Sunday, January 20, 2013

Rockhounding Cape Split, Nova Scotia!

Cape Split Shoreline in Nova Scotia

Chris Sheppard Master Rockhound and Landscape Photographer 

Twilight Shoreline at Cape Split by Chris
Spires at Nightfall by Chris Sheppard
Deep Twilight at Little Split Cove
Through the seasons the rockhounds have trekked in every maritime weather condition that can be thrown at them. In the Winter we endured the waist deep and the wet snows, the frozen ropes on very steep trails, the pain of frostbite setting in the fingertips, always calculating ways to maximize precious daylight on beaches that never see the direct sun for those months. 

Cape Split Trail in Winter.
In the Spring the beautiful North Mountain comes alive with green as you wind your way through the fertile farmland just outside the small town of Canning, Nova Scotia on your way up the 358 North to Cape Split. This route I have taken many times on my way to some of the best rockhounding sites the world has to offer.

The end of Cape Split. Photo: Trish Robicheau
The basalt ridge that forms the North Mountain comes to a dramatic end here at Cape Split jutting into the Bay of Fundy at the head of the Minas Channel where the Bay of Fundy narrows as it flows into the Minas Basin to the east. Incredibly turbulent tidal currents are created here that can be heard churning and roaring for miles at the mid-point of an incoming tide. The sound is referred to as the Voice of the Moon. A volume of water equivalent to the flow of all the rivers and streams on Earth is squeezed through the 5 km-wide Minas Channel.

Photo: Trish Robicheau
The rocky shoreline at Cape Split is difficult to access and first-time exploration should depend on a guide who knows the tides and the entry points for a safe descent from the woodland trail high above the cliffs. 
The wildflower-surrounded trail in May 2012.

There are a few entry points where assisted by ropes we can make our way down to the beach below. Once on the rocky and boulder-strewn shoreline it is critical to pay strict attention to the tides. With an average range of 12 m  being cut off from your escape route by the flowing tide could be very problematic as many sections of the towering cliffs along Cape Split would be impossible to scale if you were unaware of pinch points and became trapped.

Shoreline on the Minas Channel Side at the end of Cape Split
The spectacular basalt cliffs of the North Mountain that rise hundreds of feet from the shoreline here were formed roughly at the Triassic- Jurassic boundary over 200 million years ago as part of several  immense tholeiitic lava flows.
Shoreline, Land's End at Cape Split

The volcanic basalt was formed from the cooling and crystallization of molten rock material called "magma." While in this molten state, gas bubbles migrated to the tops of these flows where they became trapped near the surface as the lava was cooling. These gas pockets are referred to as vesicles. After solidification of the vesicle walls the empty cavities were eventually filled by secondary minerals over the millennia, thus forming agates and other minerals and gemstones.

We explore these shores in the pursuit of Cape Split's finest semi- precious gemstones, with an incredibly varied selection of agates and a chance at finding a display-quality zeolite or amethyst specimen.
Many of the outstanding rockhounding locations we visit begin with a meet-up at the parking lot of the Cape Split hiking trail. Gear is checked and there is a general pre-trip buzz as we anticipate the possible finds of the day.
Depending on how quickly we move, the hike from the parking lot to the beach is approximately 1 hr. 45 mins. Along the trail out to the Split we stop to take the occasional photo of a mushroom or wildflower. There is plenty of natural beauty out there to see and photograph.
Purple Trillium in Fog at Cape Split by Chris Sheppard

It is worth making the trip to Cape Split for the two weeks in May that the wildflowers come into full bloom and cover the ground in the hardwood sections of the trail.

Purple Trillium. Photograph by Chris Sheppard

At various paces we make our way to the official rest and group photo stop at the "Fatsy" tree toward the end of the Cape Split Trail.

Obligatory group photo at the "Fatsy" tree.

