Thursday, May 23, 2024

Officials ‘optimistic’ Grassy Island ferry will return for tourist season

  • May 15 2024
  • By Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter    

CANSO — Three years after the regular ferry to one of Guysborough County’s top destinations ceased operations, the Parks Canada official in charge of visitor experience at Grassy Island Fort National Historic Site is bullish about resuming the service in time for tourists this year.

“We are currently working with Public Services and Procurement Canada to identify suppliers for an aluminum rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB),” said Maria O’Hearn, external relations manager for Cape Breton-Unama’ki field unit, speaking on behalf of Caitlin O’Brien, acting visitor experience manager for Grassy Island. “In addition, we continue to actively seek a new operator with their own boat.”

She added: “While we cannot guarantee the availability of a boat service for this visitor season, Parks Canada remains optimistic that one of these options will prove successful.”

The news was welcome – if not altogether unexpected – to Bill MacMillan, president of the Canso Historical Society, which has been consulting with the national parks service on reintroducing the four-kilometre passage to and from the site’s visitor interpretive centre on the Canso waterfront since 2021.

“We’re happy to be working with Parks Canada,” he said, noting: “They are now replacing the floating docks that were over at Grassy Island. In addition, they’re going to be installing floating docks – to replace the old wharf – at the visitor centre on the Canso side ... I’m aware that there have been some challenges but, I think, these are clear indications that they are moving ahead with the boat situation.”

It’s been a long, and sometimes rough, time coming. The trouble began prior to the 2022 visitor season when the local vessel that Parks Canada had been contracting for several years – a large, repurposed fishing boat, The Special K – had essentially aged out.

“Besides needing repairs, it required a [special] master’s [operator] licence that was hard to find,” Matthew Cook, national historic site manager for Grassy Island Fort, told The Journal in December.

“We’re close to getting what we want,” he said, emphasizing that he was “very confident” that the ferry would resume this year. “Parks Canada will own the boat and then we only have to find an operator, which we expect will be easier to find than an operator with their own boat... We’re hoping to get a different type of boat so that the operator only needs a small vessel operating permit.”

According to O’Hearn’s email last week, “We understand that access to Grassy Island via the boat service provides unique opportunities for locals and visitors to connect with the cultural and natural landscapes, and the historical significance.”

Meanwhile, MacMillan said, Parks Canada seems serious about repairing the infrastructure needed for regular ferry service.

“The wharf at the interpretive centre just kind of got destroyed [over time],” he noted. “The marina [a few hundred metres away] was used as a kind of stop-gap measure but, if people have to get in their car and drive down [there] to get over to the island for a tour, it’s kind of a mental block and we do lose some people. Some people think, ‘Ah well, let’s just keep going.’ But, if they can step right onto at boat at the same location and then get right back into their car ... that’s an improvement for us.”

Grassy Island – part of a group of islands off the eastern tip of mainland Nova Scotia that comprise the Canso Islands National Historic Site of Canada – is one of Nova Scotia’s key historic venues. A key fishing base for the French in the 16th century, and later for the British, it was also the scene of battle between both forces and the Mi’kmaq in the 18th century, and the launching point for English excursions against Fortress Louisbourg in 1745.

For MacMillan, who also sits on the Canso and Area Development Association (CADA), Parks Canada’s determination to invest in the ferry service also signals its commitment to improve the visitor experience in the community more broadly.

“We’re a small cog in the wheel of Parks Canada by comparison with places like Quebec City and Louisbourg, but they are doing what they can. They are working with CADA on our plan to develop a fisheries heritage centre on the waterfront. And there will be more information about that [soon].”