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Foaming Nova Scotia

  • Submitted by: C.W. Lee
  • Submission Date: 04th Feb 2005

Foaming, and foamers, are somewhat derisive terms used by professional railroad operating personnel to refer to railfans and others who enjoy watching, photographing, chasing, and riding trains. (For the derivation of these words, see the August 1997 issue of RailNews, page 58.) Nova Scotia is one of the Canadian maritime provinces; it is an elongated land mass about 60-80 miles wide and 400 miles long, running southwest/northeast. Two thirds of that length is attached to the rest of Canada by a short strip of land about 15 miles wide; the other third of Nova Scotia is Cape Breton Island which is now linked by a causeway and bridge to the rest of the province. Cape Breton Island is immediately east of the mainland part of Nova Scotia. It is an irregularly shaped island, roughly 70 miles by 120 miles, with several large lakes. Its shape has been described as "a hollow tooth." One railroad runs across the island, from southwest to northeast. I spent much of September 1997 "foaming" the railroads of Nova Scotia, with particular emphasis on the railroads of Cape Breton Island. I started at the southwest tip of Nova Scotia, and gradually worked my way to the opposite end, and then back again, exiting at the same port I entered. Unlike my previous trips which I made alone, two friends (Barbara and Ted) accompanied me for much of this trip. We are all members of the same social club and enjoy hiking and railroads. For ease of communication I write mostly in the first person singular, but much of what I report was also done by Barbara, Ted, or both.

Nova Scotia has a population of about 900,000. Halifax is the commercial and governmental center of Nova Scotia, with over half the province's people living within an hour's drive of the city. There are both modern factories and older industrial operations, generally near Halifax or one of the other seaports. Agriculture is also an important source of income. Tourism is very prominent, and growing. I was able to access the Internet and my email account free several times from public libraries throughout Nova Scotia. The public transportation system is not extensive, and on the day I arrived by ship (having flown to Portland, Maine where I boarded the ship) at a town at the very southwest end of the province there was no bus until the next day. Fortunately, I easily got a ride hitch hiking and arrived at my first stop as quickly as I would have if the bus had been running that day. Later in the trip we rented a car to get to some of the attractions we wanted to see. Driving in Nova Scotia is on the right-hand side of the road, and seemed pretty much the same as in the USA.

The inspiration for this adventure came from some magazine photographs of Cape Breton Island and trains running next to what appeared to be the ocean. The accompanying article, and further research, suggested that for much of the length of this railroad such scenery was common, and that the tracks were actually adjacent to inland saltwater lakes. I decided it would be fun to hike the length of the railroad as it ran from one end of Cape Breton Island to the other. Through the Internet I made contact with other railfans in Nova Scotia and started planning my trip. I quickly learned about other railroads and related attractions, and decided to expand my visit to include all of Nova Scotia. Soon both Barbara and Ted expressed an interest, and they joined me in Windsor, Nova Scotia in early September, each arriving by different means.

My principal focus was on two railroads, both of which I had written to many months before seeking permission to visit. The first of these is a very short line, having about 50 miles of track in total. Its principal business is hauling gypsum from two mines to a seaport where it is loaded on ships. It also handles a small amount of other freight, principally livestock feed coming in, and logs outbound. I met the senior management of this operation, and spent several hours riding in the cabs of different locomotives on various trains. I toured the two yards (trackage where cars, locomotives, and other equipment are switched into and out of trains, and stored when not needed) on foot, and was able to view most of the line by car, locomotive, or on foot. I was also treated to an extensive tour of the larger gypsum mine serviced by this railroad. I later visited the largest open-pit gypsum mine in Nova Scotia, and another smaller gypsum mine on Cape Breton Island.

The other, larger, railroad has a mainline of over 200 miles, and several yards. Based on information provided by railfans in the local area, I had previously selected about 100 miles of that line as the most scenic to hike. Almost all of that was on Cape Breton Island. I ended up hiking only about 75 miles of the line, due to a mild respiratory illness, and our consensus that there were other attractions we should not overlook. To prepare myself physically for this trip I walked the streets and railroad tracks near me for a few hours a day, several days a week, until I was easily able to walk six hours a day with a 20-pound backpack on relatively level ground. As it turned out the only physical problem I had was the respiratory illness, and I merely treated the symptoms until they went away. All of my heavy duty medical aid supplies went unused.

