Saint John, New Brunswick, is Canada’s oldest incorporated city. With a designation like that, you can be sure there’s history around every corner or, for the kayaker, around every point.
This is particularly true of Partridge Island. This rocky outcrop of approximately 25 acres is located in Saint John Harbour just over a kilometre offshore of the city’s his- toric uptown at Fort Dufferin. Now a National and Provincial Historic Site, Partridge Island was once a major immigration processing centre. It has been attached to the mainland by a breakwater since 1963 but today is off-limits to the public. But you can get a good view of this important piece of Canadian and North American history from a kayak.
Partridge Island’s story begins, according to local aboriginal folklore, when the god Glooscap broke the dam built by the Great Beaver on the St. John River. The ensuing flood deposited part of the dam right in the harbour, just west of the present-day river mouth, creating the island Qual-m’kay-gam-ik. When Samuel de Champlain entered the harbour in 1604, he renamed the island after its population of partridges.
Guarding the entrance to the busy seaport of Saint John, Partridge Island has caused many shipwrecks since Champlain’s day. The lighthouse, installed in 1791, was the first in New Brunswick and only the third in Canada. But it took the installation of a foghorn in 1859 to make shipping much safer in this frequently foggy harbour. This was the world’s first steam-operated foghorn, a tech- nology invented by Saint John resident Robert Foulis and subsequently used worldwide. Today, Partridge Island is owned by the federal government and still operated as a working light station. The blinking light stands on the island’s highest point and is clearly visible from every direction.
You can see this light from McLaren’s Beach. On the Saint John mainland west of Partridge Island, McLaren’s Beach is probably the most popular put-in spot for local paddlers and the best place to begin your trip. It’s only 15 minutes by car from the city centre and is relatively sheltered from the winds and waves of the Bay of Fundy.
From here, the island is a picturesque paddle of about four kilometres eastward. With harbour seals for company, you pass small, rocky beaches alternating with 40-foot cliffs. Perched on the cliffs are houses with Bay of Fundy views that most people can only dream about.
BOAT TRAFFIC AND COLD WATERS ON THE BAY OF FUNDY
Before you set off, make sure you check the weather and be prepared for open-ocean conditions. The Bay of Fundy’s waters are notoriously cold—about four to six degrees Celcius all year long. And away from the shelter of McLaren’s Beach, you’re exposed to the winds that prevail from the southwest, blowing up from the mouth of the Bay from spring through fall.
Approaching the island from the west, you’ll stay clear of the major shipping lanes, but you should still watch out for boat traffic. Also be prepared to encounter fog, which can roll in very quickly, often with the rising tide.
The tides of the Bay of Fundy are the largest in the world, with a range of up to 40 feet in some places. In Saint John the tide can vary 25 feet and rises amazingly fast, so if you leave your kayak on a beach make sure it is above the high-water mark.
This trip can be completed anytime, but at low tide you’ll encounter more rocks. About halfway between McLaren’s Beach and the island you pass Shag Rocks, completely covered at high tide but exposed to the breaking swell at lower levels. You can avoid the rocks by paddling closer to shore.
As you approach Partridge Island, imagine yourself as a hopeful immigrant seeing North America for the first time. The island served as a quarantine station between 1832 and 1942. Fifteen thousand immigrants came ashore here in the year 1847 alone. Most of them were starving Irish escaping the Potato Famine. In that infamous year, 2,000 immigrants died of typhus. Six hundred were buried in unmarked graves in the three small, fenced graveyards on the island’s southern edge. It is sad to think of these people whose hopes of a better life in the New World ended so soon.
Visible high above the wild shrubs is a 40-foot Celtic cross erected in 1927 in memory of the unfortunate immigrants and the doctor, Patrick Collins, who also died of typhus while trying to cure them. In all, including some of the residents and soldiers who came to the island later, 1,200 people have been buried on this unimposing scrap of land.
Directly west and about 20 meters from the Celtic cross is a tall lookout. This is one of several military emplacements that attest to the island’s long military history. Partridge Island was first fortified during the war of 1812 and was continuously manned from then until the Fenian raids in 1866. It was manned again to protect the harbour during both the First and Second World Wars, although no shots were ever fired.
MAKING HISTORY ACCESSIBLE ONCE AGAIN
Now the island has been closed to the public for several years. The wooden buildings have all been either demolished or burnt by vandals who have sneaked across the breakwater. There is also concern that the residual ash from the coal that was used as fuel while the island was populat- ed may be an environmental and health hazard. Saint John is embarking on a waterfront development project and part of that is an attempt to open Partridge Island to the public. It would be wonderful if this important part of our history becomes accessible once again.
Once you’ve explored the shoreline of Partridge Island and soaked up enough history, head back toward your put-in at McLaren’s Beach. It’s not recommended that you paddle east beyond Partridge Island across the harbour mouth or down the east side of the breakwater toward the city. The tides and currents at the mouth of the St. John River cause rough conditions in these areas.
If you want to keep paddling, continue west past McLaren’s Beach for two kilometres, around Sheldon Point and past an old fishing weir to Saint’s Rest Beach. Less than two kilometres offshore from Saint’s Rest is Manawagonish Island, a nature preserve with cliffs and inlets for the kayaker to investigate. At the west end of Saint’s Rest is the Irving Nature Park. This area is a popular destination for beachcombers, kite flyers and hikers—a great place to stop for lunch, stretch your legs, and talk to the locals about your historical discoveries.
Doug Scott is a full-time instructor at the New Brunswick Community College and a part-time wooden kayak builder and paddling enthusiast.
This article first appeared in the Early Summer 2003 issue of Adventure Kayak Magazine. For more great content, subscribe to Adventure Kayak’s print and digital editions here.