests so they wouldn’t eat fishermen’s catches. Pesticides and other chemicals drained into the waters, were absorbed by smaller creatures and passed on to cormorants in their food. Many cormorants died. Some of these chemicals are now banned and people generally protect them such that their numbers have increased in recent years.

Deadman’s Island (small flat beach is the island centre — behind boat on right)

Sail around Melville Island (with the Rotary to your back) and head across to Deadman’s Island and go around the right side and land on the back on the grass. Pull your canoe well up on the shore.

Walk across the grass to the front of the Island and look on the rocks at the water’s edge for tiny white or gray, volcano-shaped creatures attached above and below the waterline.

Their eyes are watching you. Look closely at one in the water for the open eyelid. Can you see the creature’s little eyelashes inside? This is the cyclops of the sea, a barnacle. It can be found on rocks, boats and wharves in salt water.

4. Encounter Deadman’s Island

Stand at the water’s edge near to the big lone pine tree.

Look over at the old stone building on Melville Island. This is the one remaining part of Melville Prison where many captured pirates were held!

Do You Know – Melville Military Prison

The Melville Military Prison held many captured seamen and was used from 1798 until the early 1900s. Deadman’s Island is the burial spot for many of these prisoners, including French prisoners from the wars between Britain and France, and 188 American prisoners from the war of 1812. It also has the graves of African Americans who escaped slavery in the United States and Irish immigrants who died of disease in the mid-1800s. There is a monument for the American prisoners buried here, just above the beach near a big pine tree.

Imagine what it was like in Melville Prison long ago:

  1. Lie down under the big pine tree and make yourself comfortable.
  2. Close your eyes and travel back in time as one person reads very slowly:

“The year is 1812 and the British and Americans are at war. You are an American prisoner captured by the British at sea after your ship was boarded and taken in battle. You were locked below deck and transported with little food to Melville Island as a prisoner. The weather is miserable most of the year and the prison is always crowded, damp and cold. Many prisoners are wounded, sick or dying. As one of the few who isn’t sick, your job is to help the guards take the dead prisoners to Deadman’s Island, known as Target Hill, and bury them in shallow graves. You and the guards land the boat near this pine tree and climb the hill to find a place to dig a grave. It is hard and very sad work. You pray that you do not end up in a grave here someday.”

Open your eyes. Rise and walk up the hill with respect. Remember that although there are no markers, this is a very old burial site. The nearby interpretation plaques explain this in more detail.

5. Find the Treasures of Deadman’s Island

From the big pine tree, stay along the outer shore and take the trail up to the top of the hill.

Look for shallow depressions in the ground at the top of the hill. How many can you find? They may be old gravesites.

The island is also a graveyard for “giants”. Did you notice the stumps on your way up the hill? Look for the tallest giant tree standing on the hilltop. What will happen to it over many years?

  1. Find a log on the ground.
  2. Crouch and look for beetles or insects around or under it (replace it if you move it).

The log was once part of a large tree. Insects are breaking it down and returning the nutrients to the soil. New trees use these nutrients to grow tall and strong.

In your Adventure Journal, draw a giant tree, a log, a bug and a tiny tree. Use arrows to show how nutrients are passed in a circle through these living things.


All creatures require clean air, water and soil and are susceptible to pollution that contaminates them and moves from one to the other. Pollution in the air can combine with rain and fall to the ground and mix with the soil. Just as pesticides get into the cormorants’ food through the water and soil, pollutants can get into our food, air and water. This illustrates the


Learn about the Earthworks

6. Find Pirate Markings

Return to your canoe and paddle along close to the outer shoreline of the island, heading further out along the Northwest Arm.

After you pass the last dock and house, look for symbols pirates may have carved in the rocks. Could hidden treasure be nearby? Pirates often leave an X as their mark. Can you see any Xs? If nothing else, the rocks and patterns are nature’s treasures.

Search for the long rock on the water’s edge that looks like a pirate ship with three masts growing out of it (dead trees).

Earth Steps

Here’s how you can help protect marine creatures from pollution:

  • Use biodegradable cleaners and products in your home that do not harm water systems and marine life.
  • Never pour paint, paint thinner or any other toxic household liquid down the sink. Take them instead to the local household hazardous waste depot.
  • Check out Halifax Water for more information on preventing water pollution.
  • Read The Sacred Balance by David Suzuki (Toronto: Greystone books, 2007) for a detailed look at how human beings are connected to the air, water and soil.

7. Where’s the Wealth

Look on shore for a large rock outcrop that resembles a “whale back.” The “whale back” rock is parallel to the shore, with a grassy area before it. It is about 2/3 of the way to the Dingle Tower from Deadman’s Island. Land at the grassy spot. The grassy landing spot is above the water line at low tide.

The rocks along the shore below whale back rock are covered with seaweed, which hides a wealth of treasures. Explore the rocks and create a mini aquarium:

  1. Fill your ice cream container with water.
  2. Scoop up some sand and rocks and place them on the bottom.
  3. Search for creatures to add to your aquarium.
  4. Be very careful in handling any creature you find.

When you are finished, put everything back carefully. How many creatures did you find? Sharp-eyed pirates can find four.

Do You Know… Mi’kmaw Canoes

The canoe (‘kwitn’) was essential to the Mi’kmaq for hunting, fishing and transportation throughout Mi’kma’ki. There are two types of Mi’kmaw canoes, one for the ocean and one for the river, varying in size from 3-12 metres. The ocean canoe is larger with one side (the gunwale) raised to shield the canoe and its occupants from large waves and sea breezes. The river canoe is much smaller and shorter, so it is easier to manipulate in rapid white water and varying river channels. Both canoes curve at the bow and stern, which help the canoe glide through the water with ease and speed.

8. Storm the Tower

Paddle toward the tower and land on the beach of the cove in front of it on the right. Walk along the road to the left and stop at the bottom of the steps leading up to the base of the tower. Don’t go up the steps without reading the next two paragraphs first!

All of the treasures you found along the way are part of one larger natural treasure. To find it, you must reach the tower. But there are two fierce lions protecting the tower and its treasure. They look like statues and seem harmless, but it’s a trap.

There are 37 stairs on the way up to the base of the tower. Pirate legends say that if you step on the 28th step, the lions will come to life and defend the tower. Count the steps carefully and step over the 28th step. Once on top, stand with your back to the tower and you will be able to see parts of the treasure: a blue wavy gem visible through the leaves.

Climb to the top of Fleming (Dingle) Tower to get a better view. Check out the neat boating and canoeing programs at St. Mary’s Boat Club. To learn more about shoreline creatures, read Rachel Carson’s beautiful book The Edge of the Sea (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1955).

Learn a bit about Sir Sanford Fleming who gave the city the parkland so it would be protected forever. Among other things, he invented and successfully advocated for standard time with time zones across the world.

Can you find the hidden plaque? Stand in the tower doorway with your back to the door. Take 3 giant steps forward. Turn left. Take 5 giant steps. Turn right. Take nine giant steps and stop. Make a rubbing of the plaque with the side of your pencil or crayon in your Adventure Journal.

The plaque symbol is:



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Take your favourite pirate picture on your return and upload it if you choose.

Congratulations, you’ve discovered some wonderful treasures as Nature’s Pirates!

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