Little Split Cove Beach

The easiest spot to access the shoreline is a cove called Little Split near the end of the Cape Split Peninsula.
About five minutes beyond the "Fatsy" tree on the main Cape Split Trail quite a visible path veers off to the southwest. If you were to continue on the main trail from this point you would shortly reach the meadow at the end of the Split. (below)

Looking east from the Cape Split Meadow toward Little Split Cove and The Sphinx. Photo: Don Crowell.

We follow the southeast path downhill towards Little Split Cove.The path may sometimes be littered with freshly fallen trees in a few spots. A guide would be recommended for a first
visit to Little Split Cove. A twenty-minute hike brings us down to a rocky brook that leads to the beach below.

One Winter we left the main trail out to Cape Split to follow a trail broken for us by a lone coyote and at one point I questioned if I should be following the tracks as I had the odd feeling of losing the trail; we stopped at one point to question if we were actually on a trail. All of the familiar landmarks had seemed to disappear beneath deep snow and ice. I have since learned that the coyotes use the same paths we do. There were no ropes for our descent as they were well frozen into the ground and buried out of sight but the snow made for excellent traction.
Little Split Cove at Twilight

Rockhound Rene takes a rest stop on the way to Little Split.
Looking down from the top of the path to the beach below. 

There are ropes in place to assist and care should be taken as there is a significant amount of water running down the path most of the year and loose rocks about.

David Sheppard guides himself down to the beach. Photo: Don Crowell.

Chris "works" the receding tideline picking up many tumbled agates.
Once on the beach Little Split Rock, sometimes called The Sphinx, dominates the skyline looking west. In the photo the land bridge has appeared on an outgoing tide. The best time to rockhound Little Split Cove Beach is at high tide. By following the tide out the well tumbled agates become very visible because they are wet.
Little Split Cove looking East.
Searching the beach after the wind has dried the rocks becomes quite difficult. Everything looks grey.

As an aside, it is worth pondering that this is where engineers have speculated for 100 years about harnessing the force of the tides to generate power.

Darren Talbot found the above archival image of Little Split Cove from a document pertaining to the development of Cape Split back in 1916. The writing in the top suggests a road was considered up the cliff side here as it is only 360 feet at this point! Obviously that idea was never realized! 

Note the woman in a long dress standing centre-front!
A Giant AgateTumbler
Looking west at the "boot" or Sphinx. Typical surf pounding the rocks. 
This is an excellent beach for tumbled agates. The wave action combined with the tidal currents is impressive here. When you are standing close to the breaking waves you can hear the rocks tumbling loudly over each other with each receding wave. Anything above a 15-knot wind and the waves begin to really start pounding this cove. You will inevitably get your feet wet if you are following the tide out as you focus on watching the ground in front of you and not tracking the wave pattern!

Looking east from the same spot on the beach.

As we follow the ebbing tide the rocks become larger as the beach widens. The rule-of-thumb is that the best searching is really done in the top thirty feet of the beach. However, Andrew Hooper found a lovely show piece amongst the large rocks at the low tide line. As rockhounds we often hear and use the words "never say never" about locales and finds. 

My rockhound friend Andrew Hooper picked up this large specimen at the low-tide line.

It is time to high-grade my finds from a three-hour beach sweep at Little Split Cove.

About eighty percent of the rocks pictured below were found on one trip after a very high tide in the Cove. All picked up within the top 30 feet of the rocky beach. A selection of concentric, banded, moss plume and fire agates is represented. 


The beauty of some of these agates cannot be denied. All are excellent "working" material and  there are even some show pieces. 

Volcanic “bubble” agate from Little Split Cove. 

The spectacular volcanic basalt cliffs of the Cape Split Peninsula were formed roughly in the Triassic-Jurassic time-frame over 200 million years ago resulting from the cooling and crystallization of flowing molten lava. While in this molten state, gas bubbles, referred to as vesicles, migrated to the tops of these flows where they became trapped and then solidified near the surface as the lava was cooling. The empty cavities were eventually filled by secondary minerals in the form of gel, composed primarily of silica from various sources.
The unique arrangement of these silicon dioxide or quartz structures, created by chemical and physical reactions (such as changes in pressure, temperature, and mineral content) that occurred after this silica-rich gel entered the lava cavities, is what creates the stunning variety of agates, jasper and quartz crystal that we rockhounds hunt for. 