This second railroad has as its principal business the hauling of coal from the northeast end of Nova Scotia to power plants located farther southwest. It also hauls a fair amount of containers headed for the ships to Newfoundland, steel scrap and finished steel products from a steel plant, and other general freight. I visited four of the yards on foot, and was given an extensive tour of the car and locomotive repair facilities. The senior management was extremely cooperative and helpful in my efforts to learn as much as I could about the railroad. In just a few hours, riding in the cab of a locomotive pulling a train of about 40 cars, I was able to retrace the 75 or so miles I had hiked over a one-week period. On this same ride Ted was allowed to sit in the engineer's seat and "drive" the train for about 30 minutes; this consisted of alternately applying the air brakes to slow the train, and then adjusting the throttle setting to increase the speed, all the while remembering to ring the bell and blow the whistle as the train approached the many road crossings.

Besides the two principal railroads mentioned above, I also visited two short industrial lines but was unable to make an extensive visit. I rode a passenger train for part of my journey, operated by VIA, the Canadian counterpart to Amtrak. That two-hour ride was the only train ride I had to buy a ticket for during my time in Nova Scotia. I spent a few hours trackside watching and talking with a crew replacing ties on a siding, and learned a lot about how that is done with today's modern equipment. On another occasion a longtime railroad employee explained even more about modern tracklaying and maintenance.

I also visited several railroad museums (one in Maine on my way home) and other locations having some railroad association. At one of these museums I was able to inspect, both inside and out, a recently retired snow plow, a type of car I had never seen up close before. Among the non-museum visits, the most interesting for me was an extensive tour of a company that builds freight cars. Starting with purchased wheels, frames, and lots of bulk steel, the company assembles trucks and mounts them on the underframe it builds for the cars; then couplers are attached, along with sides, ends, and a roof. The complete brake system is installed, together with flooring, doors, and all the other things found on a modern freight car. The cars are then painted and shipped to the customer. One of the assembly lines was building express freight cars for Amtrak while I was there.

Another fun experience for me was attending a "live steam" meet, at which working model steam engines, including a few locomotives that pulled people around a several-hundred-foot track, were on display. One of the most unusual items was a 1/3 scale model of a steam tractor from the late 1800s. (For Thomas The Tank Engine fans, it was based on the same prototype that Trevor The Tractor is based on.) The man who built it showed me how it worked (it was a coal burner) and then let me take it for a spin through the orchard. It was quite a task steering, since the steering wheel pulled and let out a heavy chain that in turn was attached to each end of the front axle, but I enjoyed it very much.

Hiking along the track was beautiful, inspiring, and repetitious. It was rewarding primarily because of my lifelong interest in railroads, and secondarily because I enjoy nature. I enjoyed noting where rails had been removed from spurs and passing tracks, leaving rotting ties as silent reminders of the earlier activity there. Bridges were of particular interest to me, indicating those locations where the topography required such a costly means of getting from one place to another. Two of the bridges were swing bridges, a type not often encountered. Only by walking miles and miles of track does one really appreciate the problems of drainage, access, and gradient that have to be overcome to build a railroad. In places the tracks ran for miles through green forests, with birds and an occasional deer to provide a surprise. Other places it ran along the water's edge and there were many bald eagles to be seen, either perched watching for fish, or swooping down to capture one for lunch. Meadows and swampy areas were also encountered along the right-of-way. Mostly the track I hiked was away from settlements, but here and there a home or two could be seen not far from the tracks.

