Water From All Angles

I think when we look at the waterways from these aspects we don't just see a body of water, but a living link that connects the past, present and hopefully the future.
AQUA Margaree River
Margaree River, Cape Breton

AQUA: Waterways of Cape Breton, looks at waterways from all angles and links past, present and future

Pat O'Neil
Editor Pat O’Neil

Atlantic Books Today spoke with Pat O’Neil, editor of Aqua: Waterways of Cape Breton. The book is a celebration of water and Cape Breton’s natural history, accented by stunning photos from photographer Barry Morrison. The work draws on expertise from aquatic ecologist Jim Foulds and historian Ken Donovan to explain the modern and historical significance of – as well as the mythology surrounding – Cape Breton’s many lakes, harbours and rivers.

You note in the Introduction “a long-time fascination with the geography and natural wonders of Cape Breton.” Where did this fascination come from?

Enjoying the outdoors has always been an important part of my life in Cape Breton. The island’s natural beauty is its greatest asset and it’s all so accessible. My children grew up hiking, camping, swimming and exploring – that’s how we spent our family time. Over the years I wrote other books (hiking and travel guides) and those projects provided me with a familiarity with the island’s geography as well as a deep appreciation for its natural aspects. The fascination has stayed with me and probably always will.

You worked with Dr. Jim Foulds (on natural heritage facets) and Ken Donovan (who wrote about shipbuilding and ferries) to create a book that looks at water from many varied perspectives. What can you tell us about that collaboration?

Collaborating on a book was a new experience for me, and I was a little nervous at first because Jim and Ken are both highly qualified in their fields. I felt a little out of my depth. But once I realized how reassuring it was to have their expert input, writing the book became easier for me. They were both very congenial to work with and their contributions made the book so much more informative and interesting than I could have accomplished on my own. Also, the photographer, Barry Morrison, was an important member of the collaboration, as his beautiful photos added the finishing touch.

What is unusual about this book on water is it looks at its subject from so many perspectives: geologic, ecologic, anthropological, historic and sociological. What do readers gain when so many ways of understanding these waterways come together?

By learningAQUA more about the geology of our island, we can’t help but gain a better appreciation for our natural surroundings. When we realize that these waterways resulted from geological activity that took place 500 million years ago, it puts their existence into perspective and makes us want to protect and preserve them.

From the human history viewpoint, the fact that these waterways were vital to human existence right from the beginning is incredible. Archaeological evidence found in Ingonish in the 1970s proves the existence of Paleo-Indians, or their descendants the Archaic peoples, on Cape Breton Island at least 2,500 years ago and possibly as long as 9,000 years ago!

The waterways were also vital to the European pioneers who began settling here in the 1600s. I think when we look at the waterways from these aspects (geological, historical, anthropological, etc.) we don’t just see a body of water, but a living link that connects the past, present and hopefully the future.

In your research, what did you learn that surprised you most?

I was truly surprised by what I learned about the island’s geology. I didn’t have a true appreciation for just how long ago these rivers, valleys and lakes were formed. For example, the Mira River Valley resulted from 320-million-year-old Carboniferous and 500-million-year-old Cambrian and Precambrian formations. 340 million years ago, the Middle River watershed was at the bottom of the ‘Windsor Sea.’ These facts were revelations to me.

AQUA wood turtle
The Wood Turtle

My favourite learning experience writing the book was the story of the wood turtle, an endangered species found in very few places in Nova Scotia, one place being a protected area along the River Inhabitants. These turtles are so adorable that people will often pick them up and take them home for pets. It takes 15 years for a wood turtle to mature and breed, and some live for over 30 years in the wild. The removal of even one adult female turtle can be disastrous.


You say in the Introduction that your intent is to “entertain as well as to inform.” Can you tell us a bit about why this entertainment aspect is important to you?

Not everyone is able to get out and enjoy a walk along a river or a canoe trip on a lake. One of my hopes for the book is that it will provide people with an opportunity to enjoy these beautiful places just by reading about them and seeing the photos. We subtitled the book “A Casual Reference” to highlight the fact that it is not a guidebook and not intended to be used only by those who are able to go out hiking, fishing and boating.

We want it to be a book that everyone can enjoy, including armchair explorers, and hopefully they will learn a little something along the way. As I said before, I believe the more all of us know about our natural surroundings, the more we appreciate them and see the value in protecting  them.


Written By

Chris Benjamin is the managing editor of Atlantic Books Today. He is also the author of Boy With A Problem; Indian School Road; Eco-Innovators and Drive-by Saviours; as well as several short stories in anthologies and journals.

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