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Pictou Island - A Step Back in Time

Updated: Apr 12, 2023

Pictou Island - A Step Back in Time

Where is Pictou Island?
Pictou Island is a tiny, remote island located in the middle of the Northumberland Strait, off the coast of Nova Scotia, in eastern Canada. The island's stunning landscape and unique island life attract visitors worldwide. Islanders affectionately refer to the island as the jewel of the Northumberland Strait, and we could not agree more.

Geography and Climate
Pictou Island is approximately 7 kilometres long and 3 kilometres wide. It has incredibly picturesque coastlines, similar to Prince Edward Island, including sandy beaches, sandstone bluffs and craggy shorelines. The island is surrounded by the Northumberland Strait, known for its warm ocean waters. It is home to the warmest ocean waters north of the Carolinas and reaches temperatures of 25°C/77°F in summer.
The climate on Pictou Island is influenced by its maritime location - moderated by the surrounding ocean. Interestingly it has its unique micro-climate, which often differs from mainland Nova Scotia and PEI. Sometimes when it rains on mainland Nova Scotia or PEI, it is sunny on the island. Island summers are usually hot and dry. And just like any tiny island, incoming storms can often be seen and heard a long way off. There are often intriguing cloud formations in the sky during the day, and thunderstorm lightning is spectacular to watch on a clear night. You can listen to the occasional heavy summer rain storm roaring through the wetlands, offering a refreshing cool down on a hot day.

Pictou Island has a fascinating history. The Mi'kmaq people used it as a hunting, fishing ground, and resting spot for travel between Nova Scotia and PEI. There has yet to be any evidence or documentation of the Mi'kmaq people using it as a permanent home. They likely used it as a summer seasonal home.

European settlers from Scotland (and Ireland) arrived on the island in the 18th century. There are stories about an Irish grandmother leaving the island due to a conflict - a fire in her wake. The settlers established a small fishing and farming community, which grew slowly over the next century. Farm lots ran from north to south, each lot crossing the main road. The main road stretches from the east end to the west end, the complete length of the island. Early settlers used the south side of the island to farm the land. The gardens facing the south warm up quicker in the spring to assist with the germination and growth of the crops. The settlers grew crops for their animals and collected cranberries, blueberries, and apples by the barrel. Islanders sent these foods to the mainland for barter or cash. Farm animals roamed the north side of the road, and there are remnants of the fences hidden in the forests and fields today. The initial settlers were a determined and hearty bunch. They dug wells by hand for freshwater, with households assisting one another. They cut the forest, cleared the land, cultivated and planted to provide food for their families. Self-sufficiency was vital to survival during the harsh winters. Today much of the early cultivated land has returned to the wild, with some open fields still kept up by bush-hogging by the current landowners.

In the early days, farming, fishing and fish processing plants (canning) were the primary sources of revenue on the island. Many current and previous fishing huts still stand along the east beach shoreline. The path is lined with lobster traps at the end of the lobster season by the end of June. The lobster traps are getting rinsed and dried in preparation for storage. At the height of the fishery operations on the island, there were five factories and 80 fishermen. The island's resident population peaked in 1921, with 225 full-time residents. In 1926 several of the factories closed as the lobster was in decline. With the fall of the fishery, the islanders steadily retreated to the mainland during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Then there was a small influx of new residents in the 1970s who continued to influence the integrity of island life significantly.

Heritage Sites
Pictou Island has a rich cultural heritage with several historical sites that offer a glimpse into the island's past. In recent years residents formed a Heritage Society to preserve some of the island's historical treasures, including a horse-drawn hearse. Pictou Island Pioneer Cemetery is the final resting place of many of its early settlers. It is a 5-minute walk from the main road mid-island and provides a mystical reprieve into the forest.

Further down the road, visitors can learn about the island's history by visiting the tiny museum beside the community centre and interacting with friendly locals. In 1930 the government gave the island an equipped ice boat, which was the only connection with the mainland in the winter. Pushing and pulling the small craft across the Northumberland Strait was incredibly dangerous and brave. It would take a risk-taker with a strong will for that job. Pictou Island's remote historic sites and landmarks are worth exploring for those interested in history.

Island Culture and Society
Many of the province's islands were once inhabited by lighthouse keepers, fishers and their families. These people endured a rigorous lifestyle on the islands, and Pictou Island is no different. Pictou Island continues to have an incredible community spirit rooted in its original inhabitants. Its remote location and close-knit community shaped its unique way of life. The island's residents are known for their friendly, welcoming nature and community spirit. Fishing remains an integral part of life on Pictou Island, with a few island residents (seasonal and permanent) still working in the industry. Lobster fishing continues to be significant, with the island's lobster fishery considered one of the best in the region. The island's soil is similar to the red clay soil famous on Prince Edward Island. It makes excellent growing for potatoes and other root vegetables. Many islanders have family gardens, and one more recent island resident started reviving one of the original farming homesteads.

Today the majority of the population are seasonal summer residents. The island community is wholly vested in maintaining the island by acting as its environmental steward. Community groups have spent much time and effort in the upkeep of several community properties. Residents have restored community buildings and maintained the John McCallum Memorial Park on the east end. The community centre (formerly the local schoolhouse) often hosts community-based events such as an annual food auction. Started many years ago as a fundraiser, it has continued to be a highlight of the summer for many residents and guests. The dance hall houses many functions with a well-suited rustic flair. Restoration of the island’s church has been ongoing for many years - helping others maintain a connection to the past. These cherished structures certainly add character to the island, promoting a feeling of nostalgia.

Pictou Islanders meet regularly to hone their firefighting and emergency first responder skills. Being on an island has quirks, and isolation from the mainland is not taken lightly. Islanders work diligently to keep their skills and knowledge fresh and ready for anything that arises.
Tourism and Recreation

Pictou Island has become an increasingly popular destination despite its remote location. Visitors come to the island to enjoy a boat ride across the Northumberland Strait and explore the beaches and the serenity of island life. One popular activity is hiking to the beach at John McCallum Memorial Park. It is on the island's opposite end to the wharf, so plan accordingly with lots of water to drink. This beach is known for its clear, calm waters and soft sand, making it an ideal spot for swimming, beach combing, and picnicking.

Pictou Island is a hidden gem in the Northumberland Strait, offering visitors a unique experience of Maritime Island Life in Eastern Canada. Its rich history, unique culture, and stunning scenery make it an ideal destination for adventure, relaxation, and connection to the natural world. Whether you're interested in fishing, hiking, or beachcombing on a beautiful beach, Pictou Island provides a nature-inspired oasis. Just click on google earth, locate Pictou Island in the middle of the Northumberland Strait and see how it glows.

For more info: Click on Islands of the Atlantic on “Our Story” page. Scroll to find Pictou Island - “Voir le Portrait” is in English with French subtitles. The next video about Pictou Island Is 20+ mins (in French) and provides a visual overview of what visitors can expect when landing on the island.

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