You can easily imagine the colourful gel oozing into the empty spaces of the basalt volcanic forming the amygdaloidal (“almond-shaped”) agate pictured here, revealed when the rock was cut in half.


This agate was found by David at Little Split Cove. It is a fortification agate, with some brecciating. (A ruin or brecciated agate is caused by tectonic movements which caused the agate material to break, dislodge and reseal. In some cases the fracturing is dramatic so that the pattern becomes very fragmented, sometimes called a “mosaic” agate.)

Only the shape of the rock would give any clue that there might be something “inside”. In fact, when David found this rock, he had no idea what it was. Moments later he found another one the size of a baseball. Not aware he had two rare finds, he chucked the bigger one away! The beauty of the one he kept was only revealed later when it was cut and polished. “I wanted to go back and find the tossed one,” he sighed.

Below is a well tumbled agate as I found it on the beach. With a Mohs (hardness) scale of around 7, agate is relatively hard (making it excellent working material for jewelery) and scratches white. As I learn more about agates and collecting them I can sometimes tell by form and the amount of surface area that is scratched white if an agate has potential of being something special. I figured this one definitely had potential and as you can see from the photo directly below it, I was correct.

Agate as found on the beach. Well tumbled and scuffed mostly white.
The same agate with a thin slab taken off the front. Wow! Banded fortification agate on the inside.

Around Cape Split via the Shoreline

Approximately three hours after high tide the land bridge from Little Split connects with the farthest outcropping from the main Split Cliffs allowing passage out to the very end of the Split and the sea spires. (Obviously, this is also a pinch point, and people who fail to return from the end of the Split before the tide comes back in have been trapped with no way to get off the shoreline, except by a Search and Rescue airlift!)

A hike to the Spires at the end of Cape Split is ambitious for any season, but the Winter holds additional challenges including intense cold, winds, and icy rock surfaces. Passing below in the shadow the 400+ foot  cliffs on the southern side of the Cape Split peninsula is a thrill however.  A few hours after high tide we can make our way from Little Split Cove beach to the Spires.

Notice that in this 1916 photo, two of the stacks are connected with a cap!

April approaches the sea stacks or spires. The largest Spire is called "The Pinnacle."

Large specimens of volcanic rock with mixtures of agate and jasper
 fall from the cliffs that tower above us. Some very lovely zeolite specimens 
can be found along this stretch as well as jasper, agate and amethyst.

This is a golf-ball-sized calcite crystal with a natrolite (zeolite) attached on top. 
Andrew Hooper found this specimen deep in a crack nine feet up the cliff near the end 
of Cape Split. 
As I recall that day, we were being bombarded by rocks and other debris from 
above (the meadow), making it a dangerous trek but with a rewarding find.

The Spires loom above us giving an timeless feel to the landscape. 
I half-expect to see a dinosaur poke its head around the corner or 
one of the massive basalt spire sculptures to come to life. 
I agree with many who have made the trek, 
that pictures will never do this this sight justice. 
Looking back, eastwards, and standing south of the 
Pinnacle we get an excellent southern profile of Cape Split.

Before the tide changes we climb out to the very last seaweed-covered basalt 
 outcropping. Directly behind us is a 30-foot drop into the Minas Channel. 
The view before us is breathtaking. The curve of the Spires and the Split 
can only be captured from this final outcropping. 
Unless you have a boat or a plane, of course.

Panoramic view by Mark Davidson, 2012 on a 
guided trip with Fundy Rocks .

