Naked truth: exposing the myth of Kouchibouguac's 'semi-official nude beach'

Naturists have been using Kelly's Beach for decades. But while people strip down every year, Parks Canada says it's still against the law.

People get naked every year on Kelly's Beach — to the displeasure of Parks Canada

Unlike these members of the Van Tan Club in Vancouver, East Coast naturists tend to keep a lower profile — but many still visit Kelly's Beach in Kouchibouguac National Park every year. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Want to get back to nature?

It's hard to imagine a more ideal setting that the pristine forests and beaches of Kouchibouguac National Park on New Brunswick's Acadian coast.

But some visitors, park officials say, are taking it way too far. 

Kelly's Beach — a 25-kilometre stretch of dunes along the Northumberland Strait accessible only by a pedestrian boardwalk — is popular for its warm salt water, picturesque views, and endangered piping plovers.

Kelly's Beach, which stretches for 25 kilometres of the south Kouchibouguac dune, is only accessible from the main park area via a 1.2 kilometre boardwalk. (Julia Wright / CBC)

But it's also a hotspot for naturists — or nudists — who for years have enjoyed au naturel sunbathing, swimming and socializing in an isolated area south of the supervised beach.

"It does happen almost every year," said Kouchibouguac visitor experience manager Jérôme Lussier. "Parks Canada is aware that this practice does occur at Kelly's Beach, but it is not allowed."

That hasn't deterred some from letting it all hang out.

Kelly's has been ranked among the "best nude beaches in Canada" by Cottage Life magazine, featured by photo-entertainment website the Chive as a place to find "naked Canadians," and profiled on numerous nudist blogs.

The Wikipedia entry for Kouchibouguac National Park describes Kelly's Beach as "popular with naturists as the long sandy beach allows privacy and seclusion."

Beachgoers enjoy the secluded stretch of Kelly's Beach which, according to park officials and naturists, has been unofficially clothing-optional for years. According to Parks Canada, nudity on the beach is prohibited. (Julia Wright / CBC)

"Such use has been customary for at least the last 30 years or so and is tolerated by park officials," according to one naturist blog, which refers to the site as "New Brunswick's only semi-official nudist beach."

Park officials say it's an embarrassing misunderstanding that's spiralled out of control online.

But naturists say a clothing-optional section shouldn't be such a big deal — and want to lay bare the truth about the demand for a nude beach in the province.

The naked truth

Published references to naturism on Kelly's Beach date back at least two decades.

In 1998, the beach was featured in an article titled "Kelly's Beach and 'official sanction'" in the the winter issue of Going Natural, the magazine of the Federation of Canadian Naturists. The practice was mentioned again in a 2003 book Au Naturel: The History of Nudism in Canada and in other print publications.

"I'm aware that there was a naturist guide that was published a long time ago," Lussier said. "There are still published guides in circulation."

The beach rules posted at Kelly's Beach don't expressly prohibit nude sunbathing. (Julia Wright / CBC)

Since then, the information has been picked up and repeated on dozens of websites, which has made it nearly impossible to quash.

"We're doing as much as we can to correct that information when possible," Lussier said. "But we will see publications and websites come up with articles referring to Kelly's Beach.

"It's something that's ongoing."

Health benefits, no tan lines

On the comparatively conservative East Coast, naturists tend to keep a low profile — when they're not walking around naked, that is. 

"Naturists guard their privacy and identity," Naturism New Brunswick/New Brunswick Naturisme, a clothing-optional group, said in written a statement to CBC.

"No one individual is willing to be publicly open about their lifestyle due to the legal system, public perceptions and the damages being open will bring to [their]  personal and professional life."

There [have] been no persons charged ‎or otherwise penalized for public nudity by park wardens at Kelly's Beach in recent history. - Parks Canada

No naturists contacted by CBC News consented to be interviewed on the record.

Despite the stigma, the group holds that "being naked outdoors has benefits to the individual's health . … The feeling of freedom reduces stress. ... Naturists and other members [of] society would benefit from greater awareness and better facilities."

The clothed, supervised section of Kelly's Beach. Lifeguard and park wardens keep an eye out for people illegally disrobing, according to Parks Canada, but it's rare for people to be charged or penalized. (Julia Wright / CBC)

Kelly's Beach, the organization said, is the only place for naturists "to enjoy their lifestyle in freedom in New Brunswick."

The organization stated that better signage would let them access the park as nature intended — and prevent bird-watchers and hikers from inadvertently stumbling across something they don't want to see.

Currently, the only indication you've infiltrated the so-called "N Zone" at Kelly's Beach is a series of low driftwood structures the naturists have built for shade and a bit of privacy from curious "textiles" — as hardcore naturists refer to clothed people — wandering down the beach.

One of the elaborate driftwood shelters constructed by naturists to offer a bit of protection from the sun — and the curious gaze of 'textiles.' (Julia Wright / CBC)

With 25 kilometres of dunes, many of which are shielded from view from the main beach, Naturism New Brunswick suggested a nude section at Kelly's Beach would benefit all New Brunswickers.

"Nudism has many benefits that only the individual can quantify," the statement said.

Parks Canada begs to differ, stating unequivocally "there are no plans to offer a nude section."

What happens if you get naked?

The risk of jellyfish stings in the Northumberland Strait might be enough of a deterrent for some would-be naturists. 

But the Criminal Code of Canada is clear on the penalties for public nudity — or nudity on private property if one's bits and pieces are exposed to public view.

It's a summary conviction offence punishable by fines of up to $5,000, six months in prison, or both.

The likelihood of actually being penalized for hanging out naked on an isolated beach, provided you're minding your own business, appears to be low.

A $5,000 fine for public nudity would sting — and so would the jellyfish occasionally found at Kelly's Beach if they came into contact with a sensitive area. (Julia Wright / CBC)

In 2001 in Nova Scotia, then-director of public prosecutions Martin Herschorn set a legal precedent by refusing to prosecute five people arrested for public nudity at Crystal Crescent Beach in the Halifax area.

"Citizens should not face a criminal conviction for conduct of this type without aggravating factors, such as aggressive exhibitionism, or lewd or indecent acts," Herschorn said in a public statement.

A sign pointing the way to Crystal Crescent Beach in Halifax, where public nudity has been officially sanctioned since 2002. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

The same may be true of Kelly's Beach.

While nude beachgoers can expect to be told to cover up if there's a complaint, or if they're caught red-handed by park wardens, "there [have] been no persons charged ‎or otherwise penalized for public nudity by park wardens at Kelly's Beach in recent history," according to Parks Canada.

That could be good news for members of organizations like Naturism New Brunswick.

"Kelly's Beach is a fantastic beach," the organization said, "and has plenty of space to accommodate everyone."

About the Author

Julia Wright

Julia Wright is a reporter based in Saint John. She has been with the CBC since 2016.