Ode to Point Pleasant park

The MV Faust rounds the northwest tip of the harbour and ever so slowly makes its way toward its Port of Halifax berth.

It’s a big ship — one of the largest car carriers in the world, in fact. At over 227 metres long with a 71,583 gross tonnage, it can hold more than 8,000 cars. For such a large vessel, it makes a surprisingly quiet entrance. I can barely hear its engines from my vantage point on a bench near the Sailors Memorial cenotaph at Point Pleasant Park. 

This is one of my favourite spots in the park —  in the entire city, for that matter. The view of the harbour mouth and the open ocean beyond is hard to beat. 

  Tugboats guide the MV Faust, one of the largest car carriers in the world, into Halifax Harbour. (JOHN McPHEE)

Tugboats guide the MV Faust, one of the largest car carriers in the world, into Halifax Harbour. (JOHN McPHEE)

The Faust is a regular visitor, which I know because I’m a regular myself on these harbour shores. It’s a rare week that I don’t make several trips to Point Pleasant from our north-end home.

I like dirt, trees and silence, so sometimes city life gets the best of me. The park may not be the deep woods but 75 hectares of green space and 39 kilometres of gravelled roads and woods trails? That'll do in a pinch.  

This was a popular place even when there wasn’t a city to escape. It was named Point Pleasant by the governor-who-shall-not-be-named — OK, it was Edward Cornwallis — who was impressed by the view after he dropped anchor in 1748.  

According to Halifax naturalist and author Stephanie Robertson, at that time the point supported "a relatively young, thick and healthy forest probably of spruces, pines, hemlock, white pine, fir, maple and other species typical of the Nova Scotian Acadian forests.”

Of course, the days of that lush forest were numbered as soon as Cornwallis and the thousands of soldiers and settlers sailed into the harbour, Robertson writes. They needed wood, and lots of it, so the area “was subjected to continuous biomass extraction and major disturbance of trees, and their roots and soil — for forts, firewood, kindling, furnaces, gates, fencing, and lumber; and removal and displacement of rocks for forts, roads, gates, walls, and trenches.”

Protection from exploitation began in 1866 when the British Crown leased the land to a local committee. That lease was extended in 1879 to 999 years — by my admittedly shaky math, that means the lease will end in the year 2878.  In the meantime, Halifax Regional Municipality leases the land from the British government for the astounding sum of one shilling a year.

  A female red-breasted merganser dawdles in the waters off Point Pleasant. (JOHN McPHEE)

A female red-breasted merganser dawdles in the waters off Point Pleasant. (JOHN McPHEE)

While human interference has been curtailed, no legal arrangements can protect the park from Mother Nature. I'll never forget my first visit to the park after hurricane Juan struck in September 2003 — swaths of trees were laid waste by the storm. About three-quarters of the park's trees — between 60,000 and 70,000 — were lost. 

About 70,000 trees have been replanted thanks to government assistance after the devastating storm. But it will take decades, perhaps a century, for the park to regain its former majestic canopy. 

Even so, there's lots to appreciate at Point Pleasant for nature nerds like me, particularly birders. The harbour waters off the main shore road, Sailors Memorial Way, are home to a slew of bird species. The most common are mallards and American black ducks. But a quick look at my park list includes American wigeon, red-necked grebe, purple sandpiper, common eider, red-breasted merganser and common loons.

And despite Juan's devastation, on land you'll still hear the O Canada call of the white-throated sparrow in the spring. Off the top of my head, I've seen cardinals, pileated woodpeckers, various warblers, eagles, osprey, merlin and the ubiquitous black-capped chickadee. 

Besides the animals of the wild, there are plenty of the domestic variety at Point Pleasant.

Like any green space these days that allows dogs, you’ll find all manner of canines at the park. If you’re not a fan of the four-legged set, technically you can escape them on Sailors Memorial Way after 10 a.m. But some owners are either ignorant of the rule or just choose to ignore it; it’s not uncommon to see dogs on and off the leash on the road at all times of the day. 

  This stand of purple flag is a dependable sight each spring at the Frog Pond. (JOHN McPHEE)

This stand of purple flag is a dependable sight each spring at the Frog Pond. (JOHN McPHEE)

Whether you're walking alone or with your Shih Tzu, you can't help but notice the remnants of human presence in the park. The batteries, towers and other fortifications from Halifax's military past are everywhere. One of the most impressive is the Prince of Wales Tower, about three-quarters the way down the main road from the upper parking lot. This fortification built in 1796 is the oldest example of the round "martello" towers built throughout the colonial world by the British military. 

If you're really into the cultural and historical vibe, you can take a walking audio tour of the park. (I'm a non-structured type and have yet to try out the tour.)

Back on my bench, I’ve finished my sandwich and stand up to complete my leisurely circuit of the park. Sometimes I’m more ambitious and take a wog around the park. (Jog, gasp, walk. Jog, gasp, walk.) But it's a lazy and mild December day, ripe for sauntering and daydreams. 

I look up to check the Faust’s slow progress into the sheltered part of the harbour. It’s got company now. Two tugboats — dwarfed by the huge vessel — have chugged out to take up positions along its port side.

The big boat and its diminutive guides glide out of view and the dark winter waters of the outer harbour are empty again, for now.