David Sheppard, whose age and weak legs limit his hiking,
recalls coming out past the Pinnacle: 

“I admit to nervousness about cliff-climbing and tidal waters, 
but accessing Little Split Cove is manageable for me. 
So this Spring 2012, while I was with Chris and 
with Mark Davidson at Little Split, we decided to go past 
The Sphinx to the Spires and the Wind Tunnel. 
The weather was perfect and the tide low. 
I can handle that and have been there before. 

But when we got there, my son said, 
“Dad, do you want to go out past the Pinnacle and 
see the end of the Split from the edge of the Minas Channel?” 
 I said, “No thanks.” He said, “Dad, if you don’t do it today 
you will never do it, and in 10 years you will regret it.” 
So, hesitantly, I agreed. 

I confess that it was scary and I was afraid 
of falling and slipping, so part of the time I think I went on all fours! 
But I made it, sat at the very end on the “throne”—a large flat rock that looks 
like a giant chair, and we took a few photos. I was quite eager to hurry back, though.  

I am glad I did it, of course, because at my age and with 
bad legs there will be few more opportunities. 
Thanks, Chris and Mark, for the encouragement."

The surging tide, moving at about 8 knots, surrounds the basalt stacks or spires. 
Photo by David E. Sheppard.

The Spires are now being surrounded by the powerful incoming tide. 
At the mid-point of the incoming tide you will begin to hear the 
awesome roar of the riptide as the world's highest tide is 
funneled through the 5-mile-wide Minas Channel.

The roar of the tide echoes through and fills the woods surrounding 
the trail to the meadow at the top of Cape Split where we witness 
breathtaking views of the Bay of Fundy.

The Wind Tunnel, Cape Split

The Wind Tunnel at the bottom of the end of  Cape Split.

There are minerals to be found near the wind tunnel, but the tidal forces 
are so powerful here that amethyst, for example, will barely survive 
one tidal cycle. 
This large piece has already been smoothed by the action 
of the grinding of rolling against other rocks.

An incredible feature at the end of the Split is a massive opening to the 
north or Minas Channel side of the Cape Split peninsula we call The 
Wind Tunnel.

On one memorable trip we discovered a massive rock fall had 
taken place. High above the west side of the Wind Tunnel a 
giant section of basalt had given way and on impact it 
 destroyed the base of the passageway as pictured above.

The fall came from the west side of the 
Wind Tunnel.

 Below, a hiker climbs through the Wind Tunnel before 
the massive slab of basalt fell and obliterated 
the rise where this hiker climbs.
The old Wind Tunnel. Photo: Don Crowell.

Andrew Hooper moves through the the altered Wind Tunnel in 
January. Shards of broken basalt covered a fresh snowfall 
from the day before. We had missed the massive 
fall by a matter of hours!

(Some old timers claim that the massive cleft was once a
 true tunnel and some say that locals once dynamited it to open it 
up for crossing through. Not likely, but it makes a great story!)

We cross through the freshly altered Wind Tunnel; 
the force of the falling rock would have been spectacular 
and frightening to witness. I could only imagine as I 
passed beside it in the wake of the destruction. Once through the 
Wind Tunnel we are on the colder and darker north side. 
The Minas Channel side. It was the last direct sunlight we 
would see until our return. Immediately the light plays on 
our senses. Everything seemed cold and blue. 
On a Winter hike with April (my partner) she climbed up to the 
Wind Tunnel and took a look over at the dark side and said, 
"no thanks, I'll keep on the sunny side."

Our destination on the north side of the Cape Split 
Peninsula is Pinch Point Cove. It can be reached via the 
Wind Tunnel or from following the shoreline from the east,
 but that route is only possible at a very low tide. If low enough, 
the tide would allow you to pass into Pinch Point Cove. 
An inexperienced hiker could easily drown if he thought he 
could wade around the pinch point, with tremendous currents 
and boulders beneath the water!

The eastern side of the cove is the pinch point we named 
the cove after. The above picture captures the high tide mark. 
At the low tide on this particular trip there was still not enough 
exposed beach to make the passage around 
the giant nose heading east.

Below, on an earlier hike, Chris climbs around the 
pinch point at a very low tide.

Some specimens found at Pinch Point Cove:

Coyote  Pass, Cape Split

Near the end of the Split on the north side of the peninsula, 
a massive cleft opens up and drops down into the North side. 
We call this route Coyote Pass. It is a more dangerous 
alternate route to the shoreline.

A deer trail is located on the east side of Coyote Pass.
This will be our access point.

 A very steep and difficult climb leads us into the center 
of the Pass. Care must be taken so as not to go too far 
down the slope before veering to the left to keep on the ridge. 
If you miss the turn a very sheer cliff drop awaits.

A view of my comrades descending to the beach 
far below. Temporary ropes are fixed to assist the climb. 
The footing at the base of the cleft is very loose and unstable. 
Massive boulders and jagged rock lines the base of the cleft. 

It is sometimes necessary to fix temporary ropes to assist 
the descent or climb out. Here Liz fixes a safety rope in.
 Ropes left behind from other hikers should never be 
completely trusted. As rocks shift in the slide the older 
ropes can easily become cut or damaged by 
sharp-edged basalt.
 I have seen sections of top quality 
climbing rope literally shredded in places.

Andrew and Chris examine a massive chunk of agate near Coyote Pass.

Coyote Pass gives us direct access to one of the most 
exciting areas near Cape Split, a slide we call the 
Golden Flame Agate Slide.

Here, but only occasionally, depending on the weather 
and tidal conditions, one can find a rare, gorgeous 
seam agate we call the King of Bay of Fundy Agates, 
Golden Flame Agate. See the Fundy Rocks 
Journal entry on this incredible agate.
The King of Fundy Agates 

Specimens from the rock slides at the base of the cliffs 
may need to be cleaned up a bit in nearby tide pool.

Amethyst show pieces can also be found along this 
rugged shoreline, as well as various sized agates, 
some especially good for making jewelery.

The Cabochon below was made from this Coyote Pass agate.
Cabochon made from Coyote Pass Agate by Jonathan Dunphy.

Another spectacular find from the shoreline below Coyote Pass. Fundy Rocks Collection.

The rock finds don't always come easy, especially around Cape Split. 
The hikes can be long and cover at times ridiculously difficult terrain.
There is always an element of risk. It requires patience, 
focus and dedication.You need to train your eye 
for form and think about how the enormous 
tidal power manipulates the shore line. 
You need to build at least a rudimentary understanding 
of how the minerals and gems are formed. 
This is what I've been working on during my few years 
rockhounding these shores.
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Important Disclaimer

Always accompany a guide to a new or remote area described in 
our blog or on Facebook. Many of the shoreline places we visit could potentially 
leave you trapped beneath cliffs at high tides of immensely powerful currents. 
 Always know the tide times and plan accordingly. 
Being trapped may not always have a survival option. 
Terrain is steep and dangerous in places. 
Never hammer specimens out of a cliff face. 
Weather is unpredictable along the shore. 
Never attempt to descend or ascend an unfamiliar cliff area. 
Basalt can be loose, crumbly and very unstable. 
Be aware of falling rocks and boulders. Slide climbing should never be attempted 
 without an experienced guide and never by children. 
Caution is strongly advised. Please rockhound safely and responsibly. 
Respect private property. Always get permission when accessing the 
shore from private property.


  1. Advocate Boat Tours will be running boat tours on the Bay of Fundy in the areas where rockhounds like to explore. If you get a group together they might be able to arrange to bring rockhounds to some very hard to get to areas, departing from Spencers Island.

  2. I have been visiting Cape Split and surrounding area for over 25 years. I really appreciate how beautifully you portray what a wonderful part of the world we live in. Thank you.
    Watson Inglis, Pictou

  3. wonderful piece of writing and photos!

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  5. Great stuff and awesome hobby.
    Have fun buddy.