Since the trip was planned around railroad exploration, lodging was generally in modest motels very close to the tracks. The beds were sometimes worn out, and the showers generally had very low water pressure, unpredictable hot water, and were sometimes down the hall. I had considered, and rejected, carrying a sleeping bag and tent, because of the extra weight. In one rural area without motels I had arranged automobile transportation for us (before leaving the USA), at the start and end of our planned hike each day, to a small cabin adjacent to the home of a delightful Scottish woman. When she learned that I was a bit ill and sleeping late one day, she showed up at noon with a home-cooked meal of corned beef, cabbage, boiled potatoes, coffee, toast, and a cinnamon roll. Other than that welcome hot meal served in my room, the rest of the time I ate in a variety of fast food outlets, coffee shops, taverns, and pizza shops. I carried in my pack a good supply of food and beverages to eat during the day on the hikes when I was not near a restaurant. The most unusual place I spent a night was at a monastery, run by monks from the order of St. Augustine. My advance planning had failed to locate a commercial place to stay along a 40-mile stretch of the railroad. Since 40 miles was more than I could comfortably hike in one day, I needed a place to stay somewhere in the middle. I wrote to the monastery and explained my need, and was very graciously welcomed, first by letter and then in person upon arrival. There was no charge, although Ted and I each made a donation to the order. We were excused from the 6 a.m. mass since, as the Abbot observed with a twinkle in his eye (he knew we were not Catholic), "you need your rest for the hiking." We were served a nice breakfast the next morning, and around the breakfast table we met several of the people who lived and worked there. As we departed we took a wrong turn in the labyrinth of small rooms at the rear of the monastery and discovered, to our surprise, a hot tub! On reflection, I think St. Augustine himself would have enjoyed a good hot soak at the end of the day.

The restaurant menus were pretty much the same as one finds in the USA, with perhaps more seafood than typical for Southern California. A new (to us) type of sandwich was encountered, a "donair". Served either on bread or a roll, it included the shaved/compressed spicy meat commonly found here in gyros, together with onions, peppers, and "donair" sauce. We were told that this white sauce is made from condensed milk, sugar, and vinegar; my guess is that these ingredients are replacing yogurt in some earlier version of this dish.

As in New Zealand and Australia, I encountered what I have come to call the "Commonwealth Ice Tea Predicament" (the difficulty of obtaining ice tea in a place where tea is only consumed hot) and promptly switched to coffee and beer for the duration of the trip. I was pleased to learn that Nova Scotia beer tasted the way I think beer should taste. Aside from the problem of smoking everywhere, I found the restaurant food much better and lower priced than I'm used to here. Most places had turkey on the menu, and it was real turkey (including dark meat) cut from a bird that had been roasted on the premises, not the "plastic turkey" that comes in a roll without flavor or color variation and is so common here in the USA. Mashed potatoes often had lumps, and bits of skin, indicating that they were probably made right there, from real potatoes, not a powder. Ice cream seemed to have the flavor intensity that American ice cream had 20 years ago, before the health police forced the removal of whatever it was that tasted so good. In Nova Scotia, "home made pie" on the menu meant pie made by hand within 50 feet or so from dough and various fruits and berries. In spite of all the turkey, mashed potatoes, pie a la mode, and beer, I managed to lose a few pounds on the trip, mostly due to the miles hiked with a pack.

I also enjoyed some non-railroad attractions in Nova Scotia. The Maritime Museum in Halifax was very interesting, with extensive displays of shipping related materials, and two good-sized ships in the harbor adjacent to the museum. One was a WW2 Canadian Navy Corvette, outfitted for public tours, and the other was a commercial fishing vessel later used in sailing competition. Elsewhere we visited a sailing ship being restored at another museum. By car we drove a few hundred miles of the most colorful routes, both along the coast and inland, and visited governmental parks known for their natural beauty and scenic vistas. Lighthouses, many still in use, were also interesting places to see and visit, including one undergoing restoration. Although our visit to a mining museum was primarily for the railroad interest, we entered the mine and spent some time underground stooped over in the wet, cool atmosphere, wondering how it would have been to work day after day in such cramped quarters.

All the people I met in Nova Scotia were very open, friendly, and anxious to please. They seemed to be a trusting people, curious in a tactful way about why someone would come 3,000 miles to hike along a railroad track and take photographs of rusting railroad equipment. Life seems a bit more relaxed in Nova Scotia; it takes longer to be served a meal in a restaurant, for example, than is the case here. Even in the fast-food outlets, no one (either customers or clerks) seemed in a hurry and no one minded the wait. Smoking is widespread, and only a few restaurants have set aside a few tables for non-smokers. Smoking is not allowed on buses or passenger trains and the rules are enforced.


The approximate costs involved were as follows:

Category Amount

Plane $400
Ship 200
Ground transport 300
Lodging 500
Food 200
Guest meals 100
Miscellaneous 100
TOTAL $1,800

C. W. Lee, October 15, 1997

Rec.Travel Library
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North America
Nova Scotia

Also by this author:
New Zealand 1994
Papua New Guinea 1995
Australia, Tasmania 1996
Neqemgelisa on Vancouver Island, Plus